‘Oramics’ Daphne Oram. UK, 1959.

Daphne Oram working at the Oramics machine

Daphne Oram working at the Oramics machine at Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition in Tower Folly, Fairseat, Wrotham, Kent

The technique of Oramics was developed by the composer and electronic engineer Daphne Oram in the UK during the early 1960s. It consisted of drawing onto a set of ten sprocketed synchronised strips of 35mm film which covered a series of photo-electric cells that in turn generated an electrical charge to control the frequency, timbre, amplitude and duration of a sound. This technique was similar to the work of Yevgeny Sholpo’s “Variophone” some years earlier in Leningrad and in some ways to the punch-roll system of the RCA Synthesiser. The output from the instrument was only monophonic relying on multi-track tape recording to build up polyphonic textures.

Oram worked at the BBC from 1942 to 1959 where she established the Radiophonic Workshop with Desmond Briscoe. She resigned from the BBC in 1959 to set up her own studio the ‘Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition’ in a converted oast-house in Wrotham, Kent. With the help of the engineer Graham Wrench, she built “with an extremely tight budget and a lot of inverted, lateral thinking” the photo-electrical equipment she christened ‘Oramics’ which she used to compose and record commercial music for not only radio and television but also theatre and short commercial films.

“There was an octagonal room,” remembers Graham, “where she’d set up her studio, but on a board covering a billiard table in an adjoining reception room was displayed the electronics for Oramics. There wasn’t very much of it! She had an oscilloscope and an oscillator that were both unusable, and a few other bits and pieces — some old GPO relays, I remember. Daphne didn’t seem to be very technical, but she explained that she wanted to build a new system for making electronic music: one that allowed the musician to become much more involved in the production of the sound. She knew about optical recording, as used for film projectors, and she wanted to be able to control her system by drawing directly onto strips of film. Daphne admitted the project had been started some years before, but no progress had been made in the last 12 months. I said I knew how to make it work, so she took me on. I left my job with the Medical Research Council and started as soon as I could.”

“Graham Wrench: The Story Of Daphne Oram’s Optical Synthesizer’ Sound on Sound magazine Steve Marshall february 2009

Oramics machine

Oramics machine

The attraction of this technique was a direct relation of a graphic image to the audio signal and even though the system was monophonic, the flexibility of control over the nuances of sound production was unmatched in all but the most sophisticated analogue voltage controlled synthesisers. Daphne Oram continued to use the process throughout the sixties producing work for film and theatre including; “Rockets in Ursa Major”(1962), “Hamlet”(1963) and “Purple Dust” (1964).

Devizes, Wilts, 1925; Maidstone, Kent, 2003

Daphne Oram. Born Devizes, Wilts, 1925;Died Maidstone, Kent, 2003




Jo Hutton ‘Radiophonic Ladies’


the ‘Syntronic Organ’& ‘Photona’. Ivan Eremeef. USA, 1935

The Photona at WCAU

The Photona at WCAU

Syntronic Organ

Syntronic Organ was an electro-optical tone generator based instrument engineered by Ivan Eremeef and his supporter and consultant, the world-renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski (who also premiered many of Edgard Varese’s works in the 1920s). The Syntronic Organ was a dual keyboard organ whose sound was optically generated using rotating tone-wheels and was said to be able to produce “one-hour of continuous variation”.

The WCAU Photona

Ivan Eremeef later created the “Photona” electro-optical tone generator instrument, developed with the  John Leitch at the engineering department of  WCAU broadcasting station in Philadelphia, USA. The Photona had twelve rotating optical discs illuminated by nine hundred six volt lamps. The instrument was played with two six octave manual keyboards and two foot pedals for volume and tremolo.

Front view of the Photona showing the 12 optical discs.
Front view of the Photona showing the 12 optical discs.
Photo-cell behind a revolving disc.

Photo-cell behind a revolving disc.

The WCAU Photona at the Smithsonian Institution

The WCAU Photona at the Smithsonian Institution

The driving pulleys for the tone discs and transformers used for lighting and nine hundred six volt lamps

The driving pulleys for the tone discs and transformers used for lighting and nine hundred six volt lamps

Rear view of the "WCAU Photona", several drive pulleys for tone discs and tremolo mechanism. The tremolo worked on a rocker arm which varies the pitch of the note.

Rear view of the “WCAU Photona”, several drive pulleys for tone discs and tremolo mechanism. The tremolo worked on a rocker arm which varies the pitch of the note.

Eremeef’s patents for a photo-electrical instrument using film strips 1935-6


Rollin Smith. ‘Stokowski and the Organ’

Nicholas Collins, Margaret Schedel, Scott Wilson. Electronic Music. Cambridge press 2013

Smithsonian Institution Science Services.

“WCAU’s Photona organ,” Electronics, vol. 8, p. 123; April, (1935).

The Computer Music Tutorial. Curtis Roads MIT 1961

The ‘Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones’ (1931), The ‘Polytone Organ’ (1934) & The ‘Singing Keyboard’ (1936). A. Lesti & F. Sammis. USA, 1934


The "Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones" (1931)

The “Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones” (1931)

Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones (1931)

The “Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones” was created and developed by A. Lesti and F. Sammis in the USA during 1931.The Radio Organ used a similar technique as the Celluphone and variants – rotating  photo-electric glass discs printed with wave-forms interrupting a light beam at different frequencies produced varied pitches and timbres from a vacuum tube oscillator; the principle was improved in the “Polytone”.

The Polytone Organ (1934)

A. Lesti and F. Sammis’s development of the Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones was christened the ‘The Polytone Organ’, this instrument was a three keyboard manual organ using the same sound production system as the ‘Radio Organ’ – rotating photo-electrical tone-wheel sound generation. The instrument was completed in 1934 and was one of the first multi-timbral instruments.

The Singing Keyboard (1936)

F. Sammis invented the “singing Keyboard” in 1936, a precursor of modern samplers, the instrument played electro-optical recordings of audio waves stored on strips of 35mm film which were triggered and pitched when the player pressed a key. More recent instruments such as the Mellotron and Chamberlin use a similar technology of triggered and pitched magnetic tape recordings.


The ‘Welte Licht-Ton-Orgel’. Edwin Welte, Germany, 1936

The "Welte Licht-Ton Orgel" (Light-Tone organ) (1936)

The “Welte Licht-Ton Orgel” (Light-Tone organ) (1936)

The Welte Light-Tone was one of the last instruments designed by Edwin Welte (1876-1958) of the famous Welte-Mignon mechanical instrument manufacturers. Welte had become fascinated with the possibility of using optical disks since 1925 and produced a number of prototypes using clay optical disks before completing the production version of the Lichttonorgel. The organ premiered in 1936 at the Berlin philharmonic but any potential the instrument had was destroyed by the Nazi’s disapproval of Welte due to his marriage to a German Jew. After the war Welte continued to try and make a commercial success of the instrument but eventually foundered due to the complexity of the photo-electric system and  from increasing competition from cheaper and more efficient instruments such as the Hammond Organ. Welte never built a production model of the Lichtonorgel.
A detail of one of the the Light Tone Organ's glass disks.

A detail of one of the the Light Tone Organ’s glass disks.

The instruments sound generation unit consisted of 12 glass disks which were printed with 18 different looped waveforms in concentric rings. The glass ‘tone wheel’ disks were rotated over a series of photoelectric cells, filtering a light beam that controlled the sound timbre and pitch. The resulting combinations of tones gave 3 different timbres for all the octave registers of each note on the keyboard.
The German arm of the Welte-Mignon company in Frieburg was completely destroyed in 1944 by allied bombing and all of the companies closely kept secret designs were lost forever.
Edwin Welte.  March 28 1876 in Freiburg im Breisgau , † January 4 1958 in Freiburg im Breisgau

Edwin Welte. March 28 1876 in Freiburg im Breisgau , † January 4 1958 in Freiburg im Breisgau

Biographical Information

Edwin Welte (1876-1958) and his brother-in-law, Karl Bockish, developed the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano in 1904 for M. Welte & Soehne of Freiburg, Germany. Music roll recording commenced in 1905.  The recording piano and the reproducing system were entirely new inventions which astounded the musicians and fans in Europe.  In 1906 (?) he established “The Welte Artistic Player Piano Company” in a showroom in New York and soon was producing pianos and music rolls for American customers.

The Welte Company

The Welte Company was a German organ firm which was first established in 1832 at Vörenbach (Black-Forest) by automata manufacturer Michael Welte (1807-1880). In c1865 he moved to Freiburg/Breisgau and the firm was registered there as M. Welte & Söhne. During the remainder of the 19th century the Welte firm expanded considerably and became particularly noted for their orchestrions. Welte’s “Cabinet player”, a reproducing piano without keyboard which bore the Mignon label, was first patented in 1904 while the firm was under the direction of Edwin Welte (1876-1958, grandson of the founder). The prototype was exhibited during late 1904 in Leipzig and became commercially available from early 1905. The Vorsetzer came on the market in 1908. Mignon was integrated into their upright pianos in 1909, and into their grand pianos from 1913. In 1908 the technology was adapted and applied to the Welte “Philharmonic Autograph Organ”. This was the forerunner of the “Welte-Philharmonie Organ” which was first publicly displayed at the Turin Exhibition of 1911. The firm then went on to successfully market player organs, cinema organs and, later, when their market contracted during the 1930s, church organs. They concurrently produced rolls of performances by the greatest organists of the day and sold them with considerable commercial success. From 1865-1917 they also ran a branch in New York (M. Welte & Sons) under Emil Welte (1841-1923, eldest son of the founder), but it was closed during World War I as an “alien enterprise”. Welte’s instruments became status symbols and the epitome of entertainment in their day. They were installed in stately houses, palaces, schools, department stores (Harrods in London had one), yachts, ships (one was manufactured just too late to be aboard the Titanic) and even apparently a “house of pleasure” (the Atlantic Garden orchestrion). Around the world they were dispersed throughout Europe, USA, with their market is known to have extended much further – to Istanbul, Russia, China and Sumatra for example. The top of Welte’s Orchestrion/player-organ range was the “Welte-Philharmonie”. Very few of the full- sized model were ever manufactured. From about 1926 Welte began to be threatened by a rapidly growing radio and recording industry. Business declined so much that, in 1932 they narrowly escaped bankruptcy. At about this time they were also involved in a collaboration with the Telefunken Company which was terminated because Edwin Welte’s first wife, Betty Dreyfuss, was Jewish. This stalled collaboration involved the development of electronic organs. Using (analog) sampling and photo-cells, truly prophetic developments at that time, had Welte been successful they might well have eliminated the Hammond organ from the pages of history. It was World War II which finally precipitated the total demise of the firm. The Freiburg premises – all stock, instruments and historical documents – were effectively annihilated by British bombing in November 1944. The bombed out factory was something of a landmark by the Freiburg railway station for at least decade until the mid-1950s.  (from: Museum of Music Automatons Seewen)


Museum of Music Automatons Seewen (http://www.musee-suisse.ch/seewen)

Michael Gerhard Kaufmann : Organ and National Socialism. Kleinblittersdorf 1997. ISBN 3-920670-36-1 .

The ‘Siemens Synthesiser’ H.Klein & W.Schaaf. Germany, 1959

Siemens Studio

Siemens Studio

The Siemens Synthesiser or ‘Siemens Studio For Electronic Music’ was a German development similar to the RCA Synthesiser originally to compose live electronic music for Siemens’s own promotional documentary films. Like the RCA MkII, The Siemens Studio was a modular ‘composition and synthesis system’ that generated musical sequences and synthesised and recorded the results. The Siemens Synthesiser was developed by Helmut Klein and W.Schaaf at Siemens Halske in Munich, Germany in 1959 for the Studio Für Elektronische Musik in Munich. The Siemens system linked and controlled the studio using a similar system to the RCA Synthesiser, a set of four punch paper vari-speed rolls controlling the timbre, envelope, pitch and volume of a bank of 20 oscillators, a white noise generator, a Hohnerola (a hybrid electronically amplified reed instrument marketed by Hohner-similar to the ‘Multimonica‘) and an impulse generator. The synthesiser had a tonal range of seven octaves.

Siemens studio Equipment:

Tone Generation

  1. Hohnerola: “An electronic tongue-instrument of 84 tones from C to H”
  2. An impulse or sawtooth generator with 84 tones
  3. 1 white noise generator
  4. A generator for statistic impulses which are made from white noise with the help of a trigger
  5. 4 sine tone generators [20 - 20'000 Hz]
  6. 20 special sine generators. These generators a 3 frequency spectrum, from 1r5 – 160 Hz, 150 – 1600 Hz and 1500 – 16000 Hz, with the option of continual change from sine to square wave.
  7. A tone generator based on photo-electric principles

Tone Modulators

  1. Analogue reverb
  2. Echo delay
  3. Pitch transformer
  4. Echo frequency transformer
  5. Vocoder
Programming with the 'Semi Automatic Hole-strip Punching Machine' (left: the coding console. right: the hole puncing machine)

Programming with the ‘Semi Automatic Hole-strip Punching Machine’
(left: the coding console. right: the hole puncing machine)

Additional input devices were also developed for the Siemens Synthesiser; a drawn sound technique (photoelectrically generated sounds) allowed the scanning of photographic slides using Siemens’s specially designed ‘Bildabtaster’ technology. The German painter Günter Maas used this device to translate several of his paintings into musical compositions. Later models also had a Siemens Vocoder built in as a sound controller uniquely for its time, allowing the musician to give the sound vocal envelope characteristics.

The machine room at the 'Studio for Electronic Music' (L-R:punch-paper controller, 2 four channel magnetic tape recorders, 'Bildabtaster' picture-scanner.  Foreground:2 Master magnetic tape machines)

The machine room at the ‘Studio for Electronic Music’
(L-R:punch-paper controller, 2 four channel magnetic tape recorders, ‘Bildabtaster’ picture-scanner.
Foreground:2 Master magnetic tape machines)

The development of the Siemens synthesiser continued after the Munich studio had relocated to Ulm and came to an end when the studio was dissolved in 1969. The Siemens system was used by many European experimental composers throughout the 50′s and 60′s including Mauricio Kagel, Bengt Hambreus, Milko Kelemen and the director of the Munich Studio Für Elektronische Musik, Josef Anton Riedl.

The punch-paper strip controller (Lochstreifen-Schnellsender) A synchronous-motor moves the paper strips across the reader. The 4 parallel moving strips are read by removeable steel wire brushes. The system can also be run in reverse.

The punch-paper strip controller (Lochstreifen-Schnellsender)
A synchronous-motor moves the paper strips across the reader. The 4 parallel moving strips are read by removeable steel wire brushes. The system can also be run in reverse.

Diagram explaining the punch-tape coding for the Seimens Studio

Diagram explaining the punch-tape coding for the Seimens Studio

Coding of the Punch-tape reader:

  1. Pitch: The pitch is defined by two strips. One strip chooses the octave, the second the tones within the octave. There are 7 octaves , and 12 tones within those octaves, making 84 tones in total. They can be chosen in fixed tuning with the electronic tuner or in a tuning that can freely be chosen with the impulse generator and sine generators. Combinations allow the choice of several different generators.
  2. Volume: The volume can be defined in 32 steps of 1,5 dB.
  3. Timbre: The colouring (timbre) by a choice of 14 band filters or filter combinations
  4. Duration: The duration of the signal is defined by the number of equal hole combinations in connection with the reading speed of the punch-paper strip. There are three different speed settings of the paper strip, 64, 90 or 128 signals a second. The normal speed is 64 signals per second, i.e. a duration of 16 ms per signal. The duration is a quarter note, played in Mäzel’s Metronome MM = 120, is 0,5 s which equates to 32 equivalent hole combinations, an eighth note is then 16, a sixteenth note 8 hole combination.


H.Klein:”Uber ein Apparatur zur Steuerung und Verformung von Klängen”,Nachrichtentechnische Fachberichte,cv(1959),31 Répertoire international des musiques expérimentales (Paris,1962),36.

The Siemens Museum Website

Images and details provided by Siemens Aktiengesellschaft, Siemens Forum, München.

“Klangsynthese und Klanganalyse im elektronischen Studio”, Siemens & Halske Aktiengesellschaft 1962