The ‘RCA Synthesiser I & II’ Harry Olsen & Herbert Belar, USA, 1952

The RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at Columbia's Prentis Hall on West 125th Street in 1958. Pictured: Milton Babbitt, Peter Mauzey, Vladimir Ussachevsky.

The RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at Columbia’s Prentis Hall on West 125th Street in 1958. Pictured: Milton Babbitt, Peter Mauzey, Vladimir Ussachevsky.

In the 1950′s RCA was one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the United States; business interests included manufacturing record players, radio and electronic equipment (military and domestic – including the US version of the Theremin) as well as recording music and manufacturing records. In the early 50′s RCA initiated a unusual research project whose aim was to auto-generate pop ‘hits’ by analysing thousands of  music recordings; the plan being that if they could work out what made a hit a hit, they could re-use the formula and generate their own hit pop music. The project’s side benefit also explored the possibility of cutting the costs of recording sessions by automating arrangements and using electronically generated sounds rather than  expensive (and unionised) orchestras; basically, creating music straight from score to disc without error or re-takes.

RCA MkII

RCA MkII

The RCA electrical engineers Harry Olson and Hebart Belar were appointed to develop an instrument capable of delivering this complex task, and in doing so inadvertently (as is so often the case in the history of electronic music) created one of the first programmable synthesisers – the precursors being the Givelet Coupleux Organ of 1930 and the Hanert Electric Orchestra in 1945.

Paper punch roll showing parameter allocation

Paper punch roll showing parameter allocation

The resulting RCA Mark I machine was a monstrous collection of modular components that took up a whole room at  Columbia University’s Computer Music Center  (then known as the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center). The ‘instrument’ was basically an analogue computer; the only input to the machine was a typewriter-style keyboard where the musician wrote a score in a type of binary code.

 

Paper-punch input of the RCA Synthesisir

Paper-punch input of the RCA Synthesisir

Punch paper terminals of the RCA MkII

Punch paper terminals of the RCA MkII

The keyboard punched holes in a pianola type paper role to determine pitch, timbre, volume and envelope – for each note. Despite the apparent crudeness of this input device, the paper roll technique allowed for complex compositions; The paper role had four columns of holes for each parameter – giving a parameter range of sixteen for each aspect of the sound. The paper roll moved at 10cm/sec – making a maximum bpm of 240. Longer notes were composed of individual holes, but with a mechanism which made the note sustain through till the last hole. Attack times were variable from 1 ms to 2 sec, and decay times from 4 ms to 19 sec. On the Mark II, High and low pass filtering was added, along with noise, glissando, vibrato and resonance,  giving a cumulative total of millions of possible settings.

Structure of the RCA MkII

Structure of the RCA MkII

RCA Synthesiser structure

RCA Synthesiser structure

The sound itself was generated by a series of vacuum tube oscillators (12 in the MkI and 24 in the MkII) giving four voice polyphony which could be divided down into different octaves . The the sound was manually routed to the various components – a technique that was adopted in the modular synthesisers of the 1960′s and 70′s. The eventual output of the machine was  was monitored on speakers and recorded to a lacquer disc, where, by re-using and bouncing the disc recordings, a total of 216 sound tracks could be obtained. In 1959 a more practical tape recorder was substituted.

Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky and others at the RCA MkII

Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky and others at the RCA MkII

It seems that by the time the MkII Synthesiser was built RCA had given up on their initial analysis project. Mainstream musicians had baulked at un-musical interface and complexity of the machine; but these very same qualities that appealed to the new breed of serialist composers who took the RCA Synthesiser to their heart;

The number of functions associated with each component of the musical event…has been multiplied. In the simplest possible terms, each such ‘atomic’ event is located in a five-dimensional musical space determined by pitch-class, register, dynamic, duration, and timbre. These five components not only together define the single event, but, in the course of a work, the successive values of each component create an individually coherent structure, frequently in parallel with the corresponding structures created by each of the other components. Inability to perceive and remember precisely the values of any of these components results in a dislocation of the event in the work’s musical space, an alteration of its relation to all other events in the work, and–thus–a falsification of the composition’s total structure…

Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else?…Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated [person] without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.

But how, it may be asked, will this serve to secure the means of survival for the composer and his music? One answer is that, after all, such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist. It is only proper that the university which–significantly–has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the ‘complex,’ ‘difficult,’ and ‘problematical’ in music.

Milton Babbitt

Among the composers who used the machine frequently were the Princeton composer Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, the latter of whom composed the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Time Econium” on it in 1968.

RCA Synthesiser

RCA Synthesiser

The pioneering RCA Synthesiser became obsolete and fell out of use in the early 1960s with the arrival of cheaper and reliable solid state transistor technology and the less complex programming interfaces of instruments such as the Buchla and Moog range of synthesisers. Neither machine survives in working condition today. The MkI  was dismantled during the 1960s (parts from it cannibalised to repair the MkII). The MkII is still at Columbia University’s Computer Music Center, but has not been maintained and reportedly is in poor condition, it was vandalised sometime in the early 1970′s and little used after that.



Images of the RCAI& II

 

rcasynth_labelrcasynth01

RCA issued a box set of four 45 RPM extended-play disks with a descriptive brochure.  This set featured a narration and demonstration of the basic features of the synthesizer, and concluded with renditions of several well known popular and classical pieces “played” on the synthesizer:

Side 1: The Synthesis of Music-The Physical Characteristics of Musical Sounds (7:13, 3.3 mb)
Side 2: The Synthesis of Music-Synthesis by Parts (Part 1) (5:55, 2.7 mb)
Side 3: The Synthesis of Music-Synthesis by Parts (Part 2) (4:37, 2.1 mb)
Side 4: Excerpts from Musical Selections (Part 1) (6:05, 2.8 mb)
Side 5: Excerpts from Musical Selections (Part 2) (3:28, 1.6 mb)
Side 6: Complete Selections-Bach Fugue No. 2, Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 1 (4:47, 2.2 mb)
Side 7: Complete Selections-Oh Holy Night (Adam), Home Sweet Home (Bishop) (6:42, 3.1 mb)
Side 8: Complete Selections-Stephen Foster Medley, Nola (Arndt), Blue Skies (Berlin) (7:49, 3.6 mb)

 


Sources

http://www.jamesfei.com/pictures/pictures-rca/pictures-rca.html

The Wurlitzer ‘Side Man’ Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, USA, 1959

sidemanBillboard16May1960

The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company released an early commercially produced drum machine called the Sideman in 1959. It was an “electro-mechanical” drum machine that offered a choice of 12 electronically generated predefined rhythm patterns with variable tempos. The sound source was a series of vacuum tubes which created 10 preset electronic drum sounds. The drum sounds were ‘sequenced’ by a rotating disc with metal contacts across its face, spaced in a certain pattern to generate parts of a particular rhythm. Combinations of these different sets of rhythms and drum sounds created popular rhythmic patterns of the day, e.g. waltzes, fox trots etc.

Sideman control panel

Sideman control panel

These combinations were selected by a rotary knob on the top of the Sideman box. The tempo of the patterns was controlled by a slider that increased the speed of rotation of the disc. The Sideman had a panel of 10 buttons for manually triggering drum sounds, and a remote player to control the machine while playing from an organ keyboard. The Sideman was housed in a portable wooden cabinet that contained the sound generating circuitry, amplifier and speaker.



Sources

 

‘Buchla Synthesisers’ Donald Buchla. USA, 1966

Buchla Series 100

Buchla Series 100 ‘Buchla Box’

Donald Buchla started building and designing electronic instruments in 1960 when he was commissioned by the Avant Garde composer Morton Subotnik to build an instrument for composing and performing live electronic music. Subotnik was interested in developing a single instrument to replace the large complex Electronic Music Studios of the day where most ‘serious’ avant-garde music was composed and recorded. These studios consisted of multiple individual oscillators, processor units, filter and mixers that, with the help of technicians (each of the studios had it’s own unique system), needed to be manually patched together. The advent of transistor technology allowed much of this process to be miniaturised into a single portable, standardised version of the Electronic Music Studio but still using the modular, patchable approach:

The offspring of a technology which is itself but half a century old, electronic music is in its infancy. Instruments specifically designed for its production have been crude and generally unavailable. Therefore, the basic objectives for development of the Modular Electronic Music System were:

1. The achievement of direct, immediate control of musical parameters. Instruments should be played in real time, eliminating such note-forming routines as: set frequency – start recorder – stop recorder – measure – cut – splice – repeat, etc.

2. Compatibility of all equipment, Rules for interconnecting equipment to be straight-forward and consistent. Interfacing with external equipment (recorders, tuners, microphones, etc.) should be readily accomplished.

3. Fully transistorized circuitry, employing conservative design and high quality components. Reliable operation with minimal maintenance must be realized.

4. A special requirement for the system was that the equipment be lightweight and portable, thus making feasible its use in the composer’s home, the concert hall, and on tour.

5. Without compromising other design objectives, cost should be low. Power supplies and cabinetry should be common to several unity, and modular construction should be employed to permit economical system expansion.

Buchla Associates

Donald Buchla

Donald Buchla

With a $200,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation Buchla started building his first modular synthesisers in 1963 at the  “San Francisco Tape Music Center”. The Tape Music Centre was the hub of experimental and electronic  music at the time, founded by  composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender and used by artists such as  Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, William Maginnis and Tony Martin. Buchla’s early synthesisers were experimental in design to accommodate the experimental music they were intended to produce, utilising unusual control features such as touch sensitive and resistance sensitive plates – one of Buchla’s inventions form this period was the first analogue sequencer.

Buchla 100

Buchla 100

The first production model synthesiser was the Buchla Series 100 or ‘Buchla Box’, a keyboardless modular synthesiser – or ‘Electronic Music Box’ as Buchla preferred – released 1966 through a manufacturing deal with CBS/Fender (who soon closed the deal, seeing no future in electronic instruments). The Series 100 was an innovative electronic instrument with a logically laid out, intuitive front panel allowing the user to patch and route modules with patch cords (To avoid confusion, the Series 100 uniquely, and unlike the Moog Modular, used separate patch cords for output and control voltages allowing the patching of multiple control voltages with stack-able ‘Banana’ patch cords) designed primarily with the electronic music composer in mind . The manual control of the instrument reflected the concerns of the time around microtonality and the limitations of the tempered scale keyboard; Buchla, very much in the ‘serious’ experimental music camp designed the instrument to be set up and run to produce a continuous piece; more of an electronic music studio than an instrument per-se. The composer could trigger and manipulate multiple parameters using an array of pressure sensitive touch pads or ‘Kinaesthetic input ports’ to free themselves from the constraints of a standard keyboard:

“They [the ports] were all capacitance-sensitive touch-plates, or resistance-sensitive in some cases, organized in various sorts of arrays…I saw no reason to borrow from a keyboard, which is a device invented to throw hammers at strings, later on, for operating switches for electronic organs and so-on. A keyboard is dictatorial. When you’ve got a black and white keyboard there it’s hard to play anything but keyboard music – And when there’s not a black and white keyboard you get into the knobs and the wires and the interconnections and timbres, and you get involved in many other aspects of the music, and it’s a far more experimental way. It’s appealing to fewer people but it’s more exciting”
Donald Buchla

One of the main innovations of the series 100 was the inclusion of one of the first analogue sequencer modules ; Three sequencers were fit into the first Buchla synth, two with eight stages, the third with 16

” There were three voltage-controlled outputs for each stage. I used to cascade two sequencers so that they would run simultaneously, giving you six voltages per stage. One voltage would control pitch, another spatial location, the third amplitude. Then one, which was really clever, would control the pulse generator that was controlling the sequencer, so that you could determine the absolute rhythm. You could literally program a very complex rhythm over a long period of time, for example, by running five stages against 13.’”
Morton Subotnick

Modules of the ‘Buchla Box’ :

Module Number Description
M.101 wooden case for 25 modules
M.106 six channel mixer
M.107 voltage-controlled mixer
M.110 Dual Voltage-controlled Gates
M.111 Dual Ring Modulator
M.112 12 touch-controlled voltage sources (capacitive keyboard)
M.114 10 touch-controlled voltage sources (capacitive keyboard)
M.115 power supply
M.123 Sequential Voltage Source (8-step sequencer)
M.124 patchboard
M.130 Dual Envelop Generator
M.132 wave-form synthesizer
M.140 timing pulse generators
M.144 Dual Square-wave Generator
M.146 Sequential Voltage Source (sequencer, 16 step X 3 layer)
M.148 Harmonic Generator
M.150 Frequency Counter
M.156 Dual Control Voltage Counter
M.158 Dual Sine / Sawtooth Oscillators (VCOs)
M.160 White Noise Generator
M.165 Dual Random Voltage Source or ‘Source Of Uncertainty’
M.170 Dual Microphone Amplifier
M.171 Dual Instrument Pre-amplifier
M.175 Dual Equalizer / Line Driver
M.180 Dual Attack Generator
M.185 Frequency Shifter
M.190 Dual Reverberator
M.191 sharp cut-off filter
M.192 dual low pass filter
M.194 bandpass filter
M.195 octave formant filter
M.196 phase shifter
Buchla Modules of the series 100

Buchla Modules of the series 100

The Series 100 was followed by the Buchla Series 200 Electronic Music Box in 1970. The ‘Buchla Box’ was much used during the Acid Test psychedelic happenings of the Haight-Ashbury era by rock groups such as the Grateful Dead (and later, provided the sounds for R2D2 in the film series Star Wars).

Around this time affordable mini-computers became available and Buchla created the first digitally controlled analogue synthesiser, the Buchla 500 series in 1971. This was followed by the ‘Buchla Music Easel’ in 1972  Touché (1978), the Buchla 400 (1982), the Buchla 700 (1987). More recent products have included MIDI controllers and re-vamped versions of the Series 200.

Buchla System 500 hybrid analogue-digital instrument 1971

Buchla System 500 hybrid analogue-digital instrument 1971

Buchla Music Easel 1972

Buchla Music Easel 1972

Buchla Series 700

Buchla Series 700

 




Sources:

Buchla and Associates

http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/buchla/Interesting

‘Analog Days’. T. J PINCH, Frank Trocco. Harvard University Press, 2004

‘Vintage Synthesizers’: Pioneering Designers, Groundbreaking Instruments, Collecting Tips, Mutants of Technology. Mark Vail. March 15th 2000 by Backbeat Books
http://myblogitsfullofstars.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/buchla-with-labels.html

The ‘Telharmonium’ or ‘Dynamophone’ Thaddeus Cahill, USA 1897

Thaddeus Cahill

Thadeus Cahill
b. Mount Zion,Iowa 1867, d. New York City 1934

In 1897 Thaddeus Cahill patented what was to become the “Telharmonium” or “Dynamophone” which can be considered the first significant electronic musical instrument . The Telharmonium was an immense instrument of about 200 tons in weight and 60 feet in length assuming the proportions and appearance of a power station generator….the quoted cost was $200,000. The monstrous instrument occupied the entire floor of “Telharmonic Hall” on 39th Street and Broadway New York City for 20 years. Despite the Telharmonium’s excessive proportions the sound it produced was both flexible and novel to a degree unmatched by subsequent designers until the 1950′s, and unusually, the instrument was ‘portable’ – taking up thirty railroad carriages when transported from Holyoke, Mass to NYC. The visionary 36-note-per-octave keyboard designed around Cahill’s ideas of just Intonation were far ahead of their time musically but proved unpopular with musicians who had little time to practice on the unusual keyboard this factor eventually added to the demise of the instrument.

The Telharmonium. Scientific American magazine 1907.

The Telharmonium. Scientific American magazine 1907.

The Telharmonium was a type of additive synthesiser – and Cahill probably coined the phrase ‘Synthesiser’ to describe his instrument – using a electro-mechanical method to generate it’s sound. As the only way to hear the instrument in the era before amplification and loudspeakers, was to send the voltage output over a telephone line, Cahill hit upon the idea of centrally performing music and serve it over the phone network to paying subscribers in hotels, railway stations and private houses; a kind of early Victorian audio internet.

The reasons for the instruments vast proportions were that it produced sounds using ‘rheotome’ tone wheels; basically a set of  varied shaped rotors which when spun created tones through interrupted contact with wire brushes. Each key had it’s own rotor shaped to produce a set of harmonic overtones. The first version of the Telharmonium required a massive four hundred and eight dynamos, each weighing many tons. (this was reduced in later models where overtones from multiple rotors were ‘overlapped’ and rheotomes were replaced with alternating current dynamos in later models).

A single tone wheel generator

A single tone wheel generator

Essentially there were three version of the instrument. The first fully completed model, built in Washington DC in 1906 and moved to Cahill’s workshop at Holyoke, Massachusetts. The second, smaller (Fourteen feet and 14,000 lbs in weight)  machine was built at the Cabot St Mill in Hollyoke .The final machine, installed at Telharmonic Hall in New York  in 1917, was by then already obsolete, killed off by the far more efficient and cheaper vacuum tube, loudspeaker and radio technology.

The keyboard control of the Telharmonium at Telharmonic Hall 1907

The dual keyboard control of the Telharmonium at Telharmonic Hall 1907

 

The Telharmonium was essentially a collection of 145 modified dynamos employing a number of specially geared shafts and associated inductors to produce alternating currents of different audio frequencies. These signals were controlled by a multiple set of polyphonic velocity sensitive keyboards ( of seven octaves, 36 notes per octave tunable to frequencies between 40-4000Hz) and associated banks of controls.The resulting sound was audible via acoustic horns built from piano soundboards in the early models, later models were linked directly to the telephone network or to a series of telephone receivers fitted with special acoustic horns – this was the only way to amplify the sound in this pre-amplifier era (Cahill’s invention had pre-dated the invention of amplifiers by 20 years). The Telharmonium supplied 1 amp of power to each telephone receiver on the network this was much more than the telephone itself but was enough to be able to hear the music without lifting the receiver speaker to the ear however this also masked and disrupted any other signal on the line. The instrument was usually played by two musicians (4 hands) and reproduced “respectable” music of the time: Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Rossinni etc.

The 60ft long, 200 ton, $200,000 “Telharmonium III”

The 60ft long, 200 ton, $200,000 “Telharmonium III”

The sound produced from the Telharmonium at Telharmonic Hall was dogged with technical imperfections on behalf of the performers and by cable transmission errors such as sudden drops in volume when extra voices were added and a ‘growling’ effect on the bass notes that was said to make the overall experience ‘highly irritating’. Cahill completed the third and final Telharmonium in march 1911, this machine was even bigger and more expensive than its predecessor. The third Telharmonium had a whole set of redesigned and more powerful alternators, stronger magnets to reduce the bass rumbling and volume controls. The instrument was installed at 535 west 56th street New York City.

Inside the Telharmonium:

Tone Mixers from the Telharmonium III

Tone Mixers from the Telharmonium III

Dynamo tone generators at  Cabot Street Mill.

Dynamo tone generators at Cabot Street Mill.

Dynamos of the Telhamronium III in the basement of the Telharmonic Hall

Dynamos of the Telhamronium III in the basement of the Telharmonic Hall

6523562959_3af4fd579a_z

Tone mixer

Tone mixer

Wiring looms of the Telharmonium III

Wiring looms of the Telharmonium III

Cahill and the ‘New England Electric Music Company’ funded a plan to transmit ‘Telharmony’ using the Telharmonium to hotels, restaurants,theatres and private homes via the telephone network. This visionary quest failed when the capital outlay became prohibitive and it was discovered that the machine interfered seriously with local telephone calls. The venture ground to a halt before the first world war. Rumour has it that a New York businessman, infuriated by the constant network interference, broke into the building where the Telharmonium was housed and destroyed it, throwing pieces of machinery into the Hudson river below. The final Telharmonium (the last of 3 built) was operating until 1916 and having survived the Wall Street crash and World War 1 was finally killed off by the advent of popular radio broadcasting and amplification.

Despite its final demise, the Telharmonium triggered the birth of electronic music- The Italian Composer and intellectual Ferruccio Busoni inspired by the machine at the height of its popularity was moved to write his “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music” (1907) which in turn became the clarion call and inspiration for the new generation of electronic composers such as Edgard Varèse and Luigi Rusolo.

No recordings of the Telharmonium/Dynamophone are known to have survived, though Arthur.T. Cahill, brother of Thaddeus, was as recently as 1950 trying to find a home for the prototype instrument, his search proved unsuccessful and the historic machine vanished. The principles underlying the Telharmonium are still used in the Hammond organ designed in the early 1930s.

Mark Twain (Clemens) remembers the Telharmonium:

“I recall two pleasant social events of that winter: one a little party given at the Clemenses’ home on New-Year’s Eve, with charades and storytelling and music. It was the music feature of this party that was distinctive; it was supplied by wire through an invention known as the telharmonium which, it was believed, would revolutionise musical entertainment in such places as hotels, and to some extent in private houses. The music came over the regular telephone wire, and was delivered through a series of horns or megaphones — similar to those used for phonographs — the playing being done, meanwhile, by skilled performers at the central station. Just why the telharmonium has not made good its promises of popularity I do not know. Clemens was filled with enthusiasm over the idea. He made a speech a little before midnight, in which he told how he had generally been enthusiastic about inventions which had turned out more or less well in about equal proportions. He did not dwell on the failures, but he told how he had been the first to use a typewriter for manuscript work; how he had been one of the earliest users of the fountain- pen; how he had installed the first telephone ever used in a private house, and how the audience now would have a demonstration of the first telharmonium music so employed. It was just about the stroke of midnight when he finished, and a moment later the horns began to play chimes and “Auld Lang Syne” and “America”.”Mark Twain: A Biography,Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912), 1364-1365

Patent Documents


Sources:

MAGIC MUSIC FROM THE TELHARMONIUM Reynold Weidenaar Scarecrow Press 800/642-6420; 301/459-3366
Holmes, Thomas B. Electronic and Experimental Music. New York: Scribner, 1985. pp. 32-41