IPEM electronic music studio founded in 1963 as a joint venture between the Belgian Radio and Television broadcasting company and the University of Ghent with the objective of operating as both a creative studio, and a research institution – IPEM continues to this day to research into audio and psychoacoustics. One of the first instruments developed was a sine wave generator by Hubert Vuylsteke. His assistant, an engineer called Walter Landrieu, invented a vacuum tube based instrument called the ‘Melowriter’ in 1976 that allowed the musician to create sounds through an 8bit code typewriter style interface.
470 compositions were realised at IPEM between 1963–1987. It is still operational, housed in the University building in the same place it was founded.
IPEM: Institute For Psychoacoustics And Electronic Music: 50 years of Electronic And Electroacoustic Music At The Ghent University is published by Metaphon, and comes with 2CDs of music made at the studio between 1963 and 1999. More details on the book here.
The DIMI (Digital Music Instrument) series synthesisers were the work of the Finnish pioneer in electronic art and all-round visionary, Erkki Kurenniemi. Kurenniemi’s career encompassed computer-based music, electronic engineering, film and robotics.
In 1962 Kurenniemi volunteered to construct the electronic music studio for The Institute of Musicology at the University of Helsinki. The studio had a leading role in the development of Scandinavian electronic music and is still functioning today, it is the oldest electronic music studio still in active use in Scandinavia. The studio was used by Kurenniemi for his own compositions including the improvised ‘On/Off ; “my first and so far best electronic composition. Its name reflects the idea that in a distant future computer music studio the only control should be an ON/OFF switch.”. From 1963 onwards other composers began to visit the studio including Reijo Jyrkiäinen, Henrik Otto Donner, Bengt Johansson, Erkki Salmenhaara. Through the studio the Finnish Avant-garde scene established strong links with Karlheinz Stockhausen and the WDR studio in Darmstad, Germany – the leading influence on electronic music at the time
Kurenniemi worked at the university studio until the end of the sixties, when he left to found his company Digelius Electronics Ltd to build and market his electronic instrument designs. The company was funded by The Finnish National Fund for Research and Development to develop the DIMI-A but, By 1972 the company had collapsed;
“Digelius Electronics, the company founded to manufacture and market digital instruments, crashed, and I moved to industrial robotics. Jukka Ruohom.ki, a Finnish pioneer of electronic music, wrote a sophisticated piece of software called DISMAL for the Dimi-6000. It was in effect a music assembly language. But then the world was not interested in code twiddling. It wanted to twiddle knobs instead and pound keyboards.”
After the collapse of Digelius Kurenniemi pursued a varied career in robotics (at Rosenlew in the 1970s’), computing (Kurenniemi is credited with creating the first commercially available microcomputer in 1973), artificial intelligence, as ‘automation designer’ in Nokia’s cable division in the early eighties, and as head of exhibition planning at the Heureka Science Center in Vantaa (Finland) from 1987 to 1999. Today Kurenniemi works as an independent researcher, specialising in subjects such as artificial intelligence. Kurenniemi’s instruments still exist and function at the Musicology Institute in Helsinki.
The DIMI A
“the Institute of Musicology could not afford a computer, not even a PDP-8. There was a rumour of a “microcomputer,” a “computer-on-a-chip” coming. It sounded unbelievable. The first DIMI instrument was to be as powerful as a computer, but cheaper.”
The instrument consisted of two oscillators, octave dividers, digital attenuators, three modulators, and two analogue octave filter banks and was played using two electronic pens.
The DIMI-T or ‘Electroencephalophone’, 1970
Dimi-E was not a actual ‘digital’ instrument but an electronic unit that registered a weak EEG signal from the users earlobe. This signal was filtered and amplified and used as a control source for a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO).
“The original idea was to build four of these instruments, and let the musicians to go to sleep while hearing each other’s generated sounds. During sleep there appears in the EEG slow high-amplitude delta waves, and short duration “sleep spindles.” Would the brain waves of the sleeping players get synchronized? This test was never made.”
The DIMI-S or “Sexophone” 1971
Was a six player ‘fun’ version of the DIMI-T. Handcuffs and wires connected the players to the central electronic unit which measured the electrical resistance between all six pairs. “When two people touched each other repeatedly, a sequence of musical tones were heard. With increasing skin moisture and contact area, the intensity of the music increased. “
The DIMI-O or “Optical Organ” 1971
The company Digelius Electronics was founded to develop Kurenniemi’s instruments including the Dimi-0, an optical video synthesiser. The instrument synthesised music by reading a digitised image. The 1 bit video input had a resolution of 32 (time) by 48 (pitch: equivalent to four octaves). The original intention was to have an instrument that could read a musical score but it was soon used to experiment with more interactive techniques such as allowing a dancer to create sounds by movements. Kurenniemi demonstrated the instruments capabilities in an early piece of interactive art the 11 minute long film ‘DIMI Ballet’ (1971)
The DIMI-600 (1972)
The last “and most unsuccessful” in the series was Dimi-6000, an analogue voltage controlled synthesizer using the then new Intel 8008 based microcomputer. The computer ran a control programme specially written for the instrument called DISMAL (Digelius System Music Assembly Language) in effect a music assembly language the complexity of which lead to the instruments lack of popularity and the eventual downfall of the Digelius company.
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
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).
Robert Moog started working with electronic instruments at the age of nineteen when, with his father, he created his first company, R.A.Moog Co to manufacture and sell Theremin kits (called the ‘Melodia Theremin’ the same design as Leon Termen’s theremin but with an optional keyboard attachment) and guitar amplifiers from the basement of his family home in Queens, New York. Moog went on to study physics at Queens College, New York in 1957 and electrical engineering at Columbia University and a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University (1965). In 1961 Moog started to produce the first transistorised version of the Theremin – which up until then had been based on Vacuum tube technology.
In 1963 with a $200 research grant from Columbia University Moog Collaborated with the experimental musician Herbert Deutsch on the the design of what was to become the first modular Moog Synthesiser.
Herb Deutsch discusses his role in the origin of the Moog Synthesiser.
Moog and Deutsch had already been absorbing and experimenting with ideas about transistorised modular synthesisers from the German designer Harald Bode(as well as collaborating with Raymond Scott on instrument design at Manhattan Research Inc). In September 1964 he was invited to exhibit his circuits at the Audio Engineering Society Convention. Shortly afterwards in 1964, Moog begin to manufacture electronic music synthesisers.
“…At the time I was actually still thinking primarily as a composer and at first we were probably more interested in the potential expansion of the musical aural universe than we were of its effect upon the broader musical community. In fact when Bob questioned me on whether the instrument should have a regular keyboard (Vladimir Ussachevsky had suggested to him that it should not) I told Bob “I think a keyboard is a good idea, after all, having a piano did not stop Schoenberg from developing twelve-tone music and putting a keyboard on the synthesizer would certainly make it a more sale-able product!!”
Herbert Deutsch 2004
The first instrument the Moog Modular Synthesiser produced in 1964 became the first widely used electronic music synthesiser and the first instrument to make the crossover from the avant-garde to popular music. The release in 1968 of Wendy Carlos’s album “Switched on Bach” which was entirely recorded using Moog synthesisers (and one of the highest-selling classical music recordings of its era), brought the Moog to public attention and changed conceptions about electronic music and synthesisers in general. The Beatles bought one, as did Mick Jagger who bought a hugely expensive modular Moog in 1967 (which was only used once, as a prop on Nicolas Roeg’s film ‘Performance’ and was later sold to the German experimentalist rock group, Tangerine Dream). Over the next decade Moog created numerous keyboard synthesisers, Modular components (many licensed from design by Harald Bode), Vocoder (another Bode design), Bass pedals, Guitar synthesisers and so-on.
Moog’s designs set a standard for future commercial electronic musical instruments with innovations such as the 1 volt per octave CV control that became an industry standard and pulse triggering signals for connecting and synchronising multiple components and modules.
Despite this innovation, the Moog Synthesiser Company did not survive the decade, larger companies such as Arp and Roland developed Moog’s prototypes into more sophisticated and cost effective instruments. Moog sold the company to Norlin in the 1970’s whose miss-management lead to Moog’s resignation. Moog Music finally closed down in 1993. Robert Moog re-acquired the rights to the Moog company name in 2002 and once again began to produce updated versions of the Moog Synthesiser range. Robert Moog died in 2003.
The Milan Electronic Music Studio or ‘RAI Studio of Phonology’ was designed by Alfredo Lietti in 1955 with the guidance of the musicians Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, and remained in use until 1983. In 2011 the entire studio was archived at the Municipal Collections of the Castello Sforzesco.
The studio was primarily created to produce experimental electronic music but also to create effects and soundtracks for film and TV (and was the model for the 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio). Berio drew inspiration from the working methods of American serialist composers Ussachevsky and Otto Luening at the Columbia University Computer Music Center and from GRMC in Paris through his friendship with Pierre Schaeffer and the Club d’Essai. Maderna’s influence came through his time studying at the Darmstadt summer school with Stockhausen and Meyer-Eppler.
At he beginning in 1955 the studio consisted of a few variable speed tape recorder, some filters, an oscillator and an Ondes Martenot. This soon changed with the acquisition of eight sine and square wave oscillators ( the ‘ninth oscillator’ being the voice of Cathy Berberian. Luciano Berio’s works of this period with Cathy Berberian include Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) and Visage), pulse and white noise generators. These generators were patched manually through a bank of processors; modulators ( including the ‘Tempophon’ a tape device with rotating heads that allowed to vary the duration of the playback of a previously recorded sound, while maintaining the original pitch ), frequency shifters, filters and various types of echo and reverberation units. The output from the studio was monitored on a system of five speakers and recorded to a four-track tape recorder.
“Two of the first electronic works in my record collection – Berio’s Visage from 1961, and John Cage’s Fontana Mix from 1958 – were created there with Zuccheri (Designer and technician at the RAI Studio) . Even today, both of these pieces sound impressively vivid and dynamic, and what we should now recognise is that such qualities should be attributed to the technician as much as to the composer.”
David Toop, The Wire, 2008
Musicians and composers who worked at the studio include Berio, Maderna, Nono, Castiglioni, Clementi, Donatoni , Gentilucci, Manzoni , Marinuzzi Jr., Paccagnini Sciarrino, Sinopoli, Togni , Cage and Pousseur.
“… I like remembering Marino in his Phonology Studio, master among masters, master of sound among masters of music, because sound for him did not have any secrets, since he was trained in auditoriums while working for the Radio together with the most famous directors of the time. He would always recall how he begun working in Phonology by chance, but it is certain that it wasn’t because of chance that he continued during the years, considering he’s been the only holder of the Studio from when it was created (1955) until it closed down (1983).”
Giovanni Belletti, “Marino Zuccheri in Fonologia”, 2008
Mellotrons and Novatrons were produced in England by Streetly Electronics, Birmingham, from the early ’60s until the early ’80 by Leslie Bradley and his brothers Frank and Norman. The original Mellotron was designed as an expensive domestic novelty instrument and were based, knowingly or not on the Chamberlin a very similar tape-sample based instrument from the USA. The Mellotron was an analogue precursor of the modern digital sampler using pre-recorded strips of magnetic tape rather than digital samples. Under each key was a strip of magnetic tape with a recorded sound that corresponded to the pitch of the key (The Mark II had two keyboards of 35 notes each making a total of 1260 seperate recordings). The instrument played the sound when the key is pressed and returns the tape head to the beginning of the tape when the key is released. This design enables the recorded sound to keep the individual characteristics of a sustained note (rather than a repeated loop) but had a limited duration per note, usually eight seconds. The keyboard was fully polyphonic and could reproduce a wide range of wind and string instruments as well as percussion.
“Now, with the fabulous Mellotron, anyone with the slightest ear for music can command his own orchestra – simply by using two fingers and a thumb – producing a wealth of orchestral sounds from a single keyboard…I regard the Mellotron as the “greatest” in home entertainment since television.”
Eric Robinson, c1967
Most Mellotrons had 3 track 3/8″ tapes, the different tracks being selectable by moving the tape heads across the tape strips from the front panel. This feature allowed the sound to be easily changed while playing and made it possible to set the heads in between tracks to blend the sounds. Despite attempting to faithfully recreate the sound of an instrument the Mellotron had a distinct sound of its own that became fashionable amongst rock musicians during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Novatron was a later model of the Mellotron re-named after the original company liquidised after a legal dispute in the USA in 1977. Melltrons became obsolete in the 1980’s with the popularisation of synthesisers and later digital samplers and the Novatron/Mellotron company folded in 1986. Despite this, the nostalgia for the instrument continued and Bradley’s sons restarted the Mellotron company around 2000 with the re-launch of a digitally enhanced Mk4000.
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.
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.
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”
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.'”
Modules of the ‘Buchla Box’ :
wooden case for 25 modules
six channel mixer
Dual Voltage-controlled Gates
Dual Ring Modulator
12 touch-controlled voltage sources (capacitive keyboard)
10 touch-controlled voltage sources (capacitive keyboard)
Sequential Voltage Source (8-step sequencer)
Dual Envelop Generator
timing pulse generators
Dual Square-wave Generator
Sequential Voltage Source (sequencer, 16 step X 3 layer)
Dual Control Voltage Counter
Dual Sine / Sawtooth Oscillators (VCOs)
White Noise Generator
Dual Random Voltage Source or ‘Source Of Uncertainty’
Dual Microphone Amplifier
Dual Instrument Pre-amplifier
Dual Equalizer / Line Driver
Dual Attack Generator
sharp cut-off filter
dual low pass filter
octave formant filter
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.