The Monochord was commissioned from Dr Freidrich Trautwein, the inventor of the Trautonium, by the Electronic Music studio of North West German Radio studios, Köln to upgrade its synthesis module which consisted at the time of one sine wave generator and filter system. The Monochord was basically a modified concert Trautonium with a monophonic variable pitch interval keyboard controlling a valve based tone generator. The keyboard was pressure sensitive and allowed one hand to play pitched notes while the other changed timbre and variations of the envelope shape. A foot pedal controlled the overall volume output from the machine.
The Electronium was designed by René Seybold and manufactured by the German company Hohner GmbH in Trossingen, Germany, from 1950 onwards. The Electronium was a monophonic electronic instrument resembling an accordion similar to Harald Bode’s Multimonica. The Electronium had a 41 note keyboard with keys or buttons and 16 ‘registration tabs’, the overall volume being controlled by the ‘bellows’ of the instrument. The Electronium came with it’s own amplifier and speaker and packed into a portable carrying case.
Electronium P was a piano-attachment instrument similar to the Clavioline, Tuttivox and Ondioline. The Electronium P had a three octave keyboard, transposable up or down within six octaves, controlling a single vacuum tube oscillator.The Electronium P was used in music concerts as an add-on for piano players and was much used throughout the 1950’s in Germany for both light and serious music. The Electronium P was used by several German Avant-Garde composers, Karlheinz Stockhausen used various Electronium models on “Telemusik” and “solo”(1952-6) and later on “Kurzwellen” (1968), These pieces being performed by his own group with the pianist Harald Bojé playing a modified standard Electronium.
The Electronic Music Box was a synthesis and composition device designed and built as a personal project by Dr Earle.L.Kent while employed at the C.G.Conn Ltd Company, USA, to design electric organ circuits. The Music Box was an analogue ‘beat frequency’ vacuum tube based synthesiser controlled by a punched paper strip device as used previously in the 1930’s by instruments such as Givelet and Coupleaux’s ‘Givelet’ and later on the RCA mkII and Siemens Synthesiser amongst others. The punch paper strip was a system similar to a ‘pianola’ paper reader and allowed the composer to produce musical sequences that were beyond the manual dexterity of the performer:
“The goals established for the music Box involved wider flexibility of performance than is possible in any conventional musical instrument. It was felt that it should not be confined to the usual limitations of manual keying. It should be capable of grater speed and wider combinations than are possible by manual or pedal dexterity, and it should not be limited to the equally tempered scales as are most keyed instruments. It was recognised that virtually any speed or combination could be obtained by keying with a perforated paper roll with the loss of some of the vital control usually exercised by a musician while making music and also with the loss of its conventional acceptance as a musical instrument. However, it was felt that a musician usually “records” his manual manipulation rather precisely in his brain before a concert by repetitive rehearsal and that the losses by recording this operation on paper would be exceeded by the gains”
Although based on the established ‘beat frequency’/heterodyning principle, Kent’s instrument employed a more complex system of frequency changers to create a more interesting range of timbre and control over the shape of the note. The Music Box was designed to allow control off the ‘slurring’ of the note, formant filtering control and control of volume and depth and rate of tremolo. The Electronic Music Box was influential on the development of electronic musical instruments, Dr Kent was visited by Harry Olson who later adapted features of his RCA synthesiser to incorporate functions of the Music Box, but the Conn company chose not to exploit the commercial possibilities of the instrument.
The Australian ‘Free Music’ composer Percy Grainger contacted Earle Kent shortly after Kent had completed his PhD at the University of Michigan. Grainger was looking for an instrument that would be suitable for his concept of free music:
“Play any pitch of any size, half, quarter or eighth tones, within the range of 7 voices, to be able to pass from pitch to pitch by way of a controlled glide as well as by leap, to play precisely controlled, complex irregular rhythms past the scope of human execution.”
Grainger visited Kent’s research department at the Conn Musical Instrument Company in Ekhart USA in 1951 to witness the Electronic Music Box which shared many features of Grainger’s somewhat crude constructions. However for undisclosed reasons, Grainger was unsatisfied with the Music Box and returned to his own Free Music experiments in Australia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky and others at the RCA MkII
Belar and olsen MkI RCA
Punch paper terminals of the RCA MkII
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)
Developed as early as 1944 by Osmond ‘Ken’ Kendall, an electronic engineer at the National Film Board of Canada (NFBC) (and colleague of the animator Norman McLaren) the ‘Compositron’ and later the ‘Composer-Tron’ was an analogue synthesis and composition apparatus that utilised an innovative and unique control system. The Composer-Tron had a cathode ray tube input device that could ‘read’ patterns or shapes hand drawn on it’s surface with a grease pencil. The drawn shape could be defined as the timbre of the note or as the envelope shape of the sound, rhythmical sequences could be written by marking a cue sheet type strip of film:
“The Composer-tron is an electronic device that enables a composer or arranger of music to create his composition directly as he conceives it. The conventional aeries of intermediate steps—sheet music—musicians—musical instruments—room acoustics—microphones—are all eliminated. The composer produces his musical record for instant audition and he may do it in nearly the same time that he would take to compose and write a conventional musical score. The musical sounds he may use are limited only by his imagination since they may be like familiar musical instruments or completely unique.
The Composer-tron is not a musical instrument and it cannot he “played” in any sense at all. It’s designed to make records and it may be used for recording from a microphone. However, the Composer-tron is fitted with a new kind of electronic musical tone generator that may he adjusted by the composer to provide sound waves of any pitch, having overtones of any degree of complexity The tones may be made to match those of any known musical instrument or the wave structure may be set to tone qualities that could never be duplicated by any conceivable mechanical musical instrument whatever. The complex tones thus generated are shown to the composer in greatly enlarged form on a television tube screen. The composer then draws a design or pattern on a second screen. These designs may be original or they may be copied from the designs presented by recorded musical playings. Such designs often contain the elements of the “‘touch” of the musician and they can be made visible on the TV tube screen. This facility provides for the first timer means whereby the nuances of a musician’s touch may be superimposed on an electronic sound source. The design is transferred by methods similar to television. The resulting combined visible tone designs are converted into waves which are recorded and instantly auditioned over a loud-speaker.
The machine has a capacity for memorising op to 80-component instrument notes which may be finally recorded in any desired sequence. Other, facilities, such as a means for precisely timing the advent of each note, a means for developing chords directly (not necessarily derived from component notes), and a means for erasing faulty sections in a recording, etc., are all provided in the Composer-tron.”
Osmond Kendall quoted in ‘Canadian Film Technology, 1896-198’ (Gerald G. Graham, Ontario Film Institute University of Delaware Press, 1989)
The purpose of the Composer-Tron, like that of the ‘Hanert Electrical Orchestra‘, was to provide a synthesis and composition tool that closed the gap between composer and performer allowing the composer to define all the aspects of the music in one session:
“At present, the composer writes his mental symphonies as black symbols on white paper. He has no way of knowing wether they’re just what he had in mind. Months or years may pass before he hears them played by a symphony orchestra. Not uncommonly he never hears his best work……with Kendal’s grease pencil, the composer can, in effect, draw the grooves in the record. Working with a Composert-Tron….he can walk out of his study with his recorded composition under his arm.”
Maclean’s Magazine, June 11, 1955
The Composer-tron was designed primarily to provide synthesised soundtracks for films produced by the National Film Board of Canada during the post-war period of interest in hand-drawn audio soundtracks and experimental techniques (see the works of Norman McLaren and others). However with limited funding and scepticism from the NFBC the Composer-tron project ran into financial difficulties – An attempt during the early 1950’s to develop a commercial model aimed at amateur composers with funding from the Marconi Company proved unsuccessful. In desperation, Kendall and his mentor Louis Applebaum tried to keep the project alive by seeking funding from the Canadian military and the Bell Telephone Company which were ultimately also unsuccessful. The project was mothballed sometime in the late 1950’s.
‘The Art Of Electronic Music’ p46 Rhea,Tom.L. Edited by Darter,Tom & Greg Armbruster 1984 GPI Productions.
Alan Phillips, ‘Osmond Kendall’s Marvellous Music Machine’ Maclean’s Magazine, June 11, 1955. [p.54]. York University Archives, Louis Applebaum fonds 1979 -002/030.
‘Music in Canada: Capturing Landscape and Diversity’. Elaine Keillor. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 18 Mar 2008
‘Louis Applebaum: A Passion for Culture’. Walter Pitman. Dundurn, 1 Oct 2002
Louis Applebaum, letter to Arthur Irwin, Commissioner, NFB, December 6, 1950. York University Archives, Louis Applebaum fonds, 1979-002/022
‘Composertron’ Hugh Davies. The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, 2nd edition, issue Published in print January 2001.
‘Canadian Film Technology, 1896-1986’. Gerald G. Graham, Ontario Film Institute. University of Delaware Press, 1989
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:
Hohnerola: “An electronic tongue-instrument of 84 tones from C to H”
An impulse or sawtooth generator with 84 tones
1 white noise generator
A generator for statistic impulses which are made from white noise with the help of a trigger
4 sine tone generators [20 – 20’000 Hz]
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.
A tone generator based on photo-electric principles
Echo frequency transformer
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 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.
Coding of the Punch-tape reader:
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.
Volume: The volume can be defined in 32 steps of 1,5 dB.
Timbre: The colouring (timbre) by a choice of 14 band filters or filter combinations
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 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.
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.