The ‘Vibroexponator’ Boris Yankovsky, Russia 1932

Boris yankovsky in 1939
Boris Yankovsky in 1939

Boris Yankovsky (1904-1973) worked with the Multzvuk group as a pupil of Arseney Araamov at Mosfilm, Moscow from 1931-32. However he grew disenchanted with what he considered to be an over simplified way of approaching acoustics. Yankovsky realised that pure uniform  waveforms do not represent timbre and that a more complex spectral approach needed to be developed. In 1932 Yankovsky left Multzvuk to pursue his ideas of spectral analysis, decomposition and re-synthesis . His project was based on his belief that it is possible to develop a universal language of sounds using combinations of hand drawn spectral ‘sound objects’ (similar to the much later cross-synthesis and phase-synthesis techniques).

“I found the idea of synthesis while I was laboriously working on ‘drawn sound’. And this is the chain of my consideration:
The colour of the sound depends on the shape of the sound wave;
Graphical colour of the sound wave could be analysed and represented as the Fourier series of periodic functions (sine waves);

Consequently the sound wave could be re-synthesised back with the same set of sine waves. Nobody did this before the invention of graphical (drawn) sound just because there was not a technical means and  methodology for sound reproduction from such graphical representations of sound. As with electrons (the neutrons and protons) the number of which defines the quality of the atom, so do the sine waves define the quality of the sound – it’s timbre.

Drawn scale with angles to create pitch shift
Drawn scale with angles to create pitch shift

The conclusion: why not initiate a  new science – synthetic acoustics?
It would make sense if we could define (at least in draft) a sort of periodic table of Sound Elements, like Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. The system of orchestral tone colours has gaps between the rows that could be filled by a means of synthesis, like the gaps between Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Chemical Elements have been filled with the latest developments in chemistry […] It is obvious that the method of selection and crossing of sound and instruments, which is similar to the method of Michurin (Ivan Michurin Russian Biochemist and Horticulturist), will give us unprecedented, novel ‘fruit hybrids’ that are technically unobtainable for a usual orchestra […]
(Yankovsky 1932-1940; 15,45)

“It is important now to conquer and increase the smoothness of tone colours, flowing rainbows of spectral colours in sound, instead of monotonous colouring of stationary sounding fixed geometric figures [wave shapes], although the nature of these phenomena is not yet clear. The premises leading to the expansion of these phenomena – life inside the sound spectrum – give us the nature of the musical instruments themselves, but “nature is the best mentor” (Leonardo da Vinci) […] The new technology is moving towards the trends of musical renovation, helping us to define new ways for the Art of Music. This new technology is able to help liberate us from the cacophony of the well-tempered scale and related noises. Its name is Electro-Acoustics and it is the basis for Electro-Music and Graphical Sound”.
Yankovsky 1934

To implement these theories yankovsky invented the Vibroexponator; No images or diagrams have survived but the Vibroexponator appears to be a process using a modified rostrum animation stand that allowed the photographed ‘spectral templates’ to be translated into audible sound and then combined into complex sound.

“The Vibroexponator is a complex, bulky tool for optical recording of synthetic sounds to the soundtrack of ordinary 35mm film by means of a specially produced intensive negatives. the instrument is partly mechanised and provides various motions to the original negative. The automation of the direction control is partially broken and requires extra repairs and maintenance, […] The slide copying tool is intended for production of intensive negatives from films with transversal soundtracks. it too is a massive construction. The gearbox at least a 100-fold safety factor and a great power”

Nikolai Zimmin from the MINI institute describes the Vibroexponator in 1939

Yankovsky spent the next decade working on his spectral theories and building a ‘Syntone Database’ of his spectral templates by recording and analysing hundreds of samples of instruments from Bolshoi Theatre as well as samples of vowels and speech.

Slide copying machine tool diagram
Slide copying machine tool diagram

Political repression in the USSR stopped the funding of Yankovsky’s work until 1939 when he met the young inventor Evgeny Murzin who shared Yankovsky’s vision of a universal synthesis tool (which later emerged as the ANS Synthesiser) . Yankovsky together with Murzin and Yevgeny Sholpo formed the ‘Laboratory for Graphical Sound at the Institute of the Theatre and Film’ where he completed the final version of Vibroexponator. Further development of the instrument and of Yankovsky’s theories of spectral sound was halted by the outbreak of World War Two, Yankovsky never returned to graphical sound.

The Multzvuk group

Multzvuk group was formed in 1930 by Arseney Araazamov to conduct research into graphical sound techniques. The group was based at the Mosfilm Productions Company in Moscow (one of the leading film production companies in Moscow, renamed Gorki Film Studio in 1948) and consisted of composer and theoretician, Arseney Araamov, cameraman and draughtsmen  Nikolai Zhelynsky, animator Nikolai Voinov, painter and amateur acoustician Boris Yankovsky. In 1931 the group moved to ‘NIKFI’,  the ‘cientific Research Institute for Graphic Sound’. Leningrad, and and was renamed the ‘Syntonfilm laboratory’. In 1932 NIKFI stopped funding the group who then moved to Mezhrabpomfilm and finally closed in 1934.

From 1930-34 more than 2000 meters of sound track were produced by the Multzvuk group, including the experimental films ‘Ornamental Animation’, ‘Marusia Otravilas’, ‘Chinese Tune’, ‘Organ Chords’, ‘Untertonikum, Prelude’, ‘Piruet’, ‘Staccato Studies’, ‘Dancing Etude’ and ‘Flute Study’. The Multzvuk archive was kept for many years at Avraamov’s apartment, but destroyed in 1937.


Electrified Voices: Medial, Socio-Historical and Cultural Aspects of Voice … edited by Dmitri Zakharine, Nils Meise

Graphical Sound Andrey Smirnov, Moscow, 2011

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