The ‘Fonosynth’. Paul Ketoff (Paolo Ketoff), Julian Strini & Gino Marinuzzi jr, Italy. 1958.

The Fonosynth at the Musical Instrument Museum (photo:
The ‘Fonosynth’ now at the Musical Instrument Museum, Munich, Germany. (photo:

The Fonosynth was a large analogue valve and transistor based studio synthesiser designed and built by the Polish-Italian sound engineer Paul Ketoff (with musical input from the Italian composer Gino Marinuzzi jr) and was created specifically for the new electronic music studio at the American Academy in Rome.

This studio had been founded by the American composer and co-founder of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center  (CPEMC in 1959 – the first studio for electronic music in the USA and home to the  RCA Synthesiser) Otto Luening (June 15, 1900 Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA – September 2, 1996 New York City, NY, USA) – who was at that time Composer in Residence on a one year secondment from Columbia Princeton at the American Academy:

“During his first residency in the Spring and Summer of 1958, Luening tapped Columbia’s Alice M. Ditson fund to purchase a library of contemporary music recordings for the composers’ use. Then, when he returned for a 6 week summer visit in 1961, he converted the composers’ “listening room” (located in the basement of the Academy) into a rudimentary “electronic music studio”. This studio eventually contained three sine wave oscillators, a spring reverberation unit, a microphone, an Ampex stereo portable tape recorder and a mixing console. Added to the listening room’s professional 350 Series Ampex mono tape recorder and a radio/record player, this equipment became a laboratory for sound research. In 1964-65 when Luening returned for a second, year long stay as Composer-in-Residence, the Ditson fund ( Columbia University’s Alice M. Ditson Fund) covered the purchase of one of the first portable electronic music synthesizers in existence, the Synket (nb; the ‘Synket’ here is probably confused with the Fonosynth), invented and constructed by Paul Ketoff – a brilliant Roman audio engineer involved with Rome’s Cinecittà. It was Ketoff, in fact, who had designed the original studio room and mixing 8 console and whose guidance and unflagging enthusiasm had been a key element in making the fledgling studio operable. With the Synket installed, the listening room became a fairly advanced electronic studio for the time and it served as such for many of the Fellows. The studio was also used by a number of visiting American (Larry Austin, Alvin Curran, etc.) and Italian (Aldo Clementi, Mauro Bortolotti) composers.”

Richard Trythall ‘A History of the Rome Prize in Music Composition’

There were numerous American Avant-Garde composers and musicians passing through Rome at this time (1950-60s) usually on some kind of study grant. This was in-part because of a postwar initiative set up by the US government to promote American culture and regenerate the cultural life of Rome:

 “an international showcase idea which went along with lots of neon signs and skyscrapers – to shout down communism”

(Alvin Curran. Soundings No. 10, Soundings Press, Santa Fe, 1976).

Artists involved with the American Academy, Rome included  flutist Fritz Kraber, clarinettist Jerry Kirkbride, sopranos Joan Logue and Carol Plantamura, violist Joan Kalisch, pianists Joe Rollino and Paul Sheftel and composers such as William O. Smith, John Eaton, Richard Trythall, John Heineman, Alvin Curran, Frederick Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, Allen Bryant, Jeffrey Levine, Joel Chadabe, Jerome Rosen and Larry Moss, Larry Austin.

Detail of the Fonosynth
Detail of the Fonosynth

The Fonosynth was completed in 1958 and was used throughout the late fifties and mid sixties by a number of expat American electronic musicians and composers (including Otto Luening, William O. Smith, and George Balch Wilson, Richard Trythall, Alvin Curran amongst others) as well as for film soundtrack sound effects for the Italian film industry. The Fonosynth now resides at the at the Museum of Musical Instruments in Munich, Germany.

The Fonosynth’s sound was generated by twelve sine wave oscillators and six square wave oscillators (each matched with individual band-pass filters). This audio signal could be modulated and coloured using audio filters (2 octave filters, 2 selective resonant filters, 1 self oscillating filter, 1 threshold filter) two LFOs, an impulse generator and white noise generator, two ring modulators and a wave shape generator to determine the ADSR of each sound. The resulting output was fed into an 18 channel mixing console and amplified to a stereo or mono audio output.

The whole instrument was controlled by an unusual  keyboard made up of 6 rows of 24 keys allowing for Enharmonic, microtonal performance and composition.

Soon after, Ketoff built a successor to the Fonosynth in 1963 called the Syn-ket (Synthesiser – Ketoff) which was designed as a portable performance instrument – with musical input from John Eaton (and others).

Paul Ketoff
Paul Ketoff (at the Syn-ket) c 1963

Biographical Notes Paul Ketoff/Paolo Ketoff.

Polish-Italian Electronic and sound engineer. Born 1921 died 1996. Ketoff became the chief sound technician at RCA Italiana/Cinecittà film studios, Roma, in 1964 and the Fonolux post production company, between 1957 and 1965. Ketoff designed many devices for film music production including dynamic sound compressors and ring modulators, reverb chambers and plates, and established a new standard of sound post-production.

Film credits for sound production and effects from this period include (1966) ‘Africa Adido” , (1966) ‘La Traviata’ (1965) ‘Terrore Nello Spazio’, (1960) ‘L’ avventura’ (1953) ‘Pane, amore e fantasia’ (1965) ‘Planet of the Vampires’, (1959) ‘Hercules Unchained’

Commisioned to design and build the Electronic Music Studio at the American Academy in Rome, Ketoff finished his first synthesiser, the ‘Fonosynth’ in 1958 and then designed a much more compact voltage controlled performance ins trument called the Syn-ket in 1963 which was presented at the conference of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) in 1964,

Ketoff was a lifelong friend and collaborator with the Italian composer Gino Marinuzzi jr. Paolo Ketoff was married to Landa Ketoff, the well known musical critic for La Repubblica Newspaper.

Gino Marinuzzi Jr
Gino Marinuzzi Jr

Biographical Notes Gino Marinuzzi Jr.

Born 07/04/1920 – New York (U.S.A.), Died: (age 76) in Rome, Lazio, Italy

Gino Marinuzzi jr. was the Son of the conductor Gino Marinuzzi and was born in 1920 in New York, USA,  while  his father was touring in the United States. He studied piano and composition at the Milan Conservatory. Before graduating in composition, piano and conducting. Marinuzzi jr wrote his first early work: Concertino (piano chamber orchestra) and various compositions for piano at the age of sixteen.

Marinuzzi became the assistant conductor at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome from 1946 to 1951. He made his debut as a conductor in Spain in 1947, during a tour of the Ballet of the Roman theatre; then chooses to devote himself exclusively to composition. Marinuzzi  made the numerous film soundtracks during this period and was very active in the field of electronic music. In 1956 he founded the ‘Studio of phonology  for the Roman Philharmonic Academy’ and later was a founding member of the experimental study group R7 with Paolo Ketoff, Walter Flocks, Franco Evangelisti, Domenico Guaccero, Guido Guiducci and Egisto Macchi.

Marinuzzi spent two years – 1943 to 1945 – in a Nazi concentration camp, (prisoner 50914 Stalag XII F) an experience from which he created the ‘Lager lieder’, in which he elaborated on popular Russian, Ukrainian and Gypsy themes learned from his fellow prisoners.

In 1956 the composer opened the first laboratory of electronic music in Rome at the ‘Accademia Filarmonica Romana’ and constructed one of the first modular synthesiser for the production of electronic music called the ‘Fonosynth’. The device, made by the engineer Julian Strini and the sound engineer Paolo Ketoff in collaboration with Marinuzzi was completed in 1958,

In the 1960s and 70s Marinuzzi devoted himself mainly to film scores, theatre, radio and television, and only resumed composing for orchestra in the 1980s. He was particularly involved  and played a pioneering role in research and musical experimentation in the field of electronic music since the 1950s.

He is the father of the singer and guitarist Joan Marinuzzi.

Marinuzzi’s film works include:  ‘Romanzo d’amore’ (1950),  Jean Renoir’s ‘Le Carrosse d’or’ (1952) and Vittorio Cottafavi’s Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide (1961). ‘I castrati’ (1964),Mario Bava ‘s ‘Terrore nello spazio’ (aka Planet of the Vampires, (1965), ‘ Matchless’ (1967). ‘La piovra’ (1984)  (aka The Octopus).




Exhibition of the ‘RAI Studio Of Phonology’, Milan, Italy

‘Music and Musical Composition at the American Academy in Rome’ edited by Martin Brody

A History of the Rome Prize in Music Composition * 1947 – 2006 * Richard Trythall Music Liaison American Academy in Rome January 1, 2007

‘Gino Marinuzzi Jr: Electronics and Early Multimedia Mentality in Italy’. Maurizio Corbella, Università degli Studi di Milano

L. Pizzaleo, Il liutaio elettronico: Paolo Ketoff e l’invenzione del Synket, Aracne Editrice, Roma 2014 (Immota harmonia, 20), pp. 31-38.

P. Ketoff, Synket, generatore elettronico di suoni sintetici

Paolo Ketoff e l’invenzione del Synket, Aracne Editrice, Roma 2014 (Immota harmonia, 20), pp. 31-38.

WDR Electronic Music Studio, Werner Meyer-Eppler, Robert Beyer & Herbert Eimert, Germany, 1951

WDR Electronic Music Studio in 1966

During the 1950s and late 1960s before the advent of affordable electronic instruments, the only organisations that could afford the cost of the equipment and space for dedicated electronic music studios were generally large educational establishments such as Columbia University (USA) or as in this case, national broadcasters such as the state run Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Cologne – at the time the largest and wealthiest broadcaster in West Germany. The benefit for these organisations was, on one hand to have a local resource for electronic music and sound effects to use in broadcasting but also, for ‘nationalistic’ reasons; to be see as liberally progressive and technologically advanced. Electronic Music composers remained reliant on their patronage until modular synthesisers became available in the late 1960s.

The Electronic Music Studio at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Cologne was founded by the composers Werner Meyer-Eppler, Robert Beyer, and Herbert Eimert (the studios first director) and was based on Meyer-Eppler’s ideas outlined in his 1949 book ‘Elektronische Klangerzeugung: Elektronische Musik und Synthetische Sprache’. This thesis defined the ongoing theoretical character of the studio as being based around electronically synthesised sound – in sharp contrast to Schaeffer’s musique concrète acoustic approach at GRN in Paris.

WDR Studio
WDR Studio showing 4 track tape recorder and a selection of patched wave generators and filters

WDR is seen as the ‘Mother of all Electronic Music Studios’ because it quickly became a meeting place and forum for an international group of avant-garde composers including Ernst Krenek (Austria/USA), György Ligeti (Hungary), Franco Evangelisti (Italy), Cornelius Cardew (England), Mauricio Kagel (Argentina) and Nam June Paik (Korea) and Gottfried Michael Koenig who became the technical assistant at WDR and helped many composers create their pieces as well as writing many key pieces of electronic music at WDR (Klangfiguren II (1955), Essay (1957) and Terminus I (1962)). The pioneering work of previous composers has been somewhat overshadowed by the arrival of Karlheinz Stockhausen at WDR (who succeeded Eimert as director in 1962) in 1953 with pieces such as ‘Gesang der Junglinge‘ and Kontakte (1960) and Hymnen (1967) which became landmark works within the electronic music oeuvre. 

Beat-frequency low frequency pulse generator
A low frequency pulse generator
Adjustable UBM feedback amplifier
Adjustable UBM feedback amplifier
A Heath sine and square wave generator
A Heath sine and square wave generator

The studio was originally equipped with a modified Trautonium by Dr Friedrich Trautwein modified to Meyer-Eppler’s specification called the Elektronische Monochord and  with a Melochord by Harald Bode  . As well as these instruments the studio consisted of:

  • Signal generators: sine , rectangular, sawtooth and noise
  • Filters: octave, third, radio drama (W49) filters.
  • Pulse generator
  • Ring Modulator
  • Oscilloscope
  • Rotary speaker for recording spatial sounds
  • Echo and reverb chambers: the reverb chamber being a large empty room where sounds could be played through speakers and re-recorded with the room ambience added.
  • Sixteen channel (2 X 8 channel) audio mixer
  • Patchbay to route modules
  • Tape Machines: several mono, 2-track and one 4-track (one of the earliest 4-track recorders made) tape recorders and a ‘Springer’ variable speed tape recorder with a rotating 6-fold playback head.
Later version Melochord
Later version Melochord at the WDR studio

The equipment of the studio was updated to Stockhausen’s specifications in early 1970s to include what by then was standard voltage controlled modular synthesisers, including a large customised EMS Synthi 100. WDR studio remained in use until  2000 when it was closed though some of the original equipment was saved from destruction and is now stored in the basement of the WDR building in Cologne, Germany.

EMS Synthi 100 vocoder custom built for WDR
EMS Synthi 100 vocoder custom built for WDR
Stockhausen by the custom Synthi 100 at the WDR Studio in the 1970s
Stockhausen by the custom Synthi 100 at the WDR Studio in the 1970s


Thom Holmes. Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture

Thomas B. Holmes. Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition

Der WDR als Kulturakteur. Anspruch – Erwartung – Wirklichkeit.  Published by the German Cultural
Council. Authors: Gabriele Schulz, Stefanie Ernst, Olaf Zimmermann. Berlin 12/2009. 464

The ‘Ether Wave Violin’ or ‘Aetherwellengeige’ Erich Zitzmann-Zirini, Germany 1934

The ‘Ether Wave Violin’ or Aetherwellengeige shown here in a 1952 Film

The ‘Aetherwellengeige’ was one of many instruments inspired by Leon Termen’s Theremin using the same heterodyning principle and body capacitance to generate a variable tone from two thryatron vacuum tubes (other instruments were the Sonar (1933) , Neo Violena (1927), Electronde (1927), Emicon (1932) and Croix Sonore (1929) amongst others) . This version was built by the amateur electronic engineer and musician Erich Zitzmann-Zirini in Berlin in 1934 after he had witnessed the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra using Termen’s Theremin in 1927. Zitzmann-Zirini appeared with his instrument in the 1934 Funkausstellung ‘Orchestra of the Future’

"Sounds from the air from the self-made Ether Wave Violin"
Poster “Sounds from the air from the self-made Ether Wave Violin”

Zitzmann-Zirini used his one-off instrument as the centrepiece of his career in vaudeville, circus, radio, and TV shows, he renamed his instrument the ‘musical Sputnik’ after Gagarin’s space flight in the 1960s.


André Ruschkowski ‘Soundscapes’, pp. 23 (1st edition, Berlin 1990)

The ‘Polychord’ Harald Bode, Germany, 1949

The Polychord II
Bode’s Polychord III 1951

The Polychord Organ was Harald Bode’s first postwar design commissioned by the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Southern German Radio as an electronic organ for live radio broadcasts and was often heard played by the popular organist Fekko von Ompteda and on occasions by Harald Bode himself.  The instrument remained in use at Bayerischer Rundfunk from 1950 until 1973 used for  in-house productions such as special effects, music for comedy shows, dance music and religious music.

Early version of the Polychord
Early version of the Polychord

The Polychord was a simpler, polyphonic version of the rather complex Melochord, re-designed with the professional organist in mind; offering a bank of preset sounds as well as free control of sound synthesis. Bode produced a second version, The Polychord III in 1951, produced and marketed by  Apparatwerk Bayern gmbh (ABW) company in Bavaria Germany, and the Bode Organ which became the prototype of the Estey Electronic Organ after his departure to the USA in 1954. The Bayerischer Rundfunk Polychord can be seen (2014) at the Musical Instruments collection at the Deutsches Museum von Meisterwerken der Naturwissenschaft und Technik in Munich, Germany.


Bode's notes for a prototype of the Polychord c 1949
Bode’s notes for a prototype of the Polychord c 1949
Bode's notes for a prototype of the Polychord c 1949
Bode’s notes for a prototype of the Polychord c 1949



Bode’s Melodium and Melochord by Thomas L. Rhea. Contemporary Keyboard magazine (January 1980)

The Lipp Pianoline. Richard Lipp & Sohn, Germany, 1950

The Lipp Pianoline
The Lipp Pianoline

The Lipp Pianoline was a monophonic vacuum tube based keyboard instrument designed as an add-on for piano players. The Pianoline was part of a family of portable piano-attachment instruments popular in the 1950’s such as the Ondioline, Clavioline and Univox – the Pianoline being distinguished by it’s larger sized keys.

lipptypThe instrument’s sound was generated by a number of astable multivibrator vacuum tubes and monostable multivibrator tubes for frequency division. Tone colour was added with filters, pre-amplification and vibrato. In contrast to similar keyboard add-on instruments, the tone generator and power supply were built into the keyboard unit rather than as an external module. The resulting sound was fed to an external, portable loudspeaker unit using an output cable.

lippThe Pianoline was designed and built by the established Stuttgart based Piano manufacturer Richard Lipp & Sohn who were looking to diversify in the postwar market for electronic keyboards. In 1970 the company was acquired by the Jehle Piano Company and closed in 1972.


The ‘Subharchord’, Gerhard Steinke & Ernst Schreiber , Germany (DDR), 1960

The Subharchord at the Labor für Akustisch-Musikalische Grenzprobleme, Berlin Aldershof DDR in 1960

In the late 1950’s the East German government decided that it needed to develop an ability to produce electronic music for film and TV for ‘Eastern block’ media as well as provide a platform ‘serious’ modern electronic music to compete with the likes of WDR Electronic Music Studio in west Germany. The result of this was the foundation of the first East European electronic music studio under the auspices of the East German National Radio (RFZ) in 1956 (and closed in 1970). The studio was called the “Labor für Akustisch-Musikalische Grenzprobleme” ( laboratory for problems at the border of acoustics/music ) , and in 1960 the ‘Subharchord’ was created as the centrepiece of the Laboratory.

The re-constructed Subharchord
Detail of the Subharchord control panel.
Detail of the Subharchord control panel.

The laboratory was founded in East Berlin in 1956. Gerhard Steinke, a young sound engineer who became its director, was tasked with research and development into stereo-sound and electronic sound generation. Countries all of over Europe were running similar programmes at the time, many of which were visited by Steinke in the years before East Germans were subject to travel restrictions. In 1961, a team headed by Ernst Schreiber, who was latter credited as the inventor of the Subharchord, completed work on the instrument:

While I was working as a sound engineer with the Dresden radio station, I heard of and found numerous tape recordings of Oskar Sala’s compositions for Trautonium, music that I had listened to on the radio while doing my homework, in the programs transmitted by the Weimar and Leipzig stations attached to the Dresden station, and above all in the sound archives. These unusual sounds were often used for the stations’ own programs, and even for advertising. However, what finally set me going was working with the conductor Hermann Scherchen, with whom I made a recording of Bach’s Kunst der Fuge in February 1949 in the Dresden Broadcasting Hall (the former reception hall of the German Hygiene Museum). In conversation with the conductor, it became apparent that Scherchen had long been with the radio and had already worked together with Trautwein, Hindemith and Sala around 1930.

The Düsseldorf Funkausstellung 1953 was the occasion of the first presentation of an electronic organ (Polychord), which was bought by the enthusiastic Berlin chief engineer at the radio station, despite our objections to the lack of transients and our opinion that we could make something much better ourselves. At the same time, the first studio for electronic music had been set up in the Cologne Funkhaus, with a new trautonium by Trautwein, the monochord. In 1955, in the instrument warehouse of the Berlin radio station, I unearthed the surviving parts of a quartet trautonium commissioned by Sala for the station in 1948 and that didn’t really work properly; even Sala’s visit to the laboratory failed to bring life into the instrument. But we were now more than just curious, and announced to Sala that we would develop our own much more modern device … Sala laughed jovially, patted me on the shoulder in commiseration, and went on giving concerts and producing film music with his mixture trautonium.

However, we were able to convince our chief engineer to set up a “Laboratory for problems at the interface of acoustics and music,” and recruited the resourceful television engineer and organ lover Ernst Schreiber. The work on the development began in April 1959. It almost collapsed when the Ministry of Culture objected that subharmonic sounds were a musical fiction since subharmonics did not exist in nature. … However, we were able to prove their existence by dividing saw-tooth sounds into a number of sub-oscillations, and were allowed to start. We were not allowed to develop the organ we had planned, mainly because Dessau had, at my lecture in the Academy of Arts on the presentation of a Polychord electronic organ, complained that such bombastic sounds with such a strong vibrato were more appropriate in a brothel, while the sounds of the trautonium were capable of inspiring the composer’s creativity. However, this wary ministerial representative soon disappeared off to the West, and we cheerfully worked on in the laboratory.

A first subharchord was ready in 1961, and was immediately welcomed with enthusiasm by the composer Addy Kurth from the field of cartoon films and by others in radio and television. We were now able to produce mixture compositions in a laboratory studio, pursue the further development of the instrument and later begin series production. The first marionette cartoon to be accompanied by the subharchord, The Race, was a huge success. We had maintained our contacts with Scherchen over the years and on 9 July 1961, shortly before the unexpected construction of the Berlin Wall, Dessau, who had always supported our development work, Scherchen and I met in the West Berlin Hotel Kempinski to discuss the prototype – although Dessau remained critical of the lack of a second manual, which he had always insisted on.

The development and series production, and the many recordings made at the same time in the laboratory studio, led to the creation of the subharchord II by 1969. Unfortunately, Khrushchev had condemned electronic music as a “cacophony” that was inappropriate to “socialist realism,” which meant that the studio and any further research were abandoned. Nevertheless, a few instruments survived, and two were reconstructed in 2005 and 2007. They are now being used for new creative works.”

Gerhard Steinke “The Creation of the Subharchord – a Recollection ” 2008

Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Bratislava (CZ) studio using the Subharchord

The Subharchord’s history dates back to  pre-WWII exploration of ‘subharmonic’ synthesis of Dr Friedrich Trautwein’s  Trautonium and Oskar Sala’s Mixturtrautonium. These instruments uniquely used a technique of octave dividing sub-harmonic frequencies to modulate a synthesised tone creating a wide range of complex effects and sounds. Unlike the Trautonium family however, the Subharchord was less focussed on micro-tonal tuning and deployed a standard keyboard manual in stead of a sliding scale wire resistor.

Schriber’s DDR Patent for the Sunharchord 1960

Like it’s western counterpart, The Trautonium, the Subharchord was used extensively in film soundtracks and TV production throughout the Eastern block during the sixties and seventies; Karl-Ernst Sasse, former conductor of the DEFA (East German Film Company) Symphony Orchestra, worked with the subharchord in Dresden on the soundtracks of cult science fiction classics, such as ‘Signale’ ( a popular eastern block ‘Star Trek’ series). The subharchord was also used for many of the DEFA’s cartoons. Other composition from the studio include Der faule Zauberer (Kurth, 1963); Amarillo Luna (Kubiczek, 1963); Quartet für elektronische Klänge (Wehding, 1963); Variationen (Hohensee, 1965); Zoologischer Garten (Rzewski, 1965



Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition. Thomas B. Holmes, Thom Holmes

La musique électroacoustique en République démocratique allemande (RDA) : une avant-garde paradoxale Tatjana Böhme-Mehner July 2012


The ‘Mixturtrautonium’ Oskar Sala, Germany, 1936

Oskar Sala's mixturtrautonium
Oskar Sala’s mixturtrautonium

Later developments of Freidrich Trautwein’s original  Trautonium were continued by the Trautonium virtuoso and composer Oskar Sala. In 1936, Sala christened his first instrument the ‘Rundfunktrautonium’ (‘Radio-Trautonium’) and also developed a concert version, the “Konzerttrautonium”. After the end of the Second World War the instrument was re-named the ‘Mixturtrautonium’ but all were essentially developments of the original subtractive synthesis principles of the Trautonium.

Mixturtrautonium at the Vienna Technology Museum
Mixturtrautonium at the Vienna Technology Museum, showing two resistant-string manuals and double foot pedals

The essential design principles of the Trautonium were retained by Sala; sound production on the basis of sub-harmonic ‘mixture’, and the method of playing with two string manuals. The latter are made of wire-covered catgut strings which act as variable resistors. according to the position at which they are pressed againts the contact rail beneath them, they control the frequencies of the electronic sound generators. when the finger glides over the string a continuous glissando results over the entire tonal region which has just been tuned up. Micro-tonal intervals could be produced on the Mixturtrautonium. To ensure accurate contact with the notes leather covered sprung and moveable metal tongues are added to each string.  Unlike with a vibrating string, the gradation of the electrical-resistant string manual is linear and not exponential so that all octave have the same finger range.

Sala at the
Sala at the Mixturtrautonium

The 1948 post-war Mixturtrautonium was a polyphonic version of the original Trautonium, generating sound from two AEG Thoraton tubes with a 3 ½ octave range (which could be extended with an octave switch). The instrument could also be controlled with a foot pedal that not only allowed variation in volume but also with a lateral foot movement, select three different sets of sub-harmonics. The Sub-harmonic ‘mixture’ technique basically used un-natural low frequency harmonics to modulate a sawtooth signal creating complex harmonic ‘mixtures’ which could be further coloured with noise generators, mixers, an envelope controller and a frequency shifter.


During the pre-war period, the ”Rundfunktrautonium’ was used extensively for film and radio broadcasts and after Paul Hindemith’s endorsement, became the instrument of choice for ‘serious’ electronic music composition (Hindemith’s switching of allegiances from Jörg Mager’s Sphärophon family of instruments to the Trautonium signalled the end  of Mager’s career in instrument design). A portable version, the ‘Konzerttrautonium’ was designed in 1936 specifically for the composer  Harald Genzmer’s ” Conzert für Trautonium und Orchestrer” and saw more than fifty performances before the outbreak of the war.

Berlin had in the early Thirties become the world capital of electronic music, with inventors and designers such as Jörg Mager , Oskar Vierling , Fritz Sennheiser , Bruno Helberger, Harald Bode, Friedrich Trautwein and Oskar Sala (with much of the work centred around the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute). These instruments often explored radical new approaches to tonality and expression and were enthusiastically adopted by the avant-garde of the period. This period of musical ferment coincided with the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party (NDSAP), who initially tried to absorb this strain of modernism for their own propaganda ends – indeed, the name ‘Volkstrautonium’ echoes the name ‘Volkswagen’ as a peoples instrument for a modern, new Germany. On the 18th August 1933, Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Propaganda Minister) presided over the IFA ‘Internationale Funkausstellung’ (International Radio Exhibition) in Berlin. The music for the exhibition was provided by the ‘Future Orchestra’ (Das Orchester der Zukunft) composed of the most advanced electronic instruments of the time: The Volkstrautonium played by Oskar Sala, Bruno Helberger’s Hellertion, Oskar Vierling’s Elektrochord , the Neo-Bechstein of Walther Nernst, a collection of electric violins and cellos and Leon Termen’s  Theremin.

'Das Orchester der Zukunft' at the Berlin IFA 1933
‘Das Orchester der Zukunft’ at the Berlin IFA 1933

The rise of the Hitler’s National Socialist party presented electronic and avant-garde musicians with a difficult choice; either the hope that by collaborating they would survive and be left alone and be able to continue working or, simply, leave the country. Trautwein, who had joined the NDSAP in the late thirties used his connections:

Luckily Trautwein knew a general who was on our side and arranged that we could play the instrument to the minister of propaganda Joseph Goebels, Hitler’s right hand man. I Played something by Paganini and of course he liked it. After that, they left us in peace.
Oskar Sala

This collaboration resulted in a commission from the Reich’s Radio organisation for several new instruments to be built for a weekly fifteen minute programme “Musik Auf Dem Trautonium” (playing German classical music accompanied by a pianist) and later commissions to use the instrument at large scale NDSAP rallies, outdoor concerts, speeches and, (alongside other electronic instruments such as Vierling’s GrosstonOrgel) the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. However, this patronage was short-lived as the Nazi’s asserted their traditional conservatism; Atonal, Experimental and avant-garde music alongside Jazz and other non-German culture was branded ‘entarte’ or ‘degenerate’. Trautwein and Sala’s workshop was denied funding and closed, the Trautonoium was relegated to performing Reich-approved music. Sala spent the war years touring throughout Germany and Axis occupied countries until he was conscripted in 1944 and sent to the Eastern Front

Oskar Sala playing the Trautonium at a concert with Leo Borchard, Budapest 1942

After the end of the war Sala founded a studio for film music soundtrack production in Berlin,where, amongst many other projects, he recorded music for Hitchcock’s “the birds” .

Oskar Sala and Alfred Hitchcock working on the sound effects for "The Birds"
Oskar Sala and Alfred Hitchcock working on the sound effects for “The Birds”


Oskar Sala – Triostück Paul Hindemith


Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition. Thomas B. Holmes, Thom Holmes

Framing the Fifties: Cinema in a Divided Germany. edited by John Davidson, Sabine Hake

Music and German National Identity. edited by Celia Applegate, Pamela Potter

Peter Badge (2000). Oskar Sala:Pionier der elektronischen Musik. Satzwerk, 100pp. ISBN 3-930333-34-1

The ‘Electronde’ Martin Taubman, Germany, 1927

The Electronde was a development of Lev Termen’s Thereminvox by the Frankfurt inventor Martin Taubman. Taubman added a hand held switch for adding staccato envelope and a foot pedal for volume control. This allowed the Electronde to be able to produce notes with a sharp ‘plucked’ attack which was a significant advantage over the Thereminvox

Sounds of the Electronde


the ‘Warbo Formant Orgel’, Harald Bode & Christian Warnke, Germany, 1937

the Warbo Formant Orgel
The Warbo Formant Orgel

Harald Bode’s first commercial design was the wonderfully named “Warbo Formant Orgel” built while at the Heinrich-Hertz Institut für Schwingungsforschung at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. The Warbo Formant Orgel was designed and built with the musical input from the composer and band-leader Christian Warnke (hence ‘War- Bo’  Warnke/Bode);

“Christian made the contribution of a musician — that means he told me what to do as far as all the features the instrument should have. I’ll have to go into more detail. Christian Warnke was a composer and musician, a bandleader with a fine ear for music, and he was an excellent violinist. He wasn’t involved in the design per se, just the specifications of the Warbo. And he sponsored the project on a minimum budget. Mind you this was in the second part of the 30s, which had still terrible after-effects of the depression. But the Warbo was my first major contribution in the field.”
Harald Bode in  SYNE magazine 1980
The Warbo Formant Orgel from the Hamburger Anzeiger. 21 September 1938.
The Warbo Formant Orgel from the Hamburger Anzeiger. 21 September 1938.
Description of the Formant operation of the Warbo Formant Orgel
Description of the Formant operation of the Warbo Formant Orgel

Two versions of the instrument were made and later stored at the  Heinrich-Hertz Institute (HHI) in Charlottenburg, Berlin. The institute’s building was completely destroyed during the war and with it the Warbo Formant Orgel. No recording of the Warbo Formant have been found. As with many other instruments designed by Bode the ‘Warbo Formant Orgel’ pioneered aspects of electronics that became standard in later instruments. The Warbo Formant Orgel was a partially polyphonic four-voice keyboard instrument with 2 filters and key assigned dynamic envelope wave shaping – features that were later used on the postwar ‘Melodium’ and  ‘Melochord’.

“… It [The Warbo Formant Orgel] was built with a relaxation type of oscillator. Four oscillators actually, that were selected for the 44-note keyboard. The major problem being the stability of the oscillators, which is critical when comparing one with the other, especially with four. So I dropped the idea of a four-note organ at that time and went on to the Melodium, which was created in 1938 and used in many large performances with the Berlin Philharmonic as a solo instrument. It was also used in some significant motion pictures of that era.”
Harald Bode in  SYNE magazine 1980

Biographical notes

Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.
Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.

Bode Studied  mathematics, physics and natural philosophy at Hamburg University, graduating in 1934. In 1937, with funding support provided by the composer and band-leader, Christian Warnke, Bode produced his first instrument the ‘Warbo-Formant Orgel’ (‘Warbo’ being a combination of the names Warnke and Bode). Bode moved to Berlin in 1938 to complete a postgraduate course at the Heinrich Hertz Institute where he collaborated with Oskar Vierling and Fekko von Ompteda. During this period Bode developed the ‘Melodium’ ;  a unique monophonic touch-sensitive, multi-timbral instrument used extensively in film scores of the period.

When WWII started in 1939 Bode worked on military submarine sound and wireless communication projects “…We had the only choice in Germany, to go to military service or do work for the government. I praise myself lucky, that I was able to go to the electronic industry” and moved to the  small village Neubeuern in southern Germany, where in 1947 Bode built the first European post-war electronic instrument, the ‘Melochord’. In 1949 Bode joined the AWB company where he created the  ‘Polychord’ a simpler, polyphonic version of the ‘Melochord’ which was followed by the ‘Polychord III’ in 1951 and the  ‘Bode Organ’, a commercial organ which became the prototype for the famous Estey Electronic Organ. After leaving AWB, Bode’s designs included the ‘Tuttivox’, a miniature electronic organ and collaborated on a version of Georges Jenny’s ‘Clavioline’, both big sellers throughout Europe.

In 1954 Bode moved to the USA, settling in Brattleboro, Vermont where he lead the development team (and later, Vice President)  at the Estey Organ Corporation. In 1958, while still working at Estey, Bode set up the Bode Electronics Company where in March 1960 he created another unique instrument; a modular synthesiser “A New Tool for the Exploration of Unknown Electronic Music Instrument Performances” known as the  ‘Audio System Synthesiser’ which Robert Moog used as the basis for his line of new Moog synthesisers.

After the Estey Organ Company foundered in 1960, Bode joined the Wurlitzer Organ Co and moved to Buffalo, New York where he was one of the first engineers to recognise the significance of transistor based technology in electronic music.  Bode’s concepts of modular and miniature self-contained transistor based machines was taken up and developed in the early 1960’s by Robert Moog and Donald Buchla amongst others. 1962 saw the beginning of a long collaboration between Bode and the composer Vladimir Ussachevski at the  Columbia Princeton Center for Electronic Music which lead to the development of innovative studio equipment designs such as the  ‘Bode Ring Modulator’ and ‘Bode Frequency Shifter’. The commercial versions of these inventions were produced  under the Bode Sound Co and under license Moog Synthesisers.

Harald Bode retired in 1974 but continued to pursue his own research. In 1977 he created the ‘Bode Vocoder’ (licensed as the ‘Moog Vocoder’). In 1981 he developed his last instrument, the ‘Bode Barberpole Phaser’.

Harald Bode’s sketchbooks



The ‘Trautonium’ Dr Freidrich Trautwein. Germany, 1930

Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein (b Würzburg 1888, Germany; d Düsseldorf 1956)

The Trautonium was an important electronic musical instrument developed by the electrical engineer Freidrich Trautwein in Germany in 1930. Trautwein designed the first version of the instrument with the aim of freeing the performer from the restrictions of fixed (Piano) intonation. To achieve this, he removed the usual piano-style manual in his design and replaced it with a fingerboard consisting of a metal wire stretched over a rail, marked with a chromatic scale. By pressing the wire, the performer touches the rail below and completes a circuit generating a tone. A similar technique, copied by the Trautwein, was a feature of Bruno Hellberger’s Hellertion in 1929 and some time later in the Ondes Martenot.

Trautwein demostrating the early Trautonium, showing the pressure sensitive resistant finger-wire controller.
Trautwein demostrating the early Trautonium c1933, showing the pressure sensitive resistant finger-wire controller.

The position of the player’s finger on the wire determines the resistance in the wire which in turn controls the pitch of the oscillator. This unusual approach allowed a great deal of expressive flexibility; by pressing harder on the wire, the player could subtly change the volume, and by moving the finger from side to side the instrument could produce violin like glissandi or more subtle vibrato effects. Overall volume was controlled by a foot-pedal allowing the performer to vary the volume and envelope of the notes.

Early version of the Trautonium
An early 1930’s version of the Trautonium at the Deutsches Museum, Berlin
The first Trautonium was a fairly simple monophonic vacuum tube ‘synthesiser’  generating sound from a single thyratron RK1 tube oscillator. However, by passing this tone through a series of resonant filters this simple sawtooth waveform could be coloured with a wide range of timbre characteristics. This unique form of subtractive synthesis (i.e. filtering down an existing complex waveform rather than creating a complex waveform from combinations of simple sine waves) produced a tone that was distinctive and unusual when compared to the rather plain sound of other valve instruments in the 1920-30’s.
Telefunken advert of the 1930 version of the Trautonium
Advert of the Telefunken Volkstrautonium model Ela T42 showing the 380 Reichs Mark price

The commercial version of the Trautonium or ‘Volkstrautonium’ was manufactured and marketed by Telefunken in 1932. But, probably due to the unpopularity of a new, somewhat complicated keyboard-less instrument and high purchase price (c400 Reichs Marks;  equivalent of two and a half months of a worker’s salary  or more than five times the price of radio), only around thirteen items were sold and by 1938 it was discontinued. Despite the lack of domestic commercial interest, a number of composers wrote works for the instrument including Paul Hindemith ( who, switching allegiances from Jörg Mager’s Sphäraphon, learnt to play the Trautonium)  ‘Concertina for Trautonium and Orchestra’ , Höffer, Genzmer, Julius Weismann and most notably Oskar Sala. Sala became a virtuoso on the machine and eventually took over the development of the Trautonium producing his own variations- the ‘Mixtur-Trautonium’, The ‘Concert-Trautonium’ and the ‘Radio – Trautonium’. After the commercial failure of the instrument Trautwein abandoned further development to Oskar Sala who continued to work with the Trautonium until his death in 2002. Trautwein also produced an ‘Amplified Harpsichord’ in 1936 and ‘Electronic Bells’ in 1947.

Trautwein (L) and Oskar Sala with the Trautonium Berlin, c 1933
Trautwein (L), Paul Hindemith and Oskar Sala playing the Trautonium. Berlin, c 1933
Telefunken 1932 Volkstrautonium model Ela T 42 at the Deutsche Museum, Berlin
The Trautonium in 'Popular Mechanics' magazine USA 1939
The Trautonium in ‘Popular Mechanics’ magazine USA 1939
The Trautonium in 'Popular Mechanics' magazine USA 1939
The Trautonium in ‘Popular Mechanics’ magazine USA 1939

Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein (b Würzburg 1888, Germany; d Düsseldorf 1956) seen here in 1930.

Biographical notes: Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein (b Würzburg 1888, Germany; d Düsseldorf 1956)

Trautwein studied electrical engineering at the Technical University of Karlsruhe and later, law in Berlin. In the First World War he was a lieutenant in the German Army and led a mounted radio squad. After the war in 1919 he studied Physics in Heidelberg and Karlsruhe where he received his PhD in engineering. The following year he started working for the State Telegraph Service where he was involved in the establishment of the first German radio station in Berlin.

In 1929 he took a teaching position at the Berlin State Music Academy where he started early development of the Trautonium with the patronage and guidance of the composer Paul Hindemith. The first version of the Trautonium was completed in 1930 and a commercial version produced in 1933 by Telefunken; the Telefunken Volkstrautonium model Ela T42. After the commercial failure of his invention, Trautwein abandoned the instrument to composer and Trautonium virtuoso, Oskar Sala

The Trautonium played by Oskar Sala, incorporated into the 'Das Orchester der Zukunft (The Future Orchestra), alongside a Hellertion, Thereminvox and Elektrochord.
The Trautonium played by Oskar Sala, incorporated into ‘Das Orchester der Zukunft (The Orchestra of the Future), alongside a Hellertion, Thereminvox and Elektrochord c 1932

In 1949 Trautwein worked in briefly at the Bikla School for Photography and Film in Düsseldorf and then established the sound engineering course at the Düsseldorf Conservatory (now the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Dusseldorf ) which still forms the basis of the current sound engineering training unit. In 1952 Trautwein developed an evolved version of the Trautonium for WDR Electronic Music Studio, the Electronic Monochord. Trautwein died in Düsseldorf in 1956.


Peter Donhauser: Electric sound machines Böhlau, Vienna 2007.

Donhauser, P.: “Technical gimmick or fantastic reality Telefunken and the first electronic instruments in Germany?”, Lecture at the DTM Berlin, 03.11.2006

Peter Badge “Oskar Sala: Pionier der elektronischen Musik” Edited by Peter Friess Forword by Florian Schneider Satzwerk Verlag. ISBN 3-930333-34-1

“Oskar Sala-Die vergangene Zukunft des Klanges” A film by Oliver Rauch and Ingo Rudloff. Upstart Filmproduktion Wiesbaden