By the late 1930’s with the advent of reliable vacuum tubes and octave divider techniques it became possible to create small, portable electronic instruments that could, despite their size and simplicity, deliver a complex and variable sound. The Ondioline was part of this new family (which includes the Clavioline, Tuttivox, Univox and others) and was designed as an affordable, versatile piano-attachment that could extend a solo pianists tonal range and repertoire – as such, the Ondioline became hugely successful with pianists, dance bands, light orchestras and cabarets throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.
The first version of the Ondioline was created by Georges Jenny in 1938 whilst undergoing treatment in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Jenny continued to re-design and build new versions of the instrument at his Paris company “Les Ondes Georges Jenny” (later known as “La Musique Electronique”) until his death in 1976. The instruments were individually built by Jenny himself or supplied in kit form, eventually over a thousand instruments were sold in the USA alone. In an attempt to keep production costs low (Ondiolines originally sold for a mere $400) poor quality components were often used, and after a few years, the instrument became unplayable if not maintained.
The Ondioline was, like many other instruments of the time, a monophonic vacuum-tube instrument, but rather than relying on the heterodyning principle the Ondioline used a single multi-vibrator oscillator which gave the instrument a tone much richer in harmonics. The Ondioline was played using a small eight octave (switch-able through six octaves and tune-able via an octave transposer) touch sensitive keyboard mounted on internal springs that allowed the player to bend the notes using sideways pressure. Via a series of fifteen filters switches It was possible to create complex waveforms and additionally the sound wave could be shaped with the use of a touch wire, effecting the attack with a vertical finger movement or adding glissando or modulation by horizontal movement; this enabled the Ondioline to reproduce a wide range of sounds from soft strings to drum-like percussion. The overall volume of the machine was controlled by a knee lever allowing the player control the overall envelope of the instruments output.
The Ondioline was marketed in Germany as the “Pianoline” and in The Netherlands as the “Orcheline” and made a notable appearance during the Brussels World Fair (1958) when it was played on top of the Atomium building. A microtonal version of the instrument was built for the composer Jean-Etienne Marie during the sixties consisting of a four octave keyboard which could be tuned to a variety of microtonal systems.
G.Jenny: “L’initiation à la lutherie électronique” , Toute La Radio (1955) Jean Jacques Perrey.