Switched On: Early Electronic Oddities

EARLY ELECTRONIC ODDITIES is an exploration of the strange and subliminal sounds of early electronic musical instruments from 1860 to 1970, and many now almost obsolete daring and experimental creations like the Mixtur-Trautonium, the Ondes-Martenot, the Rhythmicon, the Ondioline, the RCA synthesizer, electro-theremin and the inventions of the Italian Futurists and Raymond Scott. Live discussions, field recordings and amazingly unearthed rare recordings presented by two theremin players, Miss Hypnotique and Bruce Woolley. Features recorded contributions by Bob Moog and Jean-Jacques Perrey.

Download MP3's of the archived broadcast:
[Early Electronic Oddities Pt. 1 (33 MB)] // [Early Electronic Oddities Pt. 2 (30 MB)]
(*Originally broadcast 10/29/04 on London's Resonance 104.4fm.)


Part 1:
1. Radio Nottingham - the Radiophonic Workshop
2. Chorale - Antonio Russolo
3. Celestial Nocturne - Samuel Hoffman (theremin)
4. Concerto for Ondes-Martenot - Andre Jolivet featuring Jeanette Martenot
5. Various soundtracks - Paul Tanner plays Electro-theremin
6. Now in heaven you can hear the latest Fall album - Hypnotique (Rhythmicon)
7. Jean-Jacques talk about the Ondioline
8. Demonstration from Fantasy for Mixtur-Trautonium - Oscar Sala
9. Telstar - The Tornadoes (Clavioline)

Part 2:
10: Bob Moog - talks about the RCA Synthesizer (background music: the Man from Uranus)
11: Nola - Felix Arndt (RCA synthesizer)
12. Return of the Elohim Pt 1- Zorch (VSC3)
13. CoilANS - Coil (ANS synthesizer)
14. Silver apples of the moon - Morton Subotnik (Buchla Modular)
15: Bob Moog talks about Raymond Scott (music from 'Manhattan Space Research')
16: Zwi Zwi oo oo oo - Delia Derbyshire (Wobbulator)
17: Modified clarinet - Reed Ghazal (Circuit Bent instrument)
18: In a Delian Mode - Delia Derbyshire (Radiophonic Workshop)
19. Return of the Elohim Pt 2 - Zorch (VSC3)
20: Futurama (Raymond Scott advert)

Written resources:

Early Sound Experiments

Even before the invention of electricity, man has experimented with mechanics to produce sound, from ancient Tibetan prayers wheels and the Greek's Aeolian Harp's which were played by the wind, through to the first wind up barrel organ in the sixteenth century, and in the eighteenth century, mechanical birds and the glass harmonica which anticipated the sound of electronics.

In 1752, the world became, quite literally Switched On, when Benjamin Franklin performed his famous experiment with a kite, drawing down electricity from the clouds and first stimulating the fusion of science and nature which is electricity. One of the founding fathers of electricity, Thomas Edison, illuminated the world with his demonstration of the light bulb in 1879, two years after inventing the phonograph. Telegraphs and telephony began to connect people, and in 1910 the first radio broadcast took place in New York. The world became connected by the power of electricity, and sound produced through electricity and electronic sound reproduction was set to take over the 20th century.

The story of early electronic instruments is the story of pioneers, dreamers, schemers and losers. It's a story of bold ideas and bad debts, bizarre lives and forgotten deaths, and events of "synchronicity" - actions which extend beyond mere coincidence. The relationship between sounds found in our environment and music has become closer, classical instruments and the old masters have become increasingly redundant, as new sonic possibilities have been unleashed to challenge the warring world.

The Futurists

Before electronic instruments became commonplace in the 1910s and 1920s, the Italian avant-garde Futurists called for an exploration into the possibilities of new sound worlds in their manifestos, like Busoni's exploration of Microtonal Harmony and the breaking of classical timbres in Russolo's Art of Noises. The futurists experimented with homemade 'sound boxes' to produce original and novel sounds. Edgar Varese, composer of percussive-sonic piece Ionisation saw the scope for 'sound producing machines' that would ultimately lead to the 'liberation of sound'.

The first electronic instruments

Towards the end of the 19th century, a number of instruments that can be considered electronic were invented by scientists and academics. Helmholtz's 1860 'Helmholtz Resonanator' used electro-magnetic vibrating glass and metal sphere to create different sensations of tone.

Although Elisha Gray was piped by Alexander Graham Bell to the patent of the telephone by just a few hours, he didn't miss a beat when he invented the Musical Telegraph in 1876 which amplified sounds from an electronic oscillator - the world's first electronic keyboard.

The greatest of the early electronic beasts, the Telharmonium, was drawn to live like Frankenstein's monster by Thomas Cahill in 1906. The 200 tonne 60 foot long sand, water and cement constructed keyboard instrument used dynamos to produce alternating current over various audio frequencies. Controlled by many keyboards, gears and wires and amplified by giant acoustic horns, the idea was to hook up the machine to a phone network to pipe music into restaurants, stores and theatres - a forerunner to Musak. So vast was the machine, during concerts it broke the stage, and the machine interfered with the phone network, so consequently it died a death before the first world war. Cahill was ahead of his time; it was to be another 50 years before electronic keyboard instruments finally caught on, as the principle of the Telharmonium formed the basis of one of the most successful electronic instruments of all time - the Hammond organ.

Vacuum tube technology

De Forest was a prolific inventor with 300 patents to his name. Shortly after a failed collaboration with Thomas "Telharmonium" Cahill, De Forest discovered a method of combining two inaudible high-frequency sound waves to produce an audible low-frequency wave, a technique called heterodyning, or beat frequency oscillation. In 1915, De Forest created the first vacuum tube instrument - a small monophonic keyboard called the Audion Piano (nicknamed by De Forest the "Squak-a-Phone"), but once more, it quacked an early death. However, vacuum tube technology was to take over the next era of electronic instruments from the 1920s onwards.

The theremin

The theremin, invented by Russian Lev Termen (also known as Leon Theremin), in 1920 remains the world's only true space control instrument - and one which has proved enigmatic, mysterious and popular for the last 85 years. Originally marketed by the RCA radio corporation as an instrument that "anyone who can hum, sing, or whistle" could play, it's unusually design of a cabinet with two aerials and nothing short of unconventional playing technique of the hands moving in the ether creating part of the electromagnetic circuit, one hand for pitch, the other for value - is visually hypnotic, but near impossible to master - which caused an untimely death, before it was revived in film soundtracks in the 1950s. The giant theremin, the Terpsitone, which the musician had to 'dance' the melody in a huge playing field was an even more challenging and bizarre incarnation which no longers exists. Only a handful of players over the years have truly mastered it, namely: 1930s Russian virtuoso Clara Rockmore, whose Art of the Theremin CD remains the classic theremin recording; Dr Samuel Hoffman, a chiropodist by day and thereminist by night who played on the soundtrack for spooky sci-fi and horror films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spellbound.

Nowadays, everyone who is anyone plays the theremin to standards good, bad and indifferent- from Comedians like John Otway and Bill Bailey to more serious contenders like Leon Theremin's grand-niece Lydia Kavina - considered the world's greatest living thereminist. Slide, glide, shape, gyrate, imitate, modulate or create - although just a simple pure electronic tone, the theremin remains the ultimate electronic oddity. Its scope extends far beyond the spooky sounds of sci-fi popularised in the movies, it delves into the deepest realms of the sonic imagination.

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Another instruments using the principle of heterodyning oscillators actually caught on a little. In 1928, French telegraphist and cellist Maurice Martenot conceived and constructed the Ondes-Martenot. Much like the theremin, Martenot's instrument was intended to be integrated into the traditional orchestra and it is still featured in orchestras across the world, principally in Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony.

Some argue that the reason for the Ondes Martenot's success was that, unlike the theremin, it used a traditional keyboard layout, with a separate finger control for glissando and vibrato as well as keys to adjust the timbre. Martenot wowed the French academia to love and admire his instrument, even at the curse of more commercial electronic instruments like the Ondioline, and to an extent Martenot had a stranglehold over other electronic instruments being used in serious contemporary music, thanks to the support of French composers like Varese and Messiaen. The Ondes-Martenot also found its way into the sounds of Hollywood with Franz Waxman's 1936 score for The Bride of Frankenstein and the three Ondes-Martenot's score for Hitchcock's film Rebecca. Today the instrument is still manufactured and ever-popular, even Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead plays one on their albums Kid A and Amnesiac.


This instrument really does give off Good Vibrations, as it was used on THAT Beach Boys track. The electro-theremin is not actually a theremin as it isn't played in space, but uses an oscillator with a guiding keyboard base to allow for better pitch accuracy - a sort of cross between an Ondes Martenot and a Hawaiian slide guitar. The sound is closer to that of the Ondes than the theremin as it is less rich, using only a sine wave and no vibrato, sounding more 'other worldly' than the vocalistic theremin sound. The electro-theremin was created by actor and electronics wizard, Bob Whitsell in 1958, and it was made famous by former Glen Miller Trombonist Paul Tanner on the album Music from Heavenly Bodies, numerous TV and film soundtracks, and recordings with the Beach Boys. Tanner sold his electrotheremin in the late 1960s to a hospital to use for checking hearing when he felt keyboard synthesizers were taking over.

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The brainchild of American avant-garde composer Henry Cowell in 1916, the Rhythmicon was the first prototype of a drum machine and sequencer. Cowell commissioned Russian inventor Leon Theremin to build him a machine capable of transforming harmonic data into rhythmic data and vice versa, which used broken up light playing on a photo-electric cell. Cowell wrote only two piece on the instrument before losing interest. The Rhythmicon featured in some movies in the 1950s and 60s including Dr Strangelove and the Tangerine Dream album Rubicon. No working instruments exist today, but you can use a four part digital simulation on the internet on The Online Rhythmicon website, and record your 'hit' to their internet database.

More information:
The online rhythmicon


A rival instrument to the institutionally powerful Ondes-Martenot, the Ondioline achieved a little popularity in cabaret and popular music - and it was possibly the first instrument capable of imitating the sound of other instruments. Few working Ondiolines exist today, but one who has championed its cause is composer Jean-Jacques Perrey on his early albums with Gershon Kingsley like Kalaeidoscopic Vibrations and The In Sound From Way Out.

The Clavioline and Joe Meek

M Constant made the Clavioline in 1947, a monophonic, portable keyboard which can control octave, timble, attack, and vibrato. It recreated sounds of brass and string in a natural way, and was widely manufactured as a dance-hall organ, marketed as being suitable for "twist, trad and rock". The Clavioline was made popular by pop musicians like The Beatles, Sun Ra, and Joe Meek with the Tornadoes hit Telstar, inspired by the 1962 first satellite transmission. Meek added the sound of the Clavioline to create an otherworldly sound, and he also supposedly added the sound of a flushed toilet played backwards. The weird space-age single rocketed straight to No. 1 and became a worldwide smash hit. Symbolically, when the Telstar satellite became damaged, Meek's life became more and more shattered as his career failed and demons took him over. He killed his landlady in Holloway Road in London before taking his own life in 1967, aged just 37. Meek was a true sonic pioneer and his "Meeksville sound" of compression and close-micing influenced a generation of music producers.

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In 1930, Dr. Friedrich Trautwein invented the Trautonium, the only instrument in the world capable of producing subharmonics, which are the mirror opposite of harmonics, or 'ghost' note like playing a string on a violin only half held down. Oscar Sala, a young student of Trautwein's, pioneered the development of the instrument and made the Mixtur-Trautonium, an improved polyphonic instrument which was used in the soundtrack of Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds, as the instrument sounded more ominous than the sound of real birds. The Trautonium has advantages over a synthesizer giving freedom of intonation like a fretless string instrument to play microtones and continuous, unrestricted variations of pitch, tone and volume. The player makes contact with a wire stretched over a metal strip to create a circuit. It was a forerunner to the modular synthesizers of the 1960s. Nearly all knowledge of the performance and workings of the Trautonium has died with Oscar Sala in 2002, but the album My Fascinating Instrument, which is available today, is testament to Sala's musical genius.

The evolution of the synthesizer

By the end of the 20th century, synthesizers had take over the world's aural landscape. To synthesize means to take many parts and make it whole, which is basically what a synthesizer does. It is a purely electronic instrument, in other words, it won't make a sound until you amplify it. The early synthesizers were analogue and huge - a whole room full of equipment - but 1970s transistor technology allowed for more portable instruments - and thus classic analogue synths like Bob Moog's Mini Moog, which is still being manufactured today, the ARP Odyssey and the WASP are still revered by techno and electronic musicians today for their "phat" and squelchy sounds. Electronic music took over the world - the highly conservative Musician's Union condemned synthesizers as non-musical, worried that they would replace the need for real, acoustic trained musicians - which indeed they have, as virtually every popular music track now uses synthesized, sampled and sequenced parts. The Japanese 1980s electronics boom made a cheap keyboard possible in every home - with Casio, Yahama and Roland models now available from only a few pounds.

RCA synthesizer

The synthesizer revolution started in 1956 when RCA unveiled its Electronic Music Synthesizer. Originally invented in the 1940s by engineers Harry Olson and Herbert Belar, they produced a machine based on random probability, which would be capable of creating melodies based on the folk songs of Stephen Foster . It used Sixteen Function Binary Selection and pitch sequencing, but the device failed miserably in its intention, as the machine was incapable of determining characteristics that only a human ear can - idiosyncrasies of form, structure and melody. Olson and Belar intended this prototype synthesizer not to explore new sonic worlds yearned for by the avant-garde, but to reproduce the conventional. The result was a series of seemingly random notes and bleeps. Their prototype synthesizer was eagerly seized by the intellectual music academia of Princeton University and the avant-garde composer Milton Babbit, and premiered in 1956 as the RCA MK 1. It featured vacuum tube oscillators and a punch paper interface that allowed the user to program and control a wide range of sound parameters, a little like a 19th century pianola. The output was fed to disk recording machines, which stored the results on lacquer-coated disks.

More information:
- Peter Forrest's The A-Z of Analogue Synthesizers, RCA synth

- Mike Schutz's RCA synthesizer page

Synthesizers, their technologies and inventors have come and gone like the winds from world fairs to car boot sales in a flash. Here are a few of the more esoteric and innovative synthesizers:

EMS Synth

The EMS studios, founded in 1969 by English engineers and composer Peter Zinnovieff, created some of the more important synthesizers of their era, including the forerunner to software synthesis. The VCS3 was their classic synth which is still made today - operated with a joystick and a pinboard (instead of bulky patch leads) - making it also perfect for a game of battleships. The amazing sounds of the VCS 3 are unmatchable and great for ethereal sound effects. Zorch were Britain's first all synthesizer band who headlined the first Stonehenge Festival, their psychedelic "head" music was matched with a mind blowing lightshow. Their first album "Ouroboros" is the only album ever recorded at Peter Zinovieff's EMS studio in 1975, featuring the classic VCS3 Synthi 100.

More information:
- Zorch's official website
- EMS Studios Homepage

ANS glass synthesizer

The ANS is a photo-electronic instrument from Russia, made in 1958. Based on the photo-optic sound recording used in cinematography to create a visible image of a sound wave, the machine has a rotating glass disk with 144 optic phonograms of pure tones, or sound tracks, from high in the centre to low at the rim; the player selects a tone from a "score" made from a glass disk. The ANS is capable of producing 720 pure tones of everything from microtones to white noise.
You can hear the mysterious and somewhat "glassy" sounds in the new album COILANS by Coil members Jhon Balance, Peter Christopherson and Thighpaulsandra who recorded the album during a few days at the Moscow State University.

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Buchla Modular

Don Buchla has been making world class modular synths since 1963, his latest invention the Piano Bar - a way of converting sounds from an acoustic piano to a midi (computerized) map - is now manufactured and produced by his old competitor, Bob Moog. With Serialist composer Morton Subotnik, they produced the seminal work, Silver Apples On The Moon (1967), the first work to be commissioned for record rather than live performance. A 'studio art' work, they believed it could be played, via a phonograph, by anybody, in intimate surrounds - a kind of 20th century chamber music style. Subotnik believed that using both programmed and random parameters allowed him complete artistic control, and "…the flexibility to score some sections of the piece in the traditional sense; and to mould other like a piece of sculpture". The Buchla allowed for evolving timbres during a single note duration, making possible "sustained yet transforming streams of sound".

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Inventors & pioneers

The evolution of electronic music, until the corporate 1980s, was driven by inspired individuals - inventors, scientists, musicians who were more often than not part-genius and part-lunatic. Many created equipment and instruments to create new sounds for their own recordings, purely out of a desire to produce something new more than for commercial gain. Here are a few of Switched On's favourite electronic pioneers:

Raymond Scott

In the early 40s, Raymond Scott, the young leader of the CBS radio house band found fame composing quirky jazz-influenced scores for Warner Brothers' "Merrie Melodies" and "Loony Toons" cartoons. Despite his success with his quintet, Scott preferred working in the studio with machines rather than the musicians who could never quite match his exacting standards. Jazz singer Anita O'Day believed that Scott "reduced musicians to something like wind-up toys."

In 1946 Scott founded Manhattan Research, Inc., "Designers and Manufacturers of Electronic Music and Musique Concrete Devices and Systems," where he focused his efforts on creating the machines that could meet his requirements. In 1949, Scott remarked:
"Perhaps within the next hundred years, science will perfect a process of thought transference from composer to listener. The composer will sit alone on the concert stage and merely THINK his idealized conception of his music. Instead of recordings of actual music sound, recordings will carry the brainwaves of the composer directly to the mind of the listener".

He created a sound effects machine called the Karloff, and his most commercially successful instrument, the Clavivox, like a theremin played with a keyboard. To realize his notion of "thought transference" composition, Scott spent twenty years working on the Electronium, an "instantaneous composition-performance machine". It had no keyboard, only switches and settings, and was a pitch and rhythm sequencer that controlled a bank of oscillators, a modified Hammond organ, an Ondes-Martenot and a few Clavivoxes. In 1960 on the Electronium he produced his three-volume work of minimalist synthesized lullabies, Soothing Sounds for Baby.

Despite his success, Scott was very protective, perhaps even paranoid, of people stealing his ideas, thus Manhattan Research remained purely research. In 1955 a young theremin maker, 20 year old Robert Moog, called at his studio on Long Island, and he was given a job assembling the Clavivox. Raymond Scott's work was to directly influence the next generation of electronic instrument designers who went on to realise his dream of what he called the "artistic collaboration between man and machine."

BBC Radiophonic Workshop & the Wobbulator

In 1957, a group of BBC producers used radiophonic technique to create music for dramas, modifying natural sounds using tape loops, tape modulations and splicing, similar to Pierre Schaeffer's academic technique of music concrete. In the 1960s, the Radiophonic workshop became a household name with their pioneering recordings on the BBC science fiction show Dr Who. Stars of the workshop including Delia Derbyshire and its founder Daphne Oram, who created the technique of Oramics - drawing onto strips of 35mm film read by photo-electric cells which controlled the sound characteristics - a technique developed from the RCA synthesizer. Daphne later left the BBC to pursue her career of creating serious art music. Early on, the Workshop acquired a wobbulator, originally designed as a test tone generator, it created a tone varied by a second oscillator which providing sweeping waves of sound. Delia Derbyshire's Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO, composed for a sci-fi play based on an Isaac Asimov story, uses backwards voices and the tones of the Wobbulator.

More information:
Radiophonic workshop: an engineering persective

Reed Ghazalas Circuit bending

Reed Ghazalas is know as 'the father of circuit bending' - he's been doing it since the 1960s. The circuit-bent instrument, often a re-wired audio toy or game, creates a new instrument and a new musical vocabulary, which is part of Reed Ghazalas' 'anti theory' of opening up electronic to all audio frontiers, creating chance music and unpredictable audio events. You don't need to be have money, expensive instruments, or knowledge of electronics - just a speak-and-spell machine and a few parts from a radio store! Body contact is encouraged for the electricity to flow through the player's flesh and blood. Don't try this one at home, kids!

More infomation:

As electronic hardware is increasingly replaced with electronic software, perhaps the era of electronic oddities, bizarre boxes with sliders to fade, knobs to twiddle, and keys to hammer, is drawing to a close. Yet in the 1990s, musicians brought their old synthesizers, machines and theremins our of the bargain bin and began to recognize again the magical sounds which had so nearly become lost. So why not invent your own electronic oddity? It could prove to be the sounds of the future.

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