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Synthesizers and The History of Gestural Control - Part 4 

This week we'll look at another significant development in the world of electronics that would set the stage for all future synthesis. We will look at Lee Deforrest and his journey beginning as far back as 1908. 

Lee de Forest built an instrument that used a Triode Tube. This instrument used regenerative feedback which works in much the same way we experience feedback from a mic through a PA system causing an audible pitch. In this case, the tube creates the pitch, and energy is added via a tank circuit to create continuous oscillations through the amplifier. Also, using charged capacitance via turning a knob on a capacitor or putting your hand or finger close to or on a circuit, changes could be made quite easily to the sound as well.   A key would trigger the tube to create the notes with one tube per octave. A scale could be created by using a graphite pencil to create resistance paths as well. Thus timbre and pitch could be controlled to create imitative as well as sound "never heard before".

This was way ahead of it's time in terms of gestural control and even predates the Theremin we looked into a few weeks ago. He also put speakers around the room to create the first ever "surround sound" and called his setup music of the lamps.  Plans for the Audion Piano were made but seem to never be realized. 

This was one of the first synthesizers. Using both audio and radio frequencies, he paved the way for future designs of oscillators, amplifiers, synthesizers and sound projection. 

Synthesizers and The History of Gestural Control - part 3 

This week we move on chronologically past the Telharmoium and The Theremin, to another synthesizer with some very unique controller that has also managed to survive the test of time. This synth has seen resurgences from time to time, but most notably in the early 1990s and 2000s when the bands Daft Punk and Radiohead brought it into the spotlight. Previously the instrument had been used on 100s of classic recordings and performances. 

Ondes Martenot 1928

The Ondes Martenot (French for "Martenot waves"), also known as the Ondium Martenot, Martenotand Ondes musicales, is an early electronic musical instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot.

The original oscillator design was similar in sound to theTheremin.The sonic capabilities of the instrument were later expanded by the addition of timbre controls and switchable loudspeakers.The instrument's eerie wavering notes are produced by varying the frequency of oscillation in vacuum tubes. This was done by pulling a string that had a ring on the end of it. You would put the ring on your finger and then pull it along a drawing of piano-like keyboard. Later versions added a functioning keyboard that also included vibrato by moving side to side. A drawer that included buttons also enabled pitch and timbre modulation,other buttons included transpose and volume. The production of the instrument stopped in 1988, but several conservatories in France and the Montréal Conservatory in Canada still offer instruction to students of the instrument. Some museums and musical stores also will display the instrument for people to see and play it. 

Synthesizers and The History of Gestural Control - part 2 

Before moving forward in time past the age of the Theremin, I must move backward slightly to talk about one of the first ever synths, more like an Organ, but even an Organ is a synthesizer by definition. 

Telharmonium (1899)

In order to create the Telharmonium, Thaddeus Cahill benefitted from a combination of the telephone and alternating current, both being recently invented. The telephone allowed audio to be converted to electrical signals for transmission and then reconverted back to audio for the receiver. Alternating Current is essentially a sine wave. The overtone theory provided that combining sine waves could produce complex tonalities. Through a combination of very large transformers, alternators and extremely long lines of cable, Cahill was able to create the entire harmonic series and control the volumes of those harmonics through switches and a piano-like keyboard, that would control “Wheels” or rotating disks within disks for each harmonic. This creation was the genesis of the Hammond Organ 25-30 years later, but there were a few more advancements needed to reduce the size of the instrument. Cahill's Telharmonium was built inside two stories of a factory, weighed several tons and required many railroad carsto transport it. The electrical power required to move each tone wheel was immense as well, to create the overtone series. The keyboard was far ahead of it’s time, in that, like a piano, it was able to produce variable dynamics through touch.

The Telharmonium was invented in Holyoke Massachusetts, then carted via around 200 Rail cars to New York City.

Make Noise company makes a Eurorack Modular Synthesizer that is a throw-back to the Telharmoium. You can listen to a couple of songs that feature this on my youtube page at Ralphykeys Artist.  Hope you will check it out. 

Synthesizers and The History of Gestural Control - part 1 


I recently completed a 3 year adventure getting a Master's Degree. My field of study was in Synthesizer Gestural Controllers. What are those, you may ask?

Come along with me on a multi-part adventure series going back to the beginnings of electronic music and find out.

This week we look at a somewhat better know piece of gear called "The Theremin". The Theremin was introduced in 1922 by a Russian Inventor, Leon Theremin, who turned out to be a Russian Spy !!!! The Theremin uses heterodyning with is not a kind of date you can go on, but is a form of analog synthesis that uses two supersonic oscillators that can be detuned by the movement of the hand near an antenna, providing continuous pitch movement, much like a violin. There is also another antenna that provides volume control. Neither hand actually touches the antenna but depends on proximity to create differences. 

Many years ago Bob Moog began making Theremins and selling them under the Moog name, and to this day you can still get one from the Moog Website. Attached is a picture of myself with a Moog Theremin signed by the master himself, Bob Moog. I had the honor of meeting and talking to him when he came to Berklee around 1998, when he spoke to a group at the College and then signed the Theremin which is still available for EPD Students to use in pursuit of the degrees.

The Theremin remains a very popular device for performance, but I would like to direct your attention to one of the original virtuoso performers of the time. Clara Rockmore. There is also a movie called "Theremin" that is very good if you more interested in this device. You can also search Theremin on Youtube and see a variety of people playing it.  Here is a classic from Clara, albeit from her at an older age with video. You can also search for older audio but not video.

I hope you enjoy this and will stay tuned for further adventures