INART 55

History of Electroacoustic Music

The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center


In 1955, Luening, Ussachevsky and company were creating tape music in a studio housed in Luening's living room. As they began to outgrow the space--and as Luening experienced complaints from his wife (about the loss of a living room) and the neighbors (about the noise)--they went to the president of Columbia University, stating that they required space on campus for their program to continue. They were subsequently moved to a facility on campus.

Meanwhile, a new invention was in the works at RCA. Harry F. Olson (1901-1982) was an audio researcher who had started at RCA by developing microphones in the 1930s. In 1948, he had participated in an audio preference test that was designed to determine preferred frequency ranges in audio recordings and broadcasts. (Some researchers had claimed that listeners preferred a top frequency of 5 kHz; RCA found that the reason for this preference was that audio capability at the time had distortion in regions above 5 kHz, so naturally people preferred listening to audio without distortion.) Olson's work had been influenced by Dean Seashore, who did pioneering research in the perception of musical sounds. In the early 1950s, Olson had the idea that it could be possible to create a musical instrument with no limitations. It would be able to produce any sound, and have no mechanical limitations. He stated that acoustic instruments were limited by what humans can do to control them with the mouth, hands, and feet.

Olson began work on the instrument in 1952 with engineer Herbert Belar. It was called the Olson-Belar Sound Synthesizer or the RCA Mark I Sound Synthesizer. They tested it by analyzing piano recordings of Chopin and Debussy and a violin piece by Kreisler and re-creating them with the synthesizer. They analyzed the amplitude, envelope, and spectrum of each note. They found this to be much easier with the piano recordings, since they were composed of discrete note events. Violin performances are characterized by high degrees of vibrato, and slides from one pitch to another, so that all of these parameters are constantly changing. After three years of development and study, they produced a recording of classical music made by the instruments. They mixed excerpts of synthesized and human recordings, and found that listeners had difficulty telling which was which. This assured them and RCA that this new machine was capable of producing worthwhile music.

Olson claimed that the instrument eliminated "undesirable" elements of conventional musical instrument sounds -- blowing, sawing, clattering, etc. History has shown this to be an incorrect assumption. While a synthesizer can indeed eliminate these mechanical sounds, we now consider them to be characteristic of an instrument's character, and thus highly desirable.

As word of the instrument spread, many outlandish claims were made:

"...match the sound of any instrument of an ensemble..."
(Howard Taubman, "Synthesized Piano Music Found to have Tone matching a Grand's: RCA Electronic Device Can Produce Ensemble and Voice Sounds Too--Musician's Role Still Important", New York Times, 2/1/55, p. 35)

"...project a speaking voice, even in familiar tones and accents..."
(same as above)

"...synthesize any human voice and any combination of words. That is, a speech that was never made might be synthesized. This feature, it is believed, might be of some value in psychological warfare."
(David Sarnoff, RCA chairman, quoted in Robert K. Plumb, "Electronic Device can Duplicate Every Sound," New York Times 2/1/55, p. 1.)

"...conjure up all sounds in nature..."
(same as above)

"dispense with performing musicians. Only the performer's unions would stand in the way."
(same as above)

This last statement proved to be correct. Publicity about the machine was not well received by performers unions. The union paper started printing articles denouncing the machine in that same year (1955). RCA determined that trying to commercialize the instrument would not be worth the public relations problems that would result, so they abandoned any intentions to sell it. They focused their efforts on using it as a research tool.

As the synthesizer was being publicized, Luening and Ussachevsky were given direct access to the president of Columbia for facilities, and preparing a proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation for funding. They prepared a report on the state of experimental music, noting that in Europe electronic music facilities were located in radio stations. They suggested that a more fitting place for a facility in the United States would be a university, where there would be less pressure for commercial releases.

The director of Columbia's School of Arts became interested in the RCA synthesizer, and suggested that Columbia try to obtain it on loan so that they could develop it further. Ussachevsky began to correspond with RCA, discussing the possibility. At the same time, Luening and Ussachevsky contacted Milton Babbitt, a composer at Princeton University who had an interest in electronic music. The three of them formed an idea for a University Council for Electronic Music with equipment distributed among five schools. The Rockefeller Foundation replied that since the three of them already had an alliance, it would be better to have one consolidated facility shared by Columbia and Princeton, rather than to distribute the funds more thinly to more institutions. Their final proposal requested funding for technical assistants, equipment, space, availability for other composers, plus a concert sound system.


Babbitt, Luening and Ussachevsky
Central to the "equipment" request was that the facility would house an RCA synthesizer. Babbitt took an interest in developing the machine further, and had consulted with RCA on design refinements. The cost of the instrument was near $250,000, far more than the entirety of the Rockefeller grant of $175,000. Ultimately, RCA agreed to rent the instrument, the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, to the facility. The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was inaugurated early in 1959 with Babbitt, Luening and Ussachevsky as its directors.

The Mark II contained 1700 vacuum tubes. It was housed in 9 equipment racks -- an entire wall -- and required a large cooling system to dissipate the heat generated by the tubes.

Information was encoded by punching holes in paper via two typewriter-like keyboards. The paper was drawn over a metal roller, making contact with brushes. Time was expressed in the rate that the holes passed over the brushes. Binary numbers punched in to the paper could applied to a variety of musical parameters. Frequency was selectable as a 4 bit number, allowing 16 selections. These corresponded to the 12 pitches of an octave, a noise generator, and the possibility of three optional external oscillators. Octave transposition was represented as a 3 bit number, allowing the selection of 8 octaves. Timbre was controllable via 16 bandpass filters, with center frequencies and bandwidths that were adjustable manually; a 4 bit number allowed combinations of up to 16 filters to be applied. A three-stage envelope (attack-sustain-decay) was controlled by a 3 bit number that specified 8 preset attack-decay patterns. Volume control was represented as a 4 bit number, allowing 16 degres of attenuation. These values were encoded onto 36 columns, 18 for each of two channels, distributed over a 15-inch paper tape:

Thus, this was a hybrid analog and computer system. The sound generating machinery was analog, while the instructions were entered digitally.

The instrument was a prototype when it arrived, and the first order of business was to complete its design and document all of its functionality. This took close to a year. The original construction involved a disc recorder that was synchronized with the paper roll mechanism. Recording to disc was found to be less than ideal, so technician Peter Mauzey replaced the disc mechanism with a tape recorder. The tape had sprockets, so it advanced in synchronization with the paper rollers.

It could be extremely precise with time, frequency, duration, loudness, timbre. It had a feature called the "frequency glide system" that allowed pitches to slide from one to another. A pitch could be raised or lowered by 1/6 of a tone.

What made it unusual for its time was that it was an integrated system. The electronic instruments in Europe were created from radio broacasting equipment. The synthesizer was constructed with modules that were meant to work together. Sounds could be changed on the fly by simply flipping switches.

The scope of this center held an immediate interest to composers, and activity at the center was busy as soon as it was available. The results of the studio were debuted in May 9 and 10, 1961, in concerts held at Columbia's McMillin Theatre. A major publicity blitz garnered additional interest, and Columbia/Princeton became the acknowledged center of American electronic musical production.