‘Old school’ synthesiser built 40 years on

June 29th, 2016 by Mark Daly in Industry News No Comments »

An electronic sequencer and synthesiser has been built based on designs produced more than 40 years ago by electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram.

Ms Oram who died in 2003, co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and developed a system of creating sounds and compositions using drawings.

The machine is thought to have remained unfinished in her own lifetime.

But experts say the Mini Oramics’s approach to composition and performance would have been influential.

Tom Richards, the researcher who finally constructed the machine, told BBC Radio 4’s the World at One programme it had helped answer the question: “What if this had come to pass in 1973?”

'Old school' synthesiser built 40 years on ilicomm Technology Solutions
Image caption Daphne Oram in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958.

The Mini Oramics developed ideas first realised in the earlier and considerably larger Oramics Machine, designed in the early 1960s.

The earlier instrument is sufficiently important to the history of experimental electronic music to have formed the centrepiece of an exhibition – Oram to Electronica – at the Science Museum in London.

However, that machine is no longer playable.

Graphical interface

By drawing “graphs” – lines and dots drawn or painted on to blank movie camera film stock and clear glass slides – the Oramics Machine enabled sounds and compositions to be created visually, albeit on a machine the size of a chest-freezer.

The stacked “tracks” of the machine resemble those of modern music sequencing software.

But although it was certainly ingenious and in many respects ahead of its time, the machine’s construction relied heavily on clever improvisation, using bits of furniture, and repurposed oscilloscopes.

'Old school' synthesiser built 40 years on ilicomm Technology SolutionsImage copyright JOE PLOMMER / CONTEMPORARY ART SOCIETY
Image caption Researcher Tom Richards, who eventually constructed the Mini Oramics

The suitcase-sized Mini Oramics kept the same essential concept and interface, but in a smaller device that could be sold to studios and professional musicians, says Tom Richards, who completed the design as part of a PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“That was her intention,” he said.

“The next version was to be smaller, transistorised, using slightly more modern technology.”

Retro tech

In completing Ms Oram’s designs, Mr Richards has tried to keep close to the spirit of 1970s technology, eschewing the use of microcomputers such as the Arduino, for example.

Media caption Daphne Oram on the World at One, 1972.

The completed Mini Oramics resembles an overhead projector.

Dots and lines drawn on clear cellophane control elements of the composition and musical expression such as the note, octave and vibrato.

On a separate unit, sliders like those found on a graphic equaliser shape waveforms used to synthesise the sound.

A variety of factors caused Ms Oram to abandon plans to build the machine, according to Mr Richards, including a lack of funds and anxieties that her approach to creating music was falling out of fashion compared with computer-based techniques.

A third way

But the build of the Mini Oramics, mostly using technology available in the 1970s, shows Oram’s approach to “drawn” music could have been popularised, musicians who have used the new machine say.

“It’s almost like a third way,” James Bulley, a composer who works at the Daphne Oram archive, told the BBC.

“You are composing and performing in real-time.”

Media caption LJ Rich explains the invention the Oramics machine

Dr Jo Thomas, of the University of East London, said: “I felt privileged to use it.

“This gives instrumental pleasure and compositional pleasure at the same time, that’s what makes it a brilliant instrument.”

'Old school' synthesiser built 40 years on ilicomm Technology Solutions
Image caption The Mini Oramics machine uses a graphical system for creating music

In the four decades since the design of the Mini Oramics, music technology has developed rapidly.

For example, there is now an app that simulates in software the original Oramics Machine.

But, in 1972, Ms Oram told a radio interviewer that the full development of electronic instruments could take much longer.

“The violin has taken an enormous number of years to evolve, to get to the state it is, probably 600 years or more,” she told Nicholas Wooley on the World at One.

“Now, if you give me 600 years, I might bring this up to that sort of stage.”

Copyright: BBC Technology

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