NMSAT :: Networked Music & SoundArt Timeline

1936 __ Singing Keyboard
Frederick (Minturn ?) (?-?)
Comment : To my knowledge, the first instrument that actually exploited the mimetic capacities of phonography, in other words, the first sampler, was Frederick Sammis' 1936 photoelectric Singing Keyboard. Built in Hollywood for commercial purposes, it used loops of optical sound film. Besides instrumental music and "new voice qualities and choral effects," Sammis, who worked in RCA's sound film operations, had the following ideas for his instrument: Let us suppose that we are to use this machine as a special purpose instrument for making "talkie" cartoons. (Douglas Kahn)One inventor, Frederick Sammis, combined soundtrack technology with a standard keyboard instrument to create a “singing keyboard.” Sammis had moved to Hollywood in 1929 to lead RCA into the era of film sound. By that time he was already familiar with the Moviola, a sound- and filmediting table that incorporated photoelectric cells. Using methods that were being developed for talking pictures, he recorded sung and spoken words onto individual strips of film. He then attached the resulting strips to the keyboard in such a way that a specific strip would be drawn across the optical cell when he depressed a corresponding key. Although Sammis’s singing keyboard was never manufactured commercially, it became the conceptual forerunner of several musical instruments built in the 1960s. (Matthew Nicholl, “Good Vibrations”)Sampling has a surprisingly long history with the first recognisable machine appearing as early as 1938 in the form of a 1936 invention by Frederick Sammis: the “Singing Keyboard”. A precursor of modern samplers, the instrument played electro-optical recordings of audio waves stored on strips of 35mm film which were triggered and pitched when the player pressed a key. Little is known of this machine and its uses but its underlying approach clearly prefigures the first practical sampling technology as employed in the American Chamberlin and its later British equivalent, the Mellotron. These instruments were essentially tape players of extraordinary mechanical configuration. A capstan roller stretched the length of the machine and short strips of tape, one for each key, could be played back individually. Neither machine had the ability to record its own samples but a range of sounds was made available on prerecorded tapes which were factory-loaded into a supporting frame. Most tapes held three separate audio tracks, allowing any one machine to create up to three different sounds. Typically, these would be strings, voices and flutes but a usefully wide range of instrumental and effects recordings was made available and the split keyboard of the later Mellotrons allowed the simultaneous use of two voices although over a more restricted range. The notable characteristic of both the Chamberlin and the Mellotron was that they were capable of playing a sustained (ie not looped) sound although, in practice, the duration of any one note was limited to around 8 seconds after which time it would cut out automatically as the tape reached its end, thereby requiring a specific playing technique. The general view at the time was that the Mellotron (later renamed the Novatron for copyright reasons) was unwieldy and unreliable, being especially prone to tuning problems. However, the number of such machines still in use suggests that this may have been more a function of poor maintenance rather than shortcomings in design. The sounds produced by these machines, although derived from “real” instruments corresponded poorly to their original sources: as imitative instruments they were not therefore particularly successful but, as with many such instances, they acquired a charm and following of their own and have remained in use, albeit intermittently and at the whims of musical fashion ever since. (Tony Gibbs, “The technology and aesthetics of sampling”, 2009)
Original excerpt : « Let us suppose that we are to use this machine as a special-purpose instrument for making "talkie" cartoons. At once it will be evident that we have a machine with which the composer may try out various combinations of words and music and learn at once just how they will sound in the finished work. The instrument will probably have ten or more sound tracks recorded side by side on a strip of film and featuring such words as "quack" for a duck, "meow" for a cat, "moo" for a cow... It could as well be the bark of a dog or the hum of a human voice at the proper pitch. » (Frederick Sammis Cited in Tom Rhea, ``Photo-electric Instruments" in Greg Armburster, ed., The Art of Electronic Music)
Source : Roads, Curtis (1996), "The Computer Music Tutorial", MIT Press, p.120.
Source : Kahn, Douglas (1990), “Audio Art in the Deaf Century”, In “Sound by Artists”, edited by Dan Lander and Micah Lexier, Toronto : Art Metropole : Banff : Walter Phillips Gallery, 1990, pp. 301-309.
Urls : http://www.tonygibbs.org/blog/?p=542 (last visited ) http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1993/4/1993_4_26.shtml (last visited )

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