Early electronic instruments; as well as the processes and synthesis inspired by them

I’m fascinated by early electronic instruments such as the Trautonium and Ondes Martenot and I figured a thread about sharing knowledge about these types of instruments as well as how they inspire some of our setups and artistic processes (and hopefully someone who’s had the experience to play one can pitch in too!)

I’ll walk through some relevant parts of my setup to get the ball rolling:

My main concern is getting an expressivity in my synth playing similar to early electronic instruments and for that I use an A198 ribbon controller and an Expressive E Touché. The Martenot way of delegating dynamics to the left hand and pitch to the right hand has always been confusing to me so I have it reverse. Before the Touché I would use an experssion pedal for dynamics.
Sometimes I will use a fingerpick that I glued a piece of glass onto in order to get less friction for vibrato and slides.

I have a Palme inspired transducer speaker setup that I wrote about in this thread: Exotic speakers

I also have an A113 subharmonic generator in my rack that’s very interesting but I’m still slowly learning to integrate into my overall sound.

What early electronic instruments or techniques are you inspired by? Does the Telharmonic inform your production? Do you make out of tune wailings on the Theremin?


Bruce Haack recorded electronic music starting in 1963 there abouts on homemade synthesizers, I don’t think there’s much knowledge on his designs. But here’s one in action on mr rogers, may 22nd 1968.

He had a vocoder or text to speech he called Farad The Electric Voice.

And a studio pic:



I’ve spent 40 years trying to reconcile modern electronic music gear with the way I want to make music, and journeys into the past have been both inspiring and frustrating for me. Inspiring, because of all the great ideas that popped up over the years to give expression to electricity. Frustrating, because so few of them went anywhere in the long run.

I’m going to have to put together a list for discussion here…

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Michael Johnsen
Folk-Telharmonium, 2015 (aka kitchen sink telharmonium):
recycled consumer electronics, sink traps, magnets, beeswax, steel wool,
cinnamon, stapler…

This 21st century electronic folk instrument pays its respects to its oldest
ancestor, Thaddeus Cahill’s telharmonium. Built in 1897, Cahill’s invention
was the mother of all electronic synthesizers. Though it weighed as
much as 200 tons, it was only audible via tiny telephone earpieces. It
was intended as a proto-muzak service for subscribers via telephone
lines. One of its most renowned clients was Mark Twain. Its sound was
generated by weighty rotating toothed generators, making it a kind of
musical power plant capable of a 1.5 megawatt output. Just a few years
before amplifiers and loudspeakers were invented—innovations that
could have saved the telharmonium’s future—all efforts to continue its
advancement came to a halt. Its legacy is most connected to its ability
to reproduce the sounds of orchestral instruments, the Hammond organ
adopted some of its basic technology.
Folk-Telharmonium is a fanciful speculation on this earlier technology.
It is an attempt to make a kind of kitchen-sink telharmonium, without
spending a penny. By taking the spinning drum of the humble VCR as its
basic engine, a primitive tone-wheel is constructed out of found objects
(including the detritus of other consumer electronics and easily available
domestic goods). The latter contain some form of iron which— as they
spin (their motion picked up by induction coils)—produce audible sound
currents. It includes toggle switches which add or remove component
sounds. The knobs control motor speed and, therefore, pitch of sounds.



Since I’m a huge Radiohead fanhead I purchased a couple of years ago an ET 4 Therevox. It’s a great sounding Ondes Martenot-like synth and like the original one gives you an amazing dynamic and tone control under your left fingers!

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Definitely an interesting combination of sound. I’ve listened to some of his music but not enough to say I’m familiar. Some of it sounds like the simple oscillator circuits modern noise artists use, like Atari Punk Consoles and the like.

Please do!

:astonished: Wow! I’m really curious as to what one would sound like.

Do you have recordings of yourself playing it? How springy is the pressure control? The Touché is adjustable but even the softest setting is quite firm and it’d be interesting to know whether there’s any difference between the two.

Speaking of the Ondes, I found this Sonicstate video going through the Ondes Martenot fascinating. They go through a lot of the elements of it that are less focused on, like how one switches between ribbon and keyboard, as well as the knee lever filter:

One instrument I wanted to mention that I think has unfortunately been largely forgotten is the Theremincello. It has a similar sound to the Theremin except it is in a cello-like body, with a ribbon controller for a neck and a lever you push down on the side for amplitude:


You can hear the Therevox on this track which came out a couple of months ago from a folksinger friend of mine: https://fabianopittiglio.bandcamp.com/track/vertigine

The pressure control is really smooth and dynamic. It gives you lots of control and expressiveness (which is fundamental for an instrument like this one). Never tried the Touchè but I would like to.

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A friend of mine, Meg Travers, made a replica Trautonium!

Here’s her giving a short talk and demonstration:


I’ve read about Meg before but I wasn’t aware of this TED Talk. Thank you!

I recently went on the trautonium.de website and tried to machine translate various part of the user handbook. The English is of course very stiff but it’s surprisingly understandable. I’m thinking of doing a translation of the entire handbook into English as a weekend project.

Peter Pichler’s live performance of the Mixturtrautonium was a highlight of Superbooth this year for me - it sounded out of this world!

note: most much of his talk is in German, with some English - but there is also a lot of music , so perhaps skip the talking if you don’t speak German - dont miss the music.


I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Oskar Sala on the Trautonium at the Goethe Institut in London in the 1990s, and while unfortunately of course there was no functional instrument available to hear at the time, it was a fascinating talk that I now have to search for in recorded or transcribed form.


I was at that presentation too when he played his music from a cassette I remember. And he kept forgetting to keep the microphone next to his mouth when he spoke. I still have the programme for the evening but am not sure it was ever recorded unfortunately.


So, I’ve been on a musique concrete/computer music kick for a good while now, especially after having worked at a large grocery chain during the pandemic and being exposed to a neverending playlist of what passes for “pop music” nowadays. After having to listen for hours on end to music I can only describe as “incurious” made by musicians who clearly don’t care about more than a paycheck, I’ve grown to love the weird noises that were made by the first people that started exploring electronics as a musical medium. Many timbres in those compositions are unlike anything I’ve heard anywhere else, and some of them I can’t even imagine how they were created. Since I know a decent amount about stuff like Reaktor, Max, and Pd, I’m considering trying to make some sort of software to emulate some of these old experimental sounds and perhaps compositional techniques. I’d be curious if anyone else here has any favorite early electronic pieces/moments from pieces, because I’d love to hear them if you’ve got em.

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I mean…all of them?

Halim El-Dabh with one of the true “firsts” in terms of electro-acoustic compositions (1944, Cairo)

I love how the recursive reverberation brings out different partials and “shadows” of the original sound

Here’s a later example, this time from Japan, using resonant band pass filters to carve white noise into tones.

And another noise piece, this time computer-generated (back then the computer wouldn’t play back sounds in real time, but “print” them directly to magnetic tape)—James Tenney’s Analog #1