A Relic From The Roots Of Electronic Music

Oct 7, 2011
Originally published on October 9, 2011 4:39 pm

"Forget everything you've ever known about synthesizers. This machine has no piano keyboard or anything like that. It looks like the sort of thing that a mad inventor would make in his shed."

That's how Tim Boon, chief curator of the Science Museum in London, describes a curious contraption that recently made its way into the museum's collection: the Oramics machine. Primarily made of old shelving equipment, it's about the height of a large table, with wires sprouting from every crevice and strips of paint-streaked cinema film running along the top. According to Boon, it's an ancestor of the modern synthesizer.

Daphne Oram, who died in 2003, was the machine's namesake and inventor. Boon says Oram got the idea in the late 1950s, when she was working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop — the sound-effects wing of the British broadcaster.

"For a whole decade, they had been making electronic music by recording natural sounds and splicing them together using reel-to-reel tape machines," Boon says. "It was a very difficult way of making music. That's why she set about trying to make a machine which was specifically designed to make electronic sounds."

Those film strips running through the machine determined the kind of music it would make: An operator would literally paint a design onto the film, whose patterns of light and dark could be read and interpreted as sounds. Researchers released an Oramics iPhone app earlier this year, which allows users to replicate the experience by "painting" with their fingers.

Boon says that, sadly, the app is as close as we'll get to the real thing today. The museum decided early on that, because Oram's machine is unique and irreplaceable, to try to run it would be to compromise its historic value.

"It's probably 20, 25 years since Daphne last ran it. If we were to get it running, we would have to replace a lot of the components," Boon says. "It's a bit like that thing people say: 'Here's an old hammer — it's had two heads and three handles.' In what sense is that the same hammer?"

For more on the Oramics machine, including how it was lost for years before surfacing in 2009, watch the short film below.

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SMITH: When I think about synthesizers, I hear this sound. But way before the keyboard version of the synth rocked my high school prom in the 1980s, there was a radically different type of synthesizer. And until recently, it was thought to be lost forever.


SMITH: OK, OK, not quite as catchy. But give it a break. It was created in 1957. It's called the Oramics machine. And actually, it's pretty ingenious. The musician paints the waveforms directly on a strip of film. Wavy lines, or dots, or blobs, or whatever, and that film is then spooled into the machine and synthesized into sound. Everything you're hearing right now was hand-painted.


SMITH: The genius behind this thing was Daphne Oram. She was a Brit, a founding member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Then she set off on her own to create what she called Oramics.

DAPHNE ORAM: The Oramics studio is in Kent in a converted old house, only some 28 miles or so from Piccadilly Circus. I am Daphne Oram, the director of the studio. And I'd really like to introduce you to some of the very varied sort of sound tracks which I produce at my studio.

SMITH: Daphne Oram died in 2003 and her prototype synthesizer was long gone by the time curator Mick Grierson started trying to piece together a museum exhibit in her memory. He discovered the machine two years ago almost falling apart in a barn in France. A fan had kept it in a private collection there and then moved it into storage. Grierson spent a couple of years rebuilding the Oramics machine and it now resides at London's Science Museum.


SMITH: Tim Boon is the chief curator and he joins me from the site of the Daphne Oram collection. Hello.

TIM BOON: Hello.

SMITH: So describe to me what this machine looks like. It's right there in the museum with you, so paint it for us. Paint the picture, as it were, of the machine.

BOON: Forget everything you've ever known about synthesizers. This machine has no piano keyboard or anything like that. It looks like the sort of thing that a mad inventor would make in his shed. It's made up of old shelving equipment, about the height of a very big table. And along the top of this machine run 10 pieces of old cinema film, which have got all sorts of funny blobs painted on them. There are these glass slides about three inches square. And she would paint on these slides any waveform that she fancied drawing. She'd put them into the machine and see what they sounded like. It's really mad.


SMITH: So a musician could stand at this thing and then play something live?

BOON: She could.


SMITH: I guess there weren't so many other trained musicians on the Oramics machine.

BOON: Well, she used to run weekend courses at her house. And it has been said that Mick Jagger went down and had a look. It's said that The Beatles went down there. We have to research that and find out whether that's true. So it's quite a scene that Daphne is part of.

SMITH: What shape was it in? Can it still make music?

BOON: The Oramics Machine will never make music again.

SMITH: Really. Why not?

BOON: You know, it's a bit like that thing that people say, you know, here's an old hammer. It's had two heads and it's had three handles. In what sense is that the same hammer? Well, the same with the Oramics machine. If we were to replace all those components, would it be the original Oramics machine?

SMITH: Well, put her accomplishments into a historical context. When we hear the history of electronic music, we hear mostly about the men who invented things. Daphne Oram, obviously a woman and an influential woman, is there sense that her history was lost a little bit?

BOON: It's certainly the case that her history has been lost. And when Daphne moved out and set up her private studio, I mean, that must have been the first electronic music studio run by a woman. I think you could probably speculate that she hasn't had the reputation that she's deserved as such an important innovator because she exiled herself from the mainstream by moving down to Kent. And I think she was ignored by a lot of the men at that point. It's one of the real delights of putting this exhibition on, you know, that we can restore to her some of the fame that she ought to have had in her lifetime.

SMITH: It's too bad, because I imagine, you know, a lot of the synthesizer bands that ended coming out in the '70s and '80s would have been a lot more interesting if they had to stand there on stage and actually paint the waveforms. You know, it would have been an interesting experiment in music to see this melding of painting and electronica.

Tim Boon is the chief curator of the Science Museum of London, where they have on display the only Oramic machine in existence, an early version of the synthesizer. Mr. Boon thanks so much.

BOON: It's been a pleasure.


SMITH: To get a look at the Oramics machine, visit our website, nprmusic.org.

ORAM: The photographs probably give you some idea of this ingenious equipment. But if you would like to visit the studio itself and see it and hear it, do give me a ring.


SMITH: OK. That one's got a good beat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.