RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer
The RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer (nicknamed "Victor") was the first programmable
electronic music synthesizerand the flagship piece of equipment at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Designed by Herbert Belarand Harry Olsonat RCA, it was installed at Columbia Universityin 1957. Consisting of a room-sized array of interconnected sound synthesiscomponents, much of the design of the machine was contributed by Vladimir Ussachevskyand Peter Mauzey. The synthesizer was funded with a large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Earlier 20th century electronic instruments such as the
Telharmoniumor the thereminwere manually operated. The RCA combined diverse electronic sound generation with a music sequencer. This provided a huge attraction to composers of the day, many of whom were growing tired of creating electronic works by splicing together individual sounds recorded on sections of magnetic tape. The RCA Mark II featured a fully automated binary sequencer using a paper tapereader analogous to a player piano, that would send instructions to the synthesizer, automating playbackof the machine. The synthesizer would then output sound to a synchronized shellacrecord lathe next to the machine. The resulting recording would then be compared against the punch-tape score, and the process would be repeated until the desired results were obtained.
The sequencer features of the RCA were of particular attraction to modernist composers of the time, especially those interested in writing dodecaphonic music with a high degree of precision. In fact, the RCA is cited by composers of the day as a contributing factor to the rise of musical
complexity, insofar as it allowed composers the freedom to write music using rhythms and tempos that were impractical, if not impossible, to realize on acoustic instruments. This allure of precision as a mark of aestheticprogress (played out even today with contemporary computer-based sequencers) generated high expectations for the Mark II, and contributed to the increased awareness of electronic music as a viable new art form.
The synthesizer had a four-note variable
polyphony(in addition to twelve fixed-tone oscillators and a white noisesource). The synthesizer was very difficult to set up, requiring extensive patching of analog circuitry prior to running a score. Little attempt was made to teach composition on the synthesizer, and with few exceptions the only people proficient in the machine's usage were the designers at RCA and the engineering staff at Columbia who maintained it. Princeton Universitycomposer Milton Babbitt[Babbitt describes the acquisition and use of the machine in an interview segment on the 2005 "Ohm+" DVD released by Ellipsis Arts.] , though not by any means the only person to use the machine, is the composer most often associated with it, and was its biggest advocate ( Igor Stravinskywas rumored to have suffered a heart attack upon hearing Babbitt's glowing description of the synthesizer's capabilities).
A number of important pieces in the electronic music repertoire were composed and realized on the RCA. Babbit's "Vision and Prayer" and "Philomel" both feature the RCA, as does
Charles Wuorinen's 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Music-winning piece "Time's Encomium". After the RCA was vandalized by thieves in the 1970s it fell into disrepair, and remains only partly functional. The last composer to get any sound out of the synthesizer was R. Luke DuBois, who used it for a thirty-second piece on the Freight Elevator Quartet's "Jungle Album" in 1997.
Though part of the history of electronic music, the RCA was hardly ever used. Made to
United States Air Forceconstruction specifications (and even sporting a USAF oscilloscope), its operating electronics were constructed entirely out of vacuum tubes, making the machine obsolete by its tenth birthday, having been surpassed by more reliable (and affordable) solid state modular synthesizers such as the Buchlaand Moog modular synthesizersystems. It was prohibitively expensive to replicate, and an RCA Mark III, though conceived of by Belar and Olsen, was never constructed. Nor was RCA long for the synthesizer business, prompting Columbia to purchase enough spare parts to build two duplicate synthesizers.
Much of the historical interest of the RCA, besides its association with the Electronic Music Center, comes from a number of amusing (and possibly apocryphal) stories told regarding the synthesizer. One common story is that Ussachevsky and
Otto Lueningeffectively conned RCA into building the machine, claiming that a synthesizer built to their specifications would "replace the symphonyorchestra," prompting RCA executives to gamble the cost of the synthesizer in the hopes of being able to eliminate their (unionized) radio orchestra. The RCA is sometimes (falsely) attributed as the direct cause of the New York City Blackout of 1977, having been powered on moments before the lights went out.
The RCA is still housed at the Columbia
Computer Music Centerfacility on 125th Street in New York City, where it is bolted to the floor in the office of Professor Brad Garton, taking up quite a bit of precious floor space.
* [http://www.obsolete.com/120_years/machines/rca/ Information on the RCA]
* [http://artofthestates.org/cgi-bin/piece.pl?pid=17 Wuorinen's story of Time's Encomium]
* [http://www.furious.com/perfect/ohm/babbitt.html Babbitt on "Philomel']
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
Look at other dictionaries:
Mark II — or Mark 2 often refers to the second version of a product, frequently military hardware. Mark , meaning model or variant , can be abbreviated Mk. Mark II or Mark 2 can specifically refer to: Contents 1 In technology 1.1 In military and weapo … Wikipedia
Synthesizer — For other uses, see Synthesizer (disambiguation). Synth redirects here. For other uses, see Synth (disambiguation). See also: Software synthesizer Early Minimoog by R.A. Moog Inc. (ca. 1970) A synthesizer (often abbreviated synth ) is an… … Wikipedia
RCA — Infobox Defunct Company company name = RCA Corporation company slogan = The most trusted name in electronics. fate = Taken over by General Electric and broken up successor = foundation = 1919 defunct = 1988 location = New York, USA… … Wikipedia
Synthesizer — Ein Micromoog Klassifikation Elektrophon Tonumfang gesamter Hörbereich verwandte Instrumente Software Synthesizer … Deutsch Wikipedia
Sound recording and reproduction — Sound recorder redirects here. For the audio recording program computer software, see Sound Recorder (Windows). Sound recording and reproduction is an electrical or mechanical inscription and re creation of sound waves, such as spoken voice,… … Wikipedia
Synthesizer — Sỵn|the|si|zer 〈[ saızə(r)] m. 3; Mus.〉 Gerät zur Erzeugung verschiedenartiger, künstlicher Töne mittels elektronischer Schaltungen, das in fast allen neuen Musikstilen der 1980er u. 1990er Jahre Anwendung findet [zu engl. synthesize „verbinden … Universal-Lexikon
Moog synthesizer — Moog synthesizers in 2007 … Wikipedia
Quadraphonic sound — 4 channels Quadraphonic label Quadraphonic (or Quadrophonic sometimes Quadrasonic) sound – the most widely used early term for what is now called 4.0 surround sound – uses four channels in which speakers are positioned at the four corners of the… … Wikipedia
Electronic music — For electronic musical instruments, see Electronic musical instrument. For other uses, see Electronic music (disambiguation). See also: List of electronic music genres and List of electronic music festivals Electronic music is music that… … Wikipedia
Music sequencer — Contents 1 Modern sequencers 2 Software sequencers / DAWs with sequencing features 2.1 … Wikipedia