Music Production – Back in the 1930’s

Back in the 1930’s, the music realm was characterised by bold inventions and free thinkers. Combining ideas with emerging technologies and daring concepts, music composers and inventors worked together to create some revolutionary technologies. Considered the first electronic rhythm machine, the Rhythmicon was such an invention that changed the perception regarding the sequence of rhythms and overtones.

The idea dates back to 1916 when the American composer Henry Cowell started to work on a keyboard that could control tonal sequences, overtones and rhythms. However, the machine became real only in the 1930’s when Cowell shared his idea with Leon Termen, a renowned inventor. Termen took the challenge of building a machine that could transform harmonic information into rhythmic data and the other way around.

What was the machine actually about? Taking inspiration from his previous invention, the Theremin, Termen created a 17 key polyphonic keyboard that used heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. The machine produced a single note that was repeated in a periodic rhythm generated by rotating disks. The sequences, pitch and tempo could further be adjusted by levers.
In order to illustrate the complexity of his invention, Cowell composed two special Rhythmicon works, “Rythmicana” and “Music for Violin and Rhythmicon”. Over time Cowell lost interest in the machine but its functionalities were adopted by psychological researchers and even brought back to life by producer Joe Meek. The invention was also used to produce music and sound effects for different movies from the 50’s and 60’s. You can see one surviving machine at the Smithsonian Institute or check the video below for a better feel of how the Rhythmicon actually sounded:

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