1955 RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer

In 1955, RCA unveiled its Electronic Music Synthesizer, and a new era in the history of music began.  

Developed at RCA's David Sarnoff Research Center (near Princeton, NJ), it was the brainchild of Harry Olson (standing), and Herbert Belar.  Olson was also the designer of a number of RCA's microphones.

This huge and unwieldy system was controlled by a punched paper roll, similar to a player piano roll.  A keyboard was used to punch the roll (Olson has his finger on it).  Each note had to be individually described by a number of parameters (frequency, volume, envelope, etc.)  The output was fed to disk recording machines, which stored the results on lacquer-coated disks.  One of these can be seen at the left in the above photo.

Programming this machine must have been a laborious and time consuming process, but it caught the attention of electronic music pioneers such as Milton Babbit.  A more advanced version of this system became the basis of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1957, located at Princeton University. 

As part of this development, RCA issued a box set of four 45 RPM extended-play disks, with a descriptive brochure.  The cover is shown above.  It was also issued as a 12 inch LP with the same cover art.  This may not have been a commercial release (note the "experimental" designation) or, if it was, it saw very limited distribution.

This set featured a narration and demonstration of the basic features of the synthesizer, and concluded with renditions of several well known popular and classical pieces "played" on the synthesizer.  Click here to hear just the selection "Nola" by Felix Arndt (in mp3 format), a popular piano roll number from the WW-I era (this is taken from side 8).

The entire set can be heard by following the following eight links (one per side).

Side 1: The Synthesis of Music-The Physical Characteristics of Musical Sounds (7:13, 3.3 mb)
Side 2: The Synthesis of Music-Synthesis by Parts (Part 1) (5:55, 2.7 mb)
Side 3: The Synthesis of Music-Synthesis by Parts (Part 2) (4:37, 2.1 mb)
Side 4: Excerpts from Musical Selections (Part 1) (6:05, 2.8 mb)
Side 5: Excerpts from Musical Selections (Part 2) (3:28, 1.6 mb)
Side 6: Complete Selections-Bach Fugue No. 2, Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 1 (4:47, 2.2 mb)
Side 7: Complete Selections-Oh Holy Night (Adam), Home Sweet Home (Bishop) (6:42, 3.1 mb)
Side 8: Complete Selections-Stephen Foster Medley, Nola (Arndt), Blue Skies (Berlin) (7:49, 3.6 mb)
Above is a block diagram of the RCA synthesizer.  Click here (or on the diagram) for larger version.