A HISTORY OF OPTICAL SYNTHESIS

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Never heard of Optical Synthesis? Neither had we until we read this fascinating article by Derik Holzer of Umatic outlining the technology’s history (sent over by the always fascinating ReaktorPlayer. The topic is fairly complex but is a fantastic read that ultimately serves as an outline tracking the correlation between the progression of technology and electronic music. Holzer introduces Optical Synthesis as such…

The technology of synthesizing sound from light is a curious combination of research from the realms of mathematics, physics, electronics and communications theory which found realization in the industries of motion picture films, music, surveillance technology and finally digital communications. As such, it’s history is an interesting cross section of 20th century history, reaching from the euphoria of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century inventors (who often struggled between “scientific” and “supernatural” explainations of their work) through the paradigm-smashing experiments of the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920’s and 1930’s to the cynical clash of ideologies of the Post-war years and finally to the dawn of the digital era in the 1970’s.

We suggest you read the article in its entirety, but first, but here are some of the more interesting highlights:

1930: Soundwave Soundtrack
Soviet artist Arseny Avraamov produced the first hand-drawn motion picture soundtracks. This was achieved by means of shooting still images of drawn sound waves on an animation stand.

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Listen to Avraamov’s symphony below

1931: The Nivotone
Nikolai Voinov invented the “Nivotone” in the Soviet Union. This instrument optically read strips of paper hand-cut by Voinov as sound information.

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See it action below!

1939: A Book Is Written
The book “Theory and Practice of Graphic Sound” was written (but unpublished) in the Soviet Union, focusing on the technique of “painted sound” and including Boris Yankovsky’s important essay “Acoustic Synthesis of Musical Colours”. The manuscript is kept at the Theremin Center archive. In part, Yankovsky’s essay was published in Kinovedcheskie Zapisky #53, 2001.

1959: Oramics
The technique of Oramics was developed by pioneering British composer and electronic musician Daphne Oram (1925-2003) at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, in England.

It consisted of drawing onto a set of ten sprocketed synchronised strips of 35mm film which covered a series of photo-electric cells that in turn generated an electrical charge to control the sound fequency, timbre, amplitude and duration.

This technique was similar to the work of Evgeny Scholpo’s “Variophone” some years earlier in Leningrad and in some ways to the punch-roll system of the RCA Synthesiser. The output from the instrument was only monophonic relying on multitrack tape recording to build up polyphonic textures.

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1972: Photosonic Synthesis
French composer and instrument builder Jacques Dudon began his work with photosonic synthesis.

His system, developed more extensively between the years 1984-2002, used stationary, spinning disks printed with optical patterns drawn in just-intonation scales, plus a series of moveable light sources and optical “comb filters” to produce microtonal music which Dudon associated with the Chakras of Indian spirituality.

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Jacque Dudon’s “LumiĆ©re Audibles” (which translates to Audible Light!)

To read even more on the topic check visit umatic.nl: here.

And as always be sure to click through to our other articles, sign up for our courses or our free workshops!

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