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Early History of the Experimental Music Studios

by James Bohn

In 1958, Lejaren Hiller transferred from the Chemistry department to the Music department in order to start an Experimental Music Studio. This studio was the second electronic music studio developed in the United States. In the first five years of its existence, the funds used to supply equipment amounted to only $8,000, a rather small amount of money, even for the sixties. This low amount of investment was due to Hiller's pragmatism and resourcefulness. Much of the equipment used in the original studio came from miscellaneous sources within the University of Illinois. While much of this equipment was far from perfect, it was free, and it served its purpose. Two of the original tape decks were supplied in this manner. An old broadcasting studio control panel was used as the central control console for the studio. This control console served mainly as a mixer, providing routing control and amplification. Other items that were supplied for free included miscellaneous items, such as: microphones, amplifiers, and oscilloscopes. Money was also saved by constructing some of the equipment from kits.

The main sound sources used in the original studio consisted of oscillators that provided sine, sawtooth, pulse, and square waves. White noise was supplied by high-gain amplifier that amplified the random noise provided by stray electrons in a electric tube. A special additive synthesis tone generator allowed for up to ten partials, each of which can be turned off or detuned as desired. A special photo-waveformer allowed desired wave-forms to be cut out of cardboard, and placed against a cathode ray tube. The photomultiplier tube controlled the vertical gain of the cathode ray tube, allowing the waveform to be traced. An associated circuit was used to produce the traced wave-form. This unit was also used for the creation of complex envelopes. Additional sound sources consisted of a theramin, a record player, and a portable tape recorder, which was used to bring sounds into the studio.

Processing possibilities consisted of filtering, envelope control, reverberation, and vibrato / tremolo. Filtering was done through a band pass filter. Envelope control was done through an envelope generator which was used to control an amplifier. Reverberation was done through standard tape techniques using two tape decks. Vibrato and tremolo was created through the use of simple circuits that were made according designs similar to those used in electronic organs.

Tape equipment consisted of three professional decks and the aforementioned portable tape deck. An additional device was created to keep tape loops taut when they are played back. This device was connected to a tape deck, and consisted mainly of movable tape guides. Sound analysis equipment consisted of an oscilloscope, a frequency counter, and a timer.


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