RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer

From Academic Kids

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RCA Mark II with Babbit, Mauzey, Ussachevsky

The RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer (nicknamed Victor) was the flagship piece of equipment at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Designed by Herbert Belar and Harry Olson at RCA, it was installed at Columbia University in 1957. Consisting of a room-sized array of interconnected sound synthesis components, much of the design of the machine was contributed by Vladimir Ussachevsky and Peter Mauzey. The synthesizer was funded with a large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

The RCA is often described as the "first synthesizer ever built", a title better deserved by early 20th Century electronic music instruments such as the Telharmonium or the theremin. It was, however, quite probably the world's first sequencer, which was its main attraction to composers of the day. It featured a fully automated binary sequencer based around a paper tape reader that would sequence instructions to the synthesizer, automating playback of the machine. The synthesizer would then output sound to a synchronized shellac record lathe standing by. 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 aesthetic progress (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 noise source). 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 fluent in the machine's usage were the designers at RCA and the engineering staff at Columbia who maintained it. Princeton University composer Milton Babbitt, 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 Stravinsky was 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 Pulitzer Prize-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 Force construction 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 Buchla and Moog systems. 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 apochryphal) stories told regarding the synthesizer. One common story is that Ussachevsky and Otto Luening effectively conned RCA into building the machine, claiming that a synthesizer built to their specifications would "replace the symphony orchestra," 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 Center facility 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.

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