The story of early tape music, microsound, and a Eurorack resurrection

What connects 1930s Germany, post-War musique concrete, 1980s computer music, and a Eurorack module? Why – tape and microsound! This history explains.

Ukraine’s Oleg Shpudeiko, aka the talented producer Heinali, joins us again, drawing a connecting line from major electronic music history to a Eurorack module from MakeNoise. It’s a history lesson slash electronic sounds of the weird slash gear acquisition syndrome all in one. Don’t miss the previous episode, involving the 200-ton, building-sized Telharmonium:

A giant 1906 machine, and the Eurorack synth module it inspired

And now, in this episode, we get a history of tape and sound -Ed.:

The Roots of Morphagene

Morphagene is an Eurorack synthesizer module, a product of collaboration between Make Noise and Tom Erbe. Make Noise is the modular synth company from the USA founded by self-taught electronic musical instrument designer Tony Rolando. Tom Erbe is a University of California San Diego (UCSD) computer music professor, and author of the famous Soundhack sound processing software for Mac and PC.

The module is described by the makers as “a next generation Tape and Microsound music module that uses Reels, Splices, and Genes to create new sounds from those that already exist. It is informed by the worlds of Musique Concrète, where speed and direction variations were combined with creative tape splicing to pioneer new sounds, and Microsound, where computers allow for sound to be divided into pieces smaller than 1/10 of a second and manipulated like sub-atomic particles.”

The emergence of Musique Concrète in early 1950s France depends on the development of tape recording technology. A lot of electronic music technology is based on military technologies and its terminology even incorporated bellicose vocabulary that we use to this day. For example, we describe the initial phase of the sound as ‘attack,’ we ‘trigger’ a sample or an event and use a ‘controller.’ So let’s move a little bit back in time.

WWII and the origins of tape

It’s Second World War. The Allies are confused. They think they know the location of Adolf Hitler. Yet every time they listen to the broadcast of his live speech, it turns out it’s being broadcast from another city, not the one he’s supposed to be in, according to the intelligence. Maybe his speech was prerecorded? But it lacked the characteristic surface noise of disc or cylinder playback. As it turned out, what they were hearing was a new, advanced audio recording technology – magnetic tape recording.

The recordings were made on Magnetophon, a pioneering reel-to-reel tape recorder developed by German electronics company AEG in the 1930s. It was based on the magnetic tape invention by Fritz Pfleumer, who granted AEG the patent rights. The main difference between Magnetophon and other tape recording machines of its time was recording fidelity, which exceeded the quality of most radio transmitters. It was achieved by introducing AC bias to the recording, an inaudible high-frequency signal to eliminate background hiss.

Magnetophon from a German radio station in World War II.

Liberated tape, French experimentation

After the war, Magnetophon was taken to the United States and soon the technology became available commercially.
How does it relate to Morphagene? Well, Morphagene’s most basic functions are the functions of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The recordings are made into reels, which are conveniently stored inside a SD card. The reels can be switched, loaded and erased. Playback speed can be manipulated and/or reversed with Vari-Speed knob control. And, as an additional nice touch, the recording quality of 48khz/32-bit still exceeds the quality of most contemporary radio transmitters and Internet streaming services.

1949, France: Pierre Schaeffer, a radio engineer, broadcaster, and a former member of French resistance, who had a special interest in music, met Pierre Henry, a classically trained music composer and percussionist. By that time, Schaeffer already experimented a lot, creating music with phonogenes, gramophones, and other equipment at his employer Radiodiffusion Française (now called Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, French Radio and Television Broadcasting). While Schaeffer was from a music family – both parents were musicians – he himself didn’t have a music education. He finished École Polytechnique with a diploma in radio broadcasting. Both men named Pierre collaborated on a multitude of musical compositions, forming together Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in the French Radio Institution in 1951.

Pierre, squared: Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer in GRM.

Henry and Schaeffer’s meeting birthed a new studio dedicated to electroacoustic music. That studio had one very important detail that would have an enormous influence on their work and ideology: tape machines. With tape, they could record any audible sound and manipulate it afterwards. They had created recordings and montages prior to the availability of tape, via phonograph and turntables, including landmark electroacoustic works such as Étude aux chemins de fer (“railway study”). But tape machine brought much more freedom: apart from being lighter as a medium, it afforded a whole bunch of new editing and manipulation techniques.

Apart from various sound generators and filters, their new studio featured unique sound processing devices. Here’s a brief description from Carlos Palombini’s ‘Musique concrète Revisited‘:

In 1951 the French Radio presented the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète, which at the time consisted of Pierre Schaeffer, the engineer Jacques Poullin and the composer-percussionist Pierre Henry, with the first purpose-built electroacoustic music studio ever. The collaboration between Schaeffer and Poullin, in its fourth year, was resulting in a three-track tape recorder, a machine with ten playback heads to replay tape loops in echo (the morphophone), a keyboard controlled machine to replay tape loops at twenty-four pre-set speeds (the keyboard, chromatic or Tolana phonogène), a slide-controlled machine to replay tape loops at a continuously variable range of speeds (the handle, continuous or Sareg phonogène) and the potentiomètre d’espace, a device to distribute live an encoded track across four loudspeakers, including one hanging from the centre of the ceiling.

Morphagene’s name quite unambiguosly resembles a combination of morphophone and phonogène (Phonogene is another module by Make Noise and Tom Erbe, that’s actually a Morphagene’s predecessor with very similar functionality).

The original morphophone.

Schaeffer and Henry experimented with recorded sound on tape and formed the idea and criteria for musique concrète, a concrete music, that is made from any recorded natural and man-made sounds. The main idea behind musique concrète was the transformation of the recorded sound into l’objet sonore, the sound object, a sound that would exist apart from human perception and would have no original context. They did it by employing a wide range of tape composition techniques, such as splicing, speed manipulation, reverse and others. André Hodeir writes:

Composers of musique concrète begin by recording various sounds (either musical sounds or noises of indeterminate pitch) and then, by speeding them up, slowing them down, filtering or inverting them, metamorphose these sounds into “sound objects” (objets sonores) whose origin it is not always possible to distinguish.

Any music could be understood from now on as a sequence of sound objects. And anything that can be recorded – a violin, a jackhammer, a train or a flock of birds – has a potential to become sound object.

The Sound Object had three plans. Here’s how they are described by Thom Holmes, author of Electronic and Experimental Music:

The Harmonic Plan (Plan harmonique): the development of timbre (tone quality) as a function of the entire range of audible frequencies over time.

The Dynamic Plan (Plan dynamique): the development of dynamic aspects of sound (amplitude, envelope) with respect to time.

The Melodic Plan (Plan mélodique): the development of pitch and tone sequences over time.

Try sound objects yourself, with the Morphagene module

According to the MakeNoise manual, Morphagene’s time scale for l’objet sonore is Splice and Gene. After making a recording, by pressing Splice button a new splice is created, a fragment of the recording. By manipulating Gene parameter with Gene knob the playback window is changed, from the whole splice (fragment) up to almost inaudible microsound fragments.

Plans of The Sound Object.

The Harmonic Plan can be approached with both Gene size and Slide knobs, by selecting a very short fragment of sound, looping it, and scanning through the bigger Splice, moving in time with the Slide knob. In this way, by selecting a sufficiently short playback window of a recorded sound and moving it in time, it’s possible to extract spectral characteristics of a sound’s timbre specific to a particular point in time.

The Dynamic Plan is accessible by the means of the Sound on Sound (SOS) knob, which acts like a crossfader between audio input and recorded audio, and control voltage (CV) out. The SOS knob can act as a voltage controlled amplifier (VCA). For example, patching an envelope to the SOS will transform the original envelope of the recording sound. CV out transforms the incoming and/or recorded signal into a control voltage envelope, for example extracting The Dynamic Plan from the recording, for further research and/or modulations.

The Melodic Plan is accessible by the the means of VariSpeed control, a knob that changes both pitch and playback speed.

For the processing of their recording and creation of sound objects, Schaeffer and Henry used a wealth of tape manipulation-based techniques: splicing, loops, delay, echo, speed manipulation, and reversal.

Tape splicing is achieved by literally splicing the tape with a knife or scissors and then gluing the splices together in a new order. By splicing at various angles, different types of transitions were achieved, as well as the transformation of a sound’s natural dynamic envelope. Splicing in Morphagene is achieved by the means of Splice button. Every time the button is pressed, a new splice is created. The organize knob and shift button control the arrangement of splices: by moving the knob or sending CV to it, a particular splice is selected and is played back as soon as previous one finished playing. Pressing a shift button or sending CV to it switches to next splice in order.

Tape looping is achieved by gluing together the ends of a fragment of tape. Morphagene makes loops by default – any recording will be looped automatically, unless a gate CV is sent to its Play input.

Tape echo or delay is achieved by positioning the record and playback heads apart and feeding the signal after the playback head back before the record head. In Morpghagene, tape echo is achieved by creating a splice, fixing a recording to playback ratio with the SOS knob, and pressing the record button. In this way, echo length is directly proportionate to splice length.

Tape speed manipulation and reversal is achieved by changing the motor speed or switching it backwards, in reverse. In Morphagene, it’s done by the means of Vari-Speed knob. By moving it clockwise, the direct playback speed is changed; by moving it counterclockwise, the reverse playback speed is changed.

However, in the process of making a composition, these techniques were rarely used just once. More than often a set of manipulations have been recorded to a new tape, which was manipulated as well and recorded to another tape, and so on, until the desired result is achieved. This type of iterative composition is possible on Morphagene thanks to its ability to record any manipulations to a new splice, in this way, emulating the classic tape composition process.

Here’s an excerpt from Schaeffer and Henry’s ‘Symphonie pour un homme seul’ (Symphony for One Man Alone), an important example of early musique concrète employing these techniques:

Meanwhile, in Germany

GRM wasn’t the only electroacoustic music studio with tape machines, and Schaeffer and Henry weren’t the only composers who experimented with tape. In 1951, at roughtly the same time GRM was being established in France, Studio für elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks (Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio), WDR, was established in Cologne, Germany. Herbert Eimert, a German music composer and theorist and Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘arch nemesis’ was among its founders. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I write ‘arch nemesis’.

An early view of WDR, Cologne, Germany.

While WDR had very similar equipment, and they even used the same tape editing techniques, their methods and ideology were in such opposition to GRM and Schaeffer, it seemed like they were in a state of war, with conflicting views on what music should be. Schaeffer was pushing music concrete, sound collages that are open to any recorded sound of any nature. Eimert discarded musique concrete as ‘fashionable and surrealistic,’ fit for film, theater, or radio, but not serious or academic enough. Instead, he saw his elektronische Musik as a development of the European tradition of the Second Viennese School, pushing Schoenberg’s twelve tone serialism to the whole new level – gaining control of sound’s most basic parameters. He would record the pure sine tones, and then manipulate them according to a strict set of rules, frequently employing additive and subtractive synthesis, as well as tape manipulation techniques.

However, this confrontation didn’t last very long; both Schaeffer’s and Eimert’s students and colleagues grew tired of the ideological restrictions. Ed.: I’m sure this moment in history could be debated, of course; suffice to say over the long run, the elements of each approach blurred into a larger understanding of electronic music – with elements of each of these schools of thought being frequented in electronic music today, even beyond the experimental or academic context. I’ll leave this open to some reader discussion. -Ed.

In addition to the German and French centers, the post War period would see the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (1950s), and San Francisco Tape Music Center (1960s) established in the United States, leading to new approaches and directions in the electronic music, with such composers as John Cage, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Milton Babbitt, and many others leading the way.

Tape techniques are great, but what if you could make splices so short, it would be nearly impossible to perform them on tape? How about the atoms of sound? We’re entering the realm of granular synthesis and microsound.
Granular synthesis is based on a 1947 work by Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor. Basically, audio signal gets broken down into very small splices lasting no more than 50 milliseconds, which are called grains. These grains are usually either too short to be heard or too short to contain any discernable information when played back instantaneously, but when they’re stacked together with various levels of overlapping, they create a new sound, forming a cloud. By changing the size of the grains, original recording they are derived from (their waveform), their overlap degree, spatial distribution, pitch and number of simultaneously played layers, the resulting texture is transformed.

Iannis Xenakis, a Greek composer and architect, is an inventor of granular synthesis technique and compositional theory based on granular synthesis. Here’s his Analogique A and B. In the first part, we will hear unprocessed orchestra recording, granular processing of the recording will be gradually introduced near the middle.

However, real time granular synthesis became availble only in 1980’s, since it required a lot of computing power, so all earlier examples of granular synthesis were processed offline and recorded afterwards. In his 2001 book Microsound, Curtis Roads, a composer and computer programmer, author of the first succesfull granular synthesis computer code (1975), offers an extensive research of the microsound practices, methods and technologies, that developed over time and become widespread due to technological progress and growing prower of musician’s personal computers. His one of the most well known concepts in a concept of nine timescales of music, quoted in Morphagene manual:

1. Infinite. The ideal time span of mathematical durations such as the infinite sine waves of classical Fourier analysis.

2. Supra. A time scale beyond that of an individual composition and extending into months, years, decades, and centuries.

3. Macro. The time scale of overall musical architecture or form, measured in minutes or hours, or in extreme cases, days.

4. Meso. Divisions of form. Groupings of sound objects into hierarchies of phrase structures of various sizes, measured in minutes or seconds. [This time scale is represented in the Morphagene by the Reel and/or Splice]

5. Sound object. A basic unit of musical structure, generalizing the traditional concept of note to include complex and mutating sound events on a time scale ranging from a fraction of a second to several seconds. [This time scale is represented in the Morphagene by the Splice and/or Gene]

6. Micro. Sound particles on a time scale that extends down to the threshold of auditory perception (measured in thousandths of a second or milliseconds). [This time scale is represented in the Morphagene by the Splice and/or Gene]

7. Sample. The atomic level of digital audio systems: individual binary samples or numerical amplitude values, one following another at a xed time interval. The period between samples is measured in millionths of a second (microseconds).

8. Subsample. Fluctuations on a time scale too brief to be properly recorded or perceived, measured in billionths of a second (nanoseconds) or less.

9. Infinitesimal. The ideal time span of mathematical durations such as the infinitely brief delta functions.

A granular synthesis comic strip by Ruji Chapnik:

Morphagene delves into the realm of microsound either by creating a series of very short splices sending a gate to the Splice input CV, or shortening the playback window with the Gene Size knob. The Morph knob controls the level of the gene’s overlapping. For example, in the full counterclockwise position, we would hear just one gene, looped, with a short delay before next one. By moving it clockwise, at first a seamless loop is introduced with no delay before next gene, then the overlap of the several genes is introduced, so the next genes would sound before the previous one is silent. Near the full clockwise position, gene panning and octave pitch shift is introduced.

Further Reading

More on tape techniques:

Advanced tape techniques:



A guide to Pierre Schaeffer:

Granular synthesis:

Study of granular synthesis in composition:

The post The story of early tape music, microsound, and a Eurorack resurrection appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

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