A machine capable of modifying sound structure

May 9, 2011 · Posted in Uncategorized 

For those of you not so familiar with the Phonogene concept a short background may be appropriate.

The phonogene was a machine capable of modifying sound structure significantly and it provided composers with a means to adapt sound to meet specific compositional contexts. The initial phonogenes were manufactured in 1953 by two subcontractors: the chromatic phonogene by a company called Tolana, and the sliding version by the SAREG Company (Poullin 1999). A third version was developed later at ORTF.

  • Chromatic: The chromatic phonogene was controlled through a one-octave keyboard. Multiple capstans of differing diameters vary the tape speed over a single stationary magnetic tape head. A tape loop was put into the machine, and when a key was played, it would act on an individual pinch roller / capstan arrangement and the tape played at the specified speed. The machine worked with short sounds only (Poullin 1999).
  • Sliding: The sliding phonogene (also called continuous variation phonogene) provided continuous variation of tape speed using a control rod (Poullin 1999). The range allowed the motor to arrive at almost a stop position, always through a continuous variation. It was basically a normal tape recorder but with the ability to control its speed, so it could modify any length of tape. One of the earliest examples of its use can by heard in Voile d’Orphee by Pierre Henry (1953), where a lengthy glissando is used to symbolise the removal of Orpheus’s veil as he enters hell.
  • Universal: A final version called the universal phonogene was completed in 1963. The device’s main ability was that it enabled the dissociation of pitch variation from time variation. This was the starting point for methods that would later become widely available using digital technology, for instance harmonising (transposing sound without modifying duration) and time stretching (modifying duration without pitch modification). This was obtained through a rotating magnetic head called the Springer temporal regulator, an ancestor of the rotating heads used in video machines.

In this video:

Covering basic functions of the Phonogene.
GENE-SIZE – Dictates the size of the sample.
SLIDE – When the GENE-SIZE is activated, SLIDE allows you to select the start position of the grain/gene.
SPLICE – You can manually (and with CV) insert trigger points.
ORGANIZE – Allows selection of the different trigger points created.
VARISPEED – Controls the overall frequency. Recording at lower frequency ranges allows for greater record time at the expense of fidelity. Recording at higher frequencies allows for higher quality playback but shorter record time
HOLD SPLICE – Clears the memory of trigger points you inserted.
HOLD SPLICE + REC – Clears the memory of the sample

There are a lot of features not covered in this video, such as GENE-SHIFT, SOS (Sound on Sound) CV Input, EOS (End of sample) Trigger, Optimal Recording, etc. but you can read about that when the manual makes an appearance any day now. Again, these are just the basic functions, I’m sure Richard will have a ridiculous video utilizing all functions at the same time.


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