Meet the Variophone, the Early Soviet Synthesizer that Made Music with a Film Projector (1932)

The early days of electronic instruments lacked commonly accepted ideas about what an electronic instrument was, much less how it should be used. No one associated electronics with techno or new wave or hip hop or pop, given that none of these existed. Every sound made by experiments in synthesis in the early 20th century was by its nature experimental, and most electronic instruments were one of a kind. It did not even seem obvious that electronic instruments had to be machines that were purpose built for sound.

In 1930, at the very dawn of sound on film, Evgeny Sholpo invented the Variophone — or “Automated Paper Sound with soundtracks in both transversal and intensive form.” It was, in simpler terms, a photoelectric audio synthesizer that made use of a film projector and spinning cardboard discs with sound waves cut into them in various patterns. When amplified, the device could turn the patterns into sounds. It also created “abstract spiral animation,” notes Boing Boing. Both “were way ahead of their time.”

If you’re thinking such a machine might be used to make film soundtracks, it was. But it was also “a continuation of research that Sholpo had been conducting since the 1910s,” the blog Beyond the Coda writes, “when he was working on performerless music.”

Sholpo wanted a device that would replace musicians and allow composers to turn complex musical ideas into recorded sounds themselves. He was aided in the endeavor by Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov (grandson of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), who helped him build the prototype at Lenfilm Studios in 1931.

The two produced their first film soundtrack for the propaganda film The Year 1905 in Bourgeoisie Satire, in 1931, and then the following year created “a synthesized soundtrack for A Symphony of Peace and many other soundtracks for films and cartoons throughout the thirties,” notes 120 Years of Electronic Music. The Variophone was destroyed during the Siege of Leningrad, but Sholpo built two more, continuing to record soundtracks through the forties. Unlike the first monophonic analogue synthesizers built a couple of decades later, the Variophone could create and replicate polyphonic compositions, since tones could be layered atop each other, as in multitrack recording.

You can hear several examples of the Variophone here, and see it synched to animation — both from its own sound waves and from hand-drawn films like “The Dance of the Crow,” below. What does it sound like? The tones and timbres vary somewhat among recordings. There’s clearly been some degradation in quality over time, and the technology of recording sound on film was only in its infancy at the time, in any case. But, in certain moments, the Variophone can sound like the early Moog that Wendy Carlos used to synthesize classical music and record film scores almost 40 years after Sholpo patented his machine.

via Boing Boing

Related Content:

How an 18th-Century Monk Invented the First Electronic Instrument

Leon Theremin Advertises the First Commercial Production Run of His Revolutionary Electronic Instrument (1930)

The History of Electronic Music, 1800-2015: Free Web Project Catalogues the Theremin, Fairlight & Other Instruments That Revolutionized Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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