First Successful Synthesizer Is Completed

Music was forever changed when the RCA Mark II synthesizer was delivered to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, expanding the variety of sounds available to composers when creating their compositions.

Summary of Event

Fascination with music and experimentation with its various forms resonates throughout the whole of human history. From at least as early as the ancient Greek civilization, humankind has explored the creation of music through mechanical means. Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Greeks invented the hydraulos, a reed organ operated by water pressure. Music’s history is filled with innovators as well as innovations. From Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to John Cage, music has benefited from those individuals who strove to push the barriers of conventional thought. It was in this long tradition of musical exploration that the first synthesizer was created. Like many inventions that came before, the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer Mark II would change the face of music. Synthesizers (music)
RCA Mark II[RCA Mark 02]
Electronic music
[kw]First Successful Synthesizer Is Completed (Jan., 1959)
[kw]Synthesizer Is Completed, First Successful (Jan., 1959)
Synthesizers (music)
RCA Mark II[RCA Mark 02]
Electronic music
[g]North America;Jan., 1959: First Successful Synthesizer Is Completed[06030]
[g]United States;Jan., 1959: First Successful Synthesizer Is Completed[06030]
[c]Music;Jan., 1959: First Successful Synthesizer Is Completed[06030]
[c]Inventions;Jan., 1959: First Successful Synthesizer Is Completed[06030]
[c]Science and technology;Jan., 1959: First Successful Synthesizer Is Completed[06030]
Olson, Harry F.
Belar, Herbert
Ussachevsky, Vladimir
Luening, Otto
Babbitt, Milton
Moog, Robert

Although the development of the RCA Mark II was important to many types of music, it was within the field of electronic music that the new synthesizer had its greatest effects. The RCA Mark II’s completion and installation in the newly formed Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center[Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center] in January of 1959 radically changed electronic music composers’ control over their medium. The new synthesizer was designed and built by Harry F. Olson and Herbert Belar, two men working for the Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in the David Sarnoff Laboratories David Sarnoff Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. The origins of their work in the field can be traced back to the late 1940’s, when they became interested in possible applications of technology to the composition and production of music and human speech patterns. RCA, which had long been interested in the electronic production of music, quickly decided to fund their research.

After several years, Olson and Belar developed a machine for musical composition that was founded on a system of random probability. They tried to transform some of the creative principles of composition into programmable electromechanical functions. This attempt, unfortunately, was doomed to failure, as they had misunderstood the inherent need for a composer’s intuitive faculties rather than a statistically based analysis of that same intuition. Learning from their mistakes, Olson and Belar spent most of the 1950’s developing their next two machines, the RCA Mark I and the RCA Mark II. These two machines were the first to deserve the name “synthesizer.”

Thomas B. Holmes defines a synthesizer as “a self-contained instrument designed for the generation, modification, amplification, mixing, and presentation of electronic sounds.” These synthesizers were able to take “raw” sound in the form of electric current and manipulate it into a composer’s desired composition by selecting and modifying the four basic components of sound: volume, pitch, duration, and timbre. Olson and Belar’s modular construction meant that each component of the entire synthesizer was linked so that the electronic signal could undergo all of its modifications and then be broadcast or recorded in one process.

This interlinking was a revolutionary idea at the time, as was the remarkable type of control a composer could exert on the process. Although some of the components still had to be adjusted by hand, the RCA synthesizers included a punched-tape control system. This punched tape was programmed by a composer using a keyboard similar to a typewriter’s keyboard and was then fed into the synthesizer, thereby controlling the various manipulations that the synthesizer went through to shape the composer’s work. This technique drastically reduced the time it took to produce music in the electronic studio, even though the inspiration of the work was still up to the composers.

Although the inspiration was still the province of the composers, the RCA Mark II had finally provided them with the means to explore that inspiration. Electronic music can be thought of as a legacy of Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 discovery that sound could be translated into electrical signals and vice versa. This discovery had resulted in a succession of electro-acoustic machines before the invention of the RCA Mark II.

Unfortunately, technology still lagged far behind the dreams of composers. During the first half of the twentieth century, composers began to dream of creating mechanical means to express every sound that the mind could imagine. Avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varèse and Ferruccio Busoni were frustrated by the limitations of the conventional orchestra. They wanted to explore imagined vistas of music that contained new sounds that simply were not available. Nearly fifty years later, other avant-garde composers were to find much of their answer in the RCA Mark II.

The potential of the RCA Mark II came to public attention through the efforts of three composers, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening, and Milton Babbitt. After completing studies of electronic music in Europe and the United States, Ussachevsky and Luening teamed up with Babbitt to work with a new synthesizer they heard had been developed at RCA. After receiving a grant of $175,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation, they set up the Columbia-Princeton Center in New York City. This new studio would have all the latest technology, including the brand-new RCA Mark II, on permanent loan from RCA. The event would change forever the composition and production of electronic music.


When the RCA Mark II was installed in the Columbia-Princeton center, it generated enormous publicity and controversy. The center quickly became the focal point for electronic music composition in the United States. The publicity engendered by the RCA Mark II was its primary impact on music; many people reacted antagonistically. They feared electronic music was only robot music for robot people. They imagined a long, monotonous drone punctuated by hisses and metallic sounds that would quickly dehumanize music and those people who listened to it. Many musicians, as well, were not pleased with this latest development. Musicians’ unions strongly objected to the RCA Mark II and the Columbia-Princeton Center, fearing that they would make musicians obsolete. All this opposition began to subside as fears eased and were replaced by wonder at the many possibilities the synthesizer held.

Soon after becoming operational, the Columbia-Princeton Center invited several internationally known composers to come to New York to work with the new synthesizer. In the first two years, the center sponsored the work not only of Babbitt, Ussachevsky, and Luening but also of Mario Davidovsky, Halim El-Dabh, Charles Wuorinen, and Bülent Arel. Several of the works produced in this period were presented to the public in the center’s inaugural concerts on May 9 and 10, 1961, in the McMillin Theater of Columbia University.

These concerts sparked even further interest in the medium of electronic music. Spanning the widest spectrum of stylistic possibilities, these compositions helped dispel the image that this music was simplistic and robotic. The primary impact of the RCA Mark II lay not in its revolutionary technology but in the enormous amount of research that went into electronic music technology as a result of the publicity it received.

Although the RCA Mark II brought composers’ dreams much nearer to reality, there were still several drawbacks. One of these drawbacks was its enormous expense. Another was its use of vacuum-tube technology, which made it large enough to fill a studio wall. These two facts made it impossible for the RCA Mark II to be disseminated to other composers. While the RCA synthesizer did give composers much easier control over the manipulation of the music than anything previously developed, it still required a lengthy process to “tune” many components and to enter the programming on the punched tape. Fortunately, the research sparked by the RCA Mark II soon created the technology to surmount these obstacles.

As technology overcame these problems, the modern age of electronic music began. Electronic music composition was further spurred by the development of a new device by a young physicist by the name of Robert Moog. Interested in music, he collaborated with the composer Herbert Deutsch Deutsch, Herbert to construct a transistorized voltage-controlled oscillator and amplifier. Moog’s innovations allowed composers to modify the components of sound by use of a keyboard, enabling them to program their voltage-controlled synthesizers in real time as they were playing. In addition, the new Moog synthesizer, finished in 1966, also benefited from technological advances in solid-state circuitry, rendering it much smaller and more affordable. The Moog synthesizer, less expensive, more portable, easier to operate, and with greater facility to control operations than the RCA Mark II, opened the doors for electronic music to permeate the marketplace.

In 1968, an album by Wendy Carlos Carlos, Wendy entitled Switched-On Bach
Switched-On Bach (Carlos)[Switched On Bach] featuring music of Johann Sebastian Bach played on a Moog synthesizer became a best seller and made the synthesizer a household word. At the same time, rock musicians were beginning to explore the possibilities presented by the synthesizer and by electronic music in general. Artists such as the Beatles, Keith Emerson, Pink Floyd, and Brian Eno were among the first rock performers to use the techniques of electronic music and synthesizers to create sometimes energy-laden, sometimes surreal musical landscapes. No longer was electronic music only the province of classical composers. Through public awareness, lower costs, and easier operations, synthesizers became an indelible part of the cultural landscape.

In many ways, it probably would have been difficult for those early pioneers of the RCA Mark II to imagine the extent of their work’s influence. Electronic music has been featured in the scores of hit movies, including Star Wars (1977), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Batman (1989). Much music for television shows and commercials also owes a debt to early work done on the synthesizer. Classical composers such as John Cage, Terry Riley, Isao Tomita, and Philip Glass have continued to stretch the boundaries of theoretical work and human ears with their compositions utilizing synthesizers and electronic music. The development of digital technology and personal computers further enhanced the performance of synthesizers and created still more possibilities for electronic music.

Although the technology of the RCA Mark II was a landmark step in the search for the mechanical means to meet the demands of composer’s imaginations, it was the climate the RCA synthesizer created that was its greatest achievement. Something inherent in the idea of the synthesizer and the Columbia-Princeton Center seemed to spark humankind’s curiosity enough to spur musical technology onward; perhaps one day it will reach the state prophesied by John Cage in 1937, when he said, “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.” Synthesizers (music)
RCA Mark II[RCA Mark 02]
Electronic music

Further Reading

  • Darter, Tom, ed. The Art of Electronic Music. New York: William Morrow, 1984. Edited from material published in Keyboard magazine. Value of the book lies in its articles and interviews with some of the leading electronic music artists. Contains an interview carried out at the Columbia-Princeton Center with Babbitt, Ussachevsky, Luening, Davidovsky, and Carlos, among others. Includes photographs.
  • Deutsch, Herbert A. Synthesis: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Electronic Music. Rev. ed. Sherman Oaks, Calif.: Alfred, 1985. Deutsch was the composer who worked with Robert Moog to build the first voltage-controlled synthesizer. His book is more theory than history and is helpful for understanding how the musical currents of the past affected the course of electronic music. He also suggests studio experiments for readers to try.
  • Holmes, Thomas B. Electronic and Experimental Music. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. An excellent book, containing an informative section giving descriptions of the basics of sound, music, and electronic music technology. Holmes dwells at length on the early electroacoustic instruments. He also includes an excellent electronic music record guide as well as an informative glossary.
  • Mackay, Andy. Electronic Music. Minneapolis, Minn.: Control Data, 1981. Contains an excellent selection of color pictures. Mackay’s book also carries an informative section on the lives and work of various composers associated with electronic music. The text is sometimes rambling but conveys a basic sense of the fundamentals of electronic music.
  • Manning, Peter. Electronic and Computer Music. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. An in-depth, comprehensive history of electronic music. Manning is particularly focused on the technological aspect (including charts and graphs) of each phase in electronic music. While technically oriented, Manning’s work manages to flesh out the history with abundant quotations. Contains the best description of how the RCA Mark II works.
  • Schwartz, Elliot. Electronic Music. New York: Praeger, 1973. Outdated, but contains insightful passages on the development of compositional theory. Includes an interesting section on further listening and suggested reading and a selected discography and bibliography. Also contains an intriguing section of observations by composers.

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