Oramics

In the Archive

This series contains the following files

  • Early conceptions
  • Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
  • Patents and trademark
  • Log books
  • Technical drawings and correspondence
  • Technical correspondence: Norman Gaythorpe

Context

In 1962, Daphne Oram presented Oramics, the project that consumed so much of her time and resources. She received two consecutive Gulbenkian Foundation grants in the region of £3,500, a sizeable sum in the 1960s, to develop her research. Daphne said of Oramics, “I visualize the composer learning an alphabet of symbols with which he will be able to indicate all the parameters needed to build up the sound he requires. These symbols, drawn…freehand on an ordinary piece of paper, will be fed to the equipment and the resultant sound will be recorded onto magnetic tape.”

The concept of drawn sound was not new. The technique of drawing patterns by hand onto the thin strip at the edge of 35mm film had been around since the 1920s. Russian film makers Arseny Arraamov and Yevgeny Sholpo created soundtracks from intricate ink drawings on thin strips that were 1.93 – 2.5.mm in width. Norman McClaren used drawn sound in many films. South African electronics engineer , Johannes van der Bijl, working in the 1940s, developed a method of recording sound using photographed waveforms on 35mm film, which were passed across and interrupted a steady beam of light, and thus generated an electronic impulse to represent sound but the Oramics system reveals a more lucid, free and at the same time more precise analogue of sound waveforms.

Peter Manning noted “The ability to draw the dynamic shaping of pitched events not only allows a readily assimilated audio-visual correlation of specifications, it also overcomes the rigid attack and decay characteristics of electronic envelope shapers”.

The main body of the machine is a steel-framed table, across which a centre strip of graph paper is placed at right angles. Waveforms are drawn freehand onto this paper (these are still in place) and then traced, or marked out with masking tape, onto transparent, sprocketed loops of 35mm film. There are ten looped strips of film in total, arranged in five banks and each passes clockwise from right to left operated simultaneously by a common motor. The near group is individually and directly looped around the clutch mechanism and drive wheel, and the far group is looped around a wheel that is slaved to the main motor. Clutch and gears control speed of rotation, which normals at 10cm per second, although a handwheel enables the user to turn all strips simultaneously more slowly if desired. The near group of four control waveform shape, duration and vibrato, the raw ingredients of the desired sound, and the far group control the finer nuances of timbre and intensity, amplitude, frequency. The drawn waveforms pass over photocells, illuminated from above by a steady stream of light, to the right of the flat surface, The dark patches on the transparent film strip modulate the rays of light, and these are picked up as voltage measurements by the capacitors in the photocells. The electronic signal triggers oscillators and filters and envelope shape can be manipulated in fine detail. The signal is also passed to a separate sealed light box which houses four cathode-ray tubes. A flat plate of glass slides into a slot in the light box. The glass plate is partially covered by an opaque mask, selected from a number of pre-set shapes which correspond to the desired effect. This partially covers the tube output which is picked up by a photomultiplier inside the light box and conveyed to the output of the various oscillators.

Actual sound recording takes place at the end of the process, once the drawn sound has been manipulated and created according to mental and mathematical specifications, and not monitored at the outset by aural observations. A separate unit houses another motor, across which four strips of oxidised 35mm film are tensely looped. The output signal from the multitrack magnetic recording is passed to a stack of four Mulla 323 amplifiers, and from there to a pair of home- made speakers.

Composers such as Thea Musgrave, Hugh Davies used the Oramics machine to compose, although the finished product was perhaps too complex, comprising several separate housings and units for the different processes, to achieve commercial productivity, or even professional use by other composers.

The timing of its completion left it overshadowed by other developments in voltage controlled oscillator technology. Oramics was superseded by the Moog synthesisers, the synthi VCS3 and other more compact electronic sound creators and as a sound recording medium by more compact and practical portable tape recorders such as the early Revox A77s. The finished Oramics product remained in need of further investment and Robert Moog recently observed, ‘I remember thinking that it must have been a job and a half to make music with…’ (Moog 2000).

Another criticism of Oramics is that recording the sound and converting it to acoustic sound energy takes place only after it has been graphically defined. Delia Derbyshire pointed out, ‘…My attitude was that the ear is a better judge of what it hears than the eye can be in constructing a sound…I personally wouldn’t approach making a sound from any visual parameters, I’d rather do it from mathematical parameters and then rely on the ear to change it. (|Derbyshire 2000).

Acknowledgements: This article is comprised largely of text taken from Jo Hutton’s article ‘DAPHNE ORAM Innovator, Writer and Composer.’

Images