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The Novachord was a polyphonic synthesiser that was manufactured in 1939. It was designed by Laurens Hammond together with John Hanert and C. N. Williams. Incredibly for the time, it featured 72-voice polyphony created by (the first?) 'divide down' oscillators. Also incredibly for the time, each of the 72 voices had their own envelope shaper so it was totally polyphonic. These passed through a series of resonant band pass filters to create tonal variation. A 6-channel electromechanical LFO was used to polyphonically animate the sound that allowed rich ensemble textures to be created. The different sounds could be 'programmed' using a series of front panel Bakelite controls. Although these controls look variable, they are, in fact, switches. These controls allowed the user to manipulate the three filters, the envelope shape and the LFO amount. Other controls allowed the user to balance the high/low levels of the keyboard and a further control allowed the user to switch between bright and mellow (a simple lowpass bass filter but implemented in a unique electro-mechanical way tpo provide rudimentary keyboard tracking). Pedals acted as performance controls with a 'swell' pedal (to control dynamics) and various footpedals for sustain.

It utilised 163 vacuum tubes, over 1,000 capacitors and contained miles of wiring and hand sewn looms of cabling. The mechanical engineering utilised just has to be seen to be believed and there is very little compromise exhibited in the design. For example, there is a front panel control (PERC / SINGING) that is mechanically linked to other controls and when you move it, the other panel controls change. It is arguably the first implementation of a synth 'preset' because with one simple control movement, you could select a completely different set of sounds (and as the name implies, at one extreme, the sound sound is percussive and at the other, it is more legato and sustained). But the actual mechanism that achieves this is incredibly engineered and so elegant.

Such was the innovation in the design, it used 'divide down' oscillator technology, something that wouldn't be investigated or implemented until the early 60s when manufacturers such as Vox and Farfisa incorporated similar technology in their organs (but transistorised - the Novachord was strictly valves!) and then, in the 70s, Eminent in their 310 organ later to become their stand-alone String Ensemble and later to be licenced to ARP in their String Ensemble (and later 'Omni', Omni II' and 'Quadrasynth') and to be subsequently imitated by other manufacturers such as Elka (their 'Rhapsody'), Crumar (their 'Multiman' and 'Performer'), Roland (RS202, RS505 and VP330 'Vocoder+'), Yamaha (SS30 and SK-series), Korg (Delta), Moog (PolyMoog, PolyMoog Keyboard and Opus) and others.

But all these manufacturers faced a singular problem - how to 'animate' the (arguably) static waveforms the divide-down oscillators produced. The later manufacturers of string synths in the 70s strapped a chorus unit on the output whereas Hammond employed a unique, electro-mechanical polyphonic LFO and it was this which (arguably) gave it a unique sound resulting in (with the right settings) rich, lush and luxuriant sounds unheard of at the time.

The Novachord was (and still is) an amazing feat of electrical and mechanical engineering that was way ahead of its time. With its beautiful wooden case, it is also a thing of beauty and magnificent to behold and Hammond obviously intended the Novachord to be a piece of furniture to grace the home as well as a musical instrument. Portable it wasn't however weighing in at a quarter of a ton!!!

But all this came at a price. We are not 100% sure but back in 1939 when it was released, it cost around $1,900. That may not sound a lot today but back then, the average price for a house was around $600!!! That means that today, a Novachord would cost roughly £700,000!

But there was another problem.... back in 1939, nobody quite knew what to make of the Novachord!

It kind of looked like a piano ... but it wasn't ... and neither was it an organ - it was something totally new, something totally unique. Similarly, the avant garde composers of the time weren't that impressed. The advertising and PR of the time claimed it could make any orchestral sound imaginable but in reality, of course, it couldn't - it could make sounds which, if played roughly in the style of certain instruments, could, at a push, sound a bit similar to some instruments! Hammond's demonstrators focused on its ability to be able to sound like bagpipes (never a great claim to fame!), Hawaiin guitar, trumpet, piano, organ, etc.. Amazingly, they never (it seems) focused on its ability to create lush string and vocal textures and amazing pads at which it is supremely adept. But back then, the popular musical genre was 'plinky plonky' ragtime ditties and the Novachord was being sold as a home entertainment insrument rather than a 'synthesiser' with unique creative posibilities and it's only now that we can begin to appreciate - and exploit - the creative possibilities this incredible instrument has to offer in a modern context.

The similarities between the Novachord and the Mellotron are very similar. The Tron was originally marketed as a home entertainment instrument but only came into its own as a legendary instrument when people abused it creatively.

But Hammond tried hard to promote it. They took out many adverts for it and it featured in various magazines. The first instrument was delivered to Flanklin D. Roosevelt on January 30th, 1940 as a birthday present but the world had been introduced to it at the 1939 New York World's Fair where a quartet of Novachords and one Hammond organ performed daily on the Ford stand. Showing new cars and televisions and wirelesses (radios!) and other technological innovations of the time with the startlingly new (at the time) sounds of the Novachord as a soundtrack to the event, attending that massive fair (it covered acres of land) must have been like seeing an almost unbelievable glimpse of a wonderful future of science and technology taking humankind to an altogether new level - hard to believe that just across the Atlantic, Europe and Eastern Asia had entered into the darkest chapter of our world history and that soon, Britons would be spending the night underground in attempt to protect themselves against the relentless nightly bombing by the Luftwaffe and enduring food rationing!

Only 1,069 Novachords were ever made (ours is serial number #346) and it is unknown how many remain today, least of all in full working condition. We believe that #346 is the only working Novachord in the UK. Production stopped when America joined WWII and parts were in short supply and poor pre-war sales meant it was never revived when hostilities ceased. However, it's legacy lived on (albeit anonymously) when soundtrack composers used it films and tv programmes as late as the 60s.

Despite its relative anonymity, the Novachord featured in some fairly serious movies...

'Gone With The Wind', 'Rebecca', 'The Maltese Falcon', 'The Ten Commandments', various Frankenstein films and sci-fi classics such as 'It Came From Outer Space', 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms', 'This Island Earth' and many others and eminent composers such as Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and Dimitri Tiomkin scored for it in films produced by Alfred Hitchcock, John huston, Cecil B. DeMille and Frederico Fellini. It also appeared in TV shows such as 'The Twilight Zone', 'The Outer Limits' and 'Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea'. It even featured in 'Hawaii Five-0'!

Of course, like the Theremin, it was used for the eerie and haunting sounds it could produce but in many of these productions, the Novachord's unique sound was juxtaposed with full orchestra and taken seriously. Jerry Goldsmith was using one as late as the mid 60s in films such as 'The Satan Bug' and the super-slick James Bond parody movies, 'Our Man Flint' and 'In Like Flint', starring James Coburn.

So it's quite likely that if you've never heard of the Novachord before, you've probably heard one!

It's a subject of much conjecture and speculation of what might have happened if Hammond had continued with production after WWII - electronic music would have had a head start of over 30 years and who knows what synths might look like today! Would, for example, Don Buchla and Bob Moog, have conceived their monophonic voltage controlled synths had polyphonic Hammond synths been in development since 1946? The electronica landscape would probably look a lot different had the Novachord (or derivatives) taken off. Quite a thought!


#346 History

Prior to Dan owning this Novachord, it was owned by one Marc Doty from Seattle who is also known as the musical project 'Automatic Gainsay'. Prior to that, however, it was owned by the somewhat eccentric organ collector and a pioneer of valve based computers, George Hardenburgh.

A man of some wealth, he bought the art deco Mounds Theatre in Ramsey County, Minnesota. The place was claimed to be haunted but he used it to store his vast collection of pipe and electric organs and early computers and it is said that he could be heard playing these things in the wee hours of the morning ... which must have been a bit unsettling to the neighbours - very Vincent Price and 'Dr Phibes'!!

#346 is currently owned by Dan Wilson of Hideaway Studios, Bath, England. Contrary to an urban myth that has spread across the net, Doty didn't 'give' it to him - Dan bought it from Doty (and paid a not insubstantial sum of money having it crated and shipped to the UK) and he has spent many hundreds of hours painstakingly restoring it but has taken a different path to other Novachord restoration projects...

Instead of replacing failed components with modern equivalents (which is arguably tantamount to putting a modern Toyota engine in a vintage 60s Jaguar MkII!!!), as a highly skilled 'old school' electronics engineer, Dan has rebuilt the original components in order to retain the original sound as it would have been heard in 1939 as closely as possible. And it certainly seems to have paid off because the samples we've taken are imbued with true vintage charm. His Novachord doesn't just make sounds ... it breathes them and sometimes barks them (oh ... and sometimes wheezes them a little!). Dan's skill and attention to detail is to be commended because #346 must be one of the best and most authentic Novachords on the planet today.


The Novachord's claim to fame...

Some people dispute the claim that the Novachord was the world's first synth, citing the Telharmonium as the instrument to deserve that title.

The Teharmonium was, indeed, a remarkable piece of technology that does pre-date the Novachord by many years but it was effectively the world's first electric/electronic organ.

It was a curious project. The idea wasn't to build an instrument that people could buy and play and enjoy. Instead, it was designed to be transmitted over the new emerging telephone system. The idea of the inventor and his investors was to sell licences to hotels, restaurants and other public places to 'pipe' Telharmonium music via the telephone service - an early 'muzak' if you like.

It was one hell of a design and one hell of an instrument and one hell of a technical achievement and when the service went live, people were absolutely enthralled - it was the first time that humankind had heard music relayed electronically. Hard to imagine now. But it was a novelty and people soon tired of it largely due to technical difficulties and listeners complained about its inadequacies after the initial excitement died down.

The inventor and his investors - who thought they saw the future - persevered but wireless (i.e. broadcasting on radio) was taking over and few people bought into the Telharmonium concept. In fact, it all kind of ended acrimoniously when several top NY hotels paid for the wiring installation of the Telharmonium broadcast service but it wasn't delivered.

But that aside, the Telharmonium was esentially an organ (even the inventor's son admitted as much), not a synthesiser and, in fact, much of the pioneering technology employed in the Telharmonium would later be adapted for use in later electronic organs.

The Novachord, however, was a true synth - harmonically rich oscillators into envelope shapers into filters ... true subtractive synthesis such as we might find on any modern analogue or VA synth today. Of course, it wasn't understood at the time but that's irrelevant - the Novachord was the world's first true analogue polysynth and arguably, the only thing it lacked was envelope/LFO control of those filters. Had it done so, it really wouldn't be a million miles away from the Prophet 5 released some 35 years later! Instruments such as the PolyMoog and ARP Omni and Korg PS-series owe much of their antecedence to the Novachord's innovations in 1939.

 

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