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Tolana-SAREG-ORTF | Phonogène


The phonogène 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 phonogènes were manufactured in 1953 by two subcontractors: the chromatic phonogène by a company called Tolana, and the sliding version by the SAREG Company (Poullin 1999). A third version was developed later at ORTF. An outline of the unique capabilities of the various phonogènes can be seen here:

Chromatic: The chromatic phonogène 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 cause the tape to be played at a specific speed. The machine worked with short sounds only (Poullin 1999).

Sliding: The sliding phonogène (also called continuous-variation phonogène) 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’Orphée 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 phonogène 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.

Speed variation was a powerful tool for sound design applications. It had been identified that transformations brought about by varying playback speed lead to modification in the character of the sound material:

+ Variation in the sounds' length, in a manner directly proportional to the ratio of speed variation.

+ Variation in length is coupled with a variation in pitch, and is also proportional to the ratio of speed variation.

+ A sound's attack characteristic is altered, whereby it is either dislocated from succeeding events, or the energy of the attack is more sharply focused.

+ The distribution of spectral energy is altered, thereby influencing how the resulting timbre might be perceived, relative to its original unaltered state.
Engine TypeAnalog
EngineSample (Tape)
Voices (max)1
Engine DetailedSingle tape with variable speed
Key typeKeys
Extra info3 versions, 1 unit per version
Produced:1953 - 1963
Legend: Obvious Y: Yes, N: No, N/A: Not Applicable
VCO Voltage Controlled Oscillator DCO Digital Controlled Oscillator
LFO Low Frequency Oscillator Sub Sub Oscillator
VCF Voltage Controlled Filter VCA Voltage Controlled Amplifier
Velocity As with a piano, the harder you hit a key, the louder the sound, unlike most organs which always produce the same loudness no matter how hard you hit a key. Aftertouch Pressing a key after you activated it. Channel Aftertouch, no matter which key, it will send a Channel message. Poly Aftertouch, sends the pressure per key instead of the whole channel.
Values for OSC, LFO, Filter, Envelope are per voice unless stated otherwise.

Manuals, patches etc.


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