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Oramics Machine, c. 1959

November 23, 2012

The Oramics Machine is a unique electronic instrument invented by Daphne Oram (1925-2003).

Throughout the 1960s it was the focus of Oram’s determination to create a device to realize her musical imagination. With two grants from the Gulbenkian Foundation and the participation of several engineers, she was able to develop this unique machine.

On the Oramics Machine, Oram controlled both the structure of a piece and how it sounded by painting on strips of 35mm film. The fundamental sound came from waveforms that she also painted onto glass slides.

Daphne created her extraordinary music machine at a time when synthesizers as we know them were not available. In the 1950s and early 1960s, musicians wanting to use new sounds had to adapt devices made for other purposes. Laboratory signal generators, natural sounds and, especially, tape recorders were pressed into service. Oram produced many compositions that way, but she also dream of making machines that would give her complete control of compositions and how they sounded.

The Oramics system has two principal components. At its heart is the wooden cabinet that contains the waveform scanners. A glass slide with a wave-like shape drawn onto it, the waveform, is inserted into the scanner. Inside the scanner a flying spot from a cathode-ray tube traces the shape repeatedly. The speed at which this happens determines the pitch of the sound. The output of the scanning tube is then passed through the programmer and passed to a recording device or audio amplifier and speakers.

The metal table-like structure is called the programmer. Here Daphne would manipulate the sound from the waveforms by drawing on 35 mm film strips. The top strips controlled the vibrato. Other strips influenced the speed of the scanners, defining the pitch, the reverberation level and the volume of the sound.

You can find more information about how the Oramics Machine works on the website of the Daphne Oram Trust.

The Oramics Machine was a constant work in progress. It was changed, improved and added to by Daphne and the people she worked with. This makes it a very interesting and ‘layered’ object. Together with Goldsmiths University of London, which holds the Daphne Oram Archive, and the Daphne Oram Trust, the Science Museum is exploring the history of the machine and trying to find out how exactly it worked and how Daphne used it.

For a long time, the location of the Oramics Machine was not generally known, but it was rediscovered by Dr Mick Grierson, Director of the Daphne Oram Collection, in 2009. The short film bellow shows how the machine arrived in London before it was acquired by the Science Museum in 2010.

A documentary following the co-curation of the ‘Oramics to Electronica’ exhibition at The Science Museum in London.

The exhibition centered around Daphne Oram’s legendary Oramics machine, and features exhibits co-curated by BBC Radiophonic Workshop, EMS and a group of contemporary electronic musicians.

All text and Info via Science Museum

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