MATRIXSYNTH: The First Computer Generated Music? - Alan Turing's Manchester Mark II

Monday, September 26, 2016

The First Computer Generated Music? - Alan Turing's Manchester Mark II

Above is a recording of Alan Turing's Manchester Mark II computer used to generate music. According to the title, it is the first recording of computer music. The following are a couple of excerpts on the piece from the tech blog Engadget, followed by the British Library Sound and Vision blog. Both imply that Alan Turing's machine was the first computer to generate music. I was curious about the timeline, so I took look at at 120 Years of Electronic Music, which is a running list of the history of pivotal instruments in electronic music. Alan Turing's Manchester Mark II is not yet listed. The RCA Synthesizer, however is, and is dated 1951. There were two versions of the RCA Synthesizer, the Mark I and the Mark II which came later in 1957. There was also a computer located in Sydney, Australia that generated music in the 1950s. Based on the following, Alan Turing's Manchester Mark II first generated music in 1948. It's not clear when work on the RCA Mark I may have generated it's first sounds, however it appears it was completed in 1951. There were two previous instruments that influenced the RCA Mark I, namely, Givelet Coupleux Organ of 1930 and the Hanert Electric Orchestra in 1945, however, they do not appear to have been computer based like the RCA Mark 1, or Alan Turing's Manchester Mark II. Worth noting is the the RCA synthesizers were specifically created to generate music, while, Alan Turing's Manchester Mark II was not.

via Engadget:

"Alan Turing is known for a few small achievements, like helping end World War II, laying the groundwork for modern computers and developing the 'Turing test' for machine intelligence. You may not be aware, however, that he paved the way for synthesizers and electronica by inventing the first computer-generated musical tones. A pair of researchers from the University of Cantebury have now restored the first-ever recording made from Turing's 'synthesizer.'

Turing figured that if he rapidly played clicking sounds at set intervals, the listener would here them as distinct tones corresponding to musical notes. For instance, playing the click on every fourth cycle of a computers' CPU produces a 'C' tone, exactly like a modern synthesizer. He tested that theory on his Manchester Mark I, one of the world's first programmable computers. Instead of making music, he used the tones to indicate computing operations like completed tasks and memory overflow errors (meaning he also invented notification sounds).

Turing knew that he could program songs on his 'synth,' but had no interest in doing it. Luckily, talented programmer and musician Christopher Strachey got his hands on the Manchester Mark II's operating guide, which was, by the way, the world's first computer manual. Using that, he coded God Save the Queen, the longest program ever at the time. The next morning, he played it back to surprised onlookers at the lab, including Turing, who was uncharacteristically thrilled, saying 'good show.'"

Left: SSPL/Getty Images

And via the British Library Sound and Vision blog:

"Today, all that remains of the recording session is a 12-inch single-sided acetate disc, cut by the BBC's technician while the computer played. The computer itself was scrapped long ago, so the archived recording is our only window on that historic soundscape. What a disappointment it was, therefore, to discover that the pitches were not accurate: the recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded. But with some electronic detective work it proved possible to restore the recording—with the result that the true sound of this ancestral computer can be heard once again, for the first time in more than half a century.

Frank Cooper's original 'acetate' disc (Photo courtesy of Chris Burton)
Fig. 2: The original 'acetate' disc was saved by Manchester University engineer Frank Cooper (Photo courtesy of Chris Burton)

Alan Turing's pioneering work, in the late 1940s, on transforming the computer into a musical instrument has largely been overlooked: it's an urban myth of the music world that the first computer-generated musical notes were heard in 1957, at Bell Labs in America.1 The recent Oxford Handbook of Computer Music staked out a counterclaim, saying that the first computer to play notes was located in Sydney, Australia. However, the Sydney computer was not operational until the end of 1950, whereas computer-generated notes were emerging from a loudspeaker in Turing's computing lab as early as the autumn of 1948."

On the RCA Synthesizer via 120 years:

"In the 1950’s RCA was one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the United States; business interests included manufacturing record players, radio and electronic equipment (military and domestic – including the US version of the Theremin) as well as recording music and manufacturing records. In the early 50’s RCA initiated a unusual research project whose aim was to auto-generate pop ‘hits’ by analysing thousands of music recordings; the plan being that if they could work out what made a hit a hit, they could re-use the formula and generate their own hit pop music. The project’s side benefit also explored the possibility of cutting the costs of recording sessions by automating arrangements and using electronically generated sounds rather than expensive (and unionised) orchestras; basically, creating music straight from score to disc without error or re-takes.

The RCA electrical engineers Harry Olson and Hebart Belar were appointed to develop an instrument capable of delivering this complex task, and in doing so inadvertently (as is so often the case in the history of electronic music) created one of the first programmable synthesisers – the precursors being the Givelet Coupleux Organ of 1930 and the Hanert Electric Orchestra in 1945.

The resulting RCA Mark I machine was a monstrous collection of modular components that took up a whole room at Columbia University’s Computer Music Center (then known as the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center). The ‘instrument’ was basically an analogue computer; the only input to the machine was a typewriter-style keyboard where the musician wrote a score in a type of binary code."

The Story of the RCA Synthesizer

Published on Dec 16, 2012 alanoneuser

"History of the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer and the Victor Synthesizer.
Produced by Kevin Meredith.
Featuring Dr. Alex Magoun of the IEEE History Center at
and Rebecca Mercuri, Ph.D. of Notable Software at"

1950 early electronic synthesizer: 'This is music with a strictly electronic beat'

Uploaded on Mar 11, 2011 Clips & Footage

Title Screen - 1950's Electronic Music

Published on Jul 13, 2013 Cliff Marshall

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