The first institutional electronic music studio in America was the Columbia Tape Music Center.
Its story begins in 1951. During this time, Columbia University's Music Department in New York purchased recording equipment to tape their music auditions, including a double-speed Ampex 400 tape recorder and a Magnachord tape recorder. Two American composers Otto Luening (1900–1996) and Vladimir Ussachevsky (1911–1990), who were music lecturers at this university, began to experiment by composing music for tape. The first public recital of this music took place at the Ussachevsky's Composers' Forum on May 9, 1952, where, among others, his piece Sonic Contours was played. Following this event the news about the music on tape coming from Columbia has spread.
Luening and Ussachevsky began a long relationship as staff members and caretakers for Columbia's Tape Music Center. Initially, there was no fixed location, and the equipment was moved from one place to another in the trunk of the car. The interest in their experiments was sufficient enough to get several commissions. In 1952, they completed several pieces for a concert of Leopold Stokowski, which was held at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. From there, the portable studio landed briefly in Ussachevsky's living room in New York, and then in the sound studio in the basement of the elegant Riverdale house of conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957). Eventually, after months of traveling, the recording center ended up in a room at the Columbia's music department.
The earliest experiments of Luening and Ussachevsky did not use any electronically produced sounds. They had no oscillators or other sound generating equipment. Instead, Luening and Ussachevsky turned to manipulating recorded instrumental sounds. They composed their first songs using only tape manipulation and reverb. Luening used the flute as the sound source, and Ussachevsky - the piano.
Invited to present their electronic music at the Museum of Modern Art, they created their first significant electronic works: Fantasy in Space (1952), Low Speed (1952) and Invention in Twelve Notes (1952) for Luening's flute and Ussachevsky's Sonic Contours with the use of a piano. Both composers experimented with changing the nature of the sounds by changing the speed of the tape. Luening also applied twelve-note compositional techniques in his work and used multiple tracks to superimpose flute soundtracks that were played with slight variations in pitch. Low Speed used these techniques to synthesize overtones in a similar way to sinusoidal oscillators.
Thanks to the concert at the museum, Luening and Ussachevsky became known to the public. They appeared live on television. They both became America's spokesmen for electronic music. After another three years of composing, lecturing, demonstrating and performing, they received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study electronic music in both Europe and America, and to devise a plan to establish an electronic music center in the United States. During their travels in Europe, Luening and Ussachevsky visited Pierre Schaeffer and the GRM studio in Paris, WDR in Cologne and some others. Having seen sophisticated tape recorders, audio generators, filters and other equipment in European studios, they found out that the development of electronic technology heralded a radical new stage in the history of music.
Back in America, they were pleasantly surprised to hear about a new electronic music "synthesizer" being built at David Sarnoff Laboratories at RCA in Princeton, New Jersey.
They seized the opportunity to set up a modern, fully equipped electronic music studio at Columbia University. The device that brought Luening and Ussachevsky to Princeton was called the Olson-Belar Sound Synthesizer, in honor of its inventors Harry F. Olson and Herbert F. Belar, senior engineers at RCA. Presented in July 1955, the device was the first sound synthesizer in the modern sense. It consisted of integrated components that could generate, modify, process, record and present complex sounds intended for musical applications.
Discovering that composer Milton Babbitt, then at Princeton University, was also interested in experimenting with the synthesizer, Luening and Ussachevsky teamed up with him, and for the next three years the trio regularly traveled to the Sarnoff laboratories to develop new musical material.
In 1957, Luening and Ussachevsky completed a 155-page report to the Rockefeller Foundation on their discoveries in the field of electronic music. In it, they recommended establishing the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the first institution sponsored studio in the United States. The result was a grant paid to both Columbia and Princeton Universities over five years. In 1959, RCA donated to the center an improved version of the synthesizer (then called RCA Mark II).
Luening and Ussachevsky became famous for their experiments with tape compositions. Together with Princeton University's Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions, they were leading creators at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and continued their work using RCA Mark I and II synthesizers. In keeping with the classical tradition, they often explored modern elements of music, using electronics in conjunction with traditional instruments. Some of their most important achievements have involved the synchronization of live performers with the electronic music on tape. In 1954, Luening and Ussachevsky composed Poemat in Cycles and Bells for tape recorder and orchestra, which, together with Edgard Varèse's Deserts from the same year, was one of the first pieces to synchronize a live symphony orchestra performance with music for tape.
The center consisted of three studios: one housed the RCA Mark II and related recording equipment, and two other studios were equipped with more traditional equipment: audio oscillators, mixers, reverb, and other tools for composing on tape. The RCA synthesizer was a device that took up most of the studio. This was not surprising as its electronics consisted of tube components. It was nothing like a musical instrument. It had seven parts with the following functions:
• Tone generating with the use of twelve oscillators
• Portamento and vibrato generator
• Envelope and volume controller
• Tone color controller, including filters
• Program relay for octaves setting
• Program relay for frequency setting
• Amplifiers and mixers
The synthesizer generated sound using simple tuning fork oscillators. It was conceived to make music using a twelve-note chromatic scale, but its rich set of timbre, envelope and pitch controls provided many options for those more inclined to experiment. One additional feature of the RCA Mark II set an important technical precedent. It could process the input signal from the microphone. It was perhaps the first electronic musical instrument with this capability, many years ahead of sampling and processing of natural sounds.
The RCA music synthesizer was not a computer as we define it today, but it provided binary, mechanically programmable means for specifying and changing sound parameters including pitch, loudness, duration and timbre. The ability to store instructions was perhaps the device's greatest innovation. The sounds were predefined with a roll of punch tape and a typewriter style keyboard. As the reel entered the synthesizer, it passed through a line of metal brushes, one for each row of instructions on the tape. When a hole appeared on the tape, the brush made contact with the cylinder on the other side, completing the actuation circuit, and sending electrical instructions to other synthesizer components via a series of relays. When using a roll of tape, you could only program or play back two sound channels at a time. The reel itself contained up to thirty-six columns of possible instructions in binary code, eighteen for each of the two tones. These codes could establish the timbre, pitch, duration, and sequence of notes. The system was later modified to accept card data entry as well. The synthesizer was designed to construct a piece of music layer by layer requiring the composer to assemble it using a recording medium such as magnetic tape. The 1955 RCA music synthesizer did not have a tape recorder attached. Instead, Belar and Olson hooked it up to a record press and a turntable. Using this system, the composer could record any sequence from a roll of tape on one record, and then combine it on a new record with other sequences played in real time. In 1959, when the synthesizer was installed at the Columbia-Princeton Center, a tape recording system was connected to it.
This wonderful device gave the composer excellent control over constructing and editing a piece of music, even before it was played on the synthesizer. Luening and Ussachevsky were immediately promoted to the rank of pioneers of the computer music. The fortune of owning an RCA music synthesizer has made Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center one of the top music studios in the world.
The world-famous composers were frequently invited to the Columbia-Princeton Center. In the first two years, these were: Mishiko Toyama from Japan, Mario Davidovsky from Argentina, Halim El-Dabh from Egypt, Bulent Arel from Turkey and Charles Wuorinen from the United States. The Center took advantage of this output by presenting its first public concerts in 1961 at the McMillan Theater at the Columbia University. The program consisted of seven tracks, six of which were later released on the Columbia album. These were pieces either for tape alone or involving live interaction of musicians with synthetic sounds on tape. The other composers associated with the studio in later years were Edgard Varèse (who completed the second version of Deserts in the studio in 1961), Luciano Berio, Ilhan Mimaroglu, Wendy Carlos, Jon Appleton, Pauline Oliveros and Jacob Druckman, Max Mathews, Cwi Avni, Charles Dodge, Ross Lee Finney, Malcolm Goldstein, Andres Lewin-Richter, Alwin Nikolais, Mel Powell, William Overton Smith.