The Variophone

Gallery opened 31 July 2022

Updated: 2 Aug 2022

New pics added

Electronic Music in Russia

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The Variophone was a Russian machine designed to produce sounds of arbitrary timbre (waveform) and pitch. The first version was built in Leningrad by Evgeny Sholpo in 1930. The Variophone modulated a beam of light with a rotating tone-disc, and recorded it on cine film.

Above: Diagram of the Variophone electronic music generator: 1930

This sort of diagram used to fascinate me when I was but a lad, and this one is a beauty.

Some of the parts have been identified:

  • 1, 2, 3: Electric motor and belt drive
  • 6, 7, 8, 9: Gearbox for setting tone-wheel speed in large steps
  • 10, 11, 12: Variable-speed friction drive to tone disc
  • 13, 14: Pointer and scale for setting variable-speed drive to tone disc
  • 17: Tone-disc
  • 23 - 28: Cine camera
  • 27: Cine camera lens
  • 29: Light bulb
  • 31: Apertures for setting attack and decay?
  • 34: Dial for setting vibrato speed?
  • 36, 37 Scrolling music score (no connection visible to the rest of the machinery)

I would be very grateful if anyone could decipher the Russian labels.

Left: Information on the Variophone: 2011

The machine was invented Evgeny Sholpo. He was helped by Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov (grandson of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), who assisted him in building the prototype at Lenfilm Studios in 1931.

Georgy Rimsky-Korsakoff & Evgeny Sholpo used the Variophone to create the interestingly-named The Carburettor Suite (1933-34)

You can hear the Variophone on YouTube. Frankly it's not that impressive, but does give rather a startling impression of Switched-On Bach. It is also reminiscent of the Casio VL-1 Keyboard. The mechanical sound is partly because the Variophone had no equivalent of a Voltage-Controlled Filter, which can modify the note during its duration.

The Variophone has a Wikipedia page.

Source: Generation Z: Russian Pioneers of Sound Art and Musical Technology. Document on an exhibition held at Budapest in June-July 2011.

Left: Tone disc for the Variophone: 1930

Source: Generation Z: Russian Pioneers of Sound Art and Musical Technology. Document on an exhibition held at Budapest in June-July 2011.

Left: Evgeny Sholpo with early Variophone: 1932

He looks worried, as well he might, living in Stalin's Russia.

The round thing to the left is the electric motot that drove the Variophone.

Left: Early Variophone: 1932?

This does not seem to be the same machine as shown in the picture above. The two open reels, and the absence of anything like a cine-camera, suggest this version is for playback rather than recording.

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