The Story Behind An Early Electronic Music Instrument Developed in Champaign-Urbana

April 27, 2016

Computer synthesizers have likely become a staple of your daily life – Siri, digital music, YouTube and more – but do you know where they come from?

One of the earliest synthesizer structures was invented in the University of Illinois’ Experimental Music Studio in the early 1960s as part of one of the first computer instruments – The Harmonic Tone Generator.

From Left to Right: The Original Harmonic Tone Generator, James Beauchamp constructing the Harmonic Tone Generator, a close up of one of the original instrument's panels

James Beauchamp sits at a workbench tuning three circuit boards before installing them in the Harmonic Tone Generator. This picture was taken in 1964. 

Courtesy of James Beauchamp 

“A lightbulb went off and I decided: we build electronics for audio, we record using electronics in playback, but what about making music or sounds from electronics to begin with?” said James Beauchamp, a research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois.

He completed the Harmonic Tone Generator in 1964 as part of his PhD project in electrical engineering. 

"At the time it was pretty exciting for composers to use," said Beauchamp. "But after 6 years, 8 years, it just became one of the devices in the studio." 

I think Jim’s an unsung hero of synthesizers.Mark Smart

 

The Harmonic Tone Generator doesn’t play anymore, but a replica was created for an exhibit currently on display at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music in Champaign-Urbana.

The original Harmonic Tone Generator and its next generation counterpart side by side in the Sousa Archive

The original Harmonic Tone Generator and its next generation counterpart side by side in the Sousa Archive

Courtesy of Mark Smart

The replica was built by Mark Smart, a former student of Beauchamp and an electronics professional in the U of I Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Both the replica and the original look incredibly similar. They contain three different panels filled with various knobs and switches above a keyboard - though the original’s instrument’s keyboard did not survive the test of time.

You may not be able to draw a straight line from the Harmonic Tone Generator to Siri or electronic dance music, but it is connected – and that’s part of why Smart wanted to recreate the Harmonic Tone Generator.

Smart says he believes that it is a significant invention.

The Harmonic Tone Generator sits in an instrument rack with its keyboard to the right. This picture was taken in 1964.

The Harmonic Tone Generator sits in an instrument rack with its keyboard to the right. This picture was taken in 1964. 

Courtesy of James Beauchamp 

“It’s historically important, but not many people know about it. I think Jim’s an unsung hero of synthesizers,” said Smart. “Jim’s structure is unique. I’ve never seen it anywhere else and I think it’s not as well-known because he didn’t sell it to rock stars [as Robert Moog did with his synthesizer structure].”

Smart said he believes there is still much left to learn and study from the synthesizer structure that Beauchamp used. And, he says, with the right software you can push it beyond what was possible in the 1960s. 

Both the original Harmonic Tone Generator and its next generation counterpart will be on display at the Sousa Archives museum until May 27th. 

You can hear recordings from the original Harmonic Tone Generator here

If you would like to hear more from the recreation or try for yourself to play the instrument, visitors of the exhibit are encouraged to play the replica. A different recording of the replica than heard in the piece can be found here

Beauchamp and other professors accepting a sponsorship check from a MagnaVox executive

Members of the university accept a grant from the Magnavox Corp. that enabled the HTG to be constructed. James Beauchamp is second from the right. The picture was taken in 1963 when the HTG was only partially constructed. From left to right: Duane Branigan (director of the School of Music) William L. Everitt (dean of the College of Engineering), an unidentified Magnavox employee, Prof. Lejaren Hiller Jr., James Beauchamp, and another unidentified Magnavox employee. 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of James Beauchamp