Category Archives: Oramics

Wonderful Things: VCS3 Synthesiser

Stella Williams from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects

The VCS3 was more or less the first portable commercially available synthesizer, unlike previous machines which were housed in large cabinets and were known to take up entire rooms. It was created in 1969 by EMS (Electronic Music Studios), a company founded by Peter Zinovieff. The team at EMS used a combination of computer programming knowledge, advanced engineering and musical ambition to create a brand new instrument for all to use. The electronics were largely designed by David Cockrell and the machine’s distinctive visual appearance was the work of electronic composer Tristram Cary.

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

The VCS3 was notoriously difficult to program but, a year before the appearance of the Minimoog and ARP2600, it brought synthesis within the reach of the public. It sold for £330 and became very popular in a short space of time. By the mid ’70s, the VCS3 (and its little brother, the suitcase-bound model AKS) had become something of a classic and was used by many famous bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who and Roxy Music.

This unique instrument allowed musicians to experiment with a range of new sounds never before available to them. Along with other early synthesisers it came to shape ‘the sound of the future’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and with further developments came the drum machines of the ‘80s setting the foundation for electronic dance music. Much of the music we take for granted today would not be possible without the pioneering work of groups like EMS and as long as there are developments in technology, there will always be people applying these innovations to music. Inventor Steve Mann has developed many interesting instruments such as the hydraulophone which uses pressurised water to make sounds, while artist and scientist Ariel Garten uses an electroencephalophone to turn brainwaves into music.

What sort of instrument do you think will make the sound of our future?

The VCS3 Synthesiser can be found in the Oramics to Electronica exhibition, on the second floor of the Science Museum.

Kraftwerk Uncovered

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, uncovers Kraftwerk and the connections between music and technology ahead of a live performance at the Science Museum.

Music and technology are intimate companions. Every instrument is a machine that extends the human capacity to make music. It’s why the relationship between music and technology is of interest to the Science Museum, and why we are hosting Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24th January 2014.

The evening features two performances by Icebreaker of new work exploring the origins of Kraftwerk’s sound and their preoccupations with technologies of all kinds. Before Kraftwerk became the world’s most influential technopop outfit, they emerged from the improvisatory new music scene in Cold War Germany.

In stunning new realisations, the highly respected composer, producer and soundscapist J. Peter Schwalm has reimagined Kraftwerk’s earliest recordings, from albums that have long been deleted. These origins lie in the sixties and seventies – exactly the same period as Daphne Oram, Electronic Music Studios and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were creating their visions of electronic music in the UK, revealed in our Oramics to Electronica exhibition.

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

These performances incorporate a new video work by visual artists Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish that explores the urban spaces of Kraftwerk’s origins. You can see a preview here.

But that’s not all. During the evening, you will also be able to enjoy the Balanescu Quartet’s wonderful re-workings of Kraftwerk’s Man Machine era technopop. These pieces, originally released on the album Possessed, reveal the music in a new, humorous light, picking-up on the dry wit of the originals.

The evening also features two talks: David Toop will explore how Kraftwerk’s music absorbed free jazz and soul, then refracted back into African-American music; with Richard Witts speaking on ‘Vorsprung durch Technik – Kraftwerk, Germany and England’, will investigate how Kraftwerk were received on their first tour of Britain in the 1970s.

Tickets for Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24 January 2014 can be bought online here

Image of tuning forks

Hearing Artefacts – A Science Museum Radio Diary

Image of tuning forks The Science Museum is very pleased to announce our first ever Sound Artist in Residence, Aleks Kolkowski.

In recent years Aleks has explored the potential of historical sound recording and reproduction technology to make contemporary mechanical-acoustic music. His works for singers, instrumentalists and even singing canaries often feature live-made sound inscriptions onto wax cylinders and lacquer discs using Edison phonographs and old disc recording lathes.

Other activities include repurposing discarded digital CDs as 45rpm analogue records and both sound installations and performances where historic sound reproducing machines, mechanical musical instruments and archival recordings are combined with state-of-the-art electronics. Such practice-led research using antiquated audio technologies and investigations into little-known forms of mechanical amplification led to the award of a PhD from Brunel University.

His major project to date has been an archive of contemporary musicians, artists and writers recorded exclusively on wax cylinders. Begun in 2006 and continuing, the entire Phonographies collection may be listened to online.

Busily recording away, Aleks has developed a series of weekly radio programmes documenting the sounds of the museum. Granted unfettered access to our collections and in close co-operation with curators and staff, Aleks has recorded objects, machines and instruments and the stories associated with them. The radio series will be aired on Resonance 104.4 FM  at 4.30 on Thursday afternoons every week beginning March 22nd and repeated on Sundays at 11am.

 From the service corridors and basement workshops to restricted areas on the upper floors, the sounds of the entire building will be also be traced in an attempt to map the sounds of one of the world’s greatest museums.

 This week’s show: Thursday 5th April, 16:30 – 17:30, repeated on Sunday 8th at 11am

Machine Music: Sounds of Steam; Double Beam and Mill Engines; Loom

 This week’s show focuses on the giant steam driven mill engine in the Energy Hall on the ground floor of the museum and the largest working exhibit on display. Ben Russell, curator of Mechanical Engineering talks about its history and maintenance engineer and steam specialist John Shulver fires up the boiler and blasts some excess steam out into the museum courtyard. We hear the engine in all its glory from close up on the deck down to its thudding echoes in the basement. Also heard on the programme are the clamorous clacking sounds of the Toyoda Loom and the rhythmic chug and whir of an exquisitely engineered model double-beam steam engine from 1840. 

 Last week’s show: The Museum as a Sonic Space

 Tim Boon, the Science Museum’s Head of Research, muses on how sound operates in the museum, whether accidental, incidental or deliberately created, through a guided tour of particular galleries and exhibits. In the second half of the programme, Aleks  accompanies Exhibit Maintenance Manager Sean Wogan as he starts up the Water Garden and other delights.




Make your own tape loop

Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.

The Science Museum’s exhibition Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music charts the evolution of electronic music and details the fantastic lengths that its creators often went to in order to push the boundaries of sound. In the days before synthesisers, open source software and pirated soft-synths, electronic music pioneers such as Daphne Oram had very few resources with which to forge new and exciting sounds. The use and abuse of reel to reel tape players, and the splicing of magnetic tape were soon adopted by some of music’s most adventurous minds and became a vital weapon in their war against the sonically mundane. Composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Terry Riley, and also the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were all keen tape splicers, stretchers and loopers.

Nowadays reel to reel tape players are hard to find and incredibly impractical to use. However, their dinky portable cousins, Walkmans, are easier to find, and cassettes are readily and cheaply available in most charity shops, as well as some cupboards, and a few trendy music stores. Cassette tapes are fairly easy to modify too, and doing so provides a fun insight into the early development of electronic music and a chance to get in touch with its roots. Making a tape loop is one of the easiest and most satisfying tape experiments that you can do, and it takes little more than a few bits of a stationery, a steady hand and half an hour of your time. The process is relatively fiddly and the results will be largely dictated by chance (exciting in itself!), but it’s all worth it for the thrill of feeling the spirit of early electronic music experimenters flowing through you. The results are somewhat unpredictable, but sometimes you stumble upon a perfect three or four second-long loop that you can listen to over and over without ever getting bored, its sound appearing change and alter over time…

Step One:

Fish out an old Walkman from you or your parent’s attic, shed or cupboard-under-the-stairs. Everyone has one lurking around somewhere.

Step One

Step Two:
Buy a cassette from your local charity shop. Do judge a book (cassette) by its cover, but make sure that you also check that it is held together with screws, as sealed plastic ones are much harder to open. I chose an Ottawan Best Of, partly because it had a great cover, and partly because there wasn’t much else to choose from. However, the cassette turned out to be sealed with plastic, so I had to resort to my back-up choice, a home-recorded copy of the soundtrack to the (terrible) 1977 film Black Joy, one of the few examples of British Blaxploitation cinema.

Step Two (a)

Step Two (b)
(Note the lack of screws on the Ottawan cassette!)

Step Three:
Have a quick browse while you’re there.

Step Three

Step Four:
Find a tidy place to work (this gets messy) and gather up all of the necessary equipment: a ruler, some sellotape, a pair of scissors and a screwdriver small enough for the cassette’s tiny screws. I have chosen the Science Museum curator’s library.

Step Four

Step Five:
Take out the cassette’s screws, putting them carefully to one side.


Step Six:
Take off the top half of the cassette, being careful not to disturb any of its mechanisms (the funny metal bit at the front).

Step Six

Step Seven:
Take out the tape and detach the ends from the white spools.

Step Seven

Step Eight:
Cut a 23.5cm chunk out of the tape.

Step Eight

Step Nine:
Carefully join the two ends of this strip of tape together with selotape. It is worth taking your time over this bit as the smoother the join is the smoother the sound of the loop will be. Although conversely, sometimes a rhythmic clunk at the end of each repetition can be just what a loop needs to give it shape. I recommend using a tiny piece of selotape on the underside of the tape, and trimming off any excess.

Step Nine

Step Ten:
Carefully place the loop back inside the tape, hooking it around the four white spools: both the larger central pair and the smaller two on each side.

Step Ten

Step Eleven:
Position the tape so that it hooks round all of the spools but is also in front of the cassette’s metal mechanism. It must be held taut, or else it won’t play smoothly.

Step Eleven

Step Twelve:
Close up the tape and re-screw the screws. Make sure that the tape is held behind these plastic teeth at the front and not trapped in them.

Step Twelve

Step Thirteen:
Listen and enjoy!*

Listen and Enjoy © NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society


* As many great experimental musicians from Philip Glass to Mark E. Smith will tell you, repetition can be fascinating. As I have said, this process produces random results which vary in quality so you may have to fiddle around until you find something that works for you. But when you do stumble upon that perfect loop the results are extremely rewarding. And of course, this is only the beginning; there are many more modifications you can make, and who knows where you will end up once the spirits of Oram and Co. have gotten hold of you!

Here’s the loop I made in the Science Museum curator’s library, as well as a couple that I made earlier:

Have fun and let us know how you get on!

The Oramics Machine during conservation

Results from the OraMIX competition

The Oramics Machine during conservation

New post from Merel, Associate Curator of Public History

On October 10th 2011 the Science Museum opened the exhibition Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music. One of the key objects in this exhibition is the Oramics Machine, a unique instrument made by composer and musician Daphne Oram. As part of this exhibition that celebrates music, inventiveness and the search for new sounds we wanted to give people the opportunity to share their own musical creativity.

We invited people from all over the world to remix samples from the Daphne Oram Archive. We challenged them to create a soundtrack for the 1967 TV Programme Our World, the first television production performed and broadcast live, from studios across the world. Musicians and producers Brian Eno and DJ Spooky as well as music magazine The Wire were kind enough to be our star judges.

We were overwhelmed by and very excited about the great amount of submissions we received. An incredible 156 tracks were posted on the competition page and our panel experts had a hard time creating a shortlist that could be sent to the star judges. In fact, they found it so difficult that they decided to double the number of tracks on the shortlist and 12 songs were chosen for the next round of judging.

And now… the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Who won the competition and who will receive that great collection of prizes?

It was a close call, but in the end there can be only one winner. And that winner is… Telescopic Moon by Chris Weeks

DJ Spooky said about this track: “Using nothing but the stems from Daphne Oram’s work, but taking them to places she would have enjoyed, this piece is a journey into some of the overtones [...] Oram used with powerful effect.”

Because it was such a close call, we would also like to applaud our number two, Atomic Shadow, with his track O3, which Brian Eno called ”A really interesting piece – deep, entrancing. I wanted more of it.”

Our number three, with only 0.3 points difference was Obe:lus. DJ Spooky said of his track Satellite Oramix: ”Great use of the stems from the original material, and it’s a beautiful track that lets you hear how poly-valent Daphne Oram’s work is. Polyrhythm plus the beautiful use of the original material made this track a standout.” Brian Eno said:”I keep humming it.”

Finally a special mention for the tracks submitted by The Audible Smile and Astrogarage. The Wire said of Sattelites Cry by The Audible Smile: ”I like the idea of satellites crying to each other across the void of space.” According to Brian Eno the song has “the sort of mysteriousness that Daphne liked.”

Astrogarage’s Orbit was described by Brian Eno as “Very engaging, intricate, and complex in mood. I wanted this to go on and on.”

We would like to thank everybody for submitting their tracks and taking part in the competition.

The OraMIX competition was made possible by Soundcloud; Goldsmiths, University of London; Sound and Music; Boomkat; and the Daphne Oram Trust and the Daphne Oram Archive.

Alan Sutcliffe speaking at the meeting

Back to the future of electronic music

Post written by Miriam Hay.

While researching our new exhibition about the history of electronic music, we had the amazing opportunity to meet a few of the people who were there making music in the 1960s and 70s, when futuristic electronic sounds were being experimented with for the very first time.

Dick Mills, Roger Limb and Steve Marshall had all previously been part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, set up in 1958 to produce electronic sound effects and jingles for radio and television including, most famously, the theme music for Doctor Who.

We were also joined by Peter Zinovieff and Alan Sutcliffe of Electronic Music Studio, a music research establishment formed by Peter in the early 1960s. It famously produced the first commercial synthesizer in Britain, the VCS3.

It was great to see the union of what had been two relatively independent strands of electronic music history around one table, as they shared with us their memories and experiences of working at a time when electronic music was startlingly new.

It was the invention of tape that was the catalyst, enabling different sounds to be cut and stuck together to make a recorded track. Before this, individual sounds had been recorded onto discs or spools of steel wire which meant that it was impossible for them to be edited together in advance.

Dick Mills gave us an animated description of the rather frantic work of playing multiple discs at the same time to provide sound effects for live radio broadcasts. Each disc ran for only 2 minutes, so you had to keep two running for background noise, playing one while you re-started the other, while adding in other effects such as wind and birds as needed with cries of “don’t forget the owl!”

Peter Zinovieff, founder of EMS, had been taught how to splice tape by Daphne Oram. She had been a founder of the Radiophonic Workshop and creator of the Oramics Machine, which is the focus of the first phase of our exhibition.

Peter told us that the tiresome process of ‘cutting and sticking’ inspired him to experiment with computers to create sound without fiddling about with tape. His desire was for a computer to put the sounds together all by itself. This eventually resulted in the first concert performance by a computer in 1968.

Peter took up making music again several years ago and talked about a recent concert in Istanbul. He had meant to finish his speech by announcing this new standing as a composer. However nerves got the better of him and in an ironically comic twist he actually accidentally concluded by saying: “At last, I am now a computer!”

The development from ‘computer’ to ‘composer’ was noted by the group as a whole. Nowadays, they said, the computer has become almost ‘transparent’ - a tool to get something else done - while in the pioneering 1960s electronics itself was an art - something to be studied, developed, and experimented with. Musicians also had to be engineers, testing and stretching the initial primitive capacities of the limited equipment available.

Almost in summary, the words of the late Delia Derbyshire (who worked at the Radiophonic workshop and introduced Peter to Alan) were quoted. She had realised that while the musical products of her generation of electronic artists weren’t yet the best that the medium had to offer, they would prove crucially important for what was to come. This was what the future would sound like.

The Oramics to Electronica exhibition is already partially open. It will be fully opened on 10th October, and will run until December 2012.

The Oramics Machine being Installed

Oramics to Electronica

You may remember back in May we were looking for musicians to help us create an exhibition focusing on Daphne Oram’s Oramics Machine. Well, this Friday the first phase of the exhibition will be opening.

You will be able to see the original Oramics Machine – a unique synthesizer – invented in the1960s by Daphne Oram – who established the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This extraordinary device, long thought lost, is groundbreaking in the history of electronic music.

Tim Boon, our Chief Curator, said: “The new exhibition is all about the birth of electronic music and its many influences on today’s music scene and we’re so pleased to be able to showcase the amazing Oramics Machine at the Science Museum – few people have been able to see it since the 1980s and this is a great opportunity. Our new interactive also allows you to recreate the sound of the Oramics Machine – so you can compose and arrange your own music.”

Mick Grierson, Director of the Daphne Oram Collection, Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “The Oramics Machine is a device of great importance to the development of British electronic music. It’s a great shame that Daphne’s contribution has never been fully recognised, but now that we have the machine at the Science Museum, it’s clear for all to see that she knew exactly how music was going to be made in the future, and created the machine to do it.”

A new iPhone app called ‘Oramics’, has also been developed by Goldsmiths, University of London, to recreate the sound of the Oramics Machine. You can see a video of this in action below:

Earlier this morning there was a ripple of excitement and anticipation in the Museum as a team of conservationists bought the machine from its storage place in Blythe House. Our co-creators and curators looked on as this one-of-a-kind machine was placed into its case on gallery.

The Oramics Machine being Installed

On 10 October, a second stage of the exhibition will open, which will showcase an array of electronic music and sound reproduction equipment. It will be co-created by a range of individuals working with electronic music today. The Museum is also working together with employees of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Electronic Music Studio (EMS), who produced the first commercial British synthesizer: VCS3.

You can follow phase two of the exhibition on the dedicated Oramics Facebook Page or follow us on Twitter.

The Oramics Machine during conservation

Electronic musicians wanted

We are looking for musicians with a passion for electronic music to co-curate an upcoming exhibition. It is centered around one of the oldest and most intriguing electronic music devices, which we acquired in 2009.   
The Oramics Machine was invented by Daphne Oram, who had founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and later set up her own studio.

The machine was a tad dusty, to say the least, so over the last year, our conservators have lovingly restored it. And now this grande dame of electronic music will return to the stage once more. In honour of its return, we are organising a temporary exhibition about the history of electronic music.

Among other things, we will be exploring how electronic music has influenced and been influenced by society over the last 60+ years. In developing this exhibition we would like to work together with people who know electronic and digital music from the inside.

In a series of workshops we will explore the history of electronic music and relevant objects in the Science Museum stores. You will get a look behind the scenes and contribute to an exhibition that will open in the autumn of 2011.

If you want to be a part of this, please email us at and tell us in 300 words or less:
1. Why you love electronic music
2. What kind of music you make and how you share it with others
3. How much you know about the history of electronic music

It doesn’t have to be an essay - feel free to be creative in your response.

And finally, let us know whether you would be able to work with us in London during the day on Tuesdays in June and July this year.

Please make sure to send in your submission before the deadline of 12 pm, 30 May 2011.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Ps. Check out the Oramics Machine on Facebook if you want to be the first to know about upcoming events and competitions.