Retrotechtacular: The Trautonium Was Elemental To Electronic Music

Electrical engineer and music enthusiast [Freidrich Trautwein] was dissatisfied. He believed that the equal tempered scale of the piano limited a player’s room for expression. And so in 1930, [Trautwein] and an accomplished pianist named [Oskar Sala] began work on an electro-mechanical instrument that would bring the glissando of the string section’s fretless fingerboards to the keyboard player. [Trautwein] called his creation the Trautonium.

Sound is produced in the instrument by sawtooth frequency generators. It is then passed through filters and manipulated by the resistive string-based manuals. Frequency and intonation are varied relative to the position of the player’s finger along a length of non-conductive string and to the amount of pressure applied. This resistive string is suspended above a conductive metal strip between a pair of posts. A small voltage is applied to the posts so that when the string touches the metal strip below, the player manipulates a voltage-controlled oscillator. A series of metal tongues, also non-conductive, hover above the string. These are placed at scale intervals and can be used like keys.

This early synthesizer is capable of producing many kinds of sounds, from crisp chirps to wet, slapping sounds and everything in between. In fact, all of the sound effects in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Birds were produced on a modified Trautonium by the instrument’s one and only master, [Oskar Sala]. He went on to score hundreds of films by watching them with the Trautonium at his fingertips, recording and layering his compositions into an eerie wall of sound.

Thanks for the tip, [Fran]!

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

10 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Trautonium Was Elemental To Electronic Music

      1. LOL, but there is so much information, which source do you recommend?

        This is where social media and special interest groups can really be useful, to help filter all the data and guide newbies.

  1. Wow! I had thought Georges Jenny’s Ondioline was the first purely electronic synthesiser, but the Trautonium clearly predates it. For those interested in the Ondioline there is a comprehensive PDF article from a 1957 french radio/electronics magazine floating around the web with circuit diagrams and mechanicals etc.

    And thanks Kristina, I’m sure I speak for many HaD readers in that I really love these Retrotechtacular articles, keep them coming!

  2. Here’s a page (in german) from a guy who build his own trautonium controller:

    Talking about the Trautonium ( or at least it’s later incarnations, the ‘Konzert-Trautonium’ and ‘Mixtur Trautonium’ ), It’s way of shaping a timbre should be mentioned.
    There are several frequency-dividers which form the so-called ‘subharmonics’ which are mixed and fed through a bank of resonant bandpass-filters.

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