Retrotechtacular: The Hammond Novachord

Just when we thought we’d heard of all the cool early synthesizers, a tipster rattled our jar with news that someone completely restored a Novachord. These spinet piano-shaped prototypical synthesizers were made by Hammond for only four years. About a thousand of them were built before sales sagged and parts became scarce in 1942. It is estimated that only 200 or so are still around today.

The Novachord’s sounds are generated by a bank of twelve monostable vacuum tube oscillators. Each one is tuned to a pitch of the chromatic scale in what is called divide-down architecture. [Hammond] and his co-creators [John Hanert] and [C.N. Williams] used the property of dividing a frequency in half to generate the same tone, but one octave lower. This design means that all 72 notes can be played at the same time. Adjustable formant filters shape the often otherworldly sounds, which are then passed through flexible tube-based envelopes.

[Phil] knew it would be a big job to restore a Novachord in any condition. Thousands of passive components all had to be replaced. The cabinet bore all the hallmarks of a well-used parlor instrument—water rings from cocktails, scratches, and cigarette burns galore. [Phil] says that woodworking really isn’t his thing, but he did an outstanding job nonetheless of sanding every nook and cranny and applying several coats of stain. There are tons of drool-inducing pictures on his project site, and several clips of [Phil] really putting it through its paces.

Thanks for the tip, [Mike]!

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.

20 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Hammond Novachord

  1. Wow, hearing this thing in 1938 must have blown people’s minds! The sound from this is very recognizable from lots of old sci-fi & horror movies, but for some reason I always thought the instrument that made this sound must have been from at least the ’60s.

  2. I’m blown away by the sound this instrument is capable of – for when it was engineered. Analog rocks! In addition to being a labor of love, I’m sure it was an expensive restoration. Precision caps that can tolerate tube voltages (rather than getting away with 6v caps for a modern portable device) and moderate wattage resistors with precision aren’t cheap. Not to mention finding and investing in the completely new set of tubes! Enjoy the instrument – its amazing.

  3. The worlds first single keyboard electronic piano, in an age of two keyboard organs. And yet still to this day none have both a volume pedal (pot) and a (switch) sustain pedal. 140 tubes!
    It’s sound set the atmosphere of Futurerama at the 1939 worlds fair, there was also a quartet of them at a concert at the fair. This instrument got coverage in every textbook on electronic organs.

  4. Amazing! I can hardly believe the sound coming out of that thing. The post-restore MP3’s sound amazing – nothing like what I expected! Sounds like a modern synth, not something 70+ years old! Throw it together with a drum machine (or a real drummer!) and you’d never be able to tell the difference.

  5. All I can say is wow! Stunning work. Electronics, woodworking and mechanical work all look great. I wonder if any custom components, such as capacitors or resistors had to be made. In the 1930’s the hackers of the day, were Radio Amateurs (HAM was a derogative term) and often made passive components themselves. Some high end audio still uses hand made components and I was thinking it would be fun to build something using hand made resistors and capacitors.

  6. I failed music class… miserably… I couldn’t even pass the entrance test and got my “fine arts” credits as a technical assistant on stage. I rebuilt the lighting control system to get my passing grades. So music is still a mystery to me, so….

    How is playing all 72 notes a big deal? Harmonic distortions or something?

    1. You’d never actually play all 72 notes. However, if you were playing, say, a fast passage with one of the longer ADSR Settings (and/or the sustain pedal pressed), you might find yourself quickly running out of notes if you had a lower polyphony.

  7. Freaking epic, and with a payout worth the effort as it reveals itself to be so unexpectedly modern for its era. It sound like something Vangelis might play. Probably an important part of movie history and might be the only really properly working one in the world at the moment. Bravo, Bravo, Bravo.

  8. [i]How is playing all 72 notes a big deal?[/i]

    Most early synthesizers (and by “early” I mean the late 60’s / early 70’s) only had one or two oscillators so you couldn’t play more than one or two notes at a time. A lot of famous songs had to be recorded by layering, recording the melody and harmonies separately. But this thing could be played like a piano playing all the voices in one take. That was almost unheard of until the digital era.

  9. I have the guts of a Lowrey Organo here in my room. This was a vacuum tube organ that attached to a piano (apparently) It used 48 12AU7 dual triodes, some kind of pentode small signal tubes, 96 NE2 neon bulbs and a tube power amp to drive the speakers.
    This is never going to get restored.

    1. I did one for a job. The piano got brought up to spec, then I did the electronics. It had power supply divider resistor(s) in a riveted-on-pack. That was the main problem, look there first. I found a usable schematic in our (Lowery Tube Organ Omnibus) and fixed all of it’s problems. Wonderful sound when done. It had pedals (one octave bass) and a knee lever for volume of the organ.
      I hope you have the under-key contact strips that went with the kit? Or this chassis was also used with a fat cable to an accordion, thus no contact strip. The neons are (diode gates) to various footages and make decay sustain. If the “gas pedal” is not connected; no sound. There is a couple of other ‘gotchas in getting the assembly to run. It is self contained.
      These are right up there with the Novachord in novelty.
      We acquired one, I checked it out. The thing was in original condition, crisp cord. A few notes played thru all octaves, the AD envelope worked. We put it on ‘bay and I crated it to go to Italy from Indiana.

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