Ondioline @ 02 August 2011, Comments Off on Ondioline

“First-Generation Ondioline, one of only two known to exist. A historic instrument—the jewel of any collection—that is also completely playable.

Georges Jenny designed the Ondioline, the world’s first portable synth, in 1941. The Ondioline was truly revolutionary: it was designed to mimic a wealth of instrument sounds—violin, cello, saxophone, trumpet, even guitar and mandolin. It did this with breathtaking accuracy, not only given the time period, but also when judged with modern ears.

The few similar instruments that preceded the Ondioline, like the Trautonium and Novachord, weighed hundreds of pounds, incorporated thousands of parts, and produced primarily futuristic tones. But the Ondioline was slim, lightweight and portable, and could produce scores of sound variations that included incredibly accurate imitations of a wide range of instruments.

The second version of the Ondioline is the most well-known: It features a keyboard sitting on top of a companion amplifier, both housed in handsome wooden cabinets. These began production in 1950 and are incredibly rare themselves (knowledgeable estimates have 700 of these keyboards having been produced, most of which stayed in Europe).

What you are looking at, though, is a first-generation Ondioline. Designed in 1941, the Ondioline did not go into production until 1947 (no doubt because of World War II). This is the first version that emerged. It was only produced from 1947-49, and in incredibly small numbers.

I have been able to find only one other example of a first-generation Ondioline, at the Museo de la Música de Urueña in Spain: http://www.funjdiaz.net/museo/ficha.cfm?id=104

That’s it: in years of following and researching Ondiolines, that’s the only first-generation example I’ve ever found—except for the one being auctioned here. They were certainly rare at the time of their manufacture; they are practically extinct today.

This instrument was obtained in France and shipped to America. Years after it was acquired, a painstaking restoration was begun, undertaken by master synth tech Stephen Masucci. Steve is a genius at repairing analog synths (he’s one of world’s premiere Moog techs; he’s also fixed scores of claviolines, solovoxes and univoxes), but he had to go to school to fix this one. Over the course of many months, and working without a schematic (none have been found for the first-generation Ondioline), Steve figured out how this ancient synth worked and then set about doing what needed to be done to bring it back to working order. He executed repairs, replaced electronics, un-stuck original switches (Steve kept everything as original as possible), and machined duplicate parts. He repaired, restored and/or replaced many of the components within this unit (all non-working, original parts and pieces were kept). The result: an instrument that is completely functional, and that sounds exactly as it did when it was made.

So this is not only an incredibly rare instrument with huge historic significance. It is also completely playable. It is unbelievably quiet (really, there is no noise). And the sound that emerges is a haunting and moving, antique and yet futuristic at the same time. Completely unique.

Pivotal to this instrument’s character is a far-ahead-its-time, incredibly expressive vibrato feature. Move each key from side-to-side, and a vibrato is produced that matches the speed of the key’s movement. This makes uncanny, expressive violin imitations possible; the slight variation in pitch of a horn; the shifting movement of a finger against a fret. Restoring this feature was one of the last riddles Steve solved. It brought an already incredible instrument completely over the top.

The controls on the front are as follows: on the left are a set of ten switches, labeled A to K (no B) from left to right. It is the different combinations of these switches that produce the different sounds of the Ondioline. Different settings result in the sound of a violin or cello or horn. Imitating them more powerfully than many modern samplers, and yet in a much more vibey way. And the many switch combinations can also create completely original sounds, both modern and vintage, unlike any instruments you’ve ever heard.

Below those switches, the first knob on the left is a volume control. Moving right, this is followed by a five-stage octave switch: set the switch to the far-left position and you will have incredibly deep bass sounds; with each click to the right, the keyboard’s tones move up an octave. For some sound settings, the octave to the far right is dog-whistle territory; with others it’s a gorgeous violin, flute, or nameless breathy instrument with an Eastern flavor.

The five individual knobs that come next are fine-tuning knobs for each octave setting. To fine-tune this instrument, you begin with the octave setting to the far left. For that octave position you use the fine-tuning knob to the far left. As you move to each successive octave setting, from left to right, you use the corresponding knob (of the five) to fine-tune the Ondioline’s output. And the instrument doesn’t require fine-tuning very often: tuning is incredibly stable across the keyboard, in all five octave positions, and it holds that tuning reliably.

The switch to the far right is the on-off switch. When in the “on” position, this switch activates a light that makes the far-right panel glow.” Auction ended. Click here to browse on eBay.