The Ondes Martenot was one of the earliest 20th‑century electronic musical instruments, and found favour with composers of avant‑garde orchestral works for many years. Now, thanks to Cornish company Analogue Systems, it's getting a new lease of life...
Are you bored of the same old same old? I am. In fact, when it comes to synths and recording equipment, it now takes quite a lot to excite me. Show me the latest virtual analogue synth and it's likely that I will remain quite unmoved. Sure, I remember being very excited by the Clavia Nord Lead when it was released (see my review in SOS May 1995) but let's be honest — nothing much has changed since then. We now enjoy greater polyphony, and better effects sections, and instruments such as the Korg Z1 offer a wider range of physical models, but the philosophy and the way people use virtual analogue synths hasn't really changed in the intervening six years, whether we use them as hardware keyboards or (as has increasingly been the case over the last couple of years) in the form of virtual instruments. Likewise, my feelings towards today's breed of S+S workstations and synths. Many of these offer an astounding range of facilities, and processing power quite undreamed of just 10 or 15 years ago, but the frisson of discovering something truly new is lacking. I suspect that the last time but I felt an S+S tingle running up my spine was also in 1995, when Korg introduced the multitimbral effects in the Trinity.
Today, however, I'm playing something that's giving me quite a buzz. But far from being the newest, latest, whizz‑bang digital marvel, and a million miles from the Pentium‑ and G4‑ powered software products that often fill these pages, it harks back to an earlier, golden age of musical experimentation. Developed in the 1920s, it's none other than the controller section of an Ondes Martenot. For more background on this fascinating instrument, see the box about its origins on the next page.
Given that it was an early electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot was singularly playable, so it's not surprising that composers such as Barry Gray (see the box) continued to experiment with it throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s. Even today, its unique method of control and expression attracts musicians keen to develop new sounds and playing styles. So when Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead (see box) asked Analogue Systems to develop a Martenot‑style controller for his modular analogue synthesizers, the company was keen to oblige.
Named the French Connection, Analogue Systems' design adopts the control mechanisms of the classic Martenot, but leaves the sound generation out, and packages everything in a neat unit designed to sit in front of any of the company's RS Integrator modular synths or, for that matter, similar modulars produced by other manufacturers.
The keyboard itself is four octaves wide, and in front of this you'll find the wire controller with the small ring through which you insert your index finger. The wire (which is actually a fine nylon cord) is stretched above a fingerboard in which you'll find small circular depressions that represent the white notes on the keyboard; and protruding metal studs that mark the positions of the black notes.
To the left of the keyboard and the wire controller, there's a control panel reminiscent of those that you'll find on other Analogue Systems products. To the far left of this, there's a sprung X/Y joystick that returns to the central position when released. Above the joystick itself you'll find two knobs that determine the output range for each axis, with a maximum maximum (if you see what I mean) of approximately 10V. There are four joystick outputs, two each for the 'X' axis and for the 'Y' axis. These, like all other Analogue Systems devices, use 3.5mm sockets.
To the right of the joystick you'll find the large, sprung wooden button that also harks back to the original Martenot. If left untouched, this sits in its uppermost position, and generates an output CV of 0V. As you depress it, the CV rises progressively to a maximum of approximately 10V. Again, a knob located above the button itself controls the actual range of operation.
There are just two further controls on the French Connection, and these are the switches located immediately to the left of the keyboard. The first of these determines whether the pitch CV is controlled by the keyboard or by the wire controller. The other determines whether the keyboard produces a conventional trigger and gate, or whether the button produces an amplitude CV. There are eight physical outputs for these — three pitch CV outputs, three button CV outputs, a trigger output, and a gate output.
And that's all there is to it. Add an IEC mains input and an illuminated on/off switch to the right‑hand side of the unit, and mount everything in a gorgeous, polished wooden case, and you have a French Connection.
The French Connection was not born out of nowhere... it was commissioned during 2000 by Johnny Greenwood of the band Radiohead. Greenwood already owned an Ondes Martenot (an instrument built in 1983 by the son of Maurice Martenot) complete with all three resonators, but was nervous about performing with it, fearing that it would be damaged on tour. So he approached Martenot to purchase a second device for live use. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for the rest of us) his instrument was one of a production run of just 50, and these were long gone — 44 to a music school in Japan, and the remaining five to other musicians. So Greenwood approached Bob Williams, owner of Analogue Systems, to ask whether he would be prepared to design and build a replica for use with Radiohead's existing RS Integrators.
Williams accepted the challenge, and in April 2001 demonstrated a prototype to Greenwood. Following a couple of minor modifications, production began, and the first two French Connections were delivered to Radiohead in May 2001.
The first public outing for the French Connection was on the BBC's TOTP, in May 2001, on which Radiohead performed 'Pyramid Song' from their album Amnesiac.
The first time I had the opportunity to play a French Connection, I had no oscillators available to test it, but I was able to make do with an Analogue Systems RS8000 modular system, which contained RS100 filter and RS180 VCA modules. I raised the Resonance on the filter to maximum so that it went into self‑oscillation and began to produce a sine wave at the cutoff frequency, and then patched the pitch CV output from the French Connection into the filter cutoff frequency input of the RS100. Finally, I patched the output from one of the French Connection's buttons to the RS180 VCA, and connected that to my monitors.
The results were magic. Not to the sound itself, you understand ... nobody could say that a self‑oscillating filter passed through a VCA is anything to write home about. But controlling this sound using the French Connection proved to be completely intuitive and incredibly musical. The depressions and studs on the fingerboard made it simple to locate conventional semitones, and the ring moved without any discontinuities or unevenness. I could articulate each note individually and smoothly using the amplitude button, or create slides and vibrato without difficulty.
Of course, I didn't confine myself to playing a simple sine wave in this fashion. Once I had the French Connection in my studio, I had access to numerous oscillators, filters, and other modules, and began to experiment with patches that used the French Connection's multiple pitch CVs and button outputs. Again, the results were superb, and I'm prepared to stick my neck out and say that I could not have created precisely the same musical performances in any other way. Of particular note, synthesized violins and cellos have never sounded this good! Then there were the flutes, whistles, atmospheric voices and amazing effects...
Of course, I was not recreating the sound of a vintage Ondes Martenot because the French Connection offers only the controllers of the original, not the sound generator or (most importantly) the complex resonators that gave it its distinctive, ethereal tones. But that's not the point. The French Connection still offers all the expressive potential of the Ondes Martenot.
Next, I experimented with the four permutations afforded by the two switches on the French Connection's control panel. Everything I've described so far had them set to 'Button + Slider' mode, thus imitating the Ondes Martenot itself. Change them to 'Keyboard + Keyboard' mode, and the French Connection then acts as a conventional CV + Trigger + Gate monosynth keyboard. But what of the other combinations?
'Keyboard + Slider' mode allows you to control the pitch of the sound using the wire controller, but trigger envelopes using the keyboard. This is quite different from using the button to control modules such as VCFs and VCAs, and offers performance possibilities that are unavailable on either the Ondes Martenot or on a conventional monosynth. Then there's 'Button + Keyboard' mode, which allows you to play the pitch of the sound conventionally using the keyboard, articulating notes using the button. This is not a unique way of doing things... you could do the same thing using a keyboard and joystick, but the French Connection does it very elegantly.
If I have to find a criticism (and I always do) it's in the positioning of the left‑hand pulley that guides the wire (see photo, above). This protrudes from the case into the space immediately in front of the bottom C key, thus fouling the ring and making it difficult to play this note accurately using the wire controller. Extending the case by a centimetre or thereabouts would cure this, so I hope that Analogue Systems will bear this in mind when planning their next production run.
There's only one other disappointment for me, but it's nothing to do with Analogue Systems. You can't use the French Connection with something as simple as a Roland SH101 or an ARP Axxe, because neither of these offers an input that allows you to control the VCA Gain. Sure, you can use the wire controller to provide the pitch CVs and use the keyboard as a Trigger/Gate, but it's not the same. To appreciate the true value of the French Connection, you'll need an ARP 2600 or a true modular synth that allows you to patch and play it as it was intended.
You might think it unlikely that you've heard an Ondes Martenot unless you've studied obscure 20th‑century classical music, but I'll lay odds that you have, even if you don't realise it. These instruments have cropped up in the most unlikely places... as the following story demonstrates.
If you were a child in the UK in the '50s or '60s, you may remember Gerry Anderson's early SuperMarionation (puppet) series; the ones that have, so far, escaped digital remastering and broadcasting on primetime TV. These were produced by AP Films — the company that later became 21st Century — whose musical director was none other than Barry Gray, the composer who was to produce the music for the majority of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's TV series.
Gray had set up a small studio in London in 1950, and was much in demand throughout the decade, working with many of the top artists of the time. However, he had a passion for (what was then) the new field of electronic music and effects, so, after discovering the Ondes Martenot, he bought an instrument, and later studied with Martenot himself in Paris.
As musical director of AP Films, Gray produced the scores for Gerry Anderson's earliest creations, Twizzle and Torchy, but it was Anderson's next production that brought both men to the attention of a wider public. This was Supercar, a futuristic series that proved to be the ideal vehicle for Gray's experimental sounds and music. The Ondes Martenot played a significant role in this, and it proved to be so successful that Gray went on to use it on many filmscores, including Fahrenheit 451, Dr Who And The Daleks, and Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun.
Gray retired from film and TV composition in 1974. He remained musically active, and was contemplating a return to work with Gerry Anderson when he died in 1984.
The French Connection does not, unfortunately, have a MIDI output. This is not an oversight and, when you think about it, there are good technological reasons why this should be so.
Consider the MIDI protocol: the messages that play notes on MIDI synths contain at least two commands: a Note On for the appropriate note, and (later on) a Note Off for the same note. Other common commands include velocity, modulation amount, pitch‑bend, and MIDI volume.
Unfortunately, the French Connection doesn't fit this scheme, because there are no defined Notes Ons or Offs. You might think that this is no big deal... after all, you could use the keyboard to send a single Note On to fire up an external MIDI device, switch to 'Slider + Button' mode, and then generate the articulation of subsequent pitches using Controller 7 (MIDI volume). With two seven‑bit words to define the pitch (one for the note number and one for the detune when the pitch lies between semitones) you could then define any pitch, sliding smoothly up and down the full‑frequency range.
While not impossible, this is far from trivial, because the Note Number is part of the Note On command, so it's likely that the external device will be retriggered every time you cross from one semitone to another. Nevertheless, setting up a suitable MIDI synth as a single‑trigger monosynth may provide a solution, and I understand that Analogue Systems are looking into the possibilities of this. I sincerely hope that the company succeeds... imagine being able to control MIDI synths using the French Connection. That's an exciting prospect.
To complement the French Connection, Analogue Systems has also released the Demon, a four‑octave keyboard/joystick controller designed for use with both MIDI devices and modular analogue synths.
The control panel on the Demon is, of course, quite different from that of the French Connection, comprising an AS RS220 joystick controller and an RS330 keyboard controller. And that's it... because it lacks the racking system of the larger modular Sorceror keyboard (see Chris Carter's review in SOS October 2000), the Demon is unable to host any further modules itself, but is designed for use with modern modular synths such as Analogue Systems' own RS8000, RS8500, or any number of instruments from manufacturers such as Doepfer or Analogue Solutions. It is also ideal for use with the Roland System 100M and the ARP 2600, both of which occasionally appear in shops and free ads without keyboards.
Round the back, the Demon — like its big brother the Sorceror — offers MIDI In, Out and Thru ports connected to the RS330 keyboard controller, so you can combine MIDI input and output with the control possibilities provided by analogue CVs, triggers and gates. However, unlike the Sorceror, which has a monophonic MIDI Out, the Demon is fully polyphonic over MIDI. This is an unexpected bonus, and very welcome.
The Demon uses the same non‑velocity‑, non‑pressure‑sensitive keyboard as the French Connection, housed in a slightly smaller walnut case, and costs £550.
I don't want to give the French Connection back to Analogue Systems. It has added something new to my studio, something that it will take away when it leaves. Sure, I can go back to using the ribbon controller of my Yamaha KX5 (which I use with a footpedal to articulate notes) as I have done in the past. This has the huge benefit of outputting MIDI, but nevertheless, I'll never again be satisfied with its feel or responsiveness.
Finally, it's only right to note that the French Connection is not cheap. At just over a thousand pounds in the UK, it's only for the most committed composers and performers, plus that small handful of musicians with enough loose cash to be able to experiment as they wish. But for those who can justify the expense, it will provide a completely new opportunity for musical expression and creativity. I think that I can safely say that the French Connection is unique.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ondes Martenot was developed by a French chap named... Monsieur Martenot. Maurice Martenot (for it was he) was a French inventor born in 1898, who became a radio operator during the First World War. At this time, he noticed how the interaction of two pieces of similarly — but not identically — tuned electrical equipment could give rise to unwanted, but potentially musical, oscillations (a Russian gentleman named Leon Termin noticed the same thing, and used this technique to generate the audio signals in a subsequent invention of his, which he named the Theremin).
After the war, Martenot began his research into the musical applications of electricity and, in particular, the possibilities offered by allowing high‑frequency oscillators to interfere with one another. However, much of his work over the ensuing nine years is clouded in mystery, because he did not unveil his eponymously named instrument until May 1928.
The first Ondes Martenot had a conventional, piano‑style keyboard and a wire which stretched the length of the keyboard. The player moved this from side to side using a small ring which you were supposed to put on the index finger of your right hand. If you moved the ring to the right, the pitch of the sound produced by the instrument increased; if you moved the ring to the left, the pitch dropped.
Had this been all the control offered by the Ondes Martenot, it would not have been a particularly musical instrument. However, there was a second control that allowed you to articulate notes using your left hand. The combination of the two made it possible to determine both the pitch and the amplitude of a note, and the result was not unlike a human voice, or an instrument such as the cello or violin (in fact, this similarity was not entirely coincidental; as well as being an inventor, Martenot was also a cellist).
If the Ondes Martenot's playing mechanism was novel, its playback system was amazing. There were three parts to this. The first was called the 'Principal', and was a straightforward — if rather primitive — loudspeaker. The second was the 'Resonance Diffuser', a flame‑shaped device that has since become the dominant image of the Ondes Martenot, one which makes it instantly recognisable to this day. Called the 'Palme', its resonant chamber and twelve tuned strings resonated in sympathy with the notes played by the performer, creating complex tones in the same way as some Eastern string instruments. The third part was a second diffuser called the 'Metallique'. This was, in essence, a traditional loudspeaker, but with the cone replaced by a metallic plate similar to a cymbal or gong. When driven, this added a distinctive metallic timbre to the sound.
It's hardly surprising that, in 1928, Martenot's instrument was considered a marvel, and it proved to be a huge success. Consequently, over the next few years, Martenot proceeded to design and build a number of variations. One of these allowed you to wiggle the keys themselves from side to side to create natural vibrato (still uncommon on synthesizers, this method was adopted in the mid‑'70s by Yamaha for two of the three keyboards on their GX1). There was also a smaller version of the Ondes Martenot called the Ondioline. But whatever else changed, one thing remained constant... there was always a wire with a ring that controlled the pitch of the sound.
On a well‑adjusted Ondes Martenot, the semitone positions of the ring — which were, of course, evenly spaced along the fingerboard — corresponded to the keys on the keyboard behind it. It should therefore be obvious that, compared with a Theremin (which produced a similar sound), the Martenot was much simpler to play. This fact was not lost on the serious composers of the day and, consequently, a number wrote music for it. Of these, the most famous were undoubtedly Ravel, Boulez, Messiaen, and (more recently) Maurice Jarre, but many others contributed to a repertoire of more than 1000 classical works that feature the instrument. Messiaen composed one piece, Fête Des Belles Eaux, which used no fewer than six Ondes Martenots!
There are many web sites on the net where you can read about the Ondes Martenot, and find out which works and recordings use it. As good a place to start as any is http://120years.net/the-ondes-martenotmaurice-martenotfrance1928/