Saturday, 6 August 2011

Ebay of the Day

Saw this during a routine ebay synth-search: the original synth. Probably

From the seller pongkong who wants $25k (£15k):

"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:

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.

The Ondioline's inventor, Georges Jenny, built this example himself. He proudly identified himself on the unit's nameplate as "INVENTEUR" and "CONSTRUCTEUR." He even signed it! (See picture.)

Again, it sounds incredible. To hear it is to hear sounds from the past. Who better, then, to demo this synth than the inventor himself, Georges Jenny:

That video is from 1948, shortly after the Ondioline went on the market. I've included a picture from the same period, showing Jenny demonstrating his invention to an attentive audience.

Note the instrument's uncanny ability to imitate instruments. And, in particular, note Jenny's side-to-side hand movements, using the vibrato feature mentioned above.

The one function of the Ondioline that Steve has not yet been able to restore (he hasn't given up yet) is a staccato function that originally came from a strip in front of the keys. The original strip is gone, and Steve has not yet been able to find a modern material that will replicate that function.

When one looks at the Ondioline, the overall impression of its physical condition is that it is in incredibly good shape. Its wooden case is in extremely good condition, especially considering that it is over sixty years old. In the same place on both sides of the keyboard the wood has separated slightly at the seam; this would be an easy repair, though I haven't had any desire to restore the cabinet myself. I believe the keys are bakelite though I'm not positive; several of them have beige discoloration which I'm sure has been there for years. Possibly those keys could be made completely white again, just as bakelite radios can be cleaned to reveal their original finish. Again, I've had no desire to do anything like that. (They look cool the way they are, and might have been like that since they were made anyway.) The keys are even and consistent across the keyboard (partly because of Steve's work, though they were in pretty good shape to begin with). The volume, octave and on/off knobs are unoriginal (though matching and of an appropriate vintage style).

Amazingly, this Ondioline even has its original wooden carrying case. Inside the lid of that box, Georges Jenny jotted down several of the instrument's possible settings: the combination of switches that produce "violon" (violin); "cor" (horn); "guitare" and "mandiline." But these are only a sampling of all that are possible.

For the later model Ondioline, a printed chart of switch combinations for different sounds is available online. But among other differences the later model has 18 sound-shaping switches to this version's 10.  I haven't yet experimented to see if any of those switch combinations work on the earlier model. Check out this link for a list of those settings, as well as an mp3 of a phenomenal demo record that shows off each of the later model Ondioline's sounds:

I have not yet been able to find a list of the individual settings for the first-generation model. I've been having fun experimenting with different combinations of switches and, in so doing, I've begun to map the settings for each possible instrument. Interestingly, each switch on this Ondioline has three positions (up, middle and down), though Jenny only uses up or down in the video. Steve tells me that the middle setting also impacts the signal path, so perhaps this is a slightly-later version that was a step beyond the model we saw in the video? Or maybe the sounds Jenny used in the video didn't require any middle switch positions? Either way, a wealth of sound combinations awaits the player of this instrument.

I'm willing to ship internationally, though the buyer obviously assumes all risk. International shipping method and cost will be determined after auction ends and payment for item is made. If you want to pay for my expenses I'd be happy to deliver the instrument personally!

If actual domestic shipping cost is lower than listed amount, difference will be refunded. If actual cost is higher, difference will be paid by seller.

Please feel free to ask any questions. I'm happy to supply more pictures"

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