Subharchord II/III

Exotic Example of Music Electronics

By German Museum of Technology

Subharchord II/III, Electronic Musical Instrument, Half Profile (2020-07-08) by German Museum of TechnologyGerman Museum of Technology

The Subharchord—A Radiotechnical Masterpiece

In the Year 1968, the Rundfunk- und Fernsehtechnisches Zentralamt (the East German central office for radio- and television technology) introduced an extraordinary musical instrument. Today, the Subharchord with the serial number 0 101 2-04/68 remains in the hands of Deutsches Technikmuseum. In 1960, the first prototype already demonstrated several unusual features. And to this day Subharchords are considered rare examples of an exotic species of musical instruments.

Calliope, Steam Organ, Musical Instrument (1874) by Gibson & Co.German Museum of Technology

Typischer Klang einer Dampforgel
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Music and technology enthusiasts have always pushed the boundaries of musical machines by employing the inventions of their era. The Calliope steam organ from 1874 forms part of the history of organs. The Subharchord makes its mark around 1960.

Clavecin Électrique, An Early Electric Musical Instrument, Jean-Baptiste Delaborde, 1759, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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The discovery of electricity also drove early musical breakthroughs. There is not much traditional about the legendary Denis d'Or by Prokop Diviš (around 1748). The Clavecin Électrique (1759) by Jean-Baptiste Thillaie Delaborde pictured here used electrically charged pendulums to strike bells.

Hans Bredow Experimenting with Radio Equipment during World War I, Telecommunication, German Museum of Technology, 1917, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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Research facilities for radio communication systems played a major role in the development of electronic instruments. A laboratory for radio communication at the Staatliche Akademische Hochschule für Musik (national academy for music) in Berlin-Charlottenburg was founded in 1927. It focused on the interrelation between music and radio technology.

Studio for Electronic Music Cologne, Electronic Musical Instrument, NWDR, 1954, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In 1951, the Studio for Electronic Music was founded in Cologne. This studio at Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk, NWDR, later WDR, one of the major broadcasting networks in Germany is said to be the first of its kind specializing in electronic music. Later, similar studios emerged worldwide.

Subharchord I, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1962, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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East Germany developed a corresponding studio for the Studios für Rundfunk und Fernsehen der DDR (studios for radio and television) in 1956. The laboratory manager Gerhard Steinke wrote that "the cooperation between radio stations in east and west was - despite the war in the ether - wholeheartedly good as far as it concerned music editors and engineers".

First Prototype of the Subharchord, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1960, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In the new studios, people from the fields of arts, science and engineering came together and worked hand in hand. This photography from the Labor für Musikalisch-Akustische Grenzprobleme (Laboratory for Acoustic and Musical Boundaries) shows the chief engineer of the Subharchord Ernst Schreiber (center), composer Addy Kurth (left) and technical assistant Evelyne Garten (right).

Engineer Ernst Schreiber, composer Hans-Hendrik Wehding and film director Hans-Günther Kaaden, Collection Gerhard Steinke, ca. 1960, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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At the time developments in electronic instruments were highly anticipated. One of the most important projects of the East German laboratory was therefore to develop the Versuchsmuster und Experimentalgerät Mixturinstrument (experimental prototype of an instrument for mixtures). As the core of the new studio its purpose was to enhance the musical work of several artistic disciplines.

"Sub Vision" of Carsten Nicolai, Installation with Subharchord, Electronic Installation Art, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 2005, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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From 1960 on, during work on the first prototype, countless pieces for film, radio, television, records and concerts were published both in Germany and internationally. To this day, the few remaining Subharchords are still being used. Though repairs and maintenance are quite laborious.

Hans-Hendrik Wehding on the Subharchord I, Electronic Musical Instrument (1962) by Collection Gerhard SteinkeGerman Museum of Technology

Unheard Sound Machines

Early developments of electric instruments were mainly aimed to imitate traditional instruments, mostly motivated by commercial interests. However, resourceful users and developers also discovered completely new means of expression that could not be achieved with acoustic instruments. One of those innovations was the discovery of subharmonic mixtures.

Mixtur-Trautonium from Oskar Sala, Electronic Musical Instrument, Deutsches Museum Bonn, 1952, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In traditional organs a mixture consists of several tones which can be heard simultaneously when activating a single keyboard key. Instead of traditional organ mixtures, the Subharchord created new types of subharmonic mixtures that had previously been heard from Oskar Sala's electric Mixtur-Trautonium, an enhanced version of the Trautonium by Friedrich Trautwein.

Symmetry of Overtone and Undertone Series, Subharmonic Series of the Fundamental C4, Music Theory, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1960, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In 1952, when Sala introduced the Mixtur-Trautonium, international competitor offerings were limited to the imitation of regular organ mixtures using fundamentals and their harmonic overtones. Sala's sound machine, on the other hand, created mixtures that combined fundamentals only with their respective harmonic undertones.

Tempered and Harmonic Series of Undertones of the Fundamental C4, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1960, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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Harmonic overtones in acoustic timbres and traditional organ mixtures can be mathematically described as integer multiples of the fundamental frequency. In contrast, frequencies of harmonic undertones are calculated using integer divisions of the fundamental frequency.

First Prototype of the Subharchord, Electronic Musical Instrument, Frontal View (1960) by Collection Gerhard SteinkeGerman Museum of Technology

The controls of the first prototype allowed the switching of the main generator waveform between square and saw waves. The octave ranges of both main waves and the input to the frequency dividers could be changed individually (right half of the panel). Subharmonic frequencies were generated by four frequency dividers which could then be mixed to the fundamental (left half of the panel).

Each of the frequency dividers featured a 16 step rotary switch for the division ratio and a volume control. All switches and controls not only allowed for sheer endless possibilities in terms of sound variations but could also be played like an instrument.

First Prototype of the Subharchord, Electronic Musical Instrument, Half Profile View, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1960, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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The 1960 prototype did not just stand out due to its new type of timbres, however. State of the art technologies such as printed circuit boards, card slots and semiconductors proved to be an ideal starting point for further musical and technological developments.

The Race (Der Wettlauf, 1962), from DEFA, Animated Film, DEFA Stiftung, 1962, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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The first prototype of the Subharchord was already used to develop a soundtrack for the animated film Der Wettlauf (The Race) from 1962. However, composer Addy Kurth likely recorded the final version of the soundtrack on the Subharchord I, a significantly improved version of the first prototype.

Control Panel of the Subharchord I, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1964, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In addition to using the latest technologies, the Subharchord I provided even more and also novel means of expression. A new solution for a pressure sensitive keyboard was added to the organ housing which allowed for expressive variations of the mixture volume. It also debuted a solution for playing glissandi and the division ratio for the frequency dividers was increased to 1/29.

Hans-Hendrik Wehding on the Subharchord I, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1964, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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Furthermore, the new version also had formant, high pass, low pass and MEL filters. A rhythm generator was added as well as a decay generator, a ring modulator and a chorus effect. The back panel offered dedicated connections for noise and sine wave generators.

Prototype for the Subharchord II, Electronic Musical Instrument (um 1964) by Collection Gerhard SteinkeGerman Museum of Technology

In 1964, development began on a new prototype for the upcoming Subharchord II. Main objective was to develop a new product design by Gunter Wächtler. To this day, this prototype is still used in the Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

Prototype for the Subharchord II at the Leipzig Trade Fair, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1965, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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Efforts were made to get the device ready for batch production, with the hope that it could draw public attention. In 1965 and 1966, the Subharchord was presented at the Leipzig Trade Fair.

Gerhard Steinke's Article for the Audio Engineers Society, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1966-04, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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The Subharchord was presented in national and international specialist press. In 1965, the device was showcased on the Acoustical Conference in Budapest. The same year, laboratory manager Gerhard Steinke presented the Subharchord alongside international developments in a dedicated radio series for the East German broadcasting network Deutschlandsender. The series was titled Auf dem Wege zu einer neuen Klangkunst (The Rise of a New Sound Art).

Subharchord II/III, Electronic Musical Instrument, Front View, German Museum of Technology, 1968, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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The Subharchord II, which was produced from 1966, was again redesigned. In contrast to its prototype it had an additional keyboard which could be used to play the MEL filters expressively.

Dedicated Keyboard for the MEL-Filter in the Subharchord II, Electronic Musical Instrument, German Museum of Technology, 1968, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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Karlheinz Stockhausen on a Subharchord II in Bratislava, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, ca. 1968, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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Of the six Subharchord II devices produced, two were sold to Bratislava. One was sold to Prague and one to Oslo. One device was used in the DEFA Trickfilm-Studio (East German studio for animated film) in Dresden, and another was used in the Hörspielproduktion im Funkhaus Nalepastrasse (studio for radio plays) in East Berlin. The retail price was 30,000 East German mark.

Early Draft for an Electronic Studio with Subharchord, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1968, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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The Rundfunk- und Fernsehtechnische Zentralamt (the East German central office for radio- and television technology) already had plans for a new Studio für Elektronische Klangerzeugung (studio for electronic sound generation) in the radio station in East Berlin. However, the cultural politics of that time suddenly brought an end to the project in which a Subharchord III was meant to play a central role for the whole studio. In 1968, the Subharchord II of the laboratory was moved to the section 1/3 of the studio for radio plays in the Funkhaus Nalepastrasse.

Draft for the Piece “Protest”, from Bernd Wefelmeyer, Electronic Music (ca. 1966) by Collection Gerhard SteinkeGerman Museum of Technology

Music or Not Music?

When new means of expression become available to the arts, mostly earlier modes of aesthetic techniques are imitated. Accordingly, certain electronic instruments, such as the Moog Synthesizer, lend themselves to the musical tradition. Other instruments, such as the Subharchord, aimed to expand traditional processes and means of expression. Some of those instruments were seen to make a break from tradition, even if they didn't intend to, such as the Mixtur-Trautonium and the Buchla synthesizer. These breaks in tradition were reflected in the attitudes of musicians, critics and the public. Extensions of tradition and innovations are often faced with scepticism and even open hostility.

Thank-You Letter from Composer Addy Kurth for the Success of “The Race”, Document, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1962-11-21, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In addition to Oskar Sala's Mixtur-Trautonium, the Subharchord was the only instrument that could create subharmonic mixtures. Back then, the artificially generated harmonic undertones marked uncharted territories in music. t the time, the theory and practice of subharmonic mixture instruments were considered exciting extensions of musical tradition.

Experimentelle Musik 1963/1964, Album from VEB Deutsche Schallplatten Berlin, Electronic Music, Collection Gerhard Steinke, 1964, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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The Subharchord is a sign of the courage and inspiration of the musicians and developers involved. In the early 1960's they labeled their works Experimental Music. The VEB Deutsche Schallplatten Berlin (national record company of East Germany) published a corresponding album with the title Experimentelle Musik (1963/1964). The album was expected to receive harsh critiques.

Trailer for the formerly banned film "Der verlorene Engel" (The Lost Angel), DEFA, Feature Film, DEFA Stiftung, 1966, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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But most people did not expect the results and consequences of the 11th plenum of the central committee of the East German governing party SED in 1965. The so called Kahlschlag-Plenum (deforesting plenum) is considered to be the cultural and political turning point in the history of the German Democratic Republic. Countless pieces of art which were considered to be either critical or experimental were banned. Many creatives were banned from their profession.

The Staff of the Laboratory for Acoustic and Musical Boundaries Posing in Postal Uniforms, Collection Gerhard Steinke, ca. 1960, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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As a result of these developments, use of the Subharchord was increasingly restricted to mere noise generation for film, television and radio productions. Development on the Subharchord and the electronic studio was suddenly stopped. The unique qualities of the instrument which were rightfully stressed before were pushed to the background.

Subharchord II, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, ca. 1960, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In terms of subharmonies, only so-called suboctaves gained widespread attention. Suboctaves are able to enrich a given recording by making them more punchy, without sounding unfamiliar. Many electronic instruments have therefore suboctave generators. Since the 1970's, the pop industry made extensive use of effect processors which mix a given recording with its copy that has been lowered in pitch by at least one octave.

Doepfer A-113, Adaption of Sala’s Subharmonic Generators, Electronic Musical Instrument (2020-07-13) by Doepfer Musikelektronik GmbHGerman Museum of Technology

One of the few current subharmonic mixture instruments is the A-113 Subharmonic Generator from the Doepfer company. It emerged as an adaption of the frequency dividers from Oskar Sala's Trautonium. Another example is the Subharmonicon by Moog Synthesizers which was introduced in 2020.

Overall, however, most subharmonies remain an exceptional side note in music history. The notable exceptions are suboctaves with their effect-enhancing division ratios (1/2, 1/4, 1/8, etc.).

Service Friendly Control Panels of the Subharchord II, Electronic Musical Instrument, Collection Gerhard Steinke, ca. 1960, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In 1968, the Subharchord with the serial number 0 101 2-04/68 was brought to the national radio station Funkhaus Nalepastrasse. Klaus Bechstein customized the circuitry to fit into the studio environment, and for this reason, the device later received the type designation Subharchord II/III. Numerous radio plays have been produced with traditional as well as experimental sounds from this Subharchord. If any, experimental pieces of music were produced secretly.

Subharchord II/III, Electronic Musical Instrument, German Museum of Technology, 1968, From the collection of: German Museum of Technology
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In 1968, the Subharchord with the serial number 0 101 2-04/68 was brought to the national radio station Funkhaus Nalepastrasse. Klaus Bechstein customized the circuitry to fit into the studio environment, and for this reason, the device later received the type designation Subharchord II/III. Numerous radio plays have been produced with traditional as well as experimental sounds from this Subharchord. If any, experimental pieces of music were produced secretly.

Credits: Story

Curator: mopoco
Editors: Bettina Gries, Bernd Lüke, Jörg Rüsewald
Specialist Advisor: Gerhard Steinke
Translation: Joe Filbrun, Google, mopoco

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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