By The Raymond Scott Archives
"I want the Electronium to be a beautiful instrument, to have a sort of special feeling, like a Steinway. Not to look like a Steinway, of course, but to have that sense of elegance and beauty. And I want it to have the feeling of driving, a steering machine, a cockpit of dreams."
— Raymond Scott (1970)
Ghost in the Machine—a Short Video Overview of the Electronium Concept
Scott began his first Electronium project in the late 1950s; it evolved from his work with analog (relay-triggered) sequencers. The earliest known instance of Scott using the word "Electronium" to describe the concept dates from 1966. It would become the most ambitious and resource-consuming endeavor of his life, and was ultimately sold to Motown Records, where Scott became Director of Electronic Music Research and Development.
"It was a blast to watch and hear Raymond interact with the Willow Park Electronium using a single microswitch. It was astonishing to hear the textures he could produce almost instantaneously, in an era when others were trying to effect polyphony by playing one musical line at a time into a multitrack tape recorder." — Tom Rhea, 6/13/2016.
An early Electronium track from 1967, "In the Hall of the Mountain Queen," with an animation from 2018 by Hae-Joon Lee, This is also included as sampled by Gorillaz in another story that's coming up.
SO YOU WANT $50,000 TO BUILD A SAMPLE ELECTRONIUM?
SO YOU WANT $50,000 TO BUILD A SAMPLE ELECTRONIUM?
As Scott continued his work on the Electronium in the mid-1960s, it became more challenging to finance the work himself, and he began to seek outside funding. It's unknown if this draft of an appeal was distributed to any potential investors.
Electronium Fund Raising PitchThe Raymond Scott Archives
Despite his best efforts, Scott was unsuccessful in finding investors to fund further Electronium development. But one of his press releases led to an article in show business magazine Variety, and that led Motown Records founder Berry Gordy to Scott and the Electronium.
In August 1970, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy read the above Variety show business magazine article about Scott and the Electronium. Scott soon demonstrated the machine for Gordy and in September 1970 he placed an order for an Electronium which he hoped would serve as an “idea generator” for Motown artists and producers. After a six-month working residency at Motown’s Los Angeles studios, Scott was named the label’s Director Music of Electronic Research and Development.
The Electronium c. 1970
The Electronium as it must have looked when Berry Gordy and his Motown entourage visited.
The Electronium Was Designed Without a Keyboard
Interaction with the machine happened only through manipulating an assortment of knobs and switches. Scott saw this design as a way to broaden music creation, making it accessible to non-musicians.
Electronium Side Angle at 3WPThe Raymond Scott Archives
“It was genius meeting genius, Berry certainly respected Ray and his knowledge, and Ray admired Berry... Berry was always one to invest in talent, and he recognized that right off with Ray. He felt that the power of the Electronium, the ability to numeralize the process of music, to quantify musical sequence, was an important aspect of developing music. Berry was always a formula man—he’d find a rhythm or a progression and build on that." — Guy Costa, Head of Operations at Motown, Interview on RaymondScott.net.
The Motown Electronium: How it Worked
"The entire system is based on the concept of 'Artistic Collaboration Between Man and Machine.' The new structures being directed into the machine are unpredictable in their details, and hence the results are a kind of duet between the composer and the machine."— Excerpt from Raymond Scott’s patent disclosure for the Electronium.
A Shallow Dive into Controls
Top center Panel J shapes the sound of each tone generator, volume, attack, decay etc. Lower left center Panel A selects when each beat will sound for each tone generator. Panel B to the right was called the "Pitch Panel" by Scott, and was one of many ways to control pitches.
Lower left Panel C enabled further shaping of sounds for groups of tone generators. In particular, it was used to generate chords, counterpoint, staccato and the "doo-wah" Scott added for Motown. Panel D above controlled a separate function, the Bass Line Generator and additional counterpoint. Left Panel E was for control of a cassette data recorder which allowed storage of settings for future recovery and reuse, it did not record audio.
Top to bottom, Panels H and G were basically mix modules, allowing for volume adjustments, reverb, and balance for output to speakers and the audio cassette recorder in Panel I. Lower left Panel F, was what made the Electronium a composing partner: it allowed for what Scott called "pitch excursions,” the unpredictable semi-random generation of notes, which was done as part of the counterpoint functions.
The Desk Unit
The Desk Unit was added later, and was mostly a master control unit, enabling or disabling various overall functions.
Scott deliberately didn't include a piano-type keyboard in his original design, but Berry Gordy wanted one so that a keyboardist could play along with the machine. Scott added it reluctantly, so he chose to hide it in a drawer in the right base of the machine.
The Motown ElectroniumThe Raymond Scott Archives
While the Electronium in its cabinet is undoubtedly beautiful, what's inside is equally striking. This is a view of the tone generator cards as they look today, after a partial restoration by engineer Darren Davison, who as a part-time volunteer spent several years cleaning and reverse-engineering the machine. Originally there were 12 cards. At some point Scott removed the far right one to use in another invention, but what happened to it is unknown.
The Electronium Tone Generators by Dave BrownThe Raymond Scott Archives
The Mysterious Diode Array
While the Electronium had many components it shared with other electronic instruments, this diode array is atypical, and its function is unclear. Scott referred to it as a "switching array," and it may well have been the way the "pitch excursion" notes were selected.
The Electronium Diode ArrayThe Raymond Scott Archives
Did The Electronium Make Music for Motown? Yes, but . . .
Hoby Cook was a keyboardist in a Motown-signed band that broke up. He was still under contract and, as he had a tech background, he joined the Electronium project. Scott trained him extensively on the machine, and then Hoby worked independently, creating his own music.
“I wanted some reactions, so as an experiment, I’d open the door and turn the volume up—loud.” Cook’s technique worked. Motown staff and artists heard the curious sounds and wandered in. “Michael Jackson was fascinated,” recalled Cook. “He was just this kid sitting there, staring at the flashing lights. He said he wanted the Jackson 5 to use the Electronium somehow.”
But as far as can be determined, the machine was never used in any Motown records. Hoby did record some of his own work. Here’s a link to one track we’ve ended up calling “Arpeggio to the Stars.”
Where is the Electronium Today?
Following a serious heart attack in 1977, Scott's health forced him to retire at age 69. Gordy, whose interest had waned, allowed Scott to take the machine with him. Two years after Raymond's passing in 1994 at age 85, Devo frontman and soundtrack composer Mark Mothersbaugh bought the non-working Motown Electronium from Scott's widow Mitzi.
In 2010, it was temporarily relocated from Mothersbaugh's Mutato Muzika studio in West Hollywood to Beaverton, Oregon, where volunteer engineer Darren Davison began an extensive restoration effort. Substantial progress was made, but the device couldn't be restored to working order. Currently, the machine is in storage in Los Angeles, and its future is uncertain, but musicians and electronic instrument authorities Brian Kehew and Walter (Gotye) De Backer are making plans to revive the ghost in the machine.
The Raymond Scott Archives channel — created & curated by Stan Warnow, Deborah Scott Studebaker, and Jeff Winner.
Additional content from Corey Goldberg, Irwin Chusid, and Henry Studebaker.