Interview with Harald Bode
Originally published in two parts in 1980 by SYNE magazine, a publication of the International Electronic Music Association (IEMA). James Finch was founder of the IMEA and recounts the organization’s history and its activities:
I formed the organization back in 1978. Some of our members included Klaus Schulze, Larry Fast [Synergy], Harald of course (who lived near me in Buffalo), Bernard Xolotl, Jonn Serrie, Yanni (yes that guy) and 150 or so others. SYNE was our newsletter and eventual magazine. By the end of its run in 1986, I had about 2500 readers. It was a mixture of music reviews, tips for musicians, networking and tech articles. Branched from SYNE and IEMA (International Electronic Music Association) was the Collective Electronic Music Project in which several artists would participate in music compilations distributed by IEMA free to college radio stations and then sold to music enthusiasts for $10 each (cassettes), the proceeds then divided among the five or so musicians participating. We tried to do it on a wide scale but it was too cost-prohibitive at the time and the technology of course was very limited. 1[1. James Finch, email correspondence with Rebekkah Palov, Researcher / Designer at the Harald Bode Archive, 20 June 2011 (Hornell).]
Harald Bode, a graduate of the University of Hamburg, Germany, and a postgraduate of the Technical University of Berlin (Heinrich Hertz Institute), became active in electronic music instrument design in the mid-1930s. His creations include the Warbo Formant Organ (1937), the Melodium (1938). the Melochord (1947 through 1953), most widely known through the Studio für elektronische Musik Cologne, West Germany. Further instruments designed by Bode include the Polychord (1949), the Bode Organ (1951, later known as the Estey Organ), the concert model of the Clavioline (1953) and a modular synthesizer / sound processor (1959, 1960), the Bode Ring Modulators and Bode Frequency Shifters (1961). The Bode Vocoder was created in 1977, and the Barberpole Phaser (1981) was his final production instrument. As of 1981, Bode held over 30 US and foreign patents. In 1962 and 1964, he served as Audio Engineering Society (AES) session chairman for Music and Electronics. He also founded and headed the Bode Sound Company (1972–86).
[Jim Finch] When and how did you first get involved with electronic music?
[Harald Bode] I got involved around 1937 — well actually ’35. I was working on an electronic sound modifier of a Grand Piano and various adapters. But 1937 was the year I created the Warbo Formant Organ in cooperation with Christian Warnke.
Could you tell us what part Christian Warnke played in the development of the Warbo Formant Organ?
Christian made the contribution of a musician — that means he told me what to do as far as all the features the instrument should have. I’ll have to go into more detail. Christian Warnke was a composer and musician, a bandleader with a fine ear for music, and he was an excellent violinist. He wasn’t involved in the design per se, just the specifications of the Warbo. And he sponsored the project on a minimum budget. Mind you this was in the second part of the 30s, which had still terrible after-effects of the depression. But the Warbo was my first major contribution in the field.
Our readers can get some technical details about the Warbo in the December 1979 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine 2[2. Originally published in Contemporary Keyboard (December 1979, p. 89) in Tom Rhea’s “Electronic Perspectives” column; republished in this issue of eContact!], but can you fill us in on the difficulties of creating it?
Well, it was built with a relaxation type of oscillator. Four oscillators actually, that were selected for the 44-note keyboard. The major problem being the stability of the oscillators, which is critical when comparing one with the other, especially with four. So I dropped the idea of a four-note organ at that time and went on to the Melodium, which was created in 1938 and used in many large performances with the Berlin Philharmonic as a solo instrument. It was also used in some significant motion pictures of that era.
And after the Melodium…?
The War. So from 1939 to 1945 I didn’t do anything other than writing a few publications on the field of electronic music. In 1947, when we finally got out of the mess of the post-war period, I created the Melochord. 3[3. See Tom Rhea’s article “Bode’s Melodium and Melochord” in this issue.] It was originally intended as an instrument which combined melody and chord capability all in one manual, but I then decided to use two voices on this one manual and split up a five-octave keyboard in such a way that the upper three octaves were assigned to one generator and the lower two octaves assigned to another generator. It was designed so that those two portions of the keyboard were independent, so they went to separate tone shaping means and to separate expression pedals, and the voices were arranged to allow for voice crossings. It was used on the German Broadcasting System, especially in Munich. It was not a production instrument (commercial product, that is), it was built and used by myself and was leased out to movie companies and for use in recordings with bands. It was also featured in a band I travelled with (as well as recorded with) in Germany. A second Melochord was commissioned by the Bonn University through Meyer-Eppler, who also initiated the work of Dr. Enkel at the Cologne Electronic Music Studio. This is how the Melochord was commissioned by the Cologne Electronic Music Studio. It was used by Karlheinz Stockhausen thereafter. Also, a Melochord was built for use by the NWDR in Hamburg and for a theatre in Munich, and a few others but it was not a mass production item.
Incidentally, the Melochord for the Cologne Studio had a variety of extras including Attack and Decay, Travelling Formants (as with today’s voltage controlled filters), built-in Ring Modulators and had access to reverb units and so forth. It resembled the potential of today’s synthesizers. This particular one was built in 1953. I then recognized that the Melochord was too special — not suited for mass production. So concurrently I went on to build a polyphonic organ type synthesizer around 1950, which was commissioned by the radio station in Munich. It again utilized the relaxation type oscillators synchronized in octave steps. This instrument had one manual and five octaves of oscillators.
But from this I went all out to a really marketable instrument creating the Bode Organ. I built it with six octaves of Sine Wave oscillators like the tone wheels of the Hammond Organ, and I could put a vibrato on the oscillators of the upper octave and the oscillators of the lower octaves were synchronized so that the whole tone system could vibrate. This organ was equipped with a switching system having the bussbars like the Hammond Organ. Thus my instrument was similar to the Hammond, only it was completely electronic rather than [being built with] tone wheels. I had some American connections, who became aware of my work. This organ was created in 1952, overlapping my work with the Melochord for Cologne. The organ was built later under license from me by the AWB company, which folded later (in the late 50s, after I left the country). Concurrently with the development of the Bode Organ, I made new developments on a mini-organ which was called the TuttiVox (a word that didn’t go over too well in the American market). It was an organ with a three-octave keyboard and tone generators covering a range of five octaves using sawtooth type oscillators. It sold quite well, manufactured under license in Europe, with several patents. It was similar in size to the Clavioline and the SoloVox among others which were popular in the US at that time. I got together with the people that were making the Clavioline and developed a concert version under new patents of mine. In 1954, I joined Estey Organ Co., which had been making reed and pipe organs. So I went over to the US in May of ’54 and in June at the NAMM show, I showed three models of the new Estey Electronic Organ, which was my design. I developed a new oscillator with Estey in Torrance CA without the iron cores.
I left the company in 1959 and went to the East, developing a signal processor with filters, ring modulator, audio trigger percussion units, a pitch selector, voice dividers and things like that. It could be used to create some interesting sound effects. I used this for composition work. 4[4. See “The Compositions of Harald Bode” in this issue.] I worked on this until March 1960 but the market wasn’t quite ripe for this type of signal processor yet, so I would have been too daring to go into business for myself at that time, so I joined the Wurlitzer Company in March 1960. They used an alteration of one of my patented tone generating systems on the model 4100, I believe the number was. I was put in charge of the electronic piano development for the company and proceeded to obtain about five or six new patents for Wurlitzer. The electronic piano is still in production as of last contact, and is still doing well. I left Wurlitzer in 1963 to work on patents of my own ideas.
I joined a non-related (musically at least) company called Bell Aerospace in 1964 and stayed with them through 1974. During that time I developed my ring modulator, which is quite well known and in studios everywhere, and also my Frequency Shifters, which are keyboard compatible: the amount of shift controlled by the keyboard as is with the frequencies in a voltage-controlled oscillator. After I left Bell at my retirement in 1974, I began to build up my own business. Some of my accomplishments aside from perfecting my Frequency Shifter included the development of my Vocoder in 1977.
One question about the Warbo. How would you compare, in regards to versatility and control, this instrument and the Polymoog in your studio?
Well, it cannot be directly compared, since the Warbo can be better compared with today’s keyboard assignment instruments such as the Oberheim… which is more versatile because of the advanced technology. The Polymoog, since it has a polyphonic tone generating system, can be more comparable to electronic organs, though of course the Polymoog is more versatile than electronic organs. But on assignment keyboards, you can give individual performance assignments to the individual tone generator channels. This has its advantages, but also its limitations. It’s good for a player who really knows how to handle it skilfully, but not good for, say, a regular bar piano player — who would be better off with using a Polymoog, which would be much easier to handle. Or an electronic organ.
Were the tone generators in your Warbo organ capable of more than one waveform, and if so, were they mixable?
No. They had close to sawtooth oscillators and the tone shaping was done by formant filters. 5[5. See the April 1979 issue of Contemporary Keyboard for more discussion on formants. For more on the Warbo Formant organ see “Harald Bode’s Four-Voice Assignment Keyboard (1937)” by Tom Rhea in this issue of eContact!]
Using today’s technology and a memory system, do you think the Warbo could appear again? Or is it one of those innovations that led to so-called “better” things?
Yes, the Warbo could return. As a matter of fact, the basic idea is much alive still. References to my publications have been used in litigations between large companies in the electronic instrument field.
What do you feel many of today’s synthesizers seriously lack?
It’s difficult to say… a tough question. I think it is not necessarily the synthesizer itself, since an artist who is quite imaginative can do all kinds of things, especially with a modular synthesizer; it depends not on the instrument, but on the artist himself. A run-of-the-mill performer will just imitate, he runs certain effects that have proven successful over and over again. He runs them into the ground. A top-notch performer, however, can use his imagination and explore the potential of the synthesizer. There are always new effects, new things, new possibilities imaginable. If you are armed with a background in engineering and technology, you can create the means to meet the demand.
Which you have done indeed, if I must say so myself. It seems the old school of electronic music seems to be overshadowed somewhat by the current crop of “traditional” 12-tone harmony electronic music. In other words, the Stockhausens and Subotnicks no longer seem to have the heyday they once had, Do you think this is good?
I think the avant-garde is still alive, and should still be alive. It is up to the creative individual to make this music attractive to people. Of course, if you create something that is for gold or platinum records, you will have more money in your pocket. But if you want to have fun, there is still some room for creativity if you do good work.
Speaking of creative music, I understand you are planning to release an album of your own music. I hope this includes a selection you played for me in the studio, called Sequence 3. 6[6. Some of Bode’s compositions can be heard in “The Compositions of Harald Bode” in this issue of eContact!]
Well, I have no schedule as yet, as I am doing this music at leisure and you know it takes a long time to get something really good. But I am working on some attractive pieces, and will fill you in later.
Great. It’s important you should be recognized as a musician also. About the Frequency Shifter… I understand it is coming out or have you already released a new version?
The old model 735 had a certain instability in the lower frequencies. The new unit has new technological developments. I have a new patent on the development of the quadrature oscillators. This makes the new instrument ultra stable in the low frequency range. I also now include a temperature-controlled exponential generator. What used to be on four PC boards is now on one PC board. This means I used a better design technique, not that I threw out anything. It’s more versatile and attractive now.
What is the difference between your Ring Modulator and the others?
Mine have a new threshold-controlled squelch unit which cuts out the carrier when there is no program signal coming in, making it very quiet. The early ring modulators had still the diode switching and in contrast I used the diodes for true multiplication rather than signal switching. I discovered the square law function region of germanium diodes, which is in about the first 300 millivolt range below the knee, and I developed matching techniques to utilize this region, so the ring modulator sounded undistorted and very clean. This was done in the early 60s.
What is the functional difference between a frequency shifter and a ring modulator?
Frequency shifters, in contrast to ring modulators, are single sideband devices. Ring modulators are dual sideband. My frequency shifters put out selectively both sidebands, one on one output and the other sideband on the other output. And they have a mixing control which can combine both sidebands. So if you want to have a ring modulator output, you can take that combined mix output or adjust in any proportion from left to right sideband.
Does the frequency shifter process [sounds] other than audio signals from a synthesizer / keyboard… like say, a voice or acoustic instrument?
The model 735 Mark II, like its predecessor (the 735), has a built-in oscillator with one signal input, If you want to use a frequency shifter with both an audio program signal input and a carrier input, my passive 750 frequency shifter will allow voice, tape or anything into the carrier input, As a matter of fact, Karlheinz Stockhausen has used this effect extensively.
What makes your Vocoder unique among others?
It has a special patented feature which is the direct feed-through of unvoiced sounds, since they do not need encoding and since my performance vocoder is not a communications device as with Dudley’s idea. Thus, “s” and “t” and other consonants are passed through along with processed sounds. This allows for the utmost clarity and understanding of speech processed through the vocoder.
Can the 16 bandpass filters in your vocoder be individually controlled or adjusted?
No, but this is a good idea, perhaps for a later model.
Do you plan to go back to designing any more keyboard type instruments?
I do not intend to create anything of this sort in the foreseeable future, although it would be a challenge. But there are too many other things to do.
I understand you have a new vocoder in the works.
Yes, model 8100. It will be a professional system, but will be more for a small studio basis, ranging in price from about $1490 compared to my model 7701 or 7702 which run around $3500. The 735 Mark II Frequency Shifter will be $995, the 750, $750, and I also have an anti-feedback frequency shifter which retails for $650.
Would you be able to market your instruments through the IEMA at a lower cost to members?
Yes, I think I could do that without stepping on anyone’s toes. Perhaps a 20% discount.
Were you first in this country to develop a vocoder for musical use?
Can you relate it, comparatively, with Homer Dudley’s device?
Yes, and I can say the differences between Dudley’s device and my own. Because he had to go through telephone lines, he had to encode everything — the whole range. So the channels cover not only the vowels but the “s”es as well. Since I don’t have to go through telephone lines, I don’t have to encode or decode the “s”es.
You are working on some surprises for the industry I hear.
Yes, but I cannot give a hint right now, since I have to evaluate various aspects, including marketability, etc. So they are still surprises!
I understand you and Steven St. Croix, of Marshall Time Modulator fame, are perhaps working together on a project?
We are good friends and are discussing several things on several products, but nothing as yet as far as concrete devices has evolved. Perhaps more on this in the future.
Outside of being a creator of innovative electronic instruments you are also an accomplished musician, and from the paintings I see, also a fine artist.
It seems to be a family trait! My son Peer is an accomplished video synthesist. My son Ralf is a cinematographer, his accomplishments being Saturday Night Fever, Coalminer’s Daughter, and just recently, Dressed to Kill. He was director of photography on all these films.
Fantastic! When did the Bode Sound Company start?
At the beginning of 1972.
Are you doing any teaching or lecturing at present?
I am lecturing occasionally, my last was at the State University at Binghamton NY. I also get invitations, for example I will be speaking at the Midwest Acoustical Conference in Chicago next year, but I try to limit this since it takes time away from my projects. I would like to be as productive as possible at this phase of my life.
That’s good. Because you are an inventor, I’d like your opinion on something… if given a choice between digital synthesizers and technology thereof in contrast to analog, would you — like many professionals — just stay with analog?
I think both have their place. There are certain things you will want to do with both. For instance, the Marshall Time Modulator I like very much, and this is an analog device. Also, in regards to frequency shifters, I would not know of any way to do this in digital without being prohibitive in regards to expense. So you have to take the best of both worlds.
That’s the best answer to that question I’ve heard. And certainly logical. It is great to know you are still active.
Well, I turned 71 in October ’80. But of course, with creative persons, age doesn’t have any meaning.
Very true. Do you have any particular advice for aspiring artists and technologists?
Well, I would say this… Don’t try to imitate. The bandwagon effect is something that is being done so much today. Everybody seems to always try to imitate another who is successful. Don’t do this, try to really think and be original.
What about new manufacturers?
Again, the same advice. But in order to be successful, a good market analysis is necessary. It has to be something in demand, or you won’t survive.
What are your immediate and future plans?
Believe it or not, I sit down every day and make a list of things that should be done and this list of things is always subject to change. There are always the big things and the small things. One of the big things now is the 8100 Vocoder, which is to be thought out thoroughly before it can become a reality. What goes hand-in-hand with this is the educating of the public. There are so many people who do not yet understand the real potential of a vocoder. Also, I am working on other sound effect devices which I will hopefully be able to talk more about early in 1981.
Well, I thank you very much for this opportunity to learn more about you and your endeavours. We look forward to your continued participation and inspiration in our field, as well as in IEMA. There you have it, folks.