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RCA Mark I

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The RCA Mark I used a bank of 12 oscillator circuits, which used electron tubes to generate the 12 basic tones of a musical “scale.” These basic sounds could be shaped in virtually limitless ways by passing them through other electronic circuits, including high-pass filters, low-pass filters, envelope filters, frequency dividers, modulators and resonators.

Never mind the details of how all these circuits work, the end result was that the Mark I could take those 12 basic notes and reshape them into any imaginable sound. At least in theory. In practice, it was easy to create weird, unearthly sounds, and to imitate certain kinds of existing musical instruments but almost impossible to imitate other sounds like human voices or the smooth transitions between notes on a violin or trombone.

Still, the Mark I, demonstrated in 1955, was impressive. It was “played” by laboriously programming a sequence of notes to be played, along with information about how the sound of each note was to be shaped, by punching holes into a long roll of paper, similar to the kind used on a player piano. When all that was prepared, the roll was fed into the machine, the holes read, and music produced.

Technical Specifications
Type: Analog
Synthesis: Oscillator(s), Resonators, Subtractive
Oscillators: 12
Waveforms: Sine
Envelopes: 2
LFO: 2
Polyphony & Tuning
Polyphony: 2
Timbrality: 2
Tuning: Standard
Modes: Mono
Patches RAM: 1
+ Spring reverb
Case: Desktop
Controls: Buttons, Knobs
Display Type: LED, Vacuum Fluorescent, VU Meter, Backlit
Audio Output Connections: Mono Out
Audio Output Notes: Output to speaker or disc lathes
Year Released: 1955
Year Discontinued: 1957
Units Made: 1
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