Sounds of the Hammond Novachord
An Early Electronic Music Synthesizer
The Hammond Organ company released its first product, the Hammond Electric Organ in 1935. This organ is characterized by the physical rotation of a metal tonewheel. The tonewheel rotated near an electromagnetic pickup and each tonewheel had notches corresponding to each note of the traditional piano keyboard. The signal was sent to an electric signal through to the sound circuity where the signal could be sweetened or modified before being sent to an amplifier and speaker system. It sounded like this [vintage example]. This is the very same technology that led to the drawbar B3 organ used for church, jazz and other popular music. The B3 family was publicly premiered in 1939. Prior to 1975, Hammond organs still used the tonewheel technology, when they switched over to digital circuitry.
The Hammond organization also experimented with electronic organs that used tube oscillators to generate notes instead of tone wheels. The most spectacular of these was the Novachord, introduced in 1939. In my breakdown of the six generations of electronic music technology, I place the Hammond Novachord in generation 2—vacuum tube technology. It is sandwiched between the era of direct current instruments and solid-state transistor instruments that evolved in the 1950s. The Novachord should be considered as the first commercially available synthesizer because it used electronic tone generation, polyphonic performance, and its design that was intrinsically suited for controlling tone color, filtering, and modifying the attack and decay parameters of the sound.
Tube-oscillator-type organs that came before the Novachord assigned one note per oscillator, which led to a heavy machine that was prone to overheating and lots of tube replacements as they burned out. Hammond decided that they could build a vacuum tune oscillator organ with more notes on the keyboard but fewer vacuum tubes. This was done by dividing the basic waveform of an oscillator into other octaves. The Novachord, therefore, only needed 12 tube oscillators to service all 72 notes on its keyboard. The complexity of this instrument was due to its connective circuitry to make it fully functional across the entire keyboard. The instrument was also known for its elaborate controls over the envelope of the sound and tone quality. Including all of its circuits required to process, divide, filter, and amplify its tones, the Novachord still only had about 146 vacuum tubes. I say “only” because another product from that time--the Coupleux–Givelet (KOOP-lah Jee-lay) organ produced in 1938--normally had two keyboard manuals and one easily tunable vacuum tube oscillator for each note. This required a total of 250 to 700 tubes just for producing tones. These tubes were actually housed in a separate cabinet measuring some ten feet wide by six feet tall and two feet deep. So, the Hammond Novachord design proved to be innovative, but the fates would not be kind to this early synthesizer.
The National Music Centre of Canada has an original Novachord in its collection, where it describes the instrument’s controls: “The 14 rotary switches on the instrument’s front panel," explains their website, "can be used to alter timbre, volume, resonance, balance between bass and treble, vibrato amount, and brightness, while a set of three foot pedals at the bottom of the instrument enable the user to control sustain and volume.”
Unfortunately, the Novachord proved to be unstable and unreliable in performance, primarily because of the tight specifications of its parts that needed fairly regular tune-ups. About 1,100 Novachords were produced between 1939 and 1942. By the onset of World War II, a shortage of components and parts due to the war effort proved to be the death knell of the Novachord. About 200 instruments still exist but even a smaller number are fully operational. Among the recordings that follow, we will hear some contemporary examples of music made using at least two restored Novachords from the US and the UK.
The sound of the Hammond Electric Organ, using the tonewheels to make its sound, was quite distinctive from the Novachord. The sound of the Novachord, with its own unique tonalities, could be characterized as either bright or buzzy.
In my accompanying podcast we hear examples from the recorded history of the Novachord, from its early years as a performance instrument, to a revival of sorts in the 1960s, particularly in motion picture soundtracks, to some more contemporary examples using restored instruments. One thing to listen for in the recordings are the tone qualities and envelopes of the sounds. These are primarily musical examples, although the instrument was often used for strange sounds and effects in the movies of the 1940s through 1960s. Tone controls on the Novachord had imaginative and distinctive settings such as “deep,” “brilliant,” and “full” tone; “normal” and “small” vibrato; and “strong” and “soft” bass and percussion. Using combinations of these controls made it possible to imitate various orchestral instruments— another distinction of the Novachord as the forerunner of the modern synthesizer tuned with “presets” for specific sounds. For example, we will hear some examples of “string sounds" from the UK Novachord Restoration Project.
Here's a special note about the final track featured in this set of Novachord recordings. The track called "Time" from the album Good Advice is by Canadian Basia Bulat and dates from 2015. This song prominently features the sound of the Novachord. For this song, Basia actually got to play an original Hammond Novachord. The instrument is in the collection of the National Music Centre of Canada in Calgary. She wrote me saying, “The amazing technician who has sadly since passed away, John Leimseider, told me that there were maybe less than 20 known working ones at that time. . . . It’s perhaps the most special and rare instrument I’ve been lucky enough to play.” Mr. Leimseider also thought the instrument may have come from the Grand Ole Opry because it was painted white. That would need to be confirmed.
I want to point out that the playlist for this episode includes links to the US-based Novachord Restoration Project operated by Phil Cirocco, as well as Phil’s list of Novachord appearances in movies and television spanning 1939 to 1969. There is also a link to a UK Novachord restoration project in the UK . This project was conducted by Steve Howell and Dan Wilson who also offer a library of Novachord sound samples. A link is also included for the National Music Centre of Canada website record for its Novachord.
The tracks I included are mostly in chronological order beginning with the Hammond Electric Organ from 1937.
The following playlist also includes my notes about each track. These are all from my archive and I apologize for the poor quality of some of the 78 RPM recordings.
1. Milt Herth, “Basin Street Blues” from Basin Street Blues / Twelfth Street Rag (1937 Decca). Organ solo played on the Hammond Electric Organ. An example of the electro-mechanical organ sound, for comparison to the other tracks recorded using the Novachord.
2. Public Domain. “Intermission Music,” Gone With The Wind (Music From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack As Monophonically Recorded In 1939), Max Steiner. This comprises two short works, one for the beginning of intermission (when the lights went up and everyone headed for the concession stand and bathrooms) and one for the end of intermission (when the lights went down). The music was recorded in 1939 for the movie theater.
3. Vera Lynn (vocal), “Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)” from A Mother's Prayer At Twilight / Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye) (1939 Decca). UK recording with Arthur Young on the Novachord. A dexterous recording by Young who explored the rhythmic textures that were possible on the instrument.
4. Collins H. Driggs, “In a Persian Market” from Cascades Of Melody (1941 Victor). Novachord solo.
5. Collins H. Driggs, “The Blue Room” from Cascades Of Melody (1941 Victor). Novachord solo.
6. Collins H. Driggs, “Song of the Islands” from The Magic of the Novachord (1941 Victor). Novachord solo.
7. Fred Feibel, “Rose Room,” from Novachord Solos (circa 1941 Columbia). Novachord solo.
8. Herb Kern and Lloyd Sloop, “Dancing Tambourine” from Treasure Chests of Transcriptions for the Home (1949 Tempo). Hammond Electric Organ, Herb Kern; Hammond Novachord, Lloyd Sloop.
9. Herb Kern and Lloyd Sloop, “Twelfth Street Rag” from Treasure Chests of Transcriptions for the Home (1949 Tempo). Hammond Electric Organ, Herb Kern; Hammond Novachord, Lloyd Sloop.
10. Jerry Goldsmith, “It's Gotta Be A World's Record” from Our Man Flint (Original Motion Picture Score) (1966 20thCentury Fox). Novachord being put through at least four types of voicings as the tune progresses. The sounds are distinctly presented as solos.
11. Jerry Goldsmith, “Lost in Space” from In Like Flint (Original Motion Picture Score) (1967 20th Century Fox). The Novachord is heard for a short sequence about 16 seconds into this track and then again beginning at about 1:16 where is consists of a rhythmic bed for the rest of the track. A theremin is heard in the closing seconds.
12. Christopher Komeda, “The Coven” from Rosemary's Baby (Music From The Motion Picture Score) (1968 Dot). Paul Beaver played the Novachord on many tracks, mostly for effects. In this case, the Novachord plays a persistent drone rhythm throughout the track with other instruments played on top of the mix. It is sometimes hard to tell the effects that can be attributed to the Novachord once we get to this era of multitrack recording and studio effects.
13. The Mystic Moods Orchestra, “Sunny Goodge Street” from Emotions (1968 Philips). Paul Beaver’s Novachord (calliope sound) played by Lincoln Mayorga. You may also hear a harpsichord, Clavinet, piano, and celeste.
14. Phil Cirocco, “Music of the Electron” from The Novachord Restoration Project: Music Of The Electron (2007 C.M.S.). Phil Cirocco at a restored Novachord.
15. Phil Cirocco, “The Inner Sanctum” from The Novachord Restoration Project: Music Of The Electron (2007 C.M.S.). Phil Cirocco at a restored Novachord.
16. Phil Cirocco, “Spark” from The Novachord Restoration Project: Music Of The Electron (2007 C.M.S.). Phil Cirocco at a restored Novachord.
17. Phil Cirocco, “The Floating” from The Novachord Restoration Project: Music Of The Electron (2007 C.M.S.). Phil Cirocco at a restored Novachord.
18. Steve Howell and Dan Wilson, “NovaBerlin” from the UK Novachord Restoration Project (2010 Hollow Sun). Sample Novachord sounds using modern studio techniques. Although the Novachord did not have sequencing capability, the sounds can effectively be looped and repeated to create such sequences.
19. Steve Howell and Dan Wilson, “Strings Galore” from the UK Novachord Restoration Project (2010 Hollow Sun). Sample Novachord sounds using modern studio techniques. Demonstrates the string ensemble potential of the Novachord.
20. Steve Howell and Dan Wilson, “Montage” from the UK Novachord Restoration Project (2010 Hollow Sun). Sample Novachord sounds using modern studio techniques. Demonstrates a variety of musical styles using the Novachord.
21. Basia Bulat , “Time” from Good Advice (2015 Secret City). Vocals, Hammond Novachord, RMI Electra Piano, Piano, Synthesizer, Marxophone, Mellotron, Basia Bulat; bass guitar, electric guitar, Jim James; cello, Charlie Patton; drums, Dave Givan; violin, Scott Moore.
The Archive Mix
Two tracks played at the same time to see what happens.
Herb Kern, Lloyd Sloop, Warren Arey, “Silent Night” (1949 Tempo). chimes, vibraphone, vibraharp, Warren Arey; Hammond Electric Organ, Herb Kern; Hammond Novachord, Lloyd Sloop.
Milt Herth, “Twelfth Street Rag” from Basin Street Blues / Twelfth Street Rag (1937 Decca).
The US Novachord Restoration Project by Phil Cirocco.
Check out Hammond Novachord Sightings in movies and television assembled by Phil Cirocco.
The UK Novachord restoration project by Steve Howell and Dan Wilson.
National Music Centre of Canada/Centre de National Musique description of its Novachord