Inside the Harmonic Tone Generator

By Camron Owens

The intersection of music and technology has become increasingly popular over the past decade, particularly with the rise of electronic music and music software applications. However, the intersection of music and electronics is nothing new to the University of Illinois.

In 1964, James Beauchamp, professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering as well as in Music, introduced a significant contribution to both music and technology with the creation of the Harmonic Tone Generator, one of the first voltage-controlled electronic music synthesizers in the United States. Beauchamp’s Harmonic Tone Generator is currently on display until May 27 at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music as part of an exhibit on Beauchamp’s achievements in the field.

Beauchamp graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, later earning his Masters in Electrical Engineering there in 1961.

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While studying for his Masters, he became interested in synthesizing music electronically and started exploring the work of Lejaren Hiller, Jr. after reading his article on computer music composition in “Scientific American.”

At the time, Hiller Jr. had already started an electronic music studio at the University of Illinois, where Beauchamp would soon move to complete his PhD.

“It just so happened that [Lejaren Hiller Jr.] came to the University of Michigan to give a talk on his computer composition,” Beauchamp said.

The two then began a correspondence that lasted over the following year. While working at a space technology firm in California in order to support his family, Beauchamp received news that Hiller was awarded a grant from Magnavox Corp. to develop electronic music.

“It was just a miracle that this came together,” Beauchamp said.

In the fall of 1962, Beauchamp moved to Urbana to begin work on a new electronic instrument. In 1964, he completed this project, creating one of the first voltage-controlled electronic music synthesizers, the Harmonic Tone Generator, which was based on additive sinusoidal synthesis. The Harmonic Tone Generator was used in various electronic music projects produced at the University during the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Salvatore Martirano’s “Underworld.”

Following his work on the Harmonic Tone Generator, Beauchamp went on to work with sound analysis and synthesis on computers.

However, his creation of the Harmonic Tone Generator at Illinois was not forgotten, as demonstrated the current exhibit honoring it at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music. The exhibit features Beauchamp’s original Harmonic Tone Generator as well as a new digital model created by Mark Smart, an electronics technician in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Unfortunately, the original Harmonic Tone Generator no longer works, due to years of use in the UIUC Electronic Music Lab, although according to Beauchamp, the Harmonic Tone Generator was initially just another piece of lab equipment.

“Gradually, it just became one of the pieces of equipment in the lab and didn’t cause as much excitement,” Beauchamp said.

The current exhibit documents the creation of the Harmonic Tone Generator by using scientific reports, stories and audio recordings.

Although he retired in 1997, Beauchamp continues to publish articles and explore the intersection of music and computing. Some of his recent projects include working with students on automatic transcription, music processing and query by humming, which is a method that enables people to hum a tune into a computer that in turn automatically identifies the song.

Despite the Harmonic Tone Generator’s long-lasting legacy, Beauchamp said that he’s still amazed by the response to his invention.

“It’s kind of amazing to me that it’s made such a stir,” said Beauchamp.

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