It may not have reached the level of cult status like some other vintage synthesizers, nor is it revered for its occult history, but in 2019 one of the world’s oldest and strangest electronic instruments, the Trautonium, will celebrate 90 years of existence.
It’s remarkable that the synthesizer has remained relatively unknown over the years given its remarkable sophistication and sound. Invented by Friedrich Trautwein at the Berlin Music University in 1929, the Trautonium is a masterstroke in electronic instrument design. Sound is generated by pressing on a series of wires connected to metal plates in a keyboard-like shape. When the wire is pressed to the plate, the plate closes an electrical circuit producing a sound, the pitch of which can be changed by shifting or sliding the finger along the wires. The sounds can also be filtered to change tone. In effect, the Trautonium is a fretless synth with a complexity of sound way beyond its years.
It was Alfred Hitchcock that recognized the power of the Trautonium when it was used in his 1962 horror film The Birds. Oskar Sala—the only person who knew how to play the instrument at the time—was commissioned to create a score which Hitchcock described as a “more or less impressionistic sounds of birds screaming.” Compliments don’t get much better than that. To hear the Trautonium in action, check out the video above, and learn more about the synth thanks to a recent feature from the Guardian here.