Monday, January 25, 2010

What is all this stuff about the Motorola Scalatron?

A couple of days back, the obscure Motorola Scalatron came to my messed mind. I wanted a more deep knowledge than the usual "Motorola Scalatron Synthesizer" misterious words I often see in the usual sites I visit. So, let's do a little bit Googling...

Well... the first to came was the post on Matrixsynth about one Motorola Scalatron monitor on eBay, I already read this one. Microtonal in the comments said: "The Motorola Scalatron was a dual rank keyboard based upon organ divide down technology, built into home organ type packaging, and invented by George Secor in the early 1970s. It had a cassette interface. I am not aware of a video interface, but it is possible it was added later. This auction is just for the monitor, not the keyboard, which would be a real find as less than 20 Scalatrons were ever made. Some versions of the keyboard used a hexagonal array rather than the standard piano style keyboard."; but also points to the patents, is very hard to read this pictures, but seems something here is wrong, the pedal patent related seems nothing to do with the Scalatron. But patents... is a good starting point to look.

Second link visited, an article by Douglas Keislar "History and Principles of Microtonal Keyboards", a picture shows "Fig. 11. The Motorola Scalatron with a generalized keyboard (1975)", I saw a "chiclet" keyboard as Microtonal said on Matrixsynth.
Then came a link to a pdf  "Sound Forms for Piano" by Charles Hamm, I read: "The piano used for the Ben Johnston composition was tuned microtonally using the Scalatron Tuner and Pitch Monitor. This equipment can establish any pitch progression both aurally and visually with extreme accuracy. We wish to extend our thanks to Richard J. Harasek and Motorola Scalatron, Inc. for their help and equipment for the microtonal tuning." Hmmm, Scalatron was a company, was an instrument... and was Tuner? this in part is in concordance with the KenL comment in Matrixsynth, he states: "The TV monitor was part of a piano tuning device, which was different from the synthesizer keyboard. It worked like a Conn strobotuner. It had a split screen, with fixed bars on the left side, representing true pitch, and vertically moving bars on the right side corresponding to the pitch of the instrument being tuned. You would tune the piano until the bars were stationary. There must have been another box connected to the TV monitor."

As Charles Hamm was thanking to Richard Harasek and Motorola Scalatron Inc. I realized what would happen if I google this boths names... nothing good... but if I follow the same way that Microtonal with the patents? Aha! the USPTO gives me the patent 3.939.751 "Tunable Electrical Musical Instrument". Going further I seek the references cited, then: 3.821.460 "Electronic Musical Instrument", 4.085.645 "Instantly Retunable Tone Generator for an Electronic Musical Instrument" and 4.256.008 "Musical Instrument Tuner with Incremental Scale Shift" uffff too much to read in one day... but I am on the right track.

More Googling (time after): I guess this time is an excellent source because are two papers by George Secor this one, and this other one. He write the following: "Earlier that year (ed.1974) I had attended a demonstration of the Scalatron (digitally retunable electronic organ) prototype, and recognizing that conventional keyboards were not the best way to perform music with more than 12 tones in the octave, I unwittingly proceeded to re-invent the Bosanquet generalized keyboard and subsequently approached the Motorola Scalatron company with the proposal of employing it on their instrument."... "Around that time several members of the xenharmonic movement had gotten in touch with Scalatron president Richard Harasek and sent him copies of the first two issues of Xenharmonikôn, which he passed on to me and which I promptly read. The second issue included Erv Wilson’s diagrams of a modification of Bosanquet’s keyboard, with hexagonal keys, at which point it became clear that my keyboard proposal was not new."... "For the remainder of the year I was heavily involved in the generalized (Bosanquet) keyboard Scalatron project and, after that, in using it to explore new tunings. In effect, the keyboard that I had discovered was destined to be overshadowed by the one that I had rediscovered."
All Secor had written seems clarify very well the the thing about Scalatron, and adding this Motorola Anual Report from 1975 is enough clear, at least to me.

Conclusions (in order, for an easy understanding):
  • Motorola Scalatron was a brand and a division of Motorola Inc.
  • From the name and the patents is easy to see that the main objectives was related with automatic tunable instruments and devices for tuning instruments.
  • The Motorola Scalatron was a 'Tuner and Pitch Monitor' used to compare two tones acoustically and visually in a split TV screen; for a perfect pitch one must match the reference fixed bars on left half of the monitor with the moving bars on the right half representing the input of the signal for the instrument to be tuned; and this makes me think that possibly the monitor that was in eBay was complete because in the back it have two inputs maked as MIC and REF. As the reference is injected externally, any imaginable scale tunning is possible.
  • The Motorola Scalatron was (also) an electronic musical instrument with automatic tunning capability. In the texts referenced here nobody said nothing about synthetic sounds, it seems it was a plain electronic organ and also seems that the sounding engine was not so important as the 'digitally retunable' property was.
  • As by George Secor itself recognize, the Motorola Scalatron (musical instrument) existed before he entered the game, is more possible the invention falls on R. Harasek, D. Ryon and F. Maynard (the guys in the patents). Secor did in fact, a "rediscovering" of the Bosanquet keyboard and helped to people in Motorola to develop a second version of the Motorola Scalatron digitally retunable electronic organ with a generalized keyboard. Possibly this was the starting point that help to develop the "Miracle Temperament" and "Decimal" Secor's own keyboards.
  • The Motorola Scalatron division seems had a short life (about 1970 to 1975) as R&D; and the products left behind was more demos or prototypes than commercial products. From 1975 merged with other Motorola units to persue the emerging data communications market.
Usually, I don't do searches by 'theme' but suddenly I used the 'images' option and found this image of a normal Motorola Scalatron Microtonal Organ at the Warren Burt website, he also say that Herman Pedtke is one of the inventors, he knows him and if he say that I believe it, but I still cannot found any documented reference.

I think with all this stuff, I have now a wide vision about the Motorola Scalatron thing, I can go to bed serenely... at least for today.


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Debra said...

I am Herman Pedtke's daughter, and I can tell you that he is the inventory of the Scalatron, having worked with Dick Harasek and the others at Motorola, until he sold it to them. He was not as much a businessman as an extremely talented musician/professor/organist, and so Motorola took over. My father is deceased, but the family still has all the early documents and some instruments pertaining to the early days of this invention. One day I will have time to dissect it all and make sense out of it (being a non-musical person).

elgauchoandres said...

Hi Debra and thanks for your comments. All that you said is a big help to clarify this big question about the Scalatron.

This blog surprises me from time to time giving me signs of life, specially with all this strange stuff I talk here.

Maybe you'll find the time to do a "home investigation" and compile the information
and post in the web to, in first place, honor your father and second, for nerdies like me can found information about rare birds like those I talk here in my blog.

Thanks and welcome back anytime.

Anonymous said...

The Scalatron was a very cool instrument. Though Motorola used the brand name for their strobe tuner device, that wasn't nearly as innovative as the microtonal keyboard instruments. Your conclusions are 100% correct.

There is a dual-keyboard Scalatron and a generalized keyboard Scalatron in semi-functional condition in the music department at Queens College in Flushing, NY. You're welcome to come try it if you're ever in the states. To the best of my knowledge, there were only three of the generalized keyboard version manufactured. We also have a Terpstra MIDI controller that has a similar generalized keyboard.

Justin Tricarico

Rich Pizzo said...

having documentation, photos, schematics, theory of ops etc... it should be published, I do not see a lot of sales. but for people like me... i need to know all about this device.. not so much to make music on it, rather to experiment with tunings.... I can see that he was pursuing the same interests that I found my self pursuing.. which now leads me here...

I'd like to see what he did...

I would also like to have one of his devices for my lab..