In our recent module, Industry Research Project we had to organise interview with a sound practitioner or a artist in the Sound Arts industry. I was lucky enough to get a interview with Sound Arts and PhD Goldsmiths Student Tom Richards. For his Phd project which finished last year, Richards redesigned British sound pioneer Daphne Oram (1925-2003) who is the inventor of the ‘Oramics Machine’ plans, which was a compressed and more portable Oramics Machine named ‘Mini Oramics.’
I spoke to him in his London studio to discuss his PhD on Daphne Oram life and work. Also to learn about the process of building the amazing Mini Oramics machine from scratch, technical process and post build process.
As a PhD Student at Goldsmith University, Tom Richards re-invented the late electronic and sound pioneer Daphne Oram’s unfinished design of the Mini Oramics.Tom Richards research and re-invention project into the original Oramics Machine which was invented in the early 60’s by Oram, is still a successful phenomenon.
Interviewer: Esther Gayle
Sound Artist: Tom Richards
Interview Date: Monday 13th May 2019
Esther: You were working on your PhD at Goldsmith’s University, researching into Oram, Daphne legacy. What drew you attention to this unadorned, but captivating project-The Mini Oramics?
Tom: My Phd was meant to be a practice lead project, to make a physical, artistisc piece. I received a PhD studentship funding by Science Museum, supervised and designed by Gold Smiths Research leader. Mick Greirson and Dr Tim Boom, who had already had a partnership while working on Oram, Daphne archive collection in the Science Museum.
I came across the almost complete plan of Oram’s Mini Oramics design, and I understood the Mini Oramics synth schematics. I decided I wanted to finish the product Oram set out to create, to answer my PhD question? What if the Mini Oramics would have released, and what reaction or use it would have been in back in the 60’s.
Esther: Are you entirely satisfied with the outcome of your Mini Oramics Projects you built?
Tom: I was happy it worked, it’s not perfect as it’s still a prototype. I’m slowly improving the machine. Making sure the electronics were able to read the pen markings wasn’t easy. I tried to keep most of the authenticity of the plan by using 70’s technology, I used early Logic gates because I wanted to prove that it would be possible to create in that time of era of Oram. The main challenges, were mainly mechanical. I was challenge trying to get the reel to reel film to go through, which had problems with the static electric electricity. Discovering the technical issues after my Phd and working to solve the faults in the machine.
Esther: The aesthetic features on your Mini Oramics has very similar characteristics to the original machine. What changes were applied to compress the large scale features to the Mini Oramic Version?
Tom: The original Oramics Machine ran 10 strips of synchronised 35mm film, which is expensive. According to a photographer that had worked with Oram, said that she couldn’t afford buying reels of blank film. Oram would bleach them, and start again with the same ones all the time. So there’s only few reels left on machine is all the film Oram ha left , as Oram had limited resources. Oram was given her funding in 1962, and was similar to the funding I was given in my PhD, if you translate the money then with money inflation. The Oramic Machine was problematic, there was always something wrong with the tuning, vibrato, mechanics and the dynamics. Oram was always fiddling with her machine. Theres 3 books of her technical log book in the archive.
Esther: (I show Tom Oram, Daphne’s book – An Individual Note of Music, Sound Electronics)
Tom: That much more of Oram’s finished thought for public consumption. There is 3 technical log books, they are more personal notes and there is technical diary of Oram’s progress. There was references I didn’t even touch on in my PhD, Oram at one point was trying to control the volume with a laser. This was just one reference I that I couldn’t find anything to substantiate it, it just said ’Laser in Volume Control.’
Esther: I documentary about Oram, Daphne when she was 7 years of age, that she saw sound as pattens and lines in her dream.
Tom: Oram spoke about growing up with her bother who were both technically inclined. The use to have HeathKits, were they would build their own synths. A 9 year old Oram had become fond using it and kept joining in with her brothers circuit builds. Oram grew up in a time where mostly males that worked in Electronics, but Oram’s family were liberal and didn’t discourage her interests in electric technology.
Esther: Tape Variation had a major role in the early electronic sound houses. Magnetic Tape had been cut, slices and scratch to create, bizarre sounds and noise effects. Is Sampling the modern day tape variation?
-Oram, Daphne drawings on tape created pitch bending sounds, timbre and delay, composing a lyrical rhythm. What does graphical representation mean to you in the term of Sound Art?
Tom: The techniques of music concrete were very much about borrowing songs and changing them. Fiddling with them to make a new result, so sampling is kind of the same – there’s a lot of parallels between them.
I started to making Computer music at 16, 17 and seemed logical to me, the way you draw out the midi patterns where you have a graphical representation of the piece on screen. It’s an intuitive approach, it goes back to the score or the barrel organ. Sound Art has such a broad field of representations, theres optical sound film artistes like Rhodes, Lis, Sherwin, Guy Sherwin and many more artist I could credit. ANS Synth, created by Scriabin, Alexander Nikolayevich, which has a vibrating light with spinning wheels. It a plasticine opaque cover, then you scratch away bits of plasticine to create drone like textual music and sounds.
Esther: As well as an instrument maker, researcher, you compose music. Have you performed or incorporated you Mini Oramics in your music tracks.
Tom: I haven’t release anything, but I have a track coming with the Mini Oramics for live improvisation. Graphics have to drawn on, I can use pre-drawn film and slow it down for performances. I always use the synthesiser part of the machine with other sequencers that I make. I don’t use the graphic part as much. The Mini Oramics is split into two parts, one is the one you draw on, the other makes loads of control voltages and plug it into the Generator synth and turns it into Sound. I use the Generator a lot, with everything. I designed it, with a compatible plug in, on a standard CV Gate.
Esther: What is you opinion on EDM and the comparison of the era that Oram produced electronic Music?
Tom: That’s a good question. With people like Oram, Daphne and Derbyshire, Delia they are known as the grandmothers of EDM music. There’s something tricky with the representation when thinking about focuses and goals. I would argue that both Oram and Derbyshire weren’t into making Pop music. Speaking for Oram she was making experimental and Avante-garde music, she wasn’t into making generic or populist songs. Derbyshire previous work had techno strands, very rhythmic beats.
Esther: Female sound engineers also likened to Oram, Derbyshire, Delia who created the famous ‘Doctor Who’ music theme were not credited well as their male peers. Do you think the Sound Arts and engineer industry jobs any more gender equal now?
Tom: BBC for political reasons wasn’t able for a few years to call the products of the Radiophonic Workshop music, because the Music department would get agitated. Stating that it wasn’t ‘Music.’ Oram at the workshop was classed as technicians at first, not musicians or composers. Oram expressed her frustrations to a letter with her Mum, when she credited as Radiophonic effects.
I still don’t think we’ve achieved gender parity. I’m excited about the young females, sound engineers, musicians and producers that are doing great things. It’s changed in the last 10 years. I witnessed countless of times male engineers give female engineers a hard time because they think she doesn’t know what she’s doing, when it’s often the other way round.
Esther: How has creating the Mini Oramics Machine changed your opinion on Sound and Electroacoustic equipment?
-What is your connection towards your creation?
Tom: It’s had a big influence on my creative practice, especially the sound making part of it.
It is better if someone can read it the Mini Oramics in the melodic scale or hear it your head sonically. I’m not classically changes, but it’s been lovely to lend it someone that read a musical score. I brushed up on my electronics, to redesign all the circuits – It was hard to make the machine without a micro processor.
I use various amount of synth build I made to make music.
Esther: At the start of my winter term, I embarked on 6 week Modular Synth Build Workshop at University, which opened my eyes to the breadboards and circuit builds of the electronic interfaces. I built my Voltage Control Filter on a Serge Circuit board.
How was it like to implant and solder all of the electric components to the correct circuit boards to develop your Mini Oramics and the Generator to accompany?
Tom: It was a bloody mission, it took month of work to create. In the whole system there’s about 20 odd circuit builds, there is a lot. Each parameter control board has 8 individual circuit boards, with 20 ICS and with other components, more then 10,000. It took some calibration and fiddling before it finished.
Esther: I read on your blog that you curate learning workshops for students, that are invited to demonstrate the Mini Oramics in action. Penning improvisational graphics onto your tape, which create this haunting harmonics.
What is you goal for these workshops and demonstrations?
Tom: My aim was that the Mini Oramics is helping the Oram, Daphine legacy, to help preserve her history. To show people that are interested in it, especially young woman and diverse range of people. I wanted to be true to Oram’s legacy, I hope she would have approved me designing her work. It’s interesting to see people react to the machine, how they perceive and what they do with it. It inspires to see what changes I can make to improve it.
Esther: I think that inspiring you can share your knowledge on doing a research project, it’s inspiring that you encourage students to make something that’s hand on, and creative.
Tom: I enjoy working with students, and the interactive features which has a nice fluidity to it. What I made is something Oram planned to create, it is good to see that is was possible to make. Oram wanted the Mini Oramics to be in music studio and universities, so it could have been a product supplied everywhere.
Esther: Thanks for this interview, it has been brilliant. Your Mini Oramics is a big achievement, you should be proud of your design.
Tom: Thanks, Esther.
End of Interview.