Music machines in the Science Museum stores

arp4A trip to the electronic musical instrument collection of the Science Museum stores, during a research trip on electronic sound (March 2010). I was shown around the stores by curators Tim Boon and John Liffen.

On the trip, I had a close look at some of the early synths, samplers and other machines in the collection, including three Mellotrons, a Fairlight CMI, Wurlitzer Sideman and Arp 2500 modular synth. Here are some technical notes and snaps, taken rather hastily during my visit. I’ve also include some  YouTube for examples of these machines in action.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to plug any of these in. These are reference instruments, left in a dormant state so they’ll give musicians of the future a chance to see an Arp, Mellotron, Fairlight or Sideman in their original, unrepaired state.*

Tech notes and pictures

Arp 2500 Modular Synth

4-octave carillon

Fairlight CMI

Mellotron

Pyrophone

Wurlitzer Sideman

*Sadly, life isn’t that simple. If you switch off an electrical machine for too many years, it might never work again. Capacitors decay; tapes turn to dust. Arguably, there’s little point in preserving a ‘dead’ musical instrument if you care about the way it sounds, how it was played and how it influenced music culture. So the question of  whether to switch on or not has yet to be settled by historians and curators. I suppose it’s important that some instruments are conserved and only switched on very occasionally, while others are being worn out by the musicians who love them.

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  1. Instruments are meant to be played, the same way books are meant to be read. Seeing an instrument silent like that is kind of like seeing an embalmed body… but then, museums keep them too, don’t they?

    (Incidentally, I was a the Science Museum this weekend too, but didn’t see the all instruments because I spent so long in the Energy Hall and the 1001 Inventions exhibit. I’m just glad I’m going back in April!)

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