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Subject: Synthesizer, Electronic organ, Subtractive synthesis, Electronic music, Hammond organ
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Hammond Novachord
Hammond Novachord
Manufactured by Hammond
Dates 1939–1942
Technical specifications
Polyphony 72-voices
Oscillator Divide-down
LFO 6-channel electromechanical vibrato
Synthesis type Subtractive analogue
Filter 3-stage resonant bandpass
Keyboard 72-notes

The Novachord is often considered to be the world's first commercial Hammond company.[4] Only some 1,069 Novachords were built over a period from 1939 to 1942. It was one of very few electronic products released by Hammond that was not intended to emulate the sound of an organ.

History of production

While production of the Novachord began in November 1938, it was first heard at the Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 30, 1940 as a birthday present.

The Novachord was not well-suited to the technique of organists or pianists and required frequent adjustments to controls on the front panel to create new sounds. Like many analog synthesizers, it was much better-suited to producing "otherworldly" timbres. The instrument found its niche some years after production, shaping the sound of many science fiction film and television scores.

Production stopped because of a shortage of parts in 1942 and poor sales kept it from being built after the war.[6] It is estimated that fewer than 200 Novachords are still in existence and considerably fewer are still in operation. The vast majority of surviving examples are in North America, although one is known to be in the United Kingdom.

Technical details

Containing 163 vacuum tubes and over 1,000 custom capacitors,[7] the Novachord weighed nearly 500 pounds and was roughly the size of two spinet pianos. The divide-down oscillator architecture, based on vacuum-tube monostable circuits, permitted all 72 notes to be played polyphonically by deriving several octaves of notes from twelve top-octave oscillators. A similar design was adopted in polysynthesizers released more than 30 years later by Robert Moog and A.R.P.

Inside the Novachord

The Novachord featured an early implementation of ADSR with seven attack/decay/sustain envelopes selectable by rotary switch and sustain-pedal controlled release. It also utilised a three-stage resonant band-pass filter network with variable damping and an electro-mechanical 6-channel vibrato unit operating on pairs of adjacent oscillators. The resulting sonic palette ranged from dense sustained string-like and vocal-like timbres to the sharp attack transients of a harpsichord or piano.

Despite its historical importance, the Novachord did not enjoy commercial success. This was partly due to instability issues and the onset of World War II: reliability issues were caused in the main by the tight tolerances required of the operating parameters of hundreds of custom components. Hammond soon offered a special upgrade to improve stability, which was no more than a low-power heater bolted inside the enclosure to reduce the effects of humidity. The instrument was not known for vacuum tube failure perhaps because the heater voltage was reduced from the normal 6.3 volts to 5 volts.

Appearances in contemporary media

Like its contemporaries, the Jerry Goldsmith used the Novachord in several of his film scores and is known to have held the instrument in high regard. It was also used for the entr'acte music in Gone With the Wind (1939).[8] Composer Heitor Villa-Lobos included a part for the Novachord in his Symphony Nº. 7 (1945).[9]

The 12 master oscillator tuning chokes

The Novachord can be heard on many recordings of the era. Many songs sung by Tempo Records TR652. The Novachord is used for the bass line on that track, but can be more prominently heard on the B side of the record playing the melody on "Margie". [10]

See also

Section of the VCA/Divider pair tube array


  1. ^ Cirocco, Phil (2006). "The Novachord Restoration Project". CIROCCO MODULAR SYNTHESIZERS. Retrieved 26 April 2011. 
  2. ^ Morris, Jan (1998). Manhattan '45. JHU Press. p. 47. 
  3. ^ Davison, Annette (2009). Alex North's A streetcar named Desire: a film score guide. Scarecrow Press. p. 82. 
  4. ^ Steve Howell; Dan Wilson. "Novachord". Hollow Sun. Retrieved 26 April 2011.  See also site's 'History' page
  5. ^ Introduction to the Hammond Novachord
  6. ^ The Hammond Novachord (1939)120 Years of Electronic Music,
  7. ^ Hammond Novachord. Many photos, outside and in.
  8. ^ Hammond Novachord Sightings.
  9. ^ Liner notes to Villa-Lobos H: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7, NAXOS 8.573043
  10. ^

External links

  • A detailed restoration of a Novachord with sound clips
  • A modern recording of a 1939 Novachord recently restored in the UK
  • US Novachord restoration project
  • UK Novachord restoration project
  • Virtual Novachord Software
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