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The Trautonium

A Brief History from 1930 to 2002

Travis West
The Trautonium is an early electronic music instrument invented by Dr Freidrich
Trautwein in 1930 and developed over the course of the 20th century by Oskar Sal
a, the instrument's sole virtuoso.
Dr Freidrich Trautwein was a lecturer in acoustics at the Berlin Academy of Musi
c, where he worked in the recently established Radio Research Section. Collabora
ting with composer Paul Hindemith and a young Oskar Sala, Trautwein built the fi
rst prototypes of the Trautonium in 1930. The original Trautonium generated soun
d using an electric tube oscillator which produced a full harmonic spectrum simi
lar to what would now be called a sawtooth wave. This raw sound was processed th
rough a bank of four filters which were used to give the raw sound various forma
nt qualities. The instrument was played by pressing a long resistive wire agains
t a metal bar. This wire acted as a variable resistor, allowing the performer to
determine the frequency of the oscillator by pressing the string down at a diff
erent point. Volume was controlled using a foot pedal, similar to how it is cont
rolled on an organ.
In 1933, the Volkstrautonium was produced in collaboration with the German radio
and electronics company Telefunken. To the original Trautonium, the Volkstrauto
nium added a more streamlined interface for configuring the filters, leather wra
pped springy tabs to help play with repeatable intonation, and a kind of afterto
uch mechanism which allowed finger pressure to control amplitude.
It was hoped that the Volkstrautonium would become a common household musical in
strument, allowing the public to become participants in music making rather than
passive recipients. It was marketed as the ideal instrument for the amateur, ca
pable of playing music written for any instrument with the appropriate tone qual
ity. Simultaneously it was said to be able to make infinitely many new sounds ne
ver before heard. The instrument was made to be plugged into a radio, using the
radio electronics to amplify and transduce the audio signal. Unfortunately the V
olkstrautonium's commercial success fell short of the high hopes for the instrum
"the Volk- strautonium was, in Salas memorable phrase, a flop. The timing of the re
lease could not have been worse. With unemployment hovering around 30 percent, t
he instruments price of 400 reichsmarkequivalent to about two and a half months wag
es for an average workerwas out of reach for most Germans. Although it was intend
ed to piggy- back onto the increasingly ubiquitous radio receiver, the Volkstrau
to- nium may in fact have been edged out of the market by the cheaper device...O
f the two hundred units that were manufactured, only a handful were sold. Produc
tion was halted in 1937, and the remaining units were returned to Trautwein. Tel
efunken forwarded all future inquiries about the instrument directly to the inve
ntor and forbade him from using the companys name in connection with the Trautoni
While the Volkstrautonium was a complete commercial failure, the Trautonium cont
inued to live on, becoming increasingly associated with Oskar Sala, a classicall
y trained composer and pianist, and sole virtuoso Trautonium player. In 1935 Sal
a was commissioned to build a new Trautonium for radio broadcasts. The new Radio
-Trautonium added a number of new features to the instrument, including a second
manual for polyphonic playing, and a second foot pedal for real time timbral co
ntrol without reaching up to the knobs and switches. Most importantly, this vers
ion of the Trautonium introduced the so called subharmonic mixtures. This techni
que, patented by Trautwein, derives additional sawtooth waveforms from the main
oscillator with frequencies which are integer divisions of the main oscillator,
in a kind of reversed or upside down harmonic series. While the word subharmonic
implies that these undertones would be sine wave components, it is important to
note that they are actually sawtooth waves.
Over the next few decades, Sala continued to develop the Trautonium, building a
more portable version of the Radio-Trautonium suitable for concert playing, and
building a studio instrument which he called the Mixturtrautonium. These instrum
ents were all essentially the same design, with two manuals, subharmonic saw wav
es, and formant filtering.
Sala played the Trautonium prolifically during the late 1930 s and 1940 s, stick
ing to arrangements of Third Reich approved German compositions from the Baroque
, Classical, and Romantic repertoire. While a number of original compositions we
re made for the Trautonium around the beginning of the 1930s, by Paul Hindemith,
Genzmer, Sala, and others, the instrument was engulfed in the Nazi propaganda m
achine and used mainly to play familiar music.
After the war, Sala s touring began to slow down, and he eventually began to foc
us exclusively on studio work, composing music for film using the Mixturtrautoni
um. In 1953-4 Sala added additional functionality including white noise, reverb,
and a circuit breaker. In 1963 Sala contributed the sound for the well known ho
rror film "The Birds" directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Around 1988, a number of students of the former "Fachhochschule der Deutschen Bu
ndespost Berlin" (roughly translated by Google as "University of Applied Science
s of the German National Post Office of Berlin"?) alongside Sala built an update
of the Trautonium to more modern semiconductor electronics. While I was unable
to find any source which said as much, it s likely that modern recreations of th
e Trautonium such as those by Trautroniks and Doepfer are based on this semicond
uctor version of the instrument.
Oskar Sala passed away in 2002, having never taken on a student. Over the course
of his life he wrote over 400 pieces of the Trautonium, mostly for various film
s. Sala left very little documentation about his compositional process and playi
ng technique, and its likely a great wealth of knowledge was lost with his depar
Davies, Hugh and Peter Donhauser. "Mixtur-Trautonium." Grove Music Online. Oxfor
d Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 25 Jan. 2017. <http://0-www.oxford
Patteson, Thomas. 2016. A New, Perfect Musical Instrument: The Trautonium and Ele
ctric Music in the 1930s. In Instruments for New Music: Sound, Technology, and Mo
dernism, 11451. University of California Press.
Richard Orton and Hugh Davies. "Trautonium." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music On
line. Oxford University Press. Web. 25 Jan. 2017. <http://0-www.oxfordmusiconlin
The Mixturtrautonium Oskar Sala, Germany, 1936. https://120years.net/the-mixturtraut
The Trautonium Dr Freidrich Trautwein. Germany, 1930. https://120years.net/the-traut

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