Reconstructing a Studio: Oskar Sala’s Nachlass at the Deutsches Museum, Munich

Christina Dörfling
Contributor essay

When the musician Oskar Sala, co-developer and only player of the electronic instrument Trautonium, died on February 26, 2002, aged ninety-one, he had long since settled his legacy. In 1995, his last tube-based instrument, the Mixturtrautonium, went to the Deutsches Museum in Munich as a permanent loan. Since then it has been part of the permanent exhibition of musical instruments in the museum’s Bonn branch. After the death of his wife in 1999, Sala appointed the museum his heir; he donated his private papers and all his tapes, together with the instruments, in 2000. Today, the Deutsches Museum archive holds his papers, from patent documents and correspondence to reviews and tax returns, along with over a thousand photographs and even more sound recordings (including 1,900 tapes). Between 2008 and 2010, many of the tapes were digitized and documented on video as part of a conservation program. The focus was on the 1/4 inch audiotapes, as the archivist Wilhelm Füßl explains. While inspecting the legacy, the team observed that Sala used the tapes like an artist’s notebook. This makes them an important source, since Sala rarely wrote down his compositions.

View into Sala’s studio. Sala is working on the transistorized version of his Mixturtrautonium. Photo: DMM Vorl.-Nr. 9145.
View into Sala’s studio at Heerstrasse. Sala is working on the transistorized version of his Mixturtrautonium. Photo: DM Archiv Vorl.-Nr. 9145.

Sala’s more than one hundred apparatuses, the equipment of his studio in a bungalow at Heerstrasse 41c in Charlottenburg, Berlin, were assigned to the museum’s musical instrument collection. Some were used after Sala’s death to reconstruct part of his studio in the exhibition, next to a reconstruction of the Siemens electronic music studio. The Sala studio exhibit will be updated in 2021, raising the question of what can and should be shown of an individual artist’s studio. So far, selected devices—for example, the Konzerttrautonium (1937) and a Steenbeck film editing machine for 35 mm film (the ST 900S with one picture track and two sound tracks)—have been exhibited next to a shelf with the iconic orange BASF magnetic tape pouches and some film rolls. But Sala’s studio was more than a production facility for film sounds and electronic compositions, as Silke Berdux, curator of the Collection of Musical Instruments, emphasizes. Especially in his old age, Sala used it as a kind of personal archive, a pinboard record of his life, concert career, and inventions.

(figure 2 here) Sala’s studio at Heerstrasse, Berlin, with his pinboard documented in October 2005 after his death by Hans-Joachim Becker Photo: DMM Bild-Nr. R_6998_09.
Sala’s studio at Heerstrasse, Berlin, with his pinboard documented in October 2005 after his death by Hans-Joachim Becker Photo: DMM Bild-Nr. R_6998_09.

Born on July 18, 1910, in the Thuringian town of Greiz, Sala went to Berlin in 1929 to study composition with Paul Hindemith. From 1932 to 1936, he also studied physics at the University of Berlin. He met the engineer Friedrich Trautwein, who had long wanted to create an electronic musical instrument, during one of Hindemith’s courses. At the Academy of Music’s radio lab, the Rundfunkversuchsstelle, Sala, Hindemith, and Trautwein researched the possibilities of electronic sound generation. In 1930, they presented the monophonic electronic instrument Trautonium to the public during the festival “Neue Musik Berlin.” A picture pinned to Sala’s studio wall recalls these beginnings.

The Trautonium uses a tilting swing generator, initially based on neon lamps and later on thyrathron tubes, that generates a sawtooth wave. This can be filtered through various switchable resonant circuits. The device can either imitate known instruments—including the human voice—or generate artificial sounds never heard before. Starting in 1933, an improved variant was briefly manufactured by the electronics company Telefunken Berlin and later called the Volkstrautonium (people’s Trautonium).

The Rundfunkversuchsstelle was closed down after the Nazis seized power in January 1933. However, a private Trautonium presentation for Joseph Goebbels secured Sala’s career as a Trautonium player and developer. In 1934/35, he implemented previously planned amendments, such as a second interface, to create the Rundfunktrautonium (radio Trautonium), with which he broadcast his own regular program on the Deutschlandsender station. He took a modified version of the apparatus, the Konzerttrautonium, on tours across Europe from 1937/38, often with pianist Harald Genzmer, who composed several Trautonium pieces. In 1942, for example, Sala performed in Budapest, and in 1943 in Paris—events also documented on his studio wall. As well as being a solo instrument, the Trautonium was used to replace instruments that were unavailable or difficult to play, such as the Japanese gong in Richard Strauss’s Japanese Festival Music or the ondes Martenot in Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc. After World War II, Sala continued giving concerts. The program of a Parsifal production in Bayreuth was pinned up prominently in his studio for everyone to see. Increasingly, however, he was commissioned to compose film music. In an interview years later, he recalled having “a special monopoly on oversized sound effects through the generous sponsor Telefunken after World War II.”

Crucial to the increased demand for the Trautonium, especially in film music, were further refinements made from 1949 to 1952. The Mixturtrautonium was based on two synchronized, tilting oscillating tubes. He registered the patent for this complex circuit in 1954  in Germany (DE917470), the same year in France (FR1074838), and two years later in the United States (US2740892A). Sala was particularly proud of the American patent, which could be seen on his studio wall until his death.

Acoustically, the Mixturtrautonium reversed the principle of the overtone series. According to Sala’s theory, tones were derived from a fundamental tone by frequency division. The row can be selected by a step switch on the device, four subharmonics per fundamental. Each individual tone can be edited for pitch, timbre, and loudness. This expanded the possibilities of electronic sound generation on the Trautonium and gave it its specific sound.

In the late 1950s, the capacities of the new instrument and the growing demand for film music convinced Sala to focus on film. He moved in 1958 to rooms at Charlottenburger Chaussee in the Spandau district of Berlin, in the headquarters of Neue Mars-Film, a production company for German science fiction films. There he set up a studio for his Mixturtrautonium, the heart of his electronic sound production as well as a new source of income. In 1961, a year before the Trautonium became internationally famous as the generator of birdcalls in Hitchcock’s The Birds, Sala advertised in the journal Gravesaner Blätter/Gravesano Review (p. 59). The advertisement, titled “Electronic Music Studio Oskar Sala,” called the Mixturtrautonium a means of “composition and interpretation.” The eight essential facilities and services advertised are professional tape recording, a reverberation unit, perforated tape work, film and sound track editing machines, film and TV music ready for mixing, electronic and concrete noise synthesis, electronic sound effects dubbed onto finished tapes, and tape speeds continuously variable from 1 5/8 to 25 ips. In all but one of these points, Sala advertises his production facility as a purely film music studio. With resources he probably found on the Mars-Film premises, he put together a studio setting in which the Mixturtrautonium could be optimally used as the central apparatus for film music practices.

In “Mixture-Trautonium and Studio Technique: Electronic Music for Films,” published in Gravesaner Blätter in 1962, Sala details the technical structure of his studios and his composition practice. The most important items apart from the Mixturtrautonium are magnetic tapes, because “any limits to the design, which happen to exist can be overcome by tape technique with its transpositions” (p. 59). As temporary storage and rewritable media, magnetic tape recorders were essential studio equipment at the time. Sala’s studio had four: two Telefunken and AEG M5 Magnetophones with three variable band speeds each, one AEG b2 with two different band speeds “and continuously variable speed [enabled] by a low frequency high output oscillator,” and one AEG M23, also with variable speed. The Springer machine MLR18/15, a tempophone, made it possible to process tape speed and pitch independently of one another.

The studio was soundproofed with Moltoprene foam, fulfilling the room-acoustic standards of mixing studios, but Sala attaches no further importance to noise levels. Though he has a Telefunken U 47 condenser microphone “to enable also the production of not purely electronic (i.a. noise) effects for subsequent treatment in the manner of musique concrete” (p. 59), he composed exclusively electronically. Unusually for the time, the microphone plays no role in his studio layout.

Circuit diagram for the Mixturtrautonium
Circuit diagram for the Mixturtrautonium (Gravesaner Blätter, p. 52).

“Line 1 connects the MTR directly to the loudspeaker group S1 through the mixer amplifier V1. Line 2 connects it to V1 over the reverberation plate. Straight and reverberates sound can be controlled at the MTR and at V1. Lines 3 and 4 connect V1 to tape recorder M1 and M2, which record the sound fed to S1. Lines 5 and 6 connect the playback amplifiers of M1 and M2 to V1, playing back over the same loudspeakers S1. These lines 1 to 6 include no microphone, no feedback can occur unless lines 4 and 6 or 3 and 5 are switches together. S1 is permanently adjusted to standard playback level.

A second amplifier V2 with its speakers S2 is provided for multichannel recordings. The first system is recorded by 1, 2, V1, S1, 3, M1 (lines 3 and 5 are not switched on together) and played over 7, V2, S2. System 2 is then played on the MRT synchronous to system 1 and at standard level for S1 and S2 and recorded on M2 over 1, 2, V1, S1, 4. Both systems are then available synchronous but on separate tape.” (Sala in Gravesaner Blätter, pp. 54-55)

The Mixturtrautonium is the only sound-generating element of the studio, as the diagram shows. It depicts Sala’s “microphone-free studio method” and at the same time the instrument’s own studio architecture. Whereas in his concert practice he had been restricted to preset registers, studio work enabled him to adjust the circuits for each new sound (p. 53). Each adjustment of the technological setup is an essential element of Sala’s art and thus a striking difference from the Siemens studio in Munich and the Studio für elektronische Musik in Cologne. Peter Bagde quotes Sala speaking on the topic:

I have to say I admire the people in both those studios, who manage to work with two of the ugliest electronic sounds as far as I’m concerned. In Cologne they use sine waves, which I’m forced to use for calibration, and in the Siemens studio they have Voder and Vocoder effects . . . Neither of those studios can possibly know anything about the art of electronic interpretation. I’d never have got involved with electronic music under conditions like that!

) Draft of the reduced reconstruction of Sala’s pinboard. Photo: Christina Dörfling.
Draft of the reduced reconstruction of Sala’s pinboard. Photo: Christina Dörfling.

The Trautonium art whose uniqueness Sala likes to emphasize will also be heard in the future exhibition at the Deutsches Museum. As I have mentioned, Sala’s studio did not only contain devices and sorted tapes. Judging by photographs from later years, when he moved from the Mars-Film building to the bungalow in Charlottenburg, he used the studio walls as pinboards that documented stages of his life. The function of his studio seems to have changed over the decades from a place of sound production to a place of self-archiving. This affects decisions on how the studio can and should be exhibited. From 2021, Sala’s studio will be reconstructed more fully, showing not only his equipment, but a reduced version of Sala’s pinboard, at the center of which a screen will play examples of the sound and film created in the studio—giving visitors an impression of his idea of electronic music as an art form.

By Christina Dörfling, Hochschule für Musik FRANZ LISZT Weimar


Further Reading and References:

Bagde, Peter. Oskar Sala: Pionier der elektronischen Musik. Göttingen: Satzwerk, 2000.

Berdux, Silke, and Christiane Pfau (eds.). 100 Jahre Oskar Sala: Programmheft zum Festival 16.  bis 19. Juli 2010. Munich: Deutsches Museum, 2010.

Donhauser, Peter. Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die Pionierzeit in Deutschland und Österreich. Vienna: Böhlau, 2007.

Füßl, Wilhelm. Digitalisieren, dokumentieren, bewahren. Ein Projekt zur Sicherung von Tonbändern aus dem Nachlass von Oskar Sala. Archive in Bayern 7 (2012): 229–248.

Sala, Oskar. Mixture-Trautonium and Studio Technique: Electronic Music for Films. Gravesaner Blätter, 23/24, no. 6 (1962), 42–60.

Seawright, James. What Goes into an Electronic Music Studio. Music Educators Journal, 11 (1968): 70–73.