The Secret History of Modern Music Technology

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Earlier this week marked World Music Day, and to honor the musical celebration, some of the biggest names in tech released their latest audio technology. Lava unveiled new TWS headphones, and Sony launched a novel Bluetooth speakers. But, while we tend to focus on all the advancements in the field, few know Secret History that made it all possible: a church organ.

Digital sound is now ubiquitous in all sound-producing products. However, shortly before CDs and MP3s hit the market, all sound was created using analog technology. It wasn’t until the 1930s that a self-taught electronic engineer with expertise in radio and vacuum tube technologies, Jerome Markowitz, founded a small organ company in Allentown, PA—Allen organ– has the sound changed forever.

Of course, the story is long. But, in short, Markowitz was the first to invent the radio tube oscillator in 1937, which enabled radio oscillator technology to produce stable musical sounds. Then in the 1950s and 1960s he introduced many innovations and obtained patents including low frequency oscillators, space discharge harmonic generators, etc. He went on to create the world’s first musical instrument that used digital sampling before introducing the digital computer organ in 1971 which would eventually lead to CDs, MP3 / 4s, cell phones and all modern digital sounds.

“The way of looking at it is like a pyramid,” Allen Organ president and Jerome’s son Steve Markowitz told Grit Daily. “The first downward flow from the top of the pyramid occurred in the musical instrument business. With the introduction of the Allen digital computer organ, it quickly became evident to the entire industry that the sound production of all electronic musical instruments would shift from analog to digital. This is why other manufacturers of electronic musical instruments came to Allen in the latter half of the 1970s to seek licenses on Allen’s basic digital sound patents.

The first licensees included Yamaha and Casio. Then, in the 1980s and later, other advanced digital sound technologies were developed, including CD players. This then turned into MP3, etc. The Allen digital organ would be the second commercial product to use custom LSI circuits, the first being the Sharp calculator. It would predate most competing digital church organs by more than 15 years.

“With these technologies which were developed independently of Allen, the core technology can be traced to that used in the Allen digital organ,” added Markowitz.

While most of today’s tech consumers are unaware of this little-known story, Markowitz has been noted for his industry (and life) changing inventions. It received the coveted IR-100 award for one of the 100 most important innovations of that year. In addition, the original technology is considered to be so important that it is the first instrument housed at the Smithsonian Institution. There is also, quite notably, an Allen organ in the Vatican today.

And as the sound tech industry continues to push the boundaries of what is possible (watch Apple’s 3D spatial audio, for example), it’s important to remember that this might never have been possible without the small Pennsylvania-based organ company,

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the digital organ being released for sale by Allen Organ, which continues to manufacture electronic organs.

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