Electronic Music Wiki

A noted research and development organization, established by AT&T in 1925. Bell Labs has been responsible for an enormous number of innovations in electronics, communications, aerospace, and computer science, some of which have had a direct impact on electronic music. In its heyday, Bell Labs had locations worldwide, but most of its operations were located in New Jersey and Illinois in the USA.

A significant amount of Bell Labs' research focused on finding ways to transmit human conversations and other types of audio signals over phone lines more efficiently. One idea that the Labs' researchers had, going back to the 1930s, was that instead of carrying an actual audio signal, the phone system could "encode" the telephone user's voice, or other sound source, and convert it to a lower-bandwidth control signal. At the other end of the connection, the control signal would be used to reconstruct the original audio using a device that would convert the controls back into audio -- an audio synthesizer. A direct offshoot of this was the vocoder, which the theory held could be used to re-create a speaker's voice at the other end of the connection. This wound up not working out, but the vocoder found a purpose in electronic music.

Carrying this further, the Labs often sought ways to create or re-create complex sounds for communications purposes, and it was natural that this work would bleed over into music. A number of the Labs' researchers were also musicians, and one of them, Max Mathews, took an interest in digital synthesis in the mid-1950s. He developed MUSIC I, the first computer software, in 1957; it rendered its first piece of music (a 17-second composition) on an IBM 704 mainframe computer that year. The MUSIC software proceeded through five major revisions, and in the 1980s it was re-written in the C programming language and became Csound. In the 1970s, engineer Hal Alles developed one of the first digital synthesizers capable of performing in real time, the Bell Labs Digital Synthesizer, also known as the Alles Machine. This eventually led to the development of the Synergy digital synthesizer. Many other innovations by the Labs had musical applications.

Unfortunately, many of these types of activities at the Labs relied for their funding on the fact that AT&T was, at the time, treated as public utility by the U.S. government, and was permitted a legal monopoly on long-distance communications services throughout most of the country. In return for this monopoly status, the company was required to invest a certain percentage of its profits on basic and applied research, which is where most of the funding for activities such as the development of MUSIC came from. When AT&T was stripped of its monopoly status in 1984, the company was forced to reduce costs to compete, and was no longer required to engage in basic research, which caused much of the research funding to dry up, and music-related research was one of the first things to go. The Labs had no further involvement in electronic music after about 1985.

AT&T went into a downward financial spiral in the 1990s that it never really recovered from. After a series of mergers, what remains of AT&T is now owned by the French company Alcatel, and most of the Bell Labs locations have been closed.