“The front room of their apartment on Eight Street is completely filled with equipment. It is a jungle of electronic instruments, knobs, wires, as complex as the control panel of an airplane.” — Anaïs Nin
During 1956, whilst Louis and Bebe were at work on the soundscore for sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, MGM sent photographer Walter Daran over to visit their Greenwich Village apartment to take a few shots of the couple in their studio. The result was a set of beautifully detailed, high-quality black and white photographs [taken using Kodak ‘Tri-X’ 36-exposure 35mm black & white negative film] recording a significant moment in the history of experimental electronic music. Daran’s photographs are a rare and precious thing—it’s incredible that these images exist, that MGM had the foresight to capture the moment on film—as preserved within each frame there exists vital insight regarding Louis and Bebe’s unique, creative musical process.
In another of Daran’s photos Louis’ main tool of the trade, his Precise model ‘300’ oscilloscope, can clearly be seen in the foreground. An oscilloscope is effectively an engineer’s “eyes”, allowing them to see exactly what’s happening to the electronic signals within a circuit. Incidentally, the model ‘300’ ‘scope first made an appearance in the June edition of ‘Radio Electronics’ in 1953, just a couple of years before the photo was taken. The ‘scope was available in kit or “wired” (factory built) form and manufactured by Precise Development Corp, Oceanside, New York. On top of the ‘scope is a box with slider controls on its front panel—could it possibly be a homemade filter; a very early 6-band graphic equaliser?
“Everything was built by hand, by Louis primarily… he was a self-taught electronics engineer. He dared to use it in weird ways that has never been used before.” — Bebe Barron
In Louis’ hands is one of his hand-built audio effects circuits. On his workbench, between him and the ‘scope, is an offcut of perforated ‘Masonite’ (hardboard). The holes in the Masonite are being used to anchor electronic components creating what appears to be a miniature Manhattan skyline: a scale model city where vacuum tubes tower above a fantastically tangled network of high voltage wires and resistors below. Louis is sat in front of a 19″ rack tower containing tube power amplifiers, a Precise ‘909’ vacuum tube voltmeter, more homemade/modified tube gear including saw-tooth, sine, and square-wave oscillators and surely their homemade spring-reverb unit is in there somewhere too—Louis and Bebe relied on reverb and delay effects heavily in their music. The musical function of the V-shaped, ‘rabbit-ear’ antenna perched right on top of the rack tower is, unknown…
The impressive, mammoth-sized box behind him is another homemade creation, this time a 12″ paper-cone loudspeaker housed in what appears to be an old tea chest; effectively an infinite baffle cabinet capable of reproducing very low, bass frequencies, a.k.a. a subwoofer.
“We built this monstrous big speaker and it sounded wonderful. It had a very heavy bass, which I always loved. That was the speaker we worked with. I believe it was one of those big old theater speakers.” — Bebe Barron
Towards Bebe’s left, closer in the frame, is a sloping desk housing rack-mount equipment with large bakelite RCA knobs; like the ones found on vintage radio broadcast equipment, such as the Collins 212A broadcast mixing console. Above it is a patch bay of jack sockets. It’s difficult to say for sure what this equipment is from any of Daran’s photos, however it possesses two rows of of five RCA knobs and somewhat resembles the amplifier section of a Presto PT-900 tape recorder.
The Barrons owned several reel-to-reel tape recorders, however only the Stancil-Hoffman tape machine, standing vertically against the rear wall, is clearly visible in Daran’s photo. Bebe, obviously posing for the shot, appears to be either fast-forwarding or rewinding the tape spools loaded on the machine. Behind her, to the right of the Stancil-Hoffman, hidden in the shadows, is a third machine: their Ampex model 200. This marvellous example of American engineering also doubles as a desk for splicing tape and editing tapes for making loops. The small, portable meter on top must have been for monitoring recording levels.