He followed principles and equations described in the text, to design and construct many variations of custom oscillator and ring modulator circuits. The text is a dry read with some chapters being purely mathematical in nature, however there are several references to the practical application of vacuum tubes to mimic or replicate systems found within living organisms. For example, on page 153, Wiener states, “It is perfectly possible, for example, to cause any message going into storage to change in a permanent or semi-permanent way the grid bias of one or of a number of vacuum tubes, and thus alter the numerical value of the summation of impulses which will make the tube or tubes fire”—an attempt to model the function of a neuron (nerve cell).
An entire chapter is devoted to the topic of feedback and oscillation and describes a non-linear, oscillator more commonly known as a relaxation oscillator. This type of circuit is used to generate the sawtooth waveform that drives the raster scan in a T.V. set, creating the picture. Relaxation oscillators were constructed from gas—usually neon or argon—filled tubes known as thyratrons. These relaxation oscillator and ring modulator circuits were a few of the building blocks that Louis used to create his unique sounds. His approach was not to think in terms of classical signal processes such as filtering, amplification, oscillation, distortion, etc but to treat the circuit as a living organism going through a lifecycle—a completely new approach to sound synthesis. By manually adjusting an applied voltage or a variable resistor or capacitor, he could coerce a circuit into life where it would generate a managerie of weird bleeps, blurps, whirs, whines, throbs, hums, wails or screeches.
Vacuum tube technology is what made Louis’ circuit creations realisable. In the 1986 Keyboard Magazine interview he explains, “Tubes are forgiving. The grid of a power tube may be expected to take one or two volts. If you accidentally touch it with 300 volts, it’ll heat up, it’ll get red in the face. Take the voltage away and it’ll cool down, ready to do its normal thing. A transistor would blow in a fraction of a millisecond. And even if they don’t cost much, they’re a damn nuisance to keep changing.” In order to create electronic life, says Louis, “you have to be free to abuse the circuit.” That said, he pushed his creations to their limits often overloading and destroying them in his quest to discover outrageous new sounds before the circuits ultimately expired.
During the early 1950s they and their studio were hired by John Cage for his first tape work, Williams Mix. Louis and Bebe recorded over 600 different sounds, cutting, arranging and them to create a four and a half minute piece. The Barrons moved on to produce music and sound effects for several short experimental films, scoring three of Ian Hugo’s short films based on his wife Anaïs Nin writings, the most notable being Bells of Atlantis (1952). Their next big project was to provide incidental music to a conventional orchestral score for Forbidden Planet, however the Barrons ended up scoring the entire film, along with many of the film’s sound effects. Louis designed individual sound generator circuits for particular themes and motifs, rather than using standard sound generators—this was an innovative approach to composition, where each circuit had its own characteristic voice. It took them 8 months just to record the raw sounds and a total of three years to complete the soundscore. The scoring for Forbidden Planet blurred the boundary between sound effects and music so they became indistinguishable from one another—the Barrons had a vast new electro-acoustic territory to explore and began laying down the lines for the future of electronic and dance music.
Battle with the Invisible Monster (Forbidden Planet)