Although not the first electronic musical instrument, the French-made Clavioline has one of the most recognizable sounds of all such instruments. Developed in France by a designer named Constant Martin, it was introduced in 1947 and sold until about 1960. The Clavioline consisted of two units, one a simple electronic organ with just 22 keys, and a small range of customizable sounds, modifiable by setting a series of more than a dozen switches. The second unit consisted of a public-address amplifier and loudspeaker. The synthesizer circuits inside the instrument were tailored to produce a range of “brass” and “string” sounds that vaguely resembled true horns and stringed instruments.
The Clavioline had a commercial history shared by a number of electronic instruments. It was common in those days for instruments offered by one company to be distributed, or even manufactured, by other firms around the world. In addition to French and German manufacturers, the Clavioline design was also made and distributed by the American guitar maker Gibson in the 1950s. This dispersion resulted in the Clavioline being repeatedly adapted or modified over the years. Various engineers or companies added features such as circuits to expand the instrument’s range of tones, or to allow it to be added to conventional pipe organs.
In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the Clavioline was featured in a number of hit songs from artists ranging from the Beatles to Del Shannon. It was Shannon’s organist Max Crook in particular who spurred the evolution of the Clavioline. Beginning in 1959, he added numerous special sound effects to the basic instrument, giving it the ability to produce new sounds as well as weird echo and reverberation effects. The resulting device was so different from the original Clavioline that Crook renamed it the “Musitron.” A later version called the Sonocon, created by Crook and bandmate Scott Ludwig, included electronic percussion sounds and a mechanical “tone bender” that allowed the musician to manually change the pitch of the sounds being played. Featured prominently in Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” the little Clavioline warbled its way into music history. The Clavioline was also featured on the Tornados intrumental tribute to the first communications satellite, "Telstar."