Welcome to a sound from 1946. A sound that once echoed around The Cavern in Liverpool, coaxed into life by the fingers (and knees…) of the Beatles. A sound that in 1962 defined a number 1 chart topper with no words – the world's first synth-pop hit. A sound designed by a music technology legend, but which has been sleeping, forgotten, lost in the mists of time... until now…
is a meticulously faithful recreation of one of the very first synthesisers, the valve-based Jennings Univox. The Univox was designed in 1946 by Derek Underdown and Tom Jennings, who went on to create Vox amplifiers and define the guitar sound of a generation. It was manufactured in the 50s and 60s along the same lines as its contemporary, the Clavioline, as a gigging keyboard for bands to use to supplement the basic acoustic piano that most pubs and clubs offered. To this end it was designed with portability in mind: it had its own onboard amplification, and packed into its own suitcase for transport, while the keyboard portion of the synth was detachable and designed to fit just under and in front of a piano keyboard.
It generated a rich, warm, analogue wave (more or less a sawtooth) which could be processed, adjusted and filtered using 12 "tabs" along the front of the keyboard. These were not simply organ stops; they altered the base waveform rather than adding to it (with the exception of Tab N, "Sub Osc", which does add a sub-oscillator). Some tabs engaged filters or tilt-EQs; some clipped the waveform or otherwise distorted it; some added or enhanced a percussive transient peak for greater definition. Using different combinations of these tabs, over 2000 different voicings could be created (before factoring in vibrato settings!), while a knee-lever controlled the output volume on the fly for a surprisingly expressive playing experience.
Vibrato (three speeds, two depths) added movement to the sound, while a transpose knob allowed the three-octave keyboard to access five octaves of range. The Univox's own speaker cabinet contributed greatly to its tone, and the sound could be varied between sweet and singing and raw and raucous with the flick of a couple of tabs and the twist of a dial.
The Univox found its way into some of the Beatles' early sessions when they were playing in the Cavern in Liverpool, and it is almost certainly the sound of the 1962 synth-pop number 1 "Telstar" by the Tornadoes (there's some dispute as to whether the Univox or the Clavioline can take this accolade, but we're 90% certain it's the Jennings. The most significant difference between the Clavioline and the Univox was that the Clavioline's base wave was a kind-of square wave, while the Univox's was a kind-of sawtooth; which gives the Univox its unique – and, we think, warmer – tone.)
What's beyond doubt is that the Jennings Univox was one of the very first pioneers of synthesis, combining the valve tone-creation circuitry that had marked out earlier classics like the Hammond Novachord with a far more portable, band-friendly form factor and the instant satisfaction of its tab switch tone controls.