Virtual ANS – Rebirth of a Classic, with New Bells and Whistles

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The ANS Synthesizer was the most successful of the “light-controlled synthesizers” of the 1950s. Check out this emulation that extends the principles of the original in many new directions.

by Warren Burt, Mar. 2014

The ANS Synthesizer was the most successful of the “light-controlled synthesizers” of the 1950s.  There were three main synthesizers of this type; Percy Grainger and Burnett Cross’s “Electric Eye Tone Tool,” and Daphne Oram’s “Oramics,” and Evgeny Murzhin’s “ANS.”  In fact, although each of these machines used light in some way, they were all very different.  Grainger and Cross’s machine used light into photocells to voltage control the frequency of seven oscillators (this a good several years before Bob Moog patented the VCO!), and the Oramics machine had the waveforms drawn directly on 35mm clear film, while Murzhin’s machine used spinning disks with 720 different sine wave patterns on them (similar to an optical film soundtrack) to make waveforms which the ANS mechanism selected from and shaped with light-controlled amplifiers.   Of these machines, the most long-lived and successful was the ANS, which worked for many years in Moscow, and was used by a host of Russian composers, among them Eduard Artemiev, who used it to make soundtracks for a number of Tarkovsky’s films. 

There are a number of articles on places like Wikipedia about the original ANS, ( and Stanislav Kreichi,who worked with the ANS for over 30 years, has a very descriptive article about his work with the machine at

For those of us who were unable to work with the ANS in its heyday (and that includes just about everyone), Russian software developer Alexander Zolotov has made the Virtual ANS, a software emulation of the original, which actually extends the principles of the original in many new directions.  For example the original machine was strictly a synthesis only machine.  Zolotov’s realization allows one to load sounds into it, and manipulate them with a full range of image processing tools.  Plus, it has one of the best sounding time-manipulation facilities I’ve seen in a sound-to-graphics-to-sound program.  Those of you enamoured of scrubbing, and freezing sounds at a particular spot, look no further.  I’ve been using the machine as a live performance tool, slowly moving through already time-stretched voice samples, and the results have had a liveliness and a live-ness that I hadn’t encountered in graphics-to-sound programs before.  For pure synthesis, the program has a number of drawing and shading tools, and if you want to use a more elaborate and finely-controlled program, such as Photoshop or Gimp, to make your drawings, it will import graphics in a wide variety of formats.   (I can foresee another round of puppy-photos-turned-into-sound-pieces, here!)

The program is inexpensive, too, or free, depending on its platform.  On March 8, 2013, currency fluctuations being what they are, the iOS version was $5.99 USD, the Android version was $6.01 USD, and the PC, Linux and OSX versions were free.  I very much like Alexander Zolotov’s policy of trying to release software in as many formats as possible.

The program is monophonic, unlike some other graphics-to-sound programs, but that’s not really a problem – and besides, all sorts of post-production panning programs are available.  Here’s a shot of the main screen of the program.

In this picture you can see a pitch ruler on the left, and a time ruler on the top, while a full range of controls are at the bottom of the screen.  In this picture, the sound (a stretched voice) at the left of the picture was selected with the select tool (the dotted line square icon), and then copied.  A similar sized box was drawn on the right of the screen, and the copied sound was pasted into the new box, and turned upside down with a tool on the “Effect” screen.  All sorts of manipulations of parts of the sound are possible with the Effect screen.  The play (forward and backward) controls are at the lower right of the screen, and if you put your finger or your mouse (depending on your platform) in the time ruler at the top of the screen, you can drag the sound-selection at any speed you like, or stop the sound, or leap around the sound to different parts.

When you create a new screen, either for drawing or for importing a picture or sound into it, you get a screen like this:


On this screen you can set the fineness of resolution of the various parameters of your drawing or sound.  As I’m going to import a vocal sample, I’ve set the Beats Per Minute to 300, the maximum, and the Pixels Per Beat to 50, almost the maximum, so that I can get a pretty fine-grained sampling.  This will allow me to slow the sound way down, and still maintain quality.  And during the course of working with a sound, you can re-set these controls to produce all sorts of effects.

Speaking of effects, here’s the Effects window:


Many different effects are possible here.  These can be applied to the whole screen, or to any area of the screen that you select. Most of the effects are controlled by the sliders on the bottom of the screen.   Alexander Zolotov says that more capabilities will be available in future updates of the program.  For example, he recently added the ability to grab a part of an image to make a brush which can be used to paint with part of a picture or sound-spectrum.

This picture shows the program in the act of playing a sound:


Notice the illuminated cursor which shows where the sound is being played.  And if you place your mouse or finger on the far left of the screen and drag it up and down, you’ll be able to hear the individual sine wave pitches that make up the sound at that moment.

The program is very inexpensive (or free), and it’s very powerful.  I’ve barely scratched the surface of its abilities here.  I can recommend it highly.  I’ve already been using it in my pieces, playing it live on iOS, PC, and Android platforms, and using it in a studio environment as well. Its usage has been very clean and trouble-free, allowing me to do things I’d wanted to do previously, but hadn’t been able to, and I’m very happy with it.

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