The Secret History of Modern Music Technology

By Jordi Lippe-McGraw Jordi Lippe-McGraw has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on June 24, 2021

Earlier this week marked World Music Day, and to honor the musical celebration, some of the biggest names in technology released their latest audio-based technology. Lava revealed new TWS earbuds, and Sony launched novel Bluetooth speakers. But, while we tend to focus on all the advances in the field, few know the secret history that made all of it possible: a church organ.  

Digital sound is now ubiquitous with all sound-producing products. However, not long before CDs and MP3 hit the market, all sound was created through analog technology. It wasn’t until the 1930s when a self-taught electronic engineer with expertise in radio and vacuum tube technologies, Jerome Markowitz, founded a small organ company in Allentown, PA—Allen Organ—did sound change forever. 

Of course, the history is long. But, in short, Markowitz was the first to invent the Radio Tube Oscillator in 1937, which allowed radio oscillator technology to produce stable musical sounds. Then through the 1950s and 60s, he introduced numerous innovations and was granted patents that included low-frequency oscillators, space discharge harmonic generators, and more. He went on to create the world’s first musical instrument that utilized digital sampling before introducing the digital computer organ in 1971that would eventually lead to CDs, MP3/4, cell phones, and all modern digital sound. 

“The way to look at this is like a pyramid,” president of Allen Organ and son of Jerome, Steve Markowitz, told Grit Daily. “The first flow down from the top of the pyramid occurred in the musical instrument business. With the introduction of the Allen digital computer organ, it shortly became apparent to the entire industry that all electronic musical instruments’ sound production would move from analog to digital. That is why other electronic musical instrument manufacturers came to Allen in the second half of the 1970s to seek licenses on Allen’s basic digital sound patents.”

Early licensees included Yamaha and Casio. Then, in the 1980s and later, other advanced digital sound technologies were developed, including CD players. That then morphed into MP3, etc. The Allen digital organ would be the second commercial product ever to utilize custom LSI circuits, the first being the Sharp calculator. It would precede most competing digital church organs by more than 15 years.

“Through these technologies were developed independent of Allen, the basic technology can be attributed to that used in the Allen digital organ,” added Markowitz.

Although most tech consumers today aren’t aware of this little-known history, Markowitz was noticed for his industry (and life) changing inventions. He received the coveted IR-100 Award for one of the 100 most significant innovations of that year. Plus, the original technology is considered so significant that it’s the first instrument housed at the Smithsonian Institution. There is also, quite notably, an Allen Organ at the Vatican today.

And while the sound technology industry continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible (look at Apple’s 3D spatial audio, for example), it’s important to remember it might never have been possible if it wasn’t for the little Pennsylvania-based organ company, 

This month marks 50 years since the digital organ was offered for sale by Allen Organ, which continues to manufacture electronic organs.

By Jordi Lippe-McGraw Jordi Lippe-McGraw has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a News Columnist at Grit Daily. A multi-faceted NYC-based journalist, her work on topics from travel to finance have been featured in the New York Times, WSJ Magazine, TODAY, Conde Nast Traveler, and she has appeared on TODAY and MSNBC for her expertise. Jordi has also traveled to more than 30 countries on all 7 continents and is a certified coach teaching people how to leave the 9-to-5 behind.

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