The Ondioline was capable of creating a wide variety of sounds. Its keyboard had a unique feature: it was suspended on special springs which made it possible to introduce a natural vibrato if the player moved the keyboard (not the entire instrument) from side to side (laterally) with their playing hand. The result was an almost human-like vibrato that lent a wide range of expression to the Ondioline. The keyboard was also pressure-sensitive, and the instrument had a knee volume lever, as well.
The instrument's movable keyboard was modeled after the keyboard of another early electronic instrument from France, the Ondes Martenot. The Ondioline did not feature a ring (or ribbon) controller to control pitch, as the Ondes did. Instead, the Ondioline had a strip of wire, that when pressed, provided percussion effects, but it could not produce the Ondes's theremin-like pitch effects.
However, the Ondioline's sounds possibilities were much more varied, compared to the Ondes Martenot, which could only produce a few variations of sounds. This was due to the Ondioline's filter bank, which featured an array of 15 slider switches for various tones. Selected combinations of these switches could create sounds ranging from near-accurate recreations of symphonic instruments (oboe, French horn, etc.) to totally unique sounds of its own.
Like the Ondes Martenot, the Ondioline's circuitry was purely vacuum tube-based. However, unlike the Ondes, whose oscillator is based on the theremin (two ultra-high frequencies beating against each other, to produce a third audible frequency), the Ondioline used a multivibrator oscillator circuit to produce its tone. This gave the Ondioline a more versatile tone, richer in harmonics than the Ondes. Another advantage of the much smaller Ondioline was that it was very portable, and could be played in tandem with a piano or organ. At $500, its price was also much less than that of the Ondes.
The first recording artist to have a hit using the Ondioline was France's Charles Trenet. His song "L'âme des Poètes" ("Soul of the Poets") was recorded in 1951 on Columbia Records. This hit also marks the recording debut of a very young Jean-Jacques Perrey, who had already become known as a virtuoso of the instrument. Perrey's Ondioline solo sounds remarkably like a real violin.
The first American hit record to feature the Ondioline was "More", by Kai Winding, in 1963. This instrumental version of the theme from the film Mondo Cane was arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman, with the Ondioline being played again by Jean-Jacques Perrey, who had moved to America by this time. Perrey first acquired an Ondioline in the mid-1950s  while living in Paris, and used it on his Vanguard LPs, recorded in NYC, during the '60s. (Perrey continues to perform live shows with the Ondioline, and has featured it on his recent Oglio Records albums with musician Dana Countryman, The Happy Electropop Music Machine (2006) and Destination Space (2008).)
1960s rock musician Al Kooper made regular use of the Ondioline in his work with the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears, and in his early solo career. Notable examples of Kooper's Ondioline work are the Blues Project's "I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes" (from the album Projections, 1966), "Steve's Song" (Projections, 1966) and "No Time Like the Right Time" (The Blues Project Live at Town Hall, 1967); Blood, Sweat & Tears' "Meagan's Gypsy Eyes" (Child Is Father to the Man, 1968); and Kooper and Mike Bloomfield's "His Holy Modal Majesty" (Super Session, 1968). Tommy James and the Shondells' 1967 hit "I Think We're Alone Now" also featured the sound of an Ondioline in the background, played by keyboard session player Artie Butler.
Motown Records used an Ondioline as part of their studio setup between 1959 and 1962, where it was mainly used in place of expensive string arrangements. The instrument is featured prominently on dozens of early Motown recordings by acts such as the Supremes, the Miracles, the Temptations and the Marvelettes.
The Ondioline was used on many other recordings, including the soundtrack of the film Spartacus. The first use of the instrument in a film was in 1959, when Jean-Jacques Perrey played it in the French film La Vache et le Prisonnier (The Cow and the Prisoner.)
An instrument similar to the Ondioline, the Clavioline, was also featured on various 1960s popular recordings, including Del Shannon's "Runaway" (1961), the Tornados' "Telstar" (1962), and The Beatles' "Baby, You're a Rich Man" (1967). The Clavioline, (although also tube-based), employed a different and much less complicated design.
According to Perrey - who was a former Ondioline demonstration salesman - fewer than 700 Ondiolines were sold, mostly in Europe. It is estimated that fewer than two dozen of the instruments still exist today. The name "Jenny Ondioline" Jenny Ondioline was used for the title of a 1993 song by British band Stereolab. However, the song's lyrics have nothing to do with Georges Jenny, or the Ondioline.
A website dedicated to the Ondioline has been created at www.ondioline.com.
Notes and references
- New Music Box 1999
- Perrey autobiography