The University of Iowa Electronic Music Studios were founded in 1964, when renowned physicist James Van Allen (known for the Van Allen radiation belt) supervised a thesis project by James Cessna to build the world's first digital synthesizer. Van Allen persuaded the School of Music Composition Area to establish an electronic music studio, with Cessna as Research Assistant. Professor Robert Shallenberg was hired to direct the studios and work with Cessna on the synthesizer. Originally housed in a Quonset hut with no air conditioning, Shallenberg and Cessna built their own speakers from kits, modified electronic-generating and recording equipment borrowed from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and worked together on the digital synthesizer. Eventually, the digital synthesizer was replaced by a large Moog III synthesizer, which remains in operation today. During the mid-60s, many composers from other institutions visited the studios, among them Milton Babbitt, Edward Miller, John Melby, Josef Patowski (Warsaw Radio), Mel Powell, and others. One of the first student pieces completed was Divertimento No. 2 for clarinet, percussion, contrabass, and electronic tape by Paul Martin Zonn. Other students during this period included Ball State University Professor Cleve Scott, Oberlin Professor Edwin Harkins, and electric string instrument designer Eric Jensen. In 1969, Shallenberg left for Indiana University, where he established an electronic music studio with Iannis Xenakis. Shallenberg later joined the faculty of University of California at San Diego. James Cessna went on to design the original time-of-flight circuitry for the Energetic Particles Detector composition telescope for the Galileo Spacecraft, launched in 1989.
Peter Tod Lewis joined the studios as director in 1969, assisted for many years by Peter Elsea (former Director of the Electronic Music Studios at the University of California, Santa Cruz) and Thomas Mintner (former President of NTi Americas). In 1970, the studios moved to their new location in Voxman Music Building in rooms 2058, 2059, and 2062. A 1972 Rockefeller Foundation grant enabled Lewis to outfit the Studios with sophisticated analog synthesis, processing, and recording technology of the day, which he describes in a 1976 issue of the European journal Interface (now Journal of New Music Research). Among the studios' innovations was a computer interface for the Arp Synthesizer, designed and implemented by engineering student Donald E. Hall and Peter Elsea. Works produced for tape and live electronics with performers, film, lights, and lasers began to receive international recognition and helped attract such guest composers as Vladimir Ussachevsky, David Tudor, and Luciano Berio. Upon returning to the newly-founded IRCAM, Berio gave a presentation on developments in The Studios. Visiting Faculty who taught in the Studios during this period included Robert Ashley, Hubert Howe, Pril Smiley, and Morton Subotnick. Students during this period included Ralph Jackson (former president of BMI), instrument designer and author Thomas Henry, Oberlin Professor Lewis Nielson, Northwestern Professor Stephen Syverud, University of Illinois Professor Heinrich Taube, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Jon Welstead, and NYU Professor Robert Rowe. In 1979, Lewis created a classic audio demonstration of the Moog Synthesizer, which can be heard here.
The wide-ranging interests of multi-award winning composer Kenneth Gaburo, appointed director in 1983, stimulated a new period of growth and experimentation for the Studios, as described in a 1995 issue of Perspectives of New Music dedicated to the late composer. New approaches to speech, text, and image manipulation were facilitated by the new computer technology that Gaburo introduced to the Studios. This multimedia emphasis continued into the early 1990s, as Visiting Directors Robert Paredes and Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner oversaw the installation of computer and video systems. Visitors during this period included Russell F. Pinkston, Chris Mann, and Warren Burt. Students included composer Bill Wolford, Cris Ewing (Studio Assistant at the University of Washington CARTAH), President of the American Composers Forum, Philip Blackburn, and Tape Beatles members Ralph Johnson, Paul Neff, and John Heck.
Lawrence Fritts was appointed director in 1994, overseeing a major upgrade to realtime DSP systems. In 1996, he initiated the Iowa Musical Instrument Samples Project, a collection of note-for-note samples of musical instruments recorded in an anechoic chamber. In 2000, he organized a series of International Exchange Concerts with institutions in France and Italy; and in 2002 he hosted the 2002 National Conference of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). Visiting composers from 1994 to 2008 included James Dashow, Andrew May, Denis Smalley, and Charles Dodge. Students working during this period included Brandeis University Professor Erin Gee, Universidade Estadual Paulista Professsor Alexandre Lunsqui, University of Nevada Reno Professor Jean-Paul Perrotte, Aristotle University Professor Dimitri Papageorgiou, University of Louisville Professor John Ritz, and former Chapman University Professor Chris Brakel.
Following the Great Flood of 2008, the Electronic Music Studios were relocated to the Becker Communication Studies Building. Visiting composers during those years included James Dashow, Andrew May, and Elainie Lillios. Students working during those years included Israel Neuman, Instructor at Iowa Wesleyan College, Zach Zubow, Assistant Professor at Queen's University - Charlotte, and Shane Hoose, Assistant Professor at Eastern Kentucky University. In August 2016 the Electronic Music Studios were moved to the new Voxman Music Building in downtown Iowa City in rooms 0306A, B, C, and D.