A brief history of synthesizers

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Tinkerers and electronics pioneers have made a huge impact on modern music -creating complex sounds out of simple electronic circuits.

Unlike traditional instruments, which haven’t changed much in hundreds of years, electronic instruments like synthesizers have evolved almost continuously through recent history.

In this blog post, we track synthesizers through from their earliest iterations to the most modern instruments.

What is a synthesizer?

The synthesizer concept is simple enough. A circuit generates a tone which is controlled and altered by an input.

They can synthesize the sounds of instruments like pianos and guitars or generate more experimental electronic sounds.

Synthesizers controlled through piano-like keyboards, sequencers, controllers fingerboards, guitar synthesizers and electronic drums are responsible for some of the most famous songs and movie soundtracks and they have made their mark on countless genres.

Early synths

Today, producers can open music software on their computers and recreate hundreds of synthesizers from the past 60 years.

Even if you’ve never so much as seen a modular synth, you should understand where the sounds come from.

The seeds of the modern electronic synthesizer were planted at the turn of the 19th century when an American inventor called Thaddeus Cahill applied for a patent to protect his idea for a Dynamophone.

This steam-powered instrument was a giant, weighing more than 200 tonnes.

It was played into the public telephone network because there was no such thing as a loudspeaker or public address system. It failed, perhaps, because it was ahead of its time.

Created in 1919, the Theremin was much smaller and still enjoys something of a cult status today.

Named after its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, the monophonic instrument was played handsfree. The player would move and wave his arms between two antennae with an electrostatic field between them.

The Theremin is famously difficult to play, but its eerie sound has found its way into dozens of horror movie soundtracks.

A slight variation on the instrument called an electrotheremin is slightly easier to play and it was used to create the high-pitched sound in the Beach Boy’s 1966 hit Good Vibrations.

The term synthesizer was first used to describe an instrument in 1956, with the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer Mark I.

It was developed by Americans Harry F. Olson and Herbert Belar and it generated sound with 12 tuning forks that were stimulated electromagnetically.

The output could be monitored on loudspeakers and allowed you to record onto two records, but the synthesizer was limited by its input method – it was controlled by information punched onto a roll of paper tape and was impossible to play spontaneously.

Moog synths and beyond

One of the first synthesizers that would be recognised as such by modern musicians was created in 1964 after Bob Moog met Herbert Deutsch, and the former was inspired to create a voltage-controlled oscillator and amplifier module with a keyboard – but it wasn’t until 1967 that Mr Moog called his diverse modular system a ‘synthesizer’.

These voltage-controlled oscillators were first popularised by Wendy Carlos, a physics and music graduate who met Moog at an audio-engineering conference where he was exhibiting.

Carlos recounts the fateful meeting on her website: “Bob looked tired but friendly, and we chatted briefly, traded phone numbers and addresses. It didn’t take long to establish a budding friendship.

“It was a perfect fit: he was a creative engineer who spoke music: I was a musician who spoke science. It felt like a meeting of simpatico minds, like he were my older brother, perhaps.”

For her first studio album ‘Switched on Bach’ (1968), Carlos recorded works by J.S. Bach using Moog modular synthesizers.

This helped introduce the synthesizer to a wider audience and made Moog synonymous with synthesizers.

But after releasing a few successful models, Moog realised that there was a problem. In 1969, he had 42 employees working round the clock to create two or three complete modular systems each week for studios.

He concluded that these synths were too big, complex and expensive to be sold directly to the public through music retailers, so he set about trying to create a compact, portable and affordable synth that was easier to use and had close-to universal appeal.

After a few early prototypes, The Minimoog Model D was released in the summer of 1970.

The first fully integrated synthesizer, the Minimoog represents a crucial development in electronic music.

Minimoogs were easy to play and easy to take on tour. For the first time, the synthesizer became an ‘instrument’ instead of a piece of studio equipment and it was used by everyone from Kraftwerk to Michael Jackson.

In a 1975 edition of Contemporary Keyboard, Bob Moog tried to explain the success of the Minimoog.

He said: “The time was ripe. A lot of us were thinking in terms of performable instruments that were oiled down, so to speak, from large modular equipment. The ARP 2600 is an integrated system that has a slightly different way of making the connections than the Minimoog. Both instruments have been widely accepted by musicians, and they started this whole trend towards compact performable synthesizers.”

Digital’s day

After changing pop music in the 1960s and driving disco in the 1970s, synthesizers became more widely available in the 1980s. But in many ways, these were entirely different instruments.

They were digital synthesizers.

Unlike analogue synthesizers, which produce music using real analogue circuitry, digital synthesizers emulate analogue sounds with digital signal processing techniques.

Some pedants complain that digital synthesizers don’t have the same thick, warm, vintage sound as analogue machines.

But they were much cheaper to produce and seminal digital models like the Yamaha DX7 sold everywhere and changed music all over the place.

New wave music was one of the first genres to bring digital synthesizer music to the masses and Talking Heads and Duran Duran made some of their most popular albums using sounds from digital synthesizers.

In a separate edition of Keyboard Magazine, Bob Moog – who would probably be described as an analogue purist – described the difference as being like that of an incandescent and fluorescent light bulb.

He said: “What comes out of fluorescent light is a simulation of white, colourless light. When we look at sunlight or the light from an incandescent bulb, we get a continuous spectrum of colours and, to our eyes, this seems very natural. In a fluorescent light, you don’t get a continuous spectrum of colours; you get discreet colours and they’re separated in funny ways.”

He continued: “These things are subtle. For routine work, fluorescent lights are very good. Most of the lights in our house are fluorescent because they’re cheap to run just as digital electronics make it cheap to produce a lot of waveforms compared to analogue circuitry. But in cases where the quality of light is important, just as sound quality is important in musical applications, incandescent light or sunlight is preferred over fluorescent light, just as in sound analogue is preferred over digital.

“As for what sounds can be produced, an analogue synthesizer gets its sound from the peculiar characteristics of analogue devices and analogue electronics to distort waveforms in characteristic ways that are warm and pleasant. To distort or reshape a waveform is something that’s good in analogue electronics, in the same way that, as I speak, the waveform that’s coming out of my vocal cords is being reshaped by my mouth and other vocal cavities. These very particular ways of distortion turn out to be very difficult to emulate with digital circuitry, and they’re impossible to duplicate exactly.”

Back to analogue

Digital synthesizers are still incredibly popular. And the technology has improved considerably over the last few decades.

But analogue synthesizers have gone through something of a revival in recent years.

In the same way that vinyl was rescued from the depths of obscurity over the last ten years or so, throwback analogue synths have got back in the groove of things too.

Fed up with what they saw as the cold and sterile sounds of digital synthesizers in the 1990s, lots of musicians and hobbyists began buying up old ‘obsolete’ analogues for buttons.

These vintage synths quickly climbed in value, selling for £thousands in the early 2000s.

Sensing that older analogue synths were coming back into fashion, Roland released its first modular synthesizer for 25+ years, while rivals like Korg and Moog started producing remakes of some of their oldest synths.

We’re not sure exactly what’s behind the analogue synth revival, but it does seem like there’s demand for the ‘imperfections’ of vintage analogue.

While some modern buyers need synths with pitch stability and no unintentional distortion or noise, some buyers think this a little bit hollow.

At least part of the analogue revival is attributable to a kind of backlash against countless digital dance music tracks produced with a laptop and mouse.

It has also been driven by artists who are prepared to put it all on the line for that authentic sound. Deadmau5, a producer with a big personality and an even bigger studio is a wholehearted believer in analogue systems.

German composer Hans Zimmer is another advocate. He uses sounds from analogue synthesizers in many of his famous movie soundtracks including The Dark Knight Rises and Blade Runner 2049, for which Zimmer used a temperamental Yamaha CS-80 used in the original Blade Runner score.

In an interview with Fact Magazine, Hans Zimmer explained the difference with using an analogue synthesizer for Blade Runner 2049.

“It’s so the opposite of how we make music in the modern world with a mouse on a screen,” Zimmer said.

“You always have to break your musical thought because your eye has to go and find the cursor as you move the mouse. You’re going right brain, left brain, as opposed to getting the old beast out.”

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