The history, and progression of the synthesizer
Sound, is nothing more than just vibrations travelling through diverse mediums, through our ears and into our brains, where we perceive and differentiate it. When one thinks of sound, it is safe to say that it is all around us, and forever travelling. In the musical world, we can say that it is forever evolving, with the help of technology of course.
There is a rich history surrounding music and why it has become so accessible to us today. No longer must we travel to concert halls to hear our favorite composers music for that one specific night. After sound began to be recorded, it was known that the way we play, create, and listen to music would change forever. An absolutely marvelous creation in the 1920s called the Theremin; inspired many engineers to further develop an instrument that controls pitch and volume. All throughout the 1960s and 1970s this analogue piano-like instrument, (The Synthesizer), was developing at a rapid rate and began to be quite sought after by musicians and producers. This meant that artists could record and manipulate any sound, add it to their music allowing them to be completely different to other artists that were only using standard instruments. By the early 1980s, with the rise of the digital era, the synthesizer had become somewhat digitalized and quite prominent in popular music, literally shaping the dramatic and specific sound of the golden era.
The synthesizer has kept on developing the way it generates and modifies sounds. Synthesizers are used for both the composition of electronic music and in live performance. This intricate apparatus generates waveforms and then subjects them to alteration in intensity, duration, frequency and timbre, as selected by the composer or musician. Synthesizers are capable of producing sounds far beyond the range and versatility of conventional musical instruments.
The synthesizer is a simple but beautiful concept itself, however, electronic instruments existed for several decades before it. It is difficult to trace back when the first synthesizer was ever created without going back in time to discuss the history of music made by mechanical instrumentation, which came before electricity. This rich history dates back to the 3rd Century BC (Synthmuseum.com website, 2000)! Although this is quite fascinating, I will not be travelling back that far in time, rather, the main focus of this paper is to outline the progression of the synthesizer throughout history, alongside musical genres that were pioneered due to the creation of the synthesizer.
Electricity in Music
First, I would like to take you to 1919. This was the year the first ‘synthesizer’ had ever been discovered, by a man named Léon Theremin (Plant, 2015). This creation is known as the Theremin, it is an electronic instrument that is played by raising and moving your hands above the two synthesizer’s antennas to control the volume and pitch (See photograph below). This instrument does not require any physical contact to be able to play it. The first commercial song that included a variation of a Theremin (Tannerin) was “Good Vibration” by the Beach Boys.
Around the same time as the Theremin was discovered, another creation was being engineered behind closed doors. Maurice Martenot, who was a radio technician in World War I, began his work on the Ondes Martenot, (which was the first electronic piano in the world) in 1919, and released it by 1928. It is monophonic and consists of 3 diffusers. There is the speaker (major). The second part is the resonant diffuser, which has two variations. One is called the palm and it is just another speaker that has strings on its resonance chamber, and has the shape of a flame, the second part is what we know as ‘resonance’ and the exact same principals apply, although it is built on springs. The third major part of the Ondes was called the ‘Metallique’. This was constructed by ‘a gong put in vibration by using an engine, metal replaced a speaker’s membrane, which gives a metallic sound with precise height’ (Synthmuseum.com website, 2000). Martenot described the way it works by “the purity of the vibrations produced by the tubes, which are controlled with a capacitor” (Plant, 2015).
This instrument allowed the player to control its vibration with the touch of a finger; it has one hundred presets, and covers up to seven octaves, which had not been done previously. It also has two pedals that were used for muting and decay. Shortly after its release, this marvelous creation was used in a vast number of commercial music, and grew in success at the Paris Opera. Due to the vast accomplishment of the Ondes Martenot, companies such as SEAM and Ambro Oliva (Plant, 2015) began to modify, and improve the design and quality of the sound. It is still available today, although under the names of the companies mentioned above (since 2001).
It is interesting to see that once electricity got involved, instruments and the sound of music were beginning to rapidly evolve.
(pic and sound sample)
As we can see, the Ondes Martenot was the platform to the synthesizer development.
In the early 1930s, a German Engineer called Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein discovered a new breed of synthesizer called the Trautonium (Plant, 2015). It is simply a keyboard consisting of resistive wire that extends onto a metal rail. Similar to a regular piano, though only has 3 octaves. It is marked with chromatic signs, and connects to a tube oscillator. Pressing a wire that touches the rails plays this instrument; the position of the finger controls resistance. This closes the circuit, and strengthens the oscillator through the speaker. The Trautonium has additional circuitry that can be added to control the harmonics, and the un-harmonics by a type of filtering. This is where we first began to see subtractive synthesis.
Shortly after the release of the Trautonium, a company named Telefunken began to manufacture it in large quantities. It brought in a whole new dimension to the music scene at that time. A large number of artists began to use it in their music, though the most prominent artist of the time that played it was Oscar Hall. He not only became a virtuoso of this instrument, he also took part in its further development, and even brought out his own versions of it.
Soon after the Tratonium, Dr. Freidrich created the amplified harpsichord, and electro bells.
(Pic and sound sample)
By the 1950s, magnetic tape was the preferred recording resource, and electronic instruments not only became popular amongst different artists, but also were being taken more seriously as time progressed, especially in the classical movement. As the modern and unique style of ‘music concrete’ peeked public interest, it also drove the development of electronic instruments. Music concrete is a style of ‘noise’ music that uses any type of recorded sound found in any particular environment. Once the chosen sounds were recorded to tape, the pitch, speed, volume could be manipulated. Also the sounds were able to be processed through a variety of filters, the tape itself was cut at certain points, and was able to be looped or reversed before finally combining them within a composition. This was quite an exciting time for the creative minded.
The breathtaking developments in the digital world are best illustrated by the following example. The first program that emulated sound generation entirely by means of a computer was Music I, authored by the American programmer Max Mathew. Invented in 1957, it ran on a university mainframe, an exorbitantly expensive IBM 704. Unimpressively, its sole claim to fame was that it could compute a triangle wave, although doing it in real time was beyond its abilities. This lack of capacity for real-time performance is the reason why early digital technology was used solely for control (and storage) purposes in commercial synthesizers.
The next major step in synthesizer history was the complex machine called the RCA synthesizer. Electronic engineer, Harry Olsen discovered this expensive synthesizer. The RCA cost his company $500,000 to develop (Plant, 2015). The way this machine worked was via a 38cm wide paper strip, on which the binary code encrypted bearing information about notes and phrases for the sequencer (Plant, 2015). As we can see, it was a lot more complex than all of the synthesizers mentioned above.
By 1959, Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre had acquired ownership of the machine, American composer Milton Babbitt began to experiment with it, and used it in many of his pieces, the most famous being ‘Philomèle’ (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015).
First on the market
Once synthesizers were exposed to the market they were quite costly. This was because hobbyists who were in search of innovative sounds were primarily manufacturing them. They were the ones who had access to major music academies, and equipment in order to experiment. So synthesizers were relatively rare at this time, and there were not enough machines for the general public to purchase, or even use.
The uproar of synthesizers in the mainstream market really occurred in the 1960s. They became more compact, and popular artists such as Pink Floyd, Yes; The Beatles, Genesis, and many others began using them in commercial music, which truly exposed a memorable and futuristic sound. Even at this time, synthesizers were only a small component to other instruments in many artists’ music, although there were some artists who viewed them differently. Klaus Scultze, Jean-Michel, and Isao Tomita were the first known musicians who used the synthesizer as a fully independent instrument (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015), not only that, though they composed full pieces solely using synthesizers, which was a remarkable step for the development of both music and synthesizers.
The first, and most prevalent voltage-controlled synthesizer is still a widely known monophonic synthesizer that was used, was the Moog. Upon a meeting with Herbert Deutsch in 1963, the physicist from America Bob Moog was motivated to experiment with combining voltage oscillators, and amplifier modules to a keyboard instrument to create futuristic sounds (Lendino, 2012). The first Moog modules were released in 1964, and received a lot of media attention after the commercial success of the album ‘Switched On Bach’ released by Wendy Carol, which not only featured the Moog synthesizer (accompanied with regular instruments), but also climbed it’s way on the billboard charts allowing a vast number of music lovers to experience the incredible sound of a modular synthesizer. Shortly after this time, numerous producers had a Moog in their studios.
The Minimoog was made up of two five-octave keyboards, which controlled pitch, timbre, attack, and decay. Although it was not as big as the older synthesizer (such as the RCA’s), it was still relatively large and required many cables to patch together various modules.
After Robert Moog experimented with hardwiring, the portable, wood-paneled Minimoog was released allowing the artist an almost unlimited amount of tonal control and the ability to transport it from venue to venue.
There are three main sections of the minimoog: the signal generators, which include three voltage-controlled oscillators and pink and white noise generators; the voltage-controlled filter, which lets you add resonance and harmonics to the sound; and the voltage-controlled amplifier, which increases the gain and lets you shape the resulting sound’s attack and release parameters. By tweaking the Minimoog’s various knobs, you can change the shape of the sound in almost any way imaginable. The Minimoog itself is monophonic, meaning you can only play one note at a time. Not only that, but it had zero user memory. If you wanted a new sound, you’d lose the first one as you began changing all of the knobs. Taking detailed notes with pen, paper, and masking tape proved quite handy—or, if you were independently wealthy, you could buy several Minimoogs and set each one up to generate a specific sound (This happened often in the 1970s) (Lendino, 2012).
By 1969, there were approximately 42 employees that worked for Bob Moog, producing two to three complete modular synthesizers every single week at the Moog production facility (Lendino 2012). This device was the benchmark for all other mass-produced synthesizers, and the widespread of analogue technology in the 1960s and 1970s.
Another popular voltage-controlled synthesizer that was on the market in the 1960s was the Buchla, developed by scientist and Engineer Donald Buchla who was employed by Bob Moog. Buchla had created his own concepts for a modular, voltage-controlled synthesizer, which corresponded with Bob Moog’s strategies, and received instant support from users. The inspiration behind Buchla’s first synthesizer originated with composers Morton Subotnik and Ramon Sender, of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (Jacobs, 97). He began working on his instrument in 1963, and made the synthesizers public debut in 1966. The Buchla synthesizer was activated by a keyboard that had a touch sensitive metal plate, its keys were not movable (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015).
Although these modules were used in many films in the 1960s, and even later in Gary Numan’s “Cars”, Buchla’s instruments primarily catered to avant-garde musicians and academic scholars. This is why his instruments did not receive the commercial success that the Moog Synthesizer did (and do so nowadays).
While early music critics panned—and in some cases, ultimately feared—the synthesizer’s ability to emulate “real” instruments, realistic sounding versions didn’t really arrive until much later, once samplers hit the scene and memory chips became cheap and plentiful. Yet to this day, actual violin and oboe players still exist, despite the ultra-realistic sampled versions available. And the synthesizer itself is rightly regarded as an instrument all on its own.
Digital control circuitry debuted in 1971 in the form of the digital sequencer found in the Synthi 100 modular synthesizer, in all other respects, an analog synthesizer from English company EMS. Priced out of reach of all but the wealthiest musicians, the Synthi 100 sequencer featured a whopping total of 256 events (documentation.apple, year unknown).
Later, synthesizers were polyphonic, and included different configurations of oscillators and different types of filters. Many lower-priced versions lacked the Minimoog’s fat sound, though high-end manufacturers like Sequential Circuits, ARP, Roland, Korg, Oberheim, Yamaha, and others delivered equally impressive synthesizers that made their own mark on the music landscape. For example, Vangelis actually used a Yamaha CS-80 for Blade Runner’s signature, synthesized brass sound, although the Minimoog is also featured in the soundtrack.
Customers weren’t completely satisfied, however, although musicians no longer had to struggle with numerous cords to be able to play a synthesizer, they still had to handle plenty of knobs and switches before they could achieve something as simple as switching from one sound to another. Additionally, keyboardists were tired of playing monophonic melody lines on synthesizers; they wanted to be able to play chords. Although dual-voice keyboards that connected two monophonic synthesizers were present as early as 1970, consumers wanted more.
Attempting to meet these demands, two schools of thought emerged in synthesizer design. One approach called for an independent, monophonic synthesizer to be assigned to every key on the keyboard. To this end, designers married the design principles of electronic organs to synthesizer technology. While this breed of instrument was fully polyphonic, all notes of the keyboard could be heard simultaneously and it wasn’t as versatile in its control options as a true synthesizer. The first fully polyphonic synthesizer to feature this type of design was the Moog Polymoog, released in 1975. Established primarily by David Luce, it featured 71 weighted, velocity-sensitive keys.
Within the second approach to polyphonic sound generation, a synthesizer was assigned to a key only when the key was pressed, in effect, semi-polyphony. As early as 1973, an American company E-MU Systems presented the Modular Keyboard System Series 4050, a digital keyboard that could be connected to up to ten monophonic synthesizers, and thus had ten-voice polyphony. The issues with this approach were plain to see, very few people owned ten synthesizers, and the amount of time and effort involved in programming the settings for a new sound was an overwhelming deterrent. Digital memory was still waiting to be developed and, once again, the evolution of semi-polyphonic synthesizers required the desirable qualities that only digital keyboards could deliver.
The same prerequisite-digital engineering eventually led to synthesizers that permitted the storage of sounds. Without the benefit of digital technology, early attempts at storing sounds included some cumbersome solutions. For example, a synthesizer with analog programmability required a dedicated row featuring all of the instrument’s control elements, for every “memory” slot! In this case, a selector switch accessed one of the many identical control panels and connected it to the sound generator.
The first synthesizer featuring storage slots executed in this manner was the GX1, which Yamaha released in 1975. The control elements for the system’s storage slots were so small that they could only be adjusted using jeweller’s screwdrivers and complex tools known as programmers and comparators.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the issue was resolved satisfactorily. The five-voice polyphonic Prophet-5, released by American company Sequential Circuits, was the world’s first synthesizer with a global storage facility. All settings for each of its five onboard monophonic synthesizers were stored in memory slots 40 in the debut model. Furthermore, all five synthesizers shared a single user interface, which considerably simplified matters. In spite of its initially expensive price, this instrument proved extremely popular and approximately 8,000 were built, up until 1985. In addition to its digitally implemented polyphony and memory, the success of the Prophet-5 is attributable to the outstanding quality of its analog sound generation system.
Back to the 70s
The 1970’s were an interesting and distinct era for the development and commercial rise of keyboard instruments. Affordable polyphonic synthesizers were still a few years in the making, and realistic-sounding electronic pianos were still a decade away. All that was available at this time was a mixture of Electronic Pianos and ‘String Synthesizers,’ which are essentially hyped-up electric organs; some still-useful electro-acoustic instruments; and a wide range of experimental synthesizers, many of which were created by small manufacturers that didn’t stay around very long. Six years later, this was completely transformed by advanced Japanese synths with built-in programming, patch memory, and all of them were polyphonic. These synthesizers are still well known today, they are the Roland, Korg, Yamaha DX7 era; and this too would fall at the hands of the dreaded Korg M1, which ushered in the Rompler era.
Music in the 1970s
The Hohner clavinet became popular in the US when Stevie toured with the Rolling Stones, thereby introducing the Stevie Wonder to a predominantly white audience, grabbing Stevie’s first number one hit since 1963. It’s of course the signature Clavinet part that just oozes the funk. In fact it was the song Superstition that really put the Hohner Clavinet on the map in funk/soul music. A lot of keyboard players instantly tried to replicate the part, but it seemed impossible to play. Even Stevie himself never really played it properly when he played live. It was later revealed that the Clavinet part actually consisted of two separate parts, panned hard left and right, creating the amazing polyrhythmic funk monster over which the main melody bounces. Stevie was really into synthesizer technology at the time, so the Clavinet fed through a synthesizer also produced the bubbling bass line. Still, getting the Clavinet part precisely right has been elusive for many keyboard players, and the exact recorded parts were always somewhat of a mystery until the digital age took over.
Even modern digital synthesizers featuring variable polyphony, memory, and completely digital sound generation systems follow this semi-polyphonic approach. The number of voices that these instruments are able to generate, however, is no longer dependent on the number of built-in monophonic synthesizers. Instead, polyphony depends entirely on the performance capability of the computers that power them. Ever-increasing processor performance made it possible to integrate digital technology into parts of the sound generation engine itself. The monophonic Harmonic Synthesizer, manufactured by Rocky Mountain Instruments (RMI), was the first instrument to do so. This synthesizer had two digital oscillators, combined with analog filters and amplifier circuits
The RMI KC-II Keyboard Computer is essentially a RAMpler; not too different in basic principle from the epic Synclavier in that the user could input waveforms which would then be manipulated. This thing apparently costs $4700, which means that they’re exclusive. The RMI Harmonic synthesizer offers very unique and characteristic sounds thanks to a special sound generation called additive synthesis. The Harmonic Synthesizer looks like a combo-organ, two sets of 16 harmonics sliders show that this synth is particular. Each harmonic generators is monophonic, however they are routed on an independent audio output, which allows the making of strange stereo effect.
In 1974 RMI introduced it’s first, and only synthesizer (ref.). Although it was housed in the familiar RMI case, it was a totally different design than any previous instrument. It was the first digital designed synthesizer available on the consumer market. The instrument was years ahead in design, and not understood at the time, except by the professional musician. The instrument was monophonic, with two independent digital harmonic generators. Each generator’s waveform could be modified independently, effectively like having two synthesizers by depressing one key. The unit had AM and FM control, voltage controlled filters, and its own expression pedal controlled each audio output.
The Synclavier, introduced in 1976 by New England Digital Corporation (NED), was the initial synthesizer with completely digital sound generation. Instruments like the Synclavier were based on specialized processors, which had to be developed by the manufacturers themselves. This development cost made the Synclavier an investment that only few could afford.
The Golden Era
As the 1980s approached, the main goal for engineers was to design synthesizers as a computer peripheral, rather than as a standalone unit. The growing popularity of personal computers from the early 1980s made this option commercially viable. Passport Soundchaser and the Syntauri alpha Syntauri were the first examples of this concept. Both systems consisted of a processor card with a standard musical keyboard attached to it. The processor card was inserted into an Apple II computer. The synthesizers were programmed via the Apple keyboard and monitor. They were polyphonic, had programmable waveforms, envelopes, and sequencers. Today’s sound cards, introduced in countless numbers since 1989, follow this concept.
A medium that truly impacted music in the 1980s was the Television. With shows such as MTV was gaining significant attention from young music lovers around the world, the definition of a ‘musician’ significantly changed. It was no longer only necessary to play an instrument well; rather, an artist was viewed as a whole ‘package’. This is when looks and show were just as important as the music, so naturally, this became the era of decadence, fashion, and success!
Towards the end of the 1970s, and beginning of the 1980s, a new genre was on the uproar of popularity. ‘Synthpop’ was a synthesizer dominant musical style that involved catchy melodies, and a disco style beat. This genre was a result of the synthesizer’s new compact designs, and vast involvement in various progressive rock genres. In these early stages music became more experimental, yet still held the general pop-style structure.
Early Synthpop pioneers included Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ultravox, Japan, and Gary Numan to name just a few. The early beginings of this incredible genre involved monophonic synthesizers that were used to produce a minimal, robotic-style sound by the artists, making each of their songs sound unique. It was no doubt the sound of the future, and was the bench mark for many electronic genres that arose in later years.
Although these electronic music genres were sounding quite bizarre for the time, they quickly became a comercial trend after artist Gary Numan broke through to the ‘British Singles Charts’ with his hit ‘Are Friends Electric’ and many more to come. Shortly after this, many other Synthpop artists such as Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Human League, (Known as the New Romantic movement) became instantly successful and paved the way for music and fashion that would change the industry forever.
Times were changing and synthesizer became inexpensive, which made it available for many young musicians. By this time, all of the synthesizers that were evolving were polyphonic. This was also a time when the definition of ‘MIDI’ and the use of dance beats, led to an even higher commercial success (ref.).
1990s and Nowadays
As the era with ‘no name’ (the 1990s) came around, everyone threw away their outdated analogue synthesizers and acquired purely digital ones. These synthesizers were an alternative solution was the use of general-purpose processors made by third-party computer processor manufacturers. These processors especially designed for multiplication and accumulation operations common in audio processing tasks are called digital signal processors (DSPs) (Unknown author & date). Peavey’s DPM-3, released in 1990, was the first commercially available synthesizer completely based on standard DSPs. The instrument was 16-note polyphonic and based mainly on three Motorola 56001 DSPs. It featured an integrated sequencer and sample-based subtractive synthesis, with factory presets and user-definable samples.
Exploiting the ever-increasing processing power of today’s computers, the next evolutionary step for the synthesizer is the software synthesizer, which runs as an application on a digital audio workstation (DAW). The sound card (or built-in audio hardware) is needed these days only for audio input and output. Your computer’s CPU using the Logic Express software and instrument collection performs the actual process of sound generation, effects processing, recording, and sequencing.
To better understand western music throughout history, we must always take into consideration the social, economic, and industrial evolution up until the present moment. As years go by, Engineers and musicians will always be searching for a more efficient way to create music.
From the early beginnings of the Theremin, to the software synthesizers many producers use today, it is visible that every era and genre of music brought (and is continuously bringing) something new to the world and influenced not only how we listen to, and create music, but also how we view technology and the world around us.
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Synthmuseum.com website, I. (2000). Synthmuseum.com – Magazine: Timeline (before 1900). Retrieved 19 March 2015, from; http://www.synthmuseum.com/magazine/time0010.html