How Electronic Instruments Changed Music: The Synthesizer Revolution

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Crank up the volume as we journey into the captivating world of synthesizers. From the hefty origins of the Telharmonium to today’s sleek digital innovations, this article gives you a comprehensive look at how electronic instruments changed music forever.

Whether you’re a music enthusiast captivated by the evolution of electronic sound or a professional musician keen on the specs that shaped the music industry, this article’s got something for you. Join us as we explore how these incredible machines have transformed music, their impact on popular genres, and exciting future trends. Get ready to connect with synthesizers in a whole new way!

The Birth of Synthesizers

The invention of the Telharmonium

The Telharmonium, also known as the Dynamophone, was a groundbreaking invention in the late 19th century. Thaddeus Cahill developed this early electronic instrument that used electrical signals transmitted over wires to generate musical sounds, making it the first electromechanical musical instrument. The Telharmonium was a massive instrument, with the Mark II version weighing almost 200 tons. It was a significant advancement over its predecessor, the Mark I, and performances were given for live audiences, with the instrument taking up an entire room.

The design of the Telharmonium included tone wheels, which were rotors with variably shaped alternators that generated tones. Each tonewheel corresponded to a single note, and additional tonewheels were added to create harmonics and imitate the sounds of different instruments. The Telharmonium had a six-octave range and 153 keys. It could produce a wide range of sounds, from clear and pure sine wave tones to imitations of orchestral instruments like the flute, oboe, bugle, French horn, and cello.

Despite its innovative design and capabilities, the Telharmonium faced several challenges that led to its downfall. Its immense size and weight required large electric generators that consumed a lot of power. Additionally, telephone broadcasts of Telharmonium music caused interference and interrupted unsuspecting telephone users. By 1912, interest in the instrument had waned, and the company behind it was declared unsuccessful in 1914. However, the Telharmonium had a significant influence on the development of electronic music, paving the way for future electronic instruments and synthesizers by demonstrating the possibilities of generating and manipulating sound electronically.

Getting to know the Theremin

The theremin, another early electronic instrument, was invented by Léon Theremin in the early 1920s. It uses the power of electromagnetic interference to create portamento melodies. The theremin consists of two antennae connected to circuits that oscillate at radio frequency. By interfering with the electromagnetic field, the instrument measures the difference between fixed and variable oscillators, translating it into pitch or amplitude.

Originally developed as a proximity sensor, Theremin discovered its musical potential when he noticed that he could change the pitch of an audio signal by moving his body in relation to the electromagnetic field. The theremin became popular among avant-garde composers and was later manufactured by RCA. Despite its simple interface, the theremin is considered one of the most difficult instruments to play. Skilled thereminists can create haunting and beautiful melodies by fluttering their fingers and waving their hands near the antennae.

Introduction to the Ondes Martenot

The birth of synthetic sounds dates back to the early 20th century with instruments like the Theremin, Ondes Martenot, and Trautonium. The development of electrical oscillation amplification and sound reproduction techniques led to the emergence of analog sound generation processes. The RCA Mark II, developed in 1952, was the first synthesizer capable of artificially creating sound.

Birth of the First Commercial Synthesizer

In 1964, Robert Moog developed voltage control and an instrument controlled by a keyboard, leading to the creation of the Moog synthesizer. This was the first commercial synthesizer and established the concept of modular synthesis. The Moog synthesizer consists of separate modules that create and shape sounds, which are connected via patch cables. The oscillators in the Moog synthesizer produce different waveforms, such as sine, square, triangle, and sawtooth waves. The synthesizer’s filter, known as the “ladder” filter, is particularly distinctive and produces the “Moog sound.”

The Moog synthesizer had a significant impact on the music industry. It was used by experimental composers, such as Wendy Carlos, and popularized by rock and pop acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In the 1970s, the Moog synthesizer became a staple of disco and electronic music, used by artists like Donna Summer and Kraftwerk. The Moog synthesizer introduced concepts such as modularity, voltage control, and envelope generators, which became standard features in synthesizers. Despite facing resistance from traditional musicians and being temporarily banned from commercial work by the American Federation of Musicians, the Moog synthesizer’s influence can still be seen today, with its sound and concepts shaping the development of electronic music.

A close up of a synthesiser and other music studio equipment.

1960s: The Booming Era of Synthesisers

The 1960s marked a significant turning point in the world of music with the advent of electronic instruments and synths. These innovative tools expanded the sonic possibilities available to musicians, revolutionizing the way music was composed, produced, and performed.

The popularity of Moog Synthesisers

The Moog synthesizer quickly gained popularity, especially after Wendy Carlos’ album “Switched-On Bach” in 1968. Rock and pop acts in the late 1960s and 1970s began to incorporate its unique sounds into their music. The Moog synthesizer’s ability to imitate instruments like strings and horns made it a versatile tool for musicians.

The Launch of Buchla Synthesisers

Around the same time, another pioneer in electronic musical instrument design, Don Buchla, was making waves. He created the Buchla 100 series Modular Electronic Music System in 1963, followed by the Buchla 200 series Electric Music Box in 1970. Unlike other synthesizers, Buchla’s instruments focused on creating new sounds rather than imitating existing ones. They used complex waveshaping oscillators and photoresistive elements for a unique sound.

Buchla’s synthesizers weren’t just instruments; they were tools for sound creation, offering flexibility and individuality. They kept audio signals separate from control signals, allowing for a clear distinction and no confusion between the two. This design philosophy made Buchla synthesizers stand out and contributed to their popularity.

Role of Synthesisers in Popular Music

The impact of synthesizers on popular music can’t be overstated. They influenced the sound of various genres and became a staple in 1970s disco music. The Moog and Buchla synthesizers were used by artists and had a significant impact on music in the late 1960s. For instance, The Moog Modular synthesizer was used in the production of The Doors’ album “Strange Days”.

The Mellotron, a tape-based keyboard instrument, was another popular electronic instrument during this era. It was used in popular music, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”. These instruments allowed musicians to create complex and layered sounds in real time, enhancing the live music experience.

The Dawn of Modular Synthesis

The 1960s also saw the dawn of modular synthesis. The concept of modularity, introduced by the Moog and Buchla synthesizers, was a significant advancement in electronic music technology. It offered musicians a more practical and affordable option compared to previous synthesizers.

Modular synthesis allowed for the creation of new sounds and textures, opening up new avenues for creativity and experimentation. It also democratized music production, making it more accessible to a wider range of musicians. With advancements in technology, electronic instruments became more affordable and portable, allowing musicians to create music anywhere and anytime.

The modular synthesizer ensemble project was a vehicle for getting music across to people and has been very successful. Today’s market for electronic instruments and synths is huge, with a wide variety of modules and concepts available. As technology continues to evolve, electronic instruments and synths will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the future of music.

1970s: Synthesisers Evolve in Design and Usage

Emergence of Compact and Portable Synthesisers

The 1970s marked the arrival of smaller, more manageable synthesizers, which were more suited for live performances. The Minimoog Model D, launched by Bob Moog in 1970, was a significant development. It was the first fully integrated synthesizer that was compact, portable, and affordable, a stark contrast to the large, complex, and costly modular systems that had been prevalent.

Popular Brands of the 70s: ARP, Sequential Circuits

This era also saw the rise of several influential synthesizer brands. American companies like ARP and Moog were at the forefront of this revolution. ARP Instruments Inc, established by Alan Robert Pearlman, launched the ARP 2500 in 1970, a modular synthesizer that provided a multitude of modules for sound creation. Sequential Circuits, established by Dave Smith, launched the Prophet-5 in 1977, the first fully programmable polyphonic synthesizer. This instrument revolutionized the industry by enabling users to store sounds in patch memory, simplifying the process of recreating familiar sounds.

Introduction of Polyphonic Synthesisers

The 70s also saw the arrival of polyphonic synthesizers. These instruments could play multiple notes simultaneously, a significant advancement from the monophonic synthesizers of the past. The Moog Polymoog, launched in 1975, was a 71-key velocity-sensitive synthesizer that offered polyphonic capabilities and different voice zoning. The Prophet-5, launched by Sequential Circuits in 1978, was the world’s first programmable polyphonic synthesizer and quickly became a must-have instrument for musicians.

Growth of Digital Synthesis

The late 70s marked the beginning of the digital synthesis era. Digital technology began to emerge with the introduction of FM synthesis by Yamaha and wavetable synthesis by PPG. These digital synthesizers offered new possibilities for sound creation and manipulation. The advent of digital synthesizers expanded the sonic palette available to musicians and paved the way for the digital synthesizers of the 80s and beyond.

The 1970s was a crucial decade in the evolution of synthesizers. The arrival of compact and portable synthesizers, the rise of influential brands, the introduction of polyphonic synthesizers, and the growth of digital synthesis all contributed to the transformation of the music industry. These developments allowed musicians to create new and innovative sounds, pushing the boundaries of traditional music. The legacy of 1970s synthesizers can still be heard in contemporary music, with many artists and producers incorporating vintage analog synthesizers into their recordings. The unique sound and character of these instruments continue to captivate musicians and audiences alike.

A man creating a beat on a MIDI controller.

1980s to 2000s: Technological Advancement in Synthesizers

Rise of MIDI and Computer Revolution

The 1980s marked a significant shift in the music industry with the advent of MIDI. This protocol for transmitting digitally encoded music instructions revolutionized the industry by enabling instruments, modules, and computers to communicate. This innovation led to the development of MIDI controllers, which provided new methods of interaction with synthesizers and other electronic instruments.

MIDI interfaces democratized music production by enabling musicians to record and produce music in their own homes. The Atari ST computer, one of the first to include MIDI ports, was instrumental in popularizing MIDI. This allowed musicians to link their computers to external sound generators, bypassing the need for an onboard sound chip.

Software Synthesizers and Virtual Studios

The rise of MIDI coincided with the advent of software synthesizers or softsynths. These virtual synthesizers, used in conjunction with a computer, offered a broad spectrum of sounds and capabilities. They were often more cost-effective than hardware synthesizers and provided greater flexibility in terms of sound creation and manipulation.

The advent of softsynths transformed music production. Many studios began to rely heavily on computers for recording, editing, and mixing music projects. Sequencing software, such as Logic Audio and Cubase, allowed musicians to record and edit MIDI and audio data directly on the computer. This integration of MIDI and audio recording has become a standard practice in the music industry.

Impact of Techno and Dance Music on Synthesizer Popularity

The influence of electronic instruments and synths extended to various genres of music, including rock, new wave, hip hop, techno, and electronic dance music. The Beatles’ innovative use of electronic instruments, including the Moog synthesizer, brought new sounds and experimentation to their music, revolutionizing music production. Kraftwerk’s pioneering use of synthesizers and repetitive electronic sounds was instrumental in establishing electronic music as a standalone genre. They also had a profound influence on genres such as hip-hop, post-punk, and techno.

The Resurgence of Analog Synthesis

Despite the advent of digital synthesizers and soft synths, analog synthesizers experienced a resurgence. These instruments, which generate sound using analog circuitry, typically consisting of voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs), filters, and amplifiers, offer a unique power, sonic quality, and flexibility not found in the softsynth domain.

The evolution of synthesizers in music production is an ongoing journey. With continuous technological advancements and the ever-evolving creative landscape, synthesizers will undoubtedly continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of music.

Modern Era: Diversity and Innovation in Synthesizers

The current epoch of music has been significantly influenced by the diversity and innovation in synthesizers. These electronic instruments, celebrated for their adaptability and ability to generate unique sounds, have revolutionized music production.

Popular Modern Synthesizer Brands

Numerous synthesizer brands are available, each with its unique offerings. Companies like Arturia, Sequential, Novation, Behringer, Modal Electronics, Nord, and Waldorf have made significant contributions to the music industry.

Arturia, for instance, is known for its Brute series of analog synthesizers and its V Collection of virtual instruments. Sequential, previously known as Sequential Circuits, is famous for its Prophet series of synthesizers. Novation is renowned for its Bass Station and Peak synthesizers, while Behringer has gained popularity for its affordable recreations of classic synthesizers.

Innovative Synthesizer Designs and Technology

The progression of synthesizer technology has been marked by advancements in both digital and analog synthesis, as well as the integration of sampling and other technologies. Brands like Arturia, Sequential, and Novation have been at the forefront of these innovations.

Arturia, for instance, has been a pioneer in the field of software synthesis with its V Collection, while Sequential has been instrumental in the development of hybrid analog-digital synthesizers like the Prophet X. Novation, on the other hand, has been innovative in the field of compact, affordable synthesizers with its Circuit series.

Impact of Synthesizers in Film and Television

Synthesizers have had a profound impact on film and television scores. They have become a mainstay of both the sci-fi and horror genres. John Carpenter, known for his simplistic synth-heavy soundtracks, is a notable example of this. His scores in genre films like Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China are nearly as memorable.

Future Trends of Synthesizers

The future of synthesizers is likely to continue pushing the boundaries of sound and technology. New innovations and advancements in synthesis techniques are expected to shape the future of these instruments.

The future may involve more specialized solutions, customizable devices, and advancements in technology such as quantum computers and artificial intelligence. As the market for synthesizers becomes more accessible and affordable, we can expect to see even more diversity and innovation in this field.

The Power and Influence of Synthesizers in Music

When you trace the evolution of synthesizers from the massive Telharmonium to today’s compact digital and analog devices, it’s clear that these instruments have been a key part of music’s progression. You can see and hear their impact in every genre, from experimental avant-garde compositions to chart-topping pop hits.

Synthesizers haven’t just imitated other instruments but have invented entirely new sounds and ways of making music. They’ve democratized music production, making it more accessible and sparking countless moments of creative brilliance. As we hurtle into the future, the promise and potential of synthesizers continue to be boundless. As technology evolves, so will the sounds we create, listen to, and love. The synthesizer’s journey isn’t over; its finest hour may yet be ahead.

Andrew Scrivens

Andrew Scrivens

I am a live musician and guitar teacher from Brisbane, Australia, with extensive experience playing live, in the studio and for TV shows. I play in many venues, studios, music shops and with my students and as such am exposed to a lot of different gear. I form my opinions based on my experiences playing instruments in these locations.

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