Synthesizers Part 1 (History)

synthesizer history  - Synthi klein e1517493035702 - Synthesizers Part 1 (History)

The synthesizer history


I can’t imagine today’s music, and that applies to almost every genre, without synthesizer. So let’s get a deeper view in the synthesizer histroy. They offer so many different opportunities to create existing but also new sounds.
They let arise new worlds of sound, which would not be possible with traditional instruments.
In addition the composer/musician is able to play the required instruments him- or herself and also to create many more sounds. The following blog posts will introduce you to the synthesizer history and the basics of the synthesizers as well as its analog and digital alignment. The basics like structure and functions, which is mainly the same for both analog and digital alignment, will be shown through the example of the analog version. Moreover we will also have a closer look on the synthesis principles additive and subtractive.

The synthesizer and its history

Synthesizers create adjustable music and sounds, which is possible with different main modules (
Oscillators, filters or amplifiers). They are encased in a single housing. Since the construction of the synthesizer in 1964 by the physicist Robert Abraham Moog, who called the device synthesizer from 1967 onwards, it did not change a lot. Nevertheless it has been produced in many variations and versions by all types of people and their companies.

At first we need to mention Donald Buchla in the synthesizer history (referred to as Don), who created the first module based voltage controlled electronical music instrument in 1964. However he was unable to prevail over Robert A. Moog with his huge and expensive tool, which was mainly purchased by research institutions. Robert A. Moog focused on smaller and cheaper models (Minimoogs) and he was able to attract a larger target group with that: through the world wide spread the words “moog” and “synthesizer” are seen as synonyms by many people. Especially the record “Switched- On Bach” by Walter (Wendy) Carlos had a huge impact on the breakthrough of the moog- synthesizer.
The record was sold more than one million times, which made it to one of the most popular classic long-playing records of the synthesizer history.

Other US American, who created synthesizer in the synthesizer history, were e.g. Alan Richard Pearlman with his company ARP, Thomas Oberheim, Raymond Kurzwell or Dave Smith with his company Sequential Circuits. But none of them lasted very long. In comparison to that Japanese companies like Roland, Yamaha, Korg or AKAI, were more successful as they had research departments and more financial resources. In 1969 Peter Zinovieff entered the synthesizer business with his company Electronic Music Studios ltd. (EMS) in Europe. The synthesizer history is strictly speaking his pre-history, because the electronic music era did not begin in 1964. There were important predecessors, which should be briefly presented as well. Friedrich Trautwein can be mentioned as one of the first ones. He lived from 1888-1956. In 1930 he presented his “Trautonium”. It created sound with electronic vibrations.
It included two so called formant filter and was played with a Ribbon-Controller (which is a metal string covered metal rail, which energized the whole thing when you pressed the string with your finger on the rail). A certain pitch can be achieved by tapping, comparable to a string instrument. The strength of the finger pressure can regulate the volume. The most popular player of the trautonium was Oskar Sala, who further developed the tool until his death in 2002.
Over 300 film music pieces have been played in the trautonium, e.g. sequences of Alfred Hitchcocks movie “The Birds”.

However composers like Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen used a different electronic music device: the “ Ondes Musicales Martenot” from Maurice Martenot, who lived from 1889 until 1980. He created a similar device like a Theremin (you will receive more information about that later), which had the advantage that one was always able to strike the right note. The direct predecessor, however, formed the ether wave instrument or etherophone of Theremin.
Lev Sergevitch Termen or Leon Theremin, how he called himself in the US, developed this device in 1920. Theremin was like the Thomas Alva Edison from St. Petersburg, who did not only develop this musical instrument, but also the electronical cello, the first listening bug, an alarm system and more.
You can play nearly all tones with a theremin, but this advantage was also its biggest disadvantage: in comparison to the Ondes Musicals Martenot it is quite difficult to hit the note precisely, but it is very easy to play completely wrong. Robert A. Moog created theremins as well and he used them as a base to create the synthesizer. The company Moog Music started to sell theremins from 1954 onwards, the ether wave theremin is supposed to be the best-selling instrument of the world. There are two versions of the synthesizer, the analogue and the digital one. At first the meaning of analogue and digital will be explained. The term analog is derived from the Greek word “analogos”, which means translated similar or homogenous. In our case it means the playback of a sound signal. When recording acoustic vibrations are converted into electrical as accurately as possible, so that the waveform of the electrical voltage is of the same kind as the course of the sound pressure. The intention is clearly to create similar or if possible the same.

Digital does not mean the opposite of analogue. The word comes from the Latin word “digitus”, which means finger, and in the figurative sense number (think of the saying “something can be counted on one hand”). In the digital technique data and information are shown with numbers, in binary representation (0 or 1). This is comparable to a circuit of a switch to on or off.
As the basis of analogue and digital is the same, above all the analogue version will be described apart from a few exceptions.

The next part

Did you like this article about the synthesizer history? Share it in your favorite social media! Do you want to get more information about the synthesizer? Click here to read the next part of the synthesizer series. The next topic is the synthesizer and is modules.

6) Brockhaus encyclopedia
7) Audio Encyclopedia by Andreas Friesecke