Pioneers of Electronic Music Instruments

From Theremin and Moog to Ableton Live

By Google Arts & Culture

Heiko Hoffmann (Text) & Dorothy (Visual)

Music Makers & Machines - Electric Love Blueprint (2021) by Dorothy

A brief history of the evolution of electronic instruments and its makers - from Leon Theremin's 1920 Theremin (that you play by not touching it) and Bob Moog's pioneering first synthesizer all the way to today's software based digital audio workstations as designed by Ableton Live's Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke.

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Leon Theremin

(born Lev Sergeyevich Termen, August 28, 1896 – November 3, 1993) was a Russian physicist who invented the Theremin, the first mass-produced electronic musical instrument, in 1920. The instrument consists of two antennas that sense the position of the player’s hands and oscillators for pitch and volume control. Notable musicians who used the Theremin include Dmitri Shostakovich, Clara Rockmore, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Jean-Michel Jarre.

Friedrich Trautwein

(August 11, 1888 – December 20, 1956) was a German engineer who in 1929/30 developed the Trautonium together with composer Oskar Sala. The Trautonium’s sounds were produced by tube oscillators whose output was fed into resonant filter circuits. Instead of a keyboard the player pressed a resistor wire on a metal plate. Sala developed the instrument further creating the Mixtur-Trautonium which was also used by him to create the bird noises in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds (1963). 

Max Mathews

(November 13, 1926 – April 21, 2011) was a US pioneer of computer music. In 1957 working at Bell Lab he wrote the MUSIC, the first widely used program for sound generation which allowed computer performance of music. In 1970 he developed GROOVE, a music synthesis system for real-time performance. The visual programming language Max by Cycling ’74 can be considered a descendant of MUSIC and is named after him.

Robert Arthur Moog

(May 23, 1934 – August 21, 2005) was the inventor of the first commercial synthesizer. The Moog synthesizer debuted in 1964, followed by a more portable version, the Minimoog, in 1970. The Moog consists of separate sound modules such as oscillators, envelope generators and ring modulators which can be connected via patch chords. The Moog has been used by a wide range of musicians including Wendy Carlos, the Beatles, Sun Ra and Tangerine Dream.

Peter Zinovieff

(born January 26, 1933) is a British engineer and composer. His company EMS created the first affordable synthesizer named VCS3 in 1969. Unlike early large synths from US manufacturers Moog Music, ARP and Buchla it was housed in a small case. The VCS3 was used by bands such as Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk and musicians like Delia Derbyshire and David Bowie. EMS’ large scale Synthi 100 followed in 1971 and can be heard on many BBC productions including Doctor Who.

Ikutaro Kahehashi

(February 7, 1930 – April 1, 2017) was a Japanese inventor and founder of music companies such as Ace Tone and Roland. In 1964, he developed the first fully transistorized electronic drum instrument, the R1 Rhythm Ace, which popularized the use of drum machines. In 1972 Kahehashi founded Roland Corporation launching instruments such as the first microprocessor driven programmable drum machine CR-78 and the TR-808 which became a foundation for house and hip-hop genres. Other Roland instruments that had a lasting impact on electronic music include the Juno-106 and TB-303 synthesizer.

Dave Smith

(born April 2, 1950) is US engineer who developed the first polyphonic synthesizer. The Prophet-5 manufactured by Smith’s company Sequential since 1978 was also the first instrument with an embedded microprocessor. The Prophet-5 was used by many musicians including John Carpenter, Patrick Cowley and Radiohead. Dave Smith also co-established MIDI (with Ikutaro Kahehashi and others) – the standard interface protocol for electronic instruments since 1983.

Robert Henke / Gerhard Behles

Henke (born 1969) and Behles (born 1970) are German software engineers and musicians. In 1995 they started the music project Monolake. Four years later they co-founded Ableton and developed the digital audio workstation Ableton Live designed to be both an instrument for live performances as well composing, recording and arranging. The software has become a cornerstone in the workflow for many of today’s producers and musicians.

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Credits: Story

Text: Heiko Hoffmann
Visual: Dorothy

Credits: All media
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