Setting the Tone: The Evolution of the Synthesizer Over Time

A journey through the history of the Yamaha synthesizer: from the beginnings in 1974 to the present

Der Yamaha Reface (2014)Deutsches Museum

A Question of Time

When Torakusu Yamaha was ordered to repair a harmonium in Hamamatsu Elementary School in 1887, he probably wouldn't have believed that this would be the incredible start of a unique success story. Yamaha have grown over more than 120 years into a global market leader in instrument production. One of the products that became famous was its synthesizers, produced since 1974 and played by global pop music celebrities.

Der Yamaha SY-1 (1974)Deutsches Museum

The synth prototype: the SY-1, the first portable analog synthesizer by Yamaha, tackled everything from 1974. It was rather plain in a somewhat outdated wood design, yet it already had plenty of different sounds. In a presentation, Yamaha praised the solo synthesizer for its unique combination of easy usability and almost limitless versatility. The SY-1 was actually easy to handle and simple to understand.

14 buttons for the 28 preset tones were arranged centrally above the keyboard. Each button had two tones. On the far-left is Flute (above) and Clarinet (below), and on the far-right is Double (above) and Reed (below). A black switch directly to the right was used to switch between the upper and lower tones. Using the four transposition flip switches to the right, the musician could adjust the pitch an octave lower to two octaves higher.

On the left of the keyboard are seven controls and five rotary knobs. The white flip switches above could be set to preset (above) if the musician wanted to use the preset functions, or to control (below) if they wanted to adjust the tones manually. In the envelope section for example, setting the attack control to slow made a sound's rise time longer, while fast made it shorter. The short setting on the sustain control made a sound end abruptly after releasing the keyboard key, while long made a sound reverberate.

Der Yamaha SY-1 (1974)Deutsches Museum

On the far-right were an additional three flip switches set in the down position. Here, vibrato, wah-wah, and volume effects…

... could be adjusted by the touch control sensitivity knob (second from left)

Die Yamaha CS-80 (1977)Deutsches Museum

In 1976, Yamaha then released the CS-80. The instrument cost a lofty 6,900 US dollars at the time and was one of the first synthesizers which, similar to an organ, could be played polyphonically. That means multiple tones could be heard if multiple keys were pressed on the keyboard.

Above the keyboard were two rows with a total of 28 red, yellow, green, and white buttons. There were preset tones above and below for each of the first 11 buttons—seen from left to right. Individual tone sequences could be stored above and below on the right three buttons.

The controls occupying the top part of the instrument offered a great deal of variation in sound generation. The green controls, for example, could be used to adjust the high-pass filter (HPF) and low-pass filter (LPF). As an explanation, the HPF eliminates all signals under a frequency, while the LPF eliminates all signals above a certain frequency. The same applies for HPF and LPF here: the more the green control was toward HIGH, the more the signals could be heard. The more it was toward LOW, the less the signals could be heard.

Using the VCA—the voltage-controlled amplifier—switch, the musician could adjust the VCF level, i.e., how much the section filtered by the VCF should feed into the last-heard tone. The control directly to the right affected the section of the sinus curve generated by the VCO—the voltage-controlled oscillator—which didn't pass through the filter and passed separately into the amplifier. Letters A, D, S and R described the four time phases of a sound: attack, decay, sustain and release. These were also individually adjustable.

Many famous bands and musicians used the CS-80. It can be heard in Africa by Toto, for example, or Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, as well as Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, of course.

Synthesizer DX7 (1986/1987) by YamahaDeutsches Museum

The digital era finally began in the early 1980s. The Yamaha DX7 released in 1983 is still considered the first widely accessible digital synthesizer.

Yamaha DX7 Poster (1983)Deutsches Museum

As part of a huge advertising campaign, Yamaha praised the synthesizer for being a unique innovation—along the same lines as the invention of the wheel and electric light.

Die Yamaha DX-7 (1983)Deutsches Museum

In fact, the DX7 was a style-defining classic of pop sound of the eighties—one of the most influential and significant instruments of the decade. It introduced the completely new idea of FM synthesis (FM = frequency modulation)—a type of sound synthesis whereby the frequency of a wave form is changed using a modulator. The DX-7 could be heard, for example, in Bad by Michael Jackson, in Hunting High and Low by A-Ha, and in People Are People by Depeche Mode.

Die Yamaha SY99 (1991)Deutsches Museum

In the early 1990s the SY99 continued the success story of the Yamaha synthesizer. The SY99 was the follow-up to the SY77 released in 1989, that was heavily based on the already legendary DX7.

Der Yamaha AN1X (1997)Deutsches Museum

In the nineties, synthesizers became more and more technical and more and more digital, hi-tech and high-end. At the same time, many musicians longed for the good old sound—the analog sound before synth. With the AN1X released in 1997, it was now possible to reproduce current analog sounds to the highest digital standards. It made many musicians feel like they'd been sent back in time to their youth.

Die Yamaha MOTIF ES7 (2003)Deutsches Museum

Workstations then became established in the new millennium. All-in-one synthesizers consisted of an electronic sound generator, a keyboard, and various other components, like sequencers, effects devices, samplers, and drum computers. This allowed musicians to produce electronic music on a single device. The Motif series synthesizers available from 2001 onward, like model ES7 from 2003 pictured here, were hugely successful.

One of the trademarks of the devices were both wheels on the left lower side. The left wheel—the pitch bend wheel—bent the pitch, adjusting the pitch seamlessly from one tone in the direction of another tone. The modulation wheel to the right also created vibrato and other sound effects, depending on how far it was pushed up.

The Motif became an experimentation station and a big toy for musicians. The instrument allowed for a multitude of possible variations, like the editing of saved samples. In this example, 18 functions were available such as time stretch, which could be used to change the tempo of a sample while keeping the same pitch, or convert pitch which did exactly the opposite: change the pitch of the tone but not the tempo.

Der Yamaha Reface (2014)Deutsches Museum

The more Motif series models that offered playing and programming possibilities, the more overwhelming and overloaded these high-end workstations appeared with their many switches and slides, knobs, controls and displays. In response to this, the four Reface series models came out in 2014 to celebrate the 40th birthday of the first synthesizers and looked completely different. The models were based on the legendary synthesizer series from the past four decades according to their first two letters. There was a DX, VC, CP and CS Reface as seen here. The Reface series was reduced to the essentials.

Despite the analog-looking old-school appearance, the Reface naturally used state-of-the-art technology. Using the Looper—pictured here just to the right of the octave control—multiple overlapping loop phrases with a maximum of 2,000 notes or 10 minutes duration could be recorded at once.

Thankfully, the compact Reface was easy to use and more comprehensible than many complicated, complex models at the time, and was a handheld and also very worthwhile instrument. Even the switch functions for the oscillator, for example, were very logically explained. The following could be switched between (from bottom to top): multiple sawtooth waveform, square waveform, ring modulation, oscillator sync and frequency modulation that could generate sounds by connecting two oscillators.

Die Yamaha CS-80 (1976)Deutsches Museum

A fascinating journey through 40 years of synthesizer history. Now to see what the next decades will hold…

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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