Instrument history: the synthesizer

By Philharmonie de Paris

Console studio 116c du groupe de recherche musicale (GRM) (1967) by AnonymePhilharmonie de Paris

116c studio console from GRM (musical research group)

In their 60-year history, synthesizers have evolved considerably. From the first bulky machines that dominated electroacoustic music studios to compact keyboards combined with home studio computers.

Synthesizers have been constantly refined to give musicians and composers an increasingly varied and sophisticated sound palette, with simplified instructions for use.

Synthesizer "modular system" (1976)Philharmonie de Paris

What is a synthesizer?

The generic term synthesizer is commonly used for specific instruments that can synthesize sounds. They fulfilled a desire to explore new soundscapes and to understand the range, volume, and timbre of sound.

Ondes martenot (1930) by Maurice MartenotPhilharmonie de Paris

The first steps

The birth of synthetic sounds dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when manufacturers used electricity for making string instruments as a means of direct control and creation. 

Early versions included the Theremin (1922), the Ondes Martenot (1928), and the Trautonium (1930).

Solovox (Env. 1940)Philharmonie de Paris

Solovox - Env. 1940

These first musical machines show a growing attraction to musical experimentation and mechanization.

Ondes Martenot (1937)Philharmonie de Paris

Ondes Martenot -1937

Mastering electrical oscillation amplification and sound reproduction techniques through loudspeakers was key, and allowed the emergence of electrical and then electronic sound generation processes.

This generation of sound can be called analog, since the origin of the sound is generated after amplification and diffusion is an electrical oscillation analogous to the sound wave generated. 

Electronic organ model A (1935)Philharmonie de Paris

Model A electronic organ–Hammond Clock Company–1935

The 1930s were marked by electromechanical and electroacoustic instruments. The former left a great deal to experimentation by introducing mechanical devices with electronic components into the instrument, similar to the Hammond organ.

Modular synthesizer (1965)Philharmonie de Paris

Modular synthesizer - 1965

These technological innovations, the first attempts to resynthesize traditional instruments, led to the synthesizer.

In 1952, the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) developed the first synthesizer created by Harry Olson and Herbert Belar, capable of artificially creating sound. At the same time, Max Matthews invented digital synthesis: unusual sounds could be created from digital signals.

A la même époque, Max Matthews invente la synthèse digitale : les sons les plus insolites peuvent être créés à partir de signaux numériques.

Synket (1964)Philharmonie de Paris

Engineer Paolo Ketoff's Synket was a pioneer, including elements which would later be used in most synthesizers. 

Designed with transistors rather than valves, it has several oscillators, filters influencing the timbres, and a frequency modulation system.

That same year, Robert Moog developed voltage control and an instrument controlled by a keyboard, but made up of autonomous modules. At the same time, another American, Donald Buchla, had the idea of using interconnectable modules. 

Synthesizer VCS-3 putney (EMS VCS 3) (1969)Philharmonie de Paris

The VCS-3 synthesizer, developed in 1969 by the English company EMS, was the first to have non-separated modules, and was instead designed as a whole. This marked the beginning of models with pre-wired modules, determined in advance by the various manufacturers.

Synthétiseur analogique monophonique MiniMoog (1974) by MoogPhilharmonie de Paris

MiniMoog monophonic analog synthesizer, Moog–1974

After just 10 years, laboratory prototypes gave way for instruments bring produced on an industrial scale.

The synthesizer industry began with two types of equipment: synthesis-based equipment, such as the Synclavier, which offered sound programming possibilities, and equipment stemming from electronic organs such as the Moog synthesizer.

Synthesizer DX 7 (1994)Philharmonie de Paris

In 1982, Yamaha's launch of the first digital synthesizer, the DX7, was a huge moment. Compared to other synthesizers, the DX7 generated richer sounds with less manipulation required, while also retaining the functionality of electronic organs.

Synthétiseur et échantillonneur CMI II - Unité centrale (1982)Philharmonie de Paris

CMI II synthesizer and sampler–Central unit, 1982

The 1980s marked an important turning point in the history of electronic violin making: real-time computing was now widespread, and thanks to the MIDI interface, the personal studio became standardized and allowed exchanges.

There was also the explosion of virtual music, the home studio on personal computers, and the widespread development of sound editing and processing software.

Synthétiseur CMI II - Clavier (1982)Philharmonie de Paris

In addition to the synthesis processes by physical modeling, the 1990s also saw the return of analog synthesis. 

Old analog synthesizers became increasingly sought after, both by musicians and collectors, and new analog instruments began to emerge.

Synthesizer Jupiter 8 (1982-05-01)Philharmonie de Paris

Synthesizers Jupiter 8, Roland - 1982

Synthesizers tended to gradually dematerialize with the arrival of software offering device simulation. Computers and synthesizers thus came together to offer the musician a more developed instrumental palette.

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