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A Vibrant World of Knobs and Sounds

From early on, when synthesizers were first introduced into music, I liked the idea that you could get a big sound with them, electronic, but like an orchestra. And I could play it all myself. That was exciting.
~ John Carpenter

The Roots of Synthesizers

theremin

Theremin (1928)

Designed in 1928 by Russian inventor, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Theremin device produces a beautiful, haunting hum when the user waves their hands between two metal antennas, reacting to actual physical motions.

radio iconClick on the photo to listen to Lev Termen demonstrate his invention.
magnetophon

Magnetophon (1935)

First demonstrated in 1935 by the German Electronics Company AEG, the Magnetophon was the worlds first reel-to-reel tape recorder. Reel-to-reel tape recorders were used to make some of the first forms of electronic music, known as “tape music”.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to the first recording to tape with the Magnetophon.
hammond organ

Hammond Organ (1937)

Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert‘s electric Hammond Organ was first produced In 1937. The device generated sound by creating an electric current from rotating a metal tonewheel near an electromagnetic pickup, and then strengthening the signal with an amplifier so that it would drive a speaker cabinet.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to Ethel Smith performance on the Hammond Organ in the 1944 classic, Bathing Beauty.
rca mark II

RCA Mark II (1957)

The RCA Mark II was the first programmable electronic synthesizer. The towering machine, devised in Columbia University, featured twelve oscillators and a white noise generator among many other features that we identify with the modern synth sound.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a recording from the Berlin group, Blue Skies, performance on the RCA Mark II.

East Coast vs West Coast Theory

moog

Moog Modular Synthesizer (1965)

Though many devices came before the Robert Moog’s modular synthesizer, his was the first to become commercially manufactured. The intricately built device based off Moog’s patented step ladder filter, voltage controlled filters, and voltage controlled oscillators, paved the way for not only musical synthesis, but a world of exploration into electronic arts, tone, and experimentation.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a demonstration of a Moog Modular Synthesizer.
buchla

Buchla (1963)

Pioneered by Don Buchla, a member of the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center, the Buchla synthesizer was meant to offer the user a relatively limitless freedom in shaping and designing their own unique sounds.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a demonstration of a Buchla 200.

The Beginnings of Bedroom Pop

minimoog

The Minimoog

The Minimoog was the monophonic child of the grand Moog system. The Minimoog was designed by Robert Moog and Bill Hemsath. Though it had only a fraction of the capabilities of the original Moog system it came at a price tag and size that was more accessible to the aspiring musician.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a demonstration of a Minimoog.
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The Price

The Minimoog was meant to offer access to powerful synthesis at a price tag that was within reach for a less established musician. The larger Moog Modular systems would cost anywhere between $4000 and $10,000 while the Minimoog cost around $1,500. For many, the pricetag was still astronimical, but worth saving for to have access to the power house sound.

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"From The Studio To Concert Hall"

The portability of the Minimoog made it so that one could take synthesis with them wherever there was an amp to plug into. The synthesizer now became an instrument one could jam, gig, and hang out with. The bedroom became a laboratory of sound and experimentation.

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Notable Minimoog Operators:

Sun Ra, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and Keith Emerson.

A Move Away From Analog

fairlight

Fairlight CMI (1979)

The Fairlight synths were sample and workstation machines designed by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie. The CMI Series I offered users one of the first non-analog set ups and came with a wide range of samples (most famously a dog’s bark) that users could recall and use on the fly without having to program or set up a tone they had created themselves.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a demonstration of a Fairlight CMI.
dx7

Yamaha DX7 (1983)

Targeted at the working musician looking to expand their sound, the Yamaha DX7 came with a wide range of pre sampled tones and sounds. While it did have a way of programming ones own patches, many found the system arduous and stuck to the sounds that initially came with the instrument.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a demonstration of a DX7.
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Controversy

The DX7 was one of the most divisive instruments in the history of synthesizers. On one hand it made it easy to arrive at a sound that a musician was looking for, making it useful for live performance. On the other, many saw that it as a synth packed with dozens of patches, none of which were at all special or dynamic. Some even blame this synth for the transition of electronic musicians shaping creative tones to over-using stereotypical, cheap sounds.

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Theory of the DX7

The DX7 is one of the best selling synthesizers ever made. It is an interesting fact that so few owners of the DX7 actually programmed their own sounds into the musicians. Though the process of creating patches was difficult, most of the users still stuck to the sounds that already came pre-programmed into the synth. The DX7 seems to reveal a bit about the human pysche and its interest in putting time and energy into exploring something dynamic rather than re-using sounds that simply seem to work.

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Notable Yamaha DX7 Operators

Talking Heads, Brian Eno, The Crystal Method, and Orbital.

Dance Music

tr808

Roland TR 808 (1980)

This fully analog drum machine would go on to define the sound of modern music. It’s legendary kick drum is the foundation of hip hop, dance music, and rap music as we know it. Nothing would ever quite be the same after the world realized the full potential of the Roland TR-808.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a demonstration of a TR 808.
tr909

Roland TR 909 (1984)

The 909 was a landmark event for techno and house producers. Featuring a semi-analog system, the hard hitting sounds of the 909 became a staple for dance music. This was also the first drum machine that came equipped with Midi Capabilities.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a demonstration of a TR 909.
tb303

Roland TB 303 (1982)

The 303 was originally intended to replace a bass player the same way a drum machine could replace a drummer. The interface proved to be difficult and the unit went out of production within two years of its creation. It wasn't long before the techno community got ahold of it and explored its strange tones to fit in perfectly with a new vein of house and techno. Through the 303 the acid house sound was born.

radio icon Click on the photo to listen to a demonstration of a TB 303.
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Acid Tracks

In 1987 the Chicago based group, Phuture, released a 12 minute anthem called Acid Tracks. Acid Tracks made use of the TB-303's resonance capabilities, creating an otherworldly squelching tone. The strange sound led to a new style of dance music known as acid house. Acid House would pave the wave for dance music to expand upon itself in new experimental, dark, and strange ways.

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The Ingenuity of the Underground

The story of the 303 is one of craftiness and ingenuity. While Roland never intended for the machine to be used dance music (in fact dancing in clubs were widely frowned upon or even illegal in Japan), the techno underground of Detroit discovered its true range and possibility.

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Notable TB-303 Operators

Madonna, Fatboy Slim, Orange Juice, and Ice-T.

A Hope for Analog

maq

MAQ16/3 (1992)

In a time when analog seemed a thing of the past, Dieter Döpfer designed an all analog sequencer with the help of electronic music legends, Kraftwerk. Doepfer’s systems would go on to influence a revitalization of analog systems and electronics that currently sees no end in site.

radio icon Click on the photo to hear a demonstration of the MAQ16/3.
doepfer a100

Doepfer A-100 and the Eurorack Revolution (1995 - and on)

Doepfer designed a modular 3 rack system (as opposed to the 5 rack Moog system) with the A-100 machine. The analog synthesizer now has a future and it’s one that allows for endless creativity, endless execution of sound, and most importantly endless fun.

radio icon Click on the photo to hear a demonstration of the Doepfer A-100.