Have you ever wondered where the synthesiser or ‘synth’ came from and why it is still such a popular musical instrument today?
Many of you probably think of the synthesiser when you think of 70’s and 80’s pop music. The synthesiser was commonly used in disco music in this era, but the instrument was not made widely available until Yamaha released the DX7 in the 1980’s.
So who invented it?
It’s not clear who invented the synthesiser, as it seemed to evolve from various other inventions dating right back to 1876, when an Electrical Engineer (Elisha Gray) accidentally discovered and invented a basic single note oscillator. After various other electronic discoveries, the music industry began to take off and instruments such as the audion piano, theramin and Trautonium were born in the early 1900’s. Most of these instruments used ‘heterodyne circuits’ to produce audio frequencies and did not have great synthesis capabilities… not for a while anyway. These instruments were continuously developed over the years.
Polyphonic synthesisers were first developed in Germany and the United States in the 1930’s. The Hammond Novachord, released in 1939 was an electronic keyboard that used 12 sets of top-octave oscillators with octave dividers to generate sound.
Throughout the 1940’s, various innovations emerged and after world war II, electronic music began to be created by contemporary composers. This resulted in electronic music studios being built all around the world. These studios consisted of oscillators, filters, tape recorders and audio consoles, and became known as a ‘sound synthesiser’.
The Synthesiser in Popular Music
In 1959, Harald Bode developed a modular synthesiser and sound processor. His ideas were adopted by Donald Buchla and Robert Moog in the United States. Robert Moog built his first prototype in 1963 and in the late 1960’s, synthesisers became portable and well priced. This, along with the development of MIDI, made synthesisers the perfect instrument to use in music composition. The synthesiser had a massive effect on pop music in the 20th Century, and can be found on these popular albums, can you remember any?
The Monkees – Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (Released in 1967 and reached number 1!)
Perrey and Kingsley – The In Sound From Way Out (Released in 1966)
The Doors – Strange Days (Released in 1967)
The sound of the synthesiser (Mainly the Moog), reached a whole new audience when Simon and Garfunkel released Bookends in 1968 and the Beatles released Abbey Road the following year.
The Digital Revolution
Towards the end of the 70’s, the synthesiser began to take the shape of what we know as a synth today. They became more portable, smaller instruments. Some of the popular synthesisers brought to market around this time included the Yamaha CS-80 (in 1976), the Prophet 5 (In 1978) and Roland’s Jupiter 4 (1978).
In 1983, Yamaha released the revolutionary DX7 synthesiser, which became iconic in pop music of this time. The synthesiser began the trend of producing music using digital sounds and influenced the next decade of popular digital instruments.
Throughout the 1990’s, the synthesiser really took off and became popular in electronic dance music. More recently, new analog synths (both in keyboard and modular form) were released alongside digital hardware instruments, and in 2016 the synth remains extremely popular for both music composition and performance.