Early Minimoog by R.A. Moog Inc. (ca. 1970)
A waveform generated by a synthesizer

A synthesizer or synthesiser (often abbreviated to synth) is an electronic musical instrument that generates audio signals that may be converted to sound. Synthesizers may imitate traditional musical instruments such as piano, flute, vocals, or natural sounds such as ocean waves; or generate novel electronic timbres. They are often played with a musical keyboard, but they can be controlled via a variety of other devices, including music sequencers, instrument controllers, fingerboards, guitar synthesizers, wind controllers, and electronic drums. Synthesizers without built-in controllers are often called sound modules, and are controlled via USB, MIDI or CV/gate using a controller device, often a MIDI keyboard or other controller.

Synthesizers use various methods to generate electronic signals (sounds). Among the most popular waveform synthesis techniques are subtractive synthesis, additive synthesis, wavetable synthesis, frequency modulation synthesis, phase distortion synthesis, physical modeling synthesis and sample-based synthesis.

Synthesizers were first used in pop music in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, synths were used in progressive rock, pop and disco. In the 1980s, the invention of the relatively inexpensive Yamaha DX7 synth made digital synthesizers widely available. 1980s pop and dance music often made heavy use of synthesizers. In the 2010s, synthesizers are used in many genres, such as pop, hip hop, metal, rock and dance. Contemporary classical music composers from the 20th and 21st century write compositions for synthesizer.


Synthesizers before 19th century
Wolfgang von Kempelen's Speaking Machine in 1769–1791 (replica in 2007–2009)
Rudolph Koenig's sound synthesizer in 1865:
consists of tuning forks, electromagnets, and Helmholtz resonators.

The beginnings of the synthesizer are difficult to trace, as it is difficult to draw a distinction between synthesizers and some early electric or electronic musical instruments.[1][2]

Early electric instruments

One of the earliest electric musical instruments, the Musical Telegraph, was invented in 1876 by American electrical engineer Elisha Gray. He accidentally discovered the sound generation from a self-vibrating electromechanical circuit, and invented a basic single-note oscillator. This instrument used steel reeds with oscillations created by electromagnets transmitted over a telegraph line. Gray also built a simple loudspeaker device into later models, consisting of a vibrating diaphragm in a magnetic field, to make the oscillator audible.[3][4] This instrument was a remote electromechanical musical instrument that used telegraphy and electric buzzers that generated fixed timbre sound. Though it lacked an arbitrary sound-synthesis function, some have erroneously called it the first synthesizer.[1][2]

The Telharmonium console (1901) and Hammond organ (1935).

In 1897 Thaddeus Cahill was granted his first patent for an electronic musical instrument, which by 1901 he had developed into the Telharmonium capable of additive synthesis.[5] Cahill's business was unsuccessful for various reasons, but similar and more compact instruments were subsequently developed, such as electronic and tonewheel organs including the Hammond organ, which was invented in 1935.[6]

Left: Theremin (RCA AR-1264; 1930). Middle: Ondes Martenot (7th-generation model in 1978). Right: Trautonium (Telefunken Volkstrautonium Ela T42; 1933).

In 1906, American engineer Lee de Forest invented the first amplifying vacuum tube, the Audion[7] whose amplification of weak audio signals contributed to advances in sound recording, radio and film,[8] and the invention of early electronic musical instruments including the theremin, the ondes martenot,[9] and the trautonium.[10] Most of these early instruments used heterodyne circuits to produce audio frequencies, and were limited in their synthesis capabilities. The ondes martenot and trautonium were continuously developed for several decades, finally developing qualities similar to later synthesizers.

Graphical sound

In the 1920s, Arseny Avraamov developed various systems of graphic sonic art,[11] and similar graphical sound and tonewheel systems were developed around the world.[12] In 1938, USSR engineer Yevgeny Murzin designed a compositional tool called ANS, one of the earliest real-time additive synthesizers using optoelectronics. Although his idea of reconstructing a sound from its visible image was apparently simple, the instrument was not realized until 20 years later, in 1958, as Murzin was, "an engineer who worked in areas unrelated to music".[13]

Subtractive synthesis and polyphonic synthesizer

Hammond Novachord (1939) and Welte Lichtton orgel (1935)

In the 1930s and 1940s, the basic elements required for the modern analog subtractive synthesizers — electronic oscillators, audio filters, envelope controllers, and various effects units — had already appeared and were utilized in several electronic instruments.[citation needed]

The earliest polyphonic synthesizers were developed in Germany and the United States. The Warbo Formant Orgel developed by Harald Bode in Germany in 1937, was a four-voice key-assignment keyboard with two formant filters and a dynamic envelope controller.[14][15]

The Hammond Novachord released in 1939, was an electronic keyboard that used twelve sets of top-octave oscillators with octave dividers to generate sound, with vibrato, a resonator filter bank and a dynamic envelope controller. During the three years that Hammond manufactured this model, 1,069 units were shipped, but production was discontinued at the start of World War II.[16][17] Both instruments were the forerunners of the later electronic organs and polyphonic synthesizers.

Monophonic electronic keyboards

Harald Bode's Multimonica (1940) and Georges Jenny Ondioline (c.1941)

In the 1940s and 1950s, before the popularization of electronic organs and the introductions of combo organs, manufacturers developed various portable monophonic electronic instruments with small keyboards. These small instruments consisted of an electronic oscillator, vibrato effect, and passive filters. Most were designed for conventional ensembles, rather than as experimental instruments for electronic music studios, but contributed to the evolution of modern synthesizers. These instruments include the Solovox, Multimonica, Ondioline, and Clavioline.[citation needed]

Other innovations

Hugh Le Caine's Electronic Sackbut (1948) and Yamaha Magna Organ (1935)

In the late 1940s, Canadian inventor and composer, Hugh Le Caine invented the Electronic Sackbut, a voltage-controlled electronic musical instrument that provided the earliest real-time control of three aspects of sound (amplitude, pitch, and timbre)—corresponding to today's touch-sensitive keyboard, pitch and modulation controllers. The controllers were initially implemented as a multidimensional pressure keyboard in 1945, then changed to a group of dedicated controllers operated by left hand in 1948.[18]

In Japan, as early as 1935, Yamaha released the Magna organ,[19] a multi-timbral keyboard instrument based on electrically blown free reeds with pickups.[20] It may have been similar to another electrostatic reed organ, the Orgatron, developed by Frederick Albert Hoschke in 1934 and then manufactured by Everett and Wurlitzer until 1961.

In 1949, Japanese composer Minao Shibata discussed the concept of "a musical instrument with very high performance" that can "synthesize any kind of sound waves" and is "...operated very easily," predicting that with such an instrument, "...the music scene will be changed drastically."[neutrality is disputed][21][22]

Electronic music studios as sound synthesizers

Synthesizer (left) and an audio console at the Studio di fonologia musicale di Radio Milano (of RAI) (1955–1983; renewed in 1968)

After World War II, electronic music including electroacoustic music and musique concrète was created by contemporary composers, and numerous electronic music studios were established around the world, for example Studio for Electronic Music (WDR), and Studio di fonologia musicale di Radio Milano. These studios were typically filled with electronic equipment including oscillators, filters, tape recorders, audio consoles etc., and the whole studio functioned as a sound synthesizer.

Origin of the term "sound synthesizer"

RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer (1957) and Siemens Studio for Electronic Music [de] (c. 1959)

Thaddeus Cahill's 1897 patent for his electromechanical instrument, the Telharmonium, uses the verb synthesize 25 times, for example in the phrase "synthesizing composite electrical vibrations out of the ground-tone vibrations and the overtone vibrations" (a description of additive synthesis).[23] Thom Holmes regards Cahill as the coiner of the term in this field.[24]

In 1951–1952, RCA produced a machine called the Electronic Music Synthesizer; however, it was more accurately a composition machine, because it did not produce sounds in real time.[25] RCA then developed the first programmable sound synthesizer, the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, installing it at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1957.[26] Prominent composers including Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening, Milton Babbitt, Halim El-Dabh, Bülent Arel, Charles Wuorinen, and Mario Davidovsky used the RCA Synthesizer extensively in various compositions.[27]

From modular synthesizer to popular music

In 1959–1960, Harald Bode developed a modular synthesizer and sound processor,[28][29] and in 1961, he wrote a paper exploring the concept of self-contained portable modular synthesizer using newly emerging transistor technology.[30] He also served as AES session chairman on music and electronic for the fall conventions in 1962 and 1964.[31] His ideas were adopted by Donald Buchla and Robert Moog in the United States, and Paolo Ketoff et al. in Italy[32][33][34] at about the same time:[35] among them, Moog is known as the first synthesizer designer to popularize the voltage control technique in analog electronic musical instruments.[35]

A working group at Roman Electronic Music Center, composer Gino Marinuzzi, Jr., designer Giuliano Strini, MSEE, and sound engineer and technician Paolo Ketoff in Italy; their vacuum-tube modular "FonoSynth" slightly predated (1957–58) Moog and Buchla's work. Later the group created a solid-state version, the "Synket". Both devices remained prototypes (except a model made for John Eaton who wrote a "Concert Piece for Synket and Orchestra"), owned and used only by Marinuzzi, notably in the original soundtrack of Mario Bava's sci-fi film "Terrore nello spazio" (a.k.a. Planet of the Vampires, 1965), and a RAI-TV mini-series, "Jeckyll".[32][33][34]

The Moog modular synthesizer of 1960s–1970s

Robert Moog built his first prototype between 1963 and 1964, and was then commissioned by the Alwin Nikolais Dance Theater of NY;[36][37] while Donald Buchla was commissioned by Morton Subotnick.[38][39] In the late 1960s to 1970s, the development of miniaturized solid-state components allowed synthesizers to become self-contained, portable instruments, as proposed by Harald Bode in 1961. By the early 1980s, companies were selling compact, modestly priced synthesizers to the public. This, along with the development of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), made it easier to integrate and synchronize synthesizers and other electronic instruments for use in musical composition. In the 1990s, synthesizer emulations began to appear in computer software, known as software synthesizers. From 1996 onward, Steinberg's Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plug-ins – and a host of other kinds of competing plug-in software, all designed to run on personal computers – began emulating classic hardware synthesizers, becoming increasingly successful at doing so during the following decades.

The synthesizer had a considerable effect on 20th-century music.[40] Micky Dolenz of The Monkees bought one of the first Moog synthesizers. The band was the first to release an album featuring a Moog with Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. in 1967,[41] which became a Billboard number-one album. A few months later the title track of the Doors' 1967 album Strange Days featured a Moog played by Paul Beaver. Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach (1968), recorded using Moog synthesizers, also influenced numerous musicians of that era and is one of the most popular recordings of classical music ever made,[42] alongside the records (particularly Snowflakes are Dancing in 1974) of Isao Tomita, who in the early 1970s utilized synthesizers to create new artificial sounds (rather than simply mimicking real instruments[43]) and made significant advances in analog synthesizer programming.[44]

The sound of the Moog reached the mass market with Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends in 1968 and The Beatles' Abbey Road the following year; hundreds of other popular recordings subsequently used synthesizers, most famously the portable Minimoog. Electronic music albums by Beaver and Krause, Tonto's Expanding Head Band, The United States of America, and White Noise reached a sizable[clarification needed] cult audience and progressive rock musicians such as Richard Wright of Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman of Yes were soon using the new portable synthesizers extensively. Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock also played a major role in popularising synthesizers in Black American music.[45][46] Other early users included Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Keith Emerson, Tony Banks of Genesis, Todd Rundgren, Pete Townshend, and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown's Vincent Crane. In Europe, the first no. 1 single to feature a Moog prominently was Chicory Tip's 1972 hit "Son of My Father".[47]

In 1974, Roland Corporation released the EP-30, the first touch-sensitive electronic keyboard.[48]

Polyphonic keyboards and the digital revolution

The Prophet-5 synthesizer of the late 1970s-early 1980s.

In 1973, Yamaha developed the Yamaha GX-1, an early polyphonic synthesizer.[49] Other polyphonic synthesizers followed, mainly manufactured in Japan and the United States from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, and included Roland Corporation's RS-101 and RS-202 (1975 and 1976) string synthesizers,[50][51] the Yamaha CS-80 (1976), Oberheim's Polyphonic and OB-X (1975 and 1979), Sequential Circuits' Prophet-5 (1978), and Roland's Jupiter-4 and Jupiter-8 (1978 and 1981). The success of the Prophet-5, a polyphonic and microprocessor-controlled keyboard synthesizer, aided the shift of synthesizers away from large modular units and towards smaller keyboard instruments.[52] This helped accelerate the integration of synthesizers into popular music, a shift that had been lent powerful momentum by the Minimoog and later the ARP Odyssey.[53] Earlier polyphonic electronic instruments of the 1970s, rooted in string synthesizers before advancing to multi-synthesizers incorporating monosynths and more, gradually fell out of favour in the wake of these newer, note-assigned polyphonic keyboard synthesizers.[54]

In 1973,[55] Yamaha licensed the algorithms for the first digital synthesis algorithm, frequency modulation synthesis (FM synthesis), from John Chowning, who had experimented with it since 1971.[56] Yamaha's engineers began adapting Chowning's algorithm for use in a commercial digital synthesizer, adding improvements such as the "key scaling" method to avoid the introduction of distortion that normally occurred in analog systems during frequency modulation.[57] In the 1970s, Yamaha were granted a number of patents, evolving Chowning's early work on FM synthesis technology.[58] Yamaha built the first prototype digital synthesizer in 1974.[55] Yamaha eventually commercialized FM synthesis technology with the Yamaha GS-1, the first FM digital synthesizer, released in 1980.[59] The first commercial digital synthesizer released a year earlier, the Casio VL-1,[60] released in 1979.[61]

The Fairlight CMI of the late 1970s-early 1980s.

By the end of the 1970s, digital synthesizers and samplers had arrived on markets around the world.[note 1] Compared with analog synthesizer sounds, the digital sounds produced by these new instruments tended to have a number of different characteristics: clear attack and sound outlines, carrying sounds, rich overtones with inharmonic contents, and complex motion of sound textures, amongst others. While these new instruments were expensive, these characteristics meant musicians were quick to adopt them, especially in the United Kingdom[62] and the United States. This encouraged a trend towards producing music using digital sounds,[note 2] and laid the foundations for the development of the inexpensive digital instruments popular in the next decade. Relatively successful instruments, with each selling more than several hundred units per series, included the NED Synclavier (1977), Fairlight CMI (1979), E-mu Emulator (1981), and PPG Wave (1981).[note 1][62][63][64][65]

The Yamaha DX7 of 1983.

In 1983, Yamaha's DX7 digital synthesizer[55] swept through popular music, leading to the adoption and development of digital synthesizers in many varying forms during the 1980s, and the rapid decline of analog synthesizer technology. In 1987, Roland's D-50 synthesizer was released, which combined the already existing sample-based synthesis[note 3] and the onboard digital effects,[66] while Korg's even more popular M1 (1988) now also heralded the era of the workstation synthesizer, based on ROM sample sounds for composing and sequencing whole songs, rather than solely traditional sound synthesis.[67]

The Clavia Nord Lead series released in 1995.

Throughout the 1990s, the popularity of electronic dance music employing analog sounds, the appearance of digital analog modelling synthesizers to recreate these sounds, and the development of the Eurorack modular synthesiser system, initially introduced with the Doepfer A-100 and since adopted by other manufacturers, all contributed to the resurgence of interest in analog technology. The turn of the century also saw improvements in technology that led to the popularity of digital software synthesizers.[68] In the 2010s, new analog synthesizers, both in keyboard instrument and modular form, are released alongside current digital hardware instruments.[69] In 2016, Korg announced the Korg Minilogue, the first mass-produced polyphonic analogue synth in decades.

Impact on popular music

According to Fact, "The synthesizer is as important, and as ubiquitous, in modern music today as the human voice."[70] It is one of the most important instruments in the music industry.[71]

In the 1970s, electronic music composers such as Jean Michel Jarre,[72] Vangelis[73] and Isao Tomita,[44][43][74] released successful synthesizer-led instrumental albums. Over time, this helped influence the emergence of synthpop, a subgenre of new wave, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. The work of German krautrock bands such as Kraftwerk[75] and Tangerine Dream, British acts such as John Foxx, Gary Numan and David Bowie, African-American acts such as George Clinton and Zapp, and Japanese electronic acts such as Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kitaro, were influential in the development of the genre.[71] Gary Numan's 1979 hits "Are 'Friends' Electric?" and "Cars" made heavy use of synthesizers.[76][77] OMD's "Enola Gay" (1980) used distinctive electronic percussion and a synthesized melody. Soft Cell used a synthesized melody on their 1981 hit "Tainted Love".[71] Nick Rhodes, keyboardist of Duran Duran, used various synthesizers including the Roland Jupiter-4 and Jupiter-8.[78] Chart hits include Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" (1981),[71] The Human League's "Don't You Want Me"[79] and works by Ultravox.[71]

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