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 musiccomposers from the 20th and 21st century write compositions for synthesizer.
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. 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.
In the 1920s, Arseny Avraamov developed various systems of graphic sonic art, and similar graphical sound and tonewheel systems were developed around the world. 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".
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.
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. Both instruments were the forerunners of the later electronic organs and polyphonic synthesizers.
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]
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). Thom Holmes regards Cahill as the coiner of the term in this field.
In 1959–1960, Harald Bode developed a modular synthesizer and sound processor, and in 1961, he wrote a paper exploring the concept of self-contained portable modular synthesizer using newly emerging transistor technology. He also served as AES session chairman on music and electronic for the fall conventions in 1962 and 1964. His ideas were adopted by Donald Buchla and Robert Moog in the United States, and
Paolo Ketoff et al. in Italy at about the same time: among them, Moog is known as the first synthesizer designer to popularize the voltage control technique in analog electronic musical instruments.
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".
Robert Moog built his first prototype between 1963 and 1964, and was then commissioned by the Alwin Nikolais Dance Theater of NY; while Donald Buchla was commissioned by Morton Subotnick.
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.
In 1973,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. 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. In the 1970s, Yamaha were granted a number of patents, evolving Chowning's early work on FM synthesis technology. Yamaha built the first prototype digital synthesizer in 1974. Yamaha eventually commercialized FM synthesis technology with the Yamaha GS-1, the first FM digital synthesizer, released in 1980. The first commercial digital synthesizer released a year earlier, the CasioVL-1, released in 1979.
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 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 NEDSynclavier (1977), Fairlight CMI (1979), E-mu Emulator (1981), and PPG Wave (1981).[note 1]
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. In the 2010s, new analog synthesizers, both in keyboard instrument and modular form, are released alongside current digital hardware instruments. In 2016, Korg announced the Korg Minilogue, the first mass-produced polyphonic analogue synth in decades.