Synthesizers, a Brief History
I have played with synthesizers for many years. I enjoy making and analyzing
musical sounds, interesting psychoacoustic effects and compared the construction
of synthesizers with the construction of the human brain. A synthesizer is built
from function-specific modules that are linked together to produce the final
When I was first studying electronics, I constructed a synthesizer from
modules that each performed one function. The modules had jacks on their front
panels so that each could be connected to other modules by using patch cords. To
generate musical sounds you connected a piano-like keyboard controller that sent
out a different voltage from each key to a voltage controlled oscillator that
generated the sound waves at the appropriate pitch. The oscillator was typically
connected to a voltage-controlled amplifier that was in turn controlled by a
ramp generator, since musical sounds emerge and decay within an amplitude
envelope. To finish a convincing musical sound, many modules would be connected
in a single path.
Robert Moog created a revolutionary analog synthesizer, used, for example, by
William (Wendy) Carlos's in the popular album Switched-On Bach (1968). In the 1970s
synthesizers become portable keyboard instruments used in live performances.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) made it easy to connect synthesizers
with computers and other electronic devices. Software synthesizers appeared in
Analog Synthesis 1974
I started my synthesis career in 1974 with module kits from John Simonton
(PAIA). A module kit consisted of a circuit board, transistors resistors and
capacitors. There was a circuit schematic and some instructions. You supplied
the soldering iron and assembly skills. A basic system required 8 kits, one
Voltage Controlled Oscillator, one Envelope Generator, one Voltage Controlled
Amplifier, one Low Frequency Oscillator, one Noise Generator, one Low Pass
filter and one Band Pass Filter. A power supply was required. The modules had jacks on their front panels so that each could be connected
to other modules by using patch cords. To finish a convincing musical sound, many modules would be
connected in a single path.
The VC Oscillator module produced sine waves, square waves and sawtooth waves. The
pitch was determined by a voltage input for a keyboard, for example. The
simplest synthesis path was keyboard > VCO > EG >VCA> LPF to BPF > sound
Digital Synthesis evolved along with digital recording hardware and software.
The first digital synthesizers were revolutionary. The engineering of evermore
complex keyboards and stand-alone sound modules became increasingly
sophisticated both in the production of high-quality sound and in the techniques
of music compositions. The MIDI agreement among the major manufacturers created
abundant opportunities for music production and embraced a detailed, deep
understanding of music composition and recording.
My first digital keyboard was the Yamaha DX7 in 1983.
The DX7 was based on
Phase Modulation Synthesis ( Yamaha called it frequency modulation), an
innovation in digital technology that produced remarkably clear instrumental
sounds. The DX-7 became the best selling synth of its time and appeared on
numerous pop recordings. The voices included convincing simulations of the
Rhodes electric piano. It used an early implementation of midi and computer
based voice editors and librarians became available. It could only play one
voice at a time with 16-note polyphony. It had 32 sound creating algorithms
offering different combinations of 6 sound operators. I recall hours of
enjoyment learning to program new sounds.
Next I added the digital-analog hybrid, Oberheim Matrix-6 with a velocity
sensitive keyboard with aftertouch. It was limited to 6-note polyphony. A voice
was generated by a Digital oscillator, a VCF, three envelope generators, two
ramp generators, portamento and FM controls. Oberheim sounds were often
distinctive and provided quite a different sound palette than the DX7. The two
synths combined nicely.
Roland D 50
A Roland D50 was the third acquisition, a handsome responsive digital keyboard with a
collection of sampled waveforms that were added together to form patches. The
D50 combined samples with analogue-like waveforms and a signal processor to
create some unique sounds that became very popular. The D50 had a special ability
to create complex, evolving sounds that made it a famous ambient sound
In 1971, Dave Rossum and friends from Cal Tech built an analog synthesizer
they called E µ. Later with Scott Wedge, Dave formed a company and the name
became E-mu They advertised their products in Popular Electronics and in
Electronotes, a newsletter for engineers. In 1973, E-mu introduced a
digitally-scanned polyphonic keyboard, which featured a built-in digital
sequencer, the prototype of the EMU modules I continue to use. In 1979 they were
inspired by the high end Fairlight CMI and began designing a sampling keyboard -
the E-Mulator was first released in 1981.EMU became well known for its digital
samplers and developed a large library of digital samples for use in
synthesizers. I rushed to the music store in 1989
when the sound modules, the EMU Proteus, first appeared. This was a truly polyphonic sound module,
based on digital samples. The sounds were crisp and clear. Mixes with the
Proteus were better that I could achieve with other synths. I have been an EMU Proteus fan ever since.
I have ongoing attachment to the Korg Trinity and the EMU Proteus 2500, both
magnificent electronic devices that contains the equivalent of hundreds of
modules and thousands of patch cords. Rather that actually building modules
physically and connecting them with real wires, these synthesizers simulate
modules and patches by using a digital computer to calculate what the output
would sound like if you had a set of modules connected in a certain way. On the
Trinity, you choose the "modules" from menus on a touch sensitive screen; then
you choose values for many parameters that control the modules and connect
modules to form the "patch" or sound that emerges in stereo from the output
jacks of the synthesizer. The sound can be a single instrument played
expressively, an entire string section or a complex and evolving mixture of
sound effects suitable for a Star Wars soundtrack. The synthesizers with virtual
modules and dense, variable inner connections provide a modular interconnection
concept that can be applied to studying the brain. You combine the knowledge of
what each module does with knowledge of how different connections add to, modify
and combine the function of individual modules.
Equipment manufacturers have created hundreds of keyboard synthesizers
and sound modules sporting a range of prices, features, and variations on
the basic engineering of sound production equipment. A new buyer faces a
proliferation of and potentially bewildering ranges of choices.
All of the analogue synthesizers worthy of mention have been simulated in
software versions. A number of companies market soft retro synths. For example
Arturia offered in 2010
software package of 7 well-known analog synthesizers: Minimoog V, Moog
Modular V, Yamaha CS-80V, ARP 2600 V, Prophet V, Prophet VS and Jupiter-8V. They
also offer Analog Factory, a synthesizer of their own design. These synth
simulations are of interest to a range of people and are useful for students who
want to learn the basics of analogue synthesis. They can also be used as plugins
to software sequencers. Ableton Live is a complete composing and performance DAW
with a large library of sound samples, midi sequences and software synthesizers
with effects that produce impressive sounds.
Keyboard Synths 2018
The design ideas I
have summarized continue to be used by the major manufactures (Korg, Roland and
Yamaha). The acoustic piano has been replaced by digital stage pianos with excellent
sound and expression capabilities. Keyboard work stations combine all the
modules of a recording studio complete with libraries of recorded drum tracks.
Arranger keyboards can create complete arrangements with minimal input. In the
hands of an experienced performer, the arranger keyboard produces a one-man
Yamaha offers state of the art keyboard workstations. They stated "The first Yamaha
synthesizer was released in 1974, at a time when synthesizers were only just
beginning to be accepted into the musical mainstream. Yamaha has been at the
forefront ever since, with instruments that have defined musical styles and
propelled countless artists to stardom. We have created the limited edition 40th
Anniversary MOTIF XF Music Production Synthesizer. The commemorative MOTIF XF is
pure white, symbolizing both our dedication for the past 40 years and a new
beginning from which an even brighter future for musical creativity and
expression will arise."
Korg described a recent contribution: "The Pa4X Professional Arranger is more
than a keyboard. It’s your backup band; your accompanist; and your musical
director. It’s your soundman; your effects engineer; and your always in-tune
background singers. Best of all—you’re always in charge! Ideal for composing,
recording, and combo use, the intuitive Pa4X really comes to life in the hands
of the solo keyboard performer and entertainer. And nowhere else is the flawless
operation and superior sound of one keyboard instrument more in the spotlight"
Roland: "The new FA series completely reimagines the music workstation,
streamlining it for effortless real-time power, ultra-fast workflow, and maximum
versatility. Ready to support any type of music you play, the FA-06 is packed
with a massive sound collection inherited from the flagship INTEGRA-7, a ton of
studio-quality effects, and expressive real-time controls, plus onboard sampling
with zero load time for instant audio playback from the 16 backlit pads. The
sequencer features simple operation and non-stop loop recording, letting you
capture songs and ideas as they come and export them as multitrack data to use
with your DAW. Flowing seamlessly into every part of your creative world, the
FA-06 morphs instantly from a standalone keyboard to become the command center
of your computer music studio, with USB audio/MIDI interfacing, powerful
real-time controllers, DAW transport controls, and much more."
DAWs now include software synths. Sound production no longer relies on
outboard sound modules and compositions can be completed in a laptop computer.
The integrated soft synths are usually programmable and can be altered and
enhanced by integrated effects. In 2017 the autonomous computer has become a
complete recording studio and a live performance music creator.