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The history of synthesizers from the theremin to self-plays

The synthesizer allows you to control the sound and create new instruments with a unique timbre from scratch. The ability to design the sound wave itself opened the way for a billion new genres. The synthesizer completely turned the idea of ​​what music can be like. But the synthesizer did not immediately enslave the world – the struggle for recognition dragged on for almost a century.

Lamp era
In 1906 , American engineer Lee de Forest invented the audion, which is known today as the cathode tube. It paved the way for amplifying the electronic signal.

AT 1912 , de Forest was experimenting with his audion and accidentally connected its output to the input. Everyone knows what happens when you bring the included microphone to the speaker. There will be an ear-cutting sound of a nail on glass – feedback. Connecting an amplifier’s input to its output results in electronic oscillation and generates sound without any mechanics (oscillating strings, etc.). This is how the oscillator appeared – the heart of any synthesizer.

The next step was the invention of the theremin in 1920 . Its creator was the engineer Lev Theremin. In post-revolutionary Petrograd, he did exciting work: he measured the dielectric constant of gases. For experiments, he used an oscillator that generated waves. The scientist passed them through a gas in a glass cube (essentially a capacitor), and then measured the capacity of the gas. To improve the accuracy of the experiment, Theremin decided to combine two oscillators at once. One emitted vibrations of a certain constant frequency, but the frequency of the other could change. The difference between these oscillators sometimes fell into the audible range. The capacitance of the capacitor made it possible to control the pitch of the sound. The resourceful engineer immediately figured out how to apply this in music, since he himself was fond of it.

The theremin thus invented gave the sound of an oscillator without embellishment. Other than that, the only other parts were an amplifier, a loudspeaker, and a metal antenna. Bringing the hand closer to the antenna, the performer changed the capacitance of the circuit and the pitch of the generated sound. The model with two antennas became more popular (the second one controlled the sound volume). All synthesizers of the first half of the twentieth century are based on the tube oscillators used in the theremin.

It is very difficult to play the instrument. You need to remember the positions of all the notes, but they are not marked anywhere: there is no fretboard, no keyboard. The game is more like casting spells. The effect is added by the produced sound, reminiscent of the howl of a ghost. Not surprisingly, the theremin was often used in horror films.

In 1930 the German engineer Friedrich Trotwein invented trautonium . This is a synthesizer with a theremin-like circuit. However, it must be played by laying hands on a metal handrail. The inventor added several modules to change and enrich the sound, so the device came out the size of a bedside table. But it became possible to control the sound wave, creating new timbres.

In 1938 , the American Lawrence Hammond and fellow engineers created the world’s first polyphonic synthesizer Hammond Novachord . What does polyphonic mean? The fact is that all previous inventions were able to publish only one note at a time. That is, no chords, intervals, consonances, dissonances for you … Musical expressiveness remained at the level of Tetris. This allowed them to be used only as solo instruments with accompaniment. But Novachord was positioned as a more or less complete replacement for the piano.

The device determined the design of fellows for many years to come. He approved the use of the subtractive synthesis method in analog synthesizers. The method is based on the subtraction of harmonics from the wave generated by the oscillator. Simply put, everything superfluous is simply removed from the initial wave. Making sound has become like building a house.

The oscillator is the foundation. It produces a wave of a certain basic shape: sine, square, sawtooth, or generally produces random noise.
Filters – frame. The base wave passes through resonant low-pass or high-pass filters. Analog synthesizers have Cutoff and Resonance knobs – these are the ones. With their help, you can control the cutoff of high / low frequencies – that is, subtract unnecessary energy from the sound wave, form the outlines of the future timbre.
Amplifier – walls and roof. The wave passes through an amplifier, sometimes referred to as a VCA ( Voltage Control Amplifier ). The amplifier allows you to adjust the attack, decay, sustain and decay of the sound (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release). For example, if you want to imitate a piano, then the attack will be fast, and the decay will be very smooth. You need a violin – the attack will be smooth, and the decay will be fast. In a word, the synthesizer allows you to completely design the sound wave at your own will.

Effects – interior. Chorus, reverb, delay and other effects enrich the sound, make it more interesting and voluminous. Often in synthesizers there is an LFO ( Low Frequency Oscillator ) section. This is also an oscillator, but low-frequency, in infrasound. It is needed to automate the parameters of other blocks: cutoff frequency, attack or decay strength, etc. The sound turns out to be moving, not monotonous, something will change in it with each key being pressed.
All this was already available in Hammond Novachord, but the tool did not have commercial success. Only a thousand pieces were produced. The instrument was bulky, took up space like two pianos, and broke easily. It was difficult to fix it: try to guess which of the 163 cathode tubes failed! Yes, and the times were such that the public was not up to the music.

In 1948 , Soviet engineer Alexander Murzin developed the ANS synthesizer (named after Alexander Nikolayevich Skryabin). In general, the scientist developed various devices for the military. But in 1938 he came up with the idea of ​​a universal sound synthesizer. To push through such a project, he announced that the new device would be able to encrypt secret messages in a musical code. The generals agreed. For the next ten years, the engineer soldered the device in the evenings right in his communal apartment.

The instrument used the method of optical synthesis – the sound was recorded on film with a light beam. There was no keyboard: the composer recorded the parts on a black opaque film, scratching the soot from it with a stylus. Several Soviet composers experimented with the synthesizer. A record was released with their tracks, which today you can listen to on the Web. ANS also sounds in several films (including Tarkovsky’s Solaris).

In 1957 , the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, a synthesizer-sequencer, appeared. He largely developed the ideas of ANS Murzin. The device strongly resembled the first computers. The instrument occupied an entire room, weighed many tons, and the composer communicated with the machine using a punched card. For his monstrous appearance, he was nicknamed “Victor” by the synthesizer – after the name of Dr. Frankenstein. The instrument had some polyphony: up to four notes could be used at the same time. The sound was generated by twelve sine oscillators, then passed through many filters.

 

The device was incredibly difficult to use. Only the creators-engineers of RCA could play it normally. Some success in composing music on the Mark II was achieved by the composer with a mathematical background, Milton Babbitt. He recorded the album Vision and Prayer on the Mark II . Charles Wuorinen recorded the Time’s Encomium album on it. For the record, the composer received the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Sound weird? Not without reason. At that time, the synthesizer was perceived as an advanced tool for creating avant-garde music. And the most advanced direction was serialism – a method of composing complex atonal music. Instead of a melody, there are series-sequences of non-repeating sounds. The method has strict logic, so composing serial music is more like programming. The parts are difficult to perform live. This is where the synthesizer comes to the aid of avant-garde artists, which allows you to program series of any complexity with incredible accuracy.

Transistors have allowed the design of much more stable amplifiers and oscillators, as well as greatly reduce their size. A new stage in the development of synthesizers is associated with engineer Robert Moog. He had been selling theremins since the age of nineteen, and then decided to make them himself. In 1964 , he introduced transistor synthesizer modules in New York. The instruments were noticeably smaller and more reliable than tube instruments, and they also gave the musician more control over the wave.

 

Using transistors, Moog created a new oscillator. Its pitch was controlled by changing the voltage – 1 V per octave. This is how the first modular synthesizer Moog Modular was born .

The Moog synthesizer was cheaper and easier to operate than bulky tube machines. Any person could compose music on it, and not just a dodecaphonist with a mathematical education. In 1968, the American composer Walter Carlos released the Switched-On Bach album, where he played Bach’s works on the Moog Modular. The release went platinum, received three Grammys, and is still considered one of the most important in the history of electronic music. The record showed two important things:

synthesizers can successfully imitate the sounds of real orchestral instruments;
on synthesizers, you can play the music familiar to everyone, but it will sound very unusual.
The time for synthesizers proved to be the most suitable. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s was in desperate need of new sounds and forms of expression. Her mouthpiece was the rockers of the time. The Moog Modular was used by The Beatles, The Doors, Yes, Tangerine Dream, Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Even today, it can often be heard on many soundtracks. For example, film composer Hans Zimmer ( Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Dune ), Clint Mansell ( Ghost in the Shell, Moon 2112 ) and Junkie XL ( Mad Max: Fury Road, Zack’s Justice League Snyder” ) often use this synthesizer.

Almost simultaneously with Moog, engineer Don Bukla created a similar modular synthesizer , the Buchla 100. Instead of a keyboard, it used pressure-sensitive capacitive touchpads. A 16-step sequencer was also present. He allowed to score a part in the memory of the device to get an endlessly played melody, and then change the sound with the help of filters. Boukla tried to get away from the traditional musical system. The engineer wanted the synthesizer to immerse the musician in a different sound dimension. This is partly why his synthesizers did not become as popular – although they received great recognition and are still being produced.

In 1969 , British engineer Peter Zinoviev, along with colleagues Tristram Carey and David Cockerell, gave life to the EMS VCS 3 synthesizer . This compact monophonic synthesizer has become a favorite among musicians: it has been used by Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode, Aphex Twin, Jean-Michel Jarre and dozens of others. He did not have a keyboard and was used, as a rule, to create effects. However, the idea of ​​a compact synthesizer justified itself, and competitors could not ignore it.

In 1970 , the Minimoog Model D is released – a simplified Moog Modular. Finally, it was a portable synthesizer with a keyboard. Management was fairly simple. Modules could not be connected at will. But any musician could quickly figure it out and get a good sound in ten minutes. Dimensions are more like modern synthesizers. Model D could be taken to a concert and even on tour, so the model became a hit. In the seventies, Minimoog even came out in the form of a “comb” – you can hang it on your shoulder, like a guitar.

 

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