A Chronological history of synthesizer technology Landmarks
Historically, various fairly expensive devices existed for use in film production and such things which would be considered synthesizers. Vocoders for example. Hammond also built some things and other organ manufacturers that have several aspects of sound synthesis present. Drawbars for example allow the player to customize the timbral quality of the sound and percussion drawbars and decay times are often found which give a crude envelope selection to part of the sound at least.
In the Mid 60's the world began to hear a new kind of sound with elements of control they had never experienced in any keyboard instrument; exploring aspects of nature by converting electronic interactions into sound through the use of electronic amplifications and speaker systems! Companies like Moog and ARP began making modules that performed various functions like voltage controlled oscillation, filtration, envelope generation, and boxes to house the monstrous assemblies of them in. Modular synths were set up with a mixture of switches and patch cords to route the signals through the modules to create various types of sounds. The task remained of thinking of ways to integrate these things into something the general public might consider owning. And eventually, computing technology would alter the course from exploiting natural phenomena to create the sounds, to a completely wide open field of mankind's imagination. Here is a history of landmark developments.
1919: Lev Termen, a russian physicist, invents the Theremin. A device which in it's fundamental form, uses an antennae to receive a signal from environmental changes (a body approaching for instance) and converts this to a pitch control voltage for an oscillator. There have been occasional musical useages through history including "Good Vibrations" (Beach Boys, and a fond memory of mine hearing that on a radio station that was barely coming in during a big storm on the Oregon coast at night while waiting for my folks in the car...and I was like 'wowww..what was that song!') and some others songs. Here's a link to a site specializing in the Theremin. Thanks to Kevin Orme for prompting me to include this information.
1928 - Maurice Martenot creates the Ondes Martenot which there is a wiki resource here for. I met the recreators of a similar device using more modern technology at the NAMM show 2017 as seen in this Video at 6:25! I wasn't previously aware of this but it's very similar to Ondioline but uses Heterodyne tone generation like the Theramin instead of a multivibrator circuit.
1937-1957 Evgeny Murzin creates an interesting synthesizer based on film images translating to sound through photo sensing. Check out this Link!
1937 - 1970: Hugh LeCaine performs a variety of synth related innovations. Check it out here
1938 - 1940 George Jenny begins to build and make kits available for the Ondioline; a monophonic tube synth! Possibly a thousand of these existed at one time but due to the wood construction many probably became dilapidated. I was able to do some work for someone who had one restored to nice condition, save a split in the wood on the left front top. He said it's the only known one in working condition. Del Shannon's "Runaway" used this instrument for it's unique synth lead.
1939: Hammond Novachord- This massive 500lb. macine with over 600 vacuum tubes and aftertouch is the earliest keyboard instrument with actual synthesizer features it seems. It uses vacuum tube divide down oscillators. Here are a couple great links on my novachord page.
1939 Storytone by Story $ Clark becomes the first electric piano. Link while it lasts (Not a synth I know but the synthesis of sounds from electo-acoustic instruments is a significant landmark in it's own realm that relates)
1948: Mellotron- Chamberlin manufactures the first recognized sample playback keyboards. Use search engines to find much useful information on these.
1966- The RMI Explorer and Rock-si Chord prototype we believe begin the evolution of synthesized electric pianos which gradually take on more synthesizer features but start with just mixtures of rocker tabs like most home organs.
1969: EMS VSC3- This company built some of the first well known synth modules that were non-modular units which required an external keyboard with CV to play them. The VSC3 is noted for it's advances in creating a compact synthesizer with a lot of features.
1971: The Minimoog- Three oscillators and a great sounding resonant filter and many different ways to route/modulate these facilities to create some interesting sounds. The first well known all in one easily portable keyboard synth! For various photos of all Moog instruments the Moog Archives
1972: ARP Pro-Soloist- ARP's entry into the portable synth market was a monophonic synth with preset voices. These voices are selected by switches which create a digital 'code' on lines which tell various ROM chips which memory to put on their data buses. Each of these ROM chips are associated with particular aspects of the circuitry...and the data lines are simply used to either short out or not a part of the signal path. Also the synth had a touch sense strip and various aspects of the sound which can be modulated by aftertouch!
1972: ARP Odyssey- Using much of the circuitry from the ARP modulars, these fantastic synths found their way into a lot of popular songs of the 70's. This is I believe the first multi voice synth, having the ability them to create a 1 or the other vco duophonic synth. :-) Moog noted the similarities in filter designs and ARP went with their own filters on later units. Here is a good history of ARP.
1974: Oberheim 2Voice, 4Voice- and eventually 8voice. They took various numbers of their SEM monophonic modules and hooked them up with what we call an 'assigner' board that decides which oscillator to assign the current note to, or which one to cut out to make room for the current note if need be. These were the first synths anyone could play chords on I guess!
1975: The Polymoog- Electronic Organs like the vox continental and Farfisa's used a technology called "divide down" to generate the oscillations for each key. This way there is no polyphony limit. All notes can sound at once. However, the only type of waveform to build sounds from is a square wave when this is done. Then it's up to the organ manufacturer to design circuitry that will modify those nasty square wave timbre's into polymoog is loved for certain sounds and hated for others. But as far as I know, it's the first synth to have velocity sensitive and weighted keys. (See Moog's Patents.) One moog ladder filter only.
1976: Yamaha CS50- First of a long line of CS synths. These machines are noted to be some of the finest sounding synths of all time and are given a landmark spot because of this. Well...that and because it's really the first polyphonic synth that was designed as such from scratch.
1977: Yamaha CS80- Massive weighted key synth with ribbon controller and Polyphonic Aftertouch! Incredible sounding 8 voice unit. The CS-60 of the same year weighs in at 80lbs about instead of 219! It has the same circuitry including the great ring modulator. Yamaha used a LOT of custom looking parts on these..like the sliders which are actually 'TILTERS' for the ring mod, sub oscillator and other globals. The 'memory' on this synth amounts to a duplicate set of non-global controls which reside under a hatch that displays the architecture of that section! 1 oscillator channel /voice instead of the two on the CS-80 also. But same circuits otherwise. WHen you touch ribbon a sample/hold cell is opened and it starts at your current pitch no matter where you hit it! WOW. The CS series has great sounding synths all the way around, but only these two have the ribbon controller. "M" synths can save several patches.
1978: Crumar DS-1- This machine was a very short production run; only a bit over 100 made near as we've seen serial numbers for. It is the first machine with digitally controlled oscillators. THe DS-2 followed shortly after and added the divide down 'string section'. These show up often even though there are few of them it seems. Probably because people get them then decide the can't stand the subtle digital overtone that bleeds through. Sweet sounding filter though kind of sudden in it's scaling. Does..almost nothing til 7 or 8. But makes a great 'top gun' bass sound :-).
1978: Roland Jupiter 4- First polyphonic from Roland, with a built in arpegiator and smooth sound that earned it a spot on many many albums. I saw someone say something like "This thing isn't that complex but, every sound it makes sounds like it's from in the future". It's big for having only 4 oscillators but there's something special. The synth was an experiment for Roland into circuitry that would become standard for all Analog synths with storeage thereafter; though it didn't make full use of it. (ie. you can't edit stored sounds )
1978: Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and 10- The first synthesizer to have full storage of all settings into a 'patch' in memory ready for recall at any moment. These units became a standard in the synth world fairly quickly. A very nice sounding unit with great programmability. 5 voices but with two oscillators per voice. The price was 4000 instead of around 3000 for the Roland. But 10 oscillators to 4....And the sounds was more flexible. Prophet 10 is basically two full 5's with two keyboards and everything! BUT..the most SIGNIFICANT landmark in this synth was the memory. Roland implemented 8 patch storage and some presets on JP-4. The Prophets had 40 to 120 patches depending on version FINALLY...a great gigging polysynth! Dave Smith had a BIG winner!
1978: PPG WaveComputer 360A- While not receiving rave sound reviews, these unique beasts are the first of a line of workstation type machines that would emerge including one to soon overshadow it the next year.
1979: Fairlight CMI- While way out of the budget of most, the CMI is the first sampling workstation to get rave reviews. It's interesting to me that nobody patented the idea of doing sample playback until 1982 I read in a patent one time. Maybe that was ROM specific or something. Anyway, these units were an amazing product for the day but..spenddddy. Studios who had them got a lot of business usually.
1979: Korg Lambda- Why is this thing here? A fairly simple synth with rocker switch presets and a few knobs for controlling critical parameters. Well, it's the first fully polyphonic synth with even these facilities that didn't require a LOT more circuitry. VLSI chips (very large scale integration) were being produced for specialized functions now more commonly. in '75, the Polymoog used 71 cards, one for each key, which had their own vca/vcf custom IC. There is simply a massive amount of circuitry in a Polymoog. The Lambda 4 years later, does similarly one one half width circuit board what the Polymoog did on a board the width of the entire keyboard PLUS those keyer cards! This specialization was resulting in much higher product reliability and performance possibilities due to the closer distances between circuits. However, it also means once the manufacturer stops making the chips, you are out of luck. Whereas most of the earlier chips are still available from parts warehouses because they are 'building block' chips that do simple functions and are still used by experimenters and designers today. (The exceptions being 'top octave synthesizer' chips which were often used only by one or two manufacturers, and the HF ocillators precision matched transistor device.)
1981: E-mu Emualtor- At 10,000 dollars, sampling was getting into the hands of more individual musicians rather than just studios. This one made a name for the E-mu company who had disappointing results with their Audity analog.
1981: Rhodes Chroma- After some bad business moves, ARP folded and the engineers were picked up by Rhodes; already a part of Fender. Under this name came the first computer controlled keyboard! And it's a sweet one, played by many of the greats. 16vco but also one of the first to use digital data entry instead of sliders and knobs. The Chroma interface was maintained 4 years later in the Fender Chroma Polaris which also added MIDI of course. (See below)
1982: Sequential Circuits Prophet 600- MIDI is born in this 6 voice analog synth which otherwise is nothing terribly special I suppose. Though the filters are set up to interact for some gritty cool sounds! Similar to Prophet 5 but the digital knob interface sacrifices smoothness in real time I hear.
1983: Sequential Circuits Six-Trak- This is officially the first multi-timbral synth, which is to say it can play more than one sound at a time. Yamaha and other companies had already released non-synth units like the PC-1000 that could generate many sounds at once, but this is the first unit with real synth channels in one package that was marketed in this way. Six track on board sequencer with six analog voice channels, 1VCO/voice.
1983: Yamaha DX7- A digital synth using FM model algorithms with lots of parameters to tweak for an extremely wide variety of sounds impossible to make with other synths. Right place at the right time for Yamaha. Biggest selling synth of all time I'm told thought (I've also heard that the M1 from Korg is. I suspect that the million DX units included the other varieties like the DX-100, 11, 21, 27, 9, and 1 which ws the flagship unit) And probably the end of it for Sequential Circuits, Oberheim and many other companies who did mostly analog synths. Organically grown sounds were quickly exchanged for basically software which required very little effort to duplicate and mass distribute. No more need to put trimmer adjustments on the boards...yet the new instruments lacked a certain depth that many have rediscovered today.
1984: Kurzweil K250- This massive 88 key machine is what we would call the first workstation keyboard with sampling, sequencing, and a nice sound library on board. I seem to recall $20,000 being the price tag. The K1200 lacks weighted keys but carries the sound library from the later 90's. I still use its piano sound for a lot of my work.
1984: Fender Chroma Polaris- This synth is controlled by a 186 processor. It sends MIDI data for all slider movements. 8 voice multi-timbral but only 6 voice polyphony. But among the features the processing power was able to give over the facilities of this real analog synth, was a pedal initiated glide which allows a chord to be held and then a monophonic voice stacking to occur with the remaining oscillators on a solo line! Furthermore, when entry on the bottom half of the slider for pitch mod is used, you can go up to an octave up or down on ONLY the note you are soloing on! If anyone knows a synth with these great performance features let me know.
1984: Korg Poly 800- This machine I believe retailed for $795. I can still recall my friend who was a salesman at the time for Music West demoing the unit playing "Jump". I think he knew he had something here he could sell a lot of by the look in his eyes. An 8 voice polyphonic (though it's filter, the same one used by Korg for a few years in the DSS and DSM synths, etc. was singular..hence 'paraphonic' as far as filter goes) with the ability to stack oscillators for a thicker 4 voice sound was very punchy and professional sounding and ULTRA portable. I love patch #56. The machine is definitely worth having around as cheap as they go.
1985: Ensoniq Mirage/SCI Prophet 2000- These two synths..not sure which came first.. were the first more affordable samplers. 8bit for Mirage though they really used it well, and earn the spot of making the most significant contribution for that, and 12bit for Sequentials entry.
1985: Kawai K5- Though released slowly this is the actual manufacturing date from documents. Similar to the DX but using harmonic synthesis instead of FM with simulated analog filters. Again a very wide variety of sounds possible but a failure in the shadow of the mighty DX. The editing interface required bouncing a cursor around on a large lcd...a cursor that you often have difficulty finding due to the arrangement of the parameters on the screen, switch bounce, etc. These early large LCD backlights were not the most reliable either. A few people including myself wrote pc software to do various editing tasks on these units. It's much nicer when you can save a library of different envelops for instance rather than trying to recall which patch had the one you wanted, or building it from scratch. Other software converted a piece of a sample to a waveform at least. I could never get hold of the author so I don't know how far they went with it. But the concept of "Alchemy" began to strongly find a place in the minds of the synth enthusiast with this machine. Because of the ability to do FFT (Fast fourier transform) math to literally..well at least approxomately... rip a sound out of one environment and stick it in another and begin applying the new architecture to it! (The Kurzweil K150 was released in '86 and had a similar approach though I've never played one. They are fairly rare. I'm not sure which one was seen first. VSE says the K150 but like I say I've seen '85 on K5 documentation so...not sure.
1986: Sequential Circuits Prophet VS- The first synth using a vector stick to sweep between 4 waveforms in real time. A hybrid analog unit with waveform creation/manipulation in the digital domain.
1987: Roland D50- DSP's! Roland LA synthesis pioneer finally caught a second wave comparable to but not as great as the DX synths. Many synths had featured chorus/flanger effects through the years but this is the first time a DSP found it's way into a synth product that I've been able to find. Very sweet sounding synth with classic chorus effect.
1988: Korg M1- Many seem to think this was released in '89. Winter NAMM show '88 I seem to recall as do reviews from the day. The machine I'm seeing went on to be the single biggest seller of all time. A very portable workstation that had adequate memory to use it as a 'band in a box' production setup, a reasonable price tag, and a good pallette of PCM samples and decent effects.
1989: Korg Wavestation- And right on its heels, Dave Smith formerly of Sequential Circuits is employed to create an all digital synth along the idea of his Prophet VS. In fact it's got a bunch of samples from the VS in it's ROM. This machine is argued by many including myself to be one of the more effective sound creation environments ever produced. Though I still prefer the sounds of analog machines more. Still a breakthrough machine in the number of ways you could control sound and a very nice machine for MIDI production.
1994: Emu Morpheus- Extensive digital modelling in a single rack space synth. Note how the landmarks are getting fuzzier. We're just building faster and badder processors and spending more time programming them :-)
1995: Nord Lead- As far as I know, the first well done 'virtual analog' synthesizer. Loved playing it at NAMM that year. With both computing and custom application IC technology at a fairly mature stage, the thrill would sort of diminish in a way from this point on I think. Every "new" idea would now be the result of a similar process; software development basically. And the trends always to create a workstation that is a little better than anyone elses, or to make an instrument that emulates other instruments better. The same basic processing power is availabe to everyone. And any engineer knows the path. It's not quite like back in the day when people were actually discovering new electronic phenomena and learning to exploit those aspects of nature to make their instrument sound better. I mean...you can't really patent code which is just a bunch of math approximating what those circuits do I don't think. It's just a lot of hard work seems to me :-). I'm going back to my proto board to see what I can find that sounds really cool!
1996: Kawai K5000- Kawai revisits additive synthesis with a machine that produces some awesome sounds. It's also their last synth I'm told. They threw everything into this one and it really is one of the greatest digital synths in many ways. In an age saturated with machines that play back recordings of sounds and do manipulations on them to little avail, something that again gives us some aspects of nature to play with!
2000: Alesis Airfx- An...effects theremin! 3D response to an object like your hand waved over the dome. 49 presets and many very useful. Touted as the first new instrument of the new millenium.
2000: Alesis Andromeda A6- Alesis brings back real analog in a hard hitting way. 16 voices with 2/voice. 5 waveforms. Absolutely fantastic sounding synths. Definitely the most powerful, practical analog of all time. Alesis used their production engine to do what everyone else had forgotten how to do, in an age where technology was more mature and they built a better instrument. Someone asked in rec.music.makers.synth the other day which three synths we'd want stranded on a desert Island. Why this one didn't come to mind right away I don't know.
I dreamed of doing a software piece that would allow the user to put together their own virtual modular synth, and would contain a database of synths that could be pulled up and emulated in 1990 or thereabouts. I started designing a piece that would give the user a fantastic array of sound construction algorithms which could be arranged in an orchestral track a bit before that I think, using a 286 machine. The track generation would occur in non-real time of course :-)....you might have to wait a day to get your results.
After writing a patch editor for the K5 synthesizer, I realized I wasn't going to be able to make money doing software without getting connected with someone who could do what other companies were doing with their products. So a lot of those dreams went by the wayside; only to be fulfilled years later by others who found the time to create things like virtual synth software pieces. In the past few years the CS-80 has been emulated quite well and other classics are being added. But somehow I still prefer the real thing. No matter how far mankind goes to probe the depths of nature, he never quite arrives. -Bob