Where does the synthesizer come from?

Part I

written by Ozcan Ertek

The history of the synthesizer goes back to when scientists started to investigate electricity such as Elisha Gray who managed to get sound from a self vibrating electromagnetic circuit in the 19th Century. It was in fact 1876 when Elisha Gray invented the first electric synthesizer after much experimentation with different methods to do so. In principle, as long as you use a current to create a vibration and have a way to amplify it, you can generate sound. This “musical telegraph” was a keyboard, a mini keyboard to be exact, with full size keys but only a one or two-octave range with enough single-tone oscillators to play two octaves.

One early following invention was Telharmonium, which invented by Thaddeus Cahill during the 1890’s. He was a lawyer and an inventor living in Washington DC. The Telharmonium was an early electrical organ. This massive machine which is built around 1901, installed in the basement of the Opera house is also considered to be first synthesiser. People were describing its tones as “clear and pure”. It generated electricity with large motors which it then converted into sound via telephone receivers. Cahill had enormous ambitions for his discovery; he wanted his instrument to be broadcast into hotels, restaurants, theaters, and even houses via the telephone line. But Telharmonium was about 200 tons with its inner workings and In February 1912, the Telharmonium was exhibited at Caregie Hall. However, the public had bored of it, the innovation was out of date and the press was no longer interested as the new Wurlitzer organ had stolen much attention away from the Telharmonium, as did the growing popularity of wireless transmissions. The company fell into debt and in December 1914 the New York Cahill Telharmonic Company declared bankruptcy.

In fact, the early 1900s made way for the development of a plethora of electric instruments, due to the invention of the vacuum tube amplifier. Electric pianos, guitars, Hammond organs and Theremins came up. But it wasn’t until 50s that we began to see more closely resembling what we recognised as synthesizer today. In the early 50’s RCA initiated an odd research program whose aim was to auto-generate pop ‘hits’ by analysing thousands of audio recordings. If they could work out what made a hit a hit, they could imitate the form and generate their own hit pop music. 

The RCA electrical engineers Harry Olson and Hebart Belar were selected to develop an instrument capable of achieving this complex task. It turned out that they developed RCA’s Mark I & Mark II. The most famous was RCA’s Mark II which gave the user more flexibility and had twice the tone oscillators of its predecessor, the Mark I. It was the first programmable electronic synthesizer. And cost RCA $500,000 to build. It took up and still does even if not working in order an entire room at Colombian University. It was programmable via kind of player piano system, where you input instructions which triggers modules, but the sound is generated by oscillators. It had an additional twenty-four variable oscillators, and took up ten 19″ racks. It also used a multi-track tape machine to record completed tracks. There were control sections for Frequency, Octave, Envelope, Timbre, and Volume. In 1961 the composer Milton Babbitt used the Mark II for his composition for synthesizer. Milton Babbit’s Vision and Prayer and Philomel both feature the RCA.

A German engineer from Hamburg named Harald Bode changed the entire electrical music instrument history permanently. After graduating from the University of Hamburg in 1934, he worked at Technical University in Berlin as a researcher in signal processing. In 1954 he emigrated to the USA, where he continued his research at several companies. He had still professional contacts to Germany. In cooperation with the studio for electronic music of the WDR he developed his instrument called “Melochord” which is an electronic musical instrument that can be considered an early form of the synthesizer. It was used in the electronic music studio of West German Radio in Cologne during the 1950s. Werner Meyer-Eppler in his composition Klangmodelle (1951) and at the Darmstadt Summer School for New Music, Herbert Eimert and Robert Beyer in their compositions Klangstudie I (1951) and Klangfiguren II (1951), and György Ligeti in his composition Glissandi (1957) used “Melochord” at the WDR studio.The 60s is when synthesisers really began to take off and in 1961 Bode wrote an article examining the advantages of the newly emerged transistor technology over traditional electron tubes. Already being known for his electric organs with transistors instead of vacuum tubes, he also developed the modular concept where different elements to be connected as needed to produce sounds. 

This concept was then picked up by former Theremin designer named Robert Moog, and experimental composer named Herbert Deutsch to create the first popular synth, The Moog Modular synthesiser. Later, Bode became chief engineer at Moog’s synthesizer company. They added a keyboard to make it more marketable and era of synth had finally arrived. The Beatles and The Stones ordered one. And then the album called “Switched-On Bach” became the best seller classical albums of the decade,  which consist of all synth performers of Bach.Founded in 1964, Moog’s company R. A. Moog Co. produced various models from 1965 to 1980. This company which had been designing and selling theremin for several years, managed to produce the first commercial synthesizers. This gripping story is long and very twisted. With this article, we have mentioned a few pioneers, in the next article, we will continue with R.A. Moog. Co.’s(also many others’) outstanding story and explain the adventure behind the first analog synthesizers which also had a big commercial success in music market and changed the entire music history.