History of Synthesizers

Early Synthesisers

The synthesiser may seem like a fairly modern invention, but in fact, depending on your definition of what a synthesiser is, it has been with us for over a century.
The first synthesiser (an instrument that generates music electronically) was the Telharmonium.

Designed by Thaddeus Cahill and developed between 1897 and 1901, this 200 tonne monster was designed to pump Muzak to hotels and restaurants through cables in the days before commercial radio.

Tone generation was by tone wheels as in the later Hammond organs, and the whole instrument was played by 2 musicians who could play fairly good renditions of the classics. It did not sound very good and it interfered with the telephone system so it was not a commercial success.

The advent of the electronic valve led to a spate of new electronic instruments, perhaps the most famous of which are the Theremin (described under Moog on this site), the Trautonium and the Ondes Martenot.

The latter 2 of these were both introduced in 1928 and were valve based.
The Trautonium was designed by Dr. Friedrich Trautwein and used a neon tube oscillator controlled by a resistor wire under a rudimentary keyboard to control pitch. Volume control was via a foot pedal, and later versions had tone controls.
Maurice Martinot developed his instrument after discussions with Leon Theremin, borrowing the sound generating method of the Theremin but using a basic keyboard to control pitch, later versions having an actual piano keyboard, tone controls and a ribbon controller for vibrato and glide.

Thanks to the interest in the Martinot by the French avant-garde composers of the time such as Edgar Varese and Olivier Messiaen led to it being adopted as an orchestral instrument (a position it holds to this day in France).

The second world war put electronic music development on hold, but afterwards both the Trautonium and Martenot were used extensively in Movie scores in the 1950’s, especially in the new genre of Science Fiction.

ondes_martenotThe Ondes Martinot

The next big step was probably the Hammond organ. Laurens Hammond, an ex-watchmaker, introduced his organ in 1933 and set up his company in 1935. The tone generation was done by wheels in the same way as the Telharmonium but on a much smaller scale.

The tone wheels were toothed wheels like the gears on a racing bicycle and were all attached to a solid axle driven by an electric motor synchronised to the mains frequency. Different sized gears gave different frequencies. Magnetic pickups similar to guitar pickups collected the pulses produced by the teeth of the gears and passed them to a preamplifier.

The magic of the Hammond was that each tone generated by a wheel could be a harmonic of another pitch generated by a different wheel, and by mixing harmonics from different wheels, a different tone could be generated. It was the first additive synth! Up to 9 sine wave harmonics could be controlled by the Drawbars to create sounds. The lack of dynamic filtering and envelope shaping was always going to make the Hammond an organ, but Laurens had a solution to that.

Hammond’s next instrument was called the Novachord. It was groundbreaking because its sound generation was entirely electronic. It had 169 valves in it, and used 12 high frequency oscillators to produce the 12 notes of an octave, with frequency dividers to generate all the lower octaves. This was in 1939, but the top octave technique was used by almost all organ manufacturers for the next 40 years. The keyboard was pressure sensitive and could control attack time and filter brightness, while the front panel contained 14 rotary switches which controlled filter frequency, resonance, vibrato, bass, treble and volume. The Novachord was only produced until 1942, with so many valves it was a difficult machine to keep fully functional using the commercial electronics of the day. The Second World War with its rapacious appetite for electronic components probably didn’t help. All the same over a 1000 were produced. It could produce piano sounds, organs, woodwind sounds and synthetic sounds, a fairly good repartee for the time, almost akin to the later Polymoog.

It got a new lease of usage life in the 1950’s supplying sound effects for Sci-Fi films of the time.


The above picture is of Dan Wilsons restoration project of a Novachord, a machine that weighed 800lbs (over 360 kgs) and you thought the CS80 was heavy. The whole story is beautifully described at http://www.novachord.co.uk

The first electronic instrument to actually be called a synthesiser was the RCA synthesiser of 1956.

Designed by Harry Olsen and Hebert Belar, 2 electronic engineers working for RCA Princeton Laboratories. The synthesiser part of the system was based on 12 vacuum tubes in the Mark 1 and 24 in the Mark 2, and most of the functionality of the synthesiser was controlled by a computer switching banks of relays to vary the resistances ( the equivalent of digitally controlled Pots today). A programmable Monosynth is no great achievement today but back in the 50’s it was amazing. The computer also controlled a sequencer which could play music and control the sound in real time, the audio output being recorded on a Laquer Disc, like cutting your own vinyl record.

Input for the computer was on punched paper rolls. The initial concept of the RCA system was to generate random music using patterns and styles of dead composers, folk songs, anything that had pattern and form. In the final analysis, the intent to produce new and useable music from elements of the old didn’t really work.

A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled Colombia University to lease the machine from RCA and set up its electronic music department, one of the first, and was very influential at the time for such composers as Milton Babbit and Vladimir Ussachevsky.

rca_synthThe RCA Synthesiser

After this period of time, the 60’s were looming, with both Bob Moog and Don Buchla in the wings, about to create the synthesiser world as we know it today.

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