Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert‘s electric Hammond Organ was first produced In 1937. The device generated sound by creating an electric current from rotating a metal tonewheel near an electromagnetic pickup, and then strengthening the signal with an amplifier so that it would drive a speaker cabinet.
Though many devices came before the Robert Moog’s modular synthesizer, his was the first to become commercially manufactured. The intricately built device based off Moog’s patented step ladder filter, voltage controlled filters, and voltage controlled oscillators, paved the way for not only musical synthesis, but a world of exploration into electronic arts, tone, and experimentation.
The Minimoog was meant to offer access to powerful synthesis at a price tag that was within reach for a less established musician. The larger Moog Modular systems would cost anywhere between $4000 and $10,000 while the Minimoog cost around $1,500. For many, the pricetag was still astronimical, but worth saving for to have access to the power house sound.
The portability of the Minimoog made it so that one could take synthesis with them wherever there was an amp to plug into. The synthesizer now became an instrument one could jam, gig, and hang out with. The bedroom became a laboratory of sound and experimentation.
Sun Ra, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and Keith Emerson.
The Fairlight synths were sample and workstation machines designed by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie. The CMI Series I offered users one of the first non-analog set ups and came with a wide range of samples (most famously a dog’s bark) that users could recall and use on the fly without having to program or set up a tone they had created themselves.
Targeted at the working musician looking to expand their sound, the Yamaha DX7 came with a wide range of pre sampled tones and sounds. While it did have a way of programming ones own patches, many found the system arduous and stuck to the sounds that initially came with the instrument.
The DX7 was one of the most divisive instruments in the history of synthesizers. On one hand it made it easy to arrive at a sound that a musician was looking for, making it useful for live performance. On the other, many saw that it as a synth packed with dozens of patches, none of which were at all special or dynamic. Some even blame this synth for the transition of electronic musicians shaping creative tones to over-using stereotypical, cheap sounds.
The DX7 is one of the best selling synthesizers ever made. It is an interesting fact that so few owners of the DX7 actually programmed their own sounds into the musicians. Though the process of creating patches was difficult, most of the users still stuck to the sounds that already came pre-programmed into the synth. The DX7 seems to reveal a bit about the human pysche and its interest in putting time and energy into exploring something dynamic rather than re-using sounds that simply seem to work.
Talking Heads, Brian Eno, The Crystal Method, and Orbital.
This fully analog drum machine would go on to define the sound of modern music. It’s legendary kick drum is the foundation of hip hop, dance music, and rap music as we know it. Nothing would ever quite be the same after the world realized the full potential of the Roland TR-808.
The 303 was originally intended to replace a bass player the same way a drum machine could replace a drummer. The interface proved to be difficult and the unit went out of production within two years of its creation. It wasn't long before the techno community got ahold of it and explored its strange tones to fit in perfectly with a new vein of house and techno. Through the 303 the acid house sound was born.
In 1987 the Chicago based group, Phuture, released a 12 minute anthem called Acid Tracks. Acid Tracks made use of the TB-303's resonance capabilities, creating an otherworldly squelching tone. The strange sound led to a new style of dance music known as acid house. Acid House would pave the wave for dance music to expand upon itself in new experimental, dark, and strange ways.
The story of the 303 is one of craftiness and ingenuity. While Roland never intended for the machine to be used dance music (in fact dancing in clubs were widely frowned upon or even illegal in Japan), the techno underground of Detroit discovered its true range and possibility.
Madonna, Fatboy Slim, Orange Juice, and Ice-T.
The Microkorg's introduced a generation of young musicians across the world to synthesizers. Its easy to use system and ability to quickly tweak and store patches led to many indie bands implementing the Microkorg into their sound. This machine is arguably one of the main reasons for the generation of millenials current interest in synthesizers.
Essentially, Modular Synth manufacturers are making machines that dial into specific tones, functions, and effects. The room for hands on experimentation with sound has never been this dynamic and accessible. Modular synth racks appear to be the sound of the future and the future sounds quite strange and fun.