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history of synthesizers

A Vibrant World of Knobs and Sounds

From early on, when synthesizers were first introduced into music, I liked the idea that you could get a big sound with them, electronic, but like an orchestra. And I could play it all myself. That was exciting.

John Carpenter
synths before 1965 title

The Roots of Synthesizers

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Theremin (1928)

Designed in 1928 by Russian inventor, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Theremin device produces a beautiful, haunting hum when the user waves their hands between two metal antennas, reacting to actual physical motions.

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Magnetophon (1935)

First demonstrated in 1935 by the German Electronics Company AEG, the Magnetophon was the worlds first reel-to-reel tape recorder. Reel-to-reel tape recorders were used to make some of the first forms of electronic music, known as “tape music”.

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Hammond Organ (1937)

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.

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RCA Mark II (1957)

The RCA Mark II was the first programmable electronic synthesizer. The towering machine, devised in Columbia University, featured twelve oscillators and a white noise generator among many other features that we identify with the modern synth sound.


East Coast vs West Coast Theory

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Moog Modular Synthesizer (1965)

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.

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Buchla (1963)

Pioneered by Don Buchla, a member of the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center, the Buchla synthesizer was meant to offer the user a relatively limitless freedom in shaping and designing their own unique sounds.


The Beginnings of Bedroom Pop

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The Minimoog

The Minimoog was the monophonic child of the grand Moog system. The Minimoog was designed by Robert Moog and Bill Hemsath. Though it had only a fraction of the capabilities of the original Moog system it came at a price tag and size that was more accessible to the aspiring musician.

The Price

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.

"From The Studio To Concert Hall"

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.

Notable Minimoog Operators:

Sun Ra, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and Keith Emerson.


A Move Away From Analog

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Fairlight CMI (1979)

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.

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Yamaha DX7 (1983)

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.

Theory of the DX7

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.

Notable Yamaha DX7 Operators

Talking Heads, Brian Eno, The Crystal Method, and Orbital.


Dance Music

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Roland TR 808 (1980)

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.

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Roland TR 909 (1984)

The 909 was a landmark event for techno and house producers. Featuring a semi-analog system, the hard hitting sounds of the 909 became a staple for dance music. This was also the first drum machine that came equipped with Midi Capabilities.

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Roland TB 303 (1982)

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.


Acid Tracks

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 Ingenuity of the Underground

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.

Notable TB-303 Operators

Madonna, Fatboy Slim, Orange Juice, and Ice-T.


A Hope for Analog

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MAQ16/3 (1992)

In a time when analog seemed a thing of the past, Dieter Döpfer designed an all analog sequencer with the help of electronic music legends, Kraftwerk. Doepfer’s systems would go on to influence a revitalization of analog systems and electronics that currently sees no end in site.

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Doepfer A-100 and the Eurorack Revolution (1995 - and on)

Doepfer designed a modular 3 rack system (as opposed to the 5 rack Moog system) with the A-100 machine. The analog synthesizer now has a future and it’s one that allows for endless creativity, endless execution of sound, and most importantly endless fun.

An Era's Introduction to Synthesizers

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Korg Microkorg (2002)

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.

And the Future

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Eurorack Modular 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.

Dedicated To...

Ethel Smith

Ethel Smith was an organ player, guitarist, beloved character, and a snazzy dresser. She played the organ with great tenacity and skill. She is remembered as one of the greats and is an inspiration to aspiring organists and female musicians across the globe. She is also a great inspiration to us and helped us greatly through the process of making this website. Thank you Ethel!

Ikutaro Kakehashi

Ikutaro Kakehashi elevated the the world of electronic music, leaving behind a legacy of development that will echo through the ages. He founded several electronic companies such as Roland and the Boss Corporation and helped design instruments like the TR-808 and the TB-303, forever changing the world of music. He has also played a big role in developing the music we love and for that we are forever grateful.