Instruments | Synthesizer | Electric & Electronic

No instrument has had a more dramatic impact on contemporary music than the synthesizer. Its development opened up a whole new world of seemingly endless sonic possibilities and ushered in completely new forms of music.


The birth of the synthesizer dates back to the mid-1940s when Canadian physicist, composer and instrument builder, Hugh le Caine (1914–77) built the electronic sackbut, an instrument widely regarded as the first true synthesizer.

In the 1950s, RCA (Radio Corporation of America) built the huge Mark II Music Synthesizer, using vacuum-tube electronics and a punched-paper-tape system of programming – rather like a player piano. This cumbersome beast required hours of patching and programming before it was able to produce any musical sound.

Other developments of the time included Daphne Oram’s novel technique of ‘Oramics’, which used drawings on 35-mm film to produce sound, a system that was employed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop for several years.

Although American inventor Donald Buchla did create a commercially available synthesizer, most instruments of the 1950s and early 1960s were, due to their vast size and complexity, confined to academic institutions and studios. The wider explosion of interest in the synthesizer was the responsibility of the man whose name became synonymous with the instrument – Dr Robert A. Moog (1934–2005).

The Moog

Moog (pronounced to rhyme with ‘vogue’) had always been interested in electronic music, having built theremins with his father throughout the 1950s. Inspired by experimental composer Herbert Deutsch, Moog designed the circuits for his first synthesizer while studying for a PhD in Engineering Physics at Cornell University, where he was a student of Peter Mauzey, an RCA engineer who had worked on the Mark II Music Synthesizer.

Moog proudly demonstrated his first synthesizer at the AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention in 1964. Like the RCA machine, Moog’s synthesizer was a flexible modular design in that the instrument comprised several different sections, or modules, each with a different function, which could be patched (connected) together in different combinations. Moog’s first design still required a great deal of programming time, although it was smaller, lighter and more flexible than the Mark II Music Synthesizer.

Interest in the new instrument was immediate and Moog began making modular synthesizers for experimental composers and the academic community. Widespread public awareness of Moog’s name came when his synthesizer was featured on the Monkees’ 1967 album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. played by Micky Dolenz. Then, in 1968, Walter (later Wendy) Carlos released the seminal, million-selling, Grammy Award-winning album, Switched On Bach. The synthesizer had become well and truly established. Other early synthesizer manufacturers included ARP and Peter Zinovieff’s Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd (EMS).

The Minimoog

In 1970, Robert Moog produced another groundbreaking instrument, the Minimoog. Unlike previous synthesizers, the Minimoog abandoned the modular design in favour of all the electronics being built into a single keyboard unit. What was sacrificed in terms of modular flexibility was gained in...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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