History of Synths

The definitions To learn a little bit more about the history of synthesis, we would first need to ask ourselves ‘what is synthesist?‘ The definition from the dictionary tells us the following about the person behind the synthesizer: synthesist - an intellectual who synthesizes or uses synthetic methods Vocabulary.com Besides the reference to the formation […]

The definitions

To learn a little bit more about the history of synthesis, we would first need to ask ourselves ‘what is synthesist?‘

The definition from the dictionary tells us the following about the person behind the synthesizer:

synthesist - an intellectual who synthesizes or uses synthetic methods


Besides the reference to the formation of chemicals, Synthesising is the act of producing a sound electronically.

We can find out more, and things will become more apparent, searching the dictionary for the term Synthesizer:

noun: synthesizer; plural noun: synthesizers; noun: synthesiser; plural noun: synthesisers

‘an electronic musical instrument, typically operated by a keyboard, producing a wide variety of sounds by generating and combining signals of different frequencies.’

Oxford’s English Dictionary

That’s a great start, in addition to the standard synthesizer we have Modular synthesizers.

Modular synthesizers are synthesizers composed of separate modules for different functions. The modules can be connected together by the user to create a patch. The outputs from the modules may include audio signals, analog control voltages, or digital signals for logic or timing conditions.

Where it started

Who came up with the idea of this musical instrument? To answer the question we could turn our eyes to the first experiments that connected electricity and sound, like those that Alfred Graham made in 1895 and that led to the genesis of a pioneering voltage-controlled device: the Electric Musical Tones.

One possible configuration suggested in Alfred Graham’s patent ‘A New or Improved Method and Means of Producing Sound’ – an early electronic instrument employing feedback: ‘For musical purposes I may place a tube such as that of an ordinary flute between the two diaphragms and adjust the note by varying the holes in the tube […] A key or circuit closer is inserted in the battery circuit.’

Graham specified that ‘the pitch, loudness, or quality of the sound produced may be varied by varying the battery current in strength or changing its direction or by changing the forms of the trumpets [horns] or varying the relative positions of the instruments [i.e. the horn and microphone]’.

Fatalities and… ‘illumination’ also made a great contribution: when called by London’s administration to solve the problem of the buzz created by the voltaic arc lamps that illuminated the streets of the city, William Du Bois Duddell sensed that the audible frequencies emitted by lamps could be controlled by changing the voltage applied to the electrodes. This was 1899. Just let that sink in.

The seeds of the modern electronic synthesizer were planted at the turn of the 19th century when an American inventor called Thaddeus Cahill applied for a patent to protect his idea for a Dynamophone. This steam-powered instrument was a giant, weighing more than 200 tonnes.

It was played into the public telephone network because there was no such thing as a loudspeaker or public address system. It failed, perhaps, because it was ahead of its time.

Mysterious synth

The Telharmonium was one of the earliest synthesizers. But the history of this early Muzak forerunner has almost entirely disappeared: no recordings or extant versions of the machine exist today. Even in its own time, it failed to gain traction and served more as a nuisance to telephone companies than as an enormous success.

The device was drafted up by Thaddeus Cahill in 1893 as a way to transmit music by phone. He was awarded a patent in 1896. In his patent, Cahill used the term 'synthesizing.' This could prove, and some say, that the Telharmonium was truly the world's first Synthesizer.

In 1901, the first model was ready. It used electrical signals to create musical notes that were sent over a phone line, generated by an electric motor that doubled as an amplifier. Raised bumps on cylinders helped create musical contour notes, not unlike a music box, with the size of the cylinder determining pitch. The first public demonstration was in 1902, with telephone lines for transmission laid in New York City in 1905. In 1906, the large, noisy instrument was placed in the basement of the Metropolitan Opera House, piping music across phone lines and nearby loud speakers.

Theremin, handsfree synth

One hundred years ago, a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known as Leon Theremin, was trying to invent a device to measure the density of various gases. In addition to the standard analog needle readout, he wanted another way to indicate the density, so he devised an oscillator whistle that would change pitch based on the density.

He discovered by accident that having his hand in the field of the antenna changed the pitch of the whistle, too. Then he did what any of us would do — played around until he made a melody, then called everyone else in the lab over to check it out.

Created in 1919, the Theremin was much smaller and still enjoys something of a cult status today.

Named after its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, the monophonic instrument was played handsfree. The player would move and wave his arms between two antennae with an electrostatic field between them.

The Theremin is famously difficult to play, but its eerie sound has found its way into dozens of horror movie soundtracks.

Leon Theremin plays his namesake instrument.


An intricate path of musical innovations – such as Theremin, Ondes Martenot and Trautonium – leads us to the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, a device purchased by Columbia University in New York in 1957 and built starting from 1951 by engineers HerbertBelar and Harry Olson of the Bell Laboratories.

Considered the first electronic sound production system that automated oscillators and modules connected to it, it made possible to control the height, intensity and timbre of the sound through a protocol imprinted by the composer on a roll of perforated paper; the sound was generated by twelve sinusoidal oscillators and the waveform could be modulated and processed through the filters.

The Mark II was far from being an easy-to-use tool and occupied an entire room with its size: its monstrous size owes its nickname, Victor (from Frankenstein, of course!).

The transistor was undoubtedly a fundamental ingredient for the birth of increasingly performing and marketable synthesizers on a large scale. Heir of the triode, it was conceived in 1947 at the Bell Laboratories by Walter H. Brattain, John Bardeen and William Schockley, awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956. In 1951, the new electronic component will facilitate the dynamics of voltage control and open the way to miniaturisation.

With voltage control, the increase or decrease in electrical voltage allows the synthesis of sound in its frequency, timbre, waveform andintensity components; through control circuits that make different voltages available, generation and sound processing are managed. The different sound production and control devices (modules) will be connected to each other in units, and this practice will create the famous modular synthesizers.

Moog & More

One of the first synthesizers that would be recognised as such by modern musicians was created in 1964 after Bob Moog with Herbert Deutsch, and the former was inspired to create a voltage-controlled oscillator and amplifier module with a keyboard – but it wasn’t until 1967 that Bob called his diverse modular system a ‘synthesizer’.

These voltage-controlled oscillators were first popularised by Wendy Carlos, a physics and music graduate who met Moog at an audio-engineering conference where he was exhibiting.

For her first studio album ‘Switched on Bach’ (1968), Carlos recorded works by J.S. Bach using Moog modular synthesizers.

Grammy Award Winning Masterpieces such as Switched-On Bach (1968) – the remake of classical music pieces created with Moog modules by Walter–Wendy Carlos – contributed to making musicians understand the infinite possibilities offered by the new instruments.

While Bob Moog was preparing to start a revolution in the world of electronic synthesis by applying a keyboard to its modules and attempting to solve the three main problems of the electronic composer – size, stability and control of the instrument – on the opposite coast of the United States another group of people developed the potential of voltage control. At the San Francisco Tape Music Center, composers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick were experiencing the limitations of the equipment then available; the two turned to Donald Buchla and the 100 series Modular Electronic Music System, better known as the Buchla Box, was born from the need to streamline the compositional operation.

The digital age

After changing pop music in the 1960s and driving disco in the 1970s, synthesizers became more widely available in the 1980s. But in many ways, these were entirely different instruments.

They were digital synthesizers.

Unlike analogue synthesizers, which produce music using real analogue circuitry, digital synthesizers emulate analogue sounds with digital signal processing techniques.

Some pedants complain that digital synthesizers don’t have the same thick, warm, vintage sound as analogue machines.

But they were much cheaper to produce and seminal digital models like the Yamaha DX7 sold everywhere and changed music all over the place.

New wave music was one of the first genres to bring digital synthesizer music to the masses and Talking Heads and Duran Duran made some of their most popular albums using sounds from digital synthesizers.

In this fascinating story, musicians were not limited to being mere users or passive promoters of the instruments; more often than not, the new devices and their improvements arose from the forward-looking demands of the composers.

Digital vs Analog

Digital synthesizers are still incredibly popular. And the technology has improved considerably over the last few decades.

But analogue synthesizers have gone through something of a revival in recent years.

In the same way that vinyl was rescued from the depths of obscurity over the last ten years or so, throwback analogue synths have got back in the groove of things too.


Thanks to the Eurorack format, coined by Doepfer in 1996 and now a dominating force in the market, the electronic synthesis in its modular aspect lives a thriving renaissance and offers its many users a multitude of excellent brands: from proven giants, such as the aforementioned Doepfer, to small companies like our very own AvonSynth or Volsef Modular.

The rediscovery of the analog thrill is no longer a business destined for a few, and the market has opened itself up with possibilities.

We will discuss more about the Origin of modular synthesizers in the following chapters.

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