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Where would be today's club, hip-hop or ambient music without synthesizers? Well, it would be no such thing as those styles, at all. The best synthesizers and samplers had great influence on evolution of many musical styles, actually creating them. The inspiration married to particular unit with great sound created so many beautiful records that we enjoy today. And the most part of sound on them are synthesizers and samplers.  

The history of synthesizers and samplers  - Part I

In this article we would like to present a solid theoretical foundation for anyone who wants to know the history, principles of construction, operation and the use of synthesizers and samplers in the production of music. The magnitude of the subject does not give us the opportunity to very detailed description of all of them, however we will try to give a fairly broad cross-section of what is most important both in terms of influence, as well as the operation of most famous synthesizers and samplers.

What is  synthesizer? Synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument, which contains various modules for producing and shaping sound, such as oscillators, filters or voltage control amplifiers. The synthesizers are used to produce sounds impossible to obtain by traditional instruments. With the emergence of these instruments the entirely separate branch of music was developed, namely the electronic music.
The word "synthesizer" is derived from the word "synthesis". And that word means the synthesis of all the components or any individual pieces into one thing. This is what the synthesizer do.

A typical synthesizer contains three most basic modules:
1 The Oscillator - the module that produces initial sound
2 The Keyboard - the module that is used to control the sound in the musical way
3 The Filters and Effects to change the nature of the sound.

The third section usually contains the VCA module, which allows you to set different characteristics of sound int terms of it's decay or attack as well as the VCF Envelope filter, which may change the characteristics of filter actions depending on the time.

For a long time already the synthesizers have a built-in sequencer module for programming synthesizer, so that it can play different rhythms or phrases at the same time, and a module to store both factory and user sound presets. The first synthesizer that was equipped with a memory for storing sounds was the Prophet 5, and it was simply priceless in terms of practical usability for musicians, who did not have to set each sound again.

A brief history and types of synthesizers

The first synthesizer in the world has been discovered in 1919 by LÚon Theremin. He called it Aetherphone, but this name was not accepted and that synthesizer has become known as the Theremin. This is one of the few electronic instruments that do not require physical contact, to play them. A musician who played it just raises his hands near the two synthesizer's antennas and through the movement of hands he controls the volume and pitch. This synthesizer has been used in numerous recordings, such as a soundtrack for the film "Forbidden Planet", the song "Good Vibrations" by the group  Beach Boys and is still used.

The following photos illustrate both the appearance of the instrument, and the way it was played. In the first photo is LÚon Theremin:



The Theremin sound sample:
  Theremin - mp3>>

The next significant step in the history of synthesizer development is the Ondes Martenot:

Maurice Martenot (1898 - 1980) invented it when he worked as a radio technician during World War I, He noted "the purity of the vibrations produced by the tubes, which can be controlled with a capacitor". This was one of the first electronic instruments in the world, and the only, which inspired a huge repertoire of songs, and that is still in use today. Martenot began work on the Ondes Martenot in 1919. It does not, however, was presented to the public until May 1928, when it suffered unprecedented success at the Paris Opera. This triumph allowed Martenot the world concert tour.
The Martenot's instrument is still in use and taught in about ten conservatories of music (France, Canada). Some companies like Ambro Oliva and SEAM improved the design of this instrument and it is available under these new names since 2001.

Ondes Martenot is a monophonic instrument, consisting of 3 "diffusers": the  "major" diffuser (a traditional speaker), the "resonant" diffuser and the "metallique" diffuser (a gong put in vibration by using an engine, metal replaced a speaker's membrane, which gives a metallic sound with precise height).
The Resonant diffuser has 2 varieties: the so-called. "Palm", which is a speaker in the shape of a flame, with strings placed on the resonance chamber, allowing the sounds on the principle of resonance, and second, more modern, so-called "Resonnance"  (which is built on springs using the same principle of  resonance)

Mobile keyboard allows the player to control the vibration, and also to obtain micro intervals. On the front and along the keyboard is a ribbon with a ring through which the performer put his right hand finger. The frequency of the instrument is determined by the location of the finger and allows the player to get the same effects as using fretless string instruments or the human voice (e.g. glissando). Ondes Martenot's range is very broad, it covers as much as 7 octaves. On the left there is a drawer with all the regulators: the preset sounds (100 possible combinations), the transposition keys (among other things quarter tons), regulators for speaker, the balance, pink noise and the "
touche d'intensitÚ" (key expression). The instrument also has 2 foot controlled pedals- the muting pedal and decay pedal.

More then 1200 compositions in very different styles were written for Ondes Martenot: the ballet, film music, theater, jazz, rock, contemporary music, the television and radio ads.

Here is a sample of the sound of this wonderful synthesizer coming from the Jolivet's concert  on Ondes Martenot:

Ondes Martenot - mp3 >>

Shortly after the Ondes Martenot another, very important in the history synthesizer was invented, which was called Trautonium:

Trautonium is an instrument discovered by German engineer Dr. Freidrich'a Adolf Trautwein, who first presented it at an exhibition in 1930r. In the years 1932-35 the serial production was started by the Telefunken company. The famous music writers using that instrument were Paul Hindemith (Concertina for Trautonium and Orchestra), H÷ffer, Genzmer, Julius Weismann, and also Oscar Hall, who became a virtuoso of this instrument, and even continued to work on its development, by introducing its own variations - 'Mixtur-Trautonium', 'Concert-Trautonium' and 'Radio - Trautonium'. Dr. Freidrich Trautwein also invented the 'amplified harpsichord' (1936) and 'Electronic Bells' (1947).

'Trautonium' had a keyboard consisting of resistive wire, extended on a metal rail. It was marked with chromatic signs, similar to the piano keyboard and was connected to a tube oscillator. The performer played the instrument by pressing a wire touching the rails, closing the circuit, and the sound of the oscillator has been strengthened through the loudspeaker. Position of the finger on the wire controlled resistance, which gave the appropriate frequency. Trautonium had a range of 3 octaves, which could be transposed by the switch. The additional circuitry can be added in order to control the sound by strengthening the harmonics tone of the basic components,  the un-harmonics also can be added by the selective filtering. This unique form of the so-called "subtractive" synthesis yielded interesting and inspiring tones. This instrument differed significantly from other synthesizers from 20' and 30' of the last century. The instrument had a pedal that controls the overall volume

Here is original samples of the sound of this exacting instrument: 

Trautonium - mp3>>    

Trautonium 2 - mp3>>   

Another significant synthesizer in the history of music was discovered by electronic engineer Harry Olsen RCA Mark I.


On the left you can see a room filled with synthesizer modules. The photo on the right shows instrument's inventors, Harry Olson (in depth) and Herbert Belar (front).
It was much more complicated than the Theremin, Trautonium or the Ondes Martenot. It was controlled by paper strap of 38 cm wide, on which the binary code was encoded bearing information about notes and phrases for the sequencer. The development of the RCA synthesizer cost the company 500 000 dollars.

Slightly improved variant was Mark II that uses 24 adjustable oscillators:

Once the ownership of the machine was transferred to Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1959, Milton Babbitt used it to create such works as' Philomèle ' for soprano and synthesized sound.

A sound sample from Milton Babbit's "Ensebles For Synthesizer": RCA Mark II .mp3>>  

Most of electronic instruments produced in the years 1920, 1930 and 1940 were different varieties of electronic organs. One model deserves the special attention - the Hammond organ:

The first one was built in 1935. The Hammond organ became very a popular keyboard instrument in the sixties and seventies and have been used by the greatest  keyboard instruments virtuosos, such as Steve Winwood, Ion Lord of Deep Purple, Tony Banks of Genesis, Rick Wakeman of Yes, Rick Wright of Pink Floyd, Keith Emmerson from Emmerson, Lake and Palmer and many others.

The inventor and manufacturer of Hammond organ was Laurens Hammond. Initially, these units have been sold to churches as a cheaper alternative to traditional pipe organ, however, they quickly found use in jazz, blues, gospel, soul, rock and fusion music of the sixties and seventies. The most famous model of the Hammond are the B3 and C3, which appeared in 1955. Thus, although the intention Hammond was a cheaper substitute for the implementation as pipe organ, it quickly became a very common tool creating a class in itself, and musicians such as Jimmy Smith contributed to it's unbelievable public success.

Hammond organ use audio discs placed in a rotating electromagnetic transducers to produce sound. Therefore, it is not a purely electronic instrument, but rather electromechanical. Sounds produced by mechanically rotating discs can be mixed in numerous ways using manuals made in the form of switches and thus very complex combinations of tone can be obtained. Hammond organ is the first electronic instrument, which truly changed the face of the music, the way we know it today.

Here is the sound sample of the Hammmond C3 organ:
 Hammond C3 - mp3>>   

In the fifties of last century electronic instruments began to be treated more and more seriously. This is because during this period a new style in classical music came to the public interest, the so called "musique concrete". This style makes use of different sounds from the environment as recorded sounds, and links them together in a composition. It was also associated with the spread of magnetic tape, as  the popular recording technique. The sounds were recorded, the pitch changed by the tape speed  manipulation, then they have been processed by various filters, cut, looped, and finally combined in the composition. Actually, you can say that the techniques used in music concrete are still alive today in digital samplers, which are able to mimic all the tricks associated with the magnetic tape, of course, but with a much greater degree of precision and higher quality.

At the beginning the synthesizers were incredibly expensive, their construction was carried out mostly by the hobbyists determined to search for new sounds, and access to them had only the major institutions such as philharmonic music academies. Real rise of synthesizers occurred during the Sixties, when bands such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and many others have begun to introduce them en masse to their sound. But even then the synthesizer was only an addition to other instruments. The synthesizers became fully independent thanks to musicians such as Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schultze and Isao Tomita. They based on the synthesizers treating them not as additional instruments but built full extremely reach arrangements using solely synthesizers.  In the second half of the last century during the sixties a particularly interesting form of experimentation was magnetic tape use. the first electronic instrument using this trick was called Mellotron. It was the archetype of the modern sampler, which instead uses digital, looped samples.  Magnetic tapes, with taped excerpts of a sound, such as choir or strings section were the origin.


Clearly, the Mellotron was a very complicated and expensive instrument, which gaves the possibility, however of extremely expressive sounds  not possible to obtain in any other way. An example of one of the best uses of Mellotron in the history of music is  "In The Court Of The Crimson King"  album by the group King Crimson. The following photos show internal mechanics of the Mellotron and several other of its versions:




History of  synthesizer and sampler development - part II >>>

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