One day in 1979 I didn’t know what a synthesiser was. Later that day I did. It was a Thursday and I was a thirteen year old with a mild interest in pop music and me and my family were watching Top of the Pops, one of the few music programs that was on what was then one of the few TV channels! Sometime during that show was the song Are Friends Electric? By Tubeway Army. I was amazed at the sound; the power of it was like nothing that I had ever heard before. What was the sound? Where were the guitars? What were they playing? Shortly after Top of the Pops had finished I knew what a synthesiser was! Sometimes an experience can change your life and for me this did. Simple, after that program I had discovered a sound, a type of music and an instrument that I fell in love with. Over the years this love has seen me spend many, many hours learning about synthesisers and I can hopefully pass on what I know about this fantastic instrument.
Incidentally the answer to those questions that Top of the Pops had posed me was predominantly the Minimoog and the Polymoog, when you had these you didn’t need guitars! These were early synthesisers but there were ones before these so let’s start at what I now know to be the beginning.
Electronic instruments in various forms date back to the fifties and even before depending on the exact term of what constituted an electronic instrument with various companies and individuals pioneering custom built devices but the major breakthrough came with the invention of the transistor, a little three pin device that had been invented to replace the vacuum tube, by being easy to manufacture and be smaller and cheaper that a vacuum tube it was developed primarily in America as a direct result of the space race. Electronics had to be smaller and cheaper to make it into space because before the transistor things were huge. You’ve probably have heard of the early computers that used to fill up a whole room, well clearly these things were not going to make it into space so along came the transistor.
The transistor opened up a whole new world for electronics and made possible the creation of new things so subsequently several people were working along similar lines at the same time Moog and Arp were two of the pioneers of the synthesiser. Moog was Dr Robert Moog, an American who is sadly no longer with us, during the sixties his work on synthesisers led to him breaking down sound construction into various modules, some of these modules created a sound and some of them altered it in various ways, by linking these devices together you could produce different sounds and by linking together multiple instances of these devices more intricate and complicated sounds could be created, so the first synthesisers that Dr moog created were basically a box of these individual modules, they were linked together by the operator by using patch cords.
At the same time Alan Robert Pearlman, another American was working on similar ideas of using individual modules linked together.
These devices became known as modular synthesisers as they were basically a collection of individual modules that were interconnected, they were huge by today’s standards, and still basically custom built and because of their huge cost ended up in research departments and universities or recording studios. This was all happening in the late sixties and musicians were relatively slow on the uptake and use these devices.
The first artists to take up using synthesisers used them mainly for their novelty value and to augment songs. The natural progression for the synthesiser was for it to become smaller and more accessible. After the first Moog modular synthesisers Dr Robert Moog came up with the idea of simplifying a modular by just pre wiring some of the basic and essential modules together. This became known as the Minimoog and it became one of the most popular synthesisers of all time.