Logic Pro X: Precursors to the synthesizer

Precursors to the synthesizer

The earliest seeds of modern electronic synthesizers began in the twilight years of the 19th century. In 1897, an American inventor named Thaddeus Cahill was issued a patent to protect the principle behind an instrument known as the Telharmonium, or Dynamophone. Weighing in at 200 tons, this mammoth electronic instrument was driven by 12 steam-powered electromagnetic generators. It was played in real time using velocity-sensitive keys and, amazingly, was able to generate several different sounds simultaneously. The Telharmonium was presented to the public in a series of “concerts” held in 1906. Christened “Telharmony,” this music was piped into the public telephone network, because no public address systems were available at the time.

In 1919, Russian inventor Leon Theremin took a markedly different approach. Named after the man who masterminded it, the monophonic Theremin was played without actually touching the instrument. It gauged the proximity of the player’s hands as they were waved about in an electrostatic field between two antennae, and used this information to generate sound. This unorthodox technique made the Theremin enormously difficult to play. Its eerie, spine-tingling—but almost unvarying—timbre made it a favorite on countless horror movie soundtracks. R. A. Moog, whose synthesizers would later garner worldwide fame, began to build Theremins at the age of 19.

In Europe, Frenchman Maurice Martenot devised the monophonic Ondes Martenot in 1928. The sound generation method of this instrument was akin to that of the Theremin, but in its earliest incarnation it was played by pulling a wire back and forth.

In Berlin during the 1930s, Friedrich Trautwein and Oskar Sala worked on the Trautonium, an instrument that was played by pressing a steel wire onto a bar. Depending on the player’s preference, it enabled either infinitely variable pitches—much like a fretless stringed instrument—or incremental pitches similar to that of a keyboard instrument. Sala continued to develop the instrument throughout his life, an effort culminating in the two-voice Mixturtrautonium in 1952. He scored numerous industrial films, as well as the entire soundtrack of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece The Birds, with this instrument. Although the movie does not feature a conventional musical soundtrack, all bird calls and the sound of beating wings heard in the movie were generated on the Mixturtrautonium.

In Canada, Hugh Le Caine began to develop his Electronic Sackbut in 1945. The design of this monophonic instrument resembled that of a synthesizer, but it featured an enormously expressive keyboard that responded not only to key velocity and pressure but also to lateral motion.

The instruments discussed thus far were all designed to be played in real time. Relatively early, however, people began to develop instruments that combined electronic sound generators and sequencers. The first instrument of this kind—named the Automatically Operating Musical Instrument of the Electric Oscillation Type—was presented by the French duo Edouard Coupleux and Joseph Givelet in 1929. This hybrid married electronic sound generation to a mechanically punched tape control. Its name was unofficially shortened to Coupleux-Givelet Synthesizer by its builders, the first time a musical instrument was called a “synthesizer.”

The term was formally introduced in 1956 with the debut of the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer Mark I, developed by American engineers Harry F. Olson and Herbert Belar. Its dual-voice sound generation system consisted of 12 tuning forks, which were stimulated electromagnetically. For its time, the instrument offered relatively sophisticated signal-processing options. The output signal of the sound generator could be monitored by loudspeakers and, amazingly, recorded directly onto two records. A single motor powered both turntables and the control unit of the Mark 1. The synthesizer was controlled by information punched onto a roll of paper tape, enabling continuous automation of pitch, volume, timbre, and envelopes. It was extremely complicated to use, it was unreliable, and spontaneous playing was impossible.

Published Date: Aug 9, 2019
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