Why nobody notices synthesisers any more

I’m intrigued by how quickly we get used to music and sounds. Just about every track we listen to these days has electronically-generated content, and even the analog elements are usually processed. Thanks to digital signal processing and software originally developed for the oil industry, singers can even fix pitch and timing.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

But that wasn’t so back in the 1950s. Back then sound engineering was mostly about getting clean analog recordings – avoiding the ‘wow’ and ‘flutter’ of stretchy analog tapes and removing the hisses and distortions invoked by valve-based circuitry. Gear to put that stuff back – in a controlled fashion – was uncommon, expensive, and often custom-made. Some of it was mechanical, witness the Leslie speaker system, which rotated the speakers.

Synthesisers were there behind the scenes, but they were usually enormous racks of valve-based electronics and gizmos built into large rooms – RCA had one. More portable models were typified by the Ondes Martinot or Hammond Novachord – Larry Hammond’s stunning 72-note polyphonic synthesiser first produced in… wait for it… December 1938. Yup, he was 40 years ahead of the opposition. And there was the Theremin, which exploited the way a hand could interfere with an electrical field. None were commercial big-sellers, largely because the sounds these instruments made seemed strange to the mid-century ear. Franklin D. Roosevelt was sent a Novachord as a birthday present in 1940, and Henry Ford was an enthusiastic advocate: but most synthesisers of the day ended up being used to generate science-fiction noises for movie sound-tracks.

To my mind the popular switch occurred in the late 1960s when music itself changed. The ground-swell was triggered at popular level when the Beatles began using a Mellotron – a tape-based instrument that let a keyboard player ‘do’ flutes, voice, strings and anything else that could be recorded in an 8-second loop, including a skiffle band. The flute sound, particularly, featured on the 1967 Sergeant Pepper album, played by Paul McCartney. Then in 1970 Swedish musician Bo Hansson popped up with the first ‘progressive’ concept album, Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings, mostly built around various sounds he managed to wring out of a Hammond organ.

Into the mix came Bob Moog and his transistor-based modular synthesiser system. Nobody knew what to make of it – the general public still didn’t connect with the sounds, still less the instrument itself, which was a wall of knobs, switches and jack-plugs. Part of the problem was the word ‘synthesiser’, which implied it was intended to replicate ‘real’ instruments, and its calibre had to be measured over how well it did that. This was a misconception. Actually, what Moog had done was invent an entirely new class of musical instrument.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Micromoog, serial number 2177 (hand-written in sharpie, on the back panel).

The problem was that nobody ‘grooved’ to the sound. It’s a myth that the breakthrough came in 1968 when Wendy Carlos released Moog-ified versions of Bach’s best known compositions. Switched On Bach wouldn’t have become a pop-hit without the groundwork laid previously. Moog-generated sounds had been used for commercial advertising for some time by then, sliding into public consciousness without anybody noticing. And Trek enthusiasts had been listening to the Theremin since the show first aired in September 1966. It all added up, and Carlos’ work turbocharged popular enthusiasm. The first use of a Moog in a rock album, as far as I know, was in 1969 when George Harrison used his Modular on the Beatles’ Abbey Road (‘Here Comes The Sun’ – it’s obvious 15 seconds in and at 1.50).  Yah – the Beatles… being innovating geeks and leading the music world…again. Just saying.

The original Modular Moogs were racks of signal generation and processing modules patched together using 6.5 mm telephone-exchange style jacks – you could configure it to any combination, and they were amazingly flexible. But you could only master the instrument if you could visualise what analog electronic circuits did to wave-forms (I recall struggling with a Model 15, their ‘suitcase modular’, before I knew how to do that).  And they were also studio instruments, unless you happened to be Keith Emerson. By 1970, thanks in part to Emerson’s use of his monster (300kg!) Modular Moog on stage, Bob Moog figured there was room for a performance version.

Me, recording with my Roland Alpha Juno 2 in my mis-spent youth (notice the Morris Minor boot lid). My Korg is to the right. The band only knew one song, but we could play it for hours. (Later we all got jobs icing muffins…)

This emerged as the Minimoog Model D which was, incidentally, the first synthesiser I learned to play. Again, it took a while for buyers to figure out the strengths. It was monophonic, which caused confusion because it had a piano-style keyboard – I heard a story that Rick Wakeman bought his first Mini cheap because its original owner thought it was broken, as it couldn’t play more than one note at a time.

Actually, the Minimoog was designed to be played like a violin. One hand controlled the pitch via the keyboard, the other the timbre and other aspects of the sound via two convenient pitch-bend and modulation wheels, and the front-panel controls.

As for the sound? Well, I bet you get to hear a Moog synthesiser more often than you know. Analog synth sound went through a low point in the 1980s, when you could (and I did) buy Moogs dirt cheap. But then it took off. The Mini could produce a fat and wicked bass, partly because its three oscillators wouldn’t stay exactly in tune with each other, which ‘grunged’ things wonderfully. The main key to the sound was the patent filter design – originally the 904-series in the Modulars, but the current types have a direct heritage. You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to a Moog patent 24db/octave low-pass ladder filter in action. Trust me. I own one.

But also trust me – you will have heard it. The thing is, we’re so accustomed to that style of sound, these days, that we don’t notice it, for all its total awesomeness. Sigh.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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3 thoughts on “Why nobody notices synthesisers any more

  1. When I was 14 I remember buying an album of synthesizer (US spelling, sorry!) music. I’m desperately trying to recover the name of the album, but although I remember most of the lead track, the only name I remember from the album is “Tap Dance Through the Memory Bank.” I had that for years until I lost all my quarter-inch tape albums, of which that was one, in the course of a cross-country move. I think the year of purchase was 1969. I enjoyed that album for years!

    1. Was it Dick Hyman, ‘The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman’? He definitely released this in 1969: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-nMZSZUgvI

      – I did a bit of a search, I hadn’t heard of him. There was a lot going on around that time! I do remember ‘Popcorn’. It’s intriguing how Bob Moog was so closely identified with synths at the time – nobody released albums of music on the ARP 2500 or the VCS3 (although the ARP was as capable as the Modular Moog, and built to compete in the same market).

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