When was the first fully polyphonic synthesiser released?

These days synthesisers are amazing instruments, often using technologies derived from computing – or existing only as software with the only hardware being a separate keyboard controller.

Me playing my 1986-vintage Roland Alpha Juno 2 in my mis-spent youth (note my Korg MS-10 to the right, which was 1/48 of a PS-3300, sort of, and the Morris Minor boot behind me, as a fire-screen).

That wasn’t always so. The commercial synths of the 1960s were built around analog hardware that played just one note at a time, like a wind instrument. By the early 1970s the point of competition was polyphony, meaning the synth could be played like a piano. However, the initial offerings were limited to a handful of notes at a time, often six or eight. That persisted for a while: my Roland Alpha Juno 2, which dates to 1986, is only 6-note polyphonic.

The reason was cost. Back in voltage-controlled analog days, each ‘voice’ required at least one hardware oscillator, envelope generator and amplifier, more if you wanted a more textured sound. Limiting the polyphony kept the retail price manageable, unless you were Korg and ganged 48 voltage-controlled oscillators, 48 voltage-controlled amplifiers and 48 voltage controlled filters into a single monster instrument which was (naturally) 48-note polyphonic. Their PS-3300 was one of those products where if you gotta ask the price, you can’t afford it, and yes, I played one once. Didn’t own it, but I played it, muahahahahaha.

Bob Moog got around the issue with the Polymoog, which used divide-down technology that spanned the output of any given oscillator across multiple octaves (just like an electric organ) coupled with custom IC chips to partially solve the problems this produced with enveloping (an issue organs don’t have – the sound’s either on or off). But it had limits on many levels. And, as I recall, the Polymoog was insanely expensive. I blagged my way into playing the Model 203a, but no way could I buy one.

This progression from the mono-synths of the 1960s to the poly-synths of the 1970s and 1980s was an obvious evolution on the back of changing technology and manufacturing techniques – but it had nothing to do with improved know-how when it came to electrical sound-generation circuitry. I bet you’d never guess when the first synthesiser that was all-note polyphonic was made.

Give up?

I’ll tell you. 1938. Yup, you heard right. Just before the Second World War.

Hammond Novachord. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The instrument was the Hammond Novachord, designed in 1938-39 by John Hanert, C. N. Williams and Larry Hammond (as in Hammond Organ), using thermionic valve (‘vacuum tube’) technology. By modern standards that gave the Novachord a wonderfully ‘warm’ sound. Although Hammond didn’t use the same terms, the Novachord had all the features of modern subtractive synthesisers – selectable wave-forms, ADSR enveloping, band-pass-filtering and frequency modulation (vibrato). The latter was electro-mechanical. And it was 72-note polyphonic. That’s right – every single note on the keyboard could be played simultaneously, via divide-down circuitry from its dozen oscillators. To back that it had 60 separate band-pass filters and 72 voltage-controlled amplifiers, meaning each note had its own separate enveloping, in hardware.

When was that? Again – 1938. The first units rolled out of the Hammond factory in November that year. Oh, and did I mention that the ‘generator’ unit – the main circuitry – required 146 thermionic valves (‘vacuum tubes’)? Just to put that in perspective, it is possible to design an amplifier with just one valve (and most have three or four).

Don’t forget, the 1930s were an amazing time for technology, largely on the back of the second industrial revolution. A lot of the domestic gear developed then – everything from freon-based refrigerators to washing machines to TV – didn’t become commercially widespread until the 1950s or later, largely because of the Second World War.

But that wasn’t the issue for the Novachord. Hammond’s problem was that nobody ‘grokked’ the tone colours his amazing instrument made. They were just odd to a public that knew only acoustic instruments. Electronic instruments existed, but were a specialist corner of the field. Indeed, back then the word ‘synthesiser’ hadn’t even been coined in a musical sense.  To late 1930s ears the Novachord was…weird. That limited sales, although there were some fans. Henry Ford loved it and organised a ‘Novachord Orchestra’ to regale visitors in the 1940 World Fair. And across the Atlantic, Britain’s wartime audiences listened to Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again to Novachord accompaniment.

The practical result was that of the 1069 Novachords ever made, the main use was in movie special-effects units making spooky noises for science-fiction flicks and TV such as Irwin Allen’s Journey to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68). It was only later, after most of the Novachords had been thrown on the scrap heap, that the music world woke up to Hammond’s pioneering genius as a synthesiser developer. If you want to hear the futuristic tone colours of 1938 – and yes, you do want to listen for a moment, trust me – check this out:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018