All photographs by Oli Freke
Synth producers have pursued the perfection of digital music for greater than half a century, however in so doing they’ve arguably sidelined the hitherto wild-west nature of digital devices. Because the invention of the trendy synthesizer, the vast majority of producers have adopted the essential design precept set by Robert Moog within the early Nineteen Sixties – a number of oscillators managed by a piano-style keyboard and modified with filters, LFOs and envelope turbines.
Previous to this, nevertheless, there have been a big number of devices that used all method of unconventional management mechanisms and sound technology strategies, from optical sensing of photographs to algorithmic technology to novel tuning methods. These arguably led to extra experimental digital music, and by forgetting about these innovations, trendy digital music could have additionally misplaced one thing within the course of.
Having simply printed a guide on the historical past of the synthesizer it may appear unusual for me to now accuse them of inhibiting the event of digital music, nevertheless it’s clear that their invention within the early Nineteen Sixties shortly set the sample for a lot of the trade thereafter. While Robert Moog’s profitable commercialisation of the synthesizer in 1964 unarguably solved the issue of find out how to make a versatile digital musical instrument, it did imply that every one the opposite choices just about simply disappeared in a single day.
It was the piano-style keyboard, customary tuning and voltage management of oscillators (and different modifiers) that Moog introduced collectively into the now customary configuration, however there have been many concepts that didn’t comply with these now acquainted conventions.
The Buchla 100
The piano-style keyboard is sort of the trendy synthesizer’s defining characteristic – to the extent that the phrase ‘keyboard’ has itself has turn out to be a synonym for ‘synth’. However it’s not the one approach to exert pitch management over an digital instrument. Moog’s modern Don Buchla actively resisted the keyboard as a management mechanism for his in any other case conceptually related synthesizer from 1963, the Buchla 100 Sequence Modular Digital Music System. As an alternative, he supplied non-piano type contact plates and the engagingly named ‘arbitrary operate generator’ which was a sixteen-step sequencer that might management way over only a pitch sequence, resembling advanced configurations of filter, envelope, LFOs, and extra.
By encouraging composers to interact with sound as one thing extra than simply ‘notes on a keyboard’, the consequence was the form of intricate sound design final heard in musique concréte. Works resembling Morton Subotnick’s, Silver Apples of the Moon (1967) present a futurism fully absent on Wendy Carlos’ in any other case extremely influential Switched-on Bach (1968), which used the keyboard-controlled Moog modular as if it have been merely a glorified organ.
It’s additionally notable that in the course of the Eighties and 90s, Don Buchla switched solely to the manufacturing of prolonged operate MIDI controllers fairly than the sound-generating synthesizers themselves. These included the Thunder, a tactile sense controller; the Lightning, a spatial ‘wand’ controller; and the Lumina Marimba, an digital marimba with specialised mallets.
A Fashionable Theremin
Earlier within the twentieth century there have been different devices which didn’t really feel the necessity to wed themselves to the keyboard – or certainly any bodily controller in any respect – such because the Theremin. While there have been notable virtuosic gamers, resembling Clara Rockmore within the Nineteen Thirties, it by no means discovered a everlasting residence in classical or modern music, and as a substitute discovered its novelty-niche because the other-worldly sounds of Fifties sci-fi as typified by Bernard Hermann’s rating to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Le Croix Sonore
There was additionally the dramatic wanting Croix Sonore, created by Russian Nikolai Obukhov in 1929, which labored on the Theremin rules of proximity-capacitance sensing. It undoubtedly lent a dramatic theatricality to the sacred rituals of the paranormal cult of the Salon de la Rose + Croix during which Obukhov participated.
The ondes Martenot (1928) and audion piano (1915), just like the Theremin and le Croix Sonore, use the ‘heterodyne’ impact for sound technology, during which a tone within the audible vary is derived from the distinction between two high-frequency radio valves. Though they did use piano-style keyboards, the ondes Martenot additionally supplied an early form of steady pitch glide utilizing a ring-slider. And the Trautonium (1930) used only a metallic rail for fully steady pitch management.
These devices enabled a extra fluid method to pitch, both as a continuum from which notes have been plucked from skinny air, as within the Theremin, or gave the liberty to deviate from a tonal centre with the early pitch-glide methods.
One other apparent – however typically missed – limiting issue of a piano-style keyboard is its assumed use of the twelve-tone equal tempered scale, the usual tuning system employed by western music because the seventeenth century. By proscribing synth gamers to the piano keyboard it will possibly additionally prohibit them to standard harmonic pondering. Definitely, the early wave of synthesizer music by Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and Tomita embodies this tonal conventionality, albeit embedded inside new and thrilling sonic realms for the time.
Throughout the twentieth century, there have been some noble makes an attempt to discover microtonality and alternate tunings. One such system is the thirty-one be aware equal temperament system (31-ET) during which the octave is split into thirty-one equally spaced pitches as a substitute of the twelve of normal tuning.
Some great benefits of 31-ET are that the acquainted twelve notes are nonetheless current, however there are a wider vary of sharps and flats enabling attention-grabbing new scales or extra exact tunings of normal chords than 12-ET is able to. It additionally permits the seventh harmonic to be exactly tuned which isn’t potential in 12-ET.
The size was found a number of instances independently, most notably by the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in 1691. It derived pretty naturally from the then widespread quarter-comma meantone temperament because the fifth was solely 0.19 cent wider. It’s not clear that it was greater than only a theoretically attention-grabbing tuning system at the moment, nevertheless it was revived by one other Dutchman, Adriaan Fokker, within the Nineteen Forties. He constructed an unlimited pipe-organ that might realise the 31-note per octave tuning in a full scale instrument. Fokker fervently believed that its excellent seventh harmonic represented the subsequent musical vista to be explored by humanity.
Like Huygens, Fokker was additionally a famend physicist, and he had beforehand labored for Einstein as an assistant, contributed papers on common relativity and is finest identified for the Fokker-Planck theorem, a differential equation referring to stochastic forces and Brownian movement.
The Fokker-organ, because it was identified, had a number of works written for it while put in within the Teyler Museum, Harlem, together with Ligeti’s, ‘Continuum’ (1968) earlier than it was moved to the Bamzaal in Muziekgebouw.
An digital model, the Archifoon, was invented by Herman van de Herst in 1970, a much more transportable implementation than its acoustic pipe-organ antecedent, however simply as placing visually. The composer Anton de Beer, having commissioned it from the Neonvox firm, wrote many works for the Archifoon and was a passionate advocate of the 31-ET tuning system.
Regardless of the extension of tonality that the Archifoon, and different such devices, represented, microtonality has by no means critically threatened the dominance of twelve-tone tuning within the west, even in probably the most adventurous of digital music (with the potential exception of the Aphex Twin, who brings a substantial amount of tuning adventurousness into his accessible and fashionable music).
That it’s no more widespread is a disgrace. I discover that after the preliminary strangeness of true microtonal music, it turns into fascinatingly bracing and is definitely able to distinctive emotional results. And after such listening, going again to plain twelve-tone music can sound very bland and predictable against this.
Microtonality remains to be on the market ready to be totally explored, and the Archifoon has a management interface that might make it a sensible various – if composers would take an opportunity and embrace it.
Drawn sound has been a technique by which each keyboard management and standard voltage-controlled oscillators are side-stepped. Drawn sound is a time period referring to the conversion of images and features to sound and there have been many devices of this sort all through the 20 th century, however at the moment are largely absent.
Probably the most totally realised was the ANS Synthesizer, labored on by Russian inventor Evgeny Murzkin between 1937 and 1957. It allowed near-continuous pitch management over ten octaves and was managed by shining a lightweight by means of holes scratched in black mastic on glass. Because it shone by means of the holes within the mastic the sunshine triggered corresponding photo-optic sensors on the opposite facet of the glass to generate the suitable pitch.
The ANS Synthesizer was utilized by Eduard Artemyev on the rating for Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and is known as after Alexander Nicholayevich Scriabin after his mystical, theosophical, and occult beliefs concerning the connection between mild, color, and sound.
Amazingly, there’s now a cell app now that emulates the sound of this huge mechanical object – and it sounds intriguingly wonderful.
An identical system was developed by Daphne Oram from 1962 onwards, having left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which she had been instrumental in establishing. Known as Oramics, it too transformed drawn photographs to sound utilizing ten parallel rows of 35mm photographic movie, from which corresponding photo-optic sensors learn traces and shapes drawn on them
Oram used it to compose the soundtracks for a number of movie and theatre productions. A big a part of its status additionally rests within the idea, and in Oram’s dedication in pursuing the creation of it.
The Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones
Different ‘drawn sound’ devices embody the splendidly named ‘Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones’ (1931) and the ‘Superpiano’ (1927). These each used a system of rotating disks onto which waveforms have been drawn. Once more, the optical system transformed the drawn waveform into variable voltages which have been transformed in the end to sound. The benefit of this method is that waveforms of actual devices could possibly be drawn onto the disks thus enabling a reasonably correct re-creation of the unique instrument’s sound. One may virtually consider it as an ‘acoustic sampler’, fifty years earlier than the digital sampler was invented.
The Superpiano was the work of Austrian Emerich Spielmann, however its improvement was interrupted by World Battle II. Spielmann, along with his daughter Anni, fled to America the place he tried to proceed the undertaking, even getting backing from Einstein who supplied a letter praising the instrument’s “tone group” which might “arouse thrilling expectations” within the listener. Nevertheless, by this time, easier and extra standard electro-mechanical keyboards just like the Hammond Organ and the Neo-Bechstein electrical piano have been dominating. This left little area for extra radical devices just like the Superpiano and different photo-optic devices such because the Luminaphone (UK, 1925), Photona (USA, 1935), and Foto-Sonor (France, 1955).
As soon as the trendy synthesizer had been invented, many corporations appeared to fashionable music for an ‘apparent’ new controller – the guitar. The principle downside with this method is that to ‘pattern’ the frequency of a vibrating guitar string, convert it to a management voltage after which ship to a synthesizer means an inevitable time delay. No less than one cycle of string vibration is required to get the pitch data, and this virtually at all times causes an unplayable lag to take care of.
This didn’t deter the dominant synth firm of the Seventies, ARP, from trying a guitar synthesizer. Sadly, the ‘Avatar’ (1977) value round $4m to develop and recouped solely $1m and is extensively blamed for the collapse of the corporate within the early Eighties.
Equally, the British firm EMS – well-known for the VCS3 performed by Brian Eno on ‘Virginia Plain’ and the Synthi AKS utilized by Pink Floyd on ‘On the Run’ – tried their luck with the Synthi Hello-Fli. However that too was an costly flop for the corporate (which went bankrupt within the Eighties for a mess of different causes).
The Roland GR-500 and its subsequent fashions are maybe the one moderately profitable examples of the style – having even been used on Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (1978). Maybe its relative success is all the way down to the very fact it could possibly be used as an EQ and results unit in addition to a guitar synthesizer and used a specifically constructed guitar to enhance pitch accuracy and latency.
On the entire although, the thought of controlling synthesizers by a guitar has by no means actually caught on. Maybe it’s probably not the look or sound most rock guitarists are going for, or the latency and pitch-tracking issues are just too nice to make it a extensively adopted instrument.
…Or ‘simply maybe’ the appears to be like of the Casio DG-20 made the entire thought a laughable nonsense…
All of the examples above use human enter as the final word controller, however my closing (and favorite) instance does away with even this. The Triadex Muse (1972) was a really early algorithmic compositional music field, designed by the legendary AI researcher Marvin Minksy. Considerably bizarrely, it was meant to generate background music for conditions which could in any other case have employed a transistor radio. A form of ambient, however non-specific music, was the intent – and it even got here with an identical wanting field with a built-in synchronised mild present. Management was supplied by eight sliders with 40 positions with which to set the preliminary parameters – be aware intervals, velocity, and so forth., after which it might generate a non-repeating sequence indefinitely. A number of composers have used it through the years, together with the Tokyo-based Morgan Fisher who synchronises three for his improvisational stay reveals.
Nevertheless, it did not catch on as a sequence of pseudo-random monophonic sq. waves might be not probably the most partaking of musical experiences, in my humble opinion!
So, there we’ve got it. A century of exploration of sound, of which the above examples are however a tiny fraction. However I consider they illustrate that there are various methods to transcend a piano keyboard for the creation of digital music, that there are various methods to generate tone than the usual noticed, sq. and sine-waves of analogue oscillators, and that the musical material of scales themselves might be woven in a myriad of so-far largely unexplored methods.
However after all, it’s by no means too late, and with the ever-increasing ingenuity of synth producers, software program designers, and the calls for of recent musicians and composers it’s turn out to be more and more simple to revive a few of these concepts and to discover their potential. Maybe with the present enhance in recognition of modular synthesis and the numerous new ingenious models being made, the paradigm of the synthesizer will as soon as once more broaden and embody some extra of the earlier century’s under-explored concepts. And this can in flip result in new and ever extra ingenious music over the course of this century and past.
Synthesizer Evolution: From Analogue to Digital (and Again) by Oli Freke is printed by Velocity Press