Rise of the Synthesizer: How an Electronics Whiz Kid Gave the 1980s Its Signature Sound


The recent revival of all things '80s has spurred a newfound appreciation for the decade's signature sound, which was largely produced by the synthesizer. Until the late 1970s, synthesizers had been finicky and difficult instruments to play, but the Prophet-5 in 1978 and the Oberheim OB-Xa two years later changed all that. For example, the pop-synth riffs on Cars hits like "Let's Go" were produced by the Prophet-5, while everyone from Prince ("1999") to Eddie Van Halen ("Jump") ran their fingers across Oberheim keyboards.

To learn more about these instruments, I visited Lance Hill at his Vintage Synthesizer Museum in Oakland, California, and interviewed Dave Smith, who not only gave the world the Prophet-5 but also co-created MIDI, a file protocol that's so durable, it's been in 1.0 since its release in 1982.

Still, advances technology were changing more than just music. South of San Francisco, the Silicon Valley that only a few years before had been dominated by the aerospace industry was suddenly poised to be a proving ground for what would become the personal-computer revolution. Among the region’s watershed moments was the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in March of 1975. Hosted in the garage of a programmer named Gordon French, the meeting was attended by a computer engineer named Steve Wozniak, who, with the marketing and sales support of his friend Steve Jobs, released the first Apple computer in the summer of 1976.

In short, the musical-synthesizer revolution was taking place at the exact same moment as the dawn of the personal computer.

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Check out the world's first drum machine, The Rhythmicon (1931)


The Ryhthmicon was the world's first drum machine, built in the 1930s by Leon Theremin (of Theremin fame) for avant grade composer Henry Cowell. Read the rest

Grand piano that looks like an undersea creature


The bespoke, designer Whaletone piano looks like the oceanic offspring of the 1969 Fender Rhodes Student Piano. Read the rest

Cool $59 pocket synthesizers from Teenage Engineering

Teenage Engineering, makers of the amazing $850 OP-1 synthesizer, have designed three nifty $59 pocket synths: the PO-12 "rhythm" drum machine, the PO-14 "sub" bass synth, and the PO-16 "factory" melody synth. The Verge has a first look.

Despite their spartan design, the synths have a host of smart features that make these devices far more powerful than they might appear. Each device has two 3.5mm ports, which lets you output audio to a mixer as well as chain all three devices together, with a master unit setting the tempo and patterns for the other "slave" units to follow. Another low-tech (but no less useful) design decision is the small wire stand on the back that lets you prop up the devices for easy use on a table. Even the power source is clever — the PO series runs on two AAA batteries, something I haven’t used outside of remotes in years.

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Trippy Wurlitzer organ commercial (1972)

Psychedelic TV ad from 1972 for Wurlitzer's Orbit III organ: "It may just change your mind!" (via Weird Universe) Read the rest

Video: circuit bending pioneer Reed Ghazala

In the studio with Reed Ghazala, "the father of circuit bending." Read the rest

20syl music video (gear porn)

Video for 20syl's "Kodama," directed by Matthieu Le Dude and 20syl. Read the rest

The greatest synths

John Twells tallies the synthesizers that shaped modern music. tl;dr: Minimoog, Odyssey, Prophet-5, Fairlight, PPG Wave, Juno, Yamaha's CS-80 and DX7, and Korg's MS-20, M1 and Triton. Oh, yes, and Roland's 303 and 101. [via MeFi, where a good tally of travestatious omissions accrues] Read the rest

Jad "Radiolab" Abumrad's home studio

Wired visited the home studio of Radiolab's Jad Abumrad. It's a minimal set-up, and I dig his appreciation for vintage synths like the Moog Sonic Six and Roland Juno-60. "Sound Scientist: Inside the Home Studio of Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad" Read the rest

Stevie Wonder's Superstition clavinet, dissected

You probably caught Stevie Wonder playing with Daft Punk, Pharrell, and Nile Rodgers at the Grammys on Sunday night. My favorite Stevie Wonder jam remains "Superstition" (1972) due in part to the epic clavinet riff. Listen how complex that iconic bit o' funk is by watching YouTube user Funkscribe dissect its intricacies by isolating the multiple parts in the multitrack recording files. Below, Stevie plays the song live in 1973. Read the rest

Portable organ, radio, phonograph from 1976

From the @boingboing Instagram feed, my snap of a Silver Star ORP-1803 organ, radio, phonograph (c.1976) at Groove Merchant, SF. Read the rest

Chris Carter talks about DIY synthesizers

The directors of modular synthesizer documentary I Dream Of Wires visited the studio of BB pal Chris Carter who handbuilt many of the instruments for his pioneering musical groups Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey.

Soviet synthesizer bridged occultism and electronic music

You don't play the ANS synthesizer with a keyboard. Instead you etch images onto glass sheets covered in black putty and feed them into a machine that shines light through the etchings, trigging a wide range of tones. Etchings made low on the sheets make low tones. High etchings make high tones. The sound is generated in real-time and the tempo depends on how fast you insert the sheets.

This isn't a new Dorkbot or Maker Faire oddity. It's a nearly forgotten Russian synthesizer designed by Evgeny Murzin in 1938. The synth was named after and dedicated to the Russian experimental composer and occultist Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872–1915). The name might not mean much to you, but it illuminates a long running connection between electronic music and the occult. Read the rest

Korg expands monotron lineup

Korg, maker of miniature synthesizers such as the Monotron and Monotribe, have two more analog pocket-synths for me to noodle around with for 20 minutes then put in a drawer: the Monotron Duo and Monotron Delay. Read the rest

Innovation and unpredictability: everyone needs a 303 (but not for $1,500)

Photo: Kleine Gelbe Ente This post is brought to you by Columbia Pictures "Moneyball"

The novelty of disruputive technology soon becomes second nature. Social networking made the web intimate, a lingua franca to even the barely computer-literate, but its real achievement was to make itself mundane. Apple gobbled the Walkman market whole in just a few years. But the iPod is already at least three revolutions ago in Cupertino. In consumer electronics, the light always burns bright and brief. Read the rest

The "world's most irritating instrument" is for sale

Behold "the World's Most Irritating Instrument," a handmade noisemaker that has yet to find a single bid on its imminently-ending eBay action. From the description:

It makes a clicking sound that is varied by a turn of a knob. It has a momentary on/off button and a LED light that moves with the beat of the clicking. ... This is a One Of A Kind instrument by circuit bent artist MaXbEnDeR! Runs on a 9 volt battery

The auction lacks sample audio, which leaves us to speculate on exactly how accomplished Mr. MaXbEnDeR is at creating irritating noises. A search online does, however, suggest mastery of the genre. In any case, the seller's claim must be incorrect, because everyone knows that the world's most irritating instrument is the bagpipe. Read the rest