An illustration of a MiniMoog synthesiser.
© John Smisson
Technology

This is the early history of the synthesizer

Synths have gone through many changes since the 1960s, evolving from early modular analog systems into computer software synths. Read on to find out more about the pioneers of their development.
Written by Sammy Lee
5 min readPublished on
The process of making electronic music began more than a century ago with unpredictable and impractical 'instruments' such as the Telharmonium, Theremin, Ondioline and other exotically named contraptions. None of those were very playable, but it was a start.
In the 1940s, after WWII, the race to the future was on, and the idea of synthesising and generating new electronic sounds began to take off. Music was made using reel-to-reel tape recorders and massive analog equipment in specially kitted-out electronic music studios around the world. Meanwhile, inventors and experimental composers, like Raymond Scott, built prototypes that set the template for synth makers.
These pioneers helped popularise the sound of electronic music by recording jingles and soundtracks, increasing the hunger for an easier and more accessible way of making electronic music. This all led to the modern analog synths we're familiar with today, built by Robert Moog, Donald Buchla and others.
They provided the tools for a revolution in music that was put into practice by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, Suzanne Ciani, Derrick May and so many others. Below, listen to some of these important synth pioneers explain their ideas.
An illustration of a huge early analog synthesiser with lots of patch cables.
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Robert Moog

Robert Moog began making and selling theremins with his dad in the 1950s, but in the early '60s he built his first modular synthesizer in his spare time. It was comprised of two oscillators and two amps controlled by doorbells. He displayed his prototype synths at the Audio Engineering Society convention in 1964 and by the late-'60s the Moog sound was beginning to appear in popular music and film soundtracks, such as Midnight Cowboy.
It was the massive success of Wendy Carlos's 1968 album Switched-On Bach – in which Carlos reinterpreted classical songs on a Moog – that turned on a new generation to the possibilities of synths, though. The 1970 release of the more accessible MiniMoog was nothing short of revolutionary and was employed by everyone from Kraftwerk to Michael Jackson.
An illustration of synthesised music pioneer Robert Moog with a synth.
Robert Moog

Donald Buchla

Donald Buchla was just as important as Robert Moog in the early development of synthesizers – or, as he preferred to call them, electronic instruments.
A key member of the West Coast counterculture in the '60s, alongside the Grateful Dead, Buchla invented his own modern modular synth around the same time as Robert Moog, after being commissioned by avant-garde composer Morton Subotnick. Buchla's synths – the Buchla Box and Buchla Music Easel particularly – were hailed for their playability and musicality, and are beloved of important figures such as Laurie Spiegel, Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.

Peter Zinovieff

UK inventor Peter Zinovieff was inspired to explore the possibilities of electronic music by Daphne Oram – soon to be a pivotal member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – in the 1960s.
The geologist and mathematician decided to try and find an easier way of synthesising sounds than splicing reels of tape, and set about building an electronic studio in his garden shed. It became the thing of legend and key musicians of the '60s would drop by to take a look at his huge setup of oscillators and amplifiers. In 1969, Zinovieff launched the EMS VCS3 portable analog synthesizer and it quickly established itself as a staple in music studios all over the world.

Tom Oberheim

An illustration of a progressive rock artist in a cape surrounded by large synthesisers.
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American computer engineer Tom Oberheim was responsible for some of the earliest commercial polyphonic synths – systems capable of playing more than one note at a time.
Oberheim got his start making sound equipment for US psychedelic band The United States Of America, including a ring modulator that caught the attention of film directors and jazz musicians such as Herbie Hancock. After learning about synth design from ARP creator Alan R. Pearlman, Oberheim developed the much-loved Oberheim 2-Voice, 4-Voice and 8-Voice synths, as well as sequencers and drum machines, that were used in everything from jazz to early hip-hop and techno.

Dave Smith

Dave Smith and John Bowen's Prophet-5 synthesizer, built in 1977 for Sequential Circuits, was one of the earliest polyphonic synths to be able to store sound settings. Prior to this, musicians would have to remember or write down various knob positioning and cable-patch locations. That wasn't the Prophet-5's only appeal. It also looked beautiful, and its wonderfully eerie sci-fi textures and spooky chords hooked horror film directors and soundtrack makers, like John Carpenter. Its unmistakable sound can also can be heard on '90s West Coast rap records.

Hiroaki Nishijima & Tatsuya Takahashi

Based in Tokyo, Korg (or Keio Electronic Laboratories as it was originally known) was founded by nightclub owner Tsutomu Katoh in order to help his favourite accordion player (and engineer) Tadashi Osanai invent a rhythm machine to accompany his performances.
After creating a keyboard, christened Korg, a combination of Keio and organ, they heard about the interest in synths in the United States, and developed it into the Mini-Korg – a monophonic synth. Since then, Korg has been responsible for dance music favourites PS-3300, MS10 and MS20, as well as introducing the first truly affordable polyphonic synths – the Polysix and Trident – to the market.
An illustration of a Roland TB 303 bass synth.
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Sebastian Niessen

Sebastian Niessen isn't as well known as the Moogs and Buchlas of the synth world, but he played an important part in helping Kraftwerk perfect their sound. Working as a synth engineer for the German trailblazers, Niessen customised the band's equipment and built one-offs for them, and many other acts. His custom electronic instruments and modified synths have been used by everyone from Aphex Twin and Richie Hawtin to Basic Channel.