By Trent Rentsch
“I push the middle valve down… The music goes down around below, ohhhh…
And, it comes out, here.”
— Tommy Dorsey
Our historical journey to modern day synthesis continues this month, with our first stop somewhere in Europe in the 11th century, and the birth an instrument made infamous by a Donovan song back in the 1960’s. The Hurdy Gurdy, or “Organistrum,” as it was originally called, began as a large, guitar-shaped affair strung with 3 strings, a long neck set with keys (that were pulled, rather than pushed) and a crank that, when turned, rotated a wheel to make the strings drone. It took 2 people to play the thing, and it was really only suited to accompany slow, choral dirges during the Renaissance. Eventually, a one player version was created (with the new and exciting PUSH keys), and Hurdy Gurdy men across Europe were strapping on this early “guitar synth.” Variations came and went, and while it’s been centuries since there’s been a Hurdy Gurdy front man, there are still fans out there… in fact, I found a couple for sale on Ebay this morning.
By the beginning of the 1500’s (just as the Hurdy Gurdy was jumping the shark), musical inventors were working on mechanically driven organs, which had been on the drawing board for literally centuries. But it would be over a century before two new significant ancestors of modern synthesizers would arrive, and the first didn’t make music at all. In 1641, young up-start Blaise Pascal introduced his Pascaline to the world. Eventually found to be based on designs by De Vinci, this “calculating machine” is arguably the earliest ancestor of modern computers. 3 years later, a hydraulic engine that cranked out music called “The Nouvelle Invention de Lever”made its debut.
Up until now, every synthetic means of making music were human or mechanically powered. While music was probably the last thing on Ben Franklin’s mind when he became the first intentional human conductor of electricity, his resulting “invention” became the power source for the next ancient synthesizer. The “Clavecin Electrique,” or “electric harpsichord,” designed by Jean-Baptiste de Laborde, appeared in 1761 in France. It featured a harpsichord-like keyboard, which, when struck, would activate clappers charged with static electricity, which would ring bells. Granted, with no 110 to plug into, it probably worked best in a roomful of long-haired cats, but still the Clavecin Electrique is considered the first electrical musical instrument.
Several years later, another non-electrical step was made towards modern music makers. Johann Maelzel introduced the Panharmonicon, which was a keyboard instrument that mechanically controlled and automated the playing of a virtual orchestra of instruments. To prove it, he even talked Beethoven into composing music for it. While battles between the inventor and the composer eventually drove the instrument to novelty rather than mainstay, the Panharmonicon was the seed which sprouted and grew into today’s modern samplers.
Speaking of seeds, the first sequencers appeared in 1796 in Geneva, as a watchmaker designed the first music boxes, proving that accurate, if tinny and annoying, recreations of a performance could be reproduced over and over again.
It may not have made music, but Samuel Morse’s telegraph was an advancement towards modern synthesis on a couple of levels. Introduced in 1832, it was the first time “sound” was transmitted over wires. These rhythmic pulses, made legible with Morse code, were the crude beginnings of amplified sound… one could even argue that it was a precursor to the MIDI standard, which is the way computers and synthesizers “talk” to each other, via wires. The telegraph also brought us one step closer to today’s computers in 1859, when David Hughes created a typewriting telegraph set-up. Ironically, the keyboard resembled a piano keyboard more than a typewriter.
By this point in history, electricity had become the common driving force for the advancement of every major technology, and music was no exception. In 1867, a guy named Hipps in Switzerland invented the first synthesized piano, an instrument called the Electromechanical Piano, which ditched traditional strings in favor of electromagnets that controlled small generators that made sound. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell beat Elisha Gray to the patent office, thus insuring his place in history as THEE inventor of the telephone, but that same year, Gray took his place in history as the father of oscillators(the sound generators which create the base sounds synthesizers are built on) with his Electroharmonic Telegraph, which could “play” music over telephone lines, and later, over a loudspeaker he created (always the glory hound, Bell came up with his own version called the Electric Harp).
One year later, the invention arrived that would forever insure that the majority of music and/or sound we hear would be synthetically created, as Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner nearly simultaneously presented the Phonograph. Edison’s patented sound creator depended on a needle attached to a diaphragm to record and play back sound on a wax cylinder. While Berliner’s system using wax discs became the standard, both men are credited with basically creating the recording industry.
Next month, we’ll finish our journey towards modern synthesis (just one more century or so to go), and begin looking at how twisting all those knobs and/or inputting the right numbers creates all sorts of interesting noises. And if you were thinking of bidding on one of those Hurdy Gurdys, don’t bother… I’m sure the auction is over (says the man who has a bid in).