By Trent Rentsch
In which the author concludes his time-tripping visit to the milestones that made modern synthesis possible and prepares to begin a journey concerning what knob does what on modern noise-makers.
The year is 1887. You’ve just taken your weekly bath, you’ve had a shot of Laudanum (for medicinal purposes only, of course), and it’s time to kick back and relax, perhaps with some good music. So what are your options? A Phonograph? Annoying… the neighbors have one, and they keep playing that same tinny song over and over (the wax cylinders aren’t cheap, nor widely available, after all). You could make your own music, if but for two problems: you had to give up piano lessons at age 10 to work in the coal mine, and more importantly, you’re lacking some of the required fingers (damn that slaughter house job. You really should find a safer position… perhaps in the gas lighting trade). What is a talentless, digitally impaired music lover to do?
Well, you could try that new-fangled Player Piano that just came out. While it looks like a ghost is playing the thing, a look inside shows a gizmo with a roll of paper, punched full of holes. As the clockwork rolls down the paper in front of a pneumatic vacuum tube, the air pressure changes and pushes down the keys. Some Player Pianos were also Recorder Pianos, punching holes in the paper roll that would be used to reproduce the performance, which were then mass produced so any fool with a Player Piano could have a world-class performance in their living room (for those of you reading in the year 2007, yes, this is the Great Great Granddaddy of MIDI keyboards). Now, if they’d just come up with a way to automatically milk the cows and pre-slice bread…
In the next few years the Player Piano concept was taken a step closer to modern synthesizers with the introduction of the Choralcello. Developed by a couple of brother-in-laws in Massachusetts, the Choralcello used an electromagnetic tone wheel to make organ sounds, as well as a set of piano strings that could be played by either piano-like hammers, or vibrated magnetically. There were even resonators made of all sorts of varied materials to run the sound through to change to timbre. Three keyboards were needed to play the thing: a 64-note one for regular piano functions, an 88-note one for the electromagnets and tone wheels, and a 32-note bass petal board. Eventually, a Player/Recorder Piano mechanism was added to automate the performance. The machinery was said to take up “two basements,” which might explain why only 6 were known to be sold (imagine how the roadies would’ve whined about hauling THAT gear…).
1899 was the year that the first completely electronic instrument appeared… sort of. The carbon arc lamp was lighting homes in Europe and England before the light bulb, but there was a problem. The things made a high pitched squeal that was hard to ignore. In an effort to quiet the whistling lamps, an English physicist was given the task of making the light quieter. As it turned out, he discovered that adding more electricity to the lamps made the pitch higher. So he did what any self-respecting scientist would do… he attached a keyboard and toured the country with his “Singing Arc.” One man’s noise...
As the century turned, inventors were busy refining electronics of all sorts, including musical ones. 1919 was the year Russian Léon Theremin amazed Lenin and the rest of the world with an instrument he modestly called “The Theremin.” It is played without touching it, with the hands waving over two radio antenna, one which alters the pitch, the other the volume — the performer literally becoming the grounding plate in the circuit! They became a performance sensation, with several Theremin masters touring the world giving concerts around the world. The novelty wore off after the Second World War, but the Theremin never really went away, becoming a staple for hobbyists and eventually used heavily to add that weird, otherworldly warble to Sci Fi soundtracks. Both kits and fully constructed units still sell well today. (I will have one in my studio, someday, this I swear!)
In 1929 the Hammond organ was introduced, which uses sine waves generated by those dinosaurs of electronic music production, the tone wheel. Not only was it an innovation for it’s time, but is also one of the other early “synthesizers” that is still widely used (even coveted) today.
It would still be several decades before the first, honest to goodness synthesizer appeared. It was developed by a couple of eggheads working for RCA named Olson and Belar, and in the modest tradition of music inventors, named their creation, “The Olson-Belar Sound Synthesizer.” This electronic behemoth took a giant step backwards in the way of controllers, using a punched paper roll a lot like the Player Piano. Each punch in the paper gave the machine instructions for recreating the sounds, the output fed to disk recording machines for storage of the resulting noise on lacquer-coated disks. Programming was tedious and time consuming, and real time performance was out of the question, but as big and messy as it was, the Olson-Belar was officially the first modern synthesizer.
In which the author must admit that he had more ground to cover this month than he expected, and concludes that he will be forced to finish his musical time line to modern synthesis next month.