18 June 2009
The invention: Portable electronic device that both simulates the sounds of acoustic instruments and creates entirely new sounds. The person behind the invention: Robert A. Moog (1934- ), an American physicist, engineer, and inventor From Harmonium to Synthesizer The harmonium, or acoustic reed organ, is commonly viewed as having evolved into the modern electronic synthesizer that can be used to create many kinds of musical sounds, from the sounds of single or combined acoustic musical instruments to entirely original sounds. The first instrument to be called a synthesizer was patented by the Frenchman J. A. Dereux in 1949. Dereux’s synthesizer, which amplified the acoustic properties of harmoniums, led to the development of the recording organ. Next, several European and American inventors altered and augmented the properties of such synthesizers. This stage of the process was followed by the invention of electronic synthesizers, which initially used electronically generated sounds to imitate acoustic instruments. It was not long, however, before such synthesizers were used to create sounds that could not be produced by any other instrument. Among the early electronic synthesizers were those made in Germany by Herbert Elmert and Robert Beyer in 1953, and the American Olsen-Belar synthesizers, which were developed in 1954. Continual research produced better and better versions of these large, complex electronic devices. Portable synthesizers, which are often called “keyboards,” were then developed for concert and home use. These instruments became extremely popular, especially in rock music. In 1964, Robert A. Moog, an electronics professor, created what are thought by many to be the first portable synthesizers to be made available to the public. Several other well-known portable synthesizers, such as ARP and Buchla synthesizers, were also introduced at about the same time. Currently, many companies manufacture studio-quality synthesizers of various types. Synthesizer Components and Operation Modern synthesizers make music electronically by building up musical phrases via numerous electronic circuits and combining those phrases to create musical compositions. In addition to duplicating the sounds of many instruments, such synthesizers also enable their users to create virtually any imaginable sound. Many sounds have been created on synthesizers that could not have been created in any other way. Synthesizers use sound-processing and sound-control equipment that controls “white noise” audio generators and oscillator circuits. This equipment can be manipulated to produce a huge variety of sound frequencies and frequency mixtures in the same way that a beam of white light can be manipulated to produce a particular color or mixture of colors. Once the desired products of a synthesizer’s noise generator and oscillators are produced, percussive sounds that contain all or many audio frequencies are mixed with many chosen individual sounds and altered by using various electronic processing components. The better the quality of the synthesizer, the more processing components it will possess. Among these components are sound amplifiers, sound mixers, sound filters, reverberators, and sound combination devices. Sound amplifiers are voltage-controlled devices that change the dynamic characteristics of any given sound made by a synthesizer. Sound mixers make it possible to combine and blend two or more manufactured sounds while controlling their relative volumes. Sound filters affect the frequency content of sound mixtures by increasing or decreasing the amplitude of the sound frequencies within particular frequency ranges, which are called “bands.” Sound filters can be either band-pass filters or band-reject filters. They operate by increasing or decreasing the amplitudes of sound frequencies within given ranges (such as treble or bass). Reverberators (or “reverb” units) produce artificial echoes that can have significant musical effects. There are also many other varieties of soundprocessing elements, among them sound-envelope generators, spatial locators, and frequency shifters. Ultimately, the soundcombination devices put together the results of the various groups of audio generating and processing elements, shaping the sound that has been created into its final form.Avariety of control elements are used to integrate the operation of synthesizers. Most common is the keyboard, which provides the name most often used for portable electronic synthesizers. Portable synthesizer keyboards are most often pressure-sensitive devices (meaning that the harder one presses the key, the louder the resulting sound will be) that resemble the black-and-white keyboards of more conventional musical instruments such as the piano and the organ. These synthesizer keyboards produce two simultaneous outputs: control voltages that govern the pitches of oscillators, and timing pulses that sustain synthesizer responses for as long as a particular key is depressed. Unseen but present are the integrated voltage controls that control overall signal generation and processing. In addition to voltage controls and keyboards, synthesizers contain buttons and other switches that can transpose their sound ranges and other qualities. Using the appropriate buttons or switches makes it possible for a single synthesizer to imitate different instruments—or groups of instruments— at different times. Other synthesizer control elements include sample-and-hold devices and random voltage sources that make it possible to sustain particular musical effects and to add various effects to the music that is being played, respectively. Electronic synthesizers are complex and flexible instruments. The various types and models of synthesizers make it possible to produce many different kinds of music, and many musicians use a variety of keyboards to give them great flexibility in performing and recording. Impact The development and wide dissemination of studio and portable synthesizers has led to their frequent use to combine the sound properties of various musical instruments; a single musician can thus produce, inexpensively and with a single instrument, sound combinations that previously could have been produced only by a large number of musicians playing various instruments. (Understandably, many players of acoustic instruments have been upset by this development, since it means that they are hired to play less often than they were before synthesizers were developed.) Another consequence of synthesizer use has been the development of entirely original varieties of sound, although this area has been less thoroughly explored, for commercial reasons. The development of synthesizers has also led to the design of other new electronic music- making techniques and to the development of new electronic musical instruments. Opinions about synthesizers vary from person to person—and, in the case of certain illustrious musicians, from time to time. One well-known musician initially proposed that electronic synthesizers would replace many or all conventional instruments, particularly pianos. Two decades later, though, this same musician noted that not even the best modern synthesizers could match the quality of sound produced by pianos made by manufacturers such as Steinway and Baldwin.