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New Music


Electronics and synthesiser music.

Eddie Franklin-White looks at Synthesiser Development

In my last article I briefly discussed major classical elements in new music of the earlier part of this century. This month I am taking a leap forward in time to look at the development of the synthesiser, how this has been affected by musicians' requirements, and how musicians have been affected by the possibilities it has unfolded.

Although there were experiments during the early part of the century, of which the most notable was the Theremin (1927), the use of electronics in music only really became viable in the 1950s.

Let us look first at three major electronic music centres where approaches to work grew and flourished.


1 Paris and the Radiffusion Francaise studios; particularly associated with the work of Pierre Boulez and Pierre Henri. The work originating from this studio was largely based on tape recorder techniques, collage, speed change, loop, delay, echo. This type of studio with its strong accent on tape techniques is often referred to as a 'classic' electronic music studio.

2 Cologne and the studio at the Radio Centre where work was largely based on electronically-produced sound using banks of oscillators plus reverberation, filters and echo, as well as tape techniques.

3 Princeton University in New York State and the RCA synthesiser(s), the first of which came into use in 1955; the Mark I recorded on to disc (!) but the Mark II was converted to record on to tape which had become a viable and increasingly efficient recording medium, although still a long way from modern multi-track possibilities.

The RCA machine offered two distinct possibilities: first, that it could be programmed in time with the aid of punched tape to produce a sequence; second, the use of sawtooth oscillators containing many harmonics that could be filtered to provide a wide range of sounds.

The main difference then between the techniques used in the Cologne studio and the RCA synthesiser was that in Cologne the basic technique was to produce sounds by adding oscillators together (plus treatments), while with the RCA machine sounds were produced by filtering out the harmonic content of sawtooth oscillators which were then controlled by punched tape. The composer most closely associated with the RCA at Princeton was Milton Babbitt; and with the early days at Cologne, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The RCA was large and very complicated to handle, but in the 1960s the development of transistorised voltage-controlled circuits led to a range of synthesisers that were both more versatile and considerably more convenient to use.

From this time on, synthesiser design has grown in two main directions: firstly, instruments that are fully transportable and largely played from a keyboard (or keyboards); and secondly, studio synthesisers that are largely designed for more experimental work, where the accent is on the range of non-tonal sounds that can be produced. Here, the use of the keyboard to produce tonal sounds is regarded as a useful extra rather than the norm.

Of course to put all synthesiser design under two headings is a dangerous simplification — performers such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman have brought together vast arrays of equipment on stage and, on the other hand, there are small, portable, 'experimental' synthesisers; however these two main headings remain substantially valid.

It is here that we can see the twin effects of the musicians' requirements affecting design, and synthesiser design affecting musicians. In the early stages, musicians looking for new sounds prompted early experimental synthesisers, with radio stations, universities and colleges setting up large studios; on the other hand rock and popular musicians quickly saw the potential of the keyboard synthesiser for performance use. These latter demands have led to the production of the present enormous range of keyboard instruments.

Manufacturers now seem to have ceased to produce new designs for large experimental synthesisers, as the largest commercial market is obviously for instruments that can conveniently be used on stage or in the recording studio by inventive keyboard performers.

While Moog have produced examples of the whole range from the Micro- and Minimoog to large complexes of equipment, the EMS Synthi 100 is still available and Roland have recently added the large System 700 to their range. Other manufacturers have mainly looked to the rock and popular market.

The most recent development to hit the market is the polyphonic keyboard synthesiser; keyboard players at last have an instrument on which they can play more than one note at a time and have a vast range of tone qualities and effects available from a single keyboard, infinitely variable and often with pre-set memory.

Add to this the advent of digital techniques and the falling cost of microprocessors, and it becomes clear that while voltage controlled, analogue synthesisers will be around for some time to come, the area now to be developed is in the field of digital techniques.

As most manufacturers have realised that there is a huge market for keyboard synthesisers for the rock and pop scene it seems likely that experimental digital machines will be developed by universities, private groups and perhaps radio stations. Such work is already going on, and there is an echo of the Fifties here.

It is against this background that I shall, in my next article, be discussing the aims, design and work of the large studio at the University of East Anglia.

Some recommended recordings selected from the last 10 years (Fifties and Sixties selections in later articles):

Tangerine Dream Phaedra Virgin V2010.
Gentle, lyrical, early 'Dream'. Sounds a little predictable but who has done it better?

Kraftwerk Autobahn. Vertigo 6360 620.
Brutal and exciting, if somewhat overlong and repetitive album by electronic rock band.

Rick Wakeman The Six Wives of Henry VIII A&M AMCH64361.
Exciting use of keyboard synthesiser in a variety of rock styles with an engaging nod at earlier times.

Walter Carlos Sonic Seasonings CBS 77280.
Highly enjoyable, I recommend this rather than Switched-On Bach as, for all its massive sales I feel that the latter comes into the category of 'let's make great music approachable by taking away its guts'.

Pink Floyd Ummagumma. SHDW 1.
Double-album containing such numbers as Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun. Classic early experimental rock with electronics.

Previous Article in this issue

Second Hand

Next article in this issue

Tape Machine Survey

Sound International - Copyright: Link House Publications


Sound International - Jul 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

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> Second Hand

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> Tape Machine Survey

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