Phones & Synthesizers? An Ode to Electronic Evolution
There are a lot of people, places and things that I remember from my childhood more vividly than what I ate two days ago. One of the things that I remember was the evolution of our house phone. The first phone I remember was a beige rotary phone that sat on its own stand in a corner of the living room. The phone rang loud enough to hear all over the house. The phone cord was long enough to allow you to carry the phone throughout the entire house while you talked on it. As some years went by, the rotary phone turned into a push button phone and eventually a state of the art cordless phone. I had no idea that progression would continue throughout my lifetime. Look at us now. Phones today are not only wireless and smart but have basically become an extension of who we are.
The evolution of the phone can be paralleled to that of the synthesizer. Looking at pictures of early analog synths, most would think you had to be a scientist or a jet pilot just to make it produce sound. One of my childhood dreams was to be a scientist so maybe that explains my fascination with these noise contraptions. Fortunately, you don’t need a science degree to use a synthesizer, just some ambition and a little creativity. First of all, let’s understand what a synthesizer is. A synthesizer, affectionately known as a synth is an electronic device that creates vibrations in the form of an electrical signal. Synths can use many different methods and controllers to generate signal. The most common control used today is a keyboard. Once the signal is created by the controller, it then converts to sound that we can actually hear through a monitor or speaker. The signal can be manipulated to create an infinite amount of sounds.
Electric instruments and synthesizers date back to the late 1800’s in the western world and have advanced a great deal over time. The science of electromagnetic sound and communication can be found in scripted in hieroglyphics of Egyptian pyramids.
While there are many types of synths, analog keyboard synths have had the largest impact on popular music. Early analog synths were the rotary phones of synths. Some of them even had patch bays that resembled early telecommunication networks. When electronic sound began to penetrate popular music, analog synths became high in demand. In the 1970’s a company called Moog Music started designing the most innovative synths the industry had ever seen. The Mini Moog was the first pre-patched synth with a miniature design, 44 keys. The design and features of the Mini Moog set a standard for other modular synth manufactures. With features like pitch control, a modulation wheel and it's portable design, the Mini Moog became very popular with live performers. In the 70’s and 80’s you could see a Mini Moog accompanying the stage with the likes of everyone from Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder to George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic.
Today, software based music programs come fully equipped with synthesizer plugins. These plugins attempt to simulate hardware synthesizers. While they can somewhat replicate the sound, they fall short of the producing the depth and soul of hardware synths.
German music composer Klaus Schulze is quoted in an interview saying the following:
“I don’t use much (if any) software during a concert. It’s no fun!” adds Schulze. “It would destroy my mood during a concert, if I have to type alphabetic characters and numbers on a keyboard, or use a mouse. After all, I’m not a nerd, but more the emotional type of musician”
No diss to software synths and smart phones, I use them both and they serve their purpose. But you can't deny the soul satisfaction of controlling knobs and keys to create the perfect vibration. There was something about that rotary phone. When you picked up the handset, placed your finger on each number and literally dialed, you knew you were connecting to something or someone meaningful to you. There was something about the rawness of the news being received or given as you held the receiver to your ear nestled on your shoulder. If the convo was good or intense you could literally feel the vibration through the phone. You could even slam it down if the conversation had you boiling over. No text message can relay that feeling, just as no software simulated synth can give you feeling an analog hardware synth. You be the judge!