While they are now the essential tools of current pop and EDM musical composers and producers the world over, it is only relatively recently that synthesizers became a major force in popular music. Prior to the introduction of the mass-market Moog synth in the 1960s, in fact, most musicians might only encounter a synthesizer if they happened to visit an upscale recording studio or university music department in a major urban center or Ivy League college town.
Tentative Steps Towards a Wholly “Electronic” Form of Music
Indeed, for most record collectors in the first few decades after World War II, synthesizers were primarily seen as otherworldly instruments used mainly by avant-garde classical music theorists such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. Nonetheless, an open-minded approach to technology led rock musicians such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd to experiment with analog synthesizers on albums such as Abbey Road and The Dark Side of the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It was Wendy Carlos’s 1968 album Switched-On Bach that truly brought the synthesizer to mainstream audiences, however, so much so that the album is still cited by electronic music aficionados as a breakthrough moment in 20th Century musical history. Indeed, by the late 1970s, the synthesizer was becoming popular among dance music artists, many of whom saw the synthesizer’s heavy, hard-edged electronic sound as a perfect foil to the “four on the floor” disco beats beloved by dance music fans everywhere from Philadelphia to Milan, Italy.
Taking the World by Storm: Moroder as Electronic Producer
The 1977 single “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer and Italian producer Giorgio Moroder perfectly encapsulated this new push towards heavy, electrified dance music aimed at a mass audience, and the results were revolutionary in their scope. In one fell swoop, Summer and Moroder had created the template for electronic music as we know it today; startlingly futuristic in its approach, the song still sounds ahead of its time. It is little wonder that electronic musicians Daft Punk have sung the praises of Moroder’s production work for years.
Moroder wasn’t the only musician fascinated by the potential of synthesizers to revolutionize pop and dance music, however. Led by unique artists such as Gary Numan (frontman of Tubeway Army) and Brian Eno (keyboardist for Roxy Music), a new movement was also forming around synth-based glam and new-wave rock in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s; around this same time period, bands like Japan, the Human League, and Yellow Magic Orchestra would turn synthesizers into must-have items for avant-garde musical acts hoping to take their sound to the next level. In Germany, meanwhile, the band Kraftwerk were using synthesizers to clinically document the post-war gloom of their home country, earning the group accolades from artists like David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
Synthesizers Hit the Mass Market
Along with the popularity of bands like Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, newer technology was also enabling young artists to purchase synthesizers at affordable rates. Companies such as Sequential Circuits, Korg, and Oberheim had mastered the art of creating compact, affordable electronic instruments, while Yamaha’s introduction of the low-cost DX7 FM synthesizer in 1983 altered the pop landscape forever. Indeed, the DX7 would go on to become the biggest-selling synthesizer of all time, with its main presets becoming so ubiquitous in the charting music of its day that its sounds are now instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing knowledge of 1980s Top 40 music. Around this time, the newly-introduced and inexpensive Roland TR-808, TR-909, and TB-303 drum and bass synthesizers became so popular that entire genres such as acid house and Detroit techno would be formed around their use.
The Fall and Rise of Synthesizers
After the 1980s, mainstream interest in synthesizers waned, and the ethos of Nirvana’s 1991 hit album Nevermind would render the instrument deeply unfashionable throughout the decade. In recent years, however, a resurgence in interest in synthesizers has created a massive collector’s market for old-school analog and digital synths; while you still might be able to buy a Yamaha DX7 for a few hundred dollars, a vintage Moog may set you back the cost of a small house.
Less focused on reinventing the wheel than in replicating the classic sounds of yesteryear, newer synthesizer companies like u-He, Arturia, and Xfer Records have moved into the “software synthesis” market, where classic synth models such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and the Yamaha CS-80 are digitally replicated for use on a basic hard drive. Technology may have brought the synthesizers of yesteryear to the personal computers of today, but it’s clear that synthesizers are back in a very big way. For everyone from diehard disco fans to EDM’s true believers, that is very good news indeed.