Innovations in Electronic Music: The Synthesizer

I’ve played piano for about as long as I’ve had memory. And over the years I’ve accumulated a small collection of ‘keys’ that I cherish: including a couple synths. Synthesis has always been a challenge to me; I never feel quite at home improvising on a keyboard unless it has very ‘piano-like’ characteristics (I thrive on high contrast dynamics, decay, and sustain that doesn’t translate to organs or synths). This is something bandmates rarely seem to understand. I rather dislike that synthesizers get lopped in with other keyboards so frequently because they are truly a unique beast.

I owe a huge debt to early synth pioneers such like Donald Buchla or Bob Moog: heck, modern music owes a huge debt to them. It was an incredible step towards having an orchestra at your fingertips. I remember my first MIDI sequencer (Fruity Loops) opening huge doors in my creative efforts, largely because it had tons of different instruments I could choose from to arrange. Even though synthesizers still don’t do a fantastic job at mimicking other instruments (I like my synths sounding like synths) the synthesizer far predated sampled software instruments like those I mentioned in Fruity Loops. Even MIDI technology itself was a byproduct of the synthesis revolution, as Peter Manning points out in his book Electronic and Computer Music. MIDI alone has had a tremendous impact on music creation: I dare go as far as to say that MIDI sequencers are the sheet music of the 21st century.

Synthesizers are also a huge precursor to electronic music. While electronic music can really include anything that has been processed, synthesizers expanded the spectrum of sounds possible. When you think about it, a synthesizer is essentially a system created for playing electricity as an instrument. Spacey sounds that could never have come from an acoustic instrument would be a common element of Krautrock and other precursors to modern EDM. And while pure electronic music is the most obvious application of synths, they are heard in all modern genres of music today. In fact, when I think of synth sounds, I actually visualize more jazz fusion than anything else thanks to the soaring lead sounds of greats like Chic Corea or Jan Hammer.

So, as I mentioned earlier I owe a lot to synthesizers (even if I’m not great at crafting my own sounds with them). When it comes to innovations that shaped electronic music you’d be hard pressed to find something as impactful as the synthesizer.

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