History of Audio Technology: Synthesizers and Samplers

    The history of audio recordings includes many experiments with formats and technologies. We collected devices that helped composers find the very “new sound”: from the half-forgotten experiments of Soviet engineers of the 1920s to the instruments of the 1970s. Photo PMDrive1061 / CC BY-SA / Optigan Optigan

    Optical instruments

    One of the first to work on the idea of ​​“artificial” sound began in the USSR. In 1929, during the creation of the movie "Five Year Plan", composer Arseny Avraamov, engineer Yevgeny Sholpo and animated film director Mikhail Tsekhanovsky wondered: is it possible to synthesize sound by recording a graphic image on the soundtrack of a film?

    Making sure that this is possible, Avraamov and Sholpo, together with inventors Boris Yankovsky and Nikolai Voinov, began to develop devices for creating “drawn sound”. The result of their work was three optical synthesizers .

    The first device, Nivoton, was developed by Nikolai Voinov. It worked on paper stencils denoting sounds of different timbre and pitch. These stencils Warriors cut out with scissors by hand. In the early 1930s, Nivoton was used in the voice acting of several cartoons.

    The second unit was designed by Boris Yankovsky. He wanted to create a library of synthetic sounds to fill in the “timbral gaps” in the symphony orchestra. The result of his work was Vibroexponator, a complex optical device that transfers the contents of stencil plates directly to the surface of a film.

    The third device is the Variofon by Evgeny Sholpo. Unlike other devices, the variophone was mechanized: rotating discs of various shapes created the pattern on the film. In the 1930s, the device was used both to create soundtracks, and as a synthesizer. By sound, the recordings created by Variofon resemble 8-bit music.

    Work on the "drawn sound" stopped during the war and then did not resume fully - Nikolai Voinov and Boris Yankovsky abandoned their designs, and Evgeny Sholpo died in 1951. Later, the ideas of engineers formed the basis of the world's first polyphonic synthesizer ANS . It was created by Eugene Murzin, a former colleague of Boris Yankovsky.

    Optical sound synthesis was used in his work and Leo Theremin . In the 1930s, the inventor lived in the United States, where, together with the American composer Henry Cowell (Henry Cowell) created the world's first drum machine. She received the name "rhythmicon".

    In the rhythmic icon between the light source and the photosensor there were rotating disks, one of which set the pitch, and the other a rhythmic pattern. You could switch between different tones and rhythms using the built-in 17-key keyboard.

    It so happened that Cowell himself quickly lost interest in the instrument. However, twenty years later, the rhythmicon received a second life. It was accidentally discovered by producer Joe Meek, from whose filing the rhythmicon sounded in the soundtrack for the film "Doctor Strangelove", and later on the records Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream.

    The experiments of a German scientist named Wolja Saraga led to the development of yet another optical synthesizer - the Saraga generator.

    The first version of the instrument was created to voice theatrical performances. A neon lamp was placed on one end of the stage, and a photo detector with a synthesizer module on the other. The movements of the actors interfered with the path of the neon beam, thereby affecting the pitch and timbre of the sound. Later, a simplified version of the instrument appeared, in which the optical sensor controlled only the pitch.

    During World War II, Saraga fled to the UK, which is why for a while he stopped working on the instrument. And after his return to Berlin, the project completely died - the Saraga generator could not compete with transistor synthesizers of the fifties.


    Optical synthesis technologies were also used to create early samplers.

    One of the first such devices - the Hardy-Goldtwaet Authority - was released in 1931. Images of the sound waves of instruments were applied to a disk located in front of the optical organ sensor, which allowed them to be imitated. Outwardly, the instrument resembled a piano and was controlled using the keyboard. The creators hoped that the organ would seriously compete with traditional symphonic instruments, but the device failed and did not reach the mass consumer.

    Optigan, a home music playing sampler created by toy maker Mattel in the early 70s, worked on a similar principle. Due to the low sound quality, it was also not in great demand. Even the professional version, released under the guidance of one of the inventors of the Moog synthesizer, did not fix this. You can hear the instrument on Kraftwerk and The Clash records .

    The main competitor of the “Optigan” was the Mellotron - resembling a piano sampler. Inside the instrument was a tape recorder and a set of tapes with eight-second samples. Pressing the key played the tape corresponding to it, creating the illusion of acoustic sound.

    Mellotron was loved by musicians - you can hear it on the albums of such groups as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and King Crimson. Radio and television workers also did not stand aside: in 1965, specially for the BBC, they released a special model of the mellotron - FX Console. It was used to create sound effects in programs and TV shows.

    Interest in the instrument declined in the 1980s with the advent of more convenient electronic samples, which were lighter than the mellotron and did not require such careful care. However, the musicians of the 1990s and 2000s returned to the instrument because of its characteristic sound: the mellotron can be heard in the works of Radiohead, Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers and other contemporary performers.

    Electromechanical tools

    One of the first electromechanical synthesizers was the trautonium, developed by the German engineer Friedrich Trautwein in 1929.

    Instead of a keyboard, the tool used a wire located above a metal plate. Pressing the wire closed the electric circuit and sent a signal to the tube sound generator. Playing trautonium was like playing a slide guitar: a metal plate was marked according to the steps of the chromatic scale.

    The instrument attracted the attention of composer Paul Hindemith and his student Oskar Sala, who performed the first works written especially for the trautonium in the early 1930s. Sala continued to write music for the instrument, but the composer failed to popularize it. The most famous use of the synthesizer was the soundtrack to “Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock - Oscar recorded cries of ravens and gulls on his day.

    In the 1930s, American Laurens Hammond developed the more popular electromechanical instrument, the Hammond organ. The sound in the instrument was made by a synchronous generator in the form of a gear wheel, which rotated around an electromagnetic pickup.

    At first, Hammond's organ gained popularity in religious institutions - it was an inexpensive alternative to brass organs - and then among rock musicians. The sound of the instrument is immortalized on the albums of Deep Purple, ELP and other groups of the 60s-70s.

    Over time, transistor models appeared, and digital versions of the organ are used to this day - they can be heard at concerts of many jazz musicians .

    What else can you read in our “Hi-Fi World”: Soundproofing

    method that dampens up to 94% of noise
    Zoo of professions related to the audio industry
    Technological musical instruments until the 20th century
    Vinyl instead of a postage stamp: an unusual rarity
    The world's first “gender-neutral” voice assistant

    Also popular now: