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The history of synthesizer and sampler development - part II

Mellotron sound was used on the famous recordings of The Beatles, such as Strawberry Fields Forever. It was the first sampler in the history using the pieces of magnetic tapes as today's digital samplers use digital samples.

Here is a sample of the Mellotron sound from that famous recording  mp3 >>>   

Another very important inventor in the history of music was Robert Moog. He invented a modular synthesizer, which consists of several modules combined with each other in different ways by using cables. Although he was not the first of the inventors of a modular synthesizer, earlier than him was  BŘchl Don, who also introduced the initial concept of this sequencer, but Moog was important in the sense of establishing a certain standard in the construction of electronic synthesizers, which since then are reproduced by countless companies: the Music Control Voltage (VCA). Modular Moog synthesizers included  voltage control setting of 1 Volt per octave, to control the basic functions: pitch (VCO), cut-off filter (VCF) and volume (VCA). Envelope, low frequency oscillators and keyboard could give the small voltage needed. Although the Don Buchla synthesizer also used voltage controls as well as Moog, but did not have such precise adjustment, it's settings were rather experimental and not suitable to the broader use in music just like Moog's synthesizer. 

On the following photos left to right - BŘchla together with his modular synthesizer and early Moog:



Below - early Buchla's synthesizers :


A very important step forward was the invention in 1969 by R. Moog 's the MiniMoog synthesizer. It was an attempt to get rid of huge quantities of cables, which can be very complicated in operation and adjustment of the modular Moog synthesizer. This has resulted in fantastically miniaturized instrument:

Moog remedied the problem of huge quantities of cables by the use of permanent connections between the modules and by use of large-scale switches, through which similarly large number of  combinations could be obtained, as using cables. This allowed the extensive use of synthesizers during concerts, and not only in the studio. Bass sounds of the Minimoog ibecame quickly the loved standard for many musicians musicians and took a permanent place in classic popular music.


Examples of Moog Modular synthesizer sounds:   Bass .mp3>>>    Vibrations .mp3>>>


Another instrument that has permanently inscribed on the history of music is the Prophet 5:

Although it was not the first polyphonic synthesizer, which is capable of playing chords, as such instruments existed before, like the Yamaha CS-80 (which is one of the main Vangelis' instruments in the late'70 and early'80), its truly innovative value, however, consisted of something else: it had a miniature internal chips, where a single VCO, VCF, VCA unit could be built in a linear IC system. The Prophet 5, thanks to the use of this technology has become the smallest polyphonic synthesizer, which may be used for concerts, and is easily transported. Another very important innovation of Prophet 5 was the overall programmability. Musicians were for the first time able to save their sounds in the cells of RAM and recall them freely during the concerts. This was simply invaluable move forward for musicians, using the synthesizer as their principal instrument. Polyphonic synthesizers, which emerged after the Prophet 5, all used similar technology of miniaturized integrated circuits of IC type.

Examples of sounds from synthesizer Prophet 5: 

Prophet 5 sound-mp3>>   Prophet 5 -In the Air Tonight-mp3>>  


So far, the only types of sound synthesis in synthesizers were either the  "additive" and the "subtractive". The first instrument, which was built on the basis of a completely different sound synthesis was the New England Digital Synclavier. Although it was very expensive and rarely used outside the world of film and experimental music, but it included many elements, which passed the synthesizer to the future. First of all, it had a new technology generators based on the principle of FM synthesis, namely the mathematical, digital audio synthesis. Secondly, the Synclavier contained a computer, which governed both the parameters and the sequencing of sound, and even the sampling of sounds from outside in the later models. It was to become the first fully digital sampler and a first digital workstation. Later, some companies have put on the market their workstations, which were more miniaturized, such as Ensoniq ESQ-1, Korg M1, but the concept was discovered and introduced by the Synclavier. It significantly helped in the  development of electronic music and one of its big fans was an American composer and guitarist, the great experimenter, Frank Zappa.

In the photo below New England Digital Synclavier:

One can not mention here is the first digital sampler, the Fairlight CMI. In the seventies of last century, a group of people in Sydney in Australia have started work on the synthesizer controlled by computer. But what came out was completely different from the original draft vision. It turned out that they built the first sampler. This sampler has changed the face of electronic music by replacing the complex process of tape looping with much easier digital processing. Although it was very costly device, its ability to create and edit sounds, as well as controlling them through the illuminated graphic pen on the keyboard was highly coveted by musicians. Excellent French composer, Jean-Michel Jarre in his early albums was very advanced user of the device. Fairlight CMI has inspired a lot more, newer samplers.

The following photo shows that first mass-used sampler:

Another very important synthesizer-sampler designating new horizons in the development of music is Emu Emulator. Emu in the early seventies, was a company that produced modular synthesizers. However, Dave Rossum, founder of Emu Systems, completely changed its approach when he first saw Fairlight'a CMI in 1980. Then he came to the conclusion that there must be a simpler way of sampling and a year later the EMU produced the first prototype- the Emulator I. User's interface was much simpler than the CMI's, the operation of instrument was also easier to understand, and the price ($ 8000) was significantly lower than CMI's price. Starting from then Emu has become the dominant sampling company. Another model was Emulator II, produced in 1984 - it had longer sampling times, the built-in sequencer, and the possibility of multisampling. Some of the sounds have become the standard sounds of eighties, for example  "shakuhachi", and are still popular today. There are bands such as Depeche Mode, which still use the Emulator II.

Here is the Emulator II:



How the Emu Emulator sounds: Emu Emulator II - Shakuhachi -mp3     Emu - Enjoy the Silence -mp3


Another important synthesizer in the history is the Yamaha DX7 released in 1983. This is one of the most famous and most widespread synthesizers using FM synthesis. Yamaha has developed technology for their keyboards, the FM has been in existence for some time, but only this model has brought up the desired success. Since that time, FM synthesis has dominated analog synthesizers and until recently was the dominant technology used in synthesizers. FM technology was able to produce good sounds at a relatively low cost that were previously available only on very expensive and complex machinery. The DX7 is a digital synthesizer that has the easy choice of a sound at the touch of a button. It was also equipped with recently discovered midi interface, which allowed for easy control of synthesizer, as well as its co-operation with other sound modules. The Yamaha DX7 cost was less than $ 2,000. It was the first really widely available digital synthesizer. It has proved a huge success, becoming one of the most widely sold and most widespread synthesizers in history. In the years 1983 - 1987, very many songs on the music market contained the sounds from DX-7. 

Here is the Yamaha DX7 model:



 Yamaha DX7 sound example:   Yamaha DX7 -mp3  


Roland TB-303. Before the techno era it is absolutely would not get onto this list of the best or most notable synthesizers. But since the techno style was invented, this instrument has become the most desirable instrument to get for a techno musician, because it's action of unique resonance filter has become very desirable and fashionable element of the techno style. Interestingly, the Roland TB-303 was designed and produced as an instrument to imitate bass guitar. It appeared, however, that it did not completely suited to this role, it's tone was a very poor attempt to clone the bass guitar. But the electronic musicians  quickly figured out that with the appropriate settings of the controls it gives a very nice and interesting, wet filter sound, with a soft kind of distortion, which is suitable for many synthesizer lines such as leads and pulsations. The Roland TB-303 is probably the most classic techno music synthesizer on the market. It's simplicity and one of a kind sound have contributed to its high rank among the best synthesizers in history.


Sound samples from Roland TB-303: Roland TB303 Get_Ready -mp3   Roland TB303 Acperience -mp3


Roland D-50. This instrument was designed by Roland specifically to make it the same market hit as the Yamaha DX7 for the Yamaha company. And so it happened: D50 has become one of the most popular synthesizers of the eighties, and the whole twentieth century. It also helped in the development of today's sample based synthesizers. The D-50 was one of the first synthesizer with built-in ROM memory  that contained the samples which could be used instead of oscillators. These samples were short, but good enough to give a lot of realistic instrument sounds. Another very important innovation of the Roland D-50 was the introduction of the synthesizer module effects: the reverb, chorus, equalizer. Many previously built synthesizers had some effects but they were of much poorer quality. After the D-50, synthesizers which sounds based on samples almost always had built in effects similar to the famous Roland. After adding digital analog sound emulation  it has become a very warm sounding synthesizer, which actually carried out the majority of the sound of the eighties style music. Other synthesizers, such as the Korg M1, with its capability of imposing various tone over themselves (Combi feature) helped much in the development of today's advanced synthesizers, based on samples. But the Roland D-50 was the beginning of a new line of synthesizers, which went into the samples.

For comparison, let's listen to sounds of Korg M1 .mp3>>>


Therefore, the Roland D-50 is on the short list of most beloved synthesizers of all time. It is still a favorite among professional keyboard players. It is much easier to use than the Yamaha DX-7. It combines the technology of  8-bit PCM samples with the sounds generated in the typical synthesizer way, the so-called LAS technology (Linear Arithmetic Synth), so it is able to provide a very unique and complex sounds.
PCM sample contains a lot of transients in the attack, while the rest of the sound comes from the LAS section, which sounds very analog, soft, in the subtractive synthesis style and contains  perfectly sounding low-resonance filters. The instrument has a built-in chorus and reverb that was the first digital reverb ever used in a synthesizer, which helps to give it's sounds extra space and life.

A very interesting solution is the joystick, which is used to manipulate sounds in real time. The D-50 was and still is a wonderful instrument for pads, beautiful, sometimes sounding a bit percussive. The most successful patches are for example the "Staccato Heaven" or "Glass Voices" The combination of sound characteristics of digital loops, featured on the first samplers and analogue warmth gives the D-50 really unmatched sound quality-clean and warm at the same time. Another famous patch is "Fantasia", a mixture of digital bells and synthesizers with a slightly warm, out of tune taste to it.

Yet another notable patches to "DigitalNativeDance", "Soundtrack", "Pizzagogo" and "Glass Voices" of the D-50 have characteristics of the sound of the analog mixed wealth, combined with crystal, digitally perfect taste, with the expression and overall beauty of sound, which is difficult to imitate. The Roland recently released its V-Synth, which is like D-50, thanks to the use samples of low resolution in some cases.

This popular synthesizer is in wide use in all music styles among artists such as Eric Clapton, Enya, 808 State, Jean Michael Jarre, Vince Clarke, Apollo 440, Eat Static, LTJ Bukem, Fluke, Information Society, Lab-4, Gary Numan, Rick Wakeman, Kitaro, Rush, Boston and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran.



Patches from Roland D-50: 
 Roland D50 - Enya      Roland D50 - Staccato Heaven     Roland D50 - Fantasia



The last synthesizer presented here did not become so popular as the previous ones, but its importance lies in the fact that it introduced a new technology to create new sounds: the modeling. This is the Yamaha VL1. Its drawback was the high cost. Yamaha VL1 was first available in the market synthesizer using sound modeling techniques. It was very expensive and could only do a few things (for example, play as a true saxophone). But it had the ability to do those things really well! Which is why it inspired a new wave of modeling synthesizers (such as the Clavia Nord Lead and the Korg Prophecy, which was able to deliver a lot of strange sound effects, being an affordable solo synthesizer. Therefore, it enjoyed a big commercial success. Like the Synclavier and Fairlight, the Yamaha VL1 can be seen as the beginning of a new generation of advanced synthesizers.


Yamaha VL1

Clavia Nord Lead


Korg Prophecy


The rhythm machine modules-rhythmic synthesizers and percussion samplers

Very interesting and necessary instrument in the market of electronic music is a programmable drum and percussion machine. One of the most successful models is the Roland TR-808. Initially, Roland has introduced a series of CR:

However, the rhythm could not be fully programmed using those devices. They had only permanently programmed factory rhythm 'patterns'  and could therefore be used as fully professional equipment to create rhythms, and could only be helpful with, for instance exercises on the guitar. The first fully programmable drum synthesizer-sampler was the Roland TR-808 introduced in 1980. This machine has become very popular and has initiated many styles of music as we know today as Techno, Rap, modern House, etc. The machine had a well-sounding samples based on the analogue sound of drums. Interestingly, although these machines initially had been dominated by other samplers of this type, such as the Linndrum, the fashion for Roland TR-808 returned at the end of '80, when hip-hop artists have discovered that they could tune the sound of a kick drum of the machine down in such a way that it gave an extremely powerful, bass sinusoidal wave, which became the basis for the style in countless productions.

Here's how the Linndrum looks. It dominated the sound of the sampled drums in the middle of eighties and the Roland TR-808, which a classic of the genre at the late eighties:




TR-808 sound:

Here is one more drum and percussion machine. This is the Roland TR-909.
The instrument is an analog-digital hybrid, which has become another classic techno genre. It is used very often in 'house' and related styles of music. It is a tool that every producer of dance music already has or will have in his collection. You can not name all using it, because it is used by everybody. to name a few of them they are Technotronic on "Pump Up the Jam" , "This Beat Is Technotronic," Speedy J "Pullover", or "Dee-Lite".

This is the instrument:

Sound samples from Roland TR-909:


 Rolanda TR-909 patches: Roland TR909 - Pump Up    Roland TR909 - This Beat Is 


There is also yet another famous and widely used machine of the Roland 'TR' series - the Roland TR-707. It is a machine based on sampled rock drums, but in combination with a sequencer is also gives excellent results in dance music. Many of the Britney Spears' hits and other pop performers enjoy the sounds of the instrument:

This article shows briefly only some of the most important synthesizers and samplers in the history of music. But we hope this gives a good view on the subject for all who want to enrich their knowledge about the history of electronic instruments.

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