360°Sound caught up with Oli Freke, author of the new book Synthesizer Evolution: From Analogue to Digital (and Back). Freke is a London-based musician, writer, and artist who has had a lifelong interest in electronic music and synthesizers. As a musician, he has written pieces for TV and has placed a number of tunes on the UK dance charts. His group Cassette Electrik supported the legendary synth-pop group the Human League on tour.
Synthesizer Evolution celebrates the tremendous impact of synths on all types of modern popular music. Published by Velocity Press, the 128-book includes hundreds of hand-drawn illustrations of every notable synth, drum machine, and sampler made between the years 1963 and 1995.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
All illustrations by Oli Freke.
360°: Please start by telling us how the idea for the book came about.
Oli Freke: It all happened very organically. Originally, I started the Synth Evolution posters about three years ago. I’d had an urge to map the evolution of synths from the huge cabinet-sized modulars of the 1960s down to the small digital synths of the late ‘80s and 1990s. That resulted in a huge poster with nearly 300 synths arranged on a horizontal timeline. After a couple of other versions, it occurred to me that I’d built up a nice catalog of illustrations and facts, and the idea of a book came to me.
What were a few of the key turning points in the development of synthesizer technology since the invention of the analog synth in the 1960s?
It’s a rich history of invention and ways of making sound, but there are some definite key turning points. The first moment – where the book starts – is the commercialization of the transistor-based analog modular synthesizer that Robert Moog invented in 1964. That really set the pattern for the modular synths to follow. As well as his legendary sound-generating oscillators, he implemented voltage control across the instrument to control not only pitch but also all other parameters. This enabled the different modules to be patched together in infinite variety. Robert Moog then followed this innovation up by being one of the first to successfully miniaturize the synth in the form of the Minimoog in 1970; that again set the pattern for many analog synths to follow in the 1970s.
The next big change was digital technology. As chips got cheaper throughout the 1970s, it became possible to use them for audio and signal processing. The mid-70s saw the first very expensive samplers, such as the Fairlight, Synclavier II, and Music Melodian, which was used by Stevie Wonder. Despite their cost, it was clear that this was a significant innovation for electronic music-making. By the mid-’80s, chips had become cheap enough to make sampling affordable to many musicians and composers, leading to the creativity in hip-hop, pop music, and the new house and dance music styles.
Digital chips also enabled Yamaha to release the famous DX7 in 1983, which used a form of sound generation called frequency modulation (FM), a way of combining sine waves to create harmonically rich sounds which could emulate instruments like electric pianos, xylophones, and brand new tones in a way that analog synths just couldn’t.
The DX7 dominated for a few years before the rise of the next digital sound technology came along – sample and synthesis (S&S). This used short samples of real instruments and digital waves for the sound source, and combining several of these could create the most realistic acoustic instrument emulations and rich digital tones to date. Combined with built-in effects and decent polyphony, the Roland D-50 in 1987 ushered in the glossy sound of the late ‘80s.
The next significant revolution came in the 1990s when it became possible to actually emulate the circuits of analog synths in software (either in a computer or digital synth). So, this led to a whole resurgence in interest in analog synths themselves, as well as a market for software emulations of the classics that could be run in Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). The first of these was an emulation of the famous acid-synth, the Roland TB-303, in 1996.
Since the 2000s, there has been a steady increase in interest in real hardware analog synthesizers and modular synths. Only now, they are incredibly small, and the range of modules available is vast, covering everything from the basic analog oscillator to sophisticated digital algorithmic sound generators.
What are a few of your favorite synthesizers in the book and what makes them so special?
I think the surprising ones and the ones with interesting stories are my favorites. And some just look great. For example, there’s the extraordinary-looking Con Brio ADS 200 from 1981, which was used by Wendy Carlos (of Switched-On Bach fame) on the TRON soundtrack. But the company itself barely managed to make one ADS 200, and the subsequent ADS 200R never moved beyond a prototype.
And the first “string synthesizer,” the Eminent 310 Unique is pretty nifty. It’s a type of synthesizer called a string synth – a kind of pseudo-synth in the sense that they don’t offer much control over the sound but do have full polyphony like a piano. The Eminent 310 Unique, a kind of sit-on instrument like the Hammond B3, sounded gorgeous – it’s the sound of Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Équinoxe Part 1.” It then lent its circuits to the Solina String Ensemble. Then that synth was rebadged in the USA as the ARP String Ensemble. They literally slapped a sticker over the Solina one! I love those kinds of stories and tracking them down.
I like how the book lists popular songs that make use of the particular synthesizer model being described. What do you consider to be some of the most remarkable examples of the use of a synth in pop music?
Such a hard question to answer; I can only really say that I love the synth solo in the Queen song, “Radio Ga-Ga.” It’s a Roland Jupiter 8 – a classic polysynth – and the middle eight features it wobbling around, showing off its great-sounding filter. I guess I like it as the sound itself is the point, not the riff or harmonic sequence. The joy is the pure sound of it and the emotional effect it generates. That’s kind of the essence of electronic music for me – what emotions can sound itself generate beyond mere melody and harmony?
I was listening to William Onyeabor today; he was an African musician working in the ‘80s who had a kind of off-kilter take on funk and electronic music. His song “Fantastic Man” has the most wonderful stylophone riff in it. I have to say I detest the stylophone for various irrational reasons (hence it’s not in my book), but that song might persuade me to put it in the next edition.
Please discuss analog vs. digital synths. What do you find to be the key advantages and disadvantages of each?
The key advantage of the first analog instruments from Moog onwards was that they were actually usable electronic instruments. Prior to that, electronic music instruments were inconvenient or inaccessible to everyday musicians in some way. Some were room-sized sound research labs in institutions like universities or national broadcasters – completely out of reach of normal musicians. Or they were esoteric one-offs that were the product of maverick geniuses, which might have been radically exciting but weren’t going to be adopted by the masses.
The real genius of Moog was to include a piano-style keyboard so that musicians who were trained on pianos and organs could immediately control the instrument in a way that was familiar. Plus, the sound of a big Moog modular is incredible, and so was able to take the role of a glorified organ or piano in the rock format; hence bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP, etc. being some of the first to introduce synths into their sound.
Of course, there were disadvantages – the principle two were tuning and polyphony. The first analog synths were terrible to keep in tune – Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos was painstakingly recorded in short fragments of a few bars at a time because that’s how long the Moog would stay in tune for.
The other major limitation is the number of notes at a time that could be played – which was usually just one note at a time. So, they were fine for lead solos or basslines but useless for playing chords or other polyphonic lines. And when companies like Sequential Circuits released the Prophet 5 in 1978 or Yamaha the CS-80 in 1977 (Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack is the definitive CS-80 music to listen to), they were either hugely expensive or hugely unreliable or both. And they could still only do a maximum of 8 notes at a time (or 5 in the case of the Prophet 5).
So that was all a bit limiting, and if I were honest, although the sound of an analog synth is beautiful, it does exist within a prescribed tonal range, generally speaking. Given it’s usually comprised of sawtooth, sine, or square waves, and the most you can do is filter out the high or low frequencies, there is, in general, a kind of gravitational center for analog synth sounds.
So, when the Yamaha DX7 came along with its exciting new digital sounds that just couldn’t be made on analog synths, the world went crazy for it. And this happened again with sampling (“take any sound from the real world or the catalog of musical history and re-use it in your own music!”), and again with the Roland D-50 and its digital sound.
That kept everyone very happy – until everyone got a bit bored with what were now considered somewhat sterile digital sounds by the late 1990s. And by the fact that it’s harder to program new sounds into digital synths as they tend not to have one knob, slider, or dial for each parameter as the analog synths had.
So, the pendulum has now swung back to analog synths and analog-style control for everything else. Perhaps we now have the best of both worlds!
Click here to order a paperback copy of Synthesizer Evolution: From Analogue to Digital (and Back).