The first ever synthesizer was actually developed way back in 1876, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that this future-thinking instrument got its big commercial break. Now, it’s impossible to imagine pop music or, in fact, any genre without synthesizers. In this blog, we’ll flip through the history of what would become the grandmother of electronic music, the role it plays in modern bands and offer a few tips to help curious musicians learn the ropes.

Synth Nuts

“I’m a proper synth-nerd. You really have to be one if you want to deal with the instrument,” admits Bert Smorenburg. “I was first seduced to the synthesizer when I heard the Oxygene 4 for the first time on a Jean Michel Jarre record. I just had to know where that sound was coming from and how it was made. To get the best out of a synthesizer, you have to give in and fall in love with all those buttons and knobs and see it all as some grand experiment. Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and the guys from Kraftwerk immediately got it. They were all synth-nuts.”

Keyboard player Bert Smorenburg is also a synth nut, but it took him a little while to qualify. “Initially, I studied classical organ, but I eventually got lonely sitting at the church organ all by myself, which is when I switched my study to electronic music and studio engineering.” Bert is now a professional musician, a studio engineer, mixer, producer, composer, a studio engineering teacher at the Haarlem Music Academy and an international product specialist for Yamaha Electronic Instruments and Pro Audio. As a musician, he’s earned national acclaim in the Netherlands, where he runs his own recording studio in Rotterdam. He also helped develop the e-musician study program for the Haarlem Conservatory which has since helped to bridge the gap between conventional sound engineering and contemporary music, like dance.

A Versatile Instrument

“With a synthesizer, you can do roughly two things,” explains Bert. “The first is to try to imitate acoustic instruments as closely as possible and the second is to create sounds that don’t exist yet. Sounds that are – as it were – unnatural.” The synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that generates sound electronically. Most of the time you play a synth with a keyboard, which is often built in and, together with the synthesizer, complete an entire instrument. But a synthesizer can also be played via an external keyboard or even an external string or wind instrument. The range of timbres and the colour of sound you can produce with a synthesizer is nearly limitless, making it a really versatile instrument. Actually, the invention of the synthesizer is one of the biggest revolutions in all music history. Genres like trance, dance, synthpop, electro, any electronic music, techno or house just couldn’t have existed with the synthesizer.

Robert Moog

The first electronic synthesizer was invented in 1876 by Elisha Gray, who is better known as one of the inventors of the telephone. By happy accident, Gray discovered that you could control the sound coming from a self-vibrating electronic circuit. This self-vibrating circuit is now known as an oscillator – and his invention was capable of producing a single note. Simply put: an oscillator is a ‘thing’ that consistently vibrates.

From there, the first half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of various synthesizers. The Hammond Novachord which was developed in the thirties was one example, but gained little commercial success. It wasn’t until the sixties that the instrument would gain any popularity at all, and that popularity was all down to one man: Robert Moog (1934-2005), the name that is as synonymous with synthesizers as Hoover is to vacuum cleaners.

The first Moog offerings were modular synthesizers built out of separate parts connected by cables. In 1970, Moog introduced the first integrated synthesizer, where the keyboard and the electronics all sat inside the same cabinet: the Minimoog. To this day, Moog synthesizers are renowned for their fat sound.

After the dawn of Moog, plenty of other synthesizer brands appeared, each helping to make the synthesizer smaller and more portable thanks to the miniaturisation of the electronic components involved. By the early eighties, compact and affordable synthesizers had appeared on the market and all of them boasted a new music-making system: Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), making it easier than ever to integrate and couple your synth with other instruments. And by the nineties, the synthesizer would become so compact it barely existed – in the form of soft-synths: software-based synthesizers that you simply installed on your computer.

Synthesizer Models

Since there are multiple ways to generate sound, there are multiple synthesizer models out there, each of which have their own sonic features. We’ll only name a few of the most common methods here, and we won’t dive in too deep since each version is probably worthy of an entire blog of its own.

The first is subtractive synthesis which is based on the electronic generation of waveforms and filters. Then there’s VA (Virtual Analogue) which is another form of analogue subtractive synthesis; FM synthesis; PD (Phase Distortion); Sampling; and Physical Modelling. A lot of modern synthesizers will use a few forms of sound synthesis at the same time so they’re able to create a wider sound palette. “Every form of sound generation has its own structure”, says Bert. “By combining them in one sound, like combining FM synthesis and Sampling, you can get a really rich, new sound that you can’t get with just one form of synthesis.”

De Minimoog Model D: wat is de magie?Minimoog

The Musical Role of The Synth

What kind of role can the synthesizer play in music? Say, in a band? “To play with other musicians or in a band, you need to have as much musical knowledge as you do technical knowledge. Trust me, it’s not going to be enough to have just one of the two. Of course, there are going to be exceptions to that rule. There are definitely people with masses of programming knowledge and near-zero musical knowledge who are incredibly successful. But one thing is certain: you’re not going to make it there simply by buying a load of expensive gear. What you can get out of it is going to depend heavily on the quality of your skills.”

And when it comes to programming, one synthesizer might be easier to get to grips with than the other, admits Bert. “Some synthesizers have a user interface that’s simply unfathomable. With these models, you can be certain that they’re not designed for musicians but for pure techies. Of course, I have a few synthesizers like that, but I tend not to use them to design sounds, but just use the ready-made sounds that come included. I just don’t see the need to overthink things.”

So, on top of the overcomplicated user interfaces, what other things does a synth-player have to contend with? “Sometimes, it can be quite a mission to get to the sound that you want, whether you’re creating something from scratch or searching for a specific sound because your band is working on a cover song. In that case, it can be handy to have a synthesizer that comes with a lot of ready-made sounds, then you get close to what you want fairly quickly. I mean, in the end it’s more important to have a sound that you can actually use rather than the most beautiful sound in the world. So, a sound you can use in a band might just be the sound that’s able to cut through two guitars.”

Picking Out Your Synthesizer

In the studio, so-called soft-synths (computer-based synthesizer software) are used a lot but they have yet to migrate onto the stage in any big way. Bert understands why: “That would mean taking your laptop on stage, which is something I just don’t dare to do. I just can’t risk my laptop crashing mid-set, so I still opt for hardware synthesizers when I’m playing gigs. They’re just far more reliable.”

Say you want to get a synthesizer, how do you know you’re making the right choice? “Choosing a synthesizer is really a personal thing,” says Bert. “The best thing to do is find a big music shop with loads of models in it so you can spend the whole day there trying them out. If there’s a model that you want to stay sitting at or that you keep coming back to, then that’s probably the right one for you. I guess it’s a rule that applies to any instrument.”

But the possible problem is the controls. You might need more time to figure out if it’s the right user interface for you. “Sure, but it’s also a case of getting used to it sometimes. Every time I get a new synth, I have to get used to the interface. Give yourself the time to get to know the control structure. Also, don’t always trust the user manual. They’re often written during the design period of the synth, so if something has been changed along the way, it’s not always edited in the manual. I’ve even seen features listed and described in the user manual that are nowhere to be found on the model. Obviously, the feature was scrapped somewhere along the way and someone forgot to take it out of the manual.”

Good to Know

Synthesizer Pioneers

Believe it or not, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees bought one of the first ever Moog synthesizers and in 1967, the band released the first ever album to feature the sound of a Moog: ‘Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.’ You can also hear a Moog on ‘Abby Road’ by The Beatles and the 1969 hit ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ by Simon and Garfunkel. The electronic albums by Beaver and Krause, Tonto’s ‘Expanding Head Band’, The United States of America and White Noise all came to be known as synth-cult classics, and prog-rock legends like Richard Wright, Pink Floyd and Rock Wakeman from Yes were all massive fans of portable synthesizers. Other early synth-heads included Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pete Townshend and Arthur Brown. And the big names that really put the synth centrestage were Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Eurythmics, and of course, plenty of others.


  • Don’t get lost in perfectionism when programming, advises Bert. “I used to have that problem all the time, but as soon as I started running a studio, I had deadlines to meet, which forces you to make decisions. So, give yourself a deadline so you know when to stop.” In line with this: “I believe in limitations. It really does get the best out of your creativity. Try giving yourself one week and only three notes to play with and see what happens.”
  • When playing live, good monitoring is absolutely essential. Bert always makes sure of this by hooking his synths up to his own mixer, which he sets up next to him on stage. From there he can make his own mix and send it to the Front of House (the main desk) so he gets the right mix out front and the right mix on stage. Of course, you could leave it to the sound engineer but it’s not always guaranteed that it’ll go well.
  • During live gigs, the vocals and most of the instruments are usually sitting in the middle of the audio image being sent out to the crowd. For this reason, you might want to programme your sounds so they’re panned slightly to the left or right of the middle. This way, your synth will sound really broad and will actually sound like it’s coming from the middle and seem more prominent in the mix. This doesn’t work so well for standard piano sounds, but definitely works for strings and pads – or strings and pads combined with a piano.
  • If you have sounds and samples on something like a USB stick, then make sure you’ve got backups dropped on a server that you can access all over the world. This way, if you lose your USB sticks or your laptop, you can always recover the sounds from the cloud.
  • Make sure that you always have extra cables handy. And keep tabs on who you’ve lent them to when they’ve been caught short.
  • As well as extra cables, always keep a little ‘survival pack’ in your kit bag and fill it with a range of tools, a little torch, spare batteries, stands and so on.

See also…

» All Synthesizers
» Analogue Synthesizers
» Synthesizers with Sample-Synthesis
» Synthesizers with FM-Synthesis
» Synthesizers with a Built-in Sequencer
» Keyboard Synthesizers
» Rack Module Synthesizers
» Desktop Module Synthesizers
» Modular Components
» Software Synthesizers

» What is the best synthesizer for me?
» The Magic of the Minimoog
» The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin
» What’s the difference between a keyboard and a synthesizer?
» The Hammond Organ: A Classic
» Vintage Keyboards: Here to Stay
» The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!

No responses

No comments yet...

Leave a Reply