Even 100 Years History of Electronic Instruments before the turn of the century, when the electronic age was still in its infancy, the first attempts to generate sound from electricity had begun. By 1901, Thaddeus Cadhill had already manufactured the Telharmonium, an electric organ, powered by dynamos and designed to send sound down telephone lines. The Telharmonium proved to be the first of several forward-thinking electronic instruments to be developed in the early part of the century, the most important of which was the Theramin.
Named after its Russian inventor Leon Theramin and consisting of a box with two ariels sticking out to control volume and pitch, the Theramin was the favorite instrument of Russian revolutionary leader Lenin. It was also manufactured for a short time in the United States, and although Theramin’s ideas proved too progressive for the American public, they would later inspire Robert Moog to develop his first synths.
Other electronic instruments, like the rautonium, the Odnes Martenot and the first mass-market electronic instrument, the Hammond Organ, continued to pop up through the 20’s and 30’s. It was with the arrival of magnetic tape, developed around the same period and perfected during World War II, that the next major innovation in electronic music occurred, as the use of found-sound opened a new world of musical possibilities. Steve Reich experimented with manipulating tape to affect pitch or speed. Although tape editing was a difficult process that involved physically cutting and splicing the different sections together, tape continued to be used by anyone wishing to manipulate recorded sound until samplers were introduced in the 1980s.
At the same time as tape was being used to unlock the world of found-sound, the development of electronically generated or synthesized sound was continuing apace. American Hugh Le Caine developed a proto-type synth (short for synthesizer) with his ‘electronic sackbut’ in 1948. The room-sized RCA synthesizer was active throughout the 50’s and others continued to work on the idea of electronic synthesis. Finally, in the early 60’s Robert Moog expanded the idea of the Theramin into what would become the first ever commercially available synth, the Moog. The first synth’s were clumsy modular systems the size of sideboards and changing sound on them meant negotiating a mass of wires or ‘patch-chords’. However, they did allow users to sculpt their own sounds and provided the blue print for every synth that had come after.
From the late 60’s onwards, electronic instruments, effects and production techniques became an increasingly familiar feature of popular music. The arrival of psychedelic rock had a big impact. Artists like The Beatles and the Beach Boys experimented with tape loops, over-dubs and other studio trickery. Others like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd fed guitars through layers of effects to create powerful, strange and fiercly electronic new sounds.
At the same time as electronic sound was being incorporated into a traditional rock blueprint, others were using similar technology to create radically different forms of music. Perhaps the most obvious example are the German bands Can, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. These bands blended the futurism of their avante garde classical backgrounds with a pop aesthetic for incredible results. Kraftwerk in particular must go down as perhaps the single-most influential act in the history of dance music. Techno visionaries who used modified synths, Kraftwerk self-designed sequencers and improved drum pads to create a radical sound that spawned a string of US dancefloor hits throughout the 70’s and early 80’s.
Important and certainly commercially successful pioneers were the many funk and soul artists to notice the potential of electronic sound at an early stage. Stevie Wonder was an early Moog client, while George Clinton’s P-Funk mob used synths and outboard effects to add weight to their bass-lines and create unusual dancefloor sounds. With a space-age sound to match their sci-fi image, P-Funk laid-out a blueprint that would be picked up by generations of dance producers.
The release of the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 in 1978 saw the next big step in synth design since the Mini-Moog. It offered polyphonic sound, which meant that you could play more than one note at a time. It was the beginning of a particularly fertile period in the growth of electronic music technology, with samplers, digital synths, sequencers and programmable drum machines all becoming commercially available within the next few years. Midi became a standard in 1983 and companies like EMU, Roland, Akai and Ensoniq took over the market. The new technology became affordable to musicians and producers working on a budget. When the first Fairlight samplers were sold in 1978 they were priced at $25,000, in 1981 EMU’s Emulator 1 was selling for $10,000 and by 1985 the Ensoniq Mirage was available for a mere $1295. The introduction of digital keyboards also helped to make electronic instruments available to small producers, as shops filled with old and supposedly redundant analogue gear.
The 90’s saw the dance music explosion gather pace, as technology continued to drop in price and increasingly sophisticated equipment enter the market. Midi was now well-established and even old analogue devices could be fitted with Midi Converters. This meant that any piece of equipment could now be synchronized up to any other. Samplers continued to improve and the arrival of physical modeling in the 90’s provided the next step in synth technology. The most important innovations were computer sequencing program’s like Steinburg’s Pro 24 and later Cu-Base. These programs provided producers with a full-screen visual display and far more ophisticated levels of control.