Synthesisers are complex, bulky and difficult instruments, but in musical circles, they’re considered some of the most beautiful. Here’s what it takes to build a behemoth.
Synthesiser is a divisive word. It can bring to mind great musical moments from Roots Manuva, Mantronix, Faithless and Herbie Hancock. Equally, it can bring to mind horrible pop songs, tuneless Casio keyboards or an entire decade – the 1980s – where it seemed to be absolutely inescapable. But whether you appreciate or despise the unmistakeable buzzes, whooshes and chords, the instruments that make them are often beautifully-made, highly prized objects. They are complex beasts, with spaghetti-wires for guts, knobs like scales and the potential to short out an entire city block if mishandled.
The basics of synthesisers run something like this: a very simple sound tone is produced by an electrical signal generator, referred to as an oscillator. Combine this tone with another, and you’ve got a multilayered sound. Now start throwing in filters, white noise and modulation. Adjust the tone’s envelope – how quickly it starts, sustains and ends. Using a keyboard, you can now play the tone at different pitches. While most big synth units riff on this process by adding additional layers of complexity, that’s the building block. Almost every synth sound you hear will come from that basic process – and it’s a process that can produce almost infinite sounds.
And, like all instruments, synths have their resident grand master. Violins had Stradivarius and pianos had Steinway. Synths had Bob Moog. Moog (rhymes with “vogue”) didn’t invent the synth, but he was the first to make them commercially available. This happened in the 1960s, after the development of the transistor, an electrical component that allowed some miniaturisation of electronics. Moog, along with his colleague Herbert Deutsch, developed and marketed the Moog Synthesiser. It was beast of a machine, housed in a huge wooden cabinet, festooned with complex circuitry. The moment the Moog Synthesiser came on the market, everything changed. All modern electronic music – from Brian Eno to the Sugababes – can call that moment genesis.
Moog died in 2005. His company still makes synths, which combine the original blueprints and sounds of Moog’s baby with streamlined designs and software-driven, rather than analogue, systems. One of their designers is Cyril Lance. He’s all too aware of the challenges of building synths. More importantly, he knows how to meld the visual with the auditory: “There is a real difference between designing a circuit that ‘works’ in the strict technical [sense] and a circuit that is organic, which connects the musician with the listener. Technical skills can be learned and mastered, but it’s the alchemy involved in this magical element that makes designing an instrument much more mysterious.”
To actually build one of these beasts, you need a serious knowledge of electronics. Ian Bradshaw is a product manager at Moog’s biggest rival: “Most of our products have CPU, and there are a lot of very small components. You need specialised equipment to assemble them. Sub-assemblies are manufactured separately and then brought together for assembly on the production line.”
Take the Korg SV1 Stage Vintage Piano. A gorgeous, sleek synth, built in amber housing with a brightly-lit valve nestled in its top left corner; it has a truly incredible sound that is designed to resemble the sounds of classic instruments. Talking about it, Bradshaw says: “A lot of people like vintage pianos, and trying to maintain something like that and physically use it is a difficult thing to do. What we tried to do is to analyse the instruments it’s trying to emulate and grab every single detail possible, and then try to put it into one package which was a faithful reproduction. The team that developed the SV1 tracked down these vintage instruments, and they could look at them, take them apart and see exactly how they’re made, and why you get the sounds you do.”
However, while synth-making is a tricky process dominated by big companies, that hasn’t stopped several smaller outfits from giving it a go. Chris Kucinski and Owen Osborn are two college buddies who used their experience in architecture and electronics, and their love of music to begin designing their own instruments. Out of their east coast lab have come such whimsical animals as the single-string flash guitar and the video organ – and their most popular product, the Pocket Piano.
It’s a very cute unit, worlds away from a bulky Korg or Moog. In keeping with recent developments, it’s fairly small: a rectangular aluminium box with smooth hardwood keys. In their homely workspace, Critter and Guitari assemble each unit by hand, putting them together on paint-stained tables. They build the circuit boards, capping them with backing plates, and assemble the aluminium panels and the wooden buttons. “The car industry would call it the final mating,” says Kucinski (Critter). “When they put the engine in the chassis. At that point, it’s pretty much there – it might not have the tyres, but it looks like a car.” It’s ready to roll out once it’s been tested and the final panel has been fitted to the bottom. The Pocket Piano’s sound is absolutely remarkable – a huge, warm, fuzzy series of tones that would have Bob Moog nodding knowingly.
The idea was to build a synth that could be taken out of the studio and away from the computer. “A lot of what we do is about ease of use, although we never use those terms by ourselves, but we’re interested in space,” says Kucinski. “How sound changes in different environments … The Pocket Piano came about from thinking about this: how do we make a cool-sounding thing that we can take to the woods?”
Speaking of woods, he’s enthusiastic about the role of natural materials in its construction. “Wood is a nice material, and in an instrument with a built-in speaker, it resonates in a nice way. There is a little bit of a tradition in including wood in electronic instruments, like in the older Moogs.”
Materials like the wood and metal used in construction impart their own unique quality to the sound. Bradshaw calls it a grittiness and edginess, and it’s almost impossible to pin down. The reason that vintage synths are so treasured, and the reason that many contemporary synth-builders put so much effort into copying them, is because of these flaws.
Despite only launching in September last year, the Pocket Piano has found an audience – Kucinski says it has sold upwards of 500 units, and at $175 a pop, it’s a decent source of income. Other companies are more secretive: Korg won’t reveal their exact sales figures, although they do say that their most popular unit is their smaller MicroKorg. Regardless, these are still expensive instruments – the SV1 can sell from upwards of £1000.
The synth business is still in fine fettle, with a consistent demand for new products. But in recent years, synth makers have had to compete against software versions: designed to be used entirely on computers, these programs have got just as much complexity and depth as the hardware units, with a fraction of the price tag. Of course, synth makers have one ace in their hand: although it hasn’t stopped the software market from growing exponentially, it’s awfully difficult to bootleg a hardware synth.
“Bob always said that he felt musicians really connected with their instruments in a way that is very difficult to do with software,” says Mike Adams, Moog’s President. “I believe that is very true. While the masses are happy with soft synths, musicians really want to connect to their instrument. We service that market.” Lance agrees: “While software opens up incredible doors to musicians, I don’t see anyone throwing away their Steinway Grand Pianos, their Fender Stratocasters, or their Minimoogs. Our goal is to build timeless instruments for musicians.”
This is only part of the reason why hardware synths are so desirable. The other part is a little tougher to pin down. Kucinski gets close to it when he talks about the reactions to the Pocket Piano; once or twice, he says, someone who has bought one has come back to them to show off a sound that, as Kucinski puts it, he and Osborn “didn’t think was possible.”
Synths are pieces of art that reward constant exploration and repeated use. Like a photograph, a painting or a piece of writing, a synth reveals different levels each time you use it, but the difference is that it demands constant experimentation from the player, and those who explore it often surprise its creators. There’s something beautiful about that.