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Most associate synthesizers with electronic music equipment but, historically speaking, this isn’t quite right. Since ancient Greece, people have been combining different sounds and playing more than one instrument at a time.

In the 3rd century BCE the Greek engineer Ktesibios invented the hydraulos, a prototypical pipe organ using a hand-pumped air chamber located in a tub of water.

In the 1400’s, the hurdy gurdy played several melodies with a background drone.

In 1761 the panharmonicon automated the playing of flutes, clarinets, trumpets, violins, cellos, drums, cymbals, triangle and other instruments; notably, it was used by Beethoven.

In 1867 one of the first electronic keyboards appears in Switzerland. And in 1899 the Singing Arc was used to obtain sound from different lamps. And in 1928 a Russian, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, invented the Theremin, which was the first mass produced electronic instrument.

In the 1960s and 70s the analog synthesizer made its debut in pop music. It emulated symphonic strings and created new, far out sounds. Some groups used it somewhat conventionally (e.g. the synthetic strings of the early Doors) while others created distant sonic landscapes that arguably rival the classical greats in terms of sheer innovative brilliance (e.g. Yes, ELP, Genesis).

English: Depeche Mode live at the O2 Wireless ...
Depeche Mode live at the O2 Wireless Festival in 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1980s digital sound became supreme. With digital sampling, any natural sound could be digitally reproduced without any sound quality degradation from the original sample.

Taken for granted today, this was a sonic revolution in the 80s, giving birth to a new era of musical innovation with groups like Depeche Mode, The Eurythmics and The Art of Noise.

In the 1990s (and beyond) the rise of home computers along with the development of the internet, mp3s, YouTube, SoundCloud and other technologies enabled just about anyone with a PC to become an aspiring superstar, sharing musical creations on the web. With this came the rise of VST (Virtual Studio Technology).

Virtual Studio Technology (VST) is a software interface that integrates software audio synthesizer and effect plugins with audio editors and recording systems. VST and similar technologies use digital signal processing to simulate traditional recording studio hardware in software. Thousands of plugins exist, both commercial and freeware, and a large number of audio applications support VST under license from its creator, Steinberg

In other words, VST (plugins) and VSTi (instruments) try to simulate through software what was once achieved through hardware synthesizers. But, actually, VST and VSTi go beyond mimicking old sounds created in decades past. Sounds that were popular in the 1970s and 80s, for instance, are now called “old school” and may be respected just as music lovers in the 1970s and 80s looked back to the relatively primitive electric guitar songs of the 1960s.

Many VST and VSTi are totally free. So one can get started with so-called “bedroom music production” on a shoestring budget.²

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² Some of the better sites listing free VST and VSTi products are:

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  1. That would be very cool. Apparently there are VSTi’s that emulate the mellotron, mastered by Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues and, I think, Rick Wakefield, or one of those keyboard greats.


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