Switched-on keyboards

Analog Days
February 7, 2003

In the early 1960s, electronic music was a marginal field, the province of science-fiction B-movies and avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Today, it is the dominant musical form, filling our pop charts, films and nightclubs, as well as appearing in millions of electronic devices, from computers to toys.

The vehicle for this revolution was the synthesiser, which, argue Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, was one of the two most influential new instruments of the 20th century, the other being the electric guitar.

The fascination of Analog Days lies in its detailed, if dry, exploration of how the synthesiser evolved.

Making electronic music involved recording individual sounds, and then laboriously splicing together sections of quarter-inch audiotape. The synthesiser was a huge step forward because it used voltage-controlled oscillators and amplifiers to control pitch and volume. It started out as an analogue, oversized, modular system, wired together with movable patch cords, capable of playing one note at a time. Over 20 years, it evolved into a portable, keyboard-based, polyphonic, digital instrument.

It grew from the pioneering work of a few hobbyists. The authors rightly focus on Bob Moog (pronounced as in "vogue"). It was his concept of a keyboard-based instrument that became the norm; his key role was later confirmed by his firm's development of the famous Minimoog, the first portable keyboard synthesiser.

Moog's first synthesiser was cobbled together from war-surplus parts. Despite being notoriously difficult to play, it was picked up by music studios, as well as by bands such as The Byrds and The Doors. The Beatles used it on Abbey Road (the authors describe Here Comes The Sun as 'the Moog pièce de résistance'), and Keith Emerson started playing it on stage.

It was really popularised, however, by Wendy Carlos, whose 1968 Grammy-winning work Switched-On Bach was the first classical album to go platinum. This synthesised version of the Brandenburg Concertos inspired, among others, Stevie Wonder.

Pinch and Trocco note that the musicians who assisted Wonder with the new instrument, Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, felt they were given insufficient credit for their contribution. This was an early example of a phenomenon connected with the rise of electronic music: the blurring of lines between musician and engineer/producer. Today's dance music, a direct descendant of synthesizer music, is commonly created by "bedroom boffins" (George Martin's phrase) for whom the old distinctions are irrelevant. The revolution in music-making has also affected what counts as an instrument, a studio, a composition or a live performance.

Moog was not inventing in isolation. Analog Days gives credit to a host of engineers, musicians and sales representatives who played vital roles.

Rival inventors, including ARP and EMS, also get their due. The remarkable Don Buchla produced his own modular, voltage-controlled synthesiser. His refusal to add a keyboard to his device and his involvement with the San Francisco counterculture (he played his Buchla Box at Ken Kesey's notorious 1965 Trips Festival) are contrasted with the apparent conservatism and realism of Moog, who beavered away in upstate New York, a long way from any social revolutions. That Moog's design won out over Buchla's was, the authors argue, because he listened to his customers and engineers and modified the instrument, reducing its possibilities but making it easier to play.

By the time modular analogue synthesisers had been superseded by digital ones in the late 1970s, something may have been lost along the way: several engineers and musicians responsible for its early development lament here that the infinite possibilities of the early analogue synthesisers were forfeited in favour of a more accessible instrument.

There has consequently been something of an analogue revival in recent years. Original synthesisers are much sought after; the Moog is featured on Air's acclaimed 1998 album Moon Safari , while Radiohead have bought EMS's VCS3. For this reason, Analog Days has relevance for all those interested in contemporary music, although it will appeal most to anyone interested in the music and social and technological history of the 1960s and 1970s.

Oliver Craske is a publisher's editor who has worked on books by The Beatles, George Martin and Ravi Shankar.

Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer

Author - Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco
ISBN - 0 674 00889 8
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 368

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