Several online sites list “120 Years of Electronic Music”. This provides a concise listing of important electronic musical instruments, displaying those invented from the 1870’s to 1990. As I scanned the list, I realized that only a few of these devices are widely known today. The Theramin, Hammond Organ, and Moog Synthesizer are the most recognizable names on the list. Most of the other instruments are obscure. Music producers know of the more recent devices, but only those who study electronic music history know of the lesser known machines.
There are reasons for the lack of knowledge about these instruments.
As new technologies are developed, older machines often become obsolete. The newer machines are smaller, more powerful and flexible than their predecessors. While some of these instruments were known in the past, most never achieved popularity. In fact, almost all of these devices were forgotten a generation or so after they were invented.
I deeply appreciate the tireless efforts of the inventors who created electronic music instruments. Most of them toiled without encouragement from the public. In regards to music, conventionally minded people want to hear sounds they can understand, and which are already familiar to them. They prefer to listen to music they can conceptualize and categorize. Electronic music is not like that, and in fact much of it is quite the opposite. Electronic music provides us with newly invented sounds and effects, venturing into unexpected areas. This type of music has the power to affect consciousness. As a result, electronic music rarely achieves public acceptance let alone popularity.
Chapter 7 of “Electronic and Experimental Music” by Thom Holms is about significant electronic music inventions during the 1950’s. Raymond Scott was a prolific inventor who created many instruments, most notably the Multi-track Tape-recorder, the Clavivox, and the Electronium. Raymond Scott made significant contributions to electronic music and was responsible for numerous technological advances. Because Raymond Scott over-protected his intellectual property however, few of his inventions achieved commercial success.
Hugh Le Cain was also an inventor during 1950’s, but he promoted his ideas, and was thus more influential than Raymond Scott. Hugh Le Cain’s inventions included the Electronic Sackbut, Touch-Sensitive Organ, Spectrogram, Serial Sound Generator, and Polyphone Synthesizer. Hugh Le Cain’s instruments provided the base technologies for the next generation of machines.
Robert Moog created the most famous and successful electronic music instrument in history, the Moog Synthesizer. Robert Moog was profoundly influenced by the work of Hugh Le Cain. Moog was the first to solve early synthesizer problems of size, stability and control. Transistorized components were used to reduce the size of the instrument, and sold-state components were used to produce stable oscillators. Moog used voltage control, which allowed him to achieve precise sounds. The first generation Moog Synthesizer was intended for studio production, Moog later created the Mini-Moog, which was ideally suited for live performances.
Robert Moog listened to the musicians who used his instruments. Wendy Carlos was both an inventor and music composer; she became one of Moog’s important clients. Carlos made numerous suggestions and collaborated with Moog to increase the Moog’s capabilities. Wendy Carlos achieved commercial success with her hit, “Switched on Back”. Carlos hit record brought recognition and helped the Moog synthesizer achieve instant acceptance in the marketplace.