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60 years of the synth: the '60s

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SYNTH WEEK 2022: Talk to any musical historian about the 60s, and you can firmly predict the bands and artists mentioned. This was, after all, the musical decade of love and peace, as a post-war world rediscovered some of the finer things in life.  

As a musical decade it mostly revolved around the electric guitar; Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, all secured their place in history in the 60s. But beyond the guitar-based format, there were inventors creating new and exciting sounds which, once heard by many of the aforementioned artists, would go on to play a part in some of their finest work. 

Of course none of this would have been possible without developments in electrical circuits, which provided the foundation for electronic musical instruments to come of age. Electronic instruments had been around for many years prior to this, with some offering greater success than others. 

The ill-fated Telharmonium was an example from the end of the previous century; as an instrument that relied on telephony-style circuitry and amplification, it not only made an incredible racket due to its vast numbers of electrical motors, but also weighed hundreds of tons. Not an instrument that you could pop under your arm and head down the local club to do a gig with.

There was however a contingent of more successful instruments emanating from France; one of the most successful was the Ondes Martenot, a unique instrument developed in the 1920s. Equipped with a keyboard which was accompanied by a ribbon, which could be regarded as a precursor to the modern day pitch and mod-wheel, the Martenot produced a number of tones through different types of loudspeaker, to create a brilliant crossover between the acoustic and electronic domain. 

It was particularly popular with the French composer Olivier Messiaen, although living in a 60s Britain, you’d be more likely to hear the instrument on one of the scores by Barry Gray. He was the composer of some of the finest TV scores of the era, such as Thunderbirds and Stingray, but it was the use of the Martenot for the Mysterons, in Captain Scarlet, which solidified the Martenot as a sci-fi favourite.

Getting Mello

All forms of technologies were being explored during the 60s, some of which sounded totally implausible in description. Imagine the concept of a keyboard instrument, where each and every note is equipped with its own tape machine, which played while you pressed a note. 

Take the concept further, and you could have different instruments recorded onto the tape, in much the same way that we might with a modern day sampler or sample software. 

The mechanics behind the legendary Mellotron are as far-fetched as they are beguiling. The original mark one Mellotron appeared in 1963, and while not a synthesiser in the conventional sense, it certainly had synthetic properties, albeit starting from an acoustic stance. 

It didn’t take long for bands to realise the potential of the instrument, as can be heard by the use of the legendary Mellotron flutes, on the Beatles track Strawberry Fields Forever. The complement of the scratchy tape, coupled with the identical reproduction of every note, made for an eerie sound, which is instantly identifiable thanks to its soloistic usage. 

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(Image credit: Getty)

The synth proper

Meanwhile, in the USA, several inventors and entrepreneurs were examining unique ways of creating sounds, using electronics. At the more experimental end of synthesis, Don Buchla developed and released his System 100 synthesiser in 1963, which was a cross between a full blown synthesiser in module form, and a way of affecting external signals, such as microphone or electric guitar signals. 

The 25 or so modules could be purchased and slotted into a case, to form a modular synthesiser which could be controlled internally, providing you had the appropriate Buchla sequencer. Don Buchla’s System became inextricably linked to the music from the west coast of America, with experimentalists working within his locale of San Francisco. 

Meanwhile, on the east coast of America, a young scientist and electrical engineer called Robert Moog was creating his own electronic musical instruments. Dr Bob Moog had an inherent interest in theremins, developing and manufacturing multiple designs, which he sold under his own branding. But crucially, in 1963 Bob met Herb Deutsch. 

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The two of them worked together on designs that harnessed controlled voltages, in order to control the pitch and volume of electronic signals, for use in music. It was only a year later that the first Moog modules appeared, with the appearance in 1967 of the Synthesizer Model I, II and III. Not only were these complete modular systems in their own right, but it was the first time that the term synthesiser had been employed in connection with an electronic musical instrument. 

The interest that the Moog Systems garnered from artists resulted in numerous placements in recorded music during the late 60s, with the most notable example being the collaboration between Wendy Carlos and Moog himself, culminating in the multi-Grammy award-winning album Switched on Bach.

Synths in Europe

While we tend to think that most of the development in synthesis technology was taking place in America, there was plenty going on in Europe and the UK. A good example of machines stretching technology – and the very reason we’re calling this feature 60 Years Of The Synth – was the Syn-Ket, which was developed in Italy in 1962. This relatively large noise-emitting machine, utilised three transistorised tone generation modules. These were in turn accessed via three small monophonic keyboards, which were layered on top of each other. 

Meanwhile, a few years later and back in the UK, there were electronic rumblings from Putney, in south London. The small company called Electronic Music Studios (EMS) were part composer collective, and part innovation and design team for electronic systems, specifically for making music. 

Nothing exemplifies this further than the now legendary Synthi VCS3; a semi-portable machine, set in a beautiful wooden case, a little bit like the control panel from a power station! While the uppermost section of the synth was where all the noise emitting elements were located, the panel on the lower section contained a matrix with pins, which was used to route modulation signals. 

The VCS3 first appeared in 1969, and went on to be a vital tool for musicians such as Jean-Michel Jarre, and bands such as Hawkwind. It is still regarded as a highly collectible classic, attracting exceptional price-tags as a consequence.

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Top ten of the '60s

1. Moog Synthesizer Model I, II & III

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(Image credit: Moog)

We have to give top billing to Dr Bob and the first electronic keyboard to adopt the branding and description of ‘synthesizer’. Initially released in 1967, the Synthesizer Model I,II and III provided a single unit solution, albeit using modules, for musicians to explore. It also secured the term ‘synthesiser’ in the musician’s psyche, and for that, we thank you Dr Bob!

2. Buchla System 100

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(Image credit: Buchla.com)

Don Buchla looked at electronic instruments in a slightly different way, which we have come to describe in the synthesis world as ‘West Coast’. Emanating from San Francisco, which was also the home of the minimalist movement, with composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, the Buchla System was more experimental than the Moog equivalent, a notion that has heavily infiltrated Eurorack and the modular synthesiser movement that we have today.  

3. BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Daphne Oram

(Image credit: Image provided by the Daphne Oram Trust and Goldsmiths University of London Special Collections & Archives)

Founded in 1958 and housed in the hallowed halls of the BBC Maida Vale studios, the Radiophonic Workshop were initially a band of mathematicians, composers and enthusiasts. By day, they’d operate machines associated with BBC broadcasts, while by night they’d experiment. Desmond Briscoe, Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram provided many tape-based compositions for BBC programmes, instead of the more traditional orchestrated scores, although synthesisers were not included in the early days, in favour of tape and editing. 

4. The Doors - Strange Days

In 1967 the band The Doors produced an album called Strange Days. The Moog Modular was part of the creative process for this album, in a slightly unorthodox manner. Paul Beaver assisted in processing the vocals for various elements of this album, exploring the versatility of the vast modular system 

5. The Mellotron

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While not a synth, in the conventional sense, the Mellotron was no less groundbreaking. Having first appeared in 1963, in the guise of the Mark 1 model, the Mark 2 followed in 1964. It was an extraordinary concept, involving vast amounts of pre-recorded tape, delivering a selection of acoustic instruments. Some users did however notice that the pitch could vary in performance, according to how reliable the power source was at a particular venue. 

6. Moog Modular

Moog Modular System 55

(Image credit: Moog Music)

A mystical machine that has become legendary, the Moog Modular was the culmination of innovation and development between Bob Moog and Herb Deutsch. It used voltage control, which set a precedent for the vast majority of synthesisers that followed, although the modular was never originally referred to as a synthesiser. It was big and heavy, and had a price-tag to match, but that didn’t stop many early adopters using it to create the sound of the future.   

7. Telstar - The Tornados

One of the most iconic pop tracks from the 1960s, Telstar was written and produced by legendary producer Joe Meek. It continues to be one of his most recognised works, identifiable by the recorded feedback loops at the beginning and the end, with the unmistakable sound of the Ondioline, for the lead line. The production still sounds as modern as it ever did, despite it having been recorded at Meek’s own home studio, above a shop on the Holloway Road. 

8. EMS VCS3

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The VCS3 was developed by Peter Zinovieff, David Cockerell and Tristram Cary, under their company name of EMS. Released in 1969, it offered a relatively unique potential for sound creation, with many artists exploring its architecture with a motive toward sound design. It’s still very popular today with artists such as Ian Boddy and Jean-Michel Jarre, and is one of the most highly prized electronic instruments available on the second hand vintage market.

9. The Monkeys - Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd

While being recognised as one of the first examples of a created boy band, The Monkees harvested a vast collection of hits, written by artists like Neil Diamond. In September of 1967, Mickey Dolenz purchased a Moog IIIp Synthesiser, using it on the album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, which was released in November of that year.  

10. Switched On Bach

Musician and collaborator Wendy Carlos created a unique sound world, thanks to her custom Moog Modular installation, developed in conjunction with Dr Bob himself. Carlos’ innate understanding of Bach’s music and use of electronics in music making, resulted in an initial album which was an enormous hit and critical success, culminating in an outstanding rendition of Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg Concerto, realised and played on multi-track tape, by Wendy. It remains a cultural and historical classic.


6 of the best '60s plugins

1. Arturia Modular V

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Platforms: Mac/PC | Price: £149 | Buy (opens in new tab)

One of the most applauded modular recreations, Arturia’s efforts to recreate the modular experience in software begins with an incredibly realistic and beefy Moog sound. It is packed full of classic oscillators and filters, with all the modulation possibilities you could ever wish for, and all within a virtual system. 

2. Xils Lab Xils 3

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Platforms: Mac/PC | Price: £149 | Buy (opens in new tab)

This piece of modelled software is based on the EMS VCS3. It’s a beautifully reminiscent interface and the GUI provides a generous user experience, but while it might be a lovely homage, it doesn’t sound identical to a genuine VCS3. It’s worth considering that all analogue synthesisers from this era sound different, even if they are the same model, so don’t get too hung up on this detail if you want something close to the EMS sound. 

3. Soniccouture Ondes 

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Platforms: Mac/PC | Price: £114 | Buy (opens in new tab)

A software creation of the Ondes Martenot, which strictly speaking is not an instrument of the 60s. Released in 1928, the original Ondes Martenot found great favour with 60s artists and composers, while still being used many years later by artists such as Radiohead and Damon Alban. It lacks the hardware control of the original, but it still sounds incredibly reminiscent, at a fraction of the price. 

4. Logic Pro Vintage Mellotron

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Platforms: Mac | Price: Free (with Logic Pro) | Buy (opens in new tab)

Packed as part of the Logic Pro suite, this handy freebie contains all the classic Mellotron sounds, with basic editing parameters that go beyond the possibilities of the original machine. You can go from classic Beatles to ethereal and avant-garde, and never leave this vintage-style plugin. 

5. GForce M-tron Pro Mk2

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Platforms: Mac/PC | Price: £249 | Buy (opens in new tab)

Vintage software emulation supremos GForce offer a considerable number of vintage facsimiles. Their latest Mk2 revision of the Mellotron extends the original version even further, and should be considered a substantial upgrade to the freebie found in Logic. For our money, it’s far more realistic, while containing a very generous collection of sounds. 

6. Soniccouture Ondioline

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Platforms: Mac/PC | Price: £79 | Buy (opens in new tab)

Another instrument created long before the 60s, but found favour with producers like Joe Meek. It’s an accurately detailed model of the original, with character for vintage tracks and contemporary production. The subtly complex interface is simplified, thanks to a generous helping of presets. 

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