7 Vintage Synths That Changed Music
The synthesizer has been the backbone of electronic music for more than 50 years. And today, the market for them has never been better. You can launch Ableton and open up an infinity of VST synths, giving you access to just about any sound you want in a few clicks.
For anyone spending considerable time producing music, it’s important (and fun) to know just how these sounds came to be in the first place, and why they became so popular.
The synths included in this list have all had a pivotal role in the development of electronic music. They introduced new concepts, editing techniques and sounds that made music production and composition simpler and better.
You will, of course, have your own ideas of what should be included or not, so let us know your thoughts in the comments. Here we go:
Price: $1495 (then) $3495 (now)
Notable specs: monophonic (only one note can be played at a time), three individually tuned oscillators (multiple waveforms and one LFO), unparalleled filters
Sound: thick analog bass from space
Prior to the Minimoog, synths were big, bulky machines custom made to order. Unless you were an engineer or academic, simply getting your hands on a synth was a challenge. They weren't easy to program either. Lucky for us—Moog employee Bill Hemsath was (circuit) bent on improving accessibility to these mysterious music machines, and would spend his off-hours putting together pieces from Moog's massive modular systems with the hopes of making something he could take home. It just so happened he was building a classic.
Marketed as a 'performance synth,' the Minimoog was the first portable analog synth, combining a keyboard with flexible filters for a powerful instrument that could be used both in the studio and on the road. Sold in stores around the world, the Minimoog paved the way for bedroom music production and legitimized the synth as a performance instrument. It stayed in high production from 1970-1981 and was recently re-issued in 2016 as the Minimoog Model D.
Heard on: Kraftwerk – Autobahn
Price: unknown (then) $1500 (now)
Notable specs: two oscillators (switch between sawtooth, square, pulse), with ADSR envelopes, a ring modulator, low and high pass filter and sample and hold
Sound: pulsing and upbeat leads
After Moog literally created the market for portable synths, American rival ARP responded with the Odyssey, a stripped down version of the company's well-known (and humungous) synth, the ARP 2600. Even though it was considered inferior to the Minimoog, the Odyssey maintained a competitive edge. It was the first duophonic synth—meaning users could play two notes at once. It seems limited now, but this was a big deal at the time.
Championed by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Tangerine Dream, the synth developed a cult following, who fell for it's pulsing brass patches, resonant leads and unique switchboard-like filters. It continues to be a highly sought-after synth today.
Heard on: Herbie Hancock - Chameleon
Price: $6900 (then) $18,000 (now)
Notable specs: eight voice polyphony, patch memory storage and polyphonic aftertouch, 22 presets, resonant filters, ring modulation, weighted 61-key
Sound: unique and textural leads for dreamers
The wildly expressive and versatile CS-80 was Japanese company Yamaha's first major contribution to the synthesizer marketplace. Although it was not a commercial success, due to it's heavy weight (over 200 lbs.), high price and limited number of non-programmable presets, the CS-80's smooth pitch bends, massive filters sweeps and screaming leads are among some of the most iconic sounds in electronic and synth-led music. It can be heard in music by Aphex Twin and Stevie Wonder, but is perhaps now best known as the 'Blade Runner sound,' after being used extensively by composer Vangelis for the original film's soundtrack.
It's worth adding, that the CS-80 was one of the first synths that incorporated a velocity sensitive keyboard and polyphony (multiple notes could be played at once).
Heard on: Vangelis - Blade Runner Blues
Price: $27,000 (then) unknown (now)
Notable specs: complete synthesis and editing of digitally sampled sounds, 16 voices, 28MB memory, waveform drawing and editing, 3 sequencers, 73 note with velocity
Sound: airy vocal patches and 80s bells (but really anything you wanted because it was a sampler)
When it was released in 1979, the Fairlight CMI cost as much as a sports car, making it available only to the top stars and studios of the era. But the hefty price tag wasn't just for show. The CMI was groundbreaking because it was the first sampling synthesizer that could record sounds and map them to a keyboard. Equipped with a sequencer and touchscreen light pen that enabled users to draw and edit waveforms, the Fairlight CMI gave musicians and producers a newfound flexibility to manipulate and create unique sounds.
It was designed by Australians Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, who had originally tried creating a machine that could model waveforms from scratch. They found this process to be too heavy on processing power, so they resorted to sampling instead.
Sequential Circuits Prophet-5
Price: $4,595 (then) $8,000 - 10,000 (now)
Notable specs: 5 voices (polyphony), 2 VCOs per voice, Monotimbral, 4-pole resonant low-pass, 40 patches (120 on later units), LFO
Sound: spooky analogue texture and 80s sci-fi
The Prophet-5 came with a full, rich sound ideal for deep, droning pads and thick, nasal brass. It offered five voices of polyphony, and each one could be individually programmed. There were a lot of editing options too, and for the first time ever these tweaks could be written into the patch memory for later use, something it's competitor the CS-80 could not do. Prior to the Prophet-5, synth users would have had to stick to presets or write down all the switch and knob positions for reference.
The flexibility and sound of the Prophet-5 made it a hit, and turned Sequential Circuits into something of an overnight success. It was used extensively on Michael Jackson's Thriller, Madonna's self-titled debut and several Dr. Dre productions.
Heard on: Talking Heads - Burning Down the House
Price: $395 (then) $2000-3000 (now)
Notable specs: monophonic, monotrimbral, sawtooth and square oscillator, 24 dB low pass filter, 64 pattern storage memory, built-in sequencer
Sound: unmistakable bass squelch
From a marketing perspective the TB-303 was initially a total flop. It was designed to accompany bands and solo artists as a virtual bassist. But the little grey box but had little appeal due to it's bleepy sound and rigid programming, so production stopped after just 18 months.
At the same time, Chicago house had just taken off, and young producers were looking for ways to shape and define the new genre. Artists like Phuture and DJ Pierre were at first drawn to the TB-303 for it's simple interface and low cost. But they would soon find out that it's greatest feature was the squelchy sound it produced at high resonance settings. Equal parts euphoric, alien and pure chaos, the TB-303 bass would could to define the Acid sound that continues to be remain popular today.
Given the low production quantity of the TB-303, there aren't that many in existence. Prices have shot up on eBay and other marketplaces, so consider yourself lucky if you can get one for less than $2000. There are many clone versions available and Roland released a miniature version, the TB-03, earlier this year.
Heard on: Phuture - Acid Tracks
Price: $2000 (then) $500 (now)
Notable specs: 6 sine wave operators per voice, 32 algorithms, 1 pitch envelope & 6 amplitude generators per voice
Sound: cold, clear and crystalline
By the early 1980s, people had grown bored with analog synths and were looking for the next big thing. Enter the Yamaha DX-7, a digital synthesizer that strayed far from the warm, fuzzy sounds that come to define electronic music.
The DX-7's sound was modelled on FM synthesis algorithms pioneered by John Chowning, an American composer and professor. But despite the complex programming capabilities allowed by this new type of synthesis, the manual entry of numbers for each parameter and tiny LCD screen meant that most people using the DX-7 stuck to the stock sounds—the now instantly recognizable glass pads, digital pianos and percussive plucks .
For about 10 years, the DX-7 could be heard on nearly all major pop records from the US and UK. Phil Collins, Brian Eno and Kool and the Gang are just some of the groups who regularly used the synth on their records during this time. Today, the FM craze is long over, but it's impact on music production cannot be denied.
Heard on: Phil Collins - One More Night