Digital Sound & Music: Concepts, Applications, & Science, Chapter 6, last updated 6/25/2013
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6 Chapter 6 MIDI and Sound Synthesis
6.1 Concepts
The Beginnings of Sound Synthesis 6.1.1
Sound synthesis has an interesting history in both the analog and digital realms. Precursors to
today’s sound synthesizers include a colorful variety of instruments and devices that generated
sound electrically rather than mechanically. One of the earliest examples was Thaddeus Cahill’s
Telharmonium (also called the Dynamophone), patented in 1897. The Telharmonium was a
gigantic 200-ton contraption built of “dynamos” that were intended to broadcast musical
frequencies over telephone lines. The dynamos, precursors of the tonewheels to be used later in
the Hammond organ, were specially geared shafts and inductors that produced alternating
currents of different audio frequencies controlled by velocity sensitive keyboards. Although the
Telharmonium was mostly unworkable, generating too strong a signal for telephone lines, it
opened people’s minds to the possibilities of electrically-generated sound.
The 1920s through the 1950s saw the development of various electrical instruments, most
notably the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot, and the Hammond organ. The Theremin, patented in
1928, consisted of two sensors allowing the player to control frequency and amplitude with hand
gestures. The Martenot, invented in the same year, was similar to the Theremin in that it used
vacuum tubes and produced continuous frequencies, even those lying between conventional note
pitches. It could be played in one of two ways: either by sliding a metal ring worn on the right-
hand index finger in front of the keyboard or by depressing keys on the six-octave keyboard,
making it easier to master than the Theremin. The Hammond organ was invented in 1938 as an
electric alternative to wind-driven pipe organs. Like the Telharmonium, it used tonewheels, in
this case producing harmonic combinations of frequencies that could be mixed by sliding
drawbars mounted on two keyboards.
As sound synthesis evolved, researchers broke even farther from tradition, experimenting
with new kinds of sound apart from music. Sound synthesis in this context was a process of
recording, creating, and compiling sounds in novel ways. The musique concrète movement of
the 1940s, for example, was described by founder Pierre Schaeffer as “no longer dependent upon
preconceived sound abstractions, but now using fragments of sound existing concretely as sound
objects (Schaeffer 1952).” “Sound objects” were to be found not in conventional music but
directly in nature and the environment train engines rumbling, cookware rattling, birds singing,
etc. Although it relied mostly on naturally occurring sounds, musique concrète could be
considered part of the electronic music movement in the way in which the sound montages were
constructed, by means of microphones, tape recorders, varying tape speeds, mechanical
reverberation effects, filters, and the cutting and resplicing of tape. In contrast, the
contemporaneous elektronische musik movement sought to synthesize sound primarily from
electronically produced signals. The movement was defined in a series of lectures given in
Darmstadt, Germany, by Werner Meyer-Eppler and Robert Beyer and entitled “The World of
Sound of Electronic Music.” Shortly thereafter, West German Radio opened a studio dedicated
to research in electronic music, and the first elektronische music production, Musica su Due
Dimensioni, appeared in 1952. This composition featured a live flute player, a taped portion
manipulated by a technician, and artistic freedom for either one of them to manipulate the
composition during the performance. Other innovative compositions followed, and the
movement spread throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan.
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