Digital Synthesizer - History


The very earliest digital synthesis experiments were made with general-purpose computers, as part of academic research into sound generation. In 1975, the Japanese company Yamaha licensed the algorithms for frequency modulation synthesis (FM synthesis) from John Chowning, who had experimented with it at Stanford University since 1971. Yamaha's engineers began adapting Chowning's algorithm for use in a commercial digital synthesizer, adding improvements such as the "key scaling" method to avoid the introduction of distortion that normally occurred in analog systems during frequency modulation, though it would take several years before Yamaha release their FM digital synthesizers.

Early commercial digital synthesizers used simple hard-wired digital circuitry to implement techniques such as additive synthesis and FM synthesis, becoming commercially available in the late 1970s. Other techniques, such as wavetable synthesis and physical modeling, only became possible with the advent of high-speed microprocessor and digital signal processing technology. Two of the earliest commercial digital synthesizers were the Fairlight CMI, introduced in 1979, and the New England Digital Synclavier II. The Fairlight CMI was the first sampling synthesizer, while the Synclavier was originally an FM synthesizer, not adding sampling synthesis until the 1980s. The Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier were both expensive systems, retailing for more than $20,000 in the early 1980s.

In 1980, Yamaha eventually released the first FM digital synthesizer, the Yamaha GS-1, but at an expensive retail price of $16,000. The cost of digital synthesizers soon began falling rapidly in the early 1980s. E-mu Systems introduced the Emulator sampling synthesizer in 1982 at a retail price of $7,900. Although not as flexible or powerful as either the Fairlight CMI or the Synclavier, its lower cost and portability made it popular.

Introduced in 1983, the Yamaha DX7 was an early all digital synthesizer that obtained relatively broad commercial success. It used FM synthesis and, although it was incapable of the sampling synthesis of the Fairlight CMI, its price was around $2,000, putting it within range of a much larger number of musicians. The DX-7 was also known for its "key scaling" method to avoid distortion and for its recognizable bright tonalities that was partly due to an overachieving sampling rate of 57 kHz. It became indispensable to many music artists of the 1980s, and would become one of the best-selling synthesizers of all time.

In 1987, Roland released an important syntheizer: the D-50. This popular synth used a combination of short samples and digital oscillators. Roland called this Linear Arithmetic (LA) synthesis. This keyboard has some very recognisable preset sounds, such as the Pizzagogo sound used on Enya's "Orinoco Flow."

It became feasible to include high quality samples of existing instruments as opposed to synthesizing them. Many popular synthesizers are not synthesizers in the classic definition of the word. They playback samples stored in their memory. They still include options to shape the sounds through use of envelopes, LFOs, filters and effects (such as reverb.) The Yamaga Motif and Roland Fantom series of keyboards are typical examples of this type. They are sometimes called ROMplers.

As there was still an interest in analog synthesizers, and with the increase of computing power, another type of synthesizer was born - the analog modeling (or "virtual analog") synthesizer. These used computing power to simulate traditional analog waveforms and circuitry such as envelopes and filters. One example of this type of synthesizer was the Nord Lead.

With the addition of sophisticated sequencers on board the workstation synthesizer was born. They include a multi-track sequencer. They can often record and playback samples, and full audio tracks, so could be used to record an entire song. The Korg M1 is an example of an early workstation synthesizer. They are usually ROMplers, to give a wide variety of realistic instrument and other sounds such as drums, string instruments and wind instruments along with popular keyboard instrument sounds such as electric pianos and organs.

With modern processing power and memory, some synthesizer has been produced that offer a variety of synthesis options. The Korg Oasys was an example of including multiple synthesizers in the same unit.

Some digital synthesizers now exist in the form of "softsynth" software that synthesizes sound using conventional PC hardware, though they require careful programming and a fast CPU to get the same latency response as their dedicated equivalents. In order to reduce latency, some professional sound card manufacturers have developed specialized digital signal processing hardware. Dedicated digital synthesizers frequently have the advantage of onboard accessibility, with switchable front panel controls to peruse their functions, whereas software synthesizers trump their dedicated counterparts with their additional functionality, against the handicap of a mouse-driven control system.

With focus on performance-oriented keyboards and digital computer technology, manufacturers of commercial electronic instruments created some of the earliest digital synthesizers for studio and experimental use with computers being able to handle built-in sound synthesis algorithms.

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