On Synthesizers: It's A Bird! It's A Toy! It’s A Synthesizer!

May 16, 2016

[Continuing our celebration of 40 years of Keyboard, we are presenting Bob Moog's original "On Synthesizers" columns in their entirety.]

NEW ELECTRONIC keyboards abounded at the recent [1980] NAMM convention. Of course there were many new entries in the technology-price stratosphere, where terms like "microprocessor-controlled," "digital oscillator," and "polyphonic assignment mode" are heard with unnerving frequency. These large, incredibly versatile machines constitute the "wave of the present," not only in electronic musical instrument state of the art, but as part of the technical-cultural movement that is bringing sophisticated digital electronics into all phases of our daily lives. You will read more —much more —about these instruments and their underlying technology in forthcoming issues of Contemporary Keyboard.

Other new electronic keyboards at the NAMM show were at the opposite end of the price-technology spectrum. Two of these, the Electro-Harmonix Mini-Synthesizer and the Casiotone M10 Portable keyboard, are so small, cheap, and fun to play that they can be considered adult toys as well as musical instruments. Seeing and playing with these new instruments made me stop and think about how the relation between musical toys and "real" musical instruments is being changed by the increasing sophistication of consumer electronics.

Just what is the difference between a musical toy and a musical instrument? Most people would agree that the difference lies in how the device is used, rather than what it is. A toy is an object of little importance or consequence, used generally by children for amusement. A musical instrument, on the other hand, is a substantial piece of hardware, worthy of respect, admiration, and "serious" use. There are instruments that have well-established histories of serving as both toys and "serious" instruments. My childhood toy box was graced with a Hohner harmonica, and I had fun blowing on it for several years before I took a screwdriver to it and stripped it down to the reeds. Unlike the hundreds of musicians I've subsequently heard who play the harmonica well, I never thought of that little gadget as something you had to learn to play (the way you did our piano in the living room). Even so, I developed some feeling for melodic, harmonic, and timbral relationships as well as the working of reeds, while I casually and frivolously toyed with the Hohner. I'm sure most of you have had similar experiences of having fun and learning something while playing with a plastic ukulele, a tin drum, or an inexpensive sound effects box from a local electronics hobby store.

In the early days of synthesizers (ten years or so ago) self-appointed marketing visionaries looked forward to the day when synthesizers would be cheap and fun to play, enough to be marketed as toys. In fact one small synthesizer introduced in 1971 (at a list price of $1,000!) was originally conceived of as an adult toy which would be promoted in Playboy magazine and similar amusement-oriented media. The first entries into the toy electronic market came not from "legitimate" instrument manufacturers but from consumer products marketing organizations that understood the basic requirements of fun-oriented hardware. Around 1972 General Electric introduced a battery-operated monophonic keyboard called the Tote-a-tune. It had a 17-note keyboard that, considering its under-$25 price, didn't feel all that bad. Sliders enabled the player to vary volume, introduce vibrato, and select one of four tone colors. There was no enveloping or dynamic filtering. However, there was a guitar-strap-like affair and a small internal speaker that contributed to its comfortable, personal feel. Over the years our children spent many hours playing with their Tote-a-tune, fishing out familiar melodies and fooling with the controls. After eight years of heavy use (for a toy) the Tote-a-tune still works, which is more than you could say for my harmonica.

Since the introduction of the Tote-a-tune, electronic musical toys have become more and more common on the Christmas landscape. Current musical toys have potent digital memories that store games' worth of musical patterns, as well as R2D2-like vocabularies with which to communicate with the player(s). Still, until very recently, there were no musical toys that would tide a budding Edgar Varese, Klaus Schulze, or Herbie Hancock over until he or she had the means and the inclination to acquire a "legitimate" synthesizer. The marketing experts' dream of flooding the world with recreational synthesizers still seemed out of reach.

The Electro-Harmonix Mini-Synthesizer is the first instrument I've seen that is fun to play and cheap, yet has enough sound-shaping capability to be compared with currently available legitimate monophonic synthesizers. Its two-octave printed keyboard controls a single oscillator plus a sub-octave divider whose phase with respect to the oscillator waveform may be modulated. Oscillator and divider waveforms are fed through a complex voltage-controlled filter, which is controlled by a simple envelope generator. The touch keyboard includes an impact sensor, which opens the filter variably in response to how hard you hit the keyboard. Panel controls include one-octave pitch-bend, sub-octave waveform level, pitch range, animation, a simple group of filter envelope controls, and master volume. The instrument weighs two pounds and is only slightly larger than the page you are reading. Jacks for audio output and AC power adapter are provided.

Hooked up to a reasonable amp, the Mini-Synthesizer is capable of producing some fat, pleasing tone colors. When you combine this with the theatrical aspect of hitting a touch keyboard with one hand while working sliders with the other hand, you have an instrument that, despite its small size and modest price (under two hundred bucks at the present time), could be used to advantage in many groups' routines.

The photograph shows Mike Matthews, president of Electro-Harmonix, playing the Mini-Synthesizer. As you can see, Mike has a sense of style. But, more important, he understands that you can have a lot of fun playing a simple instrument with the right controls. I remember when I first met Mike, at the 1971 NAMM show. Moog Music introduced the Minimoog and the Sonic Six to the musical instrument industry at that show. It was the first time anyone had exhibited synthesizers. Nobody knew what a synthesizer was, and few people seemed to care. But Mike, who had a booth down the aisle from Moog Music, came by, put on the earphones, and blew his brains out on a Minimoog for three hours. When he left he had a big smile on his face. If you looked hard, you could see stars in his eyes.

Back to the present, and the 1980 NAMM show: the Casiotone M10 is one of a line of simple polyphonic electric keyboards currently being manufactured by Casio, a Japanese manufacturer of digital watches and calculators. Like the E-H Mini-Synthesizer, the M10 is battery powered, small enough to be easily hand-held, and equipped with a small built-in monitor speaker. Its 2 1/2 octave keyboard has keys that are shorter and narrower than standard organ keys, but with a quality feel that compares favorably with that of any synthesizer keyboard that I've tried! Four musically useful tone colors are provided. Played through a keyboard amp, the M10 sounds on a par with "professional" organs costing many times its $150 list price. Run through an envelope-triggered sound modifier, this little polyphonic axe can be potent by any keyboardist's standards.

Synthesizers are generally rated on their versatility and sound quality. The Electro-Harmonix Mini-Synthesizer and the Casiotone M10, while admittedly short on versatility, offer acceptable sound quality and are just plain fun to play. I hope they signal an emerging trend in the development of fun-oriented synthesizers.
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