What is a Synthesizer?
A synthesizer is an instrument that uses electronics to produce sound. Sounds produced by a synthesizer are commonly triggered by a keyboard, but not always.
The History of Synthesizer Triggers
Although there term synthesizer wasn’t used until 1956 between 1896 -1956 there were a number of “synthesizers” which were each triggered (played) in unique ways.
Thaddeus Cahill patented the first synthesizer in 1896/1897. It was the 200-ton Telharmonium, or Dynamophone. It used a velocity sensitive keyboard to trigger sounds and was driven by 12 steam-powered electromagnetic generators.
In 1919, Russian inventor Leon Theremin invented the Theremin, an electronic instrument that was triggered by the proximity of a player’s hand in relation to an electrostatic field between two antennae.
In Berlin during the 1930s, Friedrich Trautwein and Oskar Sala worked on the Trautonium, an instrument that was triggered by pressing a steel wire onto a bar.
The First Official Synthesizer
The term synthesizer was officially introduced in 1956 with the debut of the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer Mark I, developed by American engineers Harry F. Olson and Herbert Belar. It didn’t have a keyboard and was instead controlled by information punched onto a roll of paper tape, which actually enabled continuous automation of pitch, volume, timbre, and envelopes (the shape created by a sound’s intensity if you put that sound in an ‘envelope’).
A video about the Bob Moog and the history of synths
Moog and More
At the end of 1963, American innovator R. A. (Bob) Moog met the composer Herbert Deutsch, who inspired Moog to combine a voltage-controlled oscillator and amplifier module with a keyboard in 1964—the first prototype of a voltage-controlled synthesizer. Moog launched his first official “synthesizer” in 1967. Unlike the other innovators at the time (notably Donald Buchla), Moog marketed his product to musicians, and used the familiar keyboard to trigger sounds. Musicians gravitated toward the familiar keyboard synths. From that point until today the popularity of keyboard-triggered synths has grown, but the fact remains the keyboard itself has nothing to do with a synthesizer being a synthesizer.