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Rise of the Synthesizer

You probably have trouble remembering a time when synthesizers were mainly used in classical music, but that’s they way it was immediately after the Moog synthesizer hit the market. But experimental rock musicians soon discovered the versatility of the instrument.

In the summer of 1970, after popping into a pub for a pint, rock keyboardist Keith Emerson sat down at his enormous Moog modular synthesizer in London’s legendary Advision recording studio and noodled a few improvised notes. His goal was to add some electronic punch to the end of a mostly acoustic-guitar number called “Lucky Man,” written by his singer-guitarist bandmate, Greg Lake. As his fingers ran up and down the synthesizer’s keyboard, Emerson played along to the bass, drums, vocals, and guitars already recorded by Lake and drummer Carl Palmer. Their contributions were lovely, imbued with the traditional rhythms and melodies of folk music and warmed by the human voice. In contrast, Emerson’s notes were otherworldly, rising and falling in syrupy sweeps, as if propelled through a rollercoaster of resonant tubes.

Emerson would later say he was just fooling around, and that he definitely did not expect his first take to be his last, but Lake and sound engineer Eddie Offord liked what they heard so much, they deemed Emerson’s work on “Lucky Man” done.

That ushered in the heyday of synthesizers. Before long, many rock bands were relying on them, and new, even more useful synthesizers were developed. The sound became standard in the 1970s and most of the ‘80s. Ben Marks talked to Lance Hill of the Vintage Synthesizer Museum and instrument developer Dave Smith, co-creator of MIDI, about the history of the music synthesizer at Collectors Weekly.

(Image source: Keith Emerson)

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