Synthesizers are revolutionary instruments. These electronic devices use knobs, buttons and sliders to make different sounds — and you can hear them in all sorts of music, from pop to hip-hop. But that wasn’t always the case. Join Joy and co-host Lilike as they explore the history of the synthesizer and learn one album transformed it from an experimental instrument to an essential hitmaker. We’ll also hear from Switched On Pop producer Reanna Cruz about the legacy of these groovy instruments. All that, plus a new game of First Things First! 

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LILIKE: Hey, Joy, what are you up to?

JOY DOLO: Oh, you know, just single-handedly reinventing music.

LILIKE: Whoa! Just another Wednesday, I guess. And may I ask just how you're reinventing music?

JOY DOLO: Well, you know, between being a beloved podcast host, actor, wrestling club president, and gum connoisseur. I'm also--

BOTH: An aspiring DJ.

JOY DOLO: Yes! Because DJ Dolo is just too good of a name to pass up.

LILIKE: Was that you making all those bleeps and bloops just now?

JOY DOLO: You better bleep-bloop believe it. I just found the most bananas, bonkers, never-before-seen instrument in my closet. It was right in between my collection of party hats and my signed Boyz II Men poster. I'm calling it the Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000.

LILIKE: That looks like a keyboard, with a bunch of knobs.

JOY DOLO: Well, what it is is the Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000. Because it bleep bloops to the 5,000s. Want to hear what I've been working on?



JOY DOLO: Music to your ears, right?

LILIKE: It's definitely noise to my ears. Joy, I don't think that's any old keyboard.

JOY DOLO: You're right. It's not a keyboard. It's the Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000.

LILIKE: Actually, I think it's called a synthesizer.

JOY DOLO: Oh, you're so right. It is a synthesizer. Hey, I didn't know I could play the synthesizer.

LILIKE: I'm not so sure you can.

JOY DOLO: Watch out, world. DJ Dolo in the house.



You're listening to Forever Ago from APM Studios, the show where we explore the before. And today, I'm here with my co-host Lilike from Santa Barbara, California. What's up, Lilike?

LILIKE: Hi, Joy.

JOY DOLO: Today, we're talking about synthesizers.

LILIKE: One of the most revolutionary instruments in history. Synths are huge today. But they weren't always this popular. It took a lot of experimentation to bring synthesizers into the mainstream.

JOY DOLO: Which we'll learn about soon enough. But first, let's listen to some synths. You may not realize it, but synthesizers are everywhere in music today. From "BREAK MY SOUL" by Beyoncé.


To "Bejeweled" by Taylor Swift.

TAYLOR SWIFT: (SINGING) Best believe I'm still bejeweled. When I walk in the room, I can still make the whole place shimmer.

JOY DOLO: Or "Blinding Lights" by The Weeknd.


Synthesizers sometimes look like a plastic piano keyboard with a bunch of knobs and dials.

LILIKE: Yeah, but they also look like metal boxes with lots of switches, knobs, and buttons.

JOY DOLO: And they make such awesome sounds. Just listen to my Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000.


I'm still getting the hang of it. Lilike, do you play any instruments?

LILIKE: Yes, I play ukulele and piano.

JOY DOLO: How long have you been playing ukulele and piano?

LILIKE: I've been taking piano lessons on and off since I was probably 6 or 7.

JOY DOLO: Oh, wow.

LILIKE: I've done online classes. I've done in-person classes. Mostly, I'm self-taught, like all. I'm pretty good at ear picking a song for the notes.

JOY DOLO: Oh, wow.

LILIKE: And then just kind of figuring it out.


LILIKE: And ukulele, I've been playing probably since, I think-- I want to say May or April.

JOY DOLO: Lilike, I want you to go on a journey with me. Let's just imagine. Let's just imagine it's 10, 20 years in the future and you are a famous musician. OK? What would your stage name be?

LILIKE: Ooh. That's a good one. I feel like I might just go with my name. I don't know.

JOY DOLO: You have a pretty great name, I'm not going to lie, Lilike.

LILIKE: Yeah. I feel like I don't really want a stage name. I see the appeal of, for instance, a pen name, but a stage name just feels a little bit, I don't know. I think I would feel kind of awkward about it.

Because you have to pick one, and then you can pick one that's really cool, but then I would always panic. Like if someone judging my stage name, did I pick one that isn't cool enough? Did I pick one that's too full of myself?


LILIKE: And I would just have so much self-doubt about it.

JOY DOLO: I feel the same way about Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000.


JOY DOLO: I just named a synthesizer after myself.


JOY DOLO: But anyway, speaking of synthesizers. You might be wondering, how in the bleep bloop do synthesizers work?

LILIKE: Synthesizers, including the Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000, are electronic musical instruments, which means they use electricity to make sound.

JOY DOLO: Now, this is different from acoustic instruments, which could be anything that doesn't need batteries or to be plugged in.

LILIKE: Like piano, guitar, violin, trumpet, or a drum set.

JOY DOLO: Or even--

(SINGING) the human voice. La-dee-da singing, yeah. Oh-oh-oh.

LILIKE: Acoustic instruments make music by making physical vibrations. When you strum a guitar, [GUITAR STRUM] the strings vibrate. When you hit a drum, [DRUM BEAT] the drum itself vibrates. When you sing like how I'm singing now, your vocal cords vibrate.

JOY DOLO: Synthesizers are different from acoustic instruments. Instead of the sound starting with movement, like vibrations from strings or your vocal cords, it starts with electricity.

LILIKE: And you can take that electric signal and shape it using all these knobs. Here, I can show you. Joy, permission to play the Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000.

JOY DOLO: Abso-bleep-bloop-bleep-ly.

LILIKE: Thanks. OK. This is what the pure electric signal sounds like.


But if I twist this knob, I can completely transform the sound.


JOY DOLO: It's blonkers that one instrument can make so many different sounds. If you want to hear more about how synthesizers work, our pals at Brains On! made an episode all about it. So check it out.

(SINGING) Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, Brains On!

LILIKE: Synthesizers are so cool. But at first, people didn't really realize their true potential.

JOY DOLO: It's true. Synthesizers got their start when electricity became more widespread. And people started experimenting with making electronic instruments throughout the decades.

LILIKE: But early synthesizers were really hard to play, and really expensive.

JOY DOLO: And they were huge.

LILIKE: Right. They took up whole rooms. You couldn't exactly take your synth to band practice.

JOY DOLO: Unlike the Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000. So people kept trying to improve the synthesizer into the 1960s. And that's when things really started taking off.

LILIKE: Technology was bleep-blop booming. Most people had TVs in their homes, and the US was set on figuring out how to travel to the moon.


And rock music was really starting to take off.


MAN: Turn it up. I dig it, man.

WOMAN: Groovy, baby.

JOY DOLO: A lot of different engineers wanted to make synthesizers that were easier for musicians to play. One of those people was Bob Moog. He set out to build an instrument that would be easy to use, not too expensive, and not too big.

LILIKE: After a couple of years, Bob presented his first synth to a bunch of musicians. And a lot of them were interested.

JOY DOLO: Bob's invention was exciting because it could make so many different sounds like a flute.


Or trumpets.


With the Moog synthesizer, you can make the sounds of different instruments without ever needing the real instruments.

LILIKE: Exactly. And on top of mimicking instruments that already exist, synthesizers could also make tons of new sounds, like this.


JOY DOLO: Well, bleep my blorp, that's catchy. Almost like music from outer space.

LILIKE: Moog synthesizer used what looked like a piano keyboard to control the sounds.

JOY DOLO: So musicians who were already familiar with the piano could quickly transfer those skills to the synthesizer.

LILIKE: Exactly. It was still pretty complicated to get a sound you liked. You had to experiment by connecting lots of cables and fiddling with a ton of knobs. But once you found a sound you liked, you could play it on the synthesizer almost like a piano.

JOY DOLO: OK. So goal number one achieved. It was somewhat easier to play. And Moog synths were also smaller, like they didn't take up an entire room.

LILIKE: Yeah. It's all relative. They were smaller but still heavy. Each one was about the size of a refrigerator turned on its side.

JOY DOLO: So it wasn't something you could throw in your backpack, but definitely smaller than other synthesizers at that time.

LILIKE: They were also more affordable. Depending on which custom parts you bought, they were anywhere between $2,000 to $10,000.

JOY DOLO: Today, that'd be around the cost of a car, or even a couple cars. That is not very affordable, Lilike.

LILIKE: I know. Not even close. But another synthesizer around the time called the RCA Mark II cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build.

JOY DOLO: OK. So I guess the Moog was cheaper in comparison.

LILIKE: Right. The average person probably wasn't going to buy a synthesizer, but a college music department, or even a wealthy musician, might have bought a Moog.

JOY DOLO: And people were making really experimental music with the Moog. Here's a song called "Blues Mix" by Joel Chadabe from 1966.


That does sound like something from outer space.


JOY DOLO: That's so weird. [LAUGHS]

LILIKE: That sounds bizarrely fascinating.

JOY DOLO: Very. I completely agree. And a lot of people thought synthesizers sounded bad or weird, which is wild because they had so much potential. But back then, people didn't really see that.

LILIKE: Yeah. Some people thought synths sounded more like noise than music.

JOY DOLO: That meant synthesizers were not in the mainstream. That is until one album came along and changed everything by putting a fresh new spin on something hundreds of years old. Just like how I'm reinventing music with my Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000.


LILIKE: Hey, you're kind of getting the hang of that.

JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah! All right, hold the story. Let's celebrate with a little game I like to call--

First Things First!


JOY DOLO: It's your favorite game where we try to guess the order things came in history. Today, we've got three musical instruments-- the saxophone, the harp, and the banjo. Lilike, which do you think came first, which came second, and which came most recently in history? Oh, this is a good one.

LILIKE: Oh. They all feel so plausible.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, they do. OK. So let's start with which one do you think might be the newest, how about that?

LILIKE: Maybe saxophone? They have a lot of moving parts, so I could see where it might have been difficult to produce for a while.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah. They've got all those little buttons and flippers and things like that, yeah.

LILIKE: Yeah, yeah. I don't know. And I mean, I feel like the harp, I feel like, is really old. It just has-- I feel like, I mean, if you think about it, back in ancient Greece, they had lyres.

JOY DOLO: Yes, yes. I thought that, too. And a lyre is a stringed instrument. It actually looks like a harp. But banjos also have strings. Do you think the lyre is the grandfather of the banjo, maybe?

LILIKE: I am-- sorry, I'm just trying to picture the god Apollo just casually playing his banjo.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHING] That would make for a great mythology story. It's like, [INTERPOSING VOICES] came down the mountain.

LILIKE: Yeah, absolutely. Just playing his banjo. I would enjoy that deeply.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHING] That's a story I'd read.

LILIKE: Yeah. I feel like the harp has to be first just because of just how historic it is.


LILIKE: So I'm going to go with the harp first. And then I feel like the banjo and then the saxophone. I don't know. I'm doubting myself big time here.

JOY DOLO: I'm going to go with you. I'm going to tell you to trust your instinct, because that's what I think, too. I think the lyre thing is really a key component in this. So we'll say the harp is first, the banjo is second, and then third is the saxophone.


JOY DOLO: They said confidently. We'll hear the answers after the credits.


You're listening to Forever Ago. I'm Joy.

LILIKE: And I'm Lilike.

JOY DOLO: We love talking about the surprising history behind some of our favorite inventions on the show. We also love hearing about inventions you couldn't imagine living without. Here's today's--

Invention Mention.

OSCAR: My name is Oscar, and my Invention Mention is a backpack. Because it would be so hard if we didn't have backpacks. We'd just be carrying all this stuff around.

And first of all, it would be heavy. And also, we'd just be dropping it every five minutes. And we could very easily lose it without a backpack.

JOY DOLO: Thanks, Oscar, for sending your Invention Mention. Listeners, send us a recording of yourself sharing your favorite invention, and what's great about it, at Now, cue the synths.


LILIKE: Before the break, we learned that synthesizers are electronic musical instruments that changed the world.

JOY DOLO: They work by transforming electricity into sound.

LILIKE: The first synthesizers were giant and expensive.

JOY DOLO: But in the 1960s, inventor Bob Moog helped make the synthesizer smaller and slightly more affordable using a keyboard as his model.

LILIKE: And at this point, the synthesizer was still a super experimental instrument.

JOY DOLO: Kind of like my Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000.


LILIKE: Exactly. And some people thought synthesizers made no sense, and even sounded bad.

JOY DOLO: Bad? No, this sounds rad.


LILIKE: [CLEARS THROAT] Like I was saying, most people didn't really understand synthesizers, and they weren't very common either.

JOY DOLO: They were popular with a few experimental musicians, and some academics thought they were really cool. In fact, most early synthesizers were found at universities. But then, a super popular record came out that helped synths sound more like mainstream music. It was produced by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind.

LILIKE: Instead of writing a bunch of new songs, they decided to hook people on something they already knew.

JOY DOLO: Something deep in the crevices of their brain folds, like old MacDonald.

(SINGING) With a bleep blorp here and a bleep blorp there. Here a bleep, there a bloop, everywhere a bleep bloop.

LILIKE: Yes. Something all up in their brain folds. And that's something was music from Johann Sebastian Bach.

JOY DOLO: Oh, I've heard that name before. Isn't he a German classical composer from forever ago? That's also the name of this show. Do you get it? Do you get it? No, but he was a German classical composer from the 1700s.

LILIKE: Yeah. But you still probably know some of his songs like these--




JOY DOLO: Bach has bangers.

LILIKE: It's true.

JOY DOLO: So Wendy and Rachel decided to take some of these songs by Bach and play them on the synthesizer. But recording the album wasn't easy.

LILIKE: It took over 1,000 hours to finish the album, which spanned over five months.

JOY DOLO: Five months? That's like a whole winter and spring just playing the synthesizer.

LILIKE: And it was really tricky work. For one thing, at this point, synthesizers could only play one note at a time.

JOY DOLO: This made Wendy and Rachel's job much harder. Because a lot of times when musicians write music, including Bach, they use chords. That's when you play multiple notes at the same time like this--


But at the time, the synthesizer could only play one note at a time. So you had to play note by note like this--


So when Wendy and Rachel wanted to create a chord sound, they had to record each note separately and then stack them on top of each other, layer by layer.


It makes the Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000 sound like a breeze.

LILIKE: And that's not even the end of it. The synthesizer was constantly going out of tune. And sometimes Wendy had to literally bang it with a hammer to get it just right.


JOY DOLO: Unlike me. I have perfect pitch. My bleep bloop, bloop, bloop.


LILIKE: So after months of recreating these Bach songs, Wendy and Rachel released their album in 1968. It was called Switched-On Bach, and it sounded like this--


That sounds awesome.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, it does. Others thought so, too. And the album was a huge hit. People could hear classical music that was familiar, but in a new, exciting form.

MAN: It's extraordinary.

WOMAN: Bach is back, baby, and better than ever. Far out.

JOY DOLO: It was genius! Wendy and Rachel took the same instrument that was once considered bizarre, and mostly only used in experimental academic settings, and presented it to the public in a way they could understand.

LILIKE: Right. It was so popular at the time, the radio was playing it alongside pop and rock songs.

JOY DOLO: In 1970, it won three Grammys, including best classical album.

LILIKE: And it would go on to sell over 1 million copies, making Switched-On Bach one of the most successful classical albums of all time.

JOY DOLO: And thanks to Wendy and Rachel's breakthrough album, the synthesizer started showing up in music everywhere. From "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" by the Beatles.


Or in the bass line in Stevie Wonder's song "Superstition."


To "Running Up That Hill" by Kate Bush.


LILIKE: Synthesizers weren't just for the radio.

JOY DOLO: Right. Synths started to be more widely used for sound effects in commercials, video games, and movies. Wendy and Rachel even went on to use the synthesizer to score films.

LILIKE: Like A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron.

JOY DOLO: And by the 1980s, synthesizers were getting smaller and more affordable. As computer technology advanced, so did synths. They went digital, which means, instead of using an electric signal to make sound, the synthesizers used computer code.

LILIKE: Which made them more accessible to everyone.

JOY DOLO: That's awesome. Switched-On Bach was a game changer. It really helped bring synthesizers into the mainstream. Today, synthesizers are everywhere in music, and have influenced so many genres.

LILIKE: To learn more, we talked to Reanna Cruz.

REANNA CRUZ: Howdy, I'm Reanna Cruz and I'm the producer of the podcast Switched on Pop. We are a show about the making and meaning of popular music. Switched-On Bach is really important because it motivated thousands of people to get their own synthesizers.

It topped the billboard classical albums chart for four years and really introduced people to the possibilities that sound could do and the possibilities that electronic instruments could do at that point. It just revolutionized things in a lot of ways. And I think it's really, really important even now 60 years past when it was made. They're in rock music since the '60s.

They're all over '80s music. If you listen to an '80s music, then you're like, this sounds kind of cheesy. There's a synthesizer in there that makes it sound like that. And that's its charm, right? You hear it in funk music.

Funk music has synthesizers as the bass, as the backbone. Sampling, which is a cornerstone of hip hop, and electronic music, but also hip hop, that was introduced because of a synthesizer. Hip hop without the synthesizer would not be a genre, because you wouldn't have sampling, you wouldn't have the drum machines. There just would be nothing really.

There's a lot of genres that I think would never happen or never get realized if the synthesizer was not present. I feel like if we didn't have the synthesizer today, music would all be analog. And not that that's necessarily a bad thing. People make really great analog music.

They always have and they continue to. But I think that potential of imagination wouldn't necessarily be there in the way that it is now. And that's what I love about music, is that it's very imaginative and I get to hear things that I never thought I could ever hear before. And I feel like a lot of that wouldn't be present if there weren't synthesizers.

LILIKE: Wow. Music today would look so different without synthesizers.

JOY DOLO: There would definitely be no Dolophone Bleep Bloop 5000s.

LILIKE: Hit it, Joy.


JOY DOLO: This episode was written by Rachel Brees and Ruby Guthrie. We had production help from Nico Gonzalez Wisler, Sanden Totten, Shahla Farzan, Aron Woldeslassie, Anna Goldfield, Rose Dupont, Marc Sanchez, and Anna Weggel.

Sound design by Rachel Brees. Theme music by Marc Sanchez. Beth Pearlman is our executive producer. We had engineering help from Anna Havermann, Derek Ramirez, and Elliot Lanham.

The executives in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati, Joanne Griffith, and Alex Schaffert. Additional editing help from Cassius Adair at Sylveon Consulting. Special thanks to Peter Moreau and Charlie Harding.

LILIKE: If you want to access [INAUDIBLE] three episodes and special bonus content, subscribe to our Smarty Pass.

JOY DOLO: Check it out at OK, Lilike, ready to hear the answers for First Things First?

LILIKE: Yeah, but I'm nervous.

JOY DOLO: I know. Me too. I'm so excited. OK so just like for a reminder. First, we had harp. And then second, we had banjo. And then the most recent, we had saxophone.


JOY DOLO: Ba-ba-ra-ba. Ba-ba-ra-ba-pa-pa-da. Da-da-da-da-ta-ta-ta.

LILIKE: Ah, the suspense.

JOY DOLO: Da-da-da-da-ta-ta-ta-da. All right, here we go. Oh, wow. Shoot. You were right.

LILIKE: Oh! yes!

JOY DOLO: Psych! You were absolutely right, yeah. So first up was the harp. The harp dates back to as early as 3000 BCE in ancient Egypt. There are records of the harp appearing in various cultures across the globe, including Asia Africa, and Europe. The harp often represents hope or heaven, and is even a national symbol for Ireland.

LILIKE: Whoa. I didn't know any of that. That's pretty cool.

JOY DOLO: Isn't that something? Yeah.


JOY DOLO: I didn't know any of that either. But also, I feel like we were on the right track. It definitely is the oldest of them.

LILIKE: Yeah, Orpheus certainly didn't make his way down to the underworld with a banjo.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHING] But speaking of banjo, that was next up. That was the 17th century and early 1600s. The banjo was invented by enslaved Africans and their descendants in colonial North America and the Caribbean dating back to the early 17th century.

And so the banjo was inspired by various West African instruments with a round gourd body, long neck, and plucky strings. It became a staple sound in American bluegrass, country, and folk music. I think that's what we were referencing earlier, right?

LILIKE: Yeah, that's so cool.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. And then last but not least is the saxophone. The saxophone was invented by Belgian Adolph Sax-- oh, Adolph Sax. I wonder where they got the name from-- in the early 1840s. He originally intended for the instrument to be used in orchestras and military bands.

And at first, most orchestras thought the saxophone was too experimental. But the instrument really caught on with French military bands, some of which ended up stationed in New Orleans. And that's how the saxophone eventually made its place in jazz music. You know New Orleans is the home of jazz.

LILIKE: Yeah. We have the saxophone, the Dolophone.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Well, congratulations on getting all the First Things First answers. And stick around because we'll be back next week with an episode all about the history of chewing gum.

LILIKE: Thanks for listening.


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