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Rise of the Synthesizer: How an Electronics Whiz Kid Gave the 1980s Its Signature Sound



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.

Until that moment, classical music had been the genre of choice for aspiring synthesizer musicians like Wendy Carlos, whose 1968 album, “Switched-On Bach,” was recorded almost entirely on a Moog modular synthesizer, which had only been introduced in 1964. “Switched-On Bach” became a surprise hit, but it was the subsequent appearance of “Lucky Man” on international pop charts that helped make the synthesizer a favorite of rock musicians, too, and propelled Emerson, Lake & Palmer to stardom.

The following year, in 1971, Pete Townshend of The Who patched a few simple chords played on a regular Lowrey organ through an EMS VCS 3 synthesizer to produce the bouncy, almost shivering, sequence that introduces and closes “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” And by the summer of 1972, Pink Floyd would use an EMS Synthi AKS, as well as the VCS 3, on just about every track of its “Dark Side of the Moon” album, cementing the synthesizer’s reputation as an instrument that knew how to rock.

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