In Sydney tonight the Australian Recording Industry Association will host the ARIA Awards, the annual industry celebration recognising achievements in Australian music.
Among the plaudits is an Artisan Award for Engineer of the Year — but these nominees are audio engineers, responsible for overseeing the technicalities of sound recording, rather than the degree-qualified kind we celebrate here at create.
But that does not mean engineers have not made their contributions to the world of music, a realm in which technological innovation has accompanied creative exploration ever since humans first began looking for newer, louder or more interesting ways to make noises.
That’s why, today, create is celebrating the engineers that ARIA doesn’t — the inventors who have found new ways for human beings to make music, be they industry-transforming disruptors or quaint curios. Here are the five greatest musical instruments invented by engineers.
Lev Termin — or León Theremin, as he was known during his tours of the West — was the Russian engineer responsible for one of the earliest and strangest electronic instruments in music history. Invented during the tumultuous years of the Russian Civil War, the theremin exemplified the era of rapid technological change that was the 1920s: rather than by plucking strings or hammering keys, a theremin player would create music by waving his or her hands in thin air as the electronics processed the motion into an eerie, wavering wail.
Termin was a physicist who studied at Nikolayevska Military Engineering School during World War I; he graduated in just six months and subsequently worked to build radio transmitters for the war effort.
His instrument, invented in 1920, has two antennae, and the player controls pitch and volume by interrupting the electromagnetic fields surrounding these receptors. Termin boasted that every home would one day contain a theremin — “I think it could be sold and produced at the price of a three-valve radio set” — but the instrument was harder to play than he advertised and it fell out of favour.
Its distinctive sound was, however, later used by composers of film soundtracks, and on songs by Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Phish. The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” prominently features a later-produced variant called the electro-theremin.
Unperturbed by his creation’s niche appeal, Termin went on to invent a device even harder to play: the terpsitone, which was a wooden platform that produced sounds when a performer danced upon it.
Renowned theremenist Clara Rockmore demonstrates the instrument:
The Moog synthesiser
Termin’s device caught the ear of many electronics enthusiasts, including electrical engineer Robert Moog, who called the Russian “my hero and virtual mentor for most of my life”. Moog, whose name rhymes with “vogue”, was the inventor of the Moog synthesiser, one of the world’s first commercial analogue synthesisers.
Moog’s interest in electronic instruments was catalysed in his younger days when he began building theremins based on instructions in hobbyist magazines. After graduating with a master’s in electrical engineering from Columbia University, he drew on this experience to start designing his own synthesisers.
Emphasising simplicity and affordability, Moog’s device used transistors and patch cords, and could be played with a regular keyboard rather than programmed punch cards, increasing its appeal to musicians. The Moog’s distinctive sound, warm and rounded, comes across as dated today — though for some enthusiasts, that is part of its appeal — but in the 1960s and ‘70s, it represented the future, and its potential was welcomed by progressive rock acts like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
American composer Wendy Carlos also used the Moog to produce an electronic classical album in 1968 called Switched-On Bach; it which would win three Grammy Awards in 1970.
Moog himself would go on to work at Kurzweil Music Systems, the electronic instrument company that Ray Kurzweil — who is today Google’s Director of Engineering — founded in 1972 with Stevie Wonder and software developer Bruce Cichowlas.
Hot Butter’s “Popcorn,” which reached number one on the Australian singles chart in 1972, was played on a Moog synthesiser:
The Roland TR-808 drum machine
The Roland company is responsible for a number of influential electronic instruments, but its most influential is surely the TR-808, a drum machine notable for sounding nothing like a real-life drum kit. What it does have, however, is a booming kick drum with a low-end perfect for dance music and hip-hop, as well as a limited but distinctive range of other sounds: a tinny snare, a ticking hi-hat and a clanging cowbell.
Roland was set up by Ikutaro Kakehashi, whose studies of electrical engineering in his hometown of Osaka were interrupted by World War II and a serious bout of tuberculosis he caught during a food shortage. After starting his own electronic instrument company, Kekehashi recruited American electronics engineer Don Lewis, who performed at nightclubs in Denver, Colorado, after work and had been experimenting with some of Kakehashi’s creations.
“I had … changed all the rhythms because none of them fit my style of playing,” Lewis said. “After the show, this man from Japan came up and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘that looks like my rhythm unit, but it doesn’t sound like my rhythm unit! How did you do that?’.”
Years later, Roland’s engineers would produce the company’s now iconic 808 drum machine, but the device was seen as a failure on its release because it created drum sounds electronically instead of using real samples, meaning that it had a harsh and digital sound. That was perfect for ‘80s hip-hop though — and it has been perfect for any number of artists and genres since, from Detroit techno to modern day trap music. Kanye West even named his album 808s and Heartbreak after the drum machine.
“The TR-808 art is a piece of art. It’s engineering art, it’s so beautifully made,” Robert Henke, one of the creators of the Ableton music software, would later acclaim. “You look at the circuit diagram like you look at an orchestral score. You think, how on earth did they come up with this idea? It’s brilliant, it’s a masterpiece.”
Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” uses a Roland TR-808 for its drum beat:
The Fairlight CMI synthesiser
Built in a garage in the Sydney suburb of Point Piper and named after a hydrofoil passing by on the harbour outside, the Fairlight CMI synthesiser would take over the world after it was put on sale in 1979.
Its use was so common and defined the sound of the 1980s so definitively that when Phil Collins released his album No Jacket Required, he felt compelled to include a disclaimer in the liner notes that he hadn’t used the instrument on his record. Plenty of other performers did though, including Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush, Duran Duran, Herbie Hancock, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel.
The Fairlight was the creation of amateur electronics enthusiasts Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel, who connected with Motorola engineer Tony Furse to use microprocessor technology to produce a better synthesiser. Inspired by the Moog-showcasing Switched-On Bach album and building on Furse’s previously developed Qasar M8 synthesiser, the team created what would become the world’s first digital sampler — the machine could record sounds, then digitally manipulate them as they were being played. It also included a light pen, allowing users to manipulate waveforms on a computer screen.
The Fairlight was expensive, with each unit costing between $50,000 and $100,000, but the world-famous performers who formed the Fairlight customer base saw the synthesiser’s potential and were happy to pay the cost. (At least for a while; the company went bankrupt in the late ‘80s.)
In 2015, the instrument was included in the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sound of Australia collection in recognition of its influence.
Vox profiles the Fairlight CMI:
Sandvik’s unsmashable guitar
Bad news for destructive rock artists: Swedish engineering company Sandvik announced this year that it had produced an unbreakable guitar.
The 3D-printed axe used recycled stainless steel for its fretboard, which extends deep into the titanium body, meaning there is no weak point where the neck connected with the rest of the guitar.
“We had to design a guitar that is unsmashable in all the different ways you can smash a guitar,” said Henrik Loikkanen, machining process developer at Sandvik Coromant. “The engineering challenge was that critical joint between the neck and the body that usually cracks on a guitar.”
Using titanium powder meant the body would be light enough for a guitarist to hold and play, while additive manufacturing and computer-aided design ensured the precision curves and shapes needed to ensure the instrument sounded like it should.
To test out their creation, Sandvik gave Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen the chance to play it — and destroy it. He failed, saying, “This guitar is a beast! … The result is amazing. I gave everything I had, but it was impossible to smash.”
This past May, Sandvik auctioned the guitar, and it was bought by venture capitalist Pär-Jörgen Pärson for US$25,000. Sandvik donated the money to Engineers Without Borders.
Yngwie Malmsteen might have abandoned his guitar-smashing efforts, but an unbreakable guitar sure can make a mess of a stage: