Soviet Synthesizers: From Russia with LFO

When you think of countries that are important in the history of the synthesizer and electronic music, it’s easy to focus on the United States with famous inventors and manufacturers such as Moog, Buchla, Oberheim and many others. Or to think of Japan with well-known brands like Yamaha, Roland, Korg and even Casio. If you are up on your electronic music history, the Trautonium or the Ondes Martenot might spring to mind as important early contributions by Germany and France respectively.

But you probably don’t think of Russia.

And yet Russians were involved in electronic music from the very earliest stages, and synthesizers were developed and widely used in the former Soviet Union – both officially and underground. And like most things Russian, the synthesizers of the Soviet Union were, for the most part, no mere imitators of their Western cousins, but had a style and sound all their own.

Theremin the Young Pioneer

Theremin hand-built by Leon Theremin
at the Glinka National Museum Consortium
of Musical Culture.

By far the best-known Russian pioneer of electronic music is Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Ле́в Серге́евич Терме́н) better known in the West as Leon Theremin. Born in 1896, Theremin was something of a boy genius who, while still in high school, had a home laboratory where he conducted experiments with electromagnetism and high-frequency circuits.

He invented the instrument that bears his name almost by accident. While working at the Physical-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg, which at the time was known as Petrograd, he built a high-frequency oscillator as a device for measuring the electrical insulating properties of gasses.

While trying to improve the device by adding an audio tone, he discovered that the pitch would change when he moved his hand near it. He first demonstrated the device in October 1922 to colleagues at the Institute and by the following November performed a public concert on the new instrument.

However, Theremin’s instrument had its first commercial success in the United States with the RCA model AR-1264 Theremin. In fact, the RCA version of the Theremin has a good claim on being the first mass-produced fully electronic musical instrument in the world.

The Theremin was first produced in small quantities in the Soviet Union. Although people tend to focus on the Theremin’s unique method of playing, it is often overlooked that the system of voltage-controlled oscillation, which creates the pitch of the instrument, is the basis of pretty much all the analog synthesizers that have followed.

Leon Theremin playing his own instrument

Rhythmicon, Polyrhythmophone, Terpsitone and The Thing

While the Theremin remains Theremin’s best-known creation, it was not his only foray into futuristic electronics. In 1930 Theremin worked with the American composer Henry Cowell to develop the Rhythmicon, sometimes known as the Polyrhythmophone, which created its sound by using a system of rapidly spinning discs and photoelectric receptors.

Although the device was created to help Cowell realize and perform his avant-garde compositions, some of which were so complex that they could not be played by humans, the rhythm programming capabilities of the Rhythmicon meant that Theremin had, in essence, built the very first drum machine.

In 1936 Theremin adapted the circuitry of the Theremin into a device called the Terpsitone, which was designed to allow dancers to translate their movements directly into sound. Although Theremin built three of these during his lifetime, the Terpsitone never found any wide success; it had a reputation of being extremely difficult for the dancers to control.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge showing 'The Thing' at the United Nations 26 May 1960.

Almost certainly the strangest – and cleverest – of Theremin’s inventions has to be the gadget that the CIA dubbed “The Thing.” This was a covert audio monitoring device – a “bug” – that was wireless and required no internal power to operate. Completely passive, it was activated and energized by directing high-frequency energy at it from a distance. This turned the device into a broadcasting microphone that could be monitored by a radio receiver.

“The Thing” was hidden in a woodcarving of the great Seal of United States that was presented to the American ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1945, who then hung it in his private office. The device was so successful that it was not discovered, and then only by accident, until 1951.

The ANS Synthesizer: Tripping the Light Fantastic

Of all the synthesizers invented in the former Soviet Union, the photoelectronic ANS synthesizer is probably the most unusual and innovative. It was invented by Russian audio engineer Yevgeny Murzin (Евгений Мурзи) and got its name from the initials of the composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Скря́бин), in honor of Scriabin’s compositional theories that combined color and sound.

The ANS Synthesizer.

Although Murzin originally designed the instrument somewhere between 1937 and ‘38, it was not actually built until 1957. The instrument creates it sounds with a series of spinning glass discs, which are then photo-optically turned into sine waves. It is fully microtonal over a range of 10 octaves. The ANS is graphically programmed; that is, it’s played by etching lines on glass plates covered in black mastic, which are then read by the instrument.

Edgings at the top and the bottom of the plates create respectively high and low pitches that are read from left to right across the surface. This graphic interface makes it possible to actually play a two-dimensional drawing. It was also able to create sounds from a graphically drawn soundwave, a feature that would not be seen again until New England Digital marketed the Synclavier in the late 1970s.

Although only one of these instruments were ever made — it’s now in the Glinka Museum in Moscow — the ANS was extremely influential and was used by noted Russian composers such as Edison Vasilievich Denisov (Эдисо́н Васи́льевич Дени́сов), Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina (Софи́я Асгатовна Губайду́лина), and Alfred Garrievich Schnittke (Альфре́д Га́рриевич Шни́тке). The ANS was also used to create movie scores, most famously by Eduard Nikolaevich Artemyev (Эдуа́рд Никола́евич Арте́мьев) to score the 1972 film Solaris, by the influential Russian director Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky (Андре́й Арсе́ньевич Тарко́вский).

Examples of the etched sheets of glass used to play the ANS Synthesizer.

One of the most important yet overlooked aspects to the ANS synthesizer is the historical significance of its graphical programming. The use of two-dimensional shapes to represent pitch and duration is very similar to the way music is denoted on modern recording software. Thus the ANS synthesizer can be seen as the spiritual grandfather (дедушка) of programs such as Pro Tools.

ASDR in the USSR

One of the hallmarks of electronic instruments made in the Soviet Union is that they typically followed their own particularly “Russian” path. This can be seen in even small but important details. For example, while most of the world since the 1930s has used the quarter-inch phone jack to connect electric musical instruments to amplifiers, the Soviet Union preferred to use an unusual five pin DIN plug, making their electric instruments incompatible with those made elsewhere. However this began to change In the 1970s and ‘80s; Russian factories created locally produced versions of Western electronic instruments, such as the Elektronika EM-26 (Электроника ЭМ26) vocoders and the Formanta UDS (Форманта УДС), a Simmons-inspired electronic drum set that had a design aesthetic up-to-date for the 1980s — it even came with an accessory controller that looked like a Keytar.

Formanta Polivoks designed by Vladimir and Olimpiada Kuzmin.

While the world moved to FM and digital synthesis in the ‘80s, analog synthesizers never lost their popularity in Russia. Although Russian synthesizers were typically solid-state, a comparison can be made to the way that tube technology endured in Russia long after transistors became the norm elsewhere. As an aside, one of the reasons why the Soviets stuck with tubes was that tubes, unlike transistors, were much less likely to be affected by the electromagnetic pulse generated by a nuclear explosion. Unlike other Russian musical instruments of the time, Soviet synthesizers often were manufactured in factories that mostly made electric components for the military. This military heritage is reflected in their often extremely rugged casings.

One of the most popular of the Soviet-era synthesizers was the Formanta Polivoks (Форманта Поливщкс), designed by the husband-and-wife engineering team of Vladimir and Olimpiada Kuzmin (Владимир Кузьмин и Олимпиада Кузьмина) and built in the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg (Екатеринбург). This personal 48-key duophonic instrument even had the capability of connecting an external audio source for processing through the instrument’s filters and low-frequency oscillator. In the 2000s, the Polivoks retro-Russian sound began to find favor with Western musicians, being used on Goldfrapp’s second album Black Cherry in 2003, and Franz Ferdinand’s 2009 album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand.

VCO DIY

The realities of the Soviet economic system meant that these factory-made instruments weren’t easily available to the average musician. But this didn’t keep synthesizers out of the hands of Russian musicians; they simply made their own instruments. They would do this by cannibalizing and combining parts from other electronic devices.

The recent documentary Elektro Moskva tells the story of Soviet-era homebrew electronic music. Russian synthesists who went the do-it-yourself route faced challenges not typically encountered by their Western counterparts – instruments would be constructed out of whatever electrical materials they could scavenge. It was alleged that would-be builders of homebrew synthesizers would befriend KGB agents who worked in communications security, since they had access to high-quality electronics parts, like the ones used in Theremin’s listening device mentioned above.

Elektro Moskva Official Trailer

Everything Old is New Again

The revived popularity of analog synthesizers in recent years has prompted a rediscovery and re-evaluation of the contributions of Russia and the former USSR to the history of synthesizers. Even today, there are analog modular patch-cable operated synthesizers being produced in Russia with companies such as Eternal Engine, Long, and Svarog producing modern takes on old-school Russian synthesizer components.

* The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Mikhail Bryzgalov and Nataly Emelina of the Glinka National Museum Consortium of Musical Culture, and Dr. Aldona Judina of the University of Edinburgh for their assistance with the creation of this story.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matthew W. Hill is a native of Los Angeles who has been mostly resident in Scotland since 1994. He holds a BMus (Hons, 1st class) in composition from Napier University and a MMus and PhD in organology, the study of musical instruments, from the University of Edinburgh. A founding curator of the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, he is also curator of the John C. Hall collection of musical instruments in Santa Ana, California. His book “The Rise of the Electric Guitar, 1740-1939,” will be published in 2016 by the University Press of Mississippi. Besides academic pursuits, he has enjoyed a varied musical life that includes being a Nashville session player, art music composer, double bassist and guitarist.

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