Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers?

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Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers?

Post by Mooger5 » Wed Aug 12, 2015 6:18 pm

In old gear what always fascinates me is the resemblance between modular synths and analog computers. I think synhesizers are in fact specialized analog computers. Not only the visual clues. Everything but VCFs and EGs were there in the first place: multipliers, integrators, dividers, counters, operational amplifiers, differential amplifiers, function generators, voltmeters, memories, programs, patchable modules, vernier dials, matrix patchbays, the list goes on and on.

Some analog computers must be pretty collectible and quite fun to "play". Take a look at these:

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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by meatballfulton » Wed Aug 12, 2015 6:45 pm

Other than the appearance they have nothing to do with synthesizers.

Analog computers are more closely related to slide rules (which are essentially logarithmic rulers).
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by rschnier » Wed Aug 12, 2015 6:47 pm

I think the comparison is apt.

Back when I was a teenager in high school, my physics teacher had one of these units, the Heathkit unit pictured second in the list. We used it to simulate the path of a cannonball fired through the air, displayed on an oscilloscope (some analog computers even included a built-in 'scope). Hooking the output of an integrator (sawtooth wave) to drive the input of another integrator, yields a y = x squared curve. Thinking about it, that would make an interesting synth waveform....
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by meatballfulton » Wed Aug 12, 2015 8:13 pm

These are examples of the most basic type of analog computer that I was referring to. Battery, three pots, a voltmeter and a switch. They work like slide rules. You can add, subtract, multiply, divide, squares and square roots, in some cases trigonometric functions. I used one of these in junior high school computer club. They work like slide rules, you add two voltages together and then null the meter to get the voltage for the answer.

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Here's the basic circuit used in these:

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These are passive circuits...no amplifiers involved.
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by polygon » Wed Aug 12, 2015 10:00 pm

my favorite thing about synthesizers as they relate to early circuitry is that the reason square waves are so common is that it's a really easy wave to program--it just goes "on off on off on off" in succession. we're lucky something so simple has such a beefy sound!

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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by Mooger5 » Thu Aug 13, 2015 2:04 pm

meatballfulton wrote:These are examples of the most basic type of analog computer that I was referring to. Battery, three pots, a voltmeter and a switch. They work like slide rules. You can add, subtract, multiply, divide, squares and square roots, in some cases trigonometric functions. I used one of these in junior high school computer club. They work like slide rules, you add two voltages together and then null the meter to get the voltage for the answer.

Image

Image

Image

Image

Here's the basic circuit used in these:

Image

These are passive circuits...no amplifiers involved.
Interesting, but like you said, those are just basic analog computers.
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by cornutt » Thu Aug 13, 2015 6:36 pm

I've never heard where any of the synth pioneers ever said specifically that analog computers were an influence on their concepts or designs. Bob Moog probably would have been exposed to analog computers at Cornell, and I can see where his early concepts for modular synth user interfaces and signal interconnects might have been influenced. Plug boards, used to program some early digital computers, bear a resemblance to analog sequencers, and Moog probably would have been exposed to those too. Buchla I'm not sure about -- I don't know much about what he was doing prior to 1963.
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by HideawayStudio » Thu Aug 13, 2015 9:24 pm

There is one interesting and very poignant connection between early analog synths and test equipment...

By far the most common waveform in classic analog synthesis is the sawtooth...

This waveform is absolutely key to the function of the analog oscilloscope and for many years now I have hypothesized that the first none-sine producing oscillators used in musical applications are direct descendants of early oscilloscope technology and its perhaps by sheer coincidence that the waveform necessary to drag the trace across the screen and fly back is a harmonically useful starting point for electronic music applications. After all any experimenter in this field would have had a scope to hand!

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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by cornutt » Fri Aug 14, 2015 6:20 pm

The same can be said of analog television, or pretty much any raster-scanning display device. Which leads one to wonder: which came first, the oscilloscope or the television?
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by Zamise » Fri Aug 14, 2015 6:36 pm

There are video synthesizers too, apparently synthesizers aren't exclusive to sound. Who knew? Pretty interesting topic btw.
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by pflosi » Fri Aug 14, 2015 7:10 pm

The modular cats are doing all kinds of crazy stuff with video modules :thumbright:

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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by HideawayStudio » Fri Aug 14, 2015 9:50 pm

cornutt wrote:The same can be said of analog television, or pretty much any raster-scanning display device. Which leads one to wonder: which came first, the oscilloscope or the television?
In terms of electronic deflection.. the scope.

General Radio are considered to have produced the first commercial all electronic oscilloscope with a sawtooth deflection oscillator in 1931.

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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by Automatic Gainsay » Wed Aug 19, 2015 4:20 am

Devices that employ synthesis using analog technology predate devices that employ analog technology for computing.
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by cornutt » Wed Aug 19, 2015 6:48 pm

Marc's post inspired me to go look and see what I could find about analog computers prior to 1950. I came across this article about the Polyphemus[PDF], designed by George Philbrick in 1938. An interesting read (I haven't gotten all the way through it yet). Later, Philbrick started his own company, George A. Philbrick Labs. One of his employees was a certain young electrical engineer named Alan R. Pearlman.
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Re: Were analog computers the real ancestors of synthesizers

Post by cornutt » Wed Aug 19, 2015 7:08 pm

Another bit: A book published on analog computing by Philbrick in 1955. Pearlman most certainly would have read this since he was a Philbrick employee at the time; possibly he authored some of it.

URL at Amazon (for some reason, BBcode will not form a link to it):
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