The synthesizer is an instrument that has always fascinated me. Ever since I heard those impossibly low moans and bizarre spiral sounds Keith Emerson played on “Lucky Man,” I was hooked. The early ’70s were a golden age for synths, at least for this faithful American Top 40 listener. We had “Frankenstein,” by The Edgar Winter Group, “Superstition,” by Stevie Wonder,” even “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk — which was the strangest one of all.
As I got a little older, and the use of synths expanded geometrically, it became apparent that they were much more than a novelty, and here to stay. For anyone as interested in this instrument as I am, reading the interviews collected in Synth Gods is a revelation. While much of this material originated in Keyboard magazine, these interviews are not filled with technical jargon at all. While there are a couple of references a non-musician may not be familiar with, the vast majority is easily understood by even a tin-ear such as myself.
Synth Gods is a collection of 20 interviews Keyboard magazine has published over the years. A plethora of musicians are featured, including Brian Eno, Trent Reznor, and Rick Wakeman among others. Synth builders and designers such as Richard Barbieri, and the legendary Dr. Robert A. Moog are spoken of as well.
Robert Moog is often considered the granddaddy of the modern synthesizer. He worked tirelessly to introduce his Minimoog into the mainstream in the late-’60s, early-’70s, and achieved unprecedented success. His achievements are comparable to what Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would do for personal computers a few years later with their Apple II. Another mesmerizing story is that of Wendy Carlos, who in her previous life as Walter Carlos released probably the most significant synth album of all time, Switched On Bach.
Switched On Bach almost single-handedly revolutionized the public’s perception of synthesizers, but the story of the meticulous work it took to be realized has rarely been told. It was an unbelievably laborious process to create every note and nuance, bit by bit. In keeping with what makes these interviews of interest to the non-musician, Carlos also talks about her inherent stage-fright, which was a huge inhibiting factor in capitalizing on the success of the album with live appearances.
Another element I enjoyed about Synth Gods is the variety of musical genres represented by the 20 individuals selected for conclusion. Many of the artists I have enjoyed from afar have never given interviews to mass magazines such as Rolling Stone, but did so with Keyboard – thanks to the editors’ knowledge and understanding of the topic.
Jean Michel Jarre is one example. Although he enjoyed a sizable mainstream success with Oxygene, he has never been a household name. Hearing his thoughts about music, other artists, and his work in general was highly enjoyable.
With Tangerine Dream, Keyboard were able (at various times) to speak to all three members — Edgar Froese, Chris Franke, and Johannes Schmoelling. As one of the original all-synth outfits, theirs is a captivating story. When Keyboard talked to Isao Tomita in 1977, he was at the height of his success with his take on Holst’s The Planets. This recording still sounds wonderful, by the way. Another solo musician who reached unparalleled success with his synthesized music is Vangelis, and his interview was conducted as his soundtrack to Chariots Of Fire was blowing up.
All of these artists and many more are collected in Synth Gods. Each one speaks candidly about their unique relationship to the ever-changing landscape of synthesizers, and of their own particular story. Synth Gods is a great read for fans of all types of music and for those who consider themselves musician or non-musician. There really is something here for everyone.