Move over guitars and trumpets, it’s time to make room for synthesizers, again.
Synthesizers combine the world of music with the world of electronics. They are electronic musical instruments that come in all shapes, size, formats and sound. Sometimes they mimic the sound and appearance of a traditional music instrument — a keyboard that looks and sounds like a piano, for example. Other times they take on formats and sounds that are completely new.
Take the modular synthesizer, to be showcased Friday at the first Moscow Synth Fest, in conjunction with the Modest Music Festival. It’s a synthesizer with separate modules that affect the sound being produced. With all the knobs and patch cords, it looks more like something that could fly a spaceship rather than produce music.
These synthesizers are nothing new. They were introduced in the 1960s, when they made the jump from the science lab to a music setting. Even then, it took a while for them to gain in use.
“The format didn’t get its full day in the sunshine because it was so incredibly expensive,” said Steve Harmon, owner of Synthrotek, the Moscow-based electronic music gear company that is sponsoring Synth Fest.
Use of synthesizers is gaining in popularity. Bands like Radiohead and Depeche Mode have popularized the sounds they produce, and synth sounds can be heard in everything from hip-hop to the “Stranger Things” theme song. Synthesizer sales are on the rise, Harmon said, while guitar sales are down. In cities like Seattle and Portland, there’s a growing community of people who are creating new, innovating music in this way.
Based on frequencies, voltages and the like, the musical medium caters more to those who are science-minded, Harmon said. Newer synthesizers often use new technologies while maintaining a retro feel.
The Moscow Synth Fest will start off with a “petting zoo” in which various types of modular synthesizers will be available for hands-on use and exploration. Even those with no musical or electronic background will have the opportunity to create music. A forum with synth musicians will be held at 6 p.m., followed by sound demonstrations.
“It’s for anyone who’s interested in synthesis,” Harmon said.
Synthesizers aren’t new to Moscow. In fact, Moscow has long been part of synthesizer history. George Mattson was in his first year at the University of Idaho when he got his first synthesizer.
The year was 1973, and he paid half the price of a new pick-up truck for it — $2000. He’d always had an interest in both electronics (he got his ham radio license at age 12) and music (he played — and still does — classical Flamenco guitar).
Mattson flunked his first semester.
“All I did was play with those things,” he said.
At the time, synthesizers were still a new music technology. There were no books, there were no resources, and certainly no YouTube videos. No one else in the area was using anything like it. Everything Mattson did on the synthesizer was something he’d figured out himself.
After five semesters in the School of Mines and Metallurgy, Mattson dropped out of school and focused entirely on synthesizers. He and his brother set up a recording studio where they produced local commercials. Despite their tendency to tweak ad copy, they had moderate success.
“The problem with doing stuff like this is that you’re breaking the ice. Nobody is used to it,” Mattson said.
While running back and forth during a recording session, Mattson came up with the idea of having a synthesizer he could strap on and use. Someone should make one, he decided, and realized that someone could be him.
And that’s how the Syntar — the first self-contained “keytar,” or combined keyboard guitar synthesizer — came to be invented in a duplex on North Howard Street in Moscow.
Mattson brought a prototype to a musical trade show. He pitched the idea to a music instrument manufacturer, who produced its own version. When Mattson found out they were working on it, he jumped in feet first, he said. He finished the Syntar and advertised it for sale in a magazine one month before the competitor released its product.
He sold 12 of the 15 Syntars he produced. Though he lost money on the venture, he is credited as the inventor of the keytar, and the Syntar remains the only keytar that includes a left-hand keyboard.
Mattson went on to tour with Jefferson Starship as a technician and later worked in the electronics industry. In 2007, he designed and build the portable Mattson Mini Modular synthesizer. He recently retired and moved back to Moscow; his synthesizer skill will be showcased at the Modest Music Festival on Sunday.
Curious what a modular synthesizer sounds and looks like? Here’s an example:
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Moscow Synth Fest
WHEN: 5 to 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Prichard Art Gallery, 414 S. Main St., Moscow