Rise Of The Machines: How Technology Shaped Music

As technology has advanced throughout the decades, artists have pushed music into the future.

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Photo: Aitor Diago / Getty Images

Listen to it today, you might think “it’s just a dude playing the organ.” And while you’d expect a record company to be trying to promote an artist, it perhaps seemed premature for Blue Note to be declaring, in a debut album’s title, A New Sound, A New Star. The sleevenotes spoke of “volcanic fire” and “musical genius”, and by the time of his third album – one of a mere five he released in 1956 – Jimmy Smith’s name was being prefaced with “The Incredible.” It was true: Smith was brilliant. In the space of a year, he turned himself from decent club pianist to the man who put the electronic organ on the jazz map. Smith was as revolutionary for his instrument as Charlie Parker was for the alto sax.

The electric organ

Smith took an instrument that most people thought belonged in church and made it swing like a hammock in a hurricane. He wasn’t the first jazz organist, but he was the first to use the machine to its potential. A one-man orchestra, he pulled out all the stops (well, drawbars in this instance) to change the sound, add emphasis, alter the feel of a song at will, finding the groove, soul, and funk in a series of electrical windings, cables, and valves. He made cold electronics cook. But Smith’s revolution also belonged to his keyboard itself, and it marked an economic change as much as a well as a musical one. The people loved the sound, and so did the owners of clubs.

After Smith’s example, many organists went out on the road as a duo or a trio: the organists played the bass on the pedals, delivered the melody with the right hand and almost orchestral textures in chords with the left. Horn-like stabs were easy, flutes and percussion came as preset sounds: all an organist really needed was a drummer and sometimes a guitarist to add rhythm and color. This meant an organ band was cheap to book. As long as the stage could take the 193kg weight of the Hammond B-3, clubs couldn’t get enough of them.

Smith was followed by numerous other players who (mostly) swapped from piano to organ and found themselves in demand: Brother Jack McDuff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Johnny “Hammond” Smith, Larry (no nickname) Young… they played it loud, strong and proud, and, as the names suggest, aimed firmly at a black audience that loved to groove. That audience was used to the sound of an organ because, if on a Saturday it raved, on Sunday it prayed. The Hammond was originally marketed as a cheaper alternative to pipe organs, and 50,000 churches in America had installed them by the mid-60s, so though the groove was different, the sound that rammed nightclubs was familiar. In the company of a Leslie rotating speaker and vibrato set to full, it could move souls in both settings. Convenient compared to a pipe organ or a full band, and comparatively cheap, it’s little wonder that the Hammond changed music. Organ music was the people’s jazz of the 60s: as the music went from hard bop to “The New Thing” to free to fusion, organ jazz remained a music that audiences without degrees could understand.

The Vox Continental

Most rock’n’roll bands still used a piano – a revolutionary technology when it was invented at the end of the 17th Century, because it could be played loud or soft (piano is a truncation of pianoforte, meaning quiet or loud), unlike its predecessor the harpsichord, which could only pluck its strings at one volume level. But a piano was tough to lug around, so when transistorized keyboards hit the music shops in the 60s, they were embraced by beat groups and garage bands. In the UK this was often the Vox Continental, an organ with the distinction of having its back and white keys reversed, making it look intriguing. Two years after it was first available, The Animals used it to power their worldwide smash “The House Of The Rising Sun,” and its dark and moody tones influenced numerous other acts, such as Ray Manzarek of The Doors, who used it on the band’s debut album and “Light My Fire,” and The Velvet Underground, who deployed it on “Sister Ray.” Years later, bands who sought a 60s sound turned to Vox organs, such as Steve Nieve of Elvis Costello & The Attractions, who wielded it on “Watching The Detectives,” and Jerry Dammers of The Specials (‘Ghost Town’). Today, Tom Furse of The Horrors and Matt Berry use it.


In the US, the Continental faced competition from the Italian-made Farfisa, which had a reedier, sometimes spookier sound which helped make 60s garage bands so distinctive; it’s heard on Sam The Sham’s “Wooly Bully’ and numerous other nuggets. Farfisas were also fingered by soul musicians, at Muscle Shoals to deliver the solemn, sanctified sound on Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” and in San Francisco to bring groove to the hippie revolution through Sly Stone: you can see him play one in the Woodstock film. Progressive and psych bands were also tempted by the Farfisa’s otherworldly potential. Pink Floyd used it on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and Van Der Graaf Generator’s Hugh Banton sprayed it over The Aerosol Grey Machine. But the Hammond still ruled: the late, great Keith Emerson mixed virtuosity with showmanship and stabbed his L100 with daggers, taking the classical rock he pioneered with The Nice to the extreme with Emerson, Lake & Palmer.


Sometimes the most modern of 60s sounds were generated by ancient technology. The Beach Boys used an instrument named after its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, who patented it in 1928. The Theremin, a “non-contact” musical instrument controlled by waving your hands between two antennas, created the ghostly high-pitched howling on “Good Vibrations.” The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones was also keen on the Theremin’s strange electronic wail, as heard on the Stones’ “2,000 Light Years From Home.”

Manipulating acoustic instruments

While it might seem the tail was wagging the dog because electronic instruments shaped the music that was made on them, their sounds were more open to manipulation than their acoustic equivalents. Hugh Banton customized his Farfisa organ and forced it through effects pedals. The tinkling, sometimes fairy-like sounds of the Fender-Rhodes electric piano were sometimes roughened up with a fuzzbox. The Varitone, an electronic device that enabled saxmen to plug in, gave players such as Rusty Bryant and Lou Donaldson a new electronic tone, and Eddie Harris was another notable adherent, though their interest proved short-lived.

A mic gave similar noise-making opportunities to acoustic instruments: Harris liked using gadgetry on his sax, and Napoleon Murphy Brock, the underrated frontman of Frank Zappa’s mid-70s band, blew sax through wah-wah on “Cosmik Debris.” Miles Davis, arguably among the most human-sounding of all jazz players, shocked purists by playing trumpet through a wah-wah pedal on Live-Evil. Among the most extreme adherents was Nik Turner, cruising the galaxies in a solid-state saxophone with Hawkwind. By the early 70s, if you could mic it up, you could make it sound electronic.

Making something sound electronic was not quite the same as playing an electronic instrument, however. While guitarists added banks of pedals to their armory (sometimes to disguise a lack of technique), the aim was always to change the tonal qualities of the instrument. In the case of the Gizmo, developed by Kevin Godley & Lol Creme of 10cc, the aim was to make it sound like another instrument altogether: strings, as heard on their song “Gizmo My Way.” But in the laboratory of Columbia University, in Manhattan, boffins were busy concocting machines that weren’t meant to sound like anything but themselves. In fact, some said they didn’t sound like anything on Earth.

The Moog

Robert Moog’s musical Manhattan project utilized transistor technology to create a keyboard instrument, which, in theory, could infinitely shape the sound it created. If you wanted to increase the treble, bypass the bass frequencies, make the sound oscillate, or change the wave form from a smooth, clean sine wave to a fuzzy-sounding square wave, you could – and a lot more else besides. Moog had the technology in 1964 and, by the mid-60s, his modular synthesizers, which linked various sections by means of cabling, much like an old telephone switchboard, were available for adventurous musicians. While experimental composers were among the first to sign up, by 1967, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees was using one on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. Dolenz was an early adopter and his instrument was one of the first 20 Moog synthesizers made – and, according to some accounts, only the third to be sold.

However, nobody seemed sure what the synthesizer’s role actually was. It was often used to provide whooshing noises or atmosphere, rather than create the music’s core. In the mid-60s, when French composer Jean-Jacques Perrey began releasing albums with Gershon Kingsley, made on the Moog and Ondioline, an earlier electronic keyboard, they were regarded as “far out electronic entertainment” rather than, you know, music. Perrey pioneered tape sampling, using a clip of the human voice to provide notes on “Gossipo Perpetuo” (1972), an effect that (literally) provided a talking point for Paul Hardcastle’s worldwide megahit “19” some 13 years later, but received little credit. A similar fate faced the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, famed for creating the theme for Doctor Who, probably the first electronic tune that was widely known, but the workshop’s electro music pioneers were mostly required to make weird noises for TV adventure series.

Rockers rapidly caught on to the expansive possibilities of the synthesizer. Keith Emerson used a Moog; George Harrison delighted in challenging his fans’ preconceptions on Electronic Sound (1969), his second solo project. Jazz musicians also embraced the instrument, such as Paul Bley, Dick Hyman, and, inevitably, astral traveler Sun Ra. But it took Wendy (formerly Walter) Carlos, a composer and recording engineer who had helped develop the Moog synthesizer with Robert Moog, to show a wider public that the synth had musical credibility. Calling much of the electronic music then being made “so much flim-flam, so much shoddy, opportunistic stuff,” Robert Moog declared Carlos’ debut commercial album “impeccably done” with “obvious musical content and… totally innovative.” The album was Switched-On Bach, released in 1968, and a huge hit, topping the US classical music charts for years. Carlos’ treatment of Bach was a sensation, its success supported by Carlos providing the music for Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange.

The evolution of the synthesizer

Moog albums became familiar fare in record shops: jazz flautist Joe Thomas made Moog Fluting under the name of The Ebony Godfather; Martin Denny, the specialist in “exotica,” released Exotic Moog, and Tonto’s Exploding Head Band, in reality, a duo of Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, was acclaimed by critics. Synths were everywhere, but they required expertise to use: when Stevie Wonder adopted them in the early 70s, he needed the help of Cecil and Margouleff to create his classic Music Of My Mind and Talking Book albums. The job of “programmer” now became a legitimate musical role, a term previously used only in the world of computers. Prog-synth band Tangerine Dream used banks of synthesizers to create their mid-70s albums Phaedra and Rubycon, but synths were starting to shrink. In 1971 Rick Wakeman, keyboard king of prog-rockers Yes, became an early adopter of the MiniMoog, a convenient, portable instrument.

Moog was not the only company to make synthesizers: the VCS3 by EMS was a popular portable device used by Brian Eno in Roxy Music, and heard, wired to a Lowrey organ, on the intro of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” EMS went one further with the EMS Synthi, which came in a briefcase. In contrast, ARP created huge synths which also contained a sequencer which enabled several instruments to be used in tandem. Early synthesizers were monophonic, meaning users could play only one note at any one time; polyphonic synthesizers such as the Polymoog (1975) and the Korg PE 2000 (1976) allowed keyboardists to prod with more than one digit at a time.

In the 60s and 70s, whirring, weird synthesis was not the only game in town. Musicians often wanted the sound of an orchestra or string ensemble, but hiring one and writing orchestrations was prohibitively expensive. String synthesizers became commonplace in the 70s, such as the ARP String Ensemble (1974), which you can hear on Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and Rick James’ “Mary Jane.” Before this, there was the Mellotron, a device that offered the sounds of strings, horns, flutes, recorders, organs, and voices by means of tape loops which played when a key was depressed. Available from 1963, Graham Bond is said to be the first rock musician to have used it, two years later. More tellingly, The Beatles deployed it on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” setting the benchmark for a strain of psychedelic whimsy which persists to this day, wherein Mellotron recorders and slightly eerie-sounding orchestras offer an interpretation of the LSD experience.

However, the group most associated with the Mellotron is The Moody Blues, who built a lasting career thanks to the foresight of their keyboardist Mike Pinder, who bought a second-hand instrument from a working-men’s club and persuaded the band to “go orchestral” in 1967, resulting in the smash hit “Nights In White Satin” and the Mellotron-loaded Days Of Future Passed LP. The Hammond organ still had a place in rock, however, and the brewing storm of Jon Lord on Deep Purple classics such as “Highway Star” and “Lazy,” from 1972’s Machine Head, were as exciting as rock keyboard gets.

Giorgio Moroder

The concept of a totally electronic music was still regarded as a novelty in the early 70s, fit only for the likes of Hot Butter, who hit with Gershon Kingsley’s “Popcorn” in 1972. But one man could conceive of a future in which human beings marched – well, danced – at the beck and call of machines, and that man was Giorgio Moroder.

Moroder, a Munich-based, moderately successful, Europop vocalist from Italy, wrote bubblegum tunes in the 60s and produced his own records in the 70s, including “Son Of My Father” (1972), which featured a prominent synth. Moroder’s version was trumped by a quick cover by the unknown British band Chicory Tip, but within a couple of years Moroder was making a name for himself as the producer of the risqué disco vocalist Donna Summer.

Moroder knew disco music required a repetitive rhythm section, and in an era where Spandex, satin and sequinned boob tubes were turning dancefloors into a sci-fi fashion show, clearly the thuds, bleeps and warbles of the synthesiser must have a place. For inspiration, he could have looked to Dusseldorf’s Kraftwerk, who were creating an all-electronic music which broke into the charts with 1974’s mesmerizing “Autobahn,” though Moroder says he preferred the textured, layered sound of Tangerine Dream. Moroder pulled together a decade-long interest in electronic music to create 1977’s all-conquering disco classic, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Made mostly on the Moog Modular, a forbiddingly large and expensive instrument, the song’s only human input comes from a miked-up bass drum and Summer’s voice. In the near future, Moroder would not have had to use a drummer at all.

The drum machine

The drum machine has been around since the 30s in rudimentary form. In the 50s they were bulky lumps of kit based on tapes, much as the Mellotron was, and could only play preset rhythms, including mambo and tango. Often employed by organists or as part of the organ itself, they hardly sounded like drums and were usually non-programmable, but they did at least provide a beat that was quieter than a drummer. In the 60s, they ticked away at various Latin rhythms, and one device was called Bandito The Bongo Artist. Really. In the late 60s, rock acts began using rudimentary rhythm boxes as an adjunct to the real thing, rather than a replacement: you can hear one on Robin Gibb’s “Saved By The Bell” (1969) and several Sly Stone productions, including “Family Affair,” which used a Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2: Sly called it his Funk Box. By 1974, reggae artists were experimenting with drum machines, including Lee Perry, as heard on Max Romeo’s “Tan And See,” and Aston Barrett, who introduced a drum machine to Bob Marley for 1974’s “So Jah Seh.”

By the early 80s, drum machines were portable, programmable rather than reliant on preset patterns, and boasted convincing drum-like sounds. There were also fairly cheap, which meant that New York’s electro artists could conquer them in their bedrooms before taking to the studios. The Roland TR-808 was their weapon of choice. It was not as flexible as the contemporary Linn LM-1, but it had a gut-kicking bass drum sound and cost around 20 per cent of the price of its rival. We have pioneering Japanese engineer Ikutaro Kakehashi, who died aged 87, on 3 April 2017, to thank for the 808, whose iconic kick drum sound pushed along Afrikaa Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (1982). Marvin Gaye also utilized it on “Sexual Healing,” and it gives the boom! in any number of boom-bap! hip-hop hits.

It was succeeded by the Roland TR-909, which went on to do much the same for house music and any number of dance-pop hits: Snap’s “I’ve Got The Power” could be the 909’s demonstration disc. Reggae eventually turned itself over entirely to the delights of drum machines during its ‘digi’ era, which launched in 1985 with Wayne Smith’s “Under Me Sleng Teng,” a dominant force powered by a tiny Casio keyboard. The roots arena followed suit, with digidub and steppers styles utilizing affordable technology to create deep dub. Another beatbox, the Oberheim DMX, enjoyed widespread popularity, inspiring hip-hopper Davy DMX’s name, and finding acceptance in rock, pressed into service on Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” New Order’s “Blue Monday” and ZZ Top’s Eliminator.

The Fairlight CMI

One technology became ubiquitous during the early 80s, though you needed financial muscle to own one: the Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument) was a sampling synthesizer designed to be used as a workstation. It looked like a rather bulky home computer, but the quality of its sounds and sheer usability made it popular among a wide-range of open-minded musicians; Peter Gabriel bought the first one in Britain; his friend Kate Bush was equally enthralled. Jan Hammer, ASIA, Art Of Noise, and numerous others adopted it. Phil Collins had a swipe at its universality by stating “There is no Fairlight on this record” on the sleeve of No Jacket Required.

The Minneapolis Sound

As a one-man funk’n’rock genius, Prince naturally made the most of the technology that made it possible for him to create entire albums singlehanded. The sound was in his head and the technology delivered it to your ears. Prince’s use of the Linn LM-1 was regarded as revolutionary in the 80s; these was little question of him hiring a drummer when he could get a brilliant sound from this machine. He put the LM-1 through a compressor, a device that levels the dynamic range of a musical sound so that the volume of the loud sounds and the quiet sounds are evened up, producing a more punchy attack to the drums, and he also used a flanger, to produce a brief whooshing effect. This is the “Minneapolis Sound,” as heard on “When Doves Cry” and all manner of Jam & Lewis productions of the mid-80s. Hear it and be transported back to the era: technology is a sign o’ its times, as associated with the music of an era as the songs it supports.

The further evolution of synthesizers

The improvement in electronic sounds and increasing portability and affordability delivered the democratization of music that punk had previously claimed as its motivation. Now anyone could get a decent sound without years spent learning to play an instrument or figuring out a mixing board. Punk gave rise to the electro-pop movement, wherein small units of wannabe musicians could make records without leaving garageland. Among those who brightened the early 80s with this glossy new pop were The Human League, Depeche Mode, and Soft Cell, who proved that machines had (northern) soul on their unstoppable “Tainted Love.”

In 1983, the development of MIDI made it easier for bedroom boffins to make electronic grooves. A rare example of technology companies agreeing to a single protocol for the benefit of all their customers, MIDI enabled computerized instruments to talk to each other and be controlled from one source. This meant The DIY attitude carried through to the rave boom, which generated genuinely fascinating music from its experimental wing, which included A Guy Called Gerald, The Orb, and Aphex Twin. Gerald cleverly exploited the Roland TB-303, a short-lived pocket-sized bass synth that exerted an influence on acid house that lasted far beyond the two years it was manufactured.

Home computers, initially by Atari and Amiga, then PCs and Macs, offered increasingly sophisticated recording suites to bedroom producers, joined by Akai samplers such as the S900 (hence The 45 King’s “The 900 Number”), the S950 (as used by sarcastically politicized jokers The KLF) and an array of rack-mounted outboard gear such as Lexicon reverb units, an industry-standard tool eventually sold at a reasonable price, and E-mu’s Vintage Keys, which used sampling technology to deliver retro analogue sounds. In theory, anyone could do it now, and because the same technology was used worldwide, no longer was the dance music built in, say, Belgium inferior to that assembled in Detroit – as had been the case throughout the 60s and 70s. The machines spoke, the people danced. This was Giorgio Moroder’s vision come true.

The best of these new artists acknowledged their technological predecessors: Vangelis’ fabulous 1982 soundtrack from Blade Runner was much admired; Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy of bubble and squeak 70s psychedelicians Gong were helped by Alex Paterson of The Orb to create the electronic dance band System 7. The old and new found unity in bytes and bleeps.

In the 90s, and in the first decade of the 00s, the leveling of the musical playing field became absolute. Everyone had a home computer, everyone could access the sounds that the professionals used; everything was now available at the flick of a mouse. Sequencing that took Moroder or Kraftwerk weeks to construct could be performed in moments. No talent is special, every talent is special: it depends on how you see it. Rock bands rebelled against this situation: the likes of The Verve, Primal Scream, and Oasis made retro-classic music as a reaction against modern homogenization, and most bands wanted nothing more than the gear and amps that their 60s heroes used. Did Brian Jones use a Vox AC30? I want one. They also collected vinyl and therefore wanted their records available in that format – not instead of CDs and downloads, that would be silly, but in addition to them. The irony is, some of these bands turned to DJs and samplers to create their biggest hits: “Bittersweet Symphony,” “Loaded”… these are technologically-driven records.

The feeling that old tech is the best persists: the vinyl revival goes on apace; cassette-only independent labels now exist; people pay mad money for old analogue hi-fi and music gear. When The Prodigy named themselves after a defunct Moog synthesizer, as had Juno Reactor and 808 State, they were actually ahead of the retro-modern times. Increasingly, the medium is the message. Jimmy Smith’s original Hammond has long since been chucked in a dumpster, but all interested parties know what model of instrument it was, even if nobody cared when he was playing it: they just knew that the music sounded great.

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