In recent years, it has been no secret that the vintage synthesizer market has become incredibly popular among a large group of diehard collectors and pop and experimental music aficionados. As electronic artists like Aphex Twin make a comeback and vinyl reissues of classic prog rock albums fly off the shelves at boutique record stores across the globe, the vintage synth market has never been hotter.
Tracing the History of a Current Trend
Undoubtedly, the current synthesizer revival has its roots in the golden age of synthesizer production. From the 1960s to the 1990s, forward-thinking companies provided consumers with some of the most innovative synths available on the commercial market.
Indeed, the history of the commercial synthesizer can essentially be divided into two eras. Prior to 1983, synths were large, cumbersome, and prone to overheating or breaking down; one advertisement from the 1970s even boasted that customers could now purchase a synthesizer for the same price as a pickup truck.
A Seismic Shift in Synthesis
For the most part, the second major era of commercial synthesis was almost wholly defined by technological innovations achieved by the Yamaha company in the 1980s. With its inexpensive and efficient products, Yamaha cornered the synthesizer market in the New Wave era, and the company’s timing was impeccable: During this period, electronic music styles pioneered by composers like Giorgio Moroder began to heavily influence pop music, and every aspiring pop band worth its salt began buying Yamaha synthesizers in droves.
Indeed, the company’s DX7 synthesizer model became the de facto musical instrument of the pop industry during the 1980s, and the humble keyboard soon became the most popular synthesizer of all time.
Yamaha Adapts to a New Market
But as bands like Nirvana began to popularize guitar-based compositions in the commercial sphere during the early 1990s, leading figures in the music industry began to look elsewhere for technological innovation. Yamaha decided to up its game, and one of its most successful experiments in synthesis ended up producing the much-lauded VL1 modeling synthesizer. Introduced in the mid-1990s, the synth was unprecedented in its power and capabilities.
Because it was primarily intended to capture the sound of real acoustic instruments, the VL1 was leagues away in sound from the DX7. Gone was the metallic sheen of Yamaha’s 1980s product line; now buyers could own a synth that actually sounded like everything from an electric guitar to an acoustic piano.
A New Classic
But the VL1’s realistic sounds and cutting-edge features also made the synth extremely expensive; while the VL1 was a technological behemoth, its cost and complicated interface ended up alienating the amateur musician market. Despite its impressive design and capabilities, the synth’s reputation never quite recovered from its lukewarm reception among buyers keen to emulate grunge’s electrified sounds.
And while the VL1 doesn’t have the visibility or the historical halo of the DX7, it still remains a desirable item among serious synth collectors. Its breakthrough features would also lead to momentous changes in the synth industry, and anyone who uses software synthesizers in 2019 certainly owes a debt of gratitude to the VL1. For that alone, Yamaha deserves immense credit.