by Mark Vail
There are many books about synthesizers and electronic music, but Mark Vail’s Vintage Synthesizers is one of the best.
Vintage Synthesizers collects articles originally written for Keyboard magazine by Vail and others. The articles cover notable synthesizers and the companies behind them. In doing so, Vail tells the stories of the people that created these important instruments, and their companies’ rise and fall.
This is the second edition of the book, and it has been extensively updated and enlarged. Vintage Synthesizers covers most of the major companies and the most important synthesizers. It also discusses some of the weirder synths, and ones that never quite made the light of day. The book is well-illustrated, with a full-color section at the beginning, and black and white photos throughout.
The book has six main sections.
Hearts of the Modern Synth Industry
This section is a breezy introduction to the major synth manufacturers. It also includes “It came from the music industry”, an article that discusses some of the oddities of synthesizer history. These articles are interesting overviews of the synth world.
This section is very interesting, because it covers the synthesizers that started the whole electronic music revolution. There are articles on Arp, Buchla, Emu, EML Moog, and Polyfusion and Moog.
This section includes a large article on Keith Emerson’s Moog that is fascinating. Emerson’s Moog was one of the largest of its day, and certainly the most visible. He abused it on-stage and off. It was filled with water and left outside and had many problems as a result. It was rebuilt, though, and now works better than ever. The article details each of the modules within the synthesizer, including the bogus faceplates that were there just for show.
Famous Analog Synths
This section covers the Minimoog, the Prophet V, the CS-80, early Korg synths, and others. It discusses what made these synthesizers popular and what makes each of them important in the history of synths.
Digital Synths and Samplers
For several years, analog synths have been popular collectables, because they are easy to use, immediate, and sound great. Digital synths are beginning to become collectables, too. This section covers synths like the PPG Wave, the Synergy and the Emu Emulator.
These synths are less likely to become desirable musical instruments again, because their sound is more easily duplicated by more powerful soft-synths, and they didn’t have the immediacy of analog synths. Nevertheless, they are interesting, important synths. Vail discusses the contribution of each of the major early digital synths, and also major musicians and music that featured them.
There are many synth-related topics that don’t fit well into the earlier categories, so this section discusses things like drum machines, DIY syths, electric organs, and electronic pianos. There is coverage of Roland’s famous drum machines, electric pianos, and other instruments.
This section looks at issues that affect buyers, collectors and owners of vintage synths. This includes tips on evaluating and buying vintage synths, determining pricing, and maintenance.
This section is good overall, but the discussion of used prices is not very helpfull. Vail lists very wide price ranges, making it difficult to make much use of them. Also, many of the prices seem out of date. Some are way too low, especially for desirable analog synths. On the other hand, others are high. For example, the Minimoog listing shows $300-1,600. This doesn’t really tell you what they are worth. At this point, Ebay has become one of the best tools for determining real selling prices for vintage synths.
On the other hand, the coverage of maintaining vintage synths is good. There is a listing of companies that repair and rebuild old synths. Vail also includes interviews with synth experts, and they provide tips on what some of the common problems are. I’d like to see this section expanded. One other thing I’d love to see added is more information on getting replacement parts.
The book also includes a glossary of synthesizer terms. There’s not much here that is new to anybody that’s been interested in synths very long, but this section may help new collectors.
Vail’s Vintage Synthesizers is the place to start if you want to learn more about vintage synths. If you are interested in buying older synths, this book will make you a better shopper. If you are a musician, this book will help you understand the instruments behind the music, and also how the instruments shaped the sounds of their times. For anyone interested in electronic music, this book is a must-have!