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(Credit: Moog)


Why did the Musicians Union outlaw synthesisers in 1982?


Technology has been frightening the bejeebers out of humans for centuries. From the printing press to the humble bicycle, there have been countless attempts to link new inventions to moral and ethical degradation. In the 1890s, numerous physicians began drawing comparisons between the popularity of bicycles and an apparent increase in cases of insanity in women. A hundred years earlier, the Luddites, a group of angry textile workers, began smashing up the weaving machines that had taken their jobs. And In 1982, the Musicians Union tried to ban synthesisers in an effort to defend the careers of performing orchestral musicians, with the body choosing none other than synth pioneer Robert Moog’s birthday to push the bill.

As was so often the case, it was Barry Manilow’s fault. In 1982, the singer decided to go on tour with a selection of synth players rather than the orchestra he’d worked with on his previous outing. When the MU caught wind of the decision, its members began calling for an outright ban of synthesisers to protect the jobs of string players. In May 1982, the union passed the motion, causing outrage among the musical community. Few were more upset than the synths players themselves, who decided to form a rival organisation called the Union of Sound Synthesists.

On the same day in 1973, Jefferson Airplane found themselves at the pointy end of the technophobic rage. The band was prevented from playing their scheduled concert in Golden Gate Park in their hometown of San Francisco due to a ban on amplified music. When they arrived, the band found a couple of hundred middle-aged protestors shouting: ”We built this city on orchestral music,” a chant that inspired one of Starship’s most recognisable hits, ‘We Built This City’, released in 1985.

By 1997, the MU had had a lot of time to think about the development of popular music and decided that they might as well lift the ban on synth players. Ironically, the threat posed to orchestras by synth technology is probably greater today than ever before. While the synths of the 1980s have become treasured artefacts in their own right – their clumsy interpretation of horns and strings coming to form the sonic palette of an era for which we are now strangely nostalgic – VSTs are a whole different ball game.

In the ’90s, most formally-trained film composers used live orchestras. They would have learned their trade in a conservatoire, cutting their teeth the old fashioned way by writing scores and conducting the orchestra from that score. Think John Williams swirling his baton to the ‘Jurassic Park Theme’. In those days, the composers earning the big bucks were largely unfamiliar with the new digital practices coming in. To cover their blind spots, they hired assistants well versed in the ins and outs of virtual instruments and sample packs. Today, those assistants (people like Hanz Zimmer) are the composers earning the big bucks, and while many of them are still classically trained, they often rely on virtual orchestral plugins to make their scores, something which has massively altered the work of classical string, woodwind, brass and percussion musicians.

A few years ago, Spitfire Audio worked closely with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to craft a VST plugin for professional film and TV composers, sampling a huge variety of instruments and articulations to create a highly realistic-sounding ‘orchestra in a box.’ Far from putting the players out of work, this venture actually provided the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s musicians with a long term project, and a portion of the profit from every pack sold goes directly to the musicians who feature on it. At the same time, you can understand why classically trained players are concerned. We live in a world where professional sounding music can be made without leaving one’s desk.

The synthesisers of the 1980s became sonic mainstays because of their analogue imperfection, but one wonders if the ubiquity of quantising, highly realistic VSTs, etcetera is leading to a fear of imperfection and a worrying homogeneity in the kind of music we’re making. Then again, maybe I’m just a neo-Luddite.