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A polyphonic synthesizer is one capable of sounding two or more notes at one time. Although Western musical traditions are based around harmony, which implies the ability to play chords, many traditional instruments are monophonic -- they can play only one note at a time. This includes most of the woodwind and brass instruments. Traditional keyboard instruments, on the other hand, are usually fully polyphonic -- every note on the keyboard can be played simultaneously, and every note will sound. This included electric organs from the outset; Laurens Hammond designed the Hammond Model A in the 1930s as a fully polyphonic instrument, and most electric organ designs from that point followed Hammond's lead. So before the first commercial synths were available, the expectation was established that electronic instruments would be fully polyphonic.

This posed a problem for early synth manufacturers. Since synths were marketed as keyboard instruments, performers expected to be able to play chords, but most early synths were monophonic. Meeting performers' expectations in this regard posed a problem for two decades. Manufacturers learned long ago that a fully polyphonic synth, capable of sounding every note on the keyboard at once, is a bulky and expensive proposition, and that most performers don't really need that amount of polyphony. So, relatively few fully polyphonic synths with programmable patches have been produced; the two best known are the Korg PS-3100 series and the Polymoog. (And even the Polymoog was only paraphonic in certain modes.) Some of the string synthesizers of the 1970s were fully polyphonic, but these relied on stripped-down circuitry capable of reproducing only a few preset, non-editable sounds.

Rather, most polyphonic synths contain a certain number of voices, which are capable of playing a certain number of simultaneous notes depending on layering and voice allocation. In the simplest case of a synth which does not do layering internally, there is a 1-to-1 correspondence between voices and polyphony capability.

The polyphonic analog synthesizers of the 1980s relied heavily on specialized integrated circuits to keep the size and cost under control. Most of these were produced by Curtis Electromusic (CEM) or SSM. The former is now out of business, and the latter is now owned by Intersil, which has kept only a few of the SSM synthesizer parts in production. This unavailability of integrated circuits has mostly kept new analog polysynth designs from reaching production. (Alesis produced custom ICs for the Andromeda by way of a custom IC design division that it owned at the time the Andromeda was designed; Dave Smith Instruments has a source for some CEM ICs which it declines to disclose.) Most polysynths produced since 1990 have been digital designs. In these, the sound is usually produced using specialized digital signal processors, and the polyphony may depend on the complexity of the patch, according to how much DSP processing is required by the algorithms in use.

The first truly Polyphonic Keyboard for Analog Synthesizers was designed and built in 1969 and later patented (a part of the design was kept secret) in early 1970's. It boasted a full 61 key and multiple channels and keyboards (using early network innovations) were complimented with velocity and pressure sensing at a cost competitive with the existing one note keyboards (see Mark Vail's book second edition). This keyboard (the Ampoly - Polyphonopitch) and the lack of low cost Synthesizers prompted Jim Cooper of UCLA to develop the SEM-1 for Tom Oberhiem (after they both witnessed their first and second viewing). This keyboard started the realization that polyphony was finally viable. Lack of funding soon brought an end to the production of the Ampoly Keyboard which still has not been duplicated in the range and scope of features ti sported, to this day! Early album credits with Quincy Jones, Sergio Menendez, T.O.N.T.O. and others bare witness to how early this Polyphonic Keyboard System preceded everyone else by more than over a decade. If that technology was brought up to today's standards it would be one of the lowest cost systems created and be compatible not only with Analog and MIDI but also any digital format which someone might develop. While many attempts were made to circumvent the patent, the portion withheld from the patent was never fully discovered or understood even though it was such a simple concept. Allowing an unlimited number of notes to be played with very little total processing time expended at all using only the 1Mhz clocks of that day.


In the early-to-mid-1970s, voice allocation technologies were independently developed by Yamaha[1] and Roland Corporation.[2][3]. These were based on the scanning keyboard, independently developed by Yamaha in Japan and E-mu Systems in the United States.

The Yamaha GX1 (1973) had voice allocation technology that was used to assign the limited 8-voices per manual into the notes.[1] It was succeeded by the portable Yamaha CS-80 (1976), which was successful[4] and became one of the most popular polyphonic analog synths.[5][6]

Roland invented an early polyphonic string synthesizer, the Roland RS-201, in 1975. It was followed by the Roland RS-202 in 1976.[7][3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 [Chapter 1] Origins of the Yamaha Synthesizer. History, Yamaha Synth 40th Anniversary. Yamaha Corporation. “... Introduced in 1975, the GX-1 was ... In 1973, Yamaha completed development work on a prototype codenamed the GX-707. Based on cluster voltage control, this instrument could be regarded as the predecessor of the Electone GX-1. ... As the flagship model in the Electone lineup, however, this prototype was conceived of as a theatre model for use on the concert stage. With a console weighing in excess of 300 kg and a separate board required for editing tones, it was not well suited for sale to the general public, and to this day is still considered a niche instrument.", "Why digital technology in an analog synth? ... It was thus clear that new control technology would be required in order to use a limited number of circuits in a more effective manner. ... This type of device was known as a key assigner, and it can rightly be called the predecessor of today's dynamic voice allocation (DVA) technology. Back in the early seventies, when tone generators still relied on analog technology, digital circuitry was already being put to use in these key assigners.
  2. Jenkins, Mark (2009). Analog Synthesizers: Understanding, Performing, Buying--From the Legacy of Moog to Software Synthesis. CRC Press. p. 89. ISBN 978-1-136-12278-1. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 A TALE OF TWO STRING SYNTHS, Sound on Sound, July 2002
  4. Jenkins 2007
  5. The World's most desirable and valuable synthesizers and drum machines. Attack Magazine. Retrieved on 2014-11-12
  6. The Schmidt synth and the CS80. Synthtopia (2011-04-07).
  7. Jenkins, Mark (2009). Analog Synthesizers: Understanding, Performing, Buying--From the Legacy of Moog to Software Synthesis. CRC Press. p. 89. ISBN 978-1-136-12278-1.