The Legend of Soviet Synths

When you think of nations pushing the envelope in the development synthesisers, Russia is hardly going to make the top of most peoples’ lists, somewhere like Japan or America are perhaps more likely. However, after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, it was revealed that the USSR had been quietly manufacturing an abundance of electronic music equipment; drum machines and synths, unlike anything previously heard, all with their own, distinct Russian flavour!

As far back as 1922, Lev Sergeyevich Termen (better known as Leon Theremin in the west) brought the Theremin to the world. This has been covered extensively elsewhere, so we won’t go into too much depth about it here but it was extremely futuristic for its time and laid the foundation for pioneering work in electronic synthesis. Most importantly, the system of voltage-controlled oscillation used within, which creates the pitch of the instrument, is the basis of pretty much all the analog synthesizers that have subsequently followed.

The ANS: Making Use of Light and Sound

The next landmark synth to come out of Russia is the ANS, named after composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, who’s compositional theories combine sound and light. The instrument was designed in 1937/38, but was not actually built until 1957, it is fully polyphonic and creates sound by spinning glass discs, which are the photo-optically turned into sine waves. The glass discs are covered in mastic, which then has lines etched into it, which are then read by the instrument, with the edgings at the top or the bottom of the plate playing high or low pitches respectively.

The sound produced has a unique, ghostly and eerie quality that is out of this world and as such, works very well on soundtracks, as used most famously by Eduard Nikolaevich Artemyev to score the 1972 film Solaris, by the influential Russian director Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky. One thing that must be noted about this synth, is the use of graphical programming, this was truly pioneering and the use of two-dimensional shapes to manipulate pitch and duration is very similar to how modern production software operates these days, thus, you can look at the ANS synth as a forefather of all modern DAWs!

Polivoks: The Russian Moog

Designed to sound like its western counterparts at the time by companies such as Roland, Moog, and Korg (due to restrictions on western imports), the Polivoks was Russia’s homegrown equivalent (and possibly most enduring) synth. As the rest of the world moved to FM and digital synthesis, the appeal of Analog endured in Russia. With its rugged casing (reflecting being built in military factories) and tube technology, as opposed to transistor (so the machine will be unaffected by the electromagnetic pulse generated by a potential nuclear explosion), the Polivoks is distinctly Russian.

Created by the husband-and-wife team of Vladimir and Olimpiada Kuzmin, the 48-key duophonic instrument creates an aggressive and strong tone, perfect for making searing leads and basses that cut through the mix of your music. It also had the distinguishing capability of connecting an external audio source for processing through the instrument’s filters and low-frequency oscillator. It enabled for some serious sound design, with features such as; the VCO1 can be cross-modulated with VCO2 and you can manipulate the attack and decay generators, giving repetitive and very textured polyrhythms.

In recent years the Polivok has been featured on albums such as ‘Black cherry’ by Goldfrapp in 2003 and Franz Ferdinand’s 2009 album ‘Tonight: Franz Ferdinand’.

There are Polivoks available online (there were about 100,000 produced) for between £600-1000, but they aren’t renowned for their reliability, as, even though they have a rugged exterior, the interior circuitry can be easily damaged. Whilst it not be exactly the same thing, you can check out the virtual version from Image Line here:

Image Line - Sawer

Polyvoks Mini

Russian Synths: The Modern-Age

There is a burgeoning scene of producers of Modular these days, taking inspiration from their predecessors of the Soviet Era and the spirit of pushing the sounds as far as they can go!
Here are a small selection:

Soma Synths

Analog synths with a ‘futuristic-but dirty’ sound, reminiscent of the Russian landscapes.

Check Out Soma Synths


Clever little modular boxes with filters and phasers that you can chain together for some serious processing of your synth or guitar.

Check Out Pribor F1


Russia’s answer to DIY boards like Makey Makey, Playtronica allows you add MIDI-friendly touch to anything, among other accessories.

Check Out Playtronica

Analog Samples

It’s not easy to get your hands on real Analog equipment, so check out this pack to get your fix in the meantime:

Analog Archival

Listen Here

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