Elena Tikhonova
Synthesizer for the Masses

In the early 1980s, at the height of the Soviet economic deficit, the enterprises working for the armaments industry were ordered to manufacture, in addition to weaponry, goods for civil use, “for the people”: kettles, buckets and cooking pots, as well as electronic equipment such as radio receivers and cassette recorders were manufactured alongside bullets, missile heads and radar equipment.

One of these enterprises was the Vektor Company in Sverdlovsk, now known as Yekaterinburg. Its specialization was radio technology and electronic instruments for fighter planes and the like. The young engineer Vladimir Kuzmin, a staff member and amateur musician, convinced the management that there was a huge interest amongst Soviet musicians for electronic musical instruments and that Vektor had the technology and the personnel to make them. And so in 1980 he began the development of the Polyvox, a duophonic analogue synthesizer modeled on and inspired by the American Minimoog. However, Kuzmin was too proud Polyvox: ribbed sideand inventive to simply copy the original, and instead he tried to find his own new, and in part very unusual, solutions for the filters and circuits. The result was a rough, full and resonant sound. Whatever the model, the excessively western and capitalist sounding word “synthesizer” was finally replaced by “musical instrument with extended possibilities.” The design of the Polyvox was the responsibility of Kuzmin’s wife Olimpiada. The sturdy angular exterior recalls military equipment, and the ribbed sides are designed in imitation of tank tracks.

From 1982 to 1992 the Polyvox was manufactured by the subsidiary Formanta. During this period, up to 25,000 machines a year were produced, and yet not everyone was entitled to acquire one officially, since they were distributed directly to cultural institutions, music clubs and film studios. Every larger factory had a cultural club for its workers’ relaxation and leisure activities. Vladimir Kuzmin and the inner of the PolyvoxAnd thus anyone who wanted could pursue his or her musical talents in the “Miners’ Cultural Center” or the “Club of the Kolkhoz Farmers” – under the auspices of the state. The problem with Soviet electronic musical instruments was that their production was often only allowed to use components that had failed quality inspections in more sensitive areas (such as military or aviation technology), in other words low-grade elements and rejects. The consequence was that these instruments were faulty and unpredictable from the very start – and no two were the same.

The professional musicians were correspondingly critical. But at that time only the bigger stars had the means and the contacts to acquire instruments from the west. The rest had no choice but to use instruments produced domestically, if this was at all possible. The fact that they were awkward to handle and unreliable made any attempt to make serious music a frustrating experience, and it was practically impossible to play a sound once found to be good a second time.

Time took its course, the Soviet Union became history, and the electronic instruments ended up in dusty corners, damp cellars or in the waste. It was only in the 1990s that musicians and bands rediscovered the amazing machines and their mysterious and unpredictable bubbling, scratching, squeaking and screeching, just what the new generation of sound designers were looking for.