Left to right: Dartmouth’s Sydney A. Alonso, Jon Appleton and Cameron Jones listen to Appleton playing a Synclavier I, ca. 1977. Courtesy, Dartmouth Engineer, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College.
Synclavier I: Invention, and the creation of an industry
The Synclavier, an early digital synthesizer, sampling system and music workstation, was developed by the New England Digital Corporation (NED) of Norwich,Vermont; the prototypical model having been invented at Hanover, New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College in 1975. Dartmouth Professor of Music Jon Appleton, Digital Electronics expert Sydney A. Alonso and Engineering software programmer Cameron Jones collaborated in its invention.
The Synclavier I. Wikipedia.
According to a 2005 story in the Dartmouth Engineer, the prime motivation for the Synclavier’s development was that “The Moog synthesizer, the prime electronic instrument of the 1970s, linked a piano keyboard to an analog computer — but it had no memory. Wanting something better, Dartmouth music professor and composer Jon Appleton turned to [Dartmouth’s] Thayer School [of Engineering].”
The resulting Synclavier was the world’s first digital synthesizer, and pioneered digital sampling, hard-disk recording, and professional sound editing. “It did so many things, and the software was so beautifully integrated,”Appleton later remarked.
In 1972, Jones and Alonso met at Dartmouth, where they were both working on programming the college’s large, time-sharing computer. Together, they developed software for the computer that allowed it to produce electronic music and, under Appleton’s tutelage, aid with students’ ear training.
Within the next three years, in addition to graduating from Dartmouth, the two men were able to create a 16-bit processor card and then adapted the computer’s compiler for the new processor. This new “miniprocessor” – the ABLE – was the first product for Jones and Alonso’s new company, New England Digital. It was designed to help users avoid having to book time on large, mainframe computers (most academic computer labs in this period operated on a ponderous “time sharing” basis).
Out of the research, the men crafted their new instrument, which they called the Synclavier (pronounced, in three syllables, Sink – la – veer). It was intended as a commercial outgrowth of their “Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer,” which included the ABLE processor. In 1979, they raised some venture capital and brought in another partner to oversee the marketing of their new “Synclavier II.”
The Synclavier II was revolutionary because it introduced both a terminal display and keyboard and allowed for both software additions and revisions that could even be retrofitted on earlier versions of the device. Encouraged by the success of these developments, in 1982-3, the company added significant “sampled” sound recording and playback capabilities directly from the unit’s hard drive. And with the addition of the graphics terminal, it was possible to analyze and edit sounds in a visual, as well as aural context. This figuratively opened up the flood gates to virtually unlimited possibilities of sound production and “post-production” editing, which made the system very attractive to both the music and film industries.
Dartmouth Professor of Music Jon Appleton demonstrating the Synclavier II (1984)
Decline, fall & resurrection
All of this innovation cost money – a lot of it. Units began at $75,000 and to outfit a proper studio, the price could reach $500,000 or even beyond. One account, from a website called “Yaking Cat Music Studios History,” added a little bit of cheeky perspective on NED’s pricing strategy: “The prices on Synclaviers were based on two primary factors. Those who owned the machine or needed parts generally had money to ‘burn,’ so to speak. NED took advantage of this. Second, there were about 11 guys at the top of the company pulling down six-figure incomes. Sting was paid to perform for the NED employees and their spouses at a big gala at the Roxy in N.Y. There were NED offices across the globe with marble desks. Spend, spend, spend. And make your customers pick up the tab.”
Mike Thorne, producer of such notable bands as Siouxie and the Banshees, Soft Cell and the Bronski Beat, was a pioneer in the use of the Synclavier for so-called "New Wave" music. Courtesy, vblurpage.com
Throughout the 1980s, the Synclavier was the musical device of choice for musicians such as Genesis’ Tony Banks, Sting, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Stanley Jordan, and numerous others. The machine’s ability to augment musicians’ guitar work though a specially-designed interface was unparalleled; but as that decade passed into the ‘90s, NED, due largely to the price of equipment upgrades, started to lose market share and opted to “repackage” itself in less expensive fashion. They began to move from their original mission of support for musical instruments toward post-production and editing software.
A silver lining to this lateral movement was that there was really no manufacturer who could offer a machine that was so perfectly suited to motion picture and television production. The software upgrades were spell-binding for those who could afford them, and the sound was unparalleled. It is safe to say that this is what rescued the company over its history; but regardless, NED passed into history itself in 1992, only to be resurrected, like the phoenix from the ashes, on several occasions in various permutations. It’s interesting to know that there are still over 100 units of the Synclavier and Synclavier II still in use today in various capacities, and part of the reason for that is their durability.
One example of the Synclavier’s reliable construction involves the B-52 military airplane. NED went out of its way to choose uncompromising materials for the manufacturing process. And one of those choices involved the famous red buttons the B-52 used on its control panels. It’s been suggested that the company’s decision to select superior components was designed to help prop up the instrument’s price tag; but experience has also revealed it was essential to construct units that could hold up to the punishment of musicians – spilled drinks, cigarette ashes and pounding fists included.
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