Yamaha GS1& GS2 Yamaha Corp, Japan, 1981

Yamaha GS1 FM Synthesiser
Yamaha GS1 FM Synthesiser

In 1960 the composer, musician, percussionist and mathematician, John Chowning taught computer-sound synthesis and composition at Stanford University’s Department of Music and developed a version of Max Mathews MUSIC audio programming language, MUSIC II for the PDP8 computer. During this period he began experimenting with high frequency modulation of a sine tone and discovered that by using audio-rate modulation (rather than a lower frequency control-rate LFO type modulation) he could create new tones rich in harmonics. In 1973 Chowning published his research in a paper ‘The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation’ which eventually lead to the creation of a new approach to audio synthesis known as ‘Frequency Modulation Synthesis’ or FM Synthesis and to the development of the world’s best selling synthesiser; yamaha’s DX range ( Stanford university is rumoured to have collected more than $20 million in license fees and enabling it rebuild the Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) department).

Yamaha GS1 programmer
Yamaha GS1 external programmer

In 1971 Max Mathews suggested to Chowning that he create a library of recognisable sounds exploiting FM Synthesis’ ability to emulate harmonic rich timbres – brass, percussion, strings and so-on – and to use Stanford University to approach companies for him. After being turned down by several US based companies such as Wurlitzer and Hammond, Chowning and Stanford approached, somewhat desperately, Yamaha in Japan. Yamaha were looking for a new type of electronic instrument having failed to capitalise on the success of the CS80 and GX1 Synthesisers. Yamaha’s Organ Division bought a license for one year; enough to investigate the commercial potential of FM synthesis. The first application of Chownings FM algorithm was in 1975; a monophonic prototype digital synthesiser called MAD. This was soon followed by a polyphonic FM synthesiser prototype released as a production model in 1981 as the Yamaha GS1.

Advert for the GS1 in 1982
Advert for the GS1 in 1982

The GS1 was an expensive (around £12,000 in 1981) FM synthesiser (but not the first FM synthesiser, this was the even more expensive New England Digital Synclavier released in 1978). The arrival of FM synthesis was greeted with confusion and horror by electronic musicians who had just become used to subtractive modular analogue systems. FM synthesis is a radically different approach to sound synthesis; subtractive starts with a complex waveform and subtracts harmonics and tone with filters and modulation to produce the desired timbre whereas Additive Synthesis has no filters but creates varying timbres through the application of combinations of modulators or ‘operators’.

Advert for the GS1 in 1981
Advert for the GS1 in 1981

The GS1 had eight operators arranged as four modulators per voice (two on the GS2 model) – which was a very basic implementation of FM. Despite this, the sound quality of the instrument was very impressive, and, despite the perceived complexity of programming FM (alleviated by yamaha supplying a bank of 500 preset sounds on a data stick) the GS1 found favour amongst the large recording studios who could afford them (only around 100 units were sold).

Yamaha ce20 preset FM synthesiser
Yamaha ce20 preset FM synthesiser

The GS1&2 were superseded in 1982 by the more affordable (£850) mass-market, preset CE20 and CE25 FM keyboards and then a year later in 1983 by the legendary DX7 FM synthesiser.



john m chowning
john m chowning

John M Chowning Biographical notes

Chowning was born in Salem, New Jersey in 1934. Following military service and four years at Wittenberg University, he studied composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.  He received the doctorate in composition (DMA) from Stanford University in 1966, where he studied with Leland Smith.  In 1964, with the help of Max Mathews of Bell Telephone Laboratories and David Poole of Stanford University, he set up a computer music program using the computer system of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Beginning the same year he began the research that led to the first generalized surround sound localization algorithm.  Chowning discovered the frequency modulation synthesis (FM) algorithm in 1967. This breakthrough in the synthesis of timbres allowed a very simple yet elegant way of creating and controlling time-varying spectra. Inspired by the perceptual research of Jean-Claude Risset, he worked toward turning this discovery into a system of musical importance, using it extensively in his compositions.

In 1973 Stanford University licensed the FM synthesis patent to Yamaha in Japan, leading to the most successful synthesis engine in the history of electronic musical instruments. Chowning was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988. He was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Music by Wittenberg University in 1990.  The French Ministre de la Culture awarded him the Diplôme d’Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1995 and he was awarded the Doctorat Honoris Causa in 2002 by the Université de la Méditerranée and in 2010 by Queen’s University, Belfast. He taught computer-sound synthesis and composition at Stanford University’s Department of Music.  In 1974, with John Grey, James (Andy) Moorer, Loren Rush and Leland Smith, he founded the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), which remains one of the leading centers for computer music and related research.



‘The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation’ Chowning J.  Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.J. Audio Eng. Soc. 21 (7), 526-534. 1973





‘Graphic 1’ William H. Ninke, Carl Christensen, Henry S. McDonald and Max Mathews. USA, 1965

‘Graphic 1’  was an hybrid hardware-software graphic input system for digital synthesis that allowed note values to be written on a CRT computer monitor – although very basic by current standards, ‘Graphic 1’ was the precursor to most computer based graphic composition environments such as Cubase, Logic Pro, Ableton Live and so-on.

The IBM704b at Bell Labs used with the Graphics 1 system
The IBM704b at Bell Labs used with the Graphics 1 system

‘Graphic 1’ was developed by William Ninke (plus  Carl Christensen and Henry S. McDonald) at Bell labs for use by Max Mathews as a graphical front-end for MUSIC IV synthesis software to circumvent the lengthy and tedious process of adding numeric note values to the MUSIC program.

” The Graphic 1 allows a person to insert pictures and graphs directly into a computer memory by the very act of drawing these objects…Moreover the power of the computer is available to modify, erase, duplicate  and remember these drawings”
Max Mathews  quoted from ‘Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture’ by Thom Holmes

Lawrence Rosller of Bell labs with Max Mathews in front of the Graphics 1 system c 1967
Lawrence Rosller of Bell labs with Max Mathews in front of the Graphics 1 system c 1967

Graphic 2/ GRIN 2 was later developed in 1976 as a commercial design package based on a faster PDP2 computer and was sold by Bell and DEC as a computer-aided design system for creating circuit designs and logic schematic drawings.

Audio recordings of the Graphic I/MUSIC IV system

Graphic I Audio file 1

Graphic I Audio file 2

Graphic I Audio file 3

Graphic I Audio file 4


‘Interview with Max Mathews’ C. Roads and Max Mathews. Computer Music Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), pp. 15-22. The MIT Press

Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. Thom Holmes



‘The Oramics Machine: From vision to reality’. PETER MANNING. Department of Music, Durham University, Palace Green, Durham, DH1 3RL, UK

M. V. Mathews and L. Rosler’ Perspectives of New Music’  Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring – Summer, 1968), pp. 92-118

W. H. Ninke, “GRAPHIC I: A Remote Graphical Display Console System,” Proceedings of the Fall Joint Computer Conference of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies 27 (1965), Part I, pp. 839-846.

‘Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology: Volume 3 – Ballistics …’ Jack Belzer, Albert G. Holzman, Allen Kent

‘GROOVE Systems’, Max Mathews & Richard Moore, USA 1970

Max Mathews with the GROOVE system
Max Mathews with the GROOVE system

In 1967 the composer and musician Richard Moore began a collaboration with Max Mathews at Bell Labs exploring performance and  expression in computer music in a ‘musician-friendly’ environment. The result of this was a digital-analogue hybrid system called GROOVE  (Generated Realtime Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment) in which a musician played an external analogue synthesiser and a computer monitored and stored the performer’s manipulations of the interface; playing notes, turning knobs and so-on. The objective being to build a real-time musical performance tool by concentrating the computers limited power, using it to store musical parameters of an external device rather than generating the sound itself :

“Computer performance of music was born in 1957 when an IBM 704 in NYC played a 17 second composition on the Music I program which I wrote. The timbres and notes were not inspiring, but the technical breakthrough is still reverberating. Music I led me to Music II through V. A host of others wroteMusic 10, Music 360, Music 15, Csound and Cmix. Many exciting pieces are now performed digitally. TheIBM 704 and its siblings were strictly studio machines–they were far too slow to synthesize music in real-time. Chowning’s FM algorithms and the advent of fast, inexpensive, digital chips made real-time possible, and equally important, made it affordable.”
Max Mathews. “Horizons in Computer Music,” March 8-9, 1997, Indiana University

Richard Moore with the Groove System
Richard Moore with the Groove System

The system, written in assembler, only ran on the Honeywell DDP224 computer that Bell had acquired specifically for sound research. The addition of a disk storage device meant that it was also possible to create libraries of programming routines so that users could create their own customised logic patterns for automation or composition. GROOVE allowed users to continually adjust and ‘mix’ different actions in real time, review sections or an entire piece and then re-run the composition from stored data. Music by Bach and Bartok were performed with the GROOVE at the first demonstration at a conference on Music and Technology in Stockholm organized by UNESCO  in 1970. Among the participants also several leading figures in electronic music such as Pierre Schaffer and Jean-Claude Risset.

“Starting with the Groove program in 1970, my interests have focused on live performance and what a computer can do to aid a performer. I made a controller, the radio-baton, plus a program, the conductor program, to provide new ways for interpreting and performing traditional scores. In addition to contemporary composers, these proved attractive to soloists as a way of playing orchestral accompaniments. Singers often prefer to play their own accompaniments. Recently I have added improvisational options which make it easy to write compositional algorithms. These can involve precomposed sequences, random functions, and live performance gestures. The algorithms are written in the C language. We have taught a course in this area to Stanford undergraduates for two years. To our happy surprise, the students liked learning and using C. Primarily I believe it gives them a feeling of complete power to command the computer to do anything it is capable of doing.”
Max Mathews. “Horizons in Computer Music,” March 8-9, 1997, Indiana University

The GROOVE System at the Bell Laboratories circa 1970
The GROOVE System at the Bell Laboratories circa 1970

The GROOVE system consisted of:

  • 14 DAC control lines scanned every 100th/second ( twelve 8-bit and two 12-bit)
  • An ADC coupled to a multiplexer for the conversion of seven voltage signal: four generated by the same knobs and three generated by 3-dimensional movement of a joystick controller;
  • Two speakers for audio sound output;
  • A special keyboard to interface with the knobs to generate On/Off signals
  • A teletype keyboard for data input
  • A CDC-9432 disk storage;
  • A tape recorder for data backup

Antecedents to the GROOVE included similar projects such as PIPER, developed by James Gabura and Gustav Ciamaga at the University of Toronto, and a system proposed but never completed by Lejaren Hiller and James Beauchamp at the University of Illinois . GROOVE was however, the first widely used computer music system that allowed composers and performers the ability to work in real-time. The GROOVE project ended in 1980 due to both the high cost of the system – some $20,000, and also  to advances in affordable computing power that allowed synthesisers and performance systems to work together flawlessly .


Joel Chadabe, Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music, Prentice Hall, 1997.

F. Richard Moore, Elements of Computer Music, PTR Prentice Hall, 1990.


‘MUSIC N’, Max Vernon Mathews, USA, 1957

Max Mathews was a pioneering, central figure in computer music. After studying engineering at California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1954 Mathews went on to develop ‘Music 1’ at Bell Labs; the first of the ‘Music’ family of computer audio programmes and the first widely used program for audio synthesis and composition. Mathews spent the rest of his career developing the ‘Music N’ series of programs and became a key figure in digital audio, synthesis, interaction and performance. ‘Music N’ was the first time a computer had been used to investigate audio synthesis ( Computers had been used to generate sound and music with the CSIR M1 and Ferranti Mk1 as early as 1951, but more as a by-product of machine testing rather than for specific musical objectives) and set the blueprint for computer audio synthesis that remains in use to this day in programmes like CSound, MaxMSP and SuperCollider and graphical modular programmes like Reaktor.

IBM 704 System
IBM 704 System

“Computer performance of music was born in 1957 when an IBM 704 in NYC played a 17 second composition on the Music I program which I wrote. The timbres and notes were not inspiring, but the technical breakthrough is still reverberating. Music I led me to Music II through V. A host of others wrote Music 10, Music 360, Music 15, Csound and Cmix. Many exciting pieces are now performed digitally. The IBM 704 and its siblings were strictly studio machines – they were far too slow to synthesize music in real-time. Chowning’s FM algorithms and the advent of fast, inexpensive, digital chips made real-time possible, and equally important, made it affordable.”

Max Mathews “Horizons in Computer Music”, March 8–9, 1997, Indiana University:

MUSIC I 1957

Music 1 was written in Assembler/machine code to make the most of the technical limitations of the IBM704 computer. The audio output was a simple monophonic triangle wave tone with no attack or decay control. It was only possible to set the parameters of amplitude, frequency and duration of each sound. The output was stored on magnetic tape and then converted by a DAC to make it audible (Bell Laboratories, in those years, were the only ones in the United States, to have a DAC; a 12-Bit valve technology converter, developed by EPSCO), Mathews says;

In fact, we are the only ones in the world at the time who had the right kind of a digital-to-analog converter hooked up to a digital tape transport that would play a computer tape. So we had a monopoly, if you will, on this process“.

In 1957 Mathews and his colleague Newman Guttman created a synthesised 17 second piece using Music I, titled ‘The Silver Scale’ ( often credited as being the first proper piece of  computer generated music) and a one minute piece later in the same year called ‘Pitch Variations’ both of which were released on an anthology called ‘Music From Mathematics’ edited by Bell Labs in 1962.

Mathews and the IBM 7094
Mathews and the IBM 7094


Was an updated more versatile and functional version of Music I . Music II  still used assembler but for the transistor (rather than valve) based, much faster IBM 7094 series. Music II had four-voice polyphony and a was capable of generating sixteen wave shapes via the introduction of a wavetable oscillator.


“MUSIC 3 was my big breakthrough, because it was what was called a block diagram compiler, so that we could have little blocks of code that could do various things. One was a generalized oscillator … other blocks were filters, and mixers, and noise generators.”
Max Mathews 2011 interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze.

The introduction of Unit Generators (UG) in MUSIC III was an evolutionary leap in music computing proved by the fact that almost all current programmes use the UG concept in some form or other. A Unit generator is essentially a pre-built discreet function within the program; oscillators, filters, envelope shapers and so-on, allowing the composer to flexibly connect multiple UGs together to generate a specific sound. A separate ‘score’ stage was added where sounds could be arranged in a musical chronological fashion. Each event was assigned to an instrument, and consisted of a series of values for the unit generators’ various parameters (frequency, amplitude, duration, cutoff frequency, etc). Each unit generator and each note event was entered onto a separate punch-card, which while still complex and archaic by today’s standards, was the first time a computer program used a paradigm familiar to composers.

“The crucial thing here is that I didn’t try to define the timbre and the instrument. I just gave the musician a tool bag of what I call unit generators, and he could connect them together to make instruments, that would make beautiful music timbres. I also had a way of writing a musical score in a computer file, so that you could, say, play a note at a given pitch at a given moment of time, and make it last for two and a half seconds, and you could make another note and generate rhythm patterns. This sort of caught on, and a whole bunch of the programmes in the United States were developed from that. Princeton had a programme called Music 4B, that was developed from my MUSIC 4 programme. And (theMIT professor) Barry Vercoe came to Princeton. At that time, IBM changed computers from the old 1794 to the IBM 360 computers, so Barry rewrote the MUSIC programme for the 360, which was no small job in those days. You had to write it in machine language.”
Max Mathews 2011 interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze.

Max Mathews and Joan Miller at Bell labs
Max Mathews and Joan Miller at Bell labs


MUSIC IV was the result of the collaboration between Max Mathews and  Joan Miller completed in 1963 and was a more complete version of the MUSIC III system using a modified macro enabled version of the assembler language. These programming changes meant that MUSIC IV would only run on the Bell Labs IBM 7094.

“Music IV was simply a response to a change in the language and the computer. It Had some technical advantages from a computer programming standpoint. It made heavy use of a macro assembly program Which Existed at the time.”
Max Mathews 1980


Due to the lack of portability of the MUSIC IV system other versions were created independently of Mathews and the Bell labs team, namely MUSIC IVB at Princeton and MUSIC IVBF at the Argonne Labs. These versions were built using FORTRAN rather than assembler language.


MUSIC V was probably the most popular of the MUSIC N series from Bell Labs. Similar to MUSIC IVB/F versions, Mathews abandoned assembler and built MUSIC V in the FORTRAN language specifically for the IBM 360 series computers. This meant that the programme was faster, more stable and  could run on any IBM 360 machines outside of  Bell Laboratories. The data entry procedure was simplified, both in Orchestra and in Score section. One of the most interesting news features was the definition of new modules that allow you to import analogue sounds into Music V. Mathews persuaded Bell Labs not to copyright the software meaning that MUSIC V was probably one of the first open-source programmes, ensuring it’s adoption and longevity leading directly to today’s CSound.

“… The last programme I wrote, MUSIC 5, came out in 1967. That was my last programme, because I wrote it in FORTRAN. FORTRAN is still alive today, it’s still in very good health, so you can recompile it for the new generation of computers. Vercoe wrote it for the 360, and then when the 360 computers died, he rewrote another programme called MUSIC 11 for the PDP-11, and when that died he got smart, and he wrote a programme in the C language called CSound. That again is a compiler language and it’s still a living language; in fact, it’s the dominant language today. So he didn’t have to write any more programmes.”
Max Mathews 2011 interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze.

MUSIC V marked the end of Mathews involvement in MUSIC N series but established it as the parent for all future music programmes. Because of his experience with the real-time limitations of computer music, Mathews became interested in developing ideas for performance based computer music such as the GROOVE system (with Richard Moore in 1970) system in and The ‘Radio Baton’ (with Tom Oberheim in 1985 ).

1957 Music I Bell Labs (New York) Max Mathews
1958 Music II Bell Labs (New York) Max Mathews
1960 Music III Bell Labs (New York) Max Mathews
1963 Music IV Bell Labs (New York) Max Mathews, Joan Miller
1963 Music IVB Princeton University Hubert Howe, Godfrey Winham
1965 Music IVF Argonne Laboratories (Chicago) Arthur Roberts
1966 Music IVBF Princeton University Hubert Howe, Godfrey Winham
1966 Music 6 Stanford University Dave Poole
1968 Music V Bell Labs (New York) Max Mathews
1969 Music 360 Princeton University Barry Vercoe
1969 Music 10  Stanford University John Chowning, James Moorer
1970 Music 7 Queen’s College (New York) Hubert Howe, Godfrey Winham
1973 Music 11 M.I.T. Barry Vercoe
1977 Mus10 Stanford University Leland Smith, John Tovar
1980 Cmusic University of California Richard Moore
1984 Cmix Princeton University Paul Lansky
1985 Music 4C University of Illinois James Beauchamp, Scott Aurenz
1986 Csound M.I.T. Barry Vercoe




Curtis Roads, Interview with Max Mathews, Computer Music Journal, Vol. 4, 1980.

‘Frieze’ Interview with Max Mathews. by Geeta Dayal

An Interview with Max Mathews.  Tae Hong Park. Music Department, Tulane University