The Synclavier I & II. Jon Appleton, Sydney Alonso & Cameron Jones. USA, 1977

Late version of the Synclavier II
Late version of the Synclavier II 9600TS system with an Apple Macintosh running a terminal emulator

The Synclavier I was the first commercial digital FM synthesiser and music workstation launched by the New England Digital Corporation (NED) of Norwich, Vermont, USA in 1978. The system was designed by the composer and professor of Digital Electronics at Dartmouth College, Jon Appleton with software programmer, Sydney Alonso and Cameron Jones, a student at the time at Dartmouth School of Engineering.

The origins of the Synclavier began when Cameron Jones and Sydney Alonso started to develop software and hardware for electronic music for John Appleton’s electronic music course at Dartmouth. After graduation Jones and Alonso developed a 16-bit processor card and a new compiler to create their ‘ABLE’  computer, NED’s first product, sold to institutions for data collection applications. The first musical application developed by NED was the ‘Dartmouth Digital Synthesiser’ based around the  ABLE microprocessor which was released as a production model Synclavier I in 1977. The new device was intended as a fully-integrated, high end music production system rather than an instrument and sold for $200,000 to $500,000, way beyond the reach of most musicians and recording studios.

Synclavier 1
Synclavier 1 with the VT100 Computer

The synclavier 1 was an FM synthesis based keyboard-less sound module, and was only programmable via a DEC VT100 computer supplied with the system. This version was quickly replaced by the integrated keyboard Synclavier II in 1979. The model II was a FM/Additive hybrid synthesiser with a 32 track digital sequencer memory and was the first musical device aimed at creating an integrated ‘tapeless studio’. The Syncalvier II was equally expensive echoing the fact that almost all of the components were either sourced from hardware developed for military uses or were custom designed and built by NED themselves. NED designed the system to be as robust as possible, built around their own ABLE computer hardware (as a testament to this durability, NASA chose the ABLE computer to run the onboard systems of the Gallileo space probe which in fourteen years travelled to the edges of the solar system – eight years longer than the original mission plan)

Synclavier-II ORK keyboard
Synclavier-II ORK keyboard

The instrument was controlled by a standard ‘ORK’ on-off keyboard and edited by the same DEC VT100 (later a VT640) computer as well as via a distinctive set of multiple red buttons (the same lights used in B52 bomber aircraft, chosen for durability) and rotary dial that allowed the user to edit straight from the keyboard and get visual feedback on the state of the instrument’s parameters. The keyboard was soon replaced in the new PSMT model by a ‘VPK’ weighted, velocity sensitive manual licensed from Sequential Circuits (the same keyboard as the Prophet T8) that dramatically improved the playability of the instrument.

Synclavier II PSMT
Synclavier II PSMT

The Synclavier II was a 64 voice polyphonic modular digital synthesiser; the user purchased a selection of individual cards for each function making it easy to expand and repair. In 1982 a digital 16 bit sample facility was added that allowed the user to not only sample but re-synthesise samples using FM, making the Synclavier one of the earliest digital samplers (The Fairlight CMI being the first) and in 1984 a direct to disk digital audio recording, sample to (32MB) memory, 200 track sequencer, guitar interface, MIDI and SMPTE capability were included making the Synclavier II an extremely powerful (but very expensive) integrated audio production tool. The instrument became a fixture of high-end music and soundtrack production studios – and is still in use by many. The Synclavier is instantly recognisable on many 1980 film and pop hits; used by artists such as Depeche Mode, Michael Jackson, Laurie Anderson, Herbie Hancock, Sting, Genesis, David Bowie and many other. The Synclavier was particularly championed by Frank Zappa – one of the few artists who privately owned a Synclavier – who used it extensively on many of his works including m Jazz From Hell and  Civilization, Phaze III:

“What I’ve been waiting for ever since I started writing music was a chance to hear what I wrote played back without mistakes and without a bad attitude. The Synclavier solves the problem for me. Most of the writing I’m doing now is not destined for human hands.”

Frank Zappa

Despite it’s popularity in recording studios the Synclavier inevitably succumbed to competition from increasingly powerful and cheaper personal computers, MIDI synthesisers and low cost digital samplers. New England Digital closed it’s doors in 1992, many of the company assets purchased by Fostex for use in hard-disk recording systems. In 1993, A new Synclavier Company was established by ex-NED employees as a support organisation for existing Synclavier customers.

Images of the Synclavier i & II


Photographs: Jean-Bernard Emond at

Synclavier Facebook group

The ‘Baldwin Organ’ Winston E. Kock & J.F. Jordan, USA, 1946

Early Model of Winston Kock's Baldwin organ
Winston Kock’s Baldwin Organ Model Five 1947

The Baldwin organ was an electronic organ, many models of which have been manufactured by the Baldwin Piano & Organ Co. since 1946. The original models were designed by Dr Winston E. Kock who became the company’s director of electronic research after his return from his studies at the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute, Berlin, in 1936. The organ was a development of Kock’s Berlin research with the GrosstonOrgel using the same neon-gas discharge tubes to create a stable, affordable polyphonic instrument. The Baldwin Organ were based on an early type of subtractive synthesis; the neon discharge tubes generating a rough sawtooth wave rich in harmonics which was then modified by formant filters to the desired tone.

Tone modifying circuits of the Baldwin organ
Tone modifying circuits of the Baldwin organ

Another innovative aspect of the Baldwin Organ was the touch sensitive keyboard designed to create a realistic variable note attack similar to a pipe organ. As the key was depressed, a curved metal strip progressively shorted out a carbon resistance element to provide a gradual rather than sudden attack (and decay) to the sound.  This feature was unique at that time, and it endowed the Baldwin instrument with an unusually elegant sound which captivated many musicians of the day.

“How did it sound? I have played Baldwin organs at a time when they were still marketed and in my opinion, for what it is worth, they were pretty good in relative terms.  That is to say, they sounded significantly better on the whole than the general run of analogue organs by other manufacturers, and they were only beaten by a few custom built instruments in which cost was not a factor.  It would not be true to say they sounded as good as a good digital organ today, but they compared favourably with the early Allen digitals in the 1970’s.  Nor, of course, did they sound indistinguishable from a pipe organ, but that is true for all pipeless organs.  To my ears they also sounded much better and more natural than the cloying tone of the more expensive Compton Electrone which, like the Hammond, also relied on attempts at additive synthesis with insufficient numbers of harmonics.”

From ‘Winston Kock and the Baldwin Organ; by Colin Pykett

Electronic Generator of the earlt model Baldwin Organ
Electronic Tone Generator of the early model Baldwin Organ showing neon gas-discharge tube oscillators.

Kock’s 1938 Patent of the Baldwin organ

Winston Kock playing an early experimental design for an electric instrument
Winston Kock playing his early experimental electronic instrument 1932

Winston E. Kock Biographical Details:

Winston Kock was born into a German-American family in 1909 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite being a gifted musician he decided to study electrical engineering at Cincinnati university and in his 20’s designed a highly innovative, fully electronic organ for his master’s degree.

The major problem of instrument design during the 1920’s and 30’s was the stability and cost of analogue oscillators. Most commercial organ ventures had failed for this reason; a good example being  Givelet & Coupleux’s  huge valve Organ in 1930. it was this reason that Laurens Hammond (and many others) decided on Tone-Wheel technology for his Hammond Organs despite the inferior audio fidelity.

Kock had decided early on to investigate the possibility of producing a commercially viable instrument that was able to produce the complexity of tone possible from vacuum tubes. With this in mind, Kock hit upon the idea of using much cheaper neon ‘gas discharge’ tubes as oscillators stabilised with resonant circuits. This allowed him to design an affordable, stable and versatile organ.

Kock's Sonar device during WW2
Kock’s Sonar device during WW2

In the 1930’s Kock, fluent in German, went to Berlin to study On an exchange fellowship (curiously, the exchange was with Sigismund von Braun, Wernher von Braun’s eldest brother –Kock was to collaborate with Wernher twenty five years later at NASA) at the Heinrich Hertz Institute conducting research for a doctorate under Professor K W Wagner. At the time Berlin, and specifically the Heinrich Hertz Institute, was the global centre of electronic music research. Fellow students and professors included; Jörg Mager, Oskar Vierling, Fritz Sennheiser, Bruno Helberger, Harald Bode, Friedrich Trautwein, Oskar Sala and Wolja Saraga amongst others. Kock’s study was based around two areas: – improving the understanding of glow discharge (neon) oscillators, and developing realistic organ tones using specially designed filter circuits. 

Kock worked closely with Oskar Vierling for his Phd and co-designed the GrosstonOrgel in 1934 but disillusioned by the appropriation of his work by the newly ascendant Nazi party he decided to leave for India, sponsored by the Baldwin Organ Company arriving at the Indian Institute of Music in Bangalore in 1935.

Returning from India in 1936, Dr Kock became Baldwin’s Director of Research while still in his mid-twenties, and with J F Jordan designed many aspects of their first electronic organ system which was patented in 1941.

Winston E Kock (L) as the first Director of Engineering Research at NASA

When the USA entered the second world war Kock moved to Bell Telephone Laboratories where he was involved on radar research and specifically microwave antennas. In the mid-1950’s he took a senior position in the Bendix Corporation which was active in underwater defence technology. He moved again to become NASA’s first Director of Engineering Research, returning to Bendix in 1966 where he remained until 1971 when he became Acting Director of the Hermann Schneider Laboratory of the University of Cincinatti. Kock Died in Cincinatti in 1982.

 Winston Kock was a prolific writer of scientific books but he also wrote fiction novels under the pen name of Wayne Kirk.

Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950's
Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950’s
Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950's
Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950’s
Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950’s


Hugh Davies. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

The ‘Allen Computer Organ’, Ralph Deutsch – Allen Organ Co, USA, 1971

Allen Computer Organ of 1971
Allen 301-3 Digital Computer organ of 1971

The Allen Computer Organ was one of the first commercial digital instruments, developed by Rockwell International (US military technology company) and built by the Allen Organ Co in 1971. The organ used an early form of digital sampling allowing the user to chose pre-set voices or edit and store sounds using an IBM style punch-card system.

The Rockwell/Allen Computer Organ engineering  team with a prototype model.
The Rockwell/Allen Computer Organ engineering team with a prototype model.

The sound itself was generated from MOS (Metal Oxide Silicon) boards. Each MOS board contained 22 LSI (Large Scale Integration) circuit boards (miniaturised photo-etched silicon boards containing thousands of transistors – based on technology developed by Rockwell International for the NASA space missions of the early 70’s) giving a total of 48,000 transistors; unheard of power for the 1970’s.

Publicity photograph demonstrating  the punch-car reader
Publicity photograph demonstrating the punch-car reader
Allen Organ voice data punch cards
Allen Organ voice data punch cards
Allen Computer Organ
Allen Computer Organ