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


‘UPIC system’ (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu) Patrick Saint-Jean & Iannis Xenakis, France, 1977.

Iannis Xenakis and the UPIC system

Iannis Xenakis and the UPIC system

Developed by the computer engineer Patrick Saint-Jean directed by the composer Iannis Xenakis at CEMAMu (Centre d’Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales) in Issy les Moulineaux, Paris, France, UPIC was one of a family of early computer-based graphic controllers for digital music (Other including Max Mathews’ Graphic 1 ) which themselves were based on earlier analogue graphical sound synthesis and composition instruments such as Yevgeny Murzin’s ANS Synthesiser , Daphne Oram’s ‘Oramics‘, John Hanert’s ‘Hanert Electric Orchestra’  and much earlier Russian optical synthesis techniques.

UPIC Schematic

UPIC Schematic

Xenakis had been working with computer systems as far back as 1961 using an IBM system to generate mathematical algorithmic scores for ‘Metastaseis’; “It was a program using probabilities, and I did some music with it. I was interested in automating what I had done before, mass events like Metastaseis. So I saw the computer as a tool, a machine that could make easier the things I was working with. And I thought perhaps I could discover new things”. In the late 1960s when computers became powerful enough to handle both graphical input and sound synthesis, Xenakis began developing his ideas for what was to become the UPIC system; an intuitive graphical instrument where the user could draw sound-waves and organise them into a musical score. Xenakis’s dream was to create a device that could  generate all aspects of an electroacoustic composition graphically and free the composer from the complexities of software as well as the restrictions of conventional music notation. 

UPIC Diagram

UPIC Diagram from a film by Patrick Saint Jean in 1976

UPIC consisted of an input device; a large high resolution digitising tablet the actions of which were displayed on a CRT screen, and a computer; for the analysis of the input data and generation and output of the digital sound. Early version of the UPIC system were not able to respond in real time to user input so the composer had to wait until the data was processed and output as audible sound – The UPIC system has subsequently been developed to deliver real-time synthesis and composition and expanded to allow for digitally sampled waveforms as source material, rather than purely synthesised tones.

The UPIC System hardware

The UPIC System hardware

To create sounds, the user drew waveforms or timbres on the input tablet which could then be transposed, reversed, inverted or distorted through various algorithmic processes. These sounds could then be stored and arranged as a graphical score. The overall speed of the composition could be stretched creating compositions of up to an hour or a few seconds.  Essentially, UPIC was a digital version of Yevgeny Murzin’s ANS Synthesiser which allowed the composer to draw on a X/Y axis to generate and organise sounds.

Since it’s first development UPIC has been used by a number of composers including Iannis Xenakis (Mycenae Alpha being the first work completely composed on the system), Jean-Claude Risset (on Saxatile (1992), Takehito Shimazu (Illusions in Desolate Fields (1994), Julio Estrada (on ‘eua’on’), Brigitte Robindoré, Nicola Cisternino and Gerard Pape (CCMIX’s director).

More recent developments of the UPIC project include the French Ministry of Culture sponsored ‘IanniX’ ; an open-source graphic sequencer and HighC; a software graphic synthesiser and sequencer based directly on the UPIC interface.

Images of the UPIC System


Iannis Xenakis: Who is He? Joel Chadabe January 2010

‘Images of Sound in Xenakis’s Mycenae-Alpha’ Ronald Squibbs, Yale University, rsquibbs @

IanniX project homepage

‘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

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


‘DIMI’ & Helsinki Electronic Music Studio, Erkki Kurenniemi. Finland, 1961

Erkki Kurenniemi (born July 10, 1941 in Hämeenlinna, Finland)

Erkki Kurenniemi (born July 10, 1941 in Hämeenlinna, Finland) playing the DIMI A

The DIMI (Digital Music Instrument) series synthesisers were the work of the Finnish pioneer in electronic art and all-round visionary, Erkki Kurenniemi. Kurenniemi’s career encompassed computer-based music, electronic engineering, film and robotics.

In 1962 Kurenniemi volunteered to construct the electronic music studio for The Institute of Musicology at the University of Helsinki. The studio had a leading role in the development of Scandinavian electronic music and is still functioning today, it is the oldest electronic music studio still in active use in Scandinavia. The studio was used by Kurenniemi for his own compositions including the improvised ‘On/Off ; “my first and so far best electronic composition. Its name reflects the idea that in a distant future computer music studio the only control should be an ON/OFF switch.”. From 1063 onwards other composers began to visit the studio including Reijo Jyrkiäinen, Henrik Otto Donner, Bengt Johansson, Erkki Salmenhaara. Through the studio the Finnish Avant-garde scene established strong links with Karlheinz Stockhausen and the WDR studio in Darmstad, Germany – the leading influence on electronic music at the time
Kurenniemi worked at the university studio until the end of the sixties, when he left to found his company Digelius Electronics Ltd to build and market his electronic instrument designs. The company was funded by The Finnish National Fund for Research and Development to develop the DIMI-A but, By 1972 the company had collapsed;
“Digelius Electronics, the company founded to manufacture and market digital instruments, crashed, and I moved to industrial robotics. Jukka, a Finnish pioneer of electronic music, wrote a sophisticated piece of software called DISMAL for the Dimi-6000. It was in effect a music assembly language. But then the world was not interested in code twiddling. It wanted to twiddle knobs instead and pound keyboards.”
After the collapse of Digelius Kurenniemi pursued a varied career in robotics (at Rosenlew in the 1970s’), computing (Kurenniemi is credited with creating the first commercially available microcomputer in 1973), artificial intelligence, as ‘automation designer’ in Nokia’s cable division in the early eighties, and as head of exhibition planning at the Heureka Science Center in Vantaa (Finland) from 1987 to 1999. Today Kurenniemi works as an independent researcher, specialising in subjects such as artificial intelligence. Kurenniemi’s instruments still exist and function at the Musicology Institute in Helsinki.



“the Institute of Musicology could not afford a computer, not even a PDP-8. There was a rumour of a “microcomputer,” a “computer-on-a-chip” coming. It sounded unbelievable. The first DIMI instrument was to be as powerful as a computer, but cheaper.”

The instrument consisted of two oscillators, octave dividers, digital attenuators, three modulators, and two analogue octave filter banks and was played using two electronic pens.

The DIMI-T or ‘Electroencephalophone’, 1970

Dimi-E was not a actual ‘digital’ instrument but an electronic unit that registered a weak EEG signal from the users earlobe. This signal was filtered and amplified and used as a control source for a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO).
“The original idea was to build four of these instruments, and let the musicians to go to sleep while hearing each other’s generated sounds. During sleep there appears in the EEG slow high-amplitude delta waves, and short duration “sleep spindles.” Would the brain waves of the sleeping players get synchronized? This test was never made.”

The DIMI-S or “Sexophone” 1971

Was a six player ‘fun’ version of the DIMI-T. Handcuffs and wires connected the players to the central electronic unit which measured the electrical resistance between all six pairs. “When two people touched each other repeatedly, a sequence of musical tones were heard. With increasing skin moisture and contact area, the intensity of the music increased. “

The DIMI-O or “Optical Organ” 1971

The company Digelius Electronics was founded to develop Kurenniemi’s instruments including the Dimi-0, an optical video synthesiser. The instrument synthesised music by reading a digitised image. The 1 bit video input had a resolution of 32 (time) by 48 (pitch: equivalent to four octaves). The original intention was to have an instrument that could read a musical score but it was soon used to experiment with more interactive techniques such as allowing a dancer to create sounds by movements. Kurenniemi demonstrated the instruments capabilities in an early piece of interactive art the 11 minute long film ‘DIMI Ballet’ (1971)


The DIMI-600 (1972)

The last “and most unsuccessful” in the series was Dimi-6000, an analogue voltage controlled synthesizer using the then new Intel 8008 based microcomputer. The computer ran a control programme specially written for the instrument called DISMAL (Digelius System Music Assembly Language) in effect a music assembly language the complexity of which lead to the instruments lack of popularity and the eventual downfall of the Digelius company.