The ‘Samson Box’ or ‘Systems Concepts Digital Synthesizer’ Peter Samson, USA 1977

Peter Samson standing next to the Systems Concepts Digital Synthesizer or 'Samon Box'
Peter Samson standing next to the Systems Concepts Digital Synthesiser or ‘Samson Box’

The Samson box was a one-off special-purpose dedicated audio computer designed for use by student composers at Center for Computer Research in Musical and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University – previously music students had to use the universities expensive and relatively slow computer system in downtime between 3am and 6am. The box, costing around $100,000 and resembling a ‘green fridge’ was housed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1977 and was one of the earliest digital synthesisers. The box was used extensively throughout the late seventies and 1980s in music compositions and experimental research.

Peter Samson, the now legendary programming and hacking pioneer, was commissioned by CCRMA to develop a digital audio synthesis solution based on his previous prototype experiments throughout the 1970s. Samson’s design was based around a dedicated DEC PDP6 computer running three types of modules;  generator modules ( a series of 256 unit generators: waveform oscillators with several modes and controls, complete with amplitude and frequency envelope support), and modifiers ( 128 modifiers each of which could be a second-order filter, random-number generator, or amplitude-modulator among other functions)and 32 delay units – all of which could be run simultaneously. The instrument supported Additive, subtractive, and nonlinear FM synthesis and waveshaping synthesis which all ran through four digital-to-analog converters giving four-channels of audio output.

The Samson box was successful in that it allowed students and composers access to much faster and dedicated technology, yet ultimately it had the effect of inhibiting the development of computer synthesis as it was essentially a closed system and unable to run the more ‘open’ MUSICX type programs that became the forerunners of modern software synthesis.


Peter Samson’s homepage:

Peter Samson, A General-Purpose Digital Synthesizer, Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, 1980, Vol. 28 [3].

One thought on “The ‘Samson Box’ or ‘Systems Concepts Digital Synthesizer’ Peter Samson, USA 1977”

  1. Thank you for writing this ‘Samson Box’ article. I am listening to a Michael McNabb album and was curious about it. Now I will read other pages on your 120 Years site.

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