Bell Labs Hal Alles Synthesiser, Hall Alles, USA, 1976.

Hal Alles Synthesiser
Hal Alles Synthesiser. (Image; Computer Music Journal Vol1 Number 4.)

The ‘Bell Labs Digital Synthesiser’ or ‘Hal Alles Synthesiser’ was one of the first ‘real-time’ digital instrument – as opposed to a non-real time digital/analogue hybrid performance such as the GROOVE system. The instrument was the result of Alles’ experiments with digital filters and tone generators for telephonic applications at Bell Labs (Murray Hills, New Jersey, USA) during the mid 1970’s.

Alles was tasked with ‘selling in’ the fruits of his digital telephony research to a Bell Labs internal audience and he discovered that – despite his complete lack of musical ability – his job became much easier if he included real-time synthesised music in his presentations:

“As a research organization (Bell labs), we had no product responsibility. As a technology research organization, our research product had a very short shelf life. To have impact, we had to create “demonstrations”. We were selling digital design within a company with a 100 year history of analog design. I got pretty good at 30 minute demonstrations of the real time capabilities of the digital hardware I was designing and building. I was typically doing several demonstrations a week to Bell Labs people responsible for product development. I had developed one of the first programmable digital filters that could be dynamically reconfigured to do all of the end telephone office filtering and tone generation. It could also be configured to play digitally synthesized music in real time. I developed a demo of the telephone applications (technically impressive but boring to most people), and ended the demo with synthesized music. The music application was almost universally appreciated, and eventually a lot of people came to just hear the music.”

Max Mathews – creator at Bell Labs of the MUSIC X series of computer synthesis languages – witnessed one of these demonstrations and excitedly encouraged Alles to develop the a musical instrument using purely digital technology.

“The goal was to have recording studio sound quality and mixing/processing capabilities, orchestra versatility, and a multitude of proportional human controls such as position sensitive keyboard, slides, knobs, joysticks, etc. It also needed a general purpose computer to configure, control and record everything. The goal included making it self-contained and “portable”. I proposed this project to my boss while walking back from lunch. He approved it before we got to our offices. “

With no background in music technology, Alles, inspired and intrigued by Robert Moog’s recent instruments and Carlos’s ‘Switched on Bach’  began to assemble the new digital synthesiser in the mid-1970’s; a ‘fragile laboratory one-off of questionable reliability’.

However, Once completed, the Alles Synthesizer project was sidelined in favour of more business oriented research and was little used apart from internal presentations. This changed in 1977 when Bell Labs and AT&T used the instrument as the centerpiece for the Motion Picture Academy’s 50th anniversary celebration of talking pictures.

Doug Bayer (a Bell Labs software researcher) was brought in to improve the human interface and operating system and the rather delicate instrument was flown to Hollywood where – Roger Powell (Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, David Bowie band and later Apple Computers Audio lab)– was hired to perform in front of a live audience. The video below was recorded to be shown if the instrument broke down before the show:

Despite a renewed interest from the music industry, Alles moved to other fields of research at Bell labs, Max Mathews worked with the machine for a while and in 1981 it was donated to Oberlin College Conservatory TIMARA department  where it has recently been rebuilt using modern components.

Description of the Hal Alles Synthesiser from the Computer Music Journal Volume 1 Number 3 (Fall 1976)

A Portable Digital Sound Synthesis System
H. G. Alles Bell Laboratories ‘
Murray Hills New Jersey 07974

The Hal Alles Synthesiser consisted of three units;

1. A DEC LS1-11 micro-computer with two floppy discs, a 64k word ROM mapable memory for table look-up  and i/o buffering and an ASCII AT&T colour graphics monitor with full ASCII keyboard.Since there are no hard-wired connections between the input devices and the synthesizer hardware, and since synthesizer interconnections are accomplished through program loaded control registers, the whole system may be used in a variety of ways. For example:A. All the control parameters may be specified in real time and at performance time.B. Several files may be prepared in real time but before the performance. Then at performance time, the files may be played with some subset of the control parameters supplied during the performance.C . Files may be prepared and/or edited in nonreal time, incrementally improving the original performance.2. A Sound generator banks; consisting of 64 oscillators. The first set of 32 oscillators were used for sound generation – giving a potential 32 note polyphony. The second set of 32 oscillators were used to create the harmonics of the sound generation oscillators. The waveforms of the sound were created by looking up amplitude from the 64k word ROM table. In addition to the sound generators were a bank of 32 programmable filters, 32 amplitude multipliers, and 256 envelope generators. All of these signals could be mixed to one of four 16-bit output channels, and from there to a digital-to-analog converter for output.3. various input devices; including two 61 note keyboard manual – giving two part multitimbrality, four 3-axis analog joysticks and a bank of 72 slider pots. These controllers could be used –within the computers limited bandwidth of around 1,000 parameter changes per second –to make real-time changes to the parameter of the sound generators and allowing the instrument to be able to deliver ‘100 reasonably complex notes per second’(Alles. Computer Music Journal Vol.1 Number 4.)


Alles’s instrument had significant but quiet influence on the development of electronic instruments, most notably the Italian company Crumar’s high-end GDS ‘General Development System’ which was essentially a commercially repackaged version of the Alles Synthesiser released in 1980 . The GDS was a 16-bit digital synthesizer with 32 oscillators offering a mix of both additive and FM/Phase Distortion synthesis and consisted of the sound generator and keyboard unit controlled by a  Z-80-microcomputer. With a hefty price tag of around $30,000, the GDS was intended as a general music production system for recording studios giving consistent and real time performance capabilities far beyond the rather erratic analog synthesisers of the day. Wendy Carlos was an early (and current) champion of the GDS.

Wendy Carlos. A soundtrack  example of the Crumar GDS on the theme from ‘Tron’ 1982.

As the components used in the prototype eventually became cheaper, more cost effective versions were produced such as the DKI (Crumar again) Synergy, released in 1981 for around $5,300, this instrument disposed of the external computer in favour of a much simplified push-button interface (or an optional Kaypro 2 computer) and housed the entire instrument in a more conventional keyboard housing. In 1981  Ceasar Castro and Alan Heaberland produced their Casheab S-100 system clearly influenced by the Alles Synthesiser design. The Japanese computer company Atari initiated the Sierra Project; a 64 oscillator single chip version of the Alles synthesiser intended for games effects and music – known as the AMY1 chip it never saw the light of day due to legal difficulties.

A Crumar GDS restored by Dan Wilson, Hideaway Studio
A Crumar GDS restored by Dan Wilson, Hideaway Studio

Ultimately all of these early digital additive/FM instruments and projects were rendered obsolete by the arrival of Yamaha’s affordable digital DX7 FM Synthesiser in 1983. Production of the Synergy finished in 1985 – though a rack mounted MIDI version (by Mercer Stockell, Jim Wright and Jerry Ptascynski)  called the  Mulogix Slave 32 was produced until 1989.

image: Popular Science Magazine, USA,  January 1978
image: Popular Science Magazine, USA,  January 1978

Sources & Bibliography

Interview with Hal Alles. October 2017 by Simon Crab.

Chadabe, Joel .”Electric Sound”, Prentice Hall, 1997, pg. 178

Alles, Hal,, “A Portable Digital Sound Synthesis System”, Computer Music Journal, Volume 1 Number 3 (Fall 1976), pg. 5-9

Alles, Hal, (Alles 1979), “An Inexpensive Digital Sound Synthesizer”, Computer Music Journal, Volume 3 Number 3 (Fall 1979), pg. 28-37

Alles, Hal, “Music Synthesis Using Real Time Digital Techniques”, Proceedings of the IEEE, Volume 68 Number 4 (April 1980), pg. 436–449

Manning, Peter “Electronic and Computer Music”, Oxford University Press US, 2004

Click to access Alles_synth_1977.pdf

The ‘Archifooon’ or ‘Archiphone’. Anton De Beer & Herman van der Horst. The Netherlands, 1970.

The Archiphone 1970
The Archiphone at the Huygens-Fokker Foundation. Amsterdam NL –

The Archiphone was essentially a portable electronic version of the giant ‘Fokker Organ’ – a thirty one tone microtonal pipe organ designed by the Dutch Physicist Adriaan Fokker in 1950.

The new electronic instrument was designed and built by Herman van der Horst of the firm Neonvox (based in Wilp, Gelderland, Netherlands) at the request of the organist, microtonal composer and Fokker-Organ virtuoso, Anton De Beer. Only four finished versions of the instrument are known to have been built they are located at: (1&2)  Huygens-Fokker Foundation, Amsterdam NL (3) William Bromhead Coates, 140 Station Street Blackheath NSW 2785 Australia, (4) Webster College St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

Microtonal composer Bill Coates playing the Archiphone
Microtonal composer Bill Coates playing the Archiphone

The unique aspect of the Archiphone was it’s microtonal keyboard design. The instrument was played on an unusual five octave, 333 note black (sharps), white (naturals), blue (semi-sharps), dark grey (flats) and grey(semi-flats) keyboard based on Huygens’s microtonal scale of 5th-tones (Christiaan Huygens, who, in 1661 rejected well-tempered tuning and first posited the 31-tone system). The sound was generated by transistor oscillators mount on removable printed circuit boards and controlled in the usual organ stop method; combinable  Pipe Organ, Piano, Woodwind, Flute, Trumpet, Strings and a series of mixable filters, vibrato and Bass/Treble settings controlled by manual sliders.

The Archiphone was housed in a 116 × 40 × 15 cm wooden lacquered box, Which, with an external 50 watt amplifier and speaker boxes allowed a certain amount of portability.

The Archiphone's 333 note Keyboard
The Archiphone’s 333 note Keyboard
Diagram showing part of the keyboard layout of the 31 tone Archiphone
Diagram showing part of the keyboard layout of the 31 tone Archiphone
Keyboard of the original Fokker Organ c 1952
Keyboard of the original Fokker Organ c 1952

A number of microtonal compositions have been written for the archiphone by artists such as Adriaan Fokker, Henk Badings, Anton de Beer, and Joel Mandelbaum. An instruction manual was written by Anton de Beer: ‘Guide for the use of the Archiphone’ (1976).

Adriaan Fokker
Adriaan Fokker

Adriaan Daniel Fokker. Born; Buitenzorg (now Bogor), Java, Indonesia 1887 Died; Haarlem NL 1972

Adriaan Fokker, cousin of the famous aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker, was educated in the Netherlands initially as a mining engineer at the Delft University of Technology, and later as a physicist at Leiden University. In Leiden he earned his doctorate in 1913. Fokker’s name is best known for the Fokker-Planck equation– a partial differential equation of second order, which describes the time evolution of the probability distribution of a physical variable subjected to a stochastic force, in addition to friction and possibly other driving forces (a prototypical example being Brownian motion). The Fokker-Planck equation was contained in Fokker’s thesis, and was independently derived by Max Planck.

During 1913-14 Fokker worked in Zürich as Albert Einstein’s assistant, and published an article in general relativity with Einstein as co-author. In 1923 Fokker was appointed professor of physics at Delft University of Technology.


In 1940 The Netherlands was invaded by the German Army. To avoid having his skills as a physicist being used by the occupying Germans, Fokker turned to music theory – and in particular, tuning practice, microtonality and issues related to just intonation and the compromises embodied in equal temperament. His chief interests were the theories of Euler and Huygens. During the war, he constructed and had built a 12-key pipe organ with mean-tone tuning according to the principles of Euler’s ‘Generibus musicis’. Later, he had a 31-key organ built that realised an approximate pure tuned scale, based on Huygens’s microtonal scale of 5th-tones. Concerts involving the Fokker organ were given regularly since 1951. At the end of his life,  an electronic version, the ‘Archiphone’ was produced in 1970.

Anton De Beer. Born: 27 October 1924, Haarlem NL. Died: Haarlem, NL. 1 February 2000

De Beer playing the original Fokker Organ, Haarlem ,NL.
Anton De Beer playing the original Fokker Pipe Organ, Haarlem, NL.

Anton de Beer studied piano with Johannes Rontgen and Paul Frenckel, harpsichord with Richard Boer, and composition with Ernest W. Mulder. In 1951 he worked directly with Fokker and premiered 31-tone organ works by Badings, Kox, Joel Mandelbaum, Alan Ridout, and Wyschnegradsky. In 1970 at De Beers with Herman van der Horst of the firm “Neonvox” manufactured the Archiphone, an electronic portable version of Fokker’s larger pipe organ


Click to access FokkerOrganRepertory.pdf

Qasar I,II & M8.Tony Furse. Australia, 1972


Tony Furse QASAR
Tony Furse and the QASAR M8

Since the 1960s, Australian electronics engineer Tony Furse had been trying to develop an electronic musical instrument that was capable of digitally synthesising complex waveforms such as percussion and orchestral instruments. Furse’s early transistor prototypes using small flip-flop circuits only became practically viable with the advent of  of integrated circuits in the late 1960s – this basic ‘proto digital waveform generator’ (1966 to 1969) enabled him to control waveform harmonics but failed to deliver the tonal complexities of ‘real’ instruments.

Qasar I Digital/Analogue Hybrid Synthesiser
Qasar I Digital/Analogue Hybrid Synthesiser

In 1972 Furse set up his own company ‘Creative Strategies’ in Sydney, Australia to continue the development of his instrument. The first product of Creative Strategies was named the Qasar I a monophonic digital/analog hybrid synthesiser. Despite only two prototypes being built, the instrument attracted the attention of electronic music composer Don Banks (then Head of Composition and Electronic Music Studies at the Canberra School of Music) who had worked at the EMS studio in London. Don persuaded Canberra School of Music and the Federal government to fund the development of the Qasar and also contributed his knowledge and experience of using EMS electronic instruments – such as the VCS3 – to the project. The result of this collaboration was the Qasar II, a duo-phonic digital instrument based on dual 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors in an unusual parallel configuration. The Qasar II was capable of digitally synthesising waveforms but couldn’t output harmonic partials so the sounds that it produced were fairly static. The expensive microprocessor based Qasar II failed to go into production being unable to compete with the much cheaper transistor based Moog Modular, released around the same time.

Qasar II
Qasar II

Furse and Creative Strategies next project was the Qasar M8 or “Multimode 8”.  Completed in 1975, the M8 was a $15,000, 8Bit, 4k memory, 8 voice polyphonic Digital Synthesiser based around the same dual 6800 1mhz Motorola processor and wire-wrapped board combination as the Qasar II. Uniquely the M8 allowed the synthesis of sounds using additive Fast Fourier Synthesis (FFT) drawn and edited with a light pen on a black and white VDU. The instrument was housed in a large box and played manually via a four octave keyboard or digitally using Furse’s innovative MUSEQ 8 ‘sequence playing system’ . Sound programmes could be saved to an 8″ floppy drive.

Later Models included the 8-voice MC6800 and Qasar Polyphone (1975).

In 1976 fellow Australian electronic instrument designers, Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel, approached Furse with an offer to license the M8 to their Fairlight company. This became Fairlight’s first production instrument the Qasar M8 CMI and the direct ancestor of the famous Fairlight CMI. The M8 CMI was an even more expensive $20,000 redesigned version of the dual CPU 6800 processor but with printed circuit boards, a new QDOS OS ( based on Motorola DOS), 8 voice polyphony all controlled by a more dynamic six octave keyboard and the same light pen control as the earlier M8.

The large and expensive Qasar M8 CMI was eventually discontinued in 1979, many of the features of the M8 being incorporated into the Fairlight CMI digital synthesiser/sampler.

Qasar M8 CMI
Qasar M8 CMI

m8 (1) 360188

The QasarM8
The QasarM8


Qasar M8 piece (multitracked) by Michael Carlos August 1978.mp3

Another Qasar M8 piece by Michael Carlos August 1978

Tony Furse and the Qasar II
Tony Furse and the Qasar II

Tony Furse. Biographical notes

Born in Sydney in 1938 Tony Furse was passionate about electronics from an early age. His interest in all things technologicalled to him using the electronics and communications equipment available from army disposal stores in the post World War IIperiod to create his own inventions which ranged from crystal sets to high voltage generators.In the late 1950s, Furse’s interest in creating electronic music had resulted in his earliest invention, an electronic clarinet.This clarinet, which could be played with one hand, was made by converting a secondhand clarinet into a working electronicinstrument powered by a car battery. Played using a keyboard-like attachment, electric solenoids were used to cover and uncover the holes.

Curious about the nature of harmonics, Furse began looking at the different sounds produced by electronic organs (which used signals produced by radio valves). He wondered why, among the range of sounds available, there was no option to produce percussive or string sounds. His subsequent research included reading an English translation of the work by German physician and physicist Hermann Helmholtz, ‘On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music’ ,which talked of the two extremes of sound, from noise at one end to musical tones at the other. Also inspiring for Furse at the time were the American accoustical engineering pioneer Harry F. Olson’s ‘Elements of Acoustical Engineering’ (1957) andAmerican musicologist, Charles A. Culver’s book, ‘Musical Acoustics’ (1956).

While Furse spent the 1960s and the early ’70s working as an electronics engineer in the computer industry, in his spare time he was still applying his technical skills to the creation of electronic music. A major breakthrough came for Furse when in 1964 he read an article written by James, Potok and Oxley titled ‘Repetitive Function Synthesizer and Spectrum Display’. The article, which mentioned ‘digital sampling’ and a device that made this possible, enabled Furse to develop the first ‘all digital waveform synthesiser’.His attempts in the early 1960s to build the equivalent of today’s microcomputers had involved using too many transistors to make it a viable concern – it was only in the mid 1960s, when the appearance of integrated circuits, (capable of holding increasingly large numbers of transistors within a chip) made his research more affordable, that Furse’s research took off. But although the ‘proto digital waveform generator’ that Furse had invented and used from 1966 to 1969 allowed him control over harmonics, the sound produced still fell short of his idea of a realistic reproduction of actual instruments.

Leaving his job in early 1972 to concentrate on further developing his inventions, Furse set up his own company, Creative Strategies Pty Ltd, which he operated from his home in Sydney’s Neutral Bay. His first invention was an ‘analogue/digital hybrid synthesiser’ which he named Qasar 1. As well as breaking new ground in its design, another attractive feature of the synthesiser was its affordability. To market this invention, Furse enlisted the help of David Bross, a computer salesman and talented keyboard player, who, after quickly mastering the Qasar 1 synthesiser, joined Creative Strategies as a company director. Another person instrumental in providing support for Furse at this time was Don Banks, the noted composer of jazz, classical music and electronic music who, following a number of years studying and working in England, had returned to Australia in1972. The following year he was appointed head of composition studies at the Canberra School of Music, setting up the School’s electronic music studio. He took an interest in Tony Furse’s next invention, a ‘digital/analogue hybrid sound synthesiser’ named the Qasar II, operated by a keyboard control panel, which had been developed with the assistance of a grant from the Australian Council for the Arts -Banks purchased the Qasar II for the School of Music.

Furse’s next project was an all-digital synthesiser, which he named the Qasar M8 (Multimode 8) synthesiser. In addition to a keyboard, Furse had developed a graphics display which, with the use of a light pen, allowed the operator to create an instrument or voice using waveforms. After having made a deal with the large American electronics company, Motorola to use their programme development system, Furse was able to develop the MUSEQ 8 sequence playing system. The idea was that the MUSEQ 8 system, when used in conjunction with his M8, could be used by composers of all kinds of music, not just electronic, for the composition and the performance of music. Another major innovation with the M8 synthesiser was Furse’s use of two 8-bit Motorola 6800 microprocessors in an unusual parallel configuration which greatly speeded up data input and output.

In late 1974, following the success of Furse’s lecture and demonstration of the Qasar M8 in Canberra before an audience from the Canberra School of Music, the Australian National University and the College of Advanced Education, Don Banks, who realised the potential of Furse’s invention for the School of Music, requested a similar model be made for the School’s electronic music studio. Furse continued to work on the prototype making use of the latest technology by incorporating floppy disk storage using the newly released 8 inch floppy disks The disks worked differently from tape recorded music in that apiece of music could be reorchestrated without altering the data on the disk.In mid 1976, Furse ended up selling the prototype to the Canberra School of Music.

He continued to write software for the M8,making several trips to Canberra for this purpose, also incorporating software written by software expert Bruce Williams. It had also been around this time that Furse came into contact with synthesiser enthusiast Kim Ryrie (who in 1971 had created a magazine called Electronics Today International, ETI), and his business partner, electronics designer Peter Vogel.They had also been trying to design a synthesiser which could reproduce natural and acoustic sounds as well as musical instruments. To this end Ryrie and Vogel had formed a company in December 1975 which was named Fairlight Instruments after the Fairlight ferry that crossed the harbour in front of the basement workshop of Ryrie’s grandmother where they had been carrying out their early experimental work. Impressed with Furse’s digital synthesiser (to date they had only been able to develop an analogue synthesiser which didn’t produce the results they were after) they approached him with a deal for manufacturing the synthesisers and marketing the computer as a separate entity.

From 1976 Furse worked with Fairlight on the project, which included producing circuit boards from the circuit board schematics and reconfiguring the synthesiser’s keyboard resulting in the production of a totally redesigned version of the synthesiser which was known initially as the M8 CMI (Multimode 8 Computer Musical Instrument). In early 1979 Tony Furse, with less involvement in the project, signed a licence agreement with Fairlight, allowing them the use of his intellectual property for both the synthesiser and the computer.

The Fairlight CMI, which included a 73 note keyboard, two 8 inch floppy disk players, a monitor and light pen used four Motorola microprocessors and was able to perform 8 different sounds at once. Released onto the world market in 1979 the ‘Fairlight’ synthesiser, which was capable of playing any sound at all, was an instant hit with composers and recording artists, among them Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Jean Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk and Herbert von Karajan of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Thus Furse’s technology for the Qasar M8 formed the basis of what was to become known as the Fairlight CMI (ComputerMusical Instrument). In 1987 he was awarded the CSIRO’s Medal for Research Achievement for the invention of CMI technology.

Quoted from The Tony Furse Archive at the Powerhouse Museum Collection


Click to access 382297.pdf


The Motorola Scalatron. Herman Pedtke & George Secor. USA, 1974

The Scalatron was an unusual microtonal electronic instrument developed in the early 1970s by Motorola as a new venture into the instrument market. Promoted as the ‘first instant-performance instrument that plays in the cracks’ the Scalatron was aimed squarely at a more experimental, microtonal market – if such a market existed. The instrument itself was a rather basic synthesiser consisting of 240 square wave oscillators (one for each key) built into a wooden home-organ casing.

Scalatron with the
The Scalatron with a Secor Generalised Microtonal Keyboard

The instrument was controlled in early models by a dual manual and later using a multi-coloured ‘Bosanquet generalized keyboard’ designed by the Chicago microtonal composer George Secor.  The Secor keyboard consisted of 240 tuneable oval multicolored keys and allowed the user to create complex tunings

 “Earlier that year (1974) I had attended a demonstration of the Scalatron (digitally retunable electronic organ) prototype, and recognizing that conventional keyboards were not the best way to perform music with more than 12 tones in the octave, I unwittingly proceeded to re-invent the Bosanquet generalized keyboard and subsequently approached the Motorola Scalatron company with the proposal of employing it on their instrument.”… “Around that time several members of the xenharmonic movement had gotten in touch with Scalatron president Richard Harasek and sent him copies of the first two issues of Xenharmonikôn, which he passed on to me and which I promptly read. The second issue included Erv Wilson’s diagrams of a modification of Bosanquet’s keyboard, with hexagonal keys, at which point it became clear that my keyboard proposal was not new… For the remainder of the year I was heavily involved in the generalized (Bosanquet) keyboard Scalatron project and, after that, in using it to explore new tunings. In effect, the keyboard that I had discovered was destined to be overshadowed by the one that I had rediscovered.”

George Secor

Secor Keyboard
Secor Keyboard Diagram

Costing around  $6000-$10,000, the Scalatron was an expensive and unusual instrument. Less than 20 Scalatrons were ever made (including only 2 Secor versions). The Scalatron came with a black and white monitor to adjust each key’s pitch (using Motorola’s TV tuning technology) – a split screen showed horizontal bars representing  true pitch on the left side and the instruments variable pitch on the right side, and, for an additional $1000  a cassette interface was added with a number of tuning ‘programmes’. George Secor toured with the instrument playing works by Harry Partch (who also used the instrument towards the end of his life) and Ben Johnston.  The Scalatron is still much in favour – though very hard to find – by microtonal composers and was used on several albums by Jon Hassell, most notably ‘Vernal Equinox’.

“Finally they invented what I needed–forty years too late.”

Harry Partch via Kenneth Gaburo

A dual manual Scalatron at La Trobe University  Melbourne
A dual manual Scalatron at La Trobe University Melbourne. Each key can be tuned to one of 1024 different pitches

scalatron_02 scalatron_01


DMX-1000 Signal Processing Computer. Dean Wallraff, USA 1978


DMX-1000 Signal Processing Computer

 The DMX-1000 was one of the earliest Digital Synthesisers. Essentially it was a dedicated 16 bit audio processing computer designed as an OEM product to be integrated into a existing computer setup – usually a DEC PDP11 microcomputer – where the user would write their own interface and score programmes to run the DMX 1000 from the master computer. The instrument sold for $XX in 1979 putting it beyond the reach of most musicians, however, the DMX was not intended as a mass market product but aimed at electronic and computer music studios (one of the first models being purchased by the University of Milan Cybernetics institute).   The instrument was designed and built by Dean Wallraff previously a programmer at the M.I.T. Experimental Music Studio:

“…I worked there M.I.T.) as a Technical Instructor, mostly doing programming on one of the first visual score editors for music. I composed music using their system, always in non-standard tuning systems. It was slow work, since it took the computer half an hour of calculation to generate a minute’s worth of sound, which was then played back from disk. Some of my music was released on records.

After a year and a half, I decided it was time to leave. The work was getting repetitious, and the pay was low. The big problem was that I would miss the studio’s system, which was the only way I could make music in my non-standard tuning systems. I decided to build my own digital synthesizer, which would let me compose at home, and would generate sound in real time. We moved to New York at this time, into an apartment in an Italian section of Brooklyn…I worked my day job, developing funds-transfer systems for Chase and Citibank, and my night job, designing and building my synthesizer”

dmx-1000 running from a LS1 computer 1982
dmx-1000 running from a LS1 computer 1982

The DMX 1000 was capable of running a varied combination of oscillators, filters and noise generators which could be polyphonically combined and patched (a maximum of 20 simple oscillators with amplitude and frequency control reduced to 14 oscillators with envelope control, or alternatively 6 voices of frequency modulation,  15 first order filter sections, or 8 second order filter sections, or 30  white noise generators) . this made the machine as powerful as the most complex analogue synthesiser on the market at the time but with the additional benefit of being entirely programmable and run from a user generated score in real-time.

To avoid the complexity of the user having to integrate into an existing computer system and write their own software, a complete system,The DMX-1010 was later designed by Wallraff’s Digital Music Systems company which consisted of  a LSI-11 based computer system running score and synthesis software with a floppy disk, CRT terminal, a 61-note keyboard.

DMX-100 and Pod-X

Pod-X was a collection of composition tools designed specifically for the DMX-1000 by the Candadian composer, Barry Truax in 1982 based on his ongoing Pod (POisson Distribution) probability composition model.

“PODX started in 1982 with the acquisition of the DMX-1000 (still working, amazingly enough) – which allowed the flip remark of the “X-rated POD system” to be occasionally uttered. Maybe I could just apply to the Guinness Book of Records for the longest continuously running (and used) computer music system, though it has seen several metamorphoses over that period. And possibly is one of the most productive…”

Despite the DMX-1000’s flexibility it was rapidly killed off by the advent of powerful and much more affordable digital synthesisers such as the Yamaha DX range of FM instruments.

“We sold dozens of the machines during the next few years, to university computer music studios and research organizations. It was the most flexible real-time synthesizer you could buy at the time, and it allowed composers to do things they couldn’t do with any other affordable system. But Yamaha introduced the DX-7 in the mid-80’s, which provided more raw synthesis power (though less flexibility in programming) in a unit that cost a tenth the price of ours. I spent a year or so trying unsuccessfully to raise money to develop a new generation of synthesizers, and then got out of the business.”







The DMX-1000 Signal Processing Computer. Dean Wallraff. Computer Music Journal Vol. 3, No. 4 (Dec., 1979), pp. 44-49

Electronic and Computer Music. By Peter Manning

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].

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 Stylophone , Brian Jarvis, UK, 1967

The Dübreq Stylophone

The Stylophone was a small novelty electronic instrument created in the UK by Brian Jarvis’s Dübreq Company (originally a film production and recording studio specialising in dubbing and recording based in Leeds – the umlaut was added to give the impression of Germanic quality) between 1967 and 1975. The Stylophone was designed to be as cheap as possible to produce and manufacture based around a design with a single oscillator controlled by a metal plate 20 note keyboard printed directly on to the PCB board played by a hand-held stylus.

Rolf Harris and the Stylophone
Rolf Harris and the Stylophone

The instrument had a ‘unique’ sound; a simple buzzing square wave with no envelope control which could be modulated with vibrato via sine wave LFO. Despite it’s simplicity, and due to a marketing campaign featuring Rolf Harris enthusiastically endorsing the device, the Stylophone caught on; during the six years of it’s manufacture, over three million Stylophones were sold (The original Stylophone was sold mail-order for £8 18″6d each, the equivalent of around £95.00 in today’s money). Although intended as a toy, the Stylophone was picked up by a number of musicians of the period – most famously David Bowie on ‘Space Oddity’ (who apparently hated the instrument, loaned to him by Mark Bolan) and Kraftwerk. The instrument has more recently acquired a kitsch retro-nostlagic value and is used by groups such as Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, Belle and Sebastian, Orbital, Hexstatic and many others.

David Bowie and the Stylophone
David Bowie and the Stylophone
stylophone 350s
stylophone 350s

Stylophone 350S

The 350Swas the big brother of the original Stylophone launched in 1971. The 350s had a larger 44 note metal plate keyboard which could be switched up and down one octave and two styluses. The instrument also had eight voices – Woodwind, Brass and Strings –  as opposed to the original version’s one voice. The 350s’ sound  could be altered with a basic decay control switch and a unique ‘photo control’ – a phot0-optic cell that the user covers with the left hand to modulate the amount of vibrato, low pass filter cutoff and volume creating a wah-wah like effect. Fewer than 3000 units of the 350s were produced and sold.

In 2003 Dübreq was re-launched by Ben Jarvis, son of the original designer leveraging on the retro-kitsch value of the original instrument. Several updated versions of the Stylophone have been released.

Images of the Stylophone



Con Brio Advanced Digital Synthesizer 100 & 200. Tim Ryan, Alan Danziger, Don Lieberman. USA, 1979

Con Brio ADS 200 1980

The  Con Brio ADS 100 & 200 has become something of a legendary instrument due to it’s phenomenal price – USD$30,000 or about GBP£17,000 in 1980 – and it’s futuristic sci-fi looks. The instrument was designed by three California Institute of Technology students  – Tim Ryan, Alan Danziger, and Don Lieberman in 1979, and was one of the earliest digital synthesisers. The first version  – originally designed to test audio perception in their university research – evolved into the ADS100 and was capable of several types of synthesis modes via it’s 64 oscillators; additive synthesis, phase modulation (Used later in the Casio CZ series.), and frequency modulation (FM synthesis – which brought Con Brio into conflict with Yamaha, owner of Chowning’s FM patent). Despite it’s high price and negligible sales, the ADS 100 did claim some fame when it was later used to generate sound effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Con Brio ADS 100
Con Brio ADS 100
Con Brio ADS 100

The ADS100 was based on 3 MOS 6502 processors (also used in Apple I, II and Commodore 64 computers at the time) and could display sequence patterns and waveform envelopes on a video display. The instrument consisted of a large filing-cabinet sized wooden box for all of the computer peripherals – hard drives, cables and so-on, two detachable 61 note keyboard plus a control panel consisting of numerous coloured lights and a video monitor. The ADS100 was completely hand wired and took over seven months to build only one is known to have been sold – for $30,000 to film composer David Campell, (Beck’s father, who also arranged music for Tori Amos, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Kiss, Aerosmith) and later acquired by musician and vintage synthesiser collector Brian Kehew.

Con Brio ADS 200

In 1980 the ADS was updated to the ADS 200. The upgrade added another two 6502 processors to make a total of five, new software included a new sequencer that could display musical notation and play four tracks at a time sync-able via CV/Gate interface. The five processors allowed the instrument to run 16 oscillators on each key which multiplied by it’s its sixteen voices capability gave a total of 256 simultaneous oscillators. The smaller ADS200 had a microtonally tunable, split-able keyboard

“‘It was totally configurable in software…we had 16 stage envelope generators for both frequency and amplitude, so it was kind of like the grandfather of the Yamaha DX7. On ours, you could build your own algorithms, using any of all of the 64 oscillators in any position in the algorithm. If you wanted additive, you could add 16 of them together. The phase modulation was similar to what Casio did with their CZ series. You could designate any tuning you wanted and save it. You could split the keyboard, stack sounds, model different parts of the keyboard for different parts of the sound, and save that as an entity – the kind of things that are common now.”

Brian Kehew

1982 saw the release of the  200-R which featured a a 16-track polyphonic sequencer with 80,000 note storage capability editable from the video display. This version was priced at $25,000. Only one was ever built. Like many other High-end, expensive digital synthesisers, the days of the ConBrio ADS were numbered with the arrival of cheaper and available technology – specifically the Yamaha DX7 FM synthesiser (1983) – as well as affordable personal computers running sequencer applications such as Steinberg’s Cubase. After Con Brio’s demise, Danziger and Lieberman have become successful manufacturing semiconductors. Tim Ryan cofounded The Sonus corporation, which later became M-Audio, a leading manufacturer of computer audio interfaces, MIDI controller keyboards, and studio monitor speakers.

Images of the Con Brio ADS 100/200/200R


Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail, copyright Miller Freeman, Inc

‘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