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.
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)
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.
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.”
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 http://ned.synthesizers.fr