'''Synclavier Digital Audio System''' manufactured by New England Digital was
a powerful, fully integrated computerised audio system used for music and post
production. Using it's combination of synthesis, sampling, disk recording, and
it's comprehensive proprietory software and hardware it was not only a powerful
music performance and compositional tool but also a very accomplished sound design
and editing system. It was first developed in the late '70s at Dartmouth College
by Jon Appleton, Sydney Alonso and Cameron Jones.
once as famous for it's cost as much as for it's musical abilities - full blown
late systems would retail for between $200,000 - $300,00 US. The largest system
built and sold by NED selling for $500,000. Instantantly recognisable with it's
unique keyboard. The image on the left is the ORK (ORiginal Keyboard) and on the
right is the later V/PK (Velocity/Pressure Keyboard)
In 1972 Cameron Jones and Sydney Alonso
met after being offered a summer job at Dartmouth College programming the large
time-sharing computer. Together they developed software and hardware that let
the computer make 'beeps and whistles' which could be used to produce electronic
music and aid students in ear-training under the guidance of Jon Appleton.
the next four years they honed their music synthesizer, managing to graduate in
this time as well. In 1975 Cameron and Sydney developed a 16-bit processor card,
and modified the Data General XPL compiler for their new processor. This 'ABLE'
computer became New England Digital's first product. Mainly sold for academic
data-collection applications, freeing up the need to book time on large main-frame
This was followed by a commercial version
of their 'Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer' based around the ABLE miniprocessor,
the Synclavier® (pronounced sin-cla-veer by the inventors). In
1979 after raising a little capital, the pair produced the Synclavier II. Brad
Naples, graduate of Harvard University, joined the team - bringing with him his
business experience and acumen - after seeing the Synclavier® being
demonstrated on local TV and realising it's commercial potential.
It was the Synclavier
II that brought the system to the public attention in the early '80s.
life as an 8-bit Frequency Modulation synthesis / Additive synthesis synthesiser
with a '32 Track Memory Recorder' and the famous wooden keyboard - early models
were controlled entirely by the keyboard buttons and silver control wheel. Shortly
afterwards models would have a VT100 terminal display and keyboard, enabling software
additions over and above those performed on the keyboard. Being a modular system,
each new upgrade could be retro-fitted into even the earliest machines.
only 8-bit gave the FM / Additive synthesis system a warmth and 'human' quality
to the sound. Yamaha would later adopt a 16-bit version based on the Synclavier
system in their DX7 keyboard, which unlike the Synclavier was notoriously difficult
to program and had a harsher, digital sound.
energetic phase of hardware developments and software upgrades were embarked upon
as a result of the success of the Synclavier II, most notably with the addition
of 'sampled' sound recording and playback capablities. At the time (1982-3) RAM
was extremely expensive and because of this competing samplers were forced to
use 8-bit sampling. NED designed the '''Sample-To-Disk''' option (the first commercial
hard disk recording system) to allow for 16-bit sampling at up to 50Khz.
drives were slow at this time, only mono playback of samples was possible but
these could be mixed with FM sounds and multiple samples could be layered and
patched across the keyboard.
graphics terminal was added to enable onscreen graphics with which to perform
analysis and editing of sounds in the frequency domain using a program known as
'''Signal File Manager'''. This now allowed NED to include Additive Resynthesis
(a sampled sound could be recreated frame by frame in FM allowing limitless possibilty
of sound creation) and complex audio analysis software. Early machines were also
purchased by audio research institutes for their scientific capabilities.
additions added were SMPTE time code tracking (incredibly the Synclavier tracked
SMPTE time code in varispeed. if the tape speed slewed or slowed down, so did
the Synclavier sequence, adjusting sound duration to match) and reluctantly, as
they felt it was non professional when first released, a MIDI interface.
The limits of mono
sampling soon became apparent, so a complete new subsystem for polyphonic, 16-bit
RAM based stereo sampling was developed along with a faster ABLE 'Model C' processor
to cope with the extra workload. As the original FM system was mono, NED upgraded
this to stereo to be compatible with the stereo sampling by doubling up on the
mono FM voice cards and enabling dynamic panning in software.
original keyboard, the 'ORK', had no velocity and after-pressure so the famous
'VPK' keyboard was introduced. Finished in black piano laqueur and sporting a
larger display, a 6 octave spread, the feel of a real piano to it, a wealth of
extra buttons and the trademark silver control wheel. This keyboard now reflected
the quality of the system in appearance as well as the ever escalating costs of
Along with a new 'Multi-Channel Distribition'
system (real-time, digitally controlled, analogue signal routing) the '''Synclavier
PSMT''' was born. Boasting a phenomenal spec. for 1984 (and even by todays standards)
the system had now become a true self-contained digital workstation.
See also What makes the Synclavier so special?
for history of later systems and the philosophy behind the design