A Gallery of Misfits (Part 1)
David Ellis begins a two-part excursion into the E&MM archives to discover a myriad of bizarre musical instruments that somehow never quite made the big time. How many of them can you remember?
For every well-publicised musical success, there's a corresponding failure lurking in the background. And as we discovered when we searched through our instrument files, some of those failures have been pretty spectacular...
Given an industry that's as flourishing as the synth business, it's easy to forget the out-takes that weren't quite 'alright on the night'. For while the magazines, newspapers, dealers' shelves and advertisements are choc-a-bloc with glamorous new machines, it's worth bearing in mind that while a small percentage of them will end up revolutionising the industry and selling millions, a similar number will simply sink without trace, ducking out of the Championship without getting as far as the First Round. And as this Gallery of Misfits will show, there have been an awful lot of manufacturers who threw caution to the wind - and ended up with nothing more than a momentary blot on the musical landscape.
The first group of lemon keyboards to consider has to be the one housing instruments that attempted to construct railways before the train had been invented. Keeping abreast of technology and musical fads is all very well, but anticipating the future makes life rather more difficult.
Pride of place in this section must go to the Ondes Martenot, a bizarre, monophonic keyboard that has a well-earned reputation for screaming from vertiginous heights in countless budget horror movies - and soothing the savage beast, 'con molto corny vibrato', in the pages of Messiaen's Turanga-lila Symphony and myriad TV film scores. And despite the fact that he invented his machine in France in 1928, when valves were very much the in-thing technology-wise, Monsieur Martenot pushed and pulled the technology to its limit. In doing so, he succeeded in creating an instrument with a good deal more musicality in its temperamental beat-frequency circuits than a lot of today's ersatz hangers-on. Take the Ondes' aftertouch, for instance, an innovation to keyboard technique 50-odd years before the MIDI had been dreamt up and Sequential's Dave Smith had got his velocity bytes together. Martenot took his cue from string players, noticing that the left hand moved back and forth on the string to add vibrato. On the Ondes Martenot, this principle got translated into a keyboard capable of lateral movement, with an arrangement of variable capacitance overlapping metal plates providing its distinctive ability at aftertouch vibrato. And then there's the performance control - a bag of carbon granules depressed by the left hand that provides a precisely user-defined ADSR envelope to whatever's played on the keyboard. That's innovation for you.
What's happened to the Ondes Martenot in the intervening years? Well, in a few words, not an awful lot. There's still only one owner and player in the UK, a few in the States, and a sizeable number (not surprisingly) in France. But it still gets my vote as one of the more emotional musical communicators around, which doubtless explains why it still accompanies many a sinking of a fang into the old jugular vein. Oh yes, and the valves have since been replaced by transistors...
The other thing the Ondes Martenot had going for it is/was its commercial availability, albeit on a special order, and rather expensive, basis. Regrettably, the same can't be said for the Electronic Sackbut, a monophonic keyboard that can justly lay claim to being the first realistic string synth condemned to heavenly pluckings before its time. It was invented by a Canadian, Hugh Le Caine, in 1946, and like the Ondes Martenot, the Electronic Sackbut reflected an intention to marry the expressiveness of the violin to the mechanics of the keyboard. But unlike the Ondes, whose basic timbral quality was static during the course of a note, the Sackbut allowed the performer to vary timbre with the left hand, courtesy of both frequency and amplitude modulation controls, a waveform joystick, and formant controls.
But describing the Electronic Sackbut as a string synth does it a disservice. A 1952 recording of Le Caine playing his instrument shows it to be much, much more than that, and like the Ondes, a thoroughly musical addition to the catalogue of musical technology. So what went wrong? Well, like most inventors, Le Caine came up against financial and manufacturing bottlenecks. In fact, the early '70s saw a resurrected, pre-production version of the Sackbut, but commercial reality again escaped Le Caine's remarkable invention, and it ended up in the white elephants' graveyard amongst fellow tinkling ivories.
"What happened to the Ondes Martenot in the intervening years? In a few words, not a lot."
Looking back, the '70s were a critical time for many a synth company. Competition from Roland and Korg ousted Moog from pride of place in the monophonic synth market, Sequential Circuits captured the imagination of thousands with the Prophet 5 poly, and a lot of manufacturers were left thinking of ways to grab their slice of the action.
EMS (London) Ltd found themselves in precisely that position. Their polysynthi of 1979 represented a clearly intended move into the commercial market, and an attempt to carry over the (largely) good name of their more academically-inclined Synthi AKS and VCS3 synths into the rock and pop field. But the boarding of the gravy train wasn't to be that straightforward. Notwithstanding some design problems - notably an alarmingly free-floating 'pressure-sensitive' keyboard - and colour-coded panel graphics that looked like they were aimed at the under-10s, EMS pushed ahead with production, marketing, and advertising... and then ran headlong into financial difficulties. As for the feature that was seen to be the machine's greatest promise - an add-on polyphonic sequencer allowing 'up to ten minutes of polyphony' and 'capable of many simple and complex effects such as octave additions, transpositions, and complex voicings', it fell flat on its feet virtually from square one.
So too did the offshoot from EMS' subsequent collapse and sell-off to UK firm Datanomics. All the right intentions were there - a repackaging of the Synthi AKS that put a micro in charge of the patchbay jungle - but the Datasynth (as the new machine was called) came at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and at the wrong price. Lessons were learnt, and the Datasynth died a rebel without a cause.
Quite what happened to Peter Zinovieff, the erratically brilliant erstwhile zoologist who headed EMS in pre-takeover days, isn't exactly clear, but the last news we heard of him was in the context of Sinclair Spectrums being attached to the Cambridge Pianola Company's Pianocorder. When the mighty fall, they do it with a bang.
"The '70s were a critical time for many a synth company... and lots of them were thinking of ways to grab a slice of the action."
Actually, doing it with a bang is also an apt epithet to attach to those that sought to extend keyboard technology into hyperspace, but suffered at the hands of NASA-style 'computer malfunctions' that left them with rather more earthbound flights of fantasy. Most impressive of this bunch of stranded albatrosses is the Coupland Digital Synthesizer, a veritable monster of an instrument that once graced the back page of the Computer Music Journal during the sultry days of July 1978, but never quite seemed to find the energy to escape from its two-dimensional advertising copy. Described as a 'portable (oh yeah? - I'd like to see someone carrying a seven-and-a-half octave keyboard...) polyphonic music instrument' and including a touch-sensitive function panel, liquid crystal bar graphs, numeric displays, and all manner of user-interactive goodies, the Coupland was way ahead of its time. Its 12 time-multiplexed 'waveshape generators' with '12-bit x 1K look-up tables' and 'a constant 40,000 samples/sec' were doomed to a rather less grand finale than some virtuoso or other bashing out Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor on its less-than-ivory ivories. What with an intended manufacturing base in Phoenix, Arizona, 'dust to dust, ashes to ashes' seems a singularly appropriate epitaph.
Still, one keyboard that did rise again (albeit momentarily) from the ashes was the Con Brio ADS 200R. Selling at a basic price of $20,500 and described as being in 'a more portable and economical form', the Con Brio was one of those typically American systems born out of a love of technology, the odd joint or two, and a whole lot of Californian sunshine. With not one, or two, but three processors in charge of sound synthesis, the ADS 200R boasted a 16-track sequencer storing up to 80,000 notes, automated mixdown and editing features, a built-in monitor screen, a 5.25" integral disk drive, a choice of 32 or 64 16-bit stereo or quadraphonic outputs with a 96dB S/N ratio, and a whole lot more besides. Whether it was the Music Programmer option (which provided every bit of performer/score interaction you might possibly want), or the optional Scorewriter (which'd trot out your masterwork as hardcopy to order) that did it, the ADS 200R oozed class from first LCD to last key.
But that didn't stop it from disappearing almost without a trace. Con Brio's mistake was that they kept themselves to themselves and never really got their production act together. Shame really, bearing in mind what the ADS 200R offered. And what about the Con Brio design team? Would you believe, they've ended up writing Commodore 64 MIDI software for Sequential? No, I couldn't stomach it at first, but it just goes to show that even the best brains can be bought these days...
More obscure nostalgia next month, when David Ellis concludes his survey of the synths that never made it to the starting-line...
Feature by David Ellis
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