A Gallery of Misfits (Part 2)
Following last month's list of synthesis casualties, David Ellis delves deeper into the archives and finds yet more mysterious products of human ingenuity. Some of them are quite spectacular.
We conclude our search through the E&MM archives for hi-tech musical instruments which, for one reason or another, never quite lived up to the hype that surrounded their release.
If there's one thing that keeps keyboard designers to the grindstone, it's obstinacy. All over the world, and throughout the brief history of the synthesiser, people in research and development labs have been working under the assumption that no matter what the rivals do, they'll be able to go one better. One consequence of this has been the resurgence of the 'instrument builder' tradition, rather in the manner of Stradivarius et al, but applied to hi-tech keyboards.
But the main thing to remember about the new musical instrument technology is that 'bigger and better' isn't usually what commerce dictates — hence the comparative lack of large, all-singing, all-dancing synths to come out of the major manufacturers, outside the pre-production prototype category. Usually, the maxim of 'more and cheaper' acts as an alternative philosophy, and on the other side of the world, where imitation has always been the sincerest form of flattery, and where wily marketing people have never been slow to latch onto the latest hi-tech goody, it's proved itself a principle well worth sticking to.
And as we discovered when we embarked on our grand tour of hi-tech failures last month, it's the companies who ignore this sound advice and stray furthest from accepted synthetic norms that stand the best chance of catching a crab and going under.
For our first port of call in these troubled waters of the Bermuda triangle wave, where synths are apt to sync without a trace and keys doomed to forever remain quay-less, we find there are those who insist on going through life in a glass-bottomed boat, exposing their more or less modest endowments to all and sundry. A Stateside confection by the name of the Gleeman Pentaphonic Clear was one such self-exposing flasher. Strip away the plexiglass case ('clear enclosure and controls look great and take full advantage of today's spectacular stage lighting effects... the Clear was made to be seen, not just heard'), and you've got a triple-VCO-per-voice, pentaphonic synth with a 600-note polyphonic sequencer, top-notch modulation and filter options, and a definite predilection to wrap itself around the necks of stars with wanton abandon, courtesy of a guitar strap or two. And the thing did look good in the pages of the publicity handouts and over the shoulders of nubile female demonstrators. The only problem was that keyboard players didn't seem to like the idea of having their instruments' internal workings bared for all to see. So the Gleeman went back into a more conventional, opaque box, and as far as the UK was concerned, out of sight was out of mind. When was the last time you saw one at the local High Street music store?
The Clear's more refined brethren preferred to keep their insides to themselves, placing emphasis on innovations that were less immediately obvious and, possibly, more musically useful. For instance, the Beilfuss Performance Synthesizer attached great value to its virtuous 'controllability', and not to the 'what-does-the-manual-say-is-the-control-code-so-that-I-can-get-access-to-the-control-I-need?' factor. Well, that's how the manufacturers put it with (almost) infinite subtlety. They were also at pains to point out that 'the patent-pending multiplex circuitry is a result of ten years of careful development'. What they didn't say was whether that was all their own development work. After all, the Bell Labs time-multiplexing story was pretty much old hat by 1983 (which was when the Beilfuss was first unveiled).
Still, the machine did project a pretty impressive image, what with its eight-octave keyboard and 16 slider 'signal controls'. Definitely not a machine to be trifled with, let alone misused for synthesising acoustic blancmange. Nope, as Beilfuss said, 'the unique Signal Control allows truly creative note synthesis with controllability'. It even had digital filter contours and (wait for it) MIDI.
Impressive stuff, but like the Gleeman, the Beilfuss never made much of an impact outside its American homeland, and has now all but disappeared.
The further up the price ladder you go, the less compromised people's visions of the future become. Take the Buchla 406 as a prime example. Don Buchla is something of a maverick amongst synthesiser builders because of his insistence on pursuing the split-infinitive directive of 'to boldly go where no man has gone before'. He's the accredited inventor of both the analogue sequencer and (less significantly) the electric 'cello, but he's also produced a series of synths whose striking features include vast numbers of knobs and sliders, unusual (some would say anachronistic) touch-plate keyboards along the lines of the EDP Wasp and Synthi AKS, and above all, a capacity for producing stunningly transparent sounds.
In fact, the Buchla 406 started off in a subtracted frame of mind as the Buchla 400, which had one of those touch-plate jobs as an excuse for a keyboard. Now, building this into a $9500 system was a bit of a booboo in the early 1980s (especially with the Wasp as part of pop technology's folklore), so the 406 was born instead, with a five-octave, force-and pressure-sensitive keyboard underneath to replace the lopped-off, touch-plate thingy.
Which was a good thing really, because the sound-generating side of the 406 was very interesting, with six high-quality voices offering dynamic waveshaping, complex envelope generation, and sampling options, all courtesy of digital pipelining techniques. Similarly impressive were the Buchla's scoring and sequencing options, which included a real-time score editor (that showed each part in 'linear time' notation) and SMPTE time-code capability. But the last we heard of the 406 was that it was being licensed to organ manufacturers Kimball. To which I leave you to draw your own conclusions...
Finally, we reach those instruments that have aspired for the very top, but have been left teetering on the precipice. So forget the bank balance and the mortgage: welcome to the closest the synth world has come to the Titanic.
Take the McLeyvier, a real biggie of a hybrid analogue/digital synth, complete with both seven-octave music and QWERTY keyboards all in the one box. Apart from a showing at NAMM (and two subsequent ones at Frankfurt) and a good deal of self-publicity on the part of American synthesist/spokesperson Laurie Speigel, nowt more has been heard about this Canadian object of much speculation and hype. It could resurface, but if and when it becomes 'commercially' available, I doubt there'll be many outside government-subsidised institutions who'll be able to give it serious consideration.
Anyway, much speculation was also attached to the KineticSound Prism, a digital synth in the dual-keyboard tradition of the ill-fated Prophet 10 (the poor thing was forever getting itself overheated), but with all sorts of quoted goodies, including wave-shaping and FM, stereo or quad outputs, bubble memory for instrument storage, and a dauntingly large number of controls dominated by a keypad stage centre.
The mistake Kinetic made was in believing that musicians would be capable of plotting 256-byte wavetables without seeing them displayed on a VDU. Mind you, with an eight-track, 8000-note sequencer, the Prism deserved a lot more attention than it got, even given its hefty $10,000 price tag.
And if your greatest desire in life was to get your digits doing more than just play a keyboard, there was the Synthia from Adaptive Systems, making innovative play with touch-screen control (predating that feature on the Fairlight Series III by a good three years). Trouble was, said screens were jolly expensive back in 1982 - and that translated into a selling price similar to that of the Prism. More than that, grubby digits mean grubby screens, which, in turn, means a small fortune in Windolene. Personally, I'd prefer to shout at the thing... Ah, but what about the Synthia's four performance joysticks, as evidenced by the accompanying photo? Great stuff, undeniably, but it would have helped if Adaptive Systems had supplied a couple of extra hands...
Yet even if the bubble burst for most of the above, things won't stop there. As long as musicians keep on playing keyboards, and as long as manufacturers succeed in finding the necessary R&D capital, new synths will continue to appear in their hordes. But as the Gallery of Misfits has shown, producing a more or less aesthetically pleasing prototype isn't the sole secret of success. You've also got to make sure your invention is makeable, workable, marketable, and above all, playable. Because nice though a lot of the machines we've looked back on have appeared to be, the people behind them have all neglected to cater for at least one of the above considerations.
So is there a formula for getting to the top? Well, I'd take a page out of someone else's book, and try something along these lines:
1 Make friends with a boffin in a backwater, mid-western US university who's just invented a software algorithm for recreating the sound of megaton nuclear explosions by applying Einstein's unified field theory to the contents of a single wavetable. Get it filed and patented.
2 Persuade the Department of Defence to finance a project to put the above on a single VLSI chip, using the argument that the sound of a megaton nuclear explosion is a more usable deterrent than the real thing. Make sure that regardless of who develops the chip and how they go about doing it, you retain at least partial control over its applications.
3 Armed with the newly-developed chip, take a trip to Japan for a meeting with a motorcycle cum piano manufacturer interested in expanding its hi-tech horizons. Argue that the chip will make their bikes sound as if they're chewing up the road like a bat out of hell. Whilst quaffing fake japanoise champagne and signing on the dotted line in Super Deluxe Pentel, suggest that the company might as well put the chip in a few keyboards whilst they're about it.
4 Return to the US. Don a pair of ear-protectors whilst American simulated explosions and Japanese motorbikes battle it out. Sit back and wait for royalties from keyboard sales to deaf Americans and Japanese who won't know any better. Sell patent licence to Italian organ manufacturer, and sell chip to Andropov (or Chernenko, or Gorbachev, or whoever it happens to be) and await simulated World War III. Retire to the Bahamas to plan chip design for sonic fall-out shelters...
Feature by David Ellis
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