Inside The Synclavier (Part 1)
PART 1: New England Digital's Synclavier is the world's most expensive musical instrument, bar the odd 300 year old Stradivarius. But more than that, it can be a recording studio, a post-production system, a music engraver, a scientific research tool... and more. The Synclavier is at the leading edge of musical technology. David Mellor sets out on a voyage of discovery.
Are you one of the few, one of the six hundred? Or are you one of the 3,999,999,400 people in the world who can't afford a Synclavier? The Synclavier is a very rare and very expensive instrument. It should be - the state of the art in musical technology has to be way above the level of mass-market instruments. In this way, 'ordinary' manufacturers like Akai, Roland, Yamaha, and others can see what they are aiming for. They can utilise their particular abilities to develop high-end ideas into workable - and affordable - systems for the common musician such as you or I.
Of course, important developments take place lower down the scale as well. The modern Synclavier sports a MIDI interface just like any self respecting electronic musical instrument. But companies like New England Digital and Fairlight - may they yet rise from the ashes - have built the instruments which are the Rolls Royces, or perhaps Ferraris, of the musical world. They have set the standard and deserve the respect which they are awarded.
The Synclavier story began around 13 years ago in Dartmouth College, a prestigious Stateside educational institute. Sydney Alonso and Cameron Jones (professor and student at the time) were doing research into digital synthesis, and were developing a system to teach students pitch recognition. The result of this particular line of enquiry turned out to be that it wasn't a viable idea, but Alonso and Jones realised that they had the elements of a unique musical instrument, and that they could produce it.
So out of this, the New England Digital company was born to produce the first Synclavier. It was the first digital synthesizer and also the first 8-track digital sequencer. Conceptually, the original instrument was similar to the Synclavier we see today, with the trademark button panel keyboard. The system progressed, and some six years ago monophonic sampling was introduced. Also the first hard disk based digital recording system. Now the system has grown up to 96 - ninety-six! - voices together with 16-track hard disk digital recording, in a fully expanded system. And as I hinted in the opening paragraph, the Synclavier doesn't stop there.
New England Digital are currently selling Synclavier systems into a variety of markets:
- Individual composer/arranger/producers - the very rich ones, of course - such as Stevie Wonder, Sting, George Michael, Oscar Peterson etc, who use the Synclavier as a musical development tool.
- Recording studios - Nomis (London), Power Station (New York), Lionshare (Los Angeles), etc are using the flexibility of the hard disk based recording system to enhance their multitracking capabilities.
- Film and video post-production houses - The Tape Gallery (London), LucasFilm (USA), etc synchronise the Synclavier to film or video to add music and sound effects.
The Synclavier is also used for music printing, in universities, and for scientific applications (apparently the central processor is very good for the analogue-to-digital and digital-to-analogue conversions necessary for data collection and control. One unit is about to go into space on a probe to Mars and beyond).
Until very recently, New England Digital have produced just 'the Synclavier' - a system which you could build up as you needed more power. (There is also the Direct-To-Disk stand-alone recording system, which I shall cover separately later). Now there is a choice of Synclavier models, with the budget-conscious model 3200 at the bottom of the range and the more-power-to-your-elbow 9600 at the top. Both are still expandable systems, the difference is in the degree of expansion capability. You can't go as far with the 3200.
At the heart of any Synclavier is the characteristic keyboard and button panel. As we shall see, the keyboard in the 3200 model is rather less substantial than that of the 9600. In fact, it is implemented in software, but more of that later. The keyboard/button panel consists of a 76-note velocity and pressure sensitive music keyboard, together with 160 illuminated pushbuttons which select functions as appropriate, and also blink or glow to let you know what's going on. To enter data there is a rotary control - the 'control knob' in NED parlance, which I have heard more impressively described as the 'silver wheel' - to the right of the keyboard and an LED alphanumeric display.
Pushbuttons and data entry controls may seem like nothing new, but the Synclavier was using them right at the beginning of digital synthesis. New England Digital got it right, too. Other manufacturers would do well to consider illuminating their buttons, for it makes operation a lot easier.
To assist the operation of the keyboard, there is a computer terminal - an Apple Macintosh II in New England Digital livery - with a trackball rather than the more common mouse. The terminal expands on the information provided by the keyboard's LED display and makes the tricky jobs easier. But for ordinary usage, you can quite easily remain seated at the keyboard. I can assure you that it is 100% pure musical instrument.
But what you see is only a small part of what you get. The works of the Synclavier live in a separate rack that would normally be placed out of the way in a machine room. The 9600's rack is, as you might expect, rather larger than that of the 3200. These racks house the disk drives and various circuit boards for the different functions, and expansion slots for adding extra voices and memory. (The disk drives comprise a floppy disk for booting up, and for storing samples or sequences to transfer to other Synclavier systems, and a hard disk or disks for bulk sample storage.)
What you will not see in the rack is the all-important software. Without New England Digital's expertise and experience, the Synclavier would just be a collection of interesting looking boxes. Perhaps one of the most important benefits of the system, and the most intangible, is the integration. The Synclavier is one instrument that truly deserves the title 'Workstation'. With a fully expanded system one could compose and produce an entire film score, leaving your seat only to refill the coffee mug and lace up the tape for the final master. As I describe further, you will see exactly what I mean.
I described the Synclavier earlier as 'the world's most expensive musical instrument'. But the Synclavier 3200 doesn't look so expensive, perhaps, if you consider all the other equipment it can replace. Let's start right at the bottom, with the bottom line. A standard Synclavier 3200 system consists of the following items:
- Central processing unit
- Macintosh II workstation with 16" colour monitor
- 80 Megabyte hard disk
- High density 5¼" floppy disk drive
- Two channel analogue-to-digital input module
- MIDI (2 In, 8 Out) SMPTE/EBU timecode reader
- Sound library
- Sampling, sequencing, synchronisation, MIDI, sound librarian and Syncomm
- software licence
- System documentation set
- 32 sample replay voices
- 16 Megabytes of sample RAM
- 8 multi-channel outputs
Note that there is no keyboard. A conventional MIDI keyboard is needed for note input.
The total cost of this system, delivered and commissioned in Europe, is $101,145.00 plus VAT. The price is quoted in US dollars. At the rate of exchange at the time of writing, this works out to £60,205.36 (all prices from now on will be given in sterling, calculated to the nearest £100 at the time of writing exclusive of VAT).
Obviously, £60,000 is not peanuts (quote of the week?), but if you work out the cost of a top-end MIDI system you might find yourself approaching this figure. It is actually possible to buy a Synclavier for less than this. The minimum configuration ranges down to just four Megabytes of RAM and four voices, but it should go without saying that this is a more limited system. You could perhaps get away with it, remembering that the Synclavier's sequencer can do a very good job of driving all your existing MIDI instruments while you save up for the expansion.
Expanding the Synclavier 3200 above the entry level system adds to the overdraft. An extra 16Mb of RAM costs around £14,500 if specified at the time of ordering the 3200, a little more as a retrofit. But let me make a list:
- 16Mb additional sample RAM; £14,500
- 8 additional multi-channel outputs; £3,600
- 1 Gigabyte optical disk drive with library; £21,300
- Digital signal processing/Time compression; £5,400
- Music engraving software licence; £1,000
Phew! This little lot probably comes to more than every piece of equipment mentioned in Sound On Sound so far this year! Is it worth it? Fortunately, I'm here only to describe it, not to pay for it.
A fully expanded Synclavier 3200 will accept up to 32 dynamically-assigned voices, 32Mb RAM and 8 outputs. I make the total around £106,100. If you have any change, save it for the Direct-To-Disk multi-channel recording system I'll be talking about in due course. Now you know what you are letting yourself in for, let's discover in more detail what the Synclavier 3200 is and what it can do.
The business end of the system is a Macintosh II computer with a 16" colour monitor, 2Mb internal memory, trackball, 256-colour graphics card, and a neat piece of metal furniture which turns the whole thing into a nice workstation. It is important to remember that the Macintosh is acting merely as a front end for the system; the Synclavier software is busy controlling the processes in the separate rack.
Using a Mac as the front end brings certain benefits. With the MultiFinder software - a standard Mac utility - it is possible to run several applications simultaneously, including the New England Digital Synclavier application. Of course, the limit to what you can do is the memory size of the Mac, but there is no reason why it can't be expanded, and perhaps a hard disk added, too. So the Synclavier workstation has already been enhanced to include a word processer, graphics software, HyperCard - whatever you feel beneficial.
Starting up the Synclavier application leads you to a main menu screen with a variety of options which, when selected, appear much the same as any other music software might - with one exception: the Synclavier 3200 Control Panel. This is the screen which turns the Mac into the Synclavier that users know and love - a feature-for-feature graphic emulation of the Synclavier keyboard's button panel, all 160 buttons plus the silver wheel. It is possible for an existing Synclavier user, familiar with the traditional keyboard, to come to the 3200's workstation and know exactly how to operate it, straight away.
In fact, the emulation of the original button panel is so correct that the sequencing section is described as the '32-Track Digital Memory Recorder' that it used to be. Now it offers 200 tracks! The button panel is divided into six sections. On the original keyboard those six sections are all in a row. On-screen, they are grouped into a rectangle, and the power of the computer is made available to rearrange the six sections in any fashion you desire.
The Synclavier may have lost some of its lead as a polyphonic 16-bit sampler, but the sound quality and facilities available are still impressive - and still well ahead of the latest low-cost samplers (Akai S1000, Roland S550, etc).
The sampling rate is an impressive 100kHz at its highest. Of course, you can sample at lower rates if you wish to conserve memory (though you won't need to be too miserly if you have 32Mb to spare). The minimum rate is 1 kHz, which should give you an audio bandwidth of something under 500Hz! Still, it is always best to have extremities available which may just find a use occasionally. The benefit of employing a sampling rate as high as 100kHz shows when samples are transposed downwards. Downward transposition, of course, reduces the effective sampling rate on replay. With 100kHz sampling, you could still have a good 20kHz of audio bandwidth with the sample played an octave down.
Each digital-to-analogue convertor (DAC) in the Synclavier has, in addition to its 16-bit convertor section proper, a 12-bit amplitude control DAC which reduces that tiny bit of noise at the end of the sample which, left to itself, would combine with any noise in the other 31 voices to create something unpleasant.
Of course, the display on the Mac in sampling mode is excellent, with graphic waveform representation and the sort of facilities any samplist would yearn for. Cut and splice sample editing can be performed to a claimed accuracy of 10 microseconds (equivalent to one individual sample at 100kHz). You can Copy, Merge, Mix, Normalise, Phase Reverse... just a few of the goodies on offer.
Samples are combined to form playable sounds as in any other sampler. New England Digital's term for this is 'Timbre', the equivalent of 'Preset', 'Map', 'Program', etc, in other sampling dialects (does the Oxford English Dictionary know of all of these, I wonder?). Keyboard splits can be as many ways as you like. One sample per note over the whole of the MIDI range if you wish. Did I say one sample per note? Sorry, I meant four of course, either stacked or responding to different key velocity ranges.
You don't have to be into sampling yourself, however, to use the Synclavier because there is already a vast sample library available. The basic 3200 system is delivered with much of its hard disk full of samples ready to be used. New England Digital set great store by the quality of their sample library, and you can't fail to be impressed when you hear what is on offer.
NED were such early workers in the sequencing field that the first Synclaviers didn't have quantisation - it hadn't been thought of at the time. It wasn't long before musicians realised that it would be helpful to be able to justify their notes exactly to the beat. So New England Digital responded by supplying a software update making the 'Bounce' button on the original button panel work as a 'Justify' button if you pressed it twice. Now the button panel, in both the physical and software emulated versions, has dedicated Justify buttons. But would you believe that even on the all-software 3200, if you press Bounce twice you still get the Justify function? That is real consideration for the user, keeping the operation as compatible as possible with older versions. Compatibility is also maintained between the Synclavier models. A 3200 sequence will play on a 9600 exactly as it was recorded.
The sequencer operates very much like a tape recorder, but with the obvious advantages of perfect reproduction, zero wind time, etc. You don't get many tape recorders with 200 tracks, though. And, come to think of it, not many other sequencers can manage such a high track count either.
Recording can be done straight from the button panel. It is a quick and painless procedure, as I shall describe at a later date. Simple editing procedures are performed on the button panel, more complex procedures have their own separate screen displays.
There are distinct advantages in combining a sampler with a sequencer. The best one is that every time you load up a new sound (Timbre) the sequencer automatically selects a new track to record on. And you can have as many different Timbres on the go as you have RAM space for. Comparing certain other samplers and sequencers with the Synclavier's, they seem unbelievably complicated. It is useful to note that the most powerful system is the easiest to operate. That is either a paradox or a lesson to be learned - I think the latter.
'As a what?' you ask. I kid you not. Until you experience the joy of retrieving samples from a hard disk - a large capacity one - you have not appreciated the full delights of sampling. The Synclavier's optical disk option is even better. One optical disk can hold 5½ hours of samples (at 50kHz sampling rate)! Imagine how many floppies it would take to equal that.
I can only compare this with the Emulator II's CD ROM option for ease of access to a large quantity of samples. That was good, this is terrific. It's not just that the samples are there and easy to load up; they are easy to find, too. Suppose you want to use a dustbin lid as a cymbal effect in one of your more avant-garde tracks. The librarian software will guide you through a hierarchy of directory levels, from 'Sound Effects' to 'Household' to 'Dustbins'. Or from 'Sound Effects' to 'Metallic' to 'Dustbins' if you prefer. Samples can be categorised and cross-referenced to make them very easy to find. Once found, they are loaded into RAM in double-quick time, ready for use.
I shall be examining all of these basic Synclavier functions in more detail in next month's issue. Also, I shall talk a little about the Synclavier 9600 - what it does and how much it costs. Meanwhile, it's time to think a little about where technology is going. Is it making life easier and more productive, or is it just adding to the complication? The Synclavier is headed in the right direction.
Harman UK, (Contact Details).
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