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Synclavier II (Part 1)

The complete 'all-options supplied' Synclavier II system.

The reasons that you have for reading this review should have nothing to do with whether or not you can afford this instrument. Not initially, anyway, because as I introduce you to its features you're likely to become more and more attracted to what it offers — a complete synthesis system that is quite different from instruments that most of us have played or listened to over the past twenty years. Rather than a collection of analogue modules — oscillators, filters, amplifiers, envelope generators and so on — the Synclavier II is built up from a high-speed computer which has been developed for musical use mainly through software programming and special hardware for the storage of waveform samples at various rates (minimum 32K).

The power of this computer (called Able) is due to its speed (it is very fast even for a machine in the PDP 11-70 series class) and its architecture. It is a 16-bit machine that has been developed by the makers of the Synclavier II, New England Digital (NED). This company has been making computer musical instruments since 1977 when they produced the first Synclavier system, alongside R&D for other products such as software for speech analysis, noise and vibration tests, etc. The Able computer is a 16-bit machine with access to between 32K and 56K 16-bit words in self-contained memory and almost unlimited access through disk-drives. In addition to 5¼", 8" floppy disk and Winchester hard disk drives, two main peripherals, a computer terminal with VDU display and keyboard (operating in full duplex mode), and a printer, all link to the synthesiser's computer via an 8-bit control bus. The logic employed is extremely fast and enables programs to be executed in real time — an achievement unmatched by the largest early digital synthesisers. The language used to program the system, Scientific XPL, is a high level, structured language. It enables new software sections to be added without the need to reprogram the original operating system.

Despite its high price, from around £14,500 for a basic system to a full peripheral complemented system at £36,000, over 200 Synclaviers have been sold to date, mainly in America — a large proportion to pro-musicians, with the rest to large video/music studios and some universities. Isao Tomita relies heavily on the Synclavier as you'll see from his 'Plasma Orchestra' in this issue; Patrick Gleeson has recorded a vivid interpretation of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons on dbx decoded digital disc (Varese Sarabande VCDM 1000.100), and Californian composer Bernard Xolotl will be discussing his experience of the instrument in the next issue.

The control wheel and some of the function buttons on the keyboard unit

Operating the System

The computer is programmed by means of either a terminal or a special keyboard unit with 4 groups of 4 x 8 rows of function buttons on its control panel plus a sprung rotary control knob that allows realtime changes of many parameters for creating or modifying an instrument sound or effect.

The keyboard, therefore, makes the Synclavier II a realtime performance system with the same possibility of controlling parameters as analogue synthesisers. But, as said before, the actual aspects of synthesis involved here are going to be new to many musicians. Just as many of us struggled to understand analogue controls and to grasp computer music programming, the keyboard panel controls must also be learnt and accepted. Development is also underway for a guitar synthesiser link to the main computer. Although conjectured to be a Roland guitar synth, it is more likely to be a standard guitar with modifications.

Between 8 and 32 voices can be played on the keyboard and the unique 'partial timbre' method of synthesis may use up to 4 voices (one for each partial) on every note played on the keyboard. The computer keeps track of your assignments and always gives you the maximum utilisation of the voices available. A chorus effect is made by assigning 2 voices to each partial.

A partial timbre consists of 24 separately adjustable harmonics, a volume envelope generator, a harmonic envelope generator, and a completely adjustable range of keyboards (and separate Morley Pedal) effects from vibrato to portamento. Since there are as many partial timbres as there are voices (e.g. 32 on the 32-voice system we are examining), up to 96 harmonics (using 4 partial timbres) can be triggered from just one key on the keyboard.

16-Track Recording

The keyboard unit also comprises a 16-track digital memory recorder. Complete performances can be created by storing single 'instrument' lines on each track — just like using a studio multi-track recorder — and then played back at the press of a button. A total of 16 instruments may be stored on 16 tracks (really RAM portions of memory). However, this recorder can 'merge' all tracks on to one track and can remember all the partial timbres employed, as well as all programmed effects. And, as with most digital recorders, it has the ability to speed up or slow down your music drastically without any deviation of pitch (as on a normal analogue tape machine).

A click track can be with the output signal for 'metronome' timing of one track with the next, or sent separately to an external tape recorder for large scale multitracking in sync.

At the end of this sophisticated (maximum 10,000 note) recording section is surprisingly, just a mono output! — don't despair though, for a stereo placement module is on its way in '83, and I also know that several Synclav' users have actually made mod's to give separate outputs for normal mixdown. Another method that's easier, but (slightly!) more expensive, is that used by Patrick Gleeson — he prepares his pieces using his own system, and then uses another system to run in sync alongside. By making two tracks identical (in sound and volume) and sending Synclav's to left and right stereo channels, a centred instrument will be heard and so on. Many interesting features and control functions are offered in the recorder and we'll examine this part more closely later.

Graphic display of 4 partial timbres (x2 for chorus).

Timbre Display

Coming back to base again, it is also possible to control the computer from an optional terminal. What musicians usually do is start with the keyboard and main computer/synthesiser unit, then purchase the terminal to use its Timbre Display System' (TDS). This new addition gives very clear graphic displays on the terminal's VDU of the make-up of every partial in use, along with detailed information of function buttons' settings (called 'coefficients') that are literally changed in real time when you move the control wheel to modify a parameter. Although the keyboard unit has an LED display to indicate settings currently being changed, the TDS makes you feel you're looking right into the heart of the computer to see what its doing. Four different numerical formats and high resolution graphics can also be transferred to your next acquisition, a high resolution printer for keeping permanent records.

Disk Drives

Just as the keyboard unit can store and retrieve whole libraries of sounds (64 at a time) from diskettes (i.e. 5¼" floppy disks in this particular system under examination), so does the TDS operate once its specific system diskette is 'booted' (that means: inserted into the disk drive and correctly loaded into the computer's memory so that the operating instructions for TDS are available). The disk drive is also necessary to set up the basic operating system before anything will work. Once this system diskette is booted you can then put in one of your own 'file' diskettes to recall or store timbres (i.e. your own synthesised sounds containing 1-4 partials) and also recorder 'sequences'. A second disk drive can be added later to facilitate transfer operations.

When you purchase a 5¼" minidiskette drive as part of your system, you are supplied with 5 separate diskettes that each contain 64 timbres, plus an individual 'system operator' (the one that sets the synthesiser ready to operate), and various note sequence sectors (i.e. specific space for your 16-track memory recordings (from 1000 notes to 10,000 notes in length). The 8" Maxidiskette drive is an alternative system (not presently available in the UK) that simply increases all sequence space to 28 pieces lasting 10,000 notes maximum). Even the Minidiskette offers 8 x 10,000 note pieces plus other space, and undeniably represents large composing areas for serious extended composition — not just 3 minute pops or 30 second commercials.


For those avid musicians not gifted with realtime prowess at the keyboard, the terminal could become your ultimate friend instead and, complete with the next software option we'll consider called 'Script', provides a resourceful music notation system that is easily learnt.

All the elements of a piece — its pitch, rhythm and dynamics etc, may be typed in from the computer terminal. The use of different timbres, repeats, transposition and many other editing functions that are needed to compose a complete piece are all possible.

As you would also expect from a system of high calibre, live performance recorded pieces can be 'reverse compiled' into Script's readable format for further editing with the computer terminal. Even the most accomplished keyboardist may be left behind when compared to the programming skills of Script for creating fast, complex polyrhythms.

Film and video music composition is made easier by Script's ability to synchronise musical beats to time or frame cues. Passages can be stated on particular cues and the system will even calculate how fast it should play a section between cues, or whether it should be a gradual or immediate tempo change!

Dave Whittaker editing the music score.

Music Printing

Now we come to every musician's dream, the facility to have his or her music printed out in real notation after it has been recorded. Another software option is available to solve this problem. It needs the high-resolution printer, of course (incidentally, it's linked via an RS-232 interface and specified as the Prism 80). I am also told in the mammoth 2,000 page manual that a Script-MAX-XPL software licence is required — no doubt buying the system covers this. More to the point, music printing takes place within the Script program after loading a special Script Level II diskette.

Figure 1. The music printing option (see text).

There are untold problems in getting music in printed format from your recorded efforts. The computer is terribly precise and any laziness on your part with timing will give quite unexpected results — take the sample printout shown as an example. This is the start of J.S. Bach's 3rd Brandenberg Concerto. Part 1 should actually be groups of semiquavers and quavers all neatly tied together, but unfortunately something has slipped fractionally behind after the first note and F# is extended another semiquaver. The computer then really acts intelligently and puts parts 2 and 3 in syncopated alignment underneath! If you listen to the sample of this piece on E&MM Demo Cassette No. 9 you'll hear that all was really as reasonable in performance as it should have been, so where did the recorded composition go wrong?

I confess the system actually fooled me with its skill, and by simply giving it more information, I could have rectified the situation to give me every line precisely as played or even tidied up a little as necessary to make it easier to read. All data is sent from the terminal keyboard and no facility for light pen is presently available. You can also add titles, lyrics and any other text straight on to the screen music. I'll explain more of this in the next part of the review. Meanwhile, perhaps you've noticed another problem that has apparently bemused the computer?


Continuing our discourse on the possible 'components' within the Synclavier System, you may have realised that, despite the close proximity of an incredibly powerful micro, you don't have to worry very much about what the computer is really doing when you set the vibrato on a partial, for example. Just as in Basic programming, it is not necessary to know that the command LOAD is possibly doing multiple accumulator to register exchanges, comparisons and jumps in machine language.

Figure 2. One synthesiser channel of the Synclavier II.
(Click image for higher resolution version)

Nevertheless, to realise the full potential of the NED system, you have to be prepared to learn the functional distinctions between the computer and the synthesiser keyboard control buttons. As you can see from Figure 2, each of the 32 synthesiser channels, or voices, receives a separate set of parameters, or control code, from the computer. The control code for each voice includes a 24-bit frequency descriptor, an 8-bit volume, 16-bit rates and 8-bit limits for the volume and index interpolators, a 2-bit index shift count, and a pointer to any one of 32 waveform memories which can be loaded with any 256-point waveform.

Normally, you might have to use an assembler language, but this is where MAX, a high-level language provided on optional software diskettes, makes a big contribution in an accessible way.

Imagine re-defining any input or output, any control button on the keyboard unit, any function of the external pedals (these are specifically two Morley Pedals, but other types could be used). This is what MAX can do to make your Synclavier a very personal dedicated system. You choose your own easily remembered names for each function and enter these as 'labels' or pointers to the new function button, and so on.

The MAX language is, in fact, a library of proven Scientific XPL procedures, such as SET FRQ and SET VOL, for instant recall to do a task to help you create music in your particular way.

Sound Sampling

This latest exciting development in the Synclavier II System was released in September last year. The Signal File Manager (SFM), as it is called, is part of the new Sample-to-Disk system for recording and recreating sound waveforms. It is an optional package on software diskettes requiring one or more Winchester disks and 16-bit buffered A to D, D to A converters, as well as the main Synclavier II system with keyboard and terminal. Although playback is monophonic from the keyboard, a sampled sound can be shifted up or down 4 octaves and can then be inserted as a track on the memory recorder along with your keyboard or Script created instruments.

It will soon be possible to sample a sound and synthesise it as 4 partials in the Synclavier II so that you can further alter it and play it polyphonically. Samples can last up to 50 seconds each (utilising the 5 MByte capability of the Winchester). Some interesting instrument samples are given on Demo Cassette No. 9 that show the clarity of the sounds. Many editing possibilities are provided and this will be further discussed along with a full review of the keyboard performance unit next month.

There are 4 options now being made available in the UK through Bandhive Ltd: 1) Basic 8-voice keyboard synthesiser system, price £14,500; 2) 32-voice keyboard synthesiser system, price £21,900 (both 1 & 2 have road cases supplied): 3) 32-voice synthesiser with Terminal Support Package, music printing option with printer, price £29,000: 4) As 3, plus Sample-to-Disk, with 5 MByte Winchester disk and A to D/D to A module, price £35,900. (Prices quoted are approximate and based on 1.63 dollars/pound.)

Series - "Synclavier II"

Read the next part in this series:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Advanced Music Synthesis

Next article in this issue

Hot Wiring Your Guitar

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Feb 1983


Synclavier II

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

Gear in this article:

Synthesizer > New England Digital > Synclavier

Gear Tags:

Digital Synth


Previous article in this issue:

> Advanced Music Synthesis

Next article in this issue:

> Hot Wiring Your Guitar

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