New England Digital: A Company Philosophy
Most people have heard of the Synclavier but little is known about the company that produces it: New England Digital. Paul Gilby met up with its Vice-President, Brad Naples, who supplied us with a fascinating insight into the philosophy behind the development of this highly advanced digital recording system they call 'the Synclavier'.
The Synclavier is perhaps one of the most misunderstood products in the world of music technology, for it is usually looked upon as one of the elite sampling keyboards (which it is - but as we shall see, it's not just that!), sharing this honour with the more popular Fairlight CMI. It could be said that cost alone has been the reason why many people have chosen the Fairlight since the Synclavier certainly doesn't lack the features or quality. However, such a decision neglects the long-term use and development of the system because, possibly more so than any other musical product, the Synclavier is truly conceptual.
At a recent Synclavier seminar held at Battery Studios in London, Brad Naples, Vice-President of the New England Digital Corporation took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Paul Gilby about the company's philosophy, the concept of the Synclavier and the future growth of the recording industry.
Although the name Synclavier is familiar to many of our readers, little is known about the company behind it. Could you explain the origin and development of the company and its product?
"New England Digital, who manufacture the Synclavier digital audio system, was an outgrowth of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. Two engineers at the college - Sydney Alonso and Cameron Jones - originally received from the then President of Dartmouth College, John Kemeny, a grant of 17,000 dollars to go off and see if they could make what was referred to as a portable digital synthesizer system - that was back in 1973."
(Incidentally, John Kemeny is the person who developed Dartmouth BASIC software language, which then became the standard BASIC that's used in many microcomputers worldwide.)
"But, because the project wasn't allowed to make profits if it were to be associated with Dartmouth College, which is a non-profit making institution, Sydney and Cameron decided to move, and in 1976 they formed the New England Digital Corporation.
At that time they had a very crude product which they called the Synclavier. Part of the Synclavier, which they designed themselves, was a very high-speed 16-bit computer and that's how they survived financially for a few years, by selling this computer product known as the ABLE 60/40.
By 1978-79 they had developed the Synclavier to a point where it wasn't really a prototype but it was also not where we are today. But they had a system which formed the beginnings and the root of what you see today in the present Synclavier, and that product was marketed around the world to what you could call very esoteric electronic musicians. We sold about 20 units in all.
It was also during this time that the company began to organise itself and raised what we call 'seed capital': money to begin to focus a business, to develop marketing and a product direction.
I was hired in 1979 and then for the last half of '79 and the first half of '80 we invested a lot of money into research and design to produce Synclavier II, which came onto the market at the end of 1980.
"We firmly believe that the current state of the art digital audio standard of 44.1kHz as employed on compact disc, is not a good enough standard and it's not where the industry will be in 1995."
That really began what I personally thought would be the beginnings of a company that would make its impact in the digital recording and post-production industry as we went through the '80s towards the '90s. The reason it would take so long is because I felt there was a problem, and the only way to solve it was through time. That problem was innovation: the fact that what this computer, hooked up to disk drives, slick human interfaces and massive amounts of memory, was able to do for the very first time was to merge together the three entities of a recording studio (performance, processing and storage).
At present, someone who's an artist goes into a room, they play guitar or something, then via microphones they process the signals through a mixing console and a rack of effects, and they archive and retrieve it on tape machines. Well that whole process is eventually going to be computerised, and it's going to be all in one signal path where we merge the performance characteristics through a keyboard - we bring on-line through means of software, signal processors like reverb and compressors, and then we archive it onto disk memory instead of tape.
I think that being a computer - and the Synclavier is a very powerful one - it has the ability to bring together these different attributes, and that's been our primary goal as a company.
The hardest concept for people to understand is that this is an evolved technology that has taken years to realise. We are a company of the next generation, for the young computer kids who are just coming into the studios.
Our focus as a company has been to turn our attention to three markets: we have what we call the Musician/Producer synthesis market, where you take in the concept of sound design. Then there's the Recording Studio market where people have their own particular problems working with tape, and the third market is Video Post-Production where the needs are in sound effects and dubbing to film. We treat each of those markets equally and we feel each one is very important.
So, over the years there have been two important attributes about New England Digital that I feel people should understand - one is our patience and the other is our financial commitment to product development. When you revolutionise an industry it takes a long time for people to understand what you are trying to do, and when you're a pioneer you have arrows in your back because you're way out in front and people are saying 'well, that's not going to work'. So you have to be patient. Second of all, you have to run a company that's profitable and you have to run a company that creates its profits by selling a product at a fair price and then commits those profits to R & D (research and development) for a very long time. We're definitely in this for the long term, in fact, we're already older than any other company in the business doing this sort of work.
New England Digital is a computer company that has found a niche in the music industry, and the company is run by people who came out of musical backgrounds. The difference is that we're not what I would call a cross-over company where we thought we'd better jump in and digitise some aspects of our equipment. We are not manufacturers of an analogue product who suddenly decided to drop in some digital control. That's a very important concept that I think people miss, because at the root of a successful company that can produce an all-digital product, are millions of lines of software code and learning through making a lot of mistakes during programming. And that is literally just a matter of time and experience, there are no short cuts!
"The Synclavier is very much an evolved system and I'd say around eighty percent of the current Synclavier features have come from customer suggestions."
Many people ask me about the Japanese and what I tell them is that yes, digital hardware has become smaller, cheaper and better, and they're in there using it, but what hasn't happened is that software doesn't get any easier to write. Nobody ever attacked a software problem by having more and more people working on the job. It's just the opposite, it still goes on at the same old rate."
You're over here with a group of people from NED to give the UK market a chance to hear the new Synclavier recording system that's soon to be released. What will this offer and what impact do you think it will have?
"We have what we call the 'Direct-To-Disk Multitrack Recording System' coming out in May, and this will enable you to record sound directly on to disk memory without the need for audio tape. As it's a completely digital system, you'll be able to manipulate the sound in many ways. For example, you'll be able to slide one track backwards or forwards relative to another, correct tuning or speed the whole song up or down without affecting the pitch - it's entirely flexible.
The effect of introducing such a system means that a person or studio can have a room which doesn't necessarily have to have super-sophisticated and expensive acoustic treatment and racks of fancy effects. It just needs the bare essentials of a good clean mixing console and monitoring system, and then that person can install a Synclavier and make a record from scratch, much quicker and with excellent fidelity.
The Direct-To-Disk system will, in fact, have a 110dB signal to noise ratio; it won't have error-correction because there's no tape involved so it doesn't need it. You can have as much storage time as you care to buy and it offers a sampling rate of 100kHz. The system will start in a four-track format and you can add four tracks at a time building up to sixteen, though we will produce more tracks to order for customers.
As far as the future studio is concerned, I would say that the same analogy could be drawn with the office environment. It used to be full of mechanical typewriters, but now all the work's being done on wordprocessors. Our attitude is that for much of the day-to-day demands placed on a studio, the Synclavier can reduce the tasks to a minimum and offers outstanding audio quality.
We firmly believe that the current state of the art digital audio standard of 44.1kHz as employed on compact disc, is not a good enough standard and it's not where the industry will be in 1995. We feel that all the CDs out there are not producing what we consider to be audiophile quality."
"The Synclavier is the future recording studio! At present it's expensive, but it's showing the way... It's not a piece of one-shot technology that you've got to learn about and then it's out of date the year after."
Don't you feel that's an arrogant statement?
"No, we've never been an arrogant company. We see ourselves as a company that produces the highest possible quality product. So we sit around and say, 'let's build a really super quality direct-to-disk recording system', and we have discussions around the company and say, 'will anybody want to buy it? '. Well history is the best teacher of the future.
We're sitting here now talking in a modern recording studio in London. I ask you! What is all this stuff here for? It's either here to make the production quicker, with automation, or it's here to get the noise out of a signal or hide it with effects. So it's here because it allows you to achieve better results.
If you say that 'digital' by it's very nature can make things cleaner, and you do some analysis into how current digital tape machines are recording the signal, the mathematics tell you that it's not as clean as it could be. There's quantisation noise because of the sampling, error-correction because of the tape, and the analogue-to-digital processing isn't good enough. Yet Sony have said that a 44.1 kHz sampling rate is all you're ever going to need. Now that is what I call an arrogant statement!
All our research in talking to the Steve Lipsons, Pat Methenys, Oscar Petersons and interested Producers around the world, is telling us that they hear something they don't like about digital audio. And it's got to be the fact that there's not enough resolution. So we, as a company, are producing the best digital system we can with a 100kHz sampling rate.
From the very beginning New England Digital has always listened to what its customers have told us. And we have always tried to deliver what they want. The Synclavier is very much an evolved system and I'd say around eighty percent of the current Synclavier features have come from customer suggestions. The users are the real geniuses, they are the pioneers, the trend-setters. They're coming to us and saying, 'we don't like 44.1' and buying our 50kHz sampling. So, we thought if they liked our 50k in mono, what if we give them 100kHz sampling in stereo, or four, eight or sixteen-track? We think that people will go for it.
"When you revolutionise an industry it takes a long time for people to understand what you are trying to do, and when you're a pioneer you have arrows in your back because you're way out in front..."
You see, music is sound, and everybody wants the best quality sound, and so with a Synclavier and the multitrack Direct-To-Disk option, we feel it will offer both a faster and better quality recording system."
It's evident from what you have said that New England Digital is interested in a quality product. And that this awareness of 'quality' has resulted in what must be the world's most expensive musical instrument. What are your thoughts on that point?
"Well if you want to look at the Synclavier purely as a musical instrument then yes, it is the most expensive.
But what is a Synclavier? It isn't just an instrument. It's a system. If I asked you to make a record and to cost up the alternative to the Synclavier, you would be looking at hiring a studio, an expensive mixing console like an SSL, a 24-track tape machine like a Studer, the cost of the musicians, maybe you'd even have to buy a Bosendorfer piano or whatever! That's way more than what a Synclavier costs. So you shouldn't look at it simply as a musical instrument, because you can put it in a room on its own and make a complete record with it.
What's more, the Synclavier adapts to your needs: it can be a synthesizer, a post-production tool for sound effects and overdubs or a high quality recording environment.
The Synclavier is the future recording studio!
At present it's expensive, but it's showing the way. The R & D, software and the precision components used, make it without doubt a very expensive system, but the profits from sales are re-invested right back into the product. As I said, this is an evolving product. It's not a piece of one-shot technology that you've got to learn about and then it's out of date the year after."
With your company's belief in quality, would you say that the inclusion of MIDI on the Synclavier was something of an embarrassment, and that you had to lower your standards to incorporate it?
"Each year we're increasing our R & D budget so that we can stay ahead and at the leading-edge of this revolution - we're not standing still!"
"I wouldn't say it was an embarrassment, but it certainly isn't the way we would have done it. We've included MIDI because it expands the number of people who can play with the Synclavier system and integrates the MIDI equipment that many musicians and producers are using today. We don't have to be arrogant about it and say, 'if you don't buy our system we're not going to let you interface with it'. We didn't do that: we included MIDI to let you into our system.
You can draw an analogy between MIDI and home computers. Some kids get their first little computer like a Commodore 64 and learn to programme them really quickly, and then migrate their way up the path until they're working on very sophisticated mainframe computer systems. I see MIDI serving exactly the same purpose and helping to educate the Synclavier operators of the future, just like the Fostex tape machines and little mixers are educating the studio engineers of tomorrow."
What do you think about the introduction of the low-cost sampling keyboards that are now on the market?
"Well, the technology has finally taken a firm foothold but again, you still have to hook all the equipment together - mixers, tape decks, effects etc. We just believe in a self-contained system where everything works and it sounds the best. The fact is that there's a whole generation of samplers coming out, but as they appear we're moving on. We've got 16-bit sampling already and are looking ahead of that, whereas some of the guys are coming into the market now with 12-bit systems and possibly moving towards 16-bit next year.
Our system is not just hardware though. It's an evolving software system as well, so we don't throw away the last model and start again like so many manufacturers do. A good example of the company's philosophy would be the situation when we brought out the new keyboard. It offered far more features than the first one and so, to attract interest, we gave all of our previous customers the chance to trade in their old keyboard and get full price for what they paid for it off the new keyboard. I decided that we owed something to those people who had the confidence to buy the first Synclaviers and who helped us pioneer the original system. Try taking your car back and see if you get full price on it!
Each year we're increasing our R & D budget so that we can stay ahead and at the leading-edge of this revolution - we're not standing still!"
So how's the Synclavier population broken down around the world?
"Well the States has the greatest number, then Europe, with the UK being the biggest and then the rest of the world. It was people like Producer Mike Thorn who bought the early Synclavier back in 1979.
Then at the institute level, IRCAM in Paris own one as do many American Universities, but our biggest penetration is in the recording and post-production industry.
Over here in the UK, we have producers like Trevor Horn and musicians like Sting and Geoff Downes, to name but three, who use the system. I think there are something like twenty or thirty Synclavier systems over here altogether - and that number is growing."
"Although New England Digital is becoming as big as some of the well known Pro-audio companies in the industry, one aspect about our company is that we never forget that the whole thing is people driven - and that's important."
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Feature by Paul Gilby