Spotlight on Ray Kurzweil: Winner of the 2015 Technical Grammy

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Today, Ray Kurzweil’s name is well-known in the music industry, yet few know much about the man who founded Kurzweil Music Systems in 1982. Once described by Inc. magazine, as the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” Kurzweil invented a number of firsts: text-to-speech synthesis, the CCD flatbed scanner, Omni-Font optical character recognition, and a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. And through the latter, Kurzweil met Stevie Wonder, who encouraged him to apply computer control to acoustical instruments. As a result, he launched Kurzweil Music Systems in 1982, with Wonder serving as its musical advisor.

In Fall 1983, visitors crammed into a packed demo suite on the fifth floor of the New York Hilton Hotel during the New York AES convention and marveled at the Kurzweil K250. The first ROM-based sampling keyboard to successfully reproduce the full complexity of acoustic instruments, the 250 offered natural-sounding pianos, thick drums, lush strings, choirs, and more, and its 88-note, velocity-sensitive wooden keyboard provided a piano-like playing experience. And with the launch coming just months after the announcement of the MIDI spec (at the Winter NAMM show in January 1983), the K250’s timing was perfect.

Weighing 95 pounds and costing almost $16,000, the 250 sounded great, and a huge 6U 250 RMX rackmount version followed. Another entry from this era was the Kurzweil MIDIboard, an 88-wood-key controller, which was similar to the K250, but sans onboard sounds.

The K250 was a perfect component for studios and musicians looking for a realistic grand piano sound, yet didn’t have the space—or budget—to allow it. Everybody who heard the Kurzweil 250 wanted one. One interesting followup to the K250 was the Kurzweil 150 module, which showed off the company’s commitment to serious music synthesis. Housed in a huge five-rackspace chassis, the 150 was truly a monster additive synthesizer with 16-voice polyphony and 240 oscillators. It was difficult to edit from the Spartan front panel, but was editable via an Apple IIe program. And the sounds—particularly the chimes and struck percussion—were chillingly realistic.

Kurzweil Music Systems (KMS) came to bat in 1987 with a hugely popular series of innovative—and more affordable—products, with the 76-key K1000 and the 2-rackspace variations: 1000PX Pro Expander with (piano/strings/choir/ strings/horns) and the more specialized SX (string), HX (horn), and GX (guitar) modules. All were sample players, but in the company tradition, had powerful synthesis capabilities, made much easier using Kurzweil’s Object Mover software for Atari and Mac computers.

In 1990, KMS was sold to Young Chang (the world’s largest piano maker), with Kurzweil in a consultancy role. The company launched a potent revolution with 1992’s K2000 series (and later K2xxx) sampler/synths, all based around the VAST (Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology) that offered a deep set of DSP tools, eventually combined with KB3 Tone Wheel Emulation, providing lifelike Hammond B3 sounds. Young Chang was acquired by Hyundai Development Corp. in 2006, again with Kurzweil in a key role at KMS as Chief Strategy Officer. And there, Kurzweil continued its line of world-class home digital pianos and live performance and studio keyboards. Today, the Kurzweil brand shows no sign of slowing down, especially with its flagship Forte 88-key Stage Piano with Flash-Play technology, instant program loading capabilities, and 16 GB of sounds, including German and Japanese concert grands and electric pianos reproduced in UltraHigh Definition (UHD™).

Ray Kurzweil is much more than a music innovator. He’s penned five books, including the 2012 New York Times best seller How to Create a Mind, and he’s been working with Google as Director of Engineering to develop machine intelligence and language understanding technologies. In terms of looking at artificial intelligence, Kurzweil coined the phrase “accelerating intelligence,” referring to the rapidly accelerating advancement in the effects on biological- and machine-based technologies on modern life. A year ago, he predicted that 15 years in the future (figure around 2029), computers will have surpassed the “Turing Test”— progression to a state where they will be smarter than humans—with cognitive skills and the ability to possess human skills such as telling jokes or flirting.

With Ray Kurzweil, the only safe prediction is to expect the unexpected.

George Petersen is the Director of the NAMM TECnology Hall of Fame and the editor of FRONT of HOUSE magazine.