Gear Geek: NED Synclavier II

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The Synclavier II was the first instrument to combine FM and additive synthesis, audio sampling, hard-disk recording, 200-track sequencing, and many other technologies that synthesists later took for granted.

The all-digital New England Digital (NED) Synclavier II first appeared in 1979 and encompassed many of the technologies synthesists would come to rely on a decade later. By 1983, when synth manufacturers such as Roland and Sequential launched MIDI, and Yamaha unveiled the DX7, you could already buy a Synclavier with FM and additive synthesis, audio sampling and resynthesis, multitrack sequencing, hard-disk recording, graphic waveform analysis, music-notation printing, and a velocity-sensitive keyboard. Most of those technologies gradually trickled down from the Synclavier and its Australian competitor, the Fairlight CMI, to the instruments and software that synthesists use today.

The futuristic Synclavier II was priced to match its sky-high capabilities. A full-blown system was financially beyond the reach of practically everyone but rock stars, universities, and commercial recording studios. Although a 1981 price list from NED said an 8-voice instrument with enough memory for 1,000 sequencer events sold for $13,750, a more typical system could easily cost more than 10 times as much, and at least one system reportedly sold for half-a-million dollars.

With 132 illuminated buttons and a single control knob on the front panel, every Synclavier was custom-built by hand using the finest components. Patches, sound files, and sequences were stored on 5.25-inch diskettes, Winchester hard drives, and eventually, magneto-optical discs. Most of the expense came from options and upgrades, which by 1984 included 128-voice polyphony, 50kHz mono sampling and audio recording, and a 200-track sequencer (called a digital memory recorder).

The Synclavier was conceived in the mid-''70s when pioneering composer Jon Appleton founded NED with computer developers Cameron Jones and Sydney Alonzo at New Hampshire''s Dartmouth College. NED designed its own operating system and the 16-bit ABLE computer, which had such impressive throughput that NASA installed them on spacecraft to handle large amounts of data. The Synclavier used a computer terminal with a rackmount CPU rather than a PC.

The Synclavier stayed in the public eye and ears throughout the ''80s and beyond. It made its network television debut in a 1986 episode of The Cosby Show, when Stevie Wonder sampled the Huxtables during their visit to a studio. It was featured prominently on albums by Michael Jackson (Thriller), Sting (The Dream of the Blue Turtles), Paul Simon (Hearts and Bones), George Michael (Faith), Frank Zappa (Jazz From Hell), and others too numerous to mention. And it was also a mainstay in dozens of movie soundtracks and television commercials.

All told, NED sold more than 1,200 Synclaviers worldwide. By the time the company closed its doors in June 1992, it had released several Synclavier models, including tapeless studios in the late ''80s that were adored by post-production professionals. Used Synclaviers are still a hot commodity, thanks to their military-grade construction and ongoing support by DEMAS (Digital Equipment Maintenance and Support; and Synclavier European Services ( Both companies repair, rebuild, and upgrade old Synclaviers, and they sell Mac OS X software that emulates the original computer terminal and software, ensuring the system''s viability in an age of inexpensive alternatives.

After nearly a decade as a full-time EM editor, Geary Yelton has a new title: contributing editor. He lives in Asheville, N.C.