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The Synclavier

Weapon of Choice: Synclavier

The New England Digital Synclavier System was a powerful, integrated system for music synthesis and recording, first developed at Dartmouth College by Jon Appleton, Sydney Alonso, Cameron Jones and finally brought to world wide exposure by Brad Naples. Released in the late 1970s, the Synclavier boasted a 100 kHz sampling rate and storage on large magneto-optical discs. Synclaviers were purchased by hundreds of artists and recording studios, often at prices in excess of $200,000. Notable early adopters included:
Laurie Anderson, whose 1984 album "Mister Heartbreak" includes visual depictions of Synclavier sound waves in the liner notes
The Cars
Duran Duran
Herbie Hancock
Producer Trevor Horn, who used the Synclavier on records by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Yes, and Grace Jones, among others
Michael Jackson, particularly on his 1982 album "Thriller"
Pat Metheny
Producer Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records, who used it on many Depeche Mode records
Producer Mike Thorne, who used the Synclavier on records by Siouxsie & The Banshees, Soft Cell, Marc Almond, and Bronski Beat, among others
Frank Zappa, who composed his 1986 Grammy-winning album Jazz From Hell on the instrument, and whose posthumous two-hour Civilization, Phaze III was allegedly seventy percent Synclavier-made.

New England Digital went out of business due to venture capitalists pulling the plug in 1992. The Synclavier is no longer manufactured, but many systems are still in use in the recording industry, particularly in Sound Scoring & Sound Design for major movies and in music composition and performance. In the mid 80's, the Synclavier adopted the Macintosh Computer as the front end/user interface to the synclavier as championed within the company by Mac fanatic Svend Erik Filby.

The Synclavier is based around two separate systems - FM voices and SAMPLE voices - combined together under one dedicated Real Time Performance control software interface. There is also the option to add the Direct-to-Disk™ hard disk recording system which is also controlled seamlessly using the same control software. The Synclavier is famous for its depth of sound, versatility at sound creation and production, and speed of use.

New England Digital Corp. (1976 - 1992), based in White River Junction, Vermont, was best known for its signature product, the Synclavier System. Originally developed as the "Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer" by Dartmouth College professor Jon Appleton, in association with NED founders Cameron W. Jones and Sydney A. Alonso, - and subsequently under the marketing guidance of Brad Naples [1] who spotted the business potential of the design - the Synclavier became one of the most advanced electronic synthesis and recording tools of the day.

The system was nearly as famous for where it was not used, as it was for the list of premier studios in which it was: the extremely sophisticated synthesizer enjoyed the distinction of being banned from many famous concert halls, out of fear that it would obsolete the musicians themselves. For a while in the '80s there was even a common phrase going around 'Is it live or is it Synclavier?' particularly relating to certain performers and musicians who were found to be miming to an entire show performed by Synclavier.

The mature Synclavier was a modular, component-based system that included facilities for FM-based synthesis, digital sampling, hard-disk recording, and sophisticated computer-based sound editing. By the late 1980s, complete Synclavier systems were selling for upwards of $200,000, to famous musicians such as Sting, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and to major studios the world over. The Synclavier was also employed by experimental musicians, such as Kraftwerk, Laurie Anderson and Frank Zappa who used it extensively in their music. It also found itself popular among the academic world for research and analysis of audio, and for more clandestine operations, such as speech analysis and manipulation by the intelligence services, submarine sonar and sound analysis by the Navy, flight simulators for Boeing, and even by NASA as the core of the digital camera system on board the Galileo Probe sent to study and photograph Jupiter and its moons. Still used to this day in major movies for sound design, along with TV, Commercials and Music composition and production.

Unfortunately for New England Digital, the Synclavier became a victim of the early 1990's economic downturn, the high prices (albeit justified as the Synclavier system components were almost entirely military and aviation spec), and the rapidly increasing capabilities of personal computers, MIDI-enabled synthesizers and low-cost digital samplers. In the span of two years, the company saw enormous sales evaporate, and in 1992 they closed their doors forever. Parts of the company were purchased by Fostex, which used the technical knowledge base of staff to build several hard-disk recording systems in the 1990s (like Fostex Foundation 2000 and 2000re). Simultaneously, a group of ex-employees and product owners collaborated to form The Synclavier Company, primarily as a maintenance organization for existing customers, but with an eye to adapting Synclavier software for stand-alone personal computer use, while in Europe the previously profitable but now motherless NED Europe is currently run by ex-head of European operations, Steve Hills and is still trading to this day (2005) in London, England as Synclavier Europe

In 1998, under the company Demas, NED co-founder Cameron W. Jones (original and current owner of the Synclavier trademark and software) collaborated with ex-employee Brian S. George (owner of Demas, the company that purchased all of NED's hardware and technical assets) and original co-founding partner Sydney Alonso to develop an emulator designed to run Synclavier software for Apple Computer's Macintosh computer systems and hardware designed to share the core processing with the later generation of Apple G3 computers giving enhanced features and greater speed to the system. Later software releases have been significantly updated by freelance programmer Todd Yvega, one of the world's foremost Synclavier composers and programmers.
-- courtesy of wikipedia

The Synclavier in Action

Listen Further/Buy
Grace Jone's "Slave to the Rhythm" produced by Trevor Horn and recorded/mixed entirely on a Synclavier System.
Synclavier Emulations

Here are the most popular software emulations.
Product Name Manufacture Comments
Synclavier X Synclavier Digital Makes Synclavier emulation software that uses a custom PCI card to control actual Synclavier voice cards and memory.
Links to Synclavier Parts, Maintenance and more

Here are a few links to some great Synclavier Sites home current updates and support researching a Synclavier "plug-in"
What makes the Synclavier so special great article on why the synclavier was/is so cool.

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