Frank Zappa and his Futuristic Synclavier


The Synclavier System was an early digital synthesizer and sampler, manufactured by New England Digital. First released in 1975, it proved to be highly influential among both music producers and electronic musicians, due to its versatility, its cutting-edge technology and distinctive sound. First developed at Dartmouth College, the Synclavier was one of the first synthesizers to completely integrate digital technology. It used FM synthesis as well as sampling in order to create sounds, which were stored on large, magnetic disks. It was often referred to, by New England Digital and others, as the "tapeless studio," due to one's ability to compose and produce an entire song, solely on the Synclavier. Synclavier Systems were expensive - the highest price ever paid for one was about $500,000, although average systems were closer to about $200,000 - $300,000 making them mostly inaccessible to the average musician. Now the Synclavier is a virtual synth that can be downloaded for less than $200.


Depending on your wealth, each system offered up to 96 voices of 16-bit sample playback, along with 32 metallic-sounding FM synthesizer voices. A 'direct to disk' recording option to capture vocals and acoustic instruments arrived in the late 1980s. You also got a very geeky looking monochrome graphic terminal to program the beast (eventually replaced by an Apple Mac running terminal emulation software). The high level features don't tell the full story, though. The earliest Synclaviers were relatively straight-forward digital synthesizers. With the addition of polyphonic digital sound sampling in the mid 1980s, the system became a monster in the world of sound production. The integrated system featured "total recall" of each project, but the Synclavier was most remarkable because of its stunning sound libraries. These professionally recorded collections sold for over $10,000 and were light-years beyond anything available for other systems of the era (except maybe the Australian Fairlight CMI). In fact, many affordable sample-playback synthesizers from the late 1980s offered sound ROMs which featured sounds created on a Synclavier or Fairlight. 



In addition to the control rack, the system featured a 76 key weighted musical keyboard (based on the Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 mechanism) that was slathered with dozens of backlit buttons. The sound cards themselves were eventually tweaked to capture audio at the then unheard-of rate of 100 kHz (in comparison, most modern $300 'pro' soundcards run at 192 kHz, although they don't use discrete $200 military-grade DACs). Part of the mystique around the Synclavier system was its stunning complexity. Each system comprised of dozens of circuit boards that were often upgraded several times through the machine's life. The result is that there is no single definitive version. New England Digital eventually collapsed in 1992, unable to compete against an onslaught of increasingly affordable and sophisticated digital instruments and personal computers. 



In 1983, Zappa received a synclavier, first using it for accompanying the spoken parts of "Thing-Fish". Next compositions performed on it appeared on "The perfect stranger" and the 1985 release "FZ meets the mothers of prevention". With the exception of one guitar solo the instrumental album "Jazz from hell" (1986) is all composed on the synclavier. The album makes full use of the instrument to get perfect high tempo recordings of complex compositions. Zappa won a Grammy for the album in 1987, even though he was convinced that nobody at the Grammy's actually listened to it. At the time of the "Jazz from hell" release in 1986 Zappa had a guest appearance in the Miami Vice TV-series as the drug dealer Mario Fuentes.
  


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