Monday, March 23, 2009

Stories, legends, and rumors about synths -- true or false?

Story: Laurens Hammond, inventor of the Hammond organ, was tone deaf and couldn't play.

Verdict: Partly true. The part about being tone deaf is probably false; in Hammond as in Organ: The Laurens Hammond Story, Stuyvesant Berry describes Hammond's boyhood experiences in St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois, and how fond Hammond was of the organ music in the church. It was the memory of this music which first inspired Hammond to build an organ when he was seeking a new application for the Hammond Clock Company's synchronous motors. Hammond was familiar with the various classical orchestra instruments, and as Berry describes, during the period when the organ was being designed, Hammond became for a time one of the world's foremost experts on the tonalities of what we now call additive synthesis. However, it is true that Hammond did not play, as Berry documents in the last chapter. Most likely it was simply not high on his priority list; Hammond was a prolific inventor who worked long hours for most of his life.

Story: No recording was ever made of the Telharmonium, the first synthesizer.

Verdict: Possibly true. The last operating Telharmonium was shut down in 1916; if any recording was ever made, it would have been a transcription to a phonograph record or Edison cylinder, given that no other recording technology existed at the time. No recordings are known to exist today, and there is no definitive account of any recording having ever been made.
Story: Moog once designed a DCO-based synth.
Verdict: True. The SL-8 was an eight-voice polysynth with DCOs, priced below the Memorymoog line. It was premiered at the NAMM show in 1983. Unfortunately, another synth introduced at that same show was the Yamaha DX-7. The Moog staff realized what that meant. (And they were right.) The SL-8 never went into production, and the prototype was eventually dismantled.

Story: The Rhodes Chroma was actually designed by ARP.

Verdict: True. Engineers at ARP were working on the basic concept for the Chroma as early as 1977; however, company management regarded the Avatar guitar synthesizer as a higher-priority project, and so the Chroma effort stretched out. When the market failure of the Avatar became clear in 1980, a crash effort was launched to complete the Chroma design, but they ran out of time; ARP was forced into bankruptcy in 1981. The company's chief engineer, Philip Dodds, was nominated by the court-appointed receiver to wrap up the company's affairs. He arranged to see the rights to the Chroma to CBS, plus reassemble the development staff (including himself) at a CBS facility to complete the design. This was done, and CBS began marketing the Chroma using the Rhodes brand name (which it owned at the time) the following year. The Chroma staff was not actually part of Rhodes, and never had anything to do with any other Rhodes products.

Story: Prior to the creation of MIDI, Sequential Circuits had designed a serial bus for musical instruments which was much faster than MIDI.

Verdict: True. The interface was implemented on the Rev3 Prophet-5; it allowed a sequencer to play the synth, command program changes, send and receive program data, and receive key presses from the P5's keyboard. The obvious question to ask, then, is: why didn't Sequential propose this as the MIDI standard? Three possible reasons:

  1. Cost. A major goal of the MIDI standard was to create a low-cost interface. Sequential's interface required a high-speed UART which expected to be externally clocked by the sequencer. This increased the cost of both the synth and the sequencer. Expensive, length-matched coaxial cables were required for interconnects. By sacrificing speed, MIDI was able to adopt a lower-cost UART, clock circuit, and cabling, and still have some cost margin to add in needed protection in the interfaces against static electricity and mis-connections.
  2. Hardware and software dependence. The communications protocol was designed specifically for the P5; for example, the format in which key presses were transmitted and received depended on the specific number of keys on the P5, and on the fact that the keyboard didn't have velocity or aftertouch.
  3. Tight timing constraints. The sequencer interface interacted intimately with the P5's main software processing loop. Data being sent, particularly key press data, had to arrive within a specific time window to prevent either lost data or control response problems for the person playing the P5. A CPU or software upgrade would have changed these, and needless to say, a different model of synth would have had completely different constraints. This would have made writing sequencer software a nightmare.

Story: The prototype of the Moog Voyager Old School was stolen from Moog.

Verdict: True. It was stolen from the company's booth at the Musikmesse trade show in Germany in 2008. However, it was recovered. In an incredible act of stupidity, the thief listed it on eBay; the ad was traced and the thief caught. The same thief stole equipment from other companies at the show.

Story: Edgar Winter used to play with an ARP 2600 on a guitar strap.

Verdict: Partly true. Edgar didn't strap on the whole 2600, just the keyboard. Even so, the ARP 2600 keyboard was a pretty substantial hunk of iron. On the other hand, Wayne Famous of the '80s synth-pop band The Producers did in fact strap on an Oberheim OB-X... and he now has back problems to show for his trouble. Here's a video of Wayne at work in 1981.

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