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The Synclavier System was an early 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.
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 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. Although this made it inaccessible for most musicians, it found widespread use among producers and professional recording studios, and it competed in this market with other high-end production systems, such as the Fairlight CMI.
For the price, users got a system with custom parts, built by hand, all to the highest specifications available. Users enjoyed most of the abilities of modern PC "virtual" sound studios - recording, sequencing, playback, and disk storage. All were integrated seamlessly with the hardware, with a high degree of parallelism built into the electronics (for example, two digital to analog converters for each stereo channel of sampled sound, with analog volume control) to avoid the issues of digital mixing artifacts, latency, and heavy CPU usage that are concerns of modern PC-based studios. In these respects, the Synclavier system still surpasses modern methods.
Several generations of the Synclavier were produced. The earliest, called simply the "Synclavier" and later called "Synclavier I" and shown in the photo, came out in 1977-78 and was a primarily academic music and research system. It was bought by several universities, and got the attention of a number of leading electronic musicians. Some of the research configurations were simply the electronics, without a keyboard, and were controlled by writing custom software.
Bottom of Synclavier rack
In 1980, the "Synclavier II" was introduced, which was far more commercially packaged. The basic configuration had an on-off keyboard (known as the Original Keyboard), and 8 to 32 voices of FM sound generation. Over the next six years, Synclavier II became the most commonly sold configuration, and a number of options were introduced.
The Sample-to-Disk option offered in 1982 was the first 16-bit digital audio hard drive recording device on the market. It was capable of monophonic recordings with a sampling rate of up to 50 kHz. Greater throughput was not possible due to the limitations of hard drives at the time.
Display of Velocity Pressure Keyboard (VPK)
The velocity-sensitive and pressure-sensitive keyboard option came out soon afterwards, and many users upgraded to it. To indicate that this was an option compatible with the Synclavier II, and not the introduction of a Synclavier III, the V-P keyboard was simply labeled "Synclavier".
By the mid-1980s, the Polyphonic Sampling option added to the sound capabilities. Like the FM boards, this option was available in different numbers of voices, and different amounts of memory.
In the late 1980s, the company introduced configurations of the basic electronics, the V-P keyboard, the polyphonic sampling voices, and large disk storage to create different systems that were focused on movie production, on sound effects, on studio recording, and on live performance. These realized the concept of the tapeless studio, and were marketed as the Synclavier 3200, 6400, and 9600 models.
New England Digital went out of business in 1991, and the Synclavier is no longer manufactured. It is, however, still in use in the recording industry, particularly among soundtrack composers and sound designers.
Notable Synclavier users
- a-ha - album Hunting High and Low (1985)
- Cameo - album Word Up! (1986)
- Laurie Anderson - her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak includes visual depictions of Synclavier sound waves in the liner notes
- Benny Andersson - The famous ABBA musician and composer still uses a modified Synclavier 3200.
- Wally Badarou - keyboardist for Level 42, Robert Palmer and others.
- Brian Banks - film composer
- Bob Boilen - Used during production of the 'whizbang' audio track for the Smithsonian Museum of American History
- Kate Bush
- Sean Callery
- The Cars
- Chick Corea - used the Synclavier on Elektric Band albums and live performances as well.
- Crimson Glory - used for the drums parts on their 1989 album "Transcendence"
- Depeche Mode (Mute Records)
- Duran Duran - programmed by Chuck Hammer
- Eurythmics - for their 1987 album Savage
- Fad Gadget (Mute Records}
- Information Society used it on their Peace and Love,Inc. album in 1992
- Les Fradkin - Record producer and Guitar Synthesizer player: One Life to Live soap opera music, jingles, various film scores
- Prince - (Musician & composer) used a large system 1982–1988 on his albums Sign o' the Times and Lovesexy
- Hall & Oates - Most of 1984's Big Bam Boom album.
- Chuck Hammer - Guitarchitecture recordings 1983–1986, and recordings with, Nile Rodgers, Duran Duran and rehearsals with Laurie Anderson
- Herbie Hancock
- Paul Hardcastle - Used on all his tracks from 1986 onwards and used it exclusively to score music for TV
- Producer Trevor Horn - used the Synclavier on records by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes, and Grace Jones, among others
- Michael Jackson - particularly on his 1982 album Thriller, programming by Steve Porcaro, Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli. The famous gong sound at the beginning of "Beat It" comes courtesy of the Synclavier.
- Eddie Jobson - used on his new age release Theme of Secrets
- Mark Knopfler - The Princess Bride (1987) - With the exception of the guitar sounds, every sound you hear is generated by the Synclavier, including hand claps etc. Last exit to Brooklyn (1989) - All sounds except guitar and horns produced by the Synclavier.
- The Notting Hillbillies - Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time (1990) - All drums/percussion and bass are produced by the Synclavier.
- Allan McCarthy, composer and performer (Men Without Hats).
- John McLaughlin used it on Adventures in Radioland
- Pat Metheny - American jazz guitarist
- Producer Daniel Miller - founder of Mute Records, who used it on many Depeche Mode records
- George Michael - his Faith album (1987)
- Monolake - Owns a refurbished Synclavier II. Used significantly on 'Polygon Cities' (2005), particularly 'Digitalis' track.
- Jean-Luc Ponty - particularly on The Gift of Time, and presumably most of his 1980's albums.
- Nile Rodgers
- Martin Rushent - used the Synclavier at his 'genetic studios' with various artists including The Human League, Hysteria.
- Gary Rydstrom - used the Synclavier for sound design, as seen in a bonus featurette on the Monsters, Inc. DVD
- Scritti Politti - Provision 1988 - Synclavier was used on the entire album
- Howard Shore, film score composer - pictured with a Synclavier on the cover of Berklee Today, Fall 1997 
- Alan Silvestri - in producing the scores for the 1980s films The Clan of the Cave Bear and Flight of the Navigator.
- Paul Simon - on Simon's 1983 album Hearts and Bones, Tom Coppola is credited for Synclavier for the following tracks: "When Numbers Get Serious," "Think Too Much (b)," "Song About the Moon" and "Think Too Much (a)," and Wells Christie is credited with Synclavier on "Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War." On his 1986 album Graceland, Paul [Simon] is credited under "Synclavier" for the following tracks: "I Know What I Know" and "Gumboots"
- Sting - primarily on "Russians", and other tracks from Dream of the Blue Turtles, ...Nothing Like the Sun, The Soul Cages
- Billy Squier - Signs of Life album 1984
- Tangerine Dream - Used the Synclavier on their albums White Eagle & Exit
- Producer Mike Thorne - used the Synclavier on records by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Soft Cell, Marc Almond, and Bronski Beat, among others
- Kim Wilde - used the Synclavier on her two albums Catch As Catch Can and Teases & Dares
- Stevie Wonder - In an episode of The Cosby Show, Stevie records different snippets of the Huxtables on to his Synclavier.
- Neil Young - Used Synclavier extensively on his 1980s albums.
- Frank Zappa - composed his 1986 Grammy-winning album Jazz from Hell and recorded the works of Francesco Zappa in 1984 entirely on Synclavier. Also, the posthumous two-hour Civilization Phaze III was allegedly around 70% Synclavier-made.
- Walter Afanasieff - primarily used on early works by Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. The acoustic guitar in "Can't Let Go" and "Without You" by Carey, and the Rhodes piano in "Beauty and the Beast" from Dion's second album, Celine Dion, were all Synclavier generated.
- Tobias Enhus - Film composer, used the Synclavier on the score of the movie "X-Games 3D"
- Darrell Díaz - Producer/composer, uses a Synclavier 3200 on "Rosary Stars DVD", "Devotion" and other projects
- Bruce Nazarian - Producer, Guitarist, Film Composer - recorded the first completely tapeless LP on "Millie Scott' in 1998 for Island records; later, founded "The Magnolia Studios" in Hollywood, which used 12 Synclavier and Direct-to-Disc systems to pioneer "Digital Audio Post Mixing" using sounds played live from systems synchronized to film playback.