Once while still in high school, I sent a letter along with a $5 check to The New England Digital Corporation requesting a copy of The Incredible Sounds of Synclavier II, the demo LP for their formidable Synclavier II synthesizer. The company’s tagline made the bold assertion that this would be “the last synthesizer you’ll ever need” and like everyone else, I believed them. But I also wanted to hear the thing.

To better understand the buzz this instrument created, just look at the photo below and while doing so, try to imagine that it’s 1983. Housed in a smart, mahogany frame, the black panel was awash in back-lit buttons whose labels spoke of exotic, bewildering concepts like “partial timbres” and “F.M. Ratios.”  On the left, there was a large dial for parametric tweaking, the values of which were displayed on a LED screen above. It looked like the future.

synclavier_lg

But it didn’t end there. It also included a 16-bit computer system, which elevated the thing to an entirely new level of awesome. Altogether, the Synclavier II was more than just a synthesizer: it was a wave sampler, a music scoring system (staff notation), and a multi-track sequencer all in one.

There was just the small matter of cost. Basic models started at $15,000 with the full-blown versions priced at over $300,000. That’s in 1983 dollars, mind you. With that same small fortune (about $750,000 today), one could have purchased seven Steinway D concert grands, not to mention a house or two. Needless to say, I was never going to own one.

Synclavier Terminal
The Radio Shack TRS-80? Nope, that’s the Synclavier’s computer system

Today I unearthed my copy of this album and was immediately awed by its BLUE-ness. Most keyboard demo records of that era were flimsy tear-out 45s placed in trade magazines. New England Digital chose to produce a double-side colored vinyl LP instead. (First rule of luxury: marketing materials should be on par with the item being sold.) I found copies of this record selling online for around $50.

A small irony here. While the demo record has enjoyed a 10-fold increase in value, the synthesizer itself didn’t fare so well. Current street price, if you can find any that still work, is roughly $5000-$10000, or 1/30th of their original value (here’s one on ebay).

Synclavier Demo LP
The Synclavier II Demo LP

I ripped a few samples off my copy of this LP. Enjoy the vinyl crackle.

Cosmic Car Horn:

Big Bells:

Samuel Barber, the alien remix:

Falling Sounds:

And a factory preset that you might recognize:

At the time, these sounds represented an entirely new sonic aesthetic, the FM Digital Sound. You can probably imagine its effect on the listeners of that era.

As eluded to above, the most notable example of the Synclavier II is the clanging gong heard at the beginning of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (the factory preset above).

MichaelJackson_Videoshoots-Beat-It_Vettri.Net-04
MJ’s “Beat It”

The Synclavier is also responsible for Pat Metheny’s trademark synth guitar sound (e.g., “Are You Going With Me?”), albums like Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtle, George Michael’s Faith, not to mention countless film scores. Frank Zappa once remarked that “with the Synclavier you can have every imaginable group of instruments play the most complex passages because the little fellows inside will always play it with a millisecond precision degree.” The Synclavier essentially held dominance over the music industry throughout the ’80s.

I leave you with this silly Synclavier video demo from way back when. Remember, $300,000 750,000!

Here are a few Synclavier fan sites:

http://www.500sound.com/sindex.html

http://www.emusician.com/techniques/0768/gear-geek-ned-synclavier-ii/138135

http://ned.synthesizers.fr/

 

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