The Synclavier II debuted in 1981 to universal excitement thanks in large part to a series of glossy full page ads like the one below. To better understand the buzz, just look at that photo and while doing so, try to imagine that it’s 1981.
“…the last synthesizer you’ll ever need.”
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 an LED screen above. It looked like the future.
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.
Not mentioned in these beautiful ads was the small matter of cost. Basic models started at \$15,000 (USD) with full-blown versions reaching a staggering \$300,000. That’s in 1981 dollars, mind you. With that same small fortune (about \$900,000 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.
But what I could own was a copy of their full length demo record, The Incredible Sounds of Synclavier II, a two-sided LP swathed in a blue vinyl. It was almost as gorgeous as the keyboard itself. Never mind that I was still in high school, I hastily mailed a five dollar check to The New England Digital Corporation to get a copy.
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 fifty bucks.
Luckily, this demo album is also available in its entirety on YouTube (below).
These sounds represented an entirely new sonic aesthetic, the FM Digital Sound. Among these is the famous clanging gong heard at the beginning of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” The same gong can be heard on the demo record as one of its factory sounds, predating Thriller by two years.
The Synclavier was also part of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s arsenal for a time, though the source for his trademark synth guitar sound (e.g., “Are You Going With Me?”) was actually the Roland GR-300. Better examples can be found on 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’ll leave you with this silly Synclavier video demo from way back when. Remember,
300,000 900,000 bucks!
Here are a few Synclavier sites to check out:
Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed Pat Metheny’s use of the Synclavier. That has been corrected above.