Action on the Home Front
by Ted Greenwald and Jeff Burger

excerpted from Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail (Miller Freeman Books, 2000). Used by permission of the author.

Everyone can see the tremendous impact personal computers have had on electronic keyboard design and marketing. Back in 1980, though, when the only consumer computer was the Apple II [Webmaster's Note: Actually, the Atari 800 computer was also on the market at this time.] and the only digital synthesizers were clunky systems employing special-purpose computers, linking synthesizers and microcomputers was a visionary proposition. Two companies jumped into the fray, and into direct competition: Passport, with the SoundChaser, and Syntauri, with the alphaSyntauri, both priced well under $1,500 (not including the Apple). While Passport whent on to become a leader in the MIDI software market before fading away in the late '90s, the alphaSyntauri's star never shined so brightly.

Syntauri alphaSyntauri

The professional market for a computerized musical instrument may have looked small at the time, but nobody knew what to expect from the consumer and educational parkets. The Syntauri team (Charlie Kellner, Scott Gibbs, Laurie Spiegel, Ellen Lapham, Robin Jigour, Steve Leonard, and Bob Hoover) gambled on the latter, the company ad evoking family togetherness with photos of generic Mom, kindly Dad, and two full-o'-smiles kids, all gathered around a blazing computer. Despite the domestic imagery, the alphaSyntauri eventually developed into a computerized music production environment to be reckoned with.

Syntauri began with a 61-note, six-voice velocity-sensitive keyboard, real-time note displays on the CRT, and real-time recording with a storage capacity of 7,000 notes. Early on, in a paper presented at an Audio Engineering Society conference in late 1980, Laurie Spiegel detailed an FM software implementation that was subsequently scrapped because one of the team members considered the capability "too far out and weird" to sell as part of the system. Over the next few years, software updates provided ground-breaking implementations of notational display and score editing, 16-track polytimbral sequencing, drum-machine and tape sync, educational programs, special effects, user-defined scales, and user-drawn waveforms. The latter program allowed the user to design timbres visually, after which the computer analyzed, reproduced, and made them available for editing via additive techniques. This package cost $29.95 in 1982; comparable goodies couldn't be had at the consumer level until 1986.

It is possible that Syntauri's biggest hurdle was the mutually exclusive nature of the computer and musical instrument markets at that time. "If you went to a computer store, they didn't know anything about music," recalls hardware designer Bob Hoover, "and music stores didn't know anything about computers." Syntauri's other difficulties, though, had less to do with the market or the product than with management. "In their last month, they sold more stuff than they had in the previous year," Hoover asserts. "MIDI was just hitting, and basically they just missed the boat. MIDI output was available to Syntauri, and they decided not to take it. The world was finally ready for them, and they decided to stop." By Hoover's count, several thousand units were sold.

Although Syntauri dissolved in 1984, Mimetics supported the system before it stopped doing business in 1988, offering MIDI software and upgraded synthesis cards. "A lot of people are still making a living off the Syntauri, even though the technology seems incredibly outdated," Hoover commented in 1986. "It's not a dead instrument."

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