The early years of New England Digital Corporation

Synthesis Pioneer Cameron Jones Talks History and Making A New Synclavier

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Synthesis pioneer Cameron Jones, details the storied history of a company he formed, New England Digital Corporation, and the legacy of its iconic product, the Synclavier. Cameron discusses his ongoing partnership with Arturia, and how his new venture—Synclavier Digital—is the most complete user interfacing version of the original.

By Neal Andrew Emil Gustafson

The HUB: Thank you, Cameron Jones, for taking the time to speak with us. Can you share with our readers some background on your career?

Cameron Jones: In 1976, my business partner Sydney Alonso and I formed a corporation—New England Digital Corporation—in Norwich, Vermont. I believe that was the same month that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. I think it was March of 1976 when they did it; I know that's when we did it.

Sydney was a hardware engineer, and I was a software engineer. During that time, I was a student at Dartmouth College. We had been working at Dartmouth on a project in computer-assisted instruction in music.

We were trying to get a computer to make musical sounds, and we succeeded in this pursuit. This was the foundation for the very first Synclavier. 

We formed the corporation—New England Digital Corporation—came out with the Synclavier I in 1978 and I showed the instrument at the Audio Engineering Convention that year with some help from Jon Appleton.

New England Digital Logo

The HUB: You came to NAMM that year?

CJ: No, that was AES—Audio Engineering Society—because it was much more of a technical product, and that show was the more suitable place for such a product. It was in Los Angeles in May of 1978.

We sold thirteen of those instruments—mostly—to colleges and universities researching electronic music. Then—in 1979—we raised a little bit of money to fund the corporation, and we came out with the Synclavier II  in 1980.

I wrote all the software for that. I don't' think we had software staff until we started hiring people after we raised money.

The company had an excellent twenty-year run, and it finally folded—when the tape machine era came to an end—in 1993. The intellectual property was bought up by a bank—then it was owned by a Canadian company called Airworks—and I bought the intellectual property and the trademark back from a second bank which had foreclosed on it from Airworks.

In 1998, I got the trade name and software back, and this year I've ported the original software to run on an iPad, and that's what our Synclavier Go! product is.

Cameron Jones and Peter Alonso

Sydney Alonso (L) and Cameron Jones (R)

The HUB: Your partner—Sydney Alonso—was a teacher at the university?

CJ: No, Sydney was called a “Research Associate.”

The HUB: Like an “Adjunct Professor”?

CJ: Academia is like the military—there's a whole hierarchy of titles—and if you use the wrong title you'll get slapped in the face.

Sydney was a student at MIT—it must have been 1968 or 1969 when all the turmoil was there—and he dropped out of college. He was living in Vermont, and he was working on a funded research project at the Thayer School of Engineering in a technical capacity. His official title was a “Research Associate,” so he wasn't really on the faculty and he wasn't a professor; he was a “Research Associate.”

At one point in there, he was working on actually getting a college degree from Dartmouth, and I don't remember, whether he got it or not. We were just so busy running our company that it didn’t matter at that point, but that's how we met, and that's how the project got started.

The HUB: When you guys were working on this project research together, at what point did you know that you had something that you wanted to turn into a product?

New England Digital's Synclavier One

CJ: It was the day I graduated from college, I said,  “Holy cow! I've got to get a job!”

I didn't want to do it—I had been working with Sydney on this project— and I felt excited about the future of computers, and music. This was before MIDI; it was before the personal computer. It's like Henry Ford trying to make an internal combustion engine when you can't buy gasoline.

I enjoyed writing software that made a sound. I found that very personally rewarding.

Some people—software engineers—they work for the military industrial complex, or they work in a bank, and they get paid big money, but they can't hear the results of their work. I could—literally—hear the results of my work, and I found that very gratifying.

Back then, you had to use a “minicomputer,” which was the size of a small refrigerator for computing.  However, Sydney and I had developed a small, portable 16-bit computer—about the size of a shoe box—and we started the company in 1976, selling the machines to do scientific data collection.

It was a self-funded—I put up two thousand dollars—as a sweat equity startup, and we had, maybe, fifty people that had bought the computer to do temperature measurements, and feed the data into the campus time-sharing computer. For scientific research of that era, you would have printed out a strip chart recorder, so we had a small business going with this computer—however—we felt it would be primitive.

I was young and ambitious, and I didn't know anything about the recording industry, or whether the unions would try and put me out of business or not, but I wanted to find a way to use this technology for a  musical means—then it hit me—and we thought,  “My God! We could make a portable computerized musical instrument!”

So, we did, and that's what we brought the first Synclavier to the AES show in 1978.

The HUB: After you showcased the first Synclavier at AES in 1978, what were some of the next significant nodes in that timeline where people started using it in a larger capacity that made you think, “Wow, this is taking off?”

CJ: In 1978, we knew the primary market for the device—as it was very geeky to use—was colleges and universities that had electronic music programs. There was a big one at Columbia University, and at The University of Victoria in BC, but I remember spending much of my time at that first AES show trying to get Suzanne Ciani interested in it.

She looked at the instrument and said, “Well, it's a little bit geeky, and it's not quite there yet.”

However, we did sell it to thirteen colleges and universities, and the last Synclavier I was purchased by Mike Thorn—a pop music producer from the UK—who produced for the band The Shirts.

That same year Denny Jaeger did the demo album for the Synclavier II.

Denny Jaeger was in the advertising business, and he made money writing music for TV commercials music with clients like Meryl Lynch, Sears Roebuck, amongst others. He'd write out his music longhand, hire a small studio ensemble to do this. One day, he said,  “You know what? This instrument—with some additions—could become a session musician's tool.”

In August of 1979, we raised some money, and that’s when we started the development of Synclavier II.

Denny provided much input on how the Synclavier II  should operate—the kind of software controls that should be in it—and I did the mechanical design of the button panel, and I wrote the bulk of the software.

A combination of my real-time software, a few other contributors, and Denny Jaeger’s persistence—if you will—helped progress this into a commercial product.

I had hired a business manager—Brad Naples—who went on to lead the company, as I was always busy in the software. I was just concerned with getting the stupid thing to work, which was a full-time job. I didn’t understand the industry or the potentially revolutionary nature of the instrument, but Brad and Sydney had much more of a big picture view, and they thought the device could become very commercially successful. Which, it did!

The Synclavier II launched in May of 1980, and it had a terrific thirteen-year run as one of the leading musical instruments of the world.

New England Digital's Synclavier II

The HUB: When I try to explain to people what The Synclavier II sounds like—obviously it sounds like many things—the most poignant reference point that people would remember in their minds is the beginning sound of “Beat It” from Michael Jackson.

CJ: Of course they do!

The HUB: Where does that patch—or “Timbre,” as you call it—come from?

CJ: It's the number two patch on the system disc, “Galactic Cymbal No. 2” or something like that.

Interestingly enough, I graduated from Dartmouth College in 1976—did my undergraduate in 1975, and I had a one-year engineering thing that dragged on until 1977—but I resigned from management when we raised money and hired the management for New England Digital Corp.

I stepped out of management, because I'm a software developer and a musician, and there were better people suited for those roles. I took a part-time position with the company, and I wanted to finish my music degree. I was turning thirty, and I said,  “Oh my God,  is thirty  middle-aged? After looking it up, I found out that forty-five is middle aged!

However, I wanted to get some credentials as a musician—I felt that I would be short-changing myself if I never took the time—so I went to The School of Music at Indiana University with my primary instrument being Double Bass

This was the fall of 1983, and I was living in student housing. I had a clock radio, and my alarm clock came on, and I heard “Clang, Clang, Clang!” from a song on the radio. I thought,  “Wait a minute, I know that sound!” This song ended up being Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” on the radio. From that day, I knew things were going to be different going forward and we were going to be successful. It was a gratifying feeling and experience.

The HUB: What a moment! How did your relationship with Arturia form? Did they approach you or did you contact them?

CJ: Like many things, it was just a fortuitous coming together of events.

Back in the day, the computer couldn't do any signal processing, all it could do was take the samples in memory, and spit the samples out. There was no digital signal processing that the general purpose computers could do.

In 2010, we were looking at technology and computers are getting more powerful. I was thinking, “Can we do a VST plugin? Is this possible, can we do this?”

I was a sole practitioner, but I was talking to people in the industry for ideas, and Arturia—of course—was very successful with their V Collection.

Arturia Synclavier V

In 2015, one of their project managers—Glen Darcy—tracked me down and said,  “You know, maybe we can partner on this if it's too much for you to do by yourself?”

That's when the partnership formed. Arturia has a beautiful graphics engine, beautiful software environment.  It takes the DSP engine and spits it out as an AAX plugin for Pro Tools, an Audio Unit plugin, and a VST. I write the software once, and “Voila!”, it comes out in all the different platforms.

I worked on that DSP engine for about a year—we signed the development agreement around June of 2015—porting the original software from XPL to C.  I created  the digital model of the FM synthesizer with all its limitations and defects—modeled the round off error, the quantization error, then the limitation of only being able to do a 12-Bit multiply with an index shift count, etc—as I wanted those exact sounds preserved.

They came out with a product in May of 2016, and it was instantly very successfully. I've enjoyed working with Arturia ever since.

Last summer, we did an update that brought in the resynthesis techniques that I had developed at New England Digital Corp. I believe 1984 was the year I did resynthesis addition to the original Synclavier II.

The HUB: The resynthesis thing was so far ahead of its time…It's still ahead of its time, honestly.

CJ: In the modern DSP world, you can have your waveform on the screen, and wave your mouse, and instantly you get all sorts of new sounds.

As a company—New England Digital Corp—we were always concerned with quality. We wanted to be proud of the product, from a technical standpoint. There was a sampling product out; it was called the Emulator, who made that? Emu and they did 12-Bit sampling. Now that was revolutionary at the time, but I mean it just wasn't full fidelity, it didn't capture the full fidelity of the sound.

We waited until 1985 to do a polyphonic sampling product, as that was when the computer could do 50 kHz sampling—before the 44.1 kHz standard—with a full 16-Bit resolution. This meant you could capture the full fidelity of the sampled instruments.

The HUB: The dynamics, the frequency, and everything.

CJ: Yeah, and with the Synclavier, you could apply all the sound design effects that you had been using with FM—the envelope generators, the delay characteristics, and the chorus settings—you could immediately apply all of those sound design techniques to the sample library.

I think that's why the polyphonic sampling became such a big player in the industry for the last half of that decade.

The HUB: What kind of further updates do you guys have coming up for the Arturia Synclavier V?

CJ: I'm going to leave that up to Arturia, but it's going to be big...

The HUB: I will be looking forward to that! It's 2019, and your new venture—Synclavier Digital—is a thing now. What are the products that you are displaying at NAMM this year?

Synclavier Digital

CJ: I always wanted to do a touch screen interface for the Synclavier. The Arturia Synclavier V is a beautiful graphics interface for use on a computer with a mouse. It's excellent for use inside of a digital audio workstation—like Pro Tools or Ableton Live—and that is a sure way of working.

However, the original Synclavier—you might not think of it this way—but that button panel was a touch screen, and it was 32x8 pixels. You'd swipe the buttons— just like swiping the surface of an iPad—to select your parameters.

I wanted to develop a modern touch screen interface for the DSP engine I built for the plugin. When I saw the announcement about the iPad Pro, and I read the product specs—then, I did some CPU measurements on it—and I said, “The iPad Pro is not just a tablet for reading your books on; this is a powerful interfacing device that is going to become a new musical instrument.”

I've got an excellent DSP engine, and I want to see it come to life with a touch screen interface, and I felt I could recreate the original instrument on the iPad offering the touch screen.

I hired my neighbor—Craig Phillips—to design and fabricate a new version of the original Synclavier Knob. We took the original knob design—the same springs, same weight, and the same feel—and remade it.

Between the new knob, Synclavier Go! or Synclavier Pocket! Also, an iPhone or iPad—you don't need the iPad Pro; however, it gives you more voices—you have a brand new way to interface with this instrument that is more right-brained and less left-brained.

Synclavier Digital's Product Line

The HUB: The Synclavier Knob, can you explain just a bit about that? What does it do?

CJ: The Synclavier—I remember inventing this in 1977—it uses a rate of change controller. By pressing a button—the knob is a zero-centered knob—you select what characteristic of the sound you want to change, and then you close your eyes and listen.

You move it up; you move it down, you don't care what the number is, you're not looking at what the number is. You're using your right brain— it's intuitive—and your ears, not your eyes, and your artistic side.

It's got a particular tactile feel—the force on it, the weight of it—and some people fall in love with the way it feels under your fingers.

We're making them one at a time, and it does recreate the original instrument spectacularly.

In terms of the pedagogical aspects of the app—learning about sound design, what's an attack, what's a three-millisecond attack line, etc.—it's an educational tool. It's got a vast sound library—integrates with Ableton Link, Audioburst, and with the other iOS apps on your device—and it's fun to use.

I've lined up language translators in the app store. The next generation—people who are going to be the John Williams and Quincy Jones of the next twenty years—who don't have a big Pro Tools rig, all they have is an iPad, and this is really whom we see at the target audience.

You can plug your MIDI keyboard into your iPad or iPhone, and “Clang, Clang, Clang!”

The HUB: Get your “Beat It” preset number two!

CJ: Yeah!

The HUB: It's just fascinating to me, creators like yourself, who have been at the forefront of innovating products all this time, continue to push these envelopes—making a new app for a platform on the precipice of the future—are still out here inventing products, and it's remarkable.

CJ: You have to be slightly loose in the head to pursue the arts professionally, but some people need self-expression.

God bless the people that live in the suburbs, work at a job, and raise a family. I have tremendous respect for that; however, that path isn't for everyone.

I've always been emotionally motivated by being able to use my fingers to write some software, and then, I can hear the results.

When this little technological turn in the road came—The iPad—I said, “I'm going to do it again!”

I'm very excited about bringing this method of sound design—currently, combing FM and additive synthesis, but perhaps in the future, also sampling and sequencing, I don’t know—to market.

I feel at this age in my life, if I'm spending my effort promoting that creative type tool to the world, well, I feel good about it.

Neal Andrew Emil Gustafson is a Chicago-based musician, record producer, brand marketer, content editor, and Eventide Audio artist. For more information about his work, check out his home on the web.

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