Synclavier: instrument of many talents. Music studios latch on to technological marvel

WHEN Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli, composers and synthesists from Hollywood, worked on the sound track for ``The Color Purple,'' they were working on a hunch. They needed raindrops. And not just ordinary ones, either. Fortunately, they knew they could get the right sound effects using the Synclavier - a sophisticated synthesizer with uncanny capabilities.

``We took a little eyedropper in our studio and got a whole bunch of different kinds of cans and metal pans and stuck a microphone right up there, and we went -- drip! plink! We recorded dozens of these little plinks and found our favorite ones,'' said Mr. Banks in a Monitor interview.

These short digital recordings, or ``samples,'' were done with the Synclavier. But that was just the beginning.

``Then we made up these hip African percussion rhythms [that] came out of the rain sound effects we had built,'' said Banks.

All this effort was for a rainy scene in ``The Color Purple'' in which Celie, the main character, is sitting in a house, reminiscing about the letter she got from her sister in Africa. The water is falling into buckets and pails all over the house, and the raindrop rhythms remind her of African music. Banks described how he and Mr. Marinelli at Sonar Productions Inc. manipulated the sound effects to convey what was going on in Celie's mind.

``[We brought] in the little raindrop plinks that we had sampled and started playing African-type patterns on it - which then magically went into African kalimba music. It all went seamlessly, so that as her mind went, the music went without any seams.''

Whether for feature films, commercials, TV shows, or records, the recording studio is one place where digital technology has made its mark. The synthesizer boom - fed by the revolution in digital electronics - is rapidly shifting music production away from the use of traditional instruments to inventions such as the Synclavier, where pushing buttons and ``programming'' sounds are the norm.

Yet the Synclavier, a 76-note piano keyboard flanked by a computer screen, computer keyboard, and massive central processing unit, towers above all the electronic instruments gleaming in music store windows. The average Synclavier system costs about $80,000 and is used by professionals serious about the art of manipulating sound. For Banks, the Synclavier is not a high-tech toy, but an instrument helping to change the future of composing and recording music.

``If you look at the 20th century, what big element has seeped into the art of music?'' asked Bradley Naples, president of New England Digital Corp. (NED) in White River Junction, N.H., maker of the Synclavier. ``The art of fusing recording to performing,'' he said in an interview. ``Before that, Beethoven and Mozart had to write it all down. Now [composers] are `conducting' orchestras in a recording studio by [for example] making the brasses louder through the recording console.''

What began as a small research project at Dartmouth College in 1973 has mushroomed into a prolific computer company with a unique goal. ``NED decided to put its emphasis on being the computer company that went after the niche in the musical marketplace, i.e., designing tools that would replace the recording studio in the future,'' said Mr. Naples.

Despite some competition from the less-expensive Fairlight synthesizer manufactured in Australia, the Synclavier stands out from most other synthesizers for its wide range of technical capabilities. It's got its foot in nearly every door - from sampling, studio recording, and music printing, to film and video post-production and the sound-creating technique of ``FM synthesis.''

For musicians who can afford it, the Synclavier has opened a wide range of new musical sounds and has been used by artists such as Michael Jackson, guitarist Pat Matheny and Sting, pianists Chick Corea, Stevie Wonder, and Oscar Peterson, and jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

But just what is the Synclavier?

Though it looks like a synthesizer, it's capable of recording dialogue, sound effects, or laugh tracks, Naples says. Each of the Synclavier's keys can produce four different sounds -- a total of 304 possible effects. Different keys can be assigned various storm effects such as lightning, rain, and wind. You can control the ferocity of the wind or the cracking of thunder by how hard or softly you depress the key.

The Synclavier has made a reality of the ``tapeless'' studio, where ``digital editing'' (involving recording onto discs) precludes the need for tedious rewinding, cutting, and splicing of tape - a time saver for film scorers.

``With today's Synclavier you get the capability of a $1 million studio -- the tape recorder, mixing consoles, reverb machines, -- in one box for a fraction of the cost,'' said Cameron Jones, NED's assistant director of research and development, in an article in Nation's Business magazine.

Complete libraries of pre-set sounds are available on the Synclavier, including orchestral sounds, pop instruments, and exotic instruments. A whole drum kit can be created by assigning a snare sample to one note, a kick drum sample to another note, a cymbal sample to another note, etc.

Jon Appleton, professor of music at Dartmouth College and consultant to NED, has been involved with the Synclavier for about 10 years. As a composer, he's more interested in discovering new sounds with the Synclavier - surrealist or hybrid timbres.

``Today, of course, you get a great deal of emphasis on imitating conventional instruments. That's because of the commercial role of the machine,'' he said.

In addition to creating ``raindrops,'' Banks and Marinelli used the Synclavier to do an orchestral simulation for ``The Color Purple.'' ``It sounds exactly like an orchestra - or so close that when you add sound effects and dialogue, it would never cause you to think you were listening to a synthesizer,'' said Banks. Director Steven Spielberg was able to hear what the score would sound like ``before he has spent $350,000 hiring orchestral musicians,'' he added. After this ``demo material'' was used, a real orchestra was called in for the final score.

``The film industry, TV industry, and commercial industry really have a big demand for a `simulated' orchestra,'' said Banks, ``because of budget limitations, and they're tired of TV-sounding synthesizer stuff.''

Banks said most movie scores today use synthesizers in some way. ``Almost every film recording session, even with a full orchestra, is going to have at least two or three keyboard players, bouncing around between piano and synthesizer.''

NED officials estimate that 80 percent of the Synclavier's features have come from customer suggestions. Banks and Marinelli have made many recommendations on its design. Banks said it's up to artists to ``push'' the technology. ``Everything we see the machine doing is basically stuff that we [artists] envisioned for years!'' he said.

Whenever NED comes up with a new feature for the Synclavier, Banks finds himself saying, ``Great. But now I want this,'' he said. And it's only a matter of time until artificial intelligence - not yet used in the Synclavier - does ``incredible things for film scoring and composition and records,'' he added. ``This will all look like sticks and stones in 10 years.''

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