Sunday, August 01, 2004

Synclavier: Stradivarius of Synthesizers

Years before Digital Audio Workstations, such as Cubase, Digital Performer, Logic, Nuendo Sonar and Pro Tools became de rigueur for audio production, studio professionals were generally divided into two camps: Those who produced work using Fairlight technology, and those who worked on New England Digital’s Synclavier or Synclavier II Workstations.

To this day I think the Synclavier II must be the most beautiful electronic synthesizer ever made.

Both the Fairlight CMI and NED's Synclavier were staggeringly expensive by today’s standards, and yesterday’s. The Synclavier was a modular and system, meaning a unit could be purchased in a variety of custom configurations. One could easily spend over a hundred thousand dollars on a unit. I was the Head of Production for a studio that hosted three such machines.

Other popular machines of the day whose capabilities resembled Fairlight and Synclavier technologies were Yamaha’s DX-7 and Kurzweil’s K250, which was first to offered ROM-based sampling in the unit itself. Both the DX-7 and the K250 were undoubtedly among the top of their class as far as synthesizers go. But the quantum leap between those machines and units offered by New England Digital and Fairlight, was that the latter two manufactured something more than a synthesizer. In fact, it could be stated that they produced the precursors to today’s Digital Audio Workstations.

I would venture to guess that 90% of the US television commercials, produced in the mid eighties to mid nineties, and much television scoring in general, was produced using Synclaviers or Fairlights. I personally didn't know a music production company that didn't use one or the other as a primary compositional tool.

Eventually, and for a variety of reasons, there was a paradigm shift away from these behemoths to newer, cheaper technologies, such as Digital Performer and Logic.

Synclavier operators and users, however, tend to have a relationship with their units much the same way that a violinist who owns a Stradivarius has with his instrument. Indeed such a relationship exists between most traditional musicians and their instrument. Unlike a piece of software, a Synclavier is a musical instrument, on par with, –and in the class of– Stradivarius violins, and vintage Gibson and Fender guitars.

Today’s soft synths have a lot going for them, but I don’t know of any that endear that kind of love, or anyone who thinks software has what we colloquially refer to as ‘soul’.

I’ve worked on a variety of Synclavier units, since the prototype stage and through every upgrade up to 1997. I still know of some instruments that continue to be used in production today, despite the advances in technology and the advent of Pro Tools, I think New England Digital’s musical machines continue to sound great.

No comments: