In 1977, the marriage of motion pictures and telephones somehow birthed Hal Alles’ Bell Labs Digital Synthesizer – an experimental additive synth that imagined new directions for both music and vocal communication. This 1977 demo has the creator show off that vision, and Laurie Spiegel is on-hand to explore the device compositionally.
Music tech comes in cycles, and telephony and music often traverses those cycles hand in hand. Those paths did have a tendency to pass through Bell Labs, with different generations of inventors. The original Homer Dudley Vocoder got going at Bell in 1928, as a means of encoding vocal information (as the name tells you). Then there was Max Mathews and team and the evolution of the first real digital synthesis language MUSIC-N, and along with John Larry Kelly, Jr.., the first singing machine, performing “Daisy Bell.”
There was enough going on at Bell Labs that the journal Nature (in its physics review) last year published an article musing whether it would every be possible to create a place like that again:
The telephony – music connection is back these days with machine learning – much of the work that applies to DSP and generative sound is related to models developed for text and voice communication. And just as in the 1970s (or 1960s, 50s, or 30s), music may find ways of transcending obvious communication and diving into the realm of expression.
But let’s zoom in on this particular instrument, as it’s fascinating – and plays an unexpected role in the history of 1980s Italian synths and… Atari?! Here’s a rough timeline:
1970s Bell Labs Digital Synthesizer – created by Hal Alles
16-bit digital synth, 30k samples/sec, 32 FM sinewave oscillators for additive synthesis
Two 61-key keyboard manuals
4 3-axis joysticks
Two 8-inch floppy drives
Color video terminal
1400 integrated circuits
4 16-bit output terminals
136 kg / 300 lbs
Wikipedia has a good breakdown. (I do not imagine machine learning will be able to create cross-referenced text quite like humans.)
Laurie Spiegel on the instrument:
I realize I may have seen bits of this thing at a brief stay in Oberlin in the 90s, where its components wound up. Apparently, Laurie’s composition was the only creation for this unusual instrument. nd it was massively unwieldy and the interface was a bit – let’s say maximalist, charitable. But you’ll see a number of features (multiple FM oscillators, digital architecture) that make some sense today. Alles’ deeper vision transcends any of those specs, and explains why it was an influential creation. (Someone in YouTube comments describes having their mind blown when they saw this presentation back in 1977.)
Here’s how Alles describes the project’s birth:
“As a research organization (Bell labs), we had no product responsibility. As a technology research organization, our research product had a very short shelf life. To have impact, we had to create “demonstrations”. We were selling digital design within a company with a 100 year history of analog design. I got pretty good at 30 minute demonstrations of the real time capabilities of the digital hardware I was designing and building. I was typically doing several demonstrations a week to Bell Labs people responsible for product development. I had developed one of the first programmable digital filters that could be dynamically reconfigured to do all of the end telephone office filtering and tone generation. It could also be configured to play digitally synthesized music in real time. I developed a demo of the telephone applications (technically impressive but boring to most people), and ended the demo with synthesized music. The music application was almost universally appreciated, and eventually a lot of people came to just hear the music.”
Check it out at the wonderful 120 years reference:
It’s also great to read Max talking about controllers – as this seems relevant today (and to a lot of approaches to modular synthesis or the design of the Nonlinear Labs instruments).
“The goal was to have recording studio sound quality and mixing/processing capabilities, orchestra versatility, and a multitude of proportional human controls such as position sensitive keyboard, slides, knobs, joysticks, etc. It also needed a general purpose computer to configure, control and record everything. The goal included making it self-contained and “portable”. I proposed this project to my boss while walking back from lunch. He approved it before we got to our offices. ““The goal was to have recording studio sound quality and mixing/processing capabilities, orchestra versatility, and a multitude of proportional human controls such as position sensitive keyboard, slides, knobs, joysticks, etc. It also needed a general purpose computer to configure, control and record everything. The goal included making it self-contained and “portable”. I proposed this project to my boss while walking back from lunch. He approved it before we got to our offices. “
The Alles device didn’t get far – figuratively or literally – so the one rare but actually-used descendant we get is the Crumar GSD. That instrument, co-created by Crumar and the USA’s Digital Keyboards, Inc., adapted the digital capabilities of the original Alles synth onto a Z-80 microcomputer and single-board design.
Digital synthesis today is something a lot of people care about, but maybe part of the reason the Alles and Crumar instruments tend to be relevant to footnotes in history is the way that history was written. Digital sampling was considered the major breakthrough, at least until the debut of the Yamaha DX7, so Fairlight and Synclavier are household names, and Alles is not.
But wow, even the GDS was too expensive and too heavy for anyone to own – apart from Klaus Schulze and Wendy Carlos, who got one – it sure looks ahead of its time. 16-part polyphony, 8-part multi-timbral, more faders and a joystick, 32 envelopes with up to 16 stages, 32 oscillators, distortion and phase distortion in addition to additive synthesis – 128 filters? You could show this at Superbooth 2023 and blow some minds. And this was 1980.
Check out this great history of the instrument:
Crumar General Development System [polynomial]
Oh yeah, and for everyone wondering why it’s tough to replicate the sounds of Wendy Carlos’ Tron soundtrack? That’s because this is a Crumar GDS on the lead.
Okay, sure, this may have sunk the storied Crumar company, but plenty of ground-breaking synth companies sort of, erm, failed while innovating.
Speaking of Bell and digital synthesis history, that is Max Mathews in this pic, who worked on the software and conceptualization of the GDS:
At the end of the video of this 1989 interview with BBC Two, Wendy Carlos shows off her GDS and her precise approach to percussion sound design – impressive, as this sounds almost like physical modeling but isn’t:
In German but with lots of pictures, the excellent Amazona.de picks up the story from there. The successors to the GDS, the Synergy I and Synergy II+, made these instruments more manageable, improved the design, and added MIDI:
Here’s a nice demo of the Synergy in action:
I’m posting this partly in the hopes that we get some folks checking on this generation of instruments. And it’s inspiring to me to watch Wendy Carlos designing sounds – even without some rare hardware around, this approach can now be replicated in a lot of software. It’s the craft of sound creation that ultimately matters, much as I admire the old gear. (Hmm – might also have to think about how to map faders and a joystick, even.)
So, look forward to some feedback. I might also have to get back to Italy to check in on some of the instruments still here in Europe.