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Programmer Matt Bucy.

The Arts

The Synclavier: Born in Vermont

‘Pretty much, for better or worse, the sound of the 1980s came out of White River Junction

BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro is not the only Vermont town deserving landmark status in the world of electronic music. About an hour up the Connecticut River, in White River Junction, in the building that now houses the Upper Valley Food Co-op, once lived the headquarters for New England Digital.

“New England Digital started in the late 1970s, and between then and the late 1980s, they were at the vanguard of electronic music,” says Matt Bucy, former programmer for the company.

The invention that put NED on the map is the Synclavier, first released in 1977, which Bucy says was “the first commercial computer-controlled digital synthesis system,” noting it “brought the computer world from academia to musicians.”

Bucy explained the inspiration for the Synclavier, and attributed its conception to composer Jon Appleton, who was teaching music at Dartmouth College at the time, and engineers Sydney Alonso and Cameron Jones.

“The Synclavier was an offshoot of the Moog [synthesizer], but the Moog had too many modules and patch cables. At Dartmouth, the students had a limited amount of studio time, and they’d use it all up just setting up the patches on the Moog, and there would be no time left to actually play music. Jon Appleton said: ‘Why not build one module to patch into to save time and work?’ Syd Alonso said: ‘Let’s do the whole thing — the work of the synthesizers —€• on a computer.’”

The first versions of the Synclavier allowed the musician to pre-program sounds, or build sounds from scratch, but, Bucy says, “beginning with the mid-1980s, the Synclavier had the capability to sample sounds,” and by the late-1980s, “it was a whole recording studio.”

It was during the early 1980s that Bucy began his employment with New England Digital.

“I got my job at NED when I was at Middlebury College,” Bucy says. “I was into music, and I liked programming computers. On my first day of music class, my teacher rolls in a machine. I said, ‘Whoa! What’s that?’ So, I taught myself to program the Synclavier.”

“One day, I answered the phone in the college’s music studio, and the person on the line asked if there was anyone there who could program the Synclavier. I said, ‘Yeah, me,’” Bucy says.

They invited Bucy to interview for a job the next day.

“They hired me on the spot and gave me a machine. I was the only kid in the USA with a Synclavier in his dorm room,” he says.

Bucy notes his office was where the Food Co-op’s homeopathic remedy display currently resides.

“When I worked [there], most of the engineers, like myself, were young, but here we are in White River Junction, Vermont, in the 1980s. There was nothing to do but work,” Bucy says, adding, “I worked seven days a week, 12-to-14 hour days. It was boring up here,” but, he added, NED “was an awesome place to work."

“My job was to write interface software for the Synclavier. I was the first one to write the interface to allow mouse-scrubbing,” Bucy says. ("Scrubbing” is the audio and video editing process of manually moving tape reels back-and-forth to find the desired parts of the recording.)

This — the early 1980s — was back in the days before the mouse was a ubiquitous part of personal computing. Bucy knew Macintosh was using early versions of the hardware, and called their offices on the West Coast to order a few.

“I wrote software that would read the mouse as it moved over the waveform,” Bucy said, of the visual, on-screen representation of the sound wave. “NED was the first company to do live scrubbing. I was the one who wrote the original mouse code for that, but it wasn’t all me — I was part of a team,” Bucy added.

Although the Synclavier was intended for music-production, its influence extended beyond song.

“The computer NED built for the Synclavier was a general-purpose computer with a fast microprocessor,” Bucy says. “The timing was consistent in the microprocessor, and it was a real-time machine because Jon Appleton insisted it have the ability to play live with no delay. NASA ended up buying that computer from NED, and Dartmouth used it for their original Internet system."

For later versions of the Synclavier, NED built a module to connect to film production equipment, enabling filmmakers to build soundtracks and sound effects on the instrument.

Bucy offers a few examples of its use in popular cinema: In Terminator 2, when the T-1000 “metal man” character moves through and around the metal bars of the prison cell, “that scene’s sound effect was a sample of dog food slipping from the tin can.” In Titanic, “when the ship is sinking, those are 200-plus sounds combined on the Synclavier.”

Still, music is where the Synclavier’s influence is most notable.

Bucy explains, “The Synclavier’s interface is a big, flat panel with buttons, and requires no programming. You can learn to use it. It’s not moving, there are no updates, no changes. You learn it once and then you play it."

He describes the interface itself as “reliable and indestructible — the 200-button control panel on the Synclavier uses the same buttons they used on the B-52 bomber.”

Because the Synclavier became what Bucy calls “a studio in a box,” he says it “caught the fancy of many musicians, and all the 1980s pop musicians and producers owned it.”

Bucy rattled off the top of his head the following artists who used one: Quincy Jones, Milli Vanilli, Soft Cell, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Michael Jackson, Tears For Fears, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa, Oscar Peterson, The Cars, Sting, and Pat Metheny.

He also noted that the beginning of Jackson’s song, “Thriller,” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” were done on the Synclavier.

“Pretty much, for better or for worse, the sound of the 1980s came from White River Junction,” Bucy says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #292 (Wednesday, February 11, 2015). This story appeared on page C2.

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