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Lockport, Illinois

b. 1936

History


The project to design a digital music synthesizer began in 1977. KineticSystems Corporation, founded in 1970 to design, produce and sell CAMAC modules to a worldwide market, was experiencing double-digit percentage growth by the late 70s. I knew from the beginning that CAMAC could not go on forever. But in the late 70s KineticSystems was a growing company with lots of employees. We would need something to replace CAMAC in the years ahead.

At that time a new phenomenon was happening in the musical world. In the early 70s Robert Moog changed the keyboard world forever when he brought the Moog synthesizer to market. Soon “analog” synthesizers were the rage of the keyboard world.

However, modular Moogs were expensive, fragile and complex to operate -- it sometimes took hours to set up the machine for a new sound -- and they were also prone to pitch instability because the oscillators tended to drift out of tune as the device heated up. As a result, ownership and use was at first mainly limited to clients such as educational institutions and major recording studios and a handful of adventurous audio professionals.

With our digital knowledge at KineticSystems, a small group at KSC began to wonder about the possibility of creating a “digital” synthesizer. This was a natural progression for Bob Cleary and me since we had spent four years in the mid 60s creating the organ for the Congregational Church in Lockport. A digital synthesizer would not have the inherent instabilities that created havoc with the analog instruments.

In 1978 we received the go-ahead from the KSC Board of Directors to pursue the design of a prototype digital synthesizer. This was not the only hope for life after CAMAC, however, at KineticSystems. We were also designing products to the new FASTBUS standard, and we were looking into developing a more systems-like approach to our product line. But none of these was a sure thing.

A small group of musically-sensitive engineers led by Sandy LaMantia was assembled to work on the synthesizer project. The first prototype was made from CAMAC modules and was controlled by a software language known as FORTH. This setup allowed us to test our assumptions and develop an approach that would be technically feasible. By 1981, we were far enough along to begin marketing the product, and an initial production run of three instruments was initiated.

Unfortunately, a split had developed in the company as the project moved ahead. In 1980, at the end of the Carter administration, inflation, unemployment and interest rates were all “double digit.” Times were tough for businesses, and there was little margin for error.

So, on one hand the synthesizer project was enjoying great success and was extremely encouraging to the small group involved in the project. The group knew what it was trying to accomplish, and they felt that they were succeeding in a big way. But on the other hand, officers of the company who were not directly involved in the project---along with some members of the Board of Directors---became increasingly critical of the resources that were being consumed by this rogue-like project.

The points of view are understandable. However, the regrettable result was that the synthesizer was being created within what was perceived by the synthesizer team as an increasingly hostile environment. An important member of the team quit and went to work for NASA in Houston. Some months later another team member left. We might have been able to soldier on, but the market became infatuated with sampling, MIDI and velocity-sensitive keyboards. No matter how much we touted the strengths of our synthesizer, we heard, “Yes, but can it do this, this and that?”

It would not have been too difficult to go back and include sampling, MIDI and velocity-sensitive capabilities, but at that point in time it was just too much. In March, 1983, we made the decision to stop the project. The production run of three synthesizers yielded 2 2/3 instruments. The head of the project, Sandy LaMantia, left KineticSystems at the end of 1982 but continued on with his very successful career in technical management. He is currently (in 2009) the CEO of Shure, Inc., in Niles, Illinois.

In 2009, more than 25 years after the project termination, the value of “Prism” synthesizer is still real and alive to me. It’s a thrill to experience the sounds and to uncover new ways of creating interesting and awesome sounds. The goals we put forth when we began the project are:

  1. One should be able to create any sound that one can imagine.
  2. Such sounds should be capable of being organized in a way that facilitates access to them in real time.
  3. The synthesizer should be capable of being an exceptional musical instrument.

While these goals might sound ordinary, they are really quite profound. They represent the reconciliation of synthesizer ideals with my beliefs and desires that come from a lifetime of real-time keyboard playing. Too many keyboard instruments along with the environment they’re in are not conducive to making good music. I yearned for a keyboard that enhanced rather than blocked one's musical abilities.

The Prism was tested in a major way on March 26 & 27, 1983. The Lockport (IL) Choral Society with 120 voices performed the oratorio, “Elijah.” I used the Prism for the accompaniment of the performance. It was a significant test of the Prism’s capability as a musical instrument and I felt it passed the test. Alas, not a single officer of KineticSystems attended the event.