McLaughlin's Synclavier
"It's A Revolution"

By Jim Ferguson

(Reprinted from Guitar Player magazine: September 1985)

JOHN McLAUGHLIN owns two Synclavier Digital MusicSystems made by New England Digital. The company's Digital Guitar Option enables the polyphonic array to be controlled by any instrument equipped with a hexaphonic pickup. John uses a Roland G-303 guitar, outfitted with NED's remote button panel (mounted near the cutaway), which gives him immediate access to the Synclavier's functions during live performance. The particular software John is using allows him to play synthesized sounds, as well as resynthesized ones (altered timbres derived through the sampling process, where recorded sounds are converted to digital code, and then synthesized).
An essential link in John's system is the Digital Guitar Control Unit, an interface module that converts the guitar's pitch and dynamics information into digital code. (Certain new and advanced features of NED's current model, the Enhanced Synclavier, will be noted in the following text).
The Synclavier Digital Music System combines the features of a multi-track recording studio with those of a powerful computer-based digital synthesizer; the computer is NED's ABLE 60. (In fact, Pat Metheny recorded the soundtrack to the movie The Falcon And The Snowman in his bedroom with a Synclavier.) The system's other components include an ABLE 16-bit mini computer, a 61-note keyboard, two floppy disk drives, a Winchester hard disk drive, a VT100/640 graphics terminal, a dot matrix printer, and in John's case, a Digital Guitar Interface Module.
Sounds are created with the Synclavier through the partial timbre [tone color] method of synthesis, which allows exacting control over a sound's harmonic content. Up to four partials-parts of a sound-can be combined to create complex timbres. The volume and harmonic envelope of a timbre can be extensively modified, and effects such as chorus, vibrato, and portamento can be added.
Once sounds are created, they can be played polyphonically with either the keyboard or the guitar, and then recorded in the system's 16-track memory recorder. Once in the recorder, sequences can be edited, transposed, slowed down, or speeded up without changing the pitch. Once a composition has been recorded and edited, it can be printed out in standard notation with NED's Music Printing option, a strong compositional tool. The Synclavier has many possibilities for guitarists, and the following outline is but a brief description.
Up to 64 special tunings can be stored in memory and then accessed at the remote button panel while playing. From the panel, you can split the fretboard and, for instance, employ a different timbre for each string in any combination. In addition, you can sample any sound (analyze its components), resynthesize it, and play it back on the guitar.
In live performance, straight guitar can be blended with synthesized sounds. Footpedals allow you to mix Synclavier-generated sounds with the straight guitar signal, and a "hold" switch sustains a chord indefinitely while you solo over the top. A guitar that is out of tune (by less than a semitone) can instantly be put in perfect adjustment by activating the quantize mode, which simulates the fixed tuning of a keyboard. In this mode, you can bend a note, and hear the pitch move through the quantized steps. When the function is bypassed, you hear the raw pitch as you would on a standard guitar.
The Enhanced Synclavier brings the system to a new level of sophistication. Standard components include a high-speed processor, improved software, a velocity- and pressure-sensitive 76-note keyboard, an expanded keyboard button panel, an expanded real-time effects controller, and super floppy disk drives.
Several new options provide increased capabilities. High-fidelity samples can be played back polyphonically on the keyboard or the guitar. Among other things, this allows you to play an orchestral score and have it sound like an entire symphony orchestra. In addition, samples can be combined with synthesized or resynthesized timbres to create unique composite sounds. For example, you could sample your voice and combine it with a synthesized violin sound and then, using this composite sound, play chords on the guitar. Also available are film and tape syncing options. This fall, Synclavier will offer an option that allows you to record any natural sound (say, an acoustic guitar) into memory over existing tracks. (The price of a particular multi-component Synclavier system depends on its combination of modular elements).
The Roland G-303 guitar's controls affect a variety of characteristics, including output tone, direct guitar and synthesized sound balance, overall volume, and response in terms of dynamic range and volume thresholds.
Each switch on NED's remote button panel has three positions. The upper row: Bank and Timbre Recall permit timbre recovery from memory; Tracks 1-8 (9-16) enable you to select a particular track; Sequence Recall retrieves program sequences from memory; Transient Filter assists in deriving a fundamental signal under severe conditions, such as wild string fluctuations; Quantize allows instant tuning; Dynamic Volume regulates volume, regardless of pick attack; Monophonic String can he used to program novel tunings, as well as other functions. The bottom row: Start and Stop activate the recording function or programmed sequences, Record is used in conjunction with Start and Stop; Continue allows you to pick up where a specific sequence has left off, Loop enables you to repeat a sequence indefinitely; Transpose enables you to transpose a sequence by any interval; Erase is for deleting sequences.