Philip Dodds/Tony Williams InterviewBy Chris Ryan  <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Philip Dodds was the VP of Engineering at ARP Instruments during the initial development of the Chroma (see The Rise and Fall of ARP Instruments, reprinted from Keyboard magazine). When ARP went out of business, he arranged the sale of the Chroma design to CBS/Fender and oversaw the project; the synthesizer was eventually released under the Rhodes brand name (see The Synth That Survived ARP's Fall, also from Keyboard).
Tony Williams was one of the main designers of the Chroma. He worked on the power supply, the keyboard scanning system, and the computer interface. Perhaps most significantly, he developed the groundbreaking Apple II sequencer software (see Playing the Rhodes Chroma with the Apple II Sequencer from Electronics & Music Maker).
The following interview, a Chroma site exclusive, was undertaken to clarify some of the issues raised in the Keyboard articles, and to get a little more technical and historical depth. It was conducted with Philip Dodds in spring 2000 and early 2002; and with Tony Williams in early 2001. Many questions were suggested by ChromaTalk mailing list members. Thanks to Jim Jamieson of the Vancouver Province for some helpful interview tips.
The interview may not be copied, reprinted, or quoted without permission and is ©2002.
How did you first get involved in ARP and electronic musical instrument design?
In 1970 I worked for the Jordan Kitt Music Company in D.C. who, for a brief period, was an early ARP dealer. I was an organ repair technician while going to college. I worked on Hammond, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, Allen, Lowrey, and many others. When I saw my first 2600 (a "blue meanie" for those who remember that far back), I was hooked.
I drove up to try to get a place at Worcester Polytechnic in the EE program (and was accepted), and then drove to Newton to interview with David Friend and Marvin Cohen (then CEO). The first building was, shall we say, pretty small and grim. They didn't have a position for me, but I didn't take no for an answer. I was started as a production worker doing final test and assembly, later to be transferred to the yet to be established service department (where I wanted to be).
I wanted to build the best damn service department in the industry and worked hard at that. I wrote the first service manuals for the 2600 and 2800 (and others), re-drew the schematics so they could be understood by the "rest of us," set the type, pasted them up, and then got management to agree to setting up authorized service centers nation-wide. Then I set up training seminars around the country to certify "ARP technicians". We got a LOT of really good technicians this way.
Much, much later, after I worked with the engineers for years, I was appointed "technical planning manager," then "director of engineering," and finally, VP of engineering. This was over a ten year span.
ARP was my first job out of college (1979). I knew from about my 2nd year that I wanted to design synthesizers for a living. Nevertheless, I interviewed 5 companies after I graduated. One was Harris, a mixing console manufacturer in Nashville. One was Lowrey, in the Chicago area. One was 3M, to work on the first digital tape recorder. One was Bell Labs, to work on the first transatlantic optical cable. And, finally, one was ARP. I was offered jobs from all 5 places, but I decided on ARP.
Prior to graduating, I was a musician playing the bar circuit. I played Hammond C3, guitar, and I sang. During college, I was very interested in musical instruments. In one of the microprocessor design labs that consisted of a semester-long project, I designed and built a digital bass synthesizer based on an 8080 processor. It had a keyboard and played back monophonic samples in realtime (this was a big deal back then). In another course I did a paper design of a low noise professional quality mixing console (I never built it).
What other instruments did you work on at ARP?
Many--most. And I was involved with the redesign of the classics including the 2800 (Odyssey) and 2600.
I went to Italy and voiced the original String Ensemble; worked on the voicing and design features of the Omni; Designed most of the ill-fated piano line (two patents); well, I guess I worked on pretty much all ARP products in one capacity or another except: the original 2500 (I helped build them and service them, but the designs predated me) and the Soloist (2700), which was a hack in my opinion.
In the beginning at ARP, I was hardware engineer.
I did the replacement key switches in the EP-16 (electronic piano). When I joined ARP, they had a big problem with their design of membrane switch key switches. It was actually a good idea, but had a fatal flaw (a normally closed contact). We needed to find a quick field-retrofittable fix, so I came up with a leaf-switch design.
I did a design of a powered speaker set for the electronic piano (I forget the model name). We imported the amp module itself and we did a mixer front end.
Then, I got involved in the Chroma. My job was to support Paul DeRocco. I did the power supply implementation, although Paul came up with the basic idea. I did the crazy solenoid that tapped the front panel. I did the key switches. I was involved in the computer interface hardware.
I think it was during the later days of the Chroma development that ARP was sold to Fender and we set up the labs in Woburn. Three employees from Gulbransen (Lanny Davis, David Starkey, and Gerritt Hettema) joined us there, as well as one employee from the Fender lab in Fullerton (Paul Sharp), who was interested in digital synthesis.
During all that, I started working on the Apple II interface card and the Apple II program. This was the second project at "ARP" that was all mine (the piano powered speaker was the first). I'm pretty proud of it. To my knowledge, it was the first external computer sequencer that controlled a synthesizer. This was way before MIDI. The sequencer supported 64 tracks, real time punch in punch out, event level editing. It was amazing what a little 6502 will do when every instruction and byte was counted.
After that, I wanted to be a full time software engineer. I started working on an IBM PC version of the sequencer, using UCSD Pascal, but I never finished it. During all this time, the Polaris was under development. I didn't assist Paul in this project, because another engineer named Leo Keightley was doing that. Toward the end, however, I got involved in the Polaris, but not in the way you might think.
At that time, Fender wanted to close down the R&D facility because Phil Dodds had quit and they couldn't find a manager to replace him. I'm sure they had other reasons as well, but I was not in a position to know about them. Anyway, Fender offered to move Paul and me to Fullerton, California, to finish the Polaris development. Paul said he would join, but would not move and wanted to become a full time remote developer/consultant. I decided to move. Paul Sharp went back to Fullerton with me. Dave Starkey ended up going to San Diego to restart Gulbransen, because it had been purchased by Curt Carter, a retailer of Organ Exchange fame.
So, I went to Fullerton to finish the Polaris. We had a prototype (a light weight version in warm colors). These were made in Woburn, as I recall.
When I got to Fullerton, John McFerran had left Rodgers and had joined Fender. Both Rodgers and Fender, as well as Gulbransen, were CBS companies. There, we proceeded to redesign the Polaris to be built at a factory in Japan because CBS had sold Gulbransen and their factory in Hoopeston, Illinois. Of course, it was not possible to build them in Woburn. Also, Fender didn't exactly have high tech electronic manufacturing capability at Fullerton. So, Fender's relationship with Fender Japan resulted in them wanting to build this product in Japan in a low tech guitar amp factory. So, here we were, trying to teach the Japanese how to build synthesizers (those days are over)!
Although we were able to get a few Polaris units built in Japan, I decided that Fender was not serious about designing, building, and especially marketing synthesizers (or any other keyboard for that matter). So, I left to join David Starkey in San Diego, to help him restart Gulbransen. I was in Fullerton for about 8 months. So, my involvement in the Polaris design was minimal. You might say I was involved in the production introduction or production engineering of the Polaris.
Philip, Your appearance in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" made synthesizers more visible to a wide audience. Tell us more about your work on the film. Did you compose the famous alien tune?
No I didn't compose the tune, but it's an interesting story nonetheless (at least to me!). I was called down as a "subject expert" to install the 2500 system on the set--ARP was to get some screen credits for this--and I was there in Mobile AL to make sure all was well. (This wasn't unusual; I helped with other films such as Logan's Run and some of the early Star Trek films--to support the sound effects and score folks).
To make a long story a bit longer, John Williams prescored Close Encounters--which is a bit unusual I'm told--the score is often done after the fact. Spielberg wanted the music to drive the concept and went to Williams early-on to work out the haunting theme that was used throughout. (I still have the original score Williams gave me to "play" during the filming--it's all for traditional instruments...)
On the final day of installation of the 2500 down there, I hooked it up to a huge four channel system (on the set) and cut loose with all of the sequencers and sound effects I could muster from the console. It was fabulous. This was in a huge dirigible hanger (since there was no set in Hollywood big enough) and the sounds echoed for miles, I was told.
The next day, Spielberg and Williams came to the set and asked for a demonstration of the synthesizer's capabilities. (Spielberg introduced me to George Lucas, who had just completed post production of Star Wars, and visited the set that day as well, but I was clueless about it all at the time.)
Williams asked for "an oboe" sound, then "a trumpet" sound. Etc. Etc. Piece of cake, I thought. This is fun. (Except that I had to fly out a 4PM to get home, so I hoped they would hurry up.)
Then Spielberg came to the console and asked--"have you had any acting experience?" I said, well, no. "Would you like to try?" I said, yeah, I guess (I was 25). Cool. In a matter of hours I had a contract in my hand and I was signed on. For the next 9 weeks, Columbia Pictures owned me. I learned a lot and it was a great experience.
In summary, Steven Spielberg is a wonderful director, and a really nice person. I still look back on those weeks with wonder and wish I could work with him again. He really has talent!
What happened after you got the Chroma team set up again at CBS? How much work was left to be done?
A lot. We trashed the first design architecture and started over, but the concept was solid. We wanted to "do it right," but under the conditions of ARP's collapse, we couldn't do it. At CBS we had a shot at doing it right, which was what kept us going.
Don Ciarlone, ex of ARP as well, did most of the PC board design, all the documentation, etc., and later worked for Visage and as a contractor for Kurzweil Music. He's still doing this type of work - now all CAD (Don Ciarlone Design).
If you mean how much development was done at the Woburn labs, I don't really recall. I think it was about half. We had already built a working breadboard at ARP (I remember because I built the original wirewrap breadboard. In fact, I may still have it!). But, certainly Paul finished the software in Woburn. All the initial circuit boards were probably layed out at Woburn, except for the first pass of the analog generator boards.
How many people were on the Chroma team? Were there chief hardware and software engineers?
About 14 as I recall. Paul DeRocco, Tony Williams and Leo Keightley were the head electronic guys, but everyone played a key role in the various aspects. It's not a good idea to single out one or two individuals--it was a group effort. Robert Hartford, who today heads up Young Chang/Kurzweil, made sure it all came together, along with many others (do any of you remember Mary Barrett, as one example...).
Well let's see. Paul was the main designer. I was a minor designer. We had a technician named Mark Smith that did some proto building. He was instrumental in generating the patch data. Phil Dodds was involved in the mechanical design. Phil designed the keyboard, but I did the key switches. I guess you would say Phil Dodds acted as the Project Leader (i.e. schedule, budget, etc.). There was a graphic artist named Tim Clark (?) and a silk screener and membrane switch guy named Robb Witt. But these two guys did only a few part time things. Maybe I am forgetting someone major, but I think it was mainly Paul, myself, Mark Smith, and Phil Dodds for the main team members. Of course, we had two people that did all the mechanical drawings and layed out the circuit boards [Don Ciarlone mentioned by Dodds above]. And, we had a little purchasing support to buy the parts, etc.
Apparently Sequential Circuits had a Chroma disassembled in their lab. Was there any awareness at CBS of the Prophet T8 design?
This is news to me (okay it's been a while), but not surprising. We had SC products in our lab too. (It was a small industry.) And, I had ongoing "discussions" with Dave Smith on a variety of issues, not the least of which was MIDI (this because the Chroma was the very first commercial synthesizer with a working computer interface--with sequencing software for both the Apple II and the IBM PC. Paul DeRocco insisted on the opto-isolater as I recall that became part of the MIDI specification, and we both lobbied hard for 256 velocity levels over the objections from Dave Smith and others ...
Not really. Of course we were aware of the Prophet 5 (like everyone else). And, we knew they were probably working on something. But, we really didn't have any competitive intelligence going on.
How did the single-slider programming model concept come about? Was it strictly a means to achieve cost savings, or was there an attempt to simplify programming or a feeling that most players were non-programmers? Was any user testing done?
Sliders are "graphic" and they provide a visual reference which is really useful, I think. This sort of thing tends to become a question of religion, but a bunch of people like sliders; others like knobs. I like sliders.
As for the "single" slider approach; this had to do with the notion of "soft" programming--a new concept in those days. We wanted to find a way to be able to freely set any parameter anywhere--in software--and have a user interface the would work in a universal way. It is a direct descendant of the 2600 in many ways, and a predecessor to the keyboard version of the mouse, I think.
Others, including Kurzweil, picked up on this in later designs. Have you noticed?
Boy, I think this was just an idea that Paul had. User testing?! Are you kidding?! Paul would likely say that it was cheaper and more flexible.
Who was responsible for the visual design of the front panel?
Me. With a whole lot of input from others, especially Paul DeRocco. I drew it on my drafting board, and somewhere I still have the original vellum with that design. I specified the entire mechanical/package design, including the cherry endblocks, and I designed the keyboard and keyswitches. There were many visits to keyboard vendors to get the right feel. And the Chroma felt/feels pretty darn good if I do say so myself (and not all my designs did work, but I'm proud of the Chroma).
I remember Bob Moog playing it and raising an eyebrow at NAMM; and Herbie Hancock doing cool riffs with himself against the sequencer that recorded his licks--the first computer interface that allowed that. Heady times. Sigh.
I can't remember whose idea this was, maybe mine. Anyway, I was assigned with the task of designing the driver, the solenoid, and the mechanical details. The basic problem was that we wanted to use a membrane panel and everyone thought that not having tactile feedback was a big problem. We didn't want any noise, just a mechanical tactile feeling. To me, it is still very funny (laughable).
What are the real differences between the first fifty Chromas (hand built) and later production models?
Once the ARP team restarted under the CBS umbrella, we tried hard to maintain our identity as "ARP" people. This was not altogether accepted within the greater CBS culture. We were put under Fender Rogers Rhodes, and some there felt they needed to assimilate us and purge the old culture. We fought this hard, and sometimes to ill effect.
So, with great historic pride, I insisted that the first 50 units would be built in our lab as "pilot" production. We procured all the parts, tested everything, hand-made the touch panels, etc. etc. We wanted to be SURE that the design was wrung out under "our watch".
All future productions, were told, would take place in Hoopeston ILL. at the Gulbransen factory. This seemed to make sense since electronic organs were made there. (Later production was shifted to Fender in CA, and that was a REAL problem--another story--making Chromas was quite different from Rhodes and Fender Amps, to say the least).
There were a series of problems that erupted at the Gulbransen and Fender plants that took time to resolve, not the least of which was the water-based flux remover that ruined the channel boards. The first 50 didn't have these problems; later production units were okay too--how many in the middle were problems I don't remember--about 300-400 I would say. We were very, very frustrated by this. But things got better later.
So, the first 50 were a labor of love among the designers of the Chroma and we still think fondly of them (and we made sure that most of them went to our favorite performing customers).
As released, the Chroma Expander can really only be used to be a "linked" voice, rather than to increase polyphony. Why wasn't the hardware/firmware set up so that adding an Expander would actually double the number of voices available (since this would seem to have been the most intuitive purpose of the Expander)?
My guess is processor speed and RAM space. We were pushing the state of the art with the 68B09 processor. Paul was struggling with his first operating system. I think he wanted to get it working this way first, then maybe see about actually expanding the polyphony later. I remember we had some discussions about it, but I don't remember what we said.
How was the Chroma launched? One article mentions a Peter Vetesse demo video, which none of us have seen. Any memories of reactions, notable events, etc.?
NAMM of course. Do any of you remember John Shykun? Head of marketing for Chroma in those days and an old ARP promoter - and a damn good musician.
I remember well the NAMM introduction when John Shykun and Mike Brigada each played a Chroma coupled with an expander. They, along with Cleave Possar on drums/percussion, played the William Tell Overture. It was awesome and a very high point in my career. It was also during this show that they demonstrated the Apple II sequencer. I remember John Shykun making a big deal out of a multitracking demo. I don't know anything about a Peter Vetesse demo.
I remember talking on the phone many times with Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson about the Apple II interface and the Chroma. Herbie, in particular, called me many times and we talked a long time about the future possibilities, etc. That was neat for me. To this day, I have not introduced myself to them, although I have seen them at NAMM.
A few questions about architecture. Why was there only a single noise generator, and only seven levels of resonance?
I will sound flip here: Well! how many noise generators does one need?! If it's a good noise generator (Chroma's was just "okay"), it has full spectrum and you can use it as a source for many channels! (Theory.) White noise is "all frequencies," so why can't it supply many (subtractive synthesis) channels???
As for the seven levels of resonance--I think that was due to the cost of digital to analog - there are just so many bits to go around (in those days), and each filter would need a DA converter, so it made some sense to compromise in this spot given the costs at the time for DA and buss bandwidth. These days it wouldn't be a big issue. We had to build resistor networks for DA on many things in those days.
A Keyboard magazine article claims that the Chroma was built around an Intel 80186, but a Motorola 6809 and Intel 8039 were actually used (the Polaris seems to use the '186). Was a change made at some point in development?
No. The article was wrong. The Chroma was always a 68B09. I think the 8039 was the keyboard scanner, I don't remember. The 80186 was not used until the Polaris.
A weak point of the Chroma hardware design seems to be the power supply, which most of us owners have had to deal with at some point. What is the story behind this?
I hope Paul DeRocco , who was chief electronic architect and who wrote all the soft/firmware for Chroma, will see this and correct me. Paul was (and no doubt still is) a brilliant engineer and early-on earned my deep and abiding respect.
My memory, which he hopefully will correct, is that during the project he was determined to design the power supply since none of the off the shelf supplies met his specific design requirements. I remember being very uneasy about this and we had several discussions about this. I was for using an outside supplier; he wanted capabilities not available (such as precise voltage sensing) that weren't available at the time. "How hard can this be???" I think he said.
Others, including Leo Keightly (who worked for HP and if I remember correctly, IBM) pointed out that this was much harder than it looked and the design issues were very, very complex. As head of the team, I was conflicted. In the end, and due to Paul's extensive track record, I went along with his design. It wasn't reliable. Power supplies are hard. Very, very hard.
So, this was a trouble spot for us that caused problems in the field--most of which were worked out during the production run. I think our requirements were slightly ahead of the state of the art and we paid the price of being on the "bleeding edge".
See above. The basic design idea of a preregulator was Paul's. I tried my best to make it work in practice. Neither of us were very happy about the outcome. This is a case where we should have scrapped the whole idea instead of investing so much effort to make it work. But, hind sight is always better and it's not clear when to give up. I've made that type of mistake one other time in my career so far. At the time, the preregulator technology was cutting edge. In fact, it became possible only after a company developed a HexFET power mosfet (I think it was US Rectifier, or something like that). Preregulation was necessary in order to keep the heat down. At that time, it was unheard of to use a switching regulator in a musical instrument because of the electrical noise that it generated. If we had used a standard series pass type of regulator, we would have had to use a fan (another thing we didn't want) or a very large, expensive, and ugly heat sink. This product required a lot of power for its time. I may be wrong in my final assessment, but I think we did a good job given the constraints at the time. However, now, looking back on it, there are many more possibilities today for a better design. Now, its common for switching regulators to be used in musical instruments, even ones with much more power requirements.
The Chroma has the ability to read and write "subroutines" via the cassette interface. What was the actual intended purpose of this functionality? Were there ever any "subroutines" issued to the public, or was this strictly for internal use?
I remember it mostly for patches - not subroutines. That said, Paul often added things "for future use" that only he may remember. [Paul DeRocco did not respond to requests to participate in this interview.]
Was the pressure sensor modification ever shipped? How difficult would it be to build such an upgrade today?
I'm sorry, my memory fails. However, I vaguely remember that we did ship some. It should be obvious from the Service Manual what support is included for this in the form of analog input, etc. Most likely this is just an analog voltage or resistive input, which should be easy to do today with standard pressure strips (i.e. from Roland keyboards, etc.). You might have to add a circuit to adjust the range of voltage, etc., to match the original Chroma design.
Would it be possible to speed up the software envelopes and make the LFOs go faster?
My answer would be no, unless you wanted to use another processor. At that point, you are developing another product. Also, there might be limitations on the envelope speeds that the analog boards will accept (i.e. there may be some filters in place). I recall that Paul used all the code space and RAM space in the design, so there is probably very little that could be done. Remember, back then, we programmed everything in assembly language and it was highly optimized.
Were there any plans (besides the Polaris) for future designs? What about the rumoured 88-key version?
I know I wanted to build an 88 - I went to Kimball and purchased several 88 keyboards there and had an 88 stored in my basement for years that was supposed to be the Chroma 88. The keyboard design, which I adapted from a standard piano keyboard, had to be custom made since the keys are straight and didn't have to angle around piano harp bolts, to align with the action/strings. I always thought that a real piano keyboard of the right length keys, with just the right weight, was far better than any plastic keyboard we could have used. I still think so. I left CBS before that could start. Interestingly, I also pushed Kurzweil to build an 88 while there, but it took them quite a few years to get around to it - then it became a good seller.
I remember discussions about an 88-key version of the electronic piano, but not the Chroma. I think we discussed an expander for the Polaris. As I said before, we discussed the possibility of making the Chroma expander truly expand. Also, we discussed converting the Chroma to support MIDI. We had discussions about platform independent sequencer software, but the PC industry had not gotten there yet. UCSD Pascal p-code was way too slow. Today's web-based tools make that goal a reality today, but not back then. After we got to Fender in Fullerton, we started thinking about digital instruments as a followup to the Chroma.
What was your involvement with, or knowledge of, the Polaris? Was it really a Chroma?
Polaris was on the drawing board just as I left CBS.
Sure it was. It was Chroma's little brother. It had the same first name. I guess you might say it was a family member. In many ways, the Polaris was better. It was flawed in some ways, as well, when compared to the Chroma, and especially compared to the competition at that time. My involvement was minimal, since I was focused on the Apple II sequencer software and the project of porting it to the IBM PC.
I remember that the Polaris was a difficult project, especially for Paul. All the software was completely different. It was during this time that he wrote his first real time object oriented operating system. At the time, that was revolutionary. However, it was a lot more work than Paul had originally thought. We showed a nonworking prototype two NAMMs in a row. The project's code name was "Fred" and the joke was that we showed a "dead Fred". It was very strange to see the first brochure of the product show the product upside down coming out of the clouds (perhaps like a Polaris star). But most people associated the name to the Polaris submarine, instead. It was a day late and a dollar short. In this case, a year late and many dollars too expensive, not to mention a few oscillators too short.
Why was the Chroma discontinued?
They tried assembly in the Fender plant for a while on the same line as the Rhodes piano and Fender amps. "How hard can it be," they said. They found out. There was virtually no high tech staff in Fullerton, CA. Production ceased there after a short while. I remember standing in the factory looking at the line and concluding that it wasn't going to work, but I couldn't figure out how to explain it to them.
CBS sold Gulbransen, and with it the Hoopeston, Illinois factory was discontinued. So, continued production was a hardship. The sales were down because the industry was focusing on lower priced synths. So, moving the Chroma to another factory, say the one in Japan, was not practical because of the low unit volumes. So, it died a "natural" death.
How many more Chromas could have been built? It seemed that there was a large surplus of parts in the years following its discontinuation.
I'm not sure. Most likely, the Hoopeston factory had lots of parts inventory because of poor planning. Large corporate disassemblies rarely are well planned because no one is told of the plans until "black Friday". It appeared to us that CBS made rash decisions, although I am sure that is not true.
What is your best and/or most humourous memory of the project?
There were so very many good times working with this crew. I look back on those times - going back to the early 70s at ARP, through the transition to CBS, and then finally launching the Chroma.
Remember that when ARP died, the first version (which we scrapped) was nearly done, but the team really wanted to complete it. The company was closed, building empty, everyone but me laid off (I was retained by the bank to find a buyer). Many found other jobs. I went to Black Rock in NY to put a deal together with CBS. The deal required that the team be reconstituted and moved to Woburn. A lot of people took personal risks to re-join the effort (kids, mortgages, etc.). We were a good team.
The NAMM introduction (see above). The phone discussions with Herbie Hancock. The nights in the lab hearing the voicing during the last days. Watching the cigarette smoke be drawn into the development In Circuit Emulator (ICE) disk drives (8" drives!) while Paul programmed at all hours of the night. To this day, he tells me that he never had a bad disk! The nightly dinners with the crew at nearby restaurants. Listening to Paul play the instrument (he is quite good).
The Polaris had this great feature - selective pitch bend. Paul should have patented this. It bends only the notes held down, not the ones that are sustained by the hold switch. You could do great guitar licks.
I liked working with Phil Dodds, too. I felt like he was a good manager and he really knew how to create a team atmosphere. He never got in the way of good ideas.
Do you have any memorabilia or other information you could provide for the Chroma web site?
Don't have much, sadly.
MAYBE I have the original wire wrap breadboard. I vaguely remember finally throwing that out, but maybe I didn't. I have tons of analog boards. I should probably go through my old papers. Maybe I have some neat stuff.
Do you have a Chroma now?
Yes, but it needs a new power supply (which I was given). I hope to put it back together in the upcoming months.
Yes, and an Expander, and a Polaris. I haven't taken them out of their road cases in years. The last time I did, they worked.
Do you still follow electronic musical instrument design? Any comments on "modern" virtual analog synthesizers like the Korg Z1? Anything that strikes you as interesting?
No, not so much these days. I returned to acoustic instruments over the past year: Martin guitar, banjo, piano, and my primary instrument, bass fiddle.
I still follow it because I still do it (see more details below). Yeah, I thought the virtual analog synths were cool. I really like the Alesis analog machine. I think the software synths are interesting and indicative of the future as far as sound generation is concerned. I think some real cool advances in user interface and control have yet to be tapped for musical instruments. I think the convergence of digital audio recording and playback, DSP manipulation of pitch independent of formant and time, and sequencing software could make for some very interesting new breeds of instruments. But, I feel like they may be constrained with the current user interface methods (i.e. keyboards, pitch benders, etc.).
What have you done since the Chroma project? Future plans?
Short version--post CBS:
- Vice President, engineering Kurzweil Music
- President, CEO Visage, Inc.
- Project Analyst, Randall House Associates, Inc. [archive.org] (my consultancy)
- President, CEO Interactive Multimedia Association
- Chief Architect, Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (DoD) (current)
- Adjunct Staff, Institute for Defense Analyses (current)
Oddly enough, as I type this I'm sitting in my old room at the farm where I grew up, and where I built my very first synthesizer in 1968.
When I left Fender and went to Gulbransen, we developed custom chips for digital sound generation that were way ahead of their time (64 oscillators and built in programmable DSP sections in 1987). We built some digital pianos and ended up providing chips and software, and even full electronic designs, to Korean companies such as Young Chang and Daewoo/Sojin. We had a large market share and made good money. Also, we developed keyboard scanning systems for acoustic pianos to MIDI them. We developed sound modules with acoustic piano sensor strips to provide playalong orchestra sounds for acoustic piano, etc.
After about 6 years of that, I joined Rodgers, who had just been bought by Roland. This is were I hooked up with Paul DeRocco again, since he was a full time consultant/contractor with Rodgers. This is where I hooked up with Paul Sharp and John McFerran again, as well. Paul Sharp had left Fender to join Rodgers and John McFerran rejoined Rodgers. All these guys were porting a software system that they had developed at Fender when they were trying to develop their own custom sound generation chip for the next generation Chroma. When Fender finally decided that they would focus on guitars and dump keyboards, these guys all ended up at Rodgers. Rodgers had just been bought by Roland, who had sound generator chips, but not so good software (in our opinion). The Rodgers guys married their software with the Roland hardware and the result was the PDI digital classic organs that have been so successful for Rodgers for now over 10 years.
Initially, I developed a tool for dealers/installers to do finish voicing on the digital organs in the church. It gave them the ability to adjust the pitch, volume, and tone of each note of each rank of digital pipes. This was an industry first, as far as I know.
After I did the voicing tools for Rodgers, Paul DeRocco and I designed a new contemporary church keyboard instrument called the W-5000. It was revolutionary in many ways. It combined a Roland synth engine, a Rodgers classic organ engine, and a true, first in the world (to my knowledge), tone wheel emulator. This tone wheel emulator algorithm and DSP code is what ended up in the Roland VK series of combo organs. To this day, no one has offered a product like the W-5000.
After about 5 years, in 1995, I became the Director of Engineering at Rodgers. Since then, I have not designed instruments per se, but I still spec them and I am still involved in the details of the projects (just not the coding and hardware design).
Regarding the future, who knows. I have considered starting my own company, but for now Rodgers really needs me and I am enjoying learning to be a manager. I really enjoy working with the Roland guys in Japan and in Italy (Roland Europe). I really still enjoy working with Paul DeRocco (he is a great friend of mine, for life). I have to admit though, I long for the good old days of doing something totally unique that no one else has ever done. I'm still doing that at Rodgers today in a smaller way, but it seems so much harder and less free. Perhaps it is just my age....