Few people have heard of it, yet many consider John Blankenbaker's KENBAK-1 to be the first commercial personal computer.

Koss introduced these headphones over 40 years ago, and they remain affordable favorites to this day.

Synclavier: the ultimate 1980s music production system


It's a good thing I didn't win a lottery in the 1980s because I would have blown my millions on a New England Digital Synclavier. It just happens to be the most expensive digital music synthesizer/sampler ever created -- a price tag of $200,000+ wasn't uncommon. What you got for your money was a massive rack (or racks) containing a custom-designed 16-bit music computer.

Depending on your wealth, each system offered up to 96 voices of 16-bit sample playback, along with 32 metallic-sounding FM synthesizer voices. A 'direct to disk' recording option to capture vocals and acoustic instruments arrived in the late 1980s. You also got a very geeky looking monochrome graphic terminal to program the beast (eventually replaced by an Apple Mac running terminal emulation software).

The high level features don't tell the full story, though. The earliest Synclaviers were relatively straight-forward digital synthesizers. With the addition of polyphonic digital sound sampling in the mid 1980s, the system became a monster in the world of sound production.


The integrated system featured "total recall" of each project, but the Synclavier was most remarkable because of its stunning sound libraries. These professionally recorded collections sold for over $10,000 and were light-years beyond anything available for other systems of the era (except maybe the Australian Fairlight CMI). In fact, many affordable sample-playback synthesizers from the late 1980s offered sound ROMs which featured sounds created on a Synclavier or Fairlight.


In addition to the control rack, the system featured a 76 key weighted musical keyboard (based on the Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 mechanism) that was slathered with dozens of backlit buttons. The sound cards themselves were eventually tweaked to capture audio at the then unheard-of rate of 100 kHz (in comparison, most modern $300 'pro' soundcards run at 192 kHz, although they don't use discrete $200 military-grade DACs). Part of the mystique around the Synclavier system was its stunning complexity. Each system comprised of dozens of circuit boards that were often upgraded several times through the machine's life. The result is that there is no single definitive version.

New England Digital eventually collapsed in 1992, unable to compete against an onslaught of increasingly affordable and sophisticated digital instruments and personal computers. Quite a few machines were manufactured over the years and restored systems now sell for a fraction of their original cost -- a 32 voice PSMT system like the one shown above is available from Synhouse for  just under $10,000. Now where did I hide that lottery ticket I've been meaning to check?! [Sincere thanks to John Hill for letting us use a photo of one of his restored systems.]

Synclavier systems for sale at Synhouse


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