Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 3 — Music Construction Set and the Alpha Syntauri

Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 3 — Music Construction Set and the Alpha Syntauri
Page content

We begin this episode of The Computer Chronicles from February 1984 with Stewart Cheifet plunking on an unspecified model of Casiotone keyboard. Cheifet remarked to Gary Kildall, “This is an example of computer music,” which was this week’s subject. Cheifet added that the Casiotone could play special ROM chips that contain “popular songs” in electronic form.

Cheifet asked Kildall to explain how a computer makes music. Kildall replied that while the Casiotone was not a “general purpose computer,” contemporary personal computers like those manufactured by IBM and Commodore have “tone generation capability.” Essentially, the user could write a program to produce a series of tones and add information regarding their frequency and duration. Indeed, there was now software available that was comparable to word processing programs, but for music instead of text.

Cheifet then transitioned into the episode’s pre-recorded feature, which showcased the work of MIT’s Experimental Music Studio, which was founded in 1973 by Barry Vercoe. MIT itself described the studio as “the first facility to have digital computers dedicated to full time research and composition of computer music.” The Chronicles segment specifically discussed the studio’s use of computer systems to “dissect” notes into their soundwave components. A composer could then adjust the notes physical characteristics “independently and instantly.”

Specially developed musical languages allowed for the creation of music in a digital form that could then be stored on magnetic tape. This went “beyond the range” of what mechanical instruments and the human voice could accomplish, Cheifet said in narration. He concluded that the next step would be to implement “real-time production synthesis,” i.e., live performances using computer instruments. This, however, would require high-speed computers capable of performing “several hundred million calculations per second.”

Composing Music on an Apple II (with an Inexpensive Software Package)

Will Harvey and John Chowning joined Cheifet and Kildall for the next segment. Chowning, who discovered the algorithm for FM synthesis in 1967, was then the director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University. Kildall opened the segment by asking Chowning about the state of computer generated music. Chowning noted that it had been 20 years since scientists first conceived of the idea of computer music, and in recent years there had been “large-scale integration” with personal computers. Moving forward, Chowning said we could expect “more and more power in smaller and smaller units.” Practically speaking, this meant computer music that was once possible only in the laboratory could soon be put into concert halls or other small environments.

Cheifet pointed out that some people were critical of the combination of computers and music, arguing the former diminished the “human creativity” required for the latter. Cheifet asked Chowning to clarify what role computers actually played in creating music. Chowning noted that computers relied on programming languages, which themselves represented “10,000 years of man’s thought about thought.” This meant that once a computer language was involved, an individual user has “access to a degree of power and generality that was not the case with ordinary musical instruments.” He pointed to his fellow guest, Will Harvey, who managed to develop a musical composition program using just a personal computer and a programming language.

Cheifet followed up by asking if that meant computers actually helped with the “composition process.” Chowning said yes, the programming language was an “enormously rich resource” that enhanced the composition process.

With that, Cheifet turned to Harvey, who developed Music Construction Set, a program then sold for about $40 by Electronic Arts. Harvey explained that with his program, a person who didn’t know anything about music–and may, in fact, be intimidated by learning the subject–could still create their own music using nothing more than a joystick. Cheifet then asked Harvey to demonstrate Music Construction Set using an Apple II. Essentially, the user moved a hand-shaped cursor to pick up notes and set them down on a musical staff. After setting up the notes, the user could then select various actions, such as playing the assembled composition. Harvey played a demonstration song that came bundled with the software. In response to a follow-up question, Harvey added that the notes scrolled by as they played. The composition screen was basically a digital representation of sheet music–only instead of using a pencil to erase notes, with his program you could simply move the notes around on the screen.

Kildall observed that software like Music Construction Set made learning about music more fun. Harvey noted that aside from learning how to use a joystick, which wasn’t that difficult, it was easy for users to simply play around with compositions. For example, they could make changes to works by Mozart or Bach just to see what they sounded like. Kildall asked if people actually liked to learn about music this way. Harvey said people were “overly cautions when first using a computer program.” But after about 5 or 10 minutes, they realized it was fun and they wouldn’t hurt anything.

Cheifet then chimed in, pointing out that while Music Construction Set was targeted at people who didn’t know much about music, you still had to take notes and place them on a staff. How could you do that when you didn’t know anything about music to begin with? Harvey replied the manual that came with the software explained basic music notation and how the staff works. And if the user was unsure about what a note sounded like, they could just press a key to hear any selected note.

Cheifet concluded the segment by asking John Chowning how software like Music Construction Set compared with the work he was doing at Stanford. Chowning said that it was assumed that participants in his program already understood the “abstract symbols” associated with music. Indeed, the activity at CCRMA was centered on musicians who had already studied for some considerable time and were now focused on the engineering aspects of computer music, as opposed to drafting sheet music. Nevertheless, Chowning described Harvey’s software as “interesting” and said it provided a “very accessible medium” to learn the abstract language of music notation.

Composing Music on an Apple II (with an Expensive Keyboard Attachment)

For the final segment this week, Chowning remained with Cheifet and Kildall as they welcomed Ellen Lapham, the president of Syntauri Corporation. Lapham demonstrated her company’s signature product, the Alpha Syntauri, an electronic keyboard that connected directly to the Apple II. Kildall opened by asking Lapham to explain how her product differed from Will Harvey’s Music Construction Set. Lapham quipped they were both in the music business and both used computers. But the key difference was that the Alpha Syntauri was designed to turn the personal computer into a musical instrument. It allowed the user to “play, transform sounds, compose, and even learn keyboard.”

Lapham showed how the Alpha Syntauri made it possible to use the Apple II like a record player, as composition files were stored on standard floppy disks. She demonstrated a composition that she recorded a couple of weeks earlier. The bundled software then displayed the music as it played back. Unlike Music Construction Set, which only displayed music on the staff, the Syntauri software could also display an on-screen keyboard. Lapham noted this could also be used to learn simpler songs.

Cheifet then turned to Chowning and noted the computers he used at Stanford were “so large you couldn’t bring it to the studio.” But Chowning did provide an example of the output produced at Stanford in the form of a manuscripting program developed over the past 10 years by Stanford’s Leland Smith, which made it possible to print musical compositions using a standard printer plotter. This software effectively allowed composers to self-publish their own composition.

Cheifet then introduced an audio recording provided by Chowning, which offered some examples of the “high-quality vocal synthesis” technology developed at Stanford. In simple terms, these were samples of computer-generated tracks that mimicked human singing. Chowning explained that it took researchers about six months to identify the “natural cues” that often seemed lacking in synthesized music. He demonstrated the multiple layers that the computer needed to introduce in order to produce something that sounded like natural song.

Cheifet then interjected to introduce another pre-recorded segment from the MIT Experimental Music Studio–a piano-computer duet of “Moments Musicaux,” composed by Martin Brody and accompanied on piano by David Evans.

After the musical interlude, Kildall asked Chowning if what we’d seen in computer music is still “mostly in the lab” or if it was being used in production. Chowning said that thanks to large-scale integration, computer music had found applications in industry. For instance, there were now musical synthesis algorithms that could be integrated into circuits, such as those used in Lapham’s Alpha Syntauri.

Cheifet then asked Lapham to elaborate on the use of floppy disks as a substitute for traditional music albums or casettes. Did she see floppy disks as a new form of music publishing where people used their computers as the playback system? Lapham replied absolutely, she used floppy disks to self-publish her own compositions. The personal computer allowed her to write a song to disk and “send it to people around the world.” This enabled every musician to become a publisher. Music teachers could even publish their own material.

Cheifet ended the program by asking Chowning if he saw any “resistance” from professional musicians and composers to the use of computers, or if they actually loved this new technology. Chowning answered that “virtually everyone” who came to study music at Stanford learned about computer music. This also helped to make them exceptional programmers. In fact, Chowning said there was “very little resistance” to computer music among the younger generation–just look at what Will Harvey had done.

Will Harvey: From Boy Programming Whiz to Man Running Another SasS Company

Although it’s still early in the run of The Computer Chronicles, it may already be safe to say that Will Harvey will turn out to be its youngest in-studio guest. Harvey was just 15 when he originally programmed Music Construction Set for the Apple II, and he would’ve been around 16 or 17 when he taped this episode. Harvey actually ended up attending John Chowning’s school, Stanford, and ultimately earned a doctorate in computer science.

In a profile for the September/October 1984 issue of MicroTimes, a California-based computer magazine, Mary Eisenhart said Harvey began programming on the Commodore PET when was 12. One of Harvey’s earliest programs was a grading system that helped his mother in her work as a college instructor. Harvey switched to the Apple II platform soon thereafter, where he developed a game called Lancaster. Harvey told Eisenhart he “didn’t know anything about music” when he was making the game, so he “had to write a program that would allow me to convert some sheet music that I’d bought at a store to the pitches and duration that a computer could put a sound to.”

This “rudimentary transcription program” ended up becoming Music Construction Set. Eisenhart said that when Electronic Arts met with Harvey, the publisher was less interested in his Lancaster game than his music program. Harvey and EA then “spent eight months” refining the software to give it “additional features to make it attractive to the professional musician and serious hobbyist as well as to the beginner.”

Music Construction Set was a success on the Apple II and later ported to the Atari 8-bit computer line, the IBM Personal Computer, and the Commodore 64. Harvey told Eisenhart that he was “especially enthusiastic about the Commodore 64” because it had “the most sophisticated sound available in a home computer.” Harvey said he also planned to revise his software to make it compatible with the then-new MIDI format, which was becoming popular among professional musicians.

Harvey’s post-Music Construction Set and post-Stanford career proved to be quite active. Video game journalist and historian Frank Cifaldi wrote in 2005 that Harvey founded the company Sandcastle in the mid-1990s, which developed networking tools for early multiplayer games. After selling Sandcastle to Adobe in 1997, Harvey “founded another company called There,” which was an attempt to “create a virtual world for online socializing.” Harvey told Cifaldi he left There in 2003 after investors pushed the company to focus “on creating simulation software for military situations as a defense contractor.”

Harvey followed up There in 2004 by co-founding IMVU, a social network that is still in operation today. IMVU was in Beta when Harvey spoke to Cifaldi, who noted Harvey sounded “genuinely excited when discussing the game’s economy.” IMVU allows users to communicate with one another via 3-D avatars. Harvey also touted the ability for users to create and sell items, with the proceeds split with IMVU. (If this sounds familiar, it’s basically the same concept as Second Life, which debuted around the same time as IMVU.)

Today, Harvey is the CEO of Finale Inventory, another company he co-founded in 2009. In contrast to his previous, games and social-media driven businesses, Finale Inventory is a software-as-a-service company specializing in inventory management solutions for Fortune 500 businesses.

Ellen Lapham Continues to Climb

The other product demonstrated in this episode, the Alpha Syntauri, did not appear to have as long of a shelf life as Music Construction Set. I could not find any significant references to the product after 1984, and the Syntauri Corporation itself did not seem to last past the mid-1980s.

The most notable piece of press I did find was a New Hampshire-based computer magazine called SoftSide, which reviewed the Alpha Syntauri in its October 1982 issue, about a year before Ellen Lapham appeared on Chronicles. The reviewer, Steve Birchall, compared the Alpha’s manual to a Phillip K. Dick novel (specifically, Ubik), noting that learning to use the system “requires quite a lot of homework, listening and practice, similar to learning a new word processing program.” That said, Birchall found the Alpha Syntauri “musically worthwhile” and provided features that “gave me a new freedom to jump from one sound to another instantly, which I never had with the analog equipment.” Birchall ultimately concluded the Alpha was “the way to go” for professional musicians.

The price certainly was professional. At the time of Birchall’s review, the complete Alpha Syntauri system retailed for $1,795. And keep in mind, this was not a standalone unit. It required an Apple II computer “with monitor, one disk drive, game paddles,” and an audio system to function properly. And how much would that run you? Perusing through some of the computer store ads from that 1984 issue of MicroTimes referenced earlier, you could get an “Apple IIe package” from one retailer for $995. That would get you the computer, one disk drive, and the monitor. Not sure what a separate audio system and game paddles cost.

As for Syntauri’s president, Ellen Lapham, she’s also a Stanford graduate (she earned an MBA). And like Will Harvey, Lapham seems to have bounced between a number of founder/CEO jobs during her tech career. According to her Facebook page, she ran Award Software International, Inc., and Searchbutton Corporation. Today she seems to have turned her attention to promoting outdoor interests, particularly mountain climbing. Lapham is co-founder and chairperson of the board at the American Climber Science Program, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that facilitates “research and conservation in remote and mountain environments and provide opportunities for education and true exploration.” She also co-founded the Sustainable Summits Initiative, which hosts biennial conferences that focus on developing solutions to the problems caused by human impact on mountain climates.

John Chowning’s Long Stanford Career

Finally, there is Stanford professor John Chowning. As mentioned above, Chowning invented the FM synthesis algorithm in the 1960s, essentially making him the father of the modern synthesizer. According an an online biography by Jason Ankeny, Chowning initially licensed his FM synthesis patent for one year to Yamaha. Stanford actually fired Chowning shortly thereafter, Ankeny said, due to his “meager musical output.” But after Yamaha renewed its patent license for another 10 years, Stanford “quickly rehired Chowning” and later installed him as director of the CCRMA in 1975 before awarding him a full professorship in 1979. He eventually retired from Stanford as the Osgood Hooker Professor of Fine Arts and Professor of Music.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode was recorded at KCSM-TV on December 5, 1983, and first broadcast on February 19, 1984.
  • You can watch this episode at the Internet Archive.
  • I’m reasonably certain that the pianist David Evans featured in the MIT music segment is not the guitarist from U2 better known as the Edge.
  • Another tidbit from the MicroTimes computer store ads that made me giggle: You could buy “FANS” for your Apple Computer for $45, thus thwarting Steve Jobs yet again in his quest for fanless machines.

Advertisement showing list of prices for Apple and IBM PC accessories, highlighting “fans” avaiilable for Apple Macintosh for $45.

  • Ellen Lapham told her high school alumni newsletter in 2019 that she “advised” a “very young Apple Computer” back in her days as a public relations and marketing specialist.
  • More impressively, Lapham also climbed Mount Everest. Twice.
  • If you’re interested in Will Harvey’s first game, Lancaster, it’s available at the Internet Archive.