In per­fect har­mony

John Chown­ing’s story of dis­cov­er­ing FM syn­the­sis is one en­shrined in the an­nals of elec­tronic mu­sic his­tory.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By N. RAMA LO­HAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

IT’S al­ways the case, isn’t it? The ones who’ve truly done some­thing sig­nif­i­cant and con­trib­uted to the greater good are the least hung up about what they’ve achieved and how they got there.

John Chown­ing dis­cov­ered (ap­pro­pri­ated from na­ture, he would say) the al­go­rithm of FM syn­the­sis, the dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy which con­signed ana­logue syn­the­sis­ers to the his­tory books with a sin­gle prod­uct, the Yamaha DX7 Dig­i­tal Pro­gram­mable Al­go­rithm Syn­the­sizer.

This key­board – which swept the mu­sic-pro­duc­ing world off its feet upon its in­tro­duc­tion in 1983 – had sounds which dom­i­nated air­waves in the 1980s, to the point it was of­ten joked that the only place its steely sounds were ab­sent from was clas­si­cal mu­sic ra­dio sta­tions.

Of course, Chown­ing evades the bulk of the plau­dits by in­sist­ing the tech team from Yamaha Cor­po­ra­tion, who worked with him, should take a great deal of the credit. “It was a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween me and the 100 or so engi­neers which made the DX7 what it be­came,” he said with near-an­noy­ing hu­mil­ity.

It all be­gan with his am­bi­tions as a mu­si­cian, and not some elec­tronic ob­ses­sion. “My as­pi­ra­tions were all in mu­sic. I was ex­per­i­ment­ing with pure tones with the vi­olin. Later, I be­came a pretty good jazz drum­mer,” he re­vealed, for once cred­it­ing him­self.

It was the pure tones from the vi­olin which gave birth to the idea of cre­at­ing a form of lin­ear syn­the­sis us­ing dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy. Ba­si­cally, in FM syn­the­sis, the tone of a sim­ple wave­form is al­tered by its fre­quency be­ing mod­u­lated by an­other wave­form.

“FM is lin­ear mod­u­la­tion, it’s not a mu­si­cal in­ter­val. FM syn­the­sis fol­lows the math­e­mat­ics of (ra­dio) broad­cast­ing FM. The maths ex­plain what I did in 1967, but, of course, that was al­ready de­fined in 1928 by (elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer, Ed­win) Arm­strong,” Chown­ing re­vealed, giv­ing credit where it’s due.

Chown­ing was born in 1934 in New Jer­sey, the United States right smack in the mid­dle of the Great De­pres­sion. His par­ents did their best to keep a roof over the heads of their two sons and daugh­ter, and while mu­sic was not a house­hold com­mod­ity, the in­trepid young would-be mu­si­cian was fas­ci­nated by sounds, hav­ing first en­joyed the echoes in the caves of the Ap­palachian Moun­tains he hiked.

Af­ter mov­ing to Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware, a teacher’s in­put prised the vi­olin from his hands and put a pair of drum­sticks in them, in­stead. He took to the per­cus­sion in­stru­ment like duck to wa­ter, and, be­fore long, was pro­fi­cient enough that he found him­self serv­ing in a US Navy jazz band dur­ing the Korean War.

His time in the Navy took him to Europe, where he per­formed for nearly three years, re­turn­ing with an ed­u­ca­tion un­der the GI Bill.

A brief stint study­ing con­tem­po­rary com­posers (Igor Stravin­sky,

Bela Bar­tok et al.) at

Wit­ten­berg Univer­sity in Ohio pre­pared him for the life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of be­com­ing a stu­dent of renowned French com­poser Na­dia Boulanger in France. While this was un­like any prior ex­pe­ri­ence, what truly blew him away was the avant garde con­cert se­ries, Le Do­maine Mu­si­cal, which for the first time, ex­posed him to elec­tronic mu­sic fir­ing out of a loud­speaker, as op­posed to be­ing acous­ti­cally-gen­er­ated. But in France, he was fac­ing a brick wall in tak­ing his in­ter­est to the next level.

Chown­ing re­turned to the United States and soon found him­self en­gaged in a mu­si­cal doc­tor­ate pro­gramme at Stan­ford Univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia, when in

1963, he was given a torn page from Sci­ence mag­a­zine, which dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of mu­sic be­ing gen­er­ated by com­put­ers. Back then, com­put­ers were be­he­moths, with the kind of pro­cess­ing power that would be em­bar­rass­ing by to­day’s stan­dards, and even though his mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion had largely been per­cus­sion-based, he em­braced the large ma­chines.

“I worked af­ter hours be­cause my re­search was un­funded. It was a rich en­vi­ron­ment, with ex­perts from a mul­ti­tude of fields. If you didn’t get the an­swer you were look­ing for from one per­son, you went to the next. I was a per­sis­tent paraan­swers, site and al­ways wanted to get which is how I ended up ed­u­cat­ing my­self,” he said.

And like in Paris, when only Boulanger be­lieved in him, Chown­ing had a sim­i­lar ally in com­po­si­tion proLe­land fes­sor Smith, who de­spite work­ing in the con­realms ven­tional of Stan­ford, was willing to lis­ten to his ideas. Armed with punch cards rep­re­sent­ing au­dio wave­forms, the Mu­sic 4 pro­gram he em­ployed, courMatthews, tesy of Max who had writ­ten the ar­ti­cle he chanced upon in Sci­ence, Chown­ing plod­ded away ... un­til that fate­ful day in 1967. He dis­cov­ered that by us­ing a wave­form to modulate an­other’s fre­quency, he was hear­ing sounds that were oth­er­worldly ... sounds that did not ex­ist in the acous­tic do­main. This was the birth of FM syn­the­sis.

This new-found tech­nol­ogy might seem to have ar­rived at the wrong end of his­tosyn­the­sis ry, es­pe­cially since ana­logue and tech­nol­ogy was pick­ing up and about to hit its zenith, with leg­ends like Robert Moog, Alan R. Pearl­man, Tom Ober­heim and Don Buchla all stak­ing their claim.

Chown­ing and Stan­ford, though, were ahead of the curve and saw the po­ten­tial of FM syn­the­sis, which was able to repli­cate, fairly ac­cu­rately, sounds of real in­stru­ments (drums, vo­cals, brass), in a time when ana­logue was cre­at­ing mere ap­prox­i­ma­tions.

Stan­ford even­tu­ally li­censed the tech­nol­ogy to or­gan and pi­ano man­u­fac­turer Yamaha in 1975, lay­ing down a marker for the univer­sity’s most lu­cra­tive li­cence. Yamaha’s first in­stru­ment to in­cor­po­rate the FM al­go­rithm was the chunky GS1. But when it ap­peared in the sleek and classy guise of the DX7, tone-gen­er­a­tion would never be the same again.

“The Yamaha engi­neers watched me closely, and that helped them de­velop good ear skills. I taught them how to get good voices (tones),” Chown­ing re­vealed.

Ac­cord­ing to him, the DX7 was the pin­na­cle in mass-mar­ket dig­i­tal synth tech­nol­ogy at the time. “I was glad the synth reached as many peo­ple as it did. My idea was to sat­u­rate the mar­ket and to get peo­ple to make good use of it.”

When the likes of El­ton John, Quincy Jones, Chick Corea and Jerry Gold­smith were seen tot­ing DX7s, the world was en­thralled, for­ever seal­ing the in­stru­ment’s fate as one of the most suc­cess­ful com­mer­cially-man­u­fac­tured dig­i­tal syn­the­sis­ers (over 160,000 units were re­port­edly made).

But Chown­ing was no mere techno geek — he had a string of stir­ring com­po­si­tions to his name, like Ture­nas (1972), Stria (1977), Phone (1981) and Voices v3 (2011), which rub­ber­stamped his name as a mu­si­cian first and fore­most.

How­ever, for bet­ter or for worse, it’s the DX7 that he will al­ways be re­mem­bered for.

Mu­sic-mak­ing in the synth world was never the same again, with tunes like Frankie Goes To Hol­ly­wood’s Re­lax, A-ha’s Take On Me, Howard Jones’ What Is Love, Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It and Kenny Log­gins’ Dan­ger Zone all vaunt­ing the ven­er­a­ble set of keys.

Chown­ing’s dis­cov­ery of FM syn­the­sis earned Stan­ford Univer­sity a pile of money with the tech­nol­ogy’s li­cens­ing to Yamaha. — Sun­way Univer­sity

The Yamaha DX7 Dig­i­tal Pro­gram­mable Al­go­rithm Syn­the­sizer sin­gle-hand­edly halted ana­logue synth’s dom­i­nance of the mu­sic-mak­ing in­dus­try in the 1980s. — Wong Lip Kee

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