Early Digital Workstations

Between the late 1970s and early 1990s, a new breed of digital instrument technology began to emerge.  These high-end forerunners of today's DAWs combined synthesis, processing, and the new technology of sampling in one specialized hardware system.


The two most notable of these products were the Fairlight CMI, and the New England Digital Synclavier

With price points between $20,000–$100,000, the Fairlight and Synclavier were accessible only to companies, institutions, studios, and a few artists with a commitment to bleeding-edge technology.

Sting prepares backing tracks and rehearsal materials for his musicians on the Synclavier.  He also uses an early drum machine called the Linn Drum.

The Fairlight was the first of the workstations to include a sampling option.  It also had an innovative light-pen system, at a time when there were almost no graphic user interfaces on computers.

Although prices prevented these from becoming truly mass-market products, some of their limited user-base were in highly visible positions.  In addition to universities and their composers, the workstations found use in film sound effect houses, and among a number of rock music stars who were becoming interested in the types of sounds sampling offered.

The instruments popped-up in some rather surprising places...

The Whole New World of MIDI

Musical Instrument Digital Interface

  • Published in 1983
  • Created by a group of manufacturers, so the main purpose was to sell stuff, which means...
  • It had to balance power & complexity vs. being cheap & easy to integrate into products
  • Adapted for many more applications than digital instruments:  Control of tape machines, mixers, lighting and theater effects

A standard language for digital devices to communicate with each other.

It worked!  The digital instrument market boomed the analog one declined.  Decades later, MIDI is still ubiquitous and useful. 

Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits, one of the designers of the MIDI specification.

MIDI was the realization of the 'one-man-band' dream.

  • 16 Completely independent parts (channels) down one cable
  • Plenty of parameters and editing control
  • Easily expandable
  • Powerful sequencing further separated sound from control (physical performance skills from the resulting sound)

MIDI Changed the way music production operated.

  1. Phil Ramone, the host, and a 'superstar' rock/pop producer;
  2. Danny Elfman, a musician who led the 1980s new wave band Oingo Boingo, and then entered a successful career as a composer for film and TV.
  3. Brett Ratner, a director who's films include the Rush Hour series and X-Men: The Last Stand.

The following video clip features 3 people:


They also reference Lalo Shifrin, a legendary film composer from the previous generation. 

The following video clip features 3 people:


The following video clip features 3 people:

In the clip, they describe the older model for film score composing, in which the composer wrote themes (before the film was complete), played them for the director, and then recorded them with a full orchestra.  There was no way for the director to hear the full orchestration until the recording session, by which time it was too late to make significant changes to the score.

They discuss the revolutionary change in the process that was brought about by the technology of MIDI.

Issues in the Digital World

By Brian

Issues in the Digital World

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