Monday, May 31, 2010

Yamaha GS1 (GS-1), Keyboard 1981



Yamaha GS1 synthesizer advertisement from page 27 of Keyboard Magazine August 1981.

This GS1 introductory advertisement by the G. Leuenberger Company appeared once in Keyboard Magazine a full four months before Yamaha came out with their own ad introducing *the* grand-daddy of FM synthesis. I have to ask myself - How could Yamaha have let them scoop such an important advance in commercial synthesizer history?

Yup. The G. Leuenberger Company. I'd never heard of 'em. Until now.

But before I say a bit more about that, a little introduction of the GS1 is in order.

The GS1 was Yamaha's first commercially available synthesizer based on FM (frequency modulation) synthesis. And within two or three years, that preset FM technology had been repackaged for 1/10th the price in the DX7 - the first commercially successful programmable synthesizer and one of the best selling synthesizers of all time.

And so I ask the question again. With such a monumental technology breakthrough at stake, how could Yamaha let the G. Leuenberger Company get the word out first?

Well, I think at least part of the reason is that the technology was so new. The mindset of the day was that you needed a PhD in physics and/or a large bank account to program an FM synthesizer. Until there were programmable synthesizers out there, no one really needed to know much about how FM worked.

So, the GS1, and the next few FM synthesizers Yamaha released were all presets.

But someone had to program those presets. And you will see that is where G. Leuenberger comes in.

Or at least, I assume this is the same Leuenberger... it would be the weirdest coincidence in the world if it wasn't.

According to the online encyclopedia at associatepublisher.com, the original GS1 programming engineers from Japan couldn't too many musical sounds out of the beast.
"The Japanese engineers in Hamamatsu failed to create more than a handful of pleasing sounds for the GS1 with the 4-monitor programming machine, although one of them was used on the recording of "Africa" by Toto. At one point, Mr. John Chowning was invited to try to assist in creating new sounds with FM Synthesis. He came to the Yamaha R&D Studio, and spent a long time trying to make the FM theory result in a useful musical sound in practice. He gave up by the end of the day.

Thereafter, a select group of prominent studio synthesists was hired by Yamaha to try to create the voice library for the GS1 (with that same programming tool). They included Gary Leuenberger (who at that time owned an acoustic piano outlet in San Francisco), and Bo Tomlyn (who later founded Key Clique, a third-party DX7 software manufacturer)."
That's gotta be the same Leuenberger.

And it makes him the perfect person to introduce the GS1 (and FM synthesis) to an American audience, not only through his demonstrations at NAMM, but through his store and in this advertisement as well. With or without Yamaha's backing.

(Also - unlike many other synthesizers around at the time, it probably didn't look that out of place in his piano store either. :o)

The ad itself does a great job of down-playing the rather complicated FM side of things - in fact, FM is only mentioned once in the whole advertisement, and only in relation to the 'vast spectrum of sounds' the technology is capable of. The rest of the advertisement is all about allowing the 'performer to concentrate on being a musician, not a programmer' - velocity sensitivity - after touch - simple front panel control.

Gary Leuenberger's name pops up a lot online, not only for his contribution to GS1, but synthesis in general.

According to the IEEE Global History Network's page on the Yamaha DX-7, Gary was also involved in programming the DX-7 as well:
"Apparently many DX-7 users found programming the device too difficult, and preferred instead to use the preset voices provided with the instrument. The credit for programming these voices goes to two individuals, David Bristow in the United Kingdom and Gary Leuenberger in the United States. The two developed a range of “voices”—imitation of bass guitars, brass instruments, bells, marimbas, the sound of a Fender Rhodes electric piano, and numerous special effects."
A post on MATRIXSYNTH from June 2009 also mentions an auction that included information on Gary's involvement in a CS80 patch guide.
"Gary Leuenberger Patches Demo CD - This has been transferred from a cassette tape. It is an audio tape that discusses, in detail, the best way to utilize Gary's Patch Guide per patch. It's noisy, has noticeable channel crosstalk and overloads at points. However, The CD provides very detailed examples of his famous patches, how to create them and, more importantly, how to play them. If you follow Gary's instruction, you will get a unique look at some ways, in which, Gary uses initial and aftertouch and how he puts the CS80's envelopes and ring modulator to good use."
An episode of Computer Chronicles that featured 'MIDI music' includes some good footage of Gary demonstrating some Yamaha synths as well as a sequencer and a drum machine.

You can view the Google Video below (Gary comes in around 2:50).
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The best thing about writing this blog is finding out the back-story of so many synthesizers and the people that were involved 'behind the scenes' - programming sounds, creating advertising campaigns, etc.

I think people like Gary deserve a lot more credit than they get online.

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