Monday, July 25, 2011

Curtis Electromusic Specialties "What a Difference a Chip Makes" ad, Contemporary Keyboard 1980

Curtis Electromusic Specialties "What a Difference a Chip Makes" 1/4-page advertisement on page 71 in Contemporary Keyboard February 1980.

This rare advertisement only seems to have found its way into CK a couple of times. But ain't it the truth: what a difference a chip *does* make.

Curtis chips have reached epic status in the vintage synthesizer world. Most electronic musicians with a soft spot for retro hardware have heard of the chips, although I bet very few knew the full name of the manufacturer "Curtis Electromusic Specialties". I sure didn't know it before coming across this ad later in life.

Curtis' line of "consistent performers" in this advertisement includes what I believe is the original line up:
  • 3310 voltage controlled envelope generator
  • 3320 voltage controlled 4-pole filter
  • 3330 dual voltage controlled amplifier
  • 3340 voltage controlled oscillator.
That's one sexy line-up.

And the ad itself is kinda sexy too. That CES logo is awesome - retro and futuristic at the same time. And for some reason seeing that Oberheim logo on the keyboard in the bottom right hand corner of the ad makes me happy. I like it when I come across an ad from one company that includes a product from another. (*claps hands like a child*)

But, as much as I love this ad, the real question is - how effective can it be for a chip maker to advertise in Contemporary Keyboard, or any other electronic musician-based magazine?

There are really only two audiences that CES could be targeting in CK:

1. Marketing the Curtis brand to synthesizer companies. Contemporary Keyboard was probably read by both small and large synthesizer manufacturers - so it could have been one way for CES to reach this audience. But I would think there had to have been better ways to get your message into engineers' offices.

2. Marketing the Curtis brand to synth buyers. By raising electronic musicians' awareness of, and the quality of, Curtis chips in gear, Curtis could potentially raise consumer demand for synthesizers with Curtis chips, so synth manufacturers would then design and build more synthesizers with Curtis chips. Kinda like Columbian coffee growers' Juan Valdez promotions, or probably a better example is Nutrisweet promoting its sweetener in consumer food magazines. I would assume to raise awareness of the brand so that in the end consumers will buy more products from manufacturers that contain Nutrisweet or Columbian coffee. Hmmm - maybe those aren't perfect examples... I'll keep thinking. But you get the idea.

But based on the ad-copy alone, it looks like Curtis decided to take aim directly at synth companies and those brainiac engineers. I consider myself a 7-out-of-10 when it comes to the innards of vintage synthesizers, but I have no idea what "C.V. rejection" is. And I doubt most other readers of CK would either.

"Class A and Class B operation"?

"No more Q81's"?

"On chip summer"?

No clue on those either.

In the end, history has shown that it took more than a few ads to give CES and Doug Curtis the profile rightly deserved. In fact, its taken decades of legendary synths, vast word-of-mouth, kind words from other synth visionaries like Dave Smith, and a large active world-wide vintage synth community.

I'd say we are almost there... :)

The company Curtis Electromusic Specialties was founded in 1979 by Doug Curtis and continued operations until 1988, when it became OnChip Systems. You can find the full history of the company on the awesome Curtis Electromusic Web site. The site looks to have been created around 2007 by his wife Mary (mcurtis@ is listed as the email address in the contact section).

The site includes some great reference information, including company history, datasheet PDFs, and a growing list of synthesizers that used the chips. The site also includes a great page on Doug Curtis himself. And as soon as I read the last paragraph concerning his battle with cancer, I was immediately taken back to 2007. I distinctly remember reading about it in Keyboard.

I hadn't picked up Keyboard Magazine for a while, and recall flipping through a friend's April 2007 issue when I came across a tribute article on Doug written by Marcus Ryle. It also included two paragraphs written by Dave Smith, where he recalls starting his working relationship with Doug while redesigning the Prophet-5. That one-page tribute alone is a great reason to pick up a copy off eBay if you can find it.

There are a number of other CES resources on the Web as well - especially those with datasheet PDFs. Google away.

Two that stand out for me are, which has a CEM page including datasheets, and where you can also purchase chips on the site. The Curtis CEM Wikipedia page also has a bit of info, and gives Doug the title "Father of the Analog Synthesis Chips".


And a great name for a band.

End note: Remember all those engineering terms in the ad. I just couldn't leave well enough along and had to Google 'em:

Class A and Class B amplifiers:
It sounds like Class A amplifiers are simple, but inefficient amplifiers, while Class B amplifiers create a large amount of distortion but efficiency is greatly improved. See Wikipedia page for more info.

Resistor used to compensate for scale drift in VCAs. CEM3340 VCO didn't need 'em.

On chip summer: Sum-of-2-products computation for all controlling parameters done on the chip. Almost understand this. I think two or three years of engineering school would help.

C.V. rejection:
Even after reading the 3310 datasheet PDF on the Web site, I still don't have a clue :)

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