Thursday, August 4, 2011

ARP Centaur VI, Avatar, and Proportional Pitch Control NAMM brochure, 1977

ARP Centaur VI, Avatar, and Proportional Pitch Control NAMM brochure from 1977.

What a cool little brochure. The spacy artwork is fantastic, and that little door flips open so readers can get a really good view the future. I've included a scan with the door closed and another with the door open. The rest of the back of the brochure is just white.

I'm guessing this 1977 NAMM brochure was probably handed out during the show to direct visitors to ARP's little piece of synthesizer heaven (ie: room 302). Or, less likely, it was a loose insert in magazines printed shortly before the show? Anyone tell me for sure?

In the end, it doesn't matter too much for me - the distribution isn't as important as the brochure-copy written on the other side of that door. It includes information that really helps me put together the chain of events that was occuring at ARP during this time period just a little bit better.

The handout focused on three ARP promotions. One of them, unsurprisingly, was their new proportional pitch control (PPC) - which had by now been incorporated into the Axxe and Odyssey. After the NAMM show, dedicated PPC ads started appearing in magazines such as Contemporary Keyboard around September 1977.

But, more surprisingly to me, is that this handout features BOTH the Centaur VI AND Avatar. And, it told readers to visit ARP in Room 302, Entrance Level, Georgia World Congress Center to "get a great view of the future". To me, that sounds like both units were available for viewing, and maybe even playing.

Looking closer at this text, you might say the hype around the Centaur VI was a little extreme, even for ARP:
"ARP Centaur VI - The world's first fully-polyphonic guitar synthesizer. Already acclaimed by top professionals as the ultimate black box, the CENTAUR VI breaks every musical boundary. Total sound control and a musician's dream come true."
That's interesting. Because my understanding was that the Centaur VI never made it into production. But, somehow it was "already acclaimed by top professionals as the ultimate black box".

Aaaaaah.... marketing hype. :D

It was also my understanding that the ARP Avatar rose from the ashes of the Centaur. But, both are obviously being promoted at the same NAMM show. Time to dig into the time line of these two instruments a bit further.

According to the chapter 'The Rise and Fall of ARP Instruments" in the book "Vintage Synthesizers" by Mark Vail, two versions of the polyphonic Centaur were to be developed in parallel - a guitar synthesizer and a keyboard synthesizer. The working prototype included 115 circuit boards, a failure time of approximately 2 hours, and apparently would have retailed for over $15,000 US.


Now, here's where I get confused. The way the book tells it, a 1977 business plan written by Friend shelved "a polyphonic keyboard synthesizer under development". The book then goes on in an aside [text written between two square brackets] to say the shelved project was the Centaur. But, then later on in the same aside, it's written that Dave Friend "killed the keyboard version and put all his money on the Centaur".

So, it sounded to me like the polyphonic guitar version continued development for a while longer, although at some point it was obviously also shut down. But the book doesn't say how this happened. Instead, the next paragraph goes directly into the story of the continued development of the Avatar, and all the technical problems that continued on with this monophonic guitar synthesizer.

Luckily, Sound On Sound comes to the rescue. A Retrozone article that appeared in the April 2002 issue of SOS called "Four in One: ARP Quadra - Part 1", we learn a bit more about the transition from the Centaur to the Avatar.

According to this article, the Centaur VI was being developed to include "two polyphonic sections, a dual-oscillator lead synth, a single-oscillator bass synth, and a polyphonic pitch/CV section" for guitar control. But by 1977, the two versions were being developed. The first was the original beast, and then there was also a "simplified keyboard version". It was this simplified keyboard that Dave Friend must have initially canceled. The Centaur VI continued development until ARP realized that it wasn't going to work out (that whole "115 circuit boards/2 hrs to failure/$15,000+ price tag" thing). So "Friend split off some of the Centaur's concepts to develop the Avatar".

Aaaah. That makes a bit more sense.

Also according to the SOS article, only two prototypes of the Centaur were created. So, does that mean one of those two working prototypes was in that room at NAMM?

Likely (and awesome!).

In fact, a post written by Dan Garrett on the Facebook ARP page confirms the appearance of a functioning Centaur VI at NAMM. From the post:
"I remember when we were first shown the Centaur. David Friend said there was no market for a polyphonic synthesizer over $3,500! The Centauri we showed at the Atlanta NAMM show that year was a six voice machine controlled by a guitar. "
He later posts in the same discussion thread that he started working at ARP in the summer of 1975 as a district sales manager, and continued to work there until the last day in 1981. You can read the full discussion thread for more great historical ARP information.

August 14, 2011 update: Found more proof for the appearance of the prototypes at NAMM in the "What's Happening" section of the May/June 1977 issue of Synapse:
"ARP Instruments has announced the unveiling of two guitar synthesizers at the Atlanta NAMM convention in June. On display will be the production prototypes. There is no date yet for their commercial release, but Synapse will let you know more about them as soon as we can."

So, from all this history, we can guess that the development of the Centaur VI continued on at least until the Summer of 1977 when shown at Summer NAMM. Plus, the Centaur VI was still alive and kickin' in prototype form long after the ARP Avatar was already well into development, functional, and probably close to launch.

Yay for timelines! :D

Now, back to that marketing hype for a second. The brochure-copy for the ARP Avatar is almost as crazy as that for the Centaur.

ARP Avatar:
"Only the ARP Avatar could unite the synthesizer and electric guitar in such perfect harmony. The new ARP Avatar is destined to become the most powerful musical force of the 1970's. And 80's. And 90's."
Perfect harmony? Destined? Into the 90s? Not so much. Although they do go for a lot on eBay. :)

End note: While digging up info online, I came across this fantastic NAMM oral history video with Philip Dodds, past Vice President of ARP, talking about his experience in 1977 (the same year as this brochure!) when "a young director named Steven Spielberg requested that an ARP technician set up a large unit for an upcoming movie".

What a great little story to hear directly from Dodds. Definitely check it out if you haven't seen it.

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