Monday, October 17, 2011

Electronic Music Laboratories, Inc. SynKey synthesizer ad, Contemporary Keyboard 1976

Electronic Music Laboratories, Inc. SynKey synthesizer 1-page advertisement from page 9 in Contemporary Keyboard May/June 1976.

I posted a scan of this ad back in 2009 but never really had the urge to blog about it. But, then I came across the same ad online somewhere and it piqued my interest a little bit - mostly because of the punch card programming.

You heard right. Users could recall "preset" synth sounds from the 25 prepunched cards programmed by EML, or punch their own custom sounds for recall on the 25 blank cards also provided. The high-res scan of the ad gives you a clear indication of what the punch cards looked like. Kinda cool, really. And promoted as the first programmable synth. Ever.

The ad-copy stays pretty high-level, but gets a little technical by telling readers about SynKey's "unique top-octave divider" that delivers the equivalent of 13 oscillators. If I understand correctly, it allowed what was essentially a monophonic instrument to play chord intervals by just the press of one key. That would make a huge sound.

For readers of that issue of CK, a lot more technical info on the SynKey could be found in Giveaway contest #5 on page 14 - it reads like a Spec Sheet promo:
"Syn-Key by Electronic Music Lab is the first synthesizer you can program. Instead of fumbling with knobs, patch cords, and forgetting the settings for sounds that you like, simply punch a plastic computer card to preset more than twenty Syn-Key functions. Insert the card. Push the button. You've got the sound you want. This feature permits changes in sound in a matter of seconds. 
A unique integrated circuit creates the effect of having thirteen oscillators for a full rich synthesizer sound. And you don't need to tune the oscillator - a series of indicator push-buttons selects accurate intervals from the root through the thirteenth semi-tone. 
Other programmable controls include oscillator root waveform; modulation-oscillator shape; filter tune; resonance and mode; filter envelope attack, decay, and sustain;and amplifier attach, decay, and sustain. 
Syn-Key's 3 1/2-octave keyboard has a second-touch feature that produces dynamic changes in timbre,vibrato, wah-wah, and pitch-bend. 
Syn-Key comes with 25 pre-progammed cards, 25 blank cards, and a punch. The unit measures 29 1/2" wide, 8" high, 17" deep, and weighs 29 lbs." 
That contest page also gives us a price: "A $2,195.00 Value". A surprisingly much higher price than I've seen in the past.

Interestingly the external hype the company tried to generate about their punch card technology wasn't viewed the same way internally. The story goes that they went with a card reader for memory storage rather than RAM because they were getting a deal on the card readers. Of course, RAM tech changed quickly, and it wasn't long before memory prices decreased to the point where punch card technology quickly became a dinosaur.

As much as I find the technical aspects of the machine interesting, it is the small writing in the bottom left hand corner of the ad that really got my curiosity up.

"A Kaman Music Product made by Electronic Music Labs, Inc. 
Synkey is a registered trademark of Kaman Corporation."

Kaman Music Product? As far as I recall, none of the other EML product ads had any reference to Kaman, and this ad is telling me "SynKey" is actually a registered trademark of the Kaman Corporation?

I did a bit of Googlin', and came across the Wikipage for Kaman Music Corporation. According to this page, the company began in 1966 and was best known for its composite-body Ovation guitars. But they weren't really a synth company by any stretch. In 2007, Kaman was purchased by Fender, but I noticed it still retains a Kaman branded Web site.

But, I couldn't find anything about SynKey on those pages.

Luckily, Mark Vail's book Vintage Synthesizers contains a whole chapter on EML and the Kaman/SynKey connection becomes a bit more clear. Turns out that EML was first going to create the instrument for Kaman Music and had begun production for the deal. But the deal never went through and EML was left with a lot of inventory. EML decided to sell the instrument themselves and my guess is that they got the registered trademark back from Kaman at this time.

For me, the info above makes this ad all the more valuable and historically significant because it means the ad must have been created *before* the deal with Kaman fell through.


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