Beginning of 1980’s the Syntauri corporation produced one of the first software synths, based on an Apple II computer.
After using a combination of analog synthesizers and CV MicroComposers for some time, a new semi-affordable digital product was launched that promised to deliver a combination of the two functions – much like the absurdly expensive NED Synclavier and Fairlight Series II systems. The synth was called The Alpha Syntauri. A digital waveform synthesizer with integrated sequencing facilities.
But it was a synthesizer that was very different, since it relied on a computer for the interface and much of the processing. In that sense it was really one of the first attempts to create a DAW for a standard personal computer – the trusty Apple IIe (this was years before the launch of Macintosh). But the synth never really fulfilled the promises.
The keyboard included in the package was passable, but had a slightly hard “computer” feel to it.
The synthesizer section
The synthesizer is barebone. The “AlphaPlus” sound editor controls 16 digital, 8-bit oscillators with user definable waveforms that can be stacked, split and volume controlled by envelope generators. Since each voice uses 2 oscillators, the synth is 8-voice polyphonic and multi-timbral. No filters or other standard synthesizer processing is onboard, resulting in a quite harsh and cold basic sound. By means of the accompanying software you can actually draw your own waveforms with an included, rather flimsy, light pen, and use these waveforms as a basis for your sounds. Or you can enter the numbers in the alphanumerical editing system. By layering the 2 different parts of the engine, each with its own waveform and amplitude envelope, you can create a decent palette of sounds. Even though the Alpha Syntauri has no real filters (except anti-aliasing), it can still produce quasi-filter effects by crossfading from a rich harmonic waveform to a simple waveform (e.g. sine.).
Waveforms can be defined additively by adjusting the height of 16 bars in a window, representing overtones. Or you could use the waveform editor to “draw” the waveform with the light pen.
The few real-time controllable parameters (e.g. Pitch Bend) are not very smooth, and obvious zipper noise can be heard with several functions. The sound is generally quite clinical, digital and somewhat “organ-like”. So while the synthesizer engine itself is not outstanding, it’s underlying principles are still forward thinking.
The sequencer section
A special sequencer section of the software allowed for sequenced recordings from the keyboard with up to 8 notes polyphony. Each note can have its own sound, making it function like an 8-part multi-timbral synth.
The recording can be step-quantized, but due to the low processor power, the sequences are not really “tight” so syncing with other equipment or existing recordings may be challenging.
Sequencer notes are represented by “Close Encounters” style colored bars on the attached computer monitor, giving you a (faint) visual representation of what the sequencer is playing.
Additional notation/sequencing software was included with the package, but was even more cumbersome to use.
The Alpha Syntauri package uses an included sound card produced by Mountain Computer.
Besides the sound card you got a 4-octave Keyboard, and a light pen kit. The software was delivered on 5″ floppies, and required an Apple 2e computer with 64K RAM.
Users of the Alpha Syntauri were: Laurie Spiegel, Herbie Hancock, Matia Bazar