It was always in our dreams as young producers to work with the Synclavier.
The Glossy shots of it in Keyboard magazine as we grew up always caught our attention. After learning that this was the secret to part of Depeche Mode’s early sound, we knew we had to have it some day.
So 1 year ago luckily Mark and I managed to purchase a Synclavier PSMT system.
Mark, David Lush (Thanks again for lugging it around!), Jakob Thiesen, and Myself got in David’s mini van and took the excursion all the way out to Scarborough for the Synclavier that awaited us disassembled in a garage mostly!
We purchased it from a guy in that used to use it on the show’s “Street Legal” and “The Relic Hunter”.
Included with it was the 32 poly voice sampling system with 32 meg, 16 voice FM synthesizer, 16 track Hard disk recording system, midi, the apple mac and VPK weighted keyboard controller.
After an evening of moving the massive and heavy system to our loft we slowly powered it up to encounter several problems with the system. We knew there were going to be problems with this system, but not near the extent of the problems that we faced.
An old friend John Southern decided to help us out with the technical side of fixing the Synclavier. We are so thankful to have him involved in fixing this beast!
We all kind of walked into this blindly.
Keep in mind there is very little support for these machines. Just a few select people online that sell parts and offer expensive servicing options.
After many hours of trouble shooting over the winter we discovered these problems…
1. The main computer rack (called the ABLE computer) cards were not in their proper place.. according to the information we found online.
2. The Floppy Drive was not connected internally making it impossible to boot up.
3. Although we had most of the cards for the FM synthesizer , none of them including the power supply and cables were installed into our system.
4. The Poly sampler was also missing a power supply and the Sample to Memory module was also located in the direct to disk tower. This means that we would have to have both towers powered up just to sample sounds (an insane amount of voltage)
So after many months of troubleshooting, researching, emailing, we were able to get the machine configured well enough to boot up. Many thanks to Steve Hills of Synclavier in england for guiding us down the right path!
After boot-up we noticed that the Able computer would crash randomly, the VPK keyboard would not respond as a controller, and that computer was not seeing all of the ram that was located inside the machine.
This is when we were learning how the machine worked.. unlike modern equipment, the synclavier has cards that carry out mostly one function… and it is modular in it’s approach. This makes it easy to try and narrow down what the potential problem could be.
Luckily included with our system was several boxes of spare parts, cards, a few power supplies and disks.
We did however have to order a few things that we did not have.
Once we got the parts we needed , we started by replacing the power supplies on the Able computer, and the Poly sampler. At this time we luckily found another Synclavier PSMT tower that had been gutted of a few parts in the suburbs of Toronto. It was mostly a full system. We were able to take parts from it to put into our system and start testing everything.
-We started by replacing the Ram cards, and it didn’t recognize any of it.
-Next up was the card that controls the Ram and that fixed that problem.
Our system all of a sudden was reading all 35 megs in it (3 meg was for computer / sequencing functions)
- Our next goal was to load in samples to listen to them. All that played back was static noise.
Frustrated and annoyed we turned to the spare FM cards we had in the parts collection and installed the 16 voice FM synthesizer with it’s new power supply.
Without the working keyboard, the only way that we could hear if the Fm synthesizer was working was to learn how to input notes into the 200 track sequencer or midi up a controller. We were in luck, the FM voices worked beautifully. We were so shocked at how much nicer they sounded to Yamaha’s DX variety of FM synthesis.
At this point we had to get the VPK keyboard working. It would really be the easiest way to test the machine, and program sounds since there is basically a control for every parameter on the front of it. We had all of the spare cards to fix this keyboard.. and we discovered that card that was telling the keyboard to send information to the computer was faulty. Once we replaced this it is working beautifully!
It is amazing how easy it is to make complex sounds and sequence them via the VPK. It was apparent to us now why the lucky producers and studios loved the Synclavier so dearly!
The next portion of work needed to be done to get the sampler playing back it’s sound properly. Something that was converting the sounds was not playing them back properly. So our guess was that the D/A controller card was faulty.
After switching many cards, we got it to work. The samples sounded amazing!
Our final project with the Synclavier was to instal the Sample to Memory module. This is located usually at the top of the tower and has a very large power supply that works with it. The problem is that our system had a custom floppy drive / hard drive installed. this needed to be taken out and controlled externally. The sample inputs and power supply would need to take up that space and have proper ventilation to keep the system cool.
Once we installed the sample to memory and power we immediately turned the system on and started sampling.
Somehow although we were able to load and play back samples, what we recorded into the machine played back as noise.
We were so close to having this machine running perfectly.
After discovering software called “Logger” for the synclavier, we were able have the computer perform tests on itself to tell us what was wrong with it.
Sure enough another card that controls the Digital to Analog playback was not working and we replaced it!
Now our system is up to snuff, working how we always wanted it to.
To describe the way the synclavier sounds, I would say is huge, warm, clean yet grainy. We are still learning how to use certain aspects of it. We have started making a library of our own sounds.
But it will be a main tool for creating our next records and hopefully for years to come.