E-mu Audity

Photo credit: Don Kennedy

E-mu Audity

Artifact Type: Synthesizer
Model: Audity Level II System, model 5020 (prototype)

Manufacturer : E-mu Systems, Inc.

Manufacturer Location:USA
Date: 1979
Current Status:
Currently on exhibit
Not available for use in Recording Studios
In Collection(s)
Operation/FunctionThe Audity was designed to function as a composition and performance tool, with its orchestrating qualities (a result of its unique multi-timbral feature) giving the user a complex array of options. Moreover, the instrument was also designed to allow the user to perform a composition and then edit and arrange it in real time. The Audity enables memory storage of up to sixteen individual sounds (Single Voice Sounds) and sixteen combination sounds (System Presets), each of which can contain up to sixteen different Single Voice Sounds. As such, each individual voice card – and, by extension, each of the sixteen keys the instrument is capable of playing simultaneously – can produce a different timbre. Of course, the user need not necessarily create combinations that assign all sixteen sounds to a distinct voices. For instance, voices 1 through 4 could be assigned to a string sound in different ranges, voices 5 through 8 could be assigned to woodwind sounds in different ranges, and voices 9 through 16 could be assigned to a piano sound. Of course, the main advantage of this multi-timbral architecture is that it allows a single player to produce a multitude of different sounds from a single source. The programmable nature of instruments such as this also enable the user to make smoother and faster transitions between timbres.
The instrument’s front panel is arranged according to Command, Synthesizer, and System Preset sections. There are twelve push button switches assigned to the preset section enabling the user to select one of twelve different combination System Presets. The sixteen independent Single Voice Sounds are accessible in the command section. Presets are saved and selected from the 0 through to 9 keypad. Most of the instrument’s parameter controls are also positioned in the synthesizer section. Unfortunately, the Audity was never put into production mode, with only the single prototype produced. Although it is likely that this instrument was at one time made operational for demonstration purposes, it is not known whether it is still functional as the National Music Centre collection does not contain the required operating system floppy disc. Moreover, since it is the only unit in existence, it is incredibly rare and should not be handled by NMC staff or members of the public under any circumstances without special permission from the Manager of Collections Artifact and Care.
Cultural SignificanceAs it happens, the story of the Audity, and even that of E-mu in the 1970s, is not very well known. Although the company is regarded for their contributions in digital sampling, the fact that they effectively revolutionized the course of synthesizer design prior to this is not commonly discussed. That being said, the impact of E-mu’s contributions are still widely felt today. Polyphony and programmability are still among the most important features in modern synthesizers. Moreover, the hybrid digital-analog architecture E-mu pioneered still today seems to represent what is often considered to have been a golden era in synthesis, one in which the best of both the analog and digital worlds were harmoniously in functional balance. As such, many modern designers still return to this model of analog sound generation and digital control. Of course, the cultural impact of the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, which would not have existed without E-mu, cannot be overstated as it has remained one of the most successful and widely used synthesizers of all time. Had the sixteen-voice, multi-timbral Audity been produced, it could be argued that it may have certainly overpowered the Prophet 5. Just as Harald Bode had advocated the importance of solid-state technology in the early 1960s, so too was E-mu the main proponent for early digital technologies such as the microprocessor.
Technological SignificanceThe synthesizer is arguably one of, if not the most technologically significant contributions to the course of electronic music. Although earlier electronic instruments such as the Theremin, Clavivox, and Ondes Martenot offered new and unique ways of articulating sound, their sonic template was, for the most part, quite limited, capable of producing only a few distinct timbres. The modern synthesizer, on the other hand, was viewed as an integrated electronic orchestra, as it were, allowing the user to sculpt a wide and varied array of tones and gestures. What’s more, it allowed the user to modify their sounds in real time, seemingly without the sorts of physical limitations imposed on acoustic instruments. Of course, each instrument did come with its own characteristic tonal qualities and control limitations, however the wealth of opportunity inherent in the ability to manipulate and define nearly every parameter of sound structure solidified the synthesizer’s place as one of the most powerful musical innovations of the twentieth century. The concept of modular design was initially quite desirable to professional and studio musicians in that it allowed one to more or less completely customize their instrument and modify its functions as desired. Although modular-type systems are still in production today ¬– the Buchla 200e, for instance, is based on the modular design of the Buchla 200 analog system – the advent of affordable eight-bit microprocessor-based integrated circuitry in the mid 1970s and the rise of programmable polyphonic instruments in the late 1970s resulted in the relative obsolescence of the discrete transistor-based systems of the early 1970s. Synthesizers increasingly began to adopt the smaller, more compact aesthetic exhibited in these performance-oriented instruments, especially that of the revered Minimoog. The once popular modular approach gave way to more streamlined designs that, while still offering users the ability to control numerous aspects of the instrument’s tone and gesture, limited the way in which the instrument could be operated. Although the modular synthesizer was highly regarded for its flexibility, it was also criticized for being largely unintuitive and cumbersome in its patching schemes; the smaller, integrated digital-analog hybrids of the late 1970s, such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, though still not relatively inexpensive, responded more readily to the technological demands of an increasingly burgeoning consumer market. In the early 1970s, integrated circuits emerged in synthesizers, housing the many discrete components of transistor-based circuits within a single silicon chip, as they are often called. Integrated circuits were significantly smaller and less expensive to manufacture than the circuits from which they derived. With the introduction of the first affordable eight-bit microprocessors in the mid 1970s, such as the Zilog Z80, integrated circuits adapted to incorporate more sophisticated digital components. The Audity belongs to the era of synthesizers that incorporate microprocessor-based integrated circuits. In addition to being more reliable and less expensive to manufacture, the synthesizers of the microprocessor era were, to varying extents, also programmable, meaning that various parameters could be stored either within the instrument’s internal memory or onto an external device. Synthesizers that emerged from the era of digital-analog hybrids are often considered to represent the height of synthesizer design; combining analog sound production with reliable and flexible digital control. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, synthesizers continued to develop following the compact, user-friendly model established in the mid 1970s. These instruments, however, generally moved away from the hybrid internal architecture to incorporate both digital control and sound production, such as in the iconic Yamaha DX7.
Unfortunately, the Audity never reached the production stage, meaning that its true potential and impact remain somewhat unknown. The technology that was designed for the instrument, including E-mu’s digital scanning keyboard and microprocessor-based analog chip voice cards, were licensed for use in the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, which remains one of the most technologically groundbreaking and commercially successful synthesizers of all time. Released in 1978, it was the first true ‘hybrid’ instrument to incorporate a dedicated microprocessor for system control and control voltage generation while retaining analog sound generation, as well as full programmability of all its parameters and five-voice polyphony. That being said, however, the Audity was poised to offer a number of more advanced features. The Audity employed sixteen-voice polyphony, with three onboard filters and a whopping four ADSR envelopes. Moreover the Audity employed E-mu’s earlier 4060 keyboard, which also incorporated a powerful sequencer, something the Prophet 5 lacked. Although the Audity lacked the internal programming storage used in the Prophet 5, it employed various disc drives, allowing the user to save a certain number of presets and sequencers onto external 8” floppy discs. Perhaps the most powerful and sophisticated feature of the Audity, however, was its programmable multi-timbral architecture. Just like the Prophet 5, the Audity could store and recall every parameter of a number of individual timbres, or presets. The Prophet 5, however, allowed for only a single preset to be selected at any one time, meaning that each of its five voices were characterized by the same timbre. The Audity was designed to be fully multi-timbral, meaning that each of its sixteen voices could be assigned to a different preset, or timbre. This feature is not unlike multi-track recording in the sense that it allows each sound to have its own space and be individually controllable. What’s more, the Audity also offered programmable memory of its multi-timbral feature: up to sixteen different ‘System Presets’ could be created, each capable of containing up to sixteen different individual timbres. As such, the System Presets gave the instrument a sort of orchestral quality, allowing the user to combine and layer distinct sounds to produce a far more varied and flexible sound. With its ability to provide numerous timbres simultaneously and store complex sequences, the Audity was effectively the first form of what became known as a workstation synthesizer, appealing as much to the needs of the composer as to those of the performer. As such, it predated the first commercial workstations, such as the Korg M1, by nearly a decade. Voice allocation technologies similar to E-mu’s digital scanning keyboard were independently developed by the Allen Organ Company and Yamaha in the early 1970s. E-mu’s polyphonic approach, however, was the popular choice in most synthesizers that followed, with exceptions such as the Polymoog of 1975, which attempted to assign independent sound generation circuitry per key in the form of divide-down architecture, similar to electric organs such as the Hammond Novachord of 1939. True polyphony, as seen in instruments such as the Korg PS-3100 of 1977, with independent oscillators, filters, and envelope generators for every single key on the instrument's keyboard, was neither financially nor technically feasible for most manufacturers to sustain at the time. For their part, E-mu is recognized as being one of, if not the most important manufacturers in terms of their pioneering the new digital technologies that revolutionized synthesizers throughout the 1970s, effectively establishing the modern synthesizer. They continued to remain ahead of the curve, often being the first to implement newly developed technologies, especially those of the digital era.
Users/PerformersSince this unit was never commercially produced beyond the single prototype, there have been no users associated with it. Perhaps the only performer who could attest to the experience of operating the Audity is Peter Baumann, formerly of the German experimental and progressive rock band Tangerine Dream. In 1977, shortly after departing from Tangerine Dream to embark on solo projects, Baumann commissioned components from E-mu Systems that would eventually inform the development of the Audity prototype. Although he did not play this particular unit, the system he received was effectively comprised of identical parts, including sixteen voice cards and a computer controller with associated operating system software.
Peter Baumann was born in Berlin, Germany on 29 January 1953 and, along with musicians Edgar Froese (1944 – 2015, Austrian-German) and Christopher Franke (born 1953 in Berlin, Germany), was a core member of the hugely innovative electronic group Tangerine Dream between 1971 and 1977. Tangerine Dream was formed by Froese in 1967 and briefly featured notable composers and synthesists Klaus Schulze (born 1947 in Germany, founding member of the group Ash Ra Tempel) and Conrad Schnitzler (1937 – 2011, German, founding member of the group Kluster and co-founder of the famed Zodiak Free Arts Lab in West Berlin) in its earliest instantiation. The group’s first successful albums, Atem of 1973 and Phaedra of 1974, with the latter published under the Virgin Records label, were released to critical acclaim. These albums were preceded by the lesser known Electronic Meditation of 1970, Alpha Centauri of 1971, and Zeit of 1972. Several other successful albums followed, including Rubycon and Ricochet of 1975, Stratosfear of 1976, Encore of 1977, and the soundtrack to the 1977 film Sorcerer. Baumann departed in 1977, following the release of his first solo album, Romance, the year prior and the end of the group’s first American tour. Baumann’s other solo works include Trans Harmonic Nights of 1979, Repeat Repeat of 1981, and Strangers in the Night of 1983. In the early 1980s, Baumann also founded the Private Music record label, which specialized in the release of new age instrumental and electronic music, and, in 1979, he co-produced Cluster’s Grosses Wasser album. Currently, Baumann operates the Baumann Foundation out of San Francisco, California, which aims to elucidate contemporary research and writing on intersections between cognition, evolutionary biology, human experience, and philosophy. Following Baumann’s departure, Tangerine Dream continued to record and tour extensively, releasing the albums Cyclone in 1978, Force Majeure in 1979, and the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s film Thief in 1981. In both Baumann’s solo works and in the music of Tangerine Dream, a strong fascination with the emerging electronic technologies – namely analog synthesizers, sequencers, and tape loops – of the late 1960s and early 1970s is quite apparent. In 1975, the group performed an historic concert at Coventry Cathedral in England’s West Midlands, with each member wielding many of the iconic electronic instruments of the era, including large Moog modular systems, EMS Synthis, and Mellotrons. Their unique combination of electronic and experimental aesthetics with ambient sensibilities helped define one aspect of what came to be known as the “krautrock” genre, which consisted in contemporaneous groups such as Can, Faust, Harmonia, Neu!, Kraftwerk, Amon Düüll II, and Popol Vuh, in addition to Cluster and Ash Ra Tempel. The krautrock genre – which grew to incorporate elements of rock, psychedelic, early techno, and free jazz – had a massive influence outside Germany, inspiring parallel aesthetics in electronic dance music, progressive rock, experimental music, new age music, and noise. Tangerine Dream in particular were known for their willingness to pioneer the use of new technologies, such as the sequencer and digital synthesizer.
Classification(s)
Electrophone (Electronic)
Musical Instrument
Keyboard
Object Number:
2002.05.12.1-2

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