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John Chowning

The father of the digital synthesizer, inventor and composer John Chowning forever altered the face of modern music. Born August 22, 1934, in Salem, NJ, he was first exposed to electronic music while studying in Paris, attending live performances by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. Upon returning to the U.S., Chowning arrived at Stanford University in 1962; there a fellow orchestra member passed him a copy of a visionary Science magazine piece, written by computer music pioneer Max Mathews, in which Mathews confidently predicted that the computer would soon emerge as the ultimate musical instrument. Chowning had never even seen a computer before, but he nevertheless traveled to Mathews' New Jersey offices anyway; he soon returned to Stanford with a box stuffed with computer punch cards, discovering the technology to play them in the university's artificial intelligence department.

Chowning's breakthrough followed in 1967: while experimenting with high-speed vibratos -- fluctuations in pitch typically added to electronic sounds to create a heightened realism -- he also began toying with a pair of oscillators, modulating one sine wave with the output of the other. What he discovered was a recognizable, richly harmonic tone color at a frequency of around 20Hz that he was able to manipulate to approximate the sound of clarinets, bassoons, and the like. Having hit upon frequency modulation (FM) synthesis, Chowning then spent several years exploring his findings and expanding his sound palette; finally, in 1971 he approached Stanford's Office of Technology Licensing, which in turn sent out feelers to a number of American organ manufacturers. All -- Hammond, Wurlitzer, and Lowry among them -- rejected the offer; only the Japanese corporation Yamaha understood the possibilities that Chowning's discovery offered.

Yamaha, already developing their own digital instruments but enjoying little success, soon acquired a year of exclusive rights to the FM synthesis patent, honing Chowning's ideas and in 1973 building the MAD, the first known all-digital synth ever created. In the meantime, however, Chowning -- by definition not an inventor but an electronic music composer and teacher -- found himself in hot water with his bosses at Stanford over his meager musical output; he was soon dismissed from the university, and was in Europe when Yamaha came back to license a ten-year deal for the FM rights. The situation proved highly embarrassing for Stanford officials, and they quickly rehired Chowning, offering him the position of Research Associate; he was soon installed as Director of the University's Center for Computer Research and Musical Acoustics, with a professorship to follow in 1979.

The GS-1 digital synth -- the first fruits of Chowning's research and Yamaha's development -- rolled out of Yamaha's Japanese factories in 1981; although it caused a stir in the marketplace, it was always considered something of a market test. Two years later, Yamaha released the DX-7, a 16-voice polyphonic digital synth with 32 internal memories and a ROM/RAM cartridge slot; overnight, the industry was seemingly turned upside down -- the supply simply could not keep up with the demand, and for the next several years Yamaha thoroughly dominated the synth market. The DX-7's success and influence aside, Chowning also left his mark as a composer of computer music; his most notable works included 1971's Sabelithe, 1972's Turenas, 1977's Stria, and 1981's Phone. ~ Jason Ankeny
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