in print | Innovate: Long Island • Tech achievements of the music synthesizer

feature: with Ray Kurzweil
January 10, 2020


— story —

publication: Innovate: Long Island
section: Opinion
story title: Sound investments on an island filled with wonder
author: by Tom Mariner
date: January 2020



note: This story has been collected for the Kurzweil library.


— introduction —

by Tom Mariner

A few years after Ray Kurzweil introduced the first Reading Machine for the blind — he cranked-out his first music synthesizer with music legend Stevie Wonder. It was a product of Kurzweil’s fertile brain and (in theory) a bet between the 2 men that electronic stuff could not sound like a concert grand piano.

The technical challenge was that large memory chips that digitally hold millions of pieces of sounds were non-existent. And “computers” at the time were crude, large, and slow.

But nature is on our side. In general, our brain only pays close attention to the first 100 or so milli-seconds of a new sound. So Ray Kurzweil did a great job of playing that part — and left us with only the frequency as the note trailed off. Ultimately, Stevie Wonder couldn’t tell the difference between the computer note — and a bunch of strings in a giant chunk of wood.

Electronic sound-making with specialized chips.

At General Instrument — in Hicksville on Long Island in New York, now Microchip Technology of Arizona — where I was a consultant for about 10 years, we did a lot of electronic sound-making with specialized chips. But also with software on the tiny micro-controllers that helped launch the electronic gaming and video gaming industries.

We borrowed heavily from other innovators at the time, including Ray Kurzweil and Stevie Wonder. I never met Wonder, but entertainment luminaries were intertwined with a lot of the products we manufactured.

The big game and toy developer at the time was now-defunct design company Marvin Glass — housed in a bomb-proof building in Chicago, IL. They used to delight in playing sounds and music on a $100,000 Kurzweil synthesizer — while whatever concept they were trying to sell to toy companies such as Mattel, Milton Bradley, or Parker Brothers played on a screen — then getting me to duplicate the game, and the sounds, on a $3 micro-controller for mass production.

Morphing into today’s artificial intelligence.

This all eventually expanded into the first commercial voice synthesizers — also relating to Ray Kurzweil’s Reading Machine for the blind — and those chips heralded the digital signal processing that morphed into today’s “artificial intelligence.” A story for another time.


— notes —

AI = artificial intelligence


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story title: in print | Innovate: Long Island • Tech achievement of the music synthesizer
deck: feature: with Ray Kurzweil
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