A Life: Jon Appleton; 'We were kind of on a mission'


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-26-2022 10:00 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Like any creature just getting its legs under it, electronic music had a wobbly start.

Composers worked on cumbersome analog machines and recorded music on reel-to-reel tapes. Concerts often consisted of composers placing a reel on a tape player onstage and turning it on.

As Jon Appleton observed, this made the composer the performer, but it was an inert kind of performance. Appleton, a composer and professor of electro-acoustic music who started teaching at Dartmouth College in 1967, wanted more. He wanted an instrument that would enable composers to perform their electronic work live.

This desire helped give birth to a revolutionary instrument. Appleton helped design a prototype, the Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer, which then was refined into the Synclavier, the world’s first digital recording system. Though it could be played like a keyboard, the Synclavier also paved the way for digital recording and remastering, innovations that transformed the music industry and began the movement that led to the current model of digital music delivery, via the likes of iTunes and Google Play.

“Perhaps because the Synclavier was one of a kind — it was the first commercial digital synthesizer which was designed for performance and for which I alone had composed electro-acoustic music — I was in much demand for concerts across much of the world: twenty-five of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, Japan, Tonga (the ones I can remember or have recordings and programs),” Appleton wrote in an as-yet-unpublished memoir.

Appleton, a pioneer of electro-acoustic music, died Jan. 30 in White River Junction. He was 83.

Music was Appleton’s saving grace. His parents divorced just before he turned 2 years old, and he and his older brother Michael spent time living with family friends in Los Angeles while his mother tried to make ends meet. Jon spent some time in an orphanage during his preschool years, he wrote in his memoir.

But when his mother eventually remarried, his step-father, Alexander “Sasha” Walden, a Russian-born Jew, was a double-bassist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Appleton felt like he had a father, and music became the center of his world, as he put it in his memoir.

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His musical education led him through Reed College, in Oregon, and to graduate school at the University of Oregon, where professor Homer Keller was experimenting with electronic music, a genre about which Appleton was skeptical at first. But he composed two pieces, including one using an oscilloscope, and became excited by the prospect of working in a new field. He published an academic paper, spent a year at Columbia, which had an electronic music program, and then interviewed at Dartmouth, which was then led by John Kemeny, himself a computer science pioneer.

At Dartmouth, Gerald Bregman, a 1954 graduate, funded the establishment of the Bregman Electronic Music Studio, which furnished Appleton a place to work.

Before too long, development of the instrument Appleton had in mind was underway.

Across Dartmouth, there was a movement to see how computers could assist in education, Cameron Jones, a 1975 graduate, said in a phone interview. Appleton began working with Frederick J. Hooven, a professor at the Thayer School of Engineering.

They focused at first on ear training, something all music students had to undertake.

It can be a time-consuming process, in which a professor sits at the piano and plays chords and students write down the notes they hear, said Jones, who studied both music and engineering at Dartmouth.

The college put up some money to get the project started and assigned Sydney Alonso, then a research assistant at Thayer, to work on it. Alonso, who had been involved in research on plasma, worked on the circuitry and Jones was hired in the summer of 1972 to write the software.

The aim, at the time, was nothing more than to have a computer “play the melodic sequence so a student could take melodic dictation,” Jones said. “That’s what triggered the initial collaboration.”

The project drew interest from elsewhere in academia, and the college got a federal grant to continue work. Appleton saw the possibilities.

“Jon was interested in applying what we were doing to musical composition,” Jones said.

In 1974, Alonso and Jones developed an early portable computer.

A small computer at the time was about the size of a refrigerator, and noisy, with lots of cooling fans. They developed one the size of a toaster, that was quiet, and Jones created a computer language for it.

Jones was due to graduate in 1975, but he wanted to stick with the worked he’d done on the Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer.

He stayed on as a student at Thayer, and in 1976 he and Alonso incorporated New England Digital. They came out with the Synclavier in 1977, and sold 13 of them, mainly to universities.

Prior to the 1970s, development of synthesizers was largely analog. The Mellotron, released in England in 1963, played snippets of recorded magnetic tape at the touch of a key, and the Moog synthesizer, which appeared in 1964, connected keys through patch cords to a variety of devices that warp sound.

The Synclavier was part of a wave of digital synthesizers, which included the Fairlight, made in Australia and made famous by Thomas Dolby. The Synclavier consisted of a keyboard, a console of buttons that called up different sounds or effects, and a knob that adjusted those sounds, and Appleton played a key role in the intuitiveness of its design.

New England Digital started life on Main Street in Norwich, across from Dan and Whit’s, then moved to White River Junction, in the building that now houses the Upper Valley Food Coop, in 1982.

“My office was where the homeopathics are,” Matt Bucy, who went to work at New England Digital before he graduated Middlebury College in 1986, said in an interview. The Synclavier was not only designed, but also manufactured in the Upper Valley.

The fever created by the Synclavier seized Bucy during his freshman year in college, when his Music 101 professor showed one to the class and called it “the future of music.”

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I gotta learn how to use this machine,’ ” Bucy said. He spent summers on campus and learned how to program the Synclavier, which led to a job at the company.

When Bucy got to New England Digital, the company was at a high point. Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking album Thriller, released in 1984, had leaned heavily on the Synclavier, and the instrument had revolutionized sound recording at Hollywood studios and in the advertising business.

Sound recording for the first five Star Wars films was done on a Synclavier, said Brad Naples, who moved to the Upper Valley from Boston after seeing Appleton demonstrating the Synclavier on local television.

Naples had gone to Berklee College of Music and wrote Appleton a letter; Appleton wrote back and invited him to Norwich for an interview.

Naples ended up in sales, which meant he traveled to where the Synclavier was already in use to see how it could be improved and refined.

He was in the recording studio with Quincy Jones during the making of Thriller, still the best-selling recording of all time. He later became CEO of New England Digital.

Appleton was engaged in the early development and promotion of the Synclavier, and he traveled with it far and wide to show it mainly to academic audiences.

He often took his young son, JJ Appleton, with him to demonstrate.

“I’d play a duet with myself,” JJ said in a phone interview.

At first, audiences didn’t understand what they were seeing. “They just couldn’t get around the idea that it was digital,” JJ said. “People would gather around it and say, ‘Where are the tapes?’ ”

Beyond the Synclavier I, Jon Appleton had little to do with the instrument’s development, Jones said.

“He moved on fairly early,” JJ said, calling his father “an extremely passionate guy about the things that he wanted to do, and that was composing and teaching. … It was not really in his heart to be selling something.”

Denny Jaeger, an influential figure in music and movie sound production, came in to refine it the Synclavier the late ’70s. Jaeger, who is so undersung that he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, and Naples worked with Alonso and Jones to release the Synclavier II in 1980. That machine, which NED continued to refine, introduced digital sampling, which allowed a musician or sound designer to record direct to disk and play it back.

The cost of the Synclavier, $200,000 and up, meant it wasn’t for everyone, but the roster of musicians who made use of it in the 1980s and early ’90s is kind of a Who’s Who.

In addition to Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, Sting, Genesis, The Cars, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Pat Metheny and jazz legend Oscar Peterson used a Synclavier, and those are only the most notable names.

The Synclavier also contributed to a kind of futuristic ‘80s sound, part of what’s sometimes called New Wave. Music producer Mike Thorne used one to craft recordings by Bronski Beat, Siouxie and the Banshees and Soft Cell, among others.

The latter’s classic 1981 cover of Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love was built on synthesizers, including a Synclavier.

“The Synclavier was one of the first machines that allowed a producer to sort of be the whole band,” Bucy said.

In its heyday, New England Digital was a heady place to work, Bucy said, full of creative people sharing ideas. Bucy went on to redevelop the Hartford Woolen Mill, the former Tip Top bakery and other buildings in White River Junction, but he still considers working on the Synclavier “the best job I ever had.” He often worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, he said.

“We were kind of on a mission, trying to make the coolest machines,” Bucy said. That those machines came from Vermont was amazing, he added.

Though it was considered the best synthesizer available, competitors, particularly from Japan, were beginning to make less expensive options. New England Digital needed to make a less costly Synclavier that used Apple’s Macintosh architecture, but wasn’t able to in time, Naples said.

The company was taken over by a bank in 1993, done in by a combination of its own mistakes, meddling investors and the 1990 recession, Naples said.

But the Synclavier lives on. Jones purchased the trademark and intellectual property.

There are 65 Synclaviers still in use, he said, and he has made it possible to link them to the internet, so they’re no longer reliant on their original memory.

“The way you used it for sound design, it’s unequaled,” Jones said. The button panel allows an artist or producer to work “very fast,” he said.

Though he moved on from the Synclavier and returned to composing on the piano, Appleton’s influence on electronic music runs deep. His early work is still often sampled, Bucy said, and the Synclavier’s revolutionary influence was something Appleton remained proud of.

“I think he was very proud of where it was going, from more of a cool invention to a revolution,” Naples said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.