Dr. Bob may have invented the first commercial viable keyboard synthesizer, but his first machines were analogue devices. They sounded amazing but had some serious technical limitations. How were they solved? By John Chowning, the inventor of a technology called “FM synthesis.” In the process, he changed music forever.
The most famous FM synthesis synth of the 80s was Yamaha’s DX-7, which appeared on the market in 1983. Even if you don’t have a clue about keyboards, you’ll have heard the DX-7 a billion times in your life. Listen. (More classic uses can be found here.)
None of this would have been possible without the work of John Chowning. From Pricenomics:
Long before Stanford University was considered a technology powerhouse, its most lucrative patent came from an under-spoken composer in its music department. Over the course of two decades, his discovery, “frequency modulation synthesis,” made the school more than $25 million in licensing fees.
But more importantly, FM synthesis revolutionized the music industry, and opened up a world of digital sound possibilities. Yamaha used it to build the world’s first mass-marketed digital synthesizer — a device that defined the sound of 80s music. In later years, the technology found its way into the sound cards of nearly every video game console, cell phone, and personal computer.
Despite the patent’s immense success, its discoverer, Dr. John Chowning, a brilliant composer in his own right, was passed over for tenure by Stanford for being “too out there.” In Stanford’s then-traditional music program, his dabblings in computer music were not seen as a worthy use of time, and he was largely marginalized. Yet by following his desire to explore new frontiers of audio, Chowning eventually recontextualized the roles of music and sound, found his way back into the program, and became the department chair of his own internationally-renowned program.
This is the story of an auditory pioneer who was unwilling to compromise his curiosity — and who, with a small group of gifted colleagues, convinced the world that computers could play an important role in the creation of music.