Product development, Electronics, Firmware and Software Development.
We developed the analog and digital electronics for the Fairlight CMI III, and video graphics and other components in earlier systems in the 1980s. We also spent 15 years in Japan developing musical instruments, software, audio and video processing systems. Went on to develop technical applications in several fields while moving toward freelance cartooning and illustration.
Last Updated: Jan 27 2023
My Thesis involved developing a single utterance, trained, Speech Recognition System using a LSI-11-03, with an 8 channel analog filter bank and Dynamic Warping matching written in Fortran. But I had been working on stuff for electric Guitars and Bass, and digital synthesizers. Independantly discovered the plucked string algorithm with a Signetics 2650 system and later was working on a Z-80 based system before walking into a little local company.....
Fairlight Instruments - Reinventing Sampler
Fairlight CMI series II
The CMI Series II was a further development of Fairlight Instruments Pty. Ltd. original sampler and music production system. Working for Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, and with Quentin Goldfinch, we replaced the Graphics, Floppy disk Controller and Channel Cards. Main difference was the original sound cards used a switched resistor filter that's clocking rate changed with sound pitch and sometimes produced what we called B Flat birdies. The other cards were replaced to use double density disks, and make graphics 1 card instead of 3 and remove any trim pots (and nasty LS123s and LS121s!).
There were a few things developed that never went on sale. A Hard disk system, rack mounted CMI (above), companding noise reduction and non- music related such as single board 6809 based office machine workstation.
The series IIX replaced the CPUs (from dual 6800 to dual 6809), put in a bigger system memory card (mostly Quentin), and changed the system software as well (by a new software team of three). All this to move to Microware's OS9. MIDI was added along the way too, ( mostly by Peter Farleigh and Martin Willis). Core software development at that time was Andrew Canon, Steve Steintz and Michael Carlos. It was a very small team, and we got to meet some interesting people, like Peter Gabriel....
Fairlight CMI series III Design
I was the system architect and lead designer of the electronics in this system. Did the original schematics of all the new boards. Digital, analog systems and the motherboard.
The CMI Series III kept the original disk and graphics, than totally changed the sound generating system to a shared memory architecture. Added a 68000, eight 6809s, tons of memory, 16 bit stereo sampling and 16 bit, 16 channel output. A huge multiprocessor system, that still had to have a lot done in discrete hardware. That was 24 or so 8x8 inch PCBs in the front 19" wide eurorack card cage.
It was actually a virtual memory sampler, except the original software didn't support streaming from disc. This is now considered the first modern Sampler.
The cards were all originally wire wrapped, above being the channel
card. First CMI III prototype images here. The
channel cards each had their own processor and controlled address generation,
pitches and envelopes for 2 audio channels. The interesting thing about
this was the cards calculated 2 channels of 24 bit addresses 8 bits at
a time in hardware and accessed a common 300nsec synchronous wave memory.
There were 8 slots for memory accesses and that if an audio channel didn't
need it's slot (depending on pitch and if the channel was active or not),
that could be given to other system devices such as the main CPUs, the
68K or data to and from disc.
The original CMI-III was to be retrofittable to earlier CMI cases, as in the prototype photos. There were other design compromises made as well, but that is the Art of Engineering. Two layers of analog audio boards against the back panel.
After seeing what compromises that involved, Peter Vogel decided another rear facing Audio rack was a better solution and Ron Huby and he repackaged the analog audio electronics with improvements the extra board space allowed.
Stereo hard disk recording experiments were done with a visiting Seattle guy Chris Prall (who is now at the University of Washington) , but we didn't see the point at the time, as the hard disks were too small and expensive. So it was more good luck for Fairlight than brilliant foresight on my part.
The 10th Anniversary of Fairlight image here.
The original MFX dumped the music keyboard, and changed the software to focus on hard disk recording, but we were in Japan by the time that happened. We have been told it took 8 or 9 years after I left before they needed to replace the last circuit card that represented the core architecture we put in place.
I attended an Audio Technology conference in Tokyo some five or so years after leaving Fairlight and ended up at a dinner table with a Professor Tsutomu Ohashi. It turned out he was the composer for AKIRA, a landmark Japanese animated film, and was a huge fan of the Fairlight CMI III. The 100Khz sampling, and the fantastic sound quality was what did it for him. It is interesting to hear even today, the sound quality hasn't been beaten in any sampler, and there are some that are still being used....
So why did I leave?
I developed several electronic drum circuit boards before moving to Japan. One was a simple ROM based sample playback unit. The other was variations on the Electronic Synthesizer, SIMMONS Electronic Drum, sound. Sold a few, and still interested in hearing from anyone still interested in what must now be an 80s sound...
Roland Corporation Japan - DSP, Elastic Audio and Feel
Roland A-880 Midi Patch Bay
A gate array, small battery backed static ram chip and 6802 system. Just keeps on selling. The midi merger used a bitmap, so that sending multiple note ons, on the same channel and note got ignored on the output when mixed. Same code was re-used in A-50 and A-80. Turned out some people made fat sounds by retriggering multiple voices by the same note and channel.
The first product proposal was actually just a Midi merger box, that had a pitch bender and some controller inputs, but it was very much something that another maker already produced. This product was all developed and working when it was dropped. A very common thing to happen, no matter where you are.
Roland A-50 and A-80 Midi Keyboard Controllers
The A-50 was done first, and the A-80 was a minor software change. It was the first Roland product to have a large LCD display and softkeys, but it wasn't the first to be released. A story in itself. Also first to use pitch and modulation wheels. Used 2 6802 chips. They were the A series because Adrian and Aota worked on them (with the help of 5 others). The remote in was suggested by Ike in marketing in passing and we put it in. Prototypes had a much lighter aftertouch, but the keyboard mechanism guys firmed it up as the sensor was more linear that way. You could change 1 resistor on the CPU A board to change the touch back and that mod seems to have become rather popular. Also did a custom version that got rid of the SYSEX memory and doubled the number of patches. Very difficult to manufacture and test with the individual key sensors. Polyphonic Aftertouch became one of those things the media wanted, but real players couldn't use. Did sell more than anyone expected, and separate sound modules and keyboards started to catch on.
The Owners Manual suffers from the problem that it explains how to set things, but not why, among other things. That all taking up way too much space. For example, the A-50 allows you to remove Active Sensing from the output, even if present on inputs, as it would terminate a soundmodule when muting zones or outputs. All the consequences of options are assumed to be understood by the highend user. Not always true.
The backlite for the LCD display can be noisy in a quiet studio, and that can also be disabled. Eric Persing's A-50 for example.
Research and Development, Smalltalk, OOP, DSP, Digital Audio Synthesis
Became very involved with Object Orientated Design and Modeling around 1988 and Smalltalk/V was the system used, in conjunction with DSPs, MIDI and other I/O devices. I built and developed working proof of concept systems.
Human Rhythm and Feel was one system I worked on for a while. Drum machines couldn't play, or be programmed to play like Ian Paice, unless you could play like him to start with and most customers couldn't. Analyzed MIDI phrases and worked out an algorithm to apply the feel to quantized, robotic phrases. It gave interesting results, and another group was influenced (Inspired may be closer to the truth) by this and came up with the R8 Human Drum machine. It was a product before I even knew anyone had paid any attention to my demos...
Above is a screen shot of a system that controlled and programmed prototype
DSP hardware. A Postscript for sound, that is similar to parts of the MPEG4
One application I started using this system for was as a singing synthesizer. The voice was one instrument that wasn't readily available to electronica. You could use sampled phrases, but they were difficult to manipulate at the time. I hadn't gotten very far when, again, it was deemed that this wasn't the direction to go in.....
Later, four Japanese Engineers made a graphically programmed system adding sampler hardware to the mix and some new custom DSP hardware. A video was made of this and used as a PR piece to all the overseas dealers as a technological show piece. COSM later came out of all this, but it wasn't what I had called it.
Involved in quite a few media related projects that I really would like to continue with. A Silicon Graphics proposal is one that comes to mind as I type this. Stuff with some SoundDroid developers another. Not a lot have became products yet. But rival manufacturers have developed and marketed some similar products over the years.
Phrase Based Music Composition
Some concepts that did make it eventually were the music walkstation and the phrase based music construction paradigm, which had been a framework for the Human Feel experiments,
and a domestic Japanese video production system.
In there also did artwork, 3D animation for CD-ROM and presentations, and all the other stuff required for proof of concept to get projects considered for continuation.
The music Walkstation was going no-where till Yamaha came out with a VHS tape sized portable unit some time later. That always made a difference.
The Music Work Station MPA-5, way before all those iPhone, iPad music applications.
Multimedia, Video and Audio Editing Systems
Multimedia looked interesting in the early '90s and that focused around Desktop Production. I attended quite a lot of varied production related things with a guy that was at the Roland LA R&D office when it existed. Chris Meyer went on to form Cybermotion with his wife Trish and are now core to the motion graphics field.
There were many others that could be mentioned too. Chas Smith, from Glasgow, was one of the UK marketing people that had made the place a joy. He was Vice President of Sales and Marketing (until Oct 2006) at AVID in the USA, and for some time before that Digidesign.
Realtime Audio Pitch, Time and Formant control was developed with a plug in DSP Card and Windows based software tools, such as the above Soundmodule User Interface, data allocation and voice control software. C, C++ and Class Libraries inheriting the world from Smalltalk. Funny how Java today could have been Smalltalk if Sun had got the license they had wanted.
Elastic audio allows things like vocal phrases to have new timing and melodies imposed on them. It also allows sampled audio phrases to be manipulated to compose or construct music.
Prototyping the concept and demonstrating it working is vital to getting the go ahead. This requires the touch of Hollywood, and the talents of musicians like Australian Adrian Scott, an original member of Air Supply.
Variphrase Encoding and Development, V-Trainer
One Elastic Audio development tool become an application bundled with V-Producer, the control software for the VP-9000, and future products. This tool did the Variphrase encoding, and allowed editing of the makers used to determine attacks (the none elastic bits) and syllables within phrases, and things like tempo. A whole lot of functionality is disabled at compile time for the commercial version. A Mac version was also released. Great chunks of code, sweat and blood (not just from me but, akita, funada, hoshiai, suruhashi, kusekabe, yamamoto, tomisawa and many others), also used in standalone systems.
If you ever see the earlier version of V-Trainer windows, look at the About Window, hold down the control key and click the mouse within 5 pixels of the top left hand corner of the graphic area.
VP-9000 Variphrase Processor
Elastic Audio became a hardware product with this unit. The original system was to be the a 1U rack box and require a computer for the user interface and encoding and connect via USB. Unfortunately, that was before Apple had any USB equipped systems, and the idea was killed off by insistence from musician consultants. The stuff users mostly deal with in this type of product was all developed and simulated using a Mac cross-development system. Lots of the code is written in C, and that part was developed in a UNIX environment and cross compiled for the Hitachi processor that runs the show in the box.
And who used it and for what? Try Daft Punk - One More Time. or technologic for electronica vocals...
There is actually a staff credit roll that is accessed from a debugging menu. Most products have such Easter Eggs, to use the term from the DVD world.
The VA-7 arranger keyboard became the second, with a much more cost effective system architecture. That was developed in a Windows development environment for a Hitachi MCU.
One thing that can be said, is that software, less hardware, and knowing what went before, and content, is one path to the future.....
April 27 2003
... and I was referring to VSynth. As this is finally out, a year or so late, it isn't a secret anymore. I didn't have anything directly to do with the hands on development of this product, other than it must reuse the encoding stuff we were envolved with. Most likely with modifications and re-writes. It also combines the virtual analog DSP stuff that I tried for years to get done as a product, that first happened as the Roland JP-8000.
The Roland VariOS is now a 1U rack with USB connection to a PC running V-Producer. The main V-Trainer encoder code was in a DLL that is being used. If you check above, that was going to be the original Variphrase product concept. It is also software configurable as other types of instruments.
NAMM 2003 showed some old hands like Dave Smith coming out with small independent interesting products again. I used to meet up with him at the International Computer Music Conferences. In fact he used to follow us around when I tried to talk to someone. If the business details are right, I could be involved with such sound/music products myself.
Moving On....Why did I leave Japan? Basically the growing nationalism of my boss, Mr Kikumoto, that "Japan is for Japanese!" got too much to put up with. And even though the Chairman, Mr Kakehashi moved me to a team he had, I hoped that my experience being involved with significant Roland Technology between 1987 and 2001 would mean something else where.
I still get New Year cards from Mr Kakehashi, such as this one for 2013 on the Technical Grammy Award for MIDI.
I'm now connected to a few Roland Japan colleagues on Facebook. They were all great guys.
Unfortunately I don't think Roland has done anything particularly interesting since I left. Nothing I've wanted to get or use anyway. All the interesting stuff for me is in performance synths, VST and computer based production systems, or guitar related recording gear.
Interesting to see Eric Persing started Spectrasonics as Roland wasn't interested in where he was going either. They have factories producing the keyboard version of Mainframe Computers.
Seems like a lost opportunity to me, and that Roland's financial results results have been very poor in the 2008 to 2013 period seems to support that. And they haven't got back to me asking for consulting 8^)....
Contracting, Design, Electronics and Software
3D Training Simulator: Helmsman
Spent most of 2002 developing custom industrial systems in Australia, and having fun doing it. Such as training systems for Electronic Warfare, Air Traffic Control, Comms, Sonar and Chaffe Launchers. Of the systems we worked on, the Helmsman has received the most accolades, isn't an issue of national security, and so is getting a mention here.
On time, under budget, documented, built to last, worked liked it should, and fun to use too. There were no yes-men, inter-departmental middle mangers, just slow metalwork suppliers. It is a real-time 3D ship simulator to teach procedures to budding helmsman. Six student stations with a view from the Bridge are connected to an Instructor station with a Gods view of the harbor that can throw obstacles and bad seas and weather at them. They communicate with the instructor via voice over TCP/IP. The students have real boat steering and throttle controllers. My contribution to this was mechanical / microcontroller / electronics design, project management and leadership to code, manufacture, document and deliver the one off system.
The system used modified Morse Controls Helm and Telegraph. The Telegraph was for actuating cables, so the unit was modified to control long life potentiometers via toothed belts and pulleys to be able to generate a value usable by the software.
The system was designed around off the shelf PCs, modified industrial consoles and a custom micro-controller for controller interfacing. The PC software was developed in MFC VC++, and used the VTree 3D engine. The interface controller was based on a PIC16F877A (A very useful little device!). This controller was also used in the other training systems developed, as the board could be loaded in various ways, and connected to the PCs via a serial link.
Getting things finished requires a framework to organize it all. Project Management, and the variations required by different types of projects is key. Schedules, effort and costs are monitored and so controlled.
Project Management is getting a mention, as some believe it is an end unto itself. We don't believe it is. It is however, one of the important tools in the toolbox to get a job done, like source code control, a compile, screwdriver, DSO or soldering iron.
Design for Safety
Safety critical devices are designed with failure modes and their probability of failure in mind. They also use redundancy to fail safely, continue to operate even with failure, or inform the users that they have failed. There are international standards covering it all. There are also processes for development, testing and manufacture to guarantee all this... spent time working in this area in 2004.... and there is a lot more than can be said. We are the only one in this country to apply Standards EN50128, EN50126 and EN50129.
Making LOUD, very efficient, vandal proof audio alarms is part of that world, and here is a small horn loaded unit. A two part aluminum cast horn was designed around a telephone ear speaker, to produce a Weapon of Mass Annoyance.
Used SLA to print 3D Solidworks parts for testing, after the Super Sculpey polymer clay stage refined the design. This little unit produced over 91dB 'A weighted' at 1m with the tones required.
Wi-Fi, DataBases and Data Mining
Automated downloading of data via Wi-Fi (802.11g) and then extracting useful information was an interesting design concept. Unfortunately, all the hype surrounding Wi-Fi, it has a tendency to remove the focus from the real problems to be solved, which were the store and foreword base stations, the Database design and Data Mining. What we ended up demonstrating was the first algorithms designed did show up trends that were not obvious, and had been unseen in 5 to 10 years of using the raw data.
That Excel was the tool used to do the prototyping, and that it was so successful has very much changed the way we now view it and the SQL server, MSDE.
Recent Examples of Device DevelopmentWe developed an Electrophoresis Device, used in DNA research. This required very high voltage control and monitoring, water cooling and be manufactureable.
And many other Projects......We have also been involved in successfully managing huge shrink wrapped commercial software projects, websites, strings of NDA covered scientific, commercial, medical and other devices and systems as a consultant.
Our last big technical development involved LoRa, done over a few years and finished end 2018. SX1276 in original transmitters, gateways and repeaters and all code in C. Also implemented a LoRaWan Client and Server in python, but the production system had a custom system out of the way of the LoRaWan bands. Found LoRaWan end to end performance and reliability very poor. Another example of a Tragedy of the Commons.
I much prefer the Cartooning, Art and Ilustration work!
There was something of a Fairlight reunion at the Memorial for Alan Galt, the guy that designed and made all the wood and metalwork in the Fairlight CMIs, and many other systems.