John Chowning’s humility is mind-boggling

The Yamaha DX7 Digital Programmable Algorithm Synthesizer single-handedly halted analogue synths dominance of the music-making industry in the 1980s. Photo: Wong Lip Kee

It's always the case, isn’t it? The ones who’ve truly done something significant and contributed to the greater good are the least hung up about what they’ve achieved and how they got there.

John Chowning discovered (appropriated from nature, he would say) the algorithm of FM synthesis, the digital technology which consigned analogue synthesisers to the history books with a single product, the Yamaha DX7 Digital Programmable Algorithm Synthesizer.

This keyboard – which swept the music-producing world off its feet upon its introduction in 1983 – had sounds which dominated airwaves in the 1980s, to the point it was often joked that the only place its steely sounds were absent from was classical music radio stations.

Of course, Chowning evades the bulk of the plaudits by insisting the tech team from Yamaha Corporation, who worked with him, should take a great deal of the credit. “It was a collaboration between me and the 100 or so engineers which made the DX7 what it became,” he said with near-annoying humility.

It all began with his ambitions as a musician, and not some electronic obsession. “My aspirations were all in music. I was experimenting with pure tones with the violin. Later, I became a pretty good jazz drummer,” he revealed, for once crediting himself.

It was the pure tones from the violin which gave birth to the idea of creating a form of linear synthesis using digital technology. Basically, in FM synthesis, the tone of a simple waveform is altered by its frequency being modulated by another waveform.

“FM is linear modulation, it’s not a musical interval. FM synthesis follows the mathematics of (radio) broadcasting FM. The maths explain what I did in 1967, but, of course, that was already defined in 1928 by (electrical engineer, Edwin) Armstrong,” Chowning revealed, giving credit where it’s due.

Chowning was born in 1934 in New Jersey, the United States right smack in the middle of the Great Depression. His parents did their best to keep a roof over the heads of their two sons and daughter, and while music was not a household commodity, the intrepid young would-be musician was fascinated by sounds, having first enjoyed the echoes in the caves of the Appalachian Mountains he hiked.

The Yamaha DX7 Digital Programmable Algorithm Synthesizer single-handedly halted analogue synths dominance of the music-making industry in the 1980s. Photo: Wong Lip Kee

After moving to Wilmington, Delaware, a teacher’s input prised the violin from his hands and put a pair of drumsticks in them, instead. He took to the percussion instrument like duck to water, and, before long, was proficient enough that he found himself serving in a US Navy jazz band during the Korean War.

His time in the Navy took him to Europe, where he performed for nearly three years, returning with an education under the GI Bill.

A brief stint studying contemporary composers (Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok et al.) at Wittenberg University in Ohio prepared him for the life-changing experience of becoming a student of renowned French composer Nadia Boulanger in France. While this was unlike any prior experience, what truly blew him away was the avant garde concert series, Le Domaine Musical, which for the first time, exposed him to electronic music firing out of a loudspeaker, as opposed to being acoustically-generated. But in France, he was facing a brick wall in taking his interest to the next level.

Chowning returned to the United States and soon found himself engaged in a musical doctorate programme at Stanford University in California, when in 1963, he was given a torn page from Science magazine, which discussed the possibility of music being generated by computers. Back then, computers were behemoths, with the kind of processing power that would be embarrassing by today’s standards, and even though his music education had largely been percussion-based, he embraced the large machines.

“I worked after hours because my research was unfunded. It was a rich environment, with experts from a multitude of fields. If you didn’t get the answer you were looking for from one person, you went to the next. I was a persistent parasite and always wanted to get answers, which is how I ended up educating myself,” he said.

And like in Paris, when only Boulanger believed in him, Chowning had a similar ally in composition professor Leland Smith, who despite working in the conventional realms of Stanford, was willing to listen to his ideas.

Armed with punch cards representing audio waveforms, the Music 4 program he employed, courtesy of Max Matthews, who had written the article he chanced upon in Science, Chowning plodded away ... until that fateful day in 1967. He discovered that by using a waveform to modulate another’s frequency, he was hearing sounds that were otherworldly ... sounds that did not exist in the acoustic domain. This was the birth of FM synthesis.

This new-found technology might seem to have arrived at the wrong end of history, especially since analogue synthesis and technology was picking up and about to hit its zenith, with legends like Robert Moog, Alan R. Pearlman, Tom Oberheim and Don Buchla all staking their claim.

Chowning and Stanford, though, were ahead of the curve and saw the potential of FM synthesis, which was able to replicate, fairly accurately, sounds of real instruments (drums, vocals, brass), in a time when analogue was creating mere approximations.

Stanford eventually licensed the technology to organ and piano manufacturer Yamaha in 1975, laying down a marker for the university’s most lucrative licence. Yamaha’s first instrument to incorporate the FM algorithm was the chunky GS1. But when it appeared in the sleek and classy guise of the DX7, tone-generation would never be the same again.

“The Yamaha engineers watched me closely, and that helped them develop good ear skills. I taught them how to get good voices (tones),” Chowning revealed.

According to him, the DX7 was the pinnacle in mass-market digital synth technology at the time. “I was glad the synth reached as many people as it did. My idea was to saturate the market and to get people to make good use of it.”

When the likes of Elton John, Quincy Jones, Chick Corea and Jerry Goldsmith were seen toting DX7s, the world was enthralled, forever sealing the instrument’s fate as one of the most successful commercially-manufactured digital synthesisers (over 160,000 units were reportedly made).

But Chowning was no mere techno geek — he had a string of stirring compositions to his name, like Turenas (1972), Stria (1977), Phone (1981) and Voices v3 (2011), which rubberstamped his name as a musician first and foremost.

However, for better or for worse, it’s the DX7 that he will always be remembered for.

Music-making in the synth world was never the same again, with tunes like Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax, A-ha’s Take On Me, Howard Jones’ What Is Love, Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It and Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone all vaunting the venerable set of keys.

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