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. Gray Laboratories Instruments
Basyn Minstrel

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Gray Laboratories Basyn Minstrel

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. Manufacturer:
Gray Laboratories (Basyn), San Jose, CA

Minstrel 4-Voice

Production period:

Quantity produced:

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Basyn Minstrel 4-Voice

above image from Gray Laboratories Baysyn ad courtesy of Benjamin Ward

The Minstrel 4-Voice is a "fully programmable polyphonic, digital synthesizer [which] includes a unique waveform generation process, Transform Filter, Digital Envelope", 32 total parameters, [and] 32 power-up presets with more presets via cassette tape." -----[from Gray Laboratories Baysyn ad]

"The Basyn Minstrel leapt out of the woodwork in San Jose, California, in 1981, daring to compare itself feature-for-feature with such five-figure behemoths as the Synclavier and the Fairlight. In that context, it may well have been a bargain; the Minstrel threatened to put only a $3,995 dent in the wallets of prospective buyers.

"The four-voice instrument featured an uncluttered front panel of a dozen or so buttons and an LED display, which required users to remember what parameters corresponded to which numbers. The Minstrel's angle, though, was a programmable wavetable that allowed the user to define a voltage lever for each of 64 steps: totally user-definable waveforms.

"A 'transform filter' function was reported to interpolate among four waveforms, in sequence over a definable amount of time, mimicking ADSR effects and producing timbre envelopes of novel character - [using] an NED-style timbre window approach... that, to our knowledge, was only available in the Synclavier (which went out of production when NED folded on July 1, 1992). 'Obtaining the effects that the transform filter produces' according to Gray Labs' product literature, 'has been one of the major obstacles to building a viable digital synthesizer.' Presumably we're still tripping over it, as neither transform filters nor Basyn Minstrels are exactly falling out of trees these days."

[excerpted with permission from the book Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail, copyright Miller Freeman, Inc]

The Basyn Minstrel
by Joey Swails

In the last days before the introduction of inexpensive digital synthesis (ie. the Yamaha DX7), when "digital synthesizer" meant a Synclavier or a Fairlight costing tens of thousands of dollars, there was only one true digital synth that cost less than five figures: the Basyn Minstrel.

It was a real 100% digital synthesizer. Its operating system looked real good on paper. It had only one problem -- it sounded dreadful. The sound of a Basyn Minstrel makes a toy piano seem full and rich.

The Minstrel was an unassuming looking machine with a three digit LED display, a handful of 20 or so switches and a volume knob, facing you over a simple 61-note keyboard housed in a very nice solid wood case.

It was available in four- or eight-voice models. The four-voice was US$3995 and the eight-voice was US$5995.

The machine was a wavetable synth with what they called "transform filtering". The "ADSR" was actually given a set of waveforms, one for each section of the envelope, and the machine "morphed" through the waveforms over the course of the note. Similar to the what Korg brought out in the Wavestation series many years later. The wavetables also calculated the effect of a volume ADSR on the overall output level. A selection of 64 basic waveforms was available. There was a simple triangle wave LFO that could alter the pitch. Programming was done via the switches on the front panel.

The machine had several really dumb problems in basic ergonomics. For example, the control buttons were placed almost right on top of the keys, so that it was nearly impossible not to inadvertantly hit one while playing. The joystick bent the pitch by moving up and down rather than back and forth, as is the convention. Pulling it side to side added vibrato, the same either way you pushed it.

Even worse, the factory sounds were locked in on a ROM chip. No user patch memory. Patches could be modified while the machine was on, but unless one dumped the patch memory to an external data tape, they were lost when the machine was powered down. To use one's own patches, they had to be loaded every time after power up from cassette tape.

All of which might have been bearable if the machine sounded good. But no...

The waveforms available were thin sounding and buzzy, full of digital artifacts from their proprietary synthesis engine. Each voice had one source only, so even layering was not possible. I tried to create some decent sounds on the thing and couldn't come up with much that I would want to play in public. It had a kind of nice "digital bell piano" sound and a not TOO bad synth-bass, but that was about it.

In the end, the Basyn people (I remember one woman named Janet but her last name escapes me now, 25 years later) actually sold their technology to Seiko, who used it to build a short-lived line of synths in the mid-1980's.

And they still sounded cheesy...

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