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KineticSound Prism

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Famous Fingers
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KineticSound PrismKineticSound Prism

above images courtesy of Kevin Lightner

"For $45,000, the KeneticSound Prism claimed to offer 'All of the expected features of a digital synthesizer plus a wealth of unique new ones,' but since very few musicians at that time had even gotten their hands on a digital instrument, it was hard to know just what they meant. The 24-voice machine sure looked flashy, with its two-manual keyboard, extensive routable left-hand control section, numeric keypad, loads of LEDs, and its own version of the old filing cabinet routine [a filing cabinet-sized side-car box used to house the computer and disk drives]. The ad copy sounded good, too: FM (using any waveform), additive synthesis (128 harmonics), and waveform plotting (although individual wavetable values had to be entered from a QWERTY keyboard without graphic feedback). Also mentioned were dynamic timbre modulation, realtime amplitude panning in quad, and on-screen viewing of waveforms.

"The Prism was the brainchild of James Stephenson, Jr., armchair organ builder and president of a high-tech firm in Lockport, Illinois, called Kinetic Systems, and cohorts Sandy Lamantia, Brian Swindells, Ed Dyer, Mike Skubic, and Rick Arial. Beginning in 1979, this team designed some very forward looking capabilities into their instrument. Each of four envelopes per voice (volume, timbre, pitch, and location) boasted eight segments. The timbre envelope smacks of NED's [Synclavier] timbre window system of resynthesis, and according to Stephenson, it was 'the heart of the invention. You could store 168 waveforms and use them as points on the timbre envelope. The sound would blend from one to the next.'

"Furthermore, envelope segments were independently loopable, a development not seen in the affordable world until Sequential's Prophet-VS appeared in 1986, and hardly seen since. Dynamic voice allocation to the eighty-way keyboard splits and layers presaged the E-mu Emulator. Not to mention an eight-track polyphonic sequencer featuring independent track tempi, independent track looping, track merging, real-time entry, and step editing, all stored in an innovative 'bubble memory.'

"Although bubble memory proved a technological dead end, even today the Prism looks pretty impressive on paper. Apparently it didn't come across as well in demos at NAMM shows in '81 and '82. 'The price was too high,' Stephenson explains, 'and at the time sampling became fashionable, and MIDI and velocity-sensing keyboards became overwhelming. Also, Kinetic Systems' marketing is government laboratories throughout the world. We knew how to deal with that kind of customer, but not with the music industry.' Only two Prisms were built. One was sold, only to be repossessed when the company realized that they wouldn't be in the synthesizer business for long. Stephenson never tried to sell the project to another company. 'That would have been like selling a child,' he says. As of early '93, both Prisms are still in working condition and reside in a musical room at Kinetic Systems, where Stephenson still works."

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

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