Watch Bell Labs Engineer Hal Alles Demo an Early Digital Synthesizer in 1977

Unfortunately, the synthesizer was too expensive to be commercially viable, and was dismantled after just four years.

Jun 18 2015, 8:15pm

The Bell Labs Digital Synthesizer, also known as Alice, is considered one of the world's first true digital additive synthesizers. In this this video from 1977, Bell Labs engineer and inventor Hal Alles demonstrated the many possible voices his instrument could create—then gave it over to Todd Rundgren keyboardist and Bob Moog protege Roger Powell for a performance that was thought lost until Alles uploaded a copy to YouTube this week. According to Alles, the video was recorded as a tape backup for a live celebration of the 50th anniversary of talking motion pictures at the Hollywood Palladium. The performance went on live as intended, and so this video was never shown until now.

Prior to Alles' invention, the standard in synthesis was analog patching—literally plugging patch cables manually into rack mounted modules to create specific circuits required to create a sound. Alice used 72 computer controlled oscillators to instantly create different types of sounds instead. The advent of digital additive synthesis gave musicians the opportunity to store banks of preset patches and autonomous accompaniment, vastly expanding the acoustic possibilities of the synth and charting a straight line 40 years into the future to brostep.

Unfortunately, the synthesizer was too expensive to be commercially viable; it was dismantled four years later having only one full composition being written on it, though the technologies found in the Alice were used years later in the first consumer grade digital synthesizers.

Bonus: Check out this video of Laurie Spiegel playing the synth and demonstrating what the future used to sound like that same year.