Sound investments, on an Island filled with Wonder

Wonders never cease: Inventor Ray Kurzweil (left) surprised music legend Stevie Wonder (and friends) with an early electronic synthesizer that sounded just like a piano, recalls writer Tom Mariner.

A “blast from the past” from your most recent newsletter:

A few years after Ray Kurzweil introduced the first Reading Machine, he cranked out his first “music synthesizer” with Stevie Wonder – a product of Kurzweil’s fertile brain and (in theory) a bet between the two that electronic stuff could not sound like a concert grand piano.

The technical challenge was that large memory chips that digitally hold millions of pieces of sounds were nonexistent, and “computers” at the time were crude, large and slow.

But nature is on our side: In general, our brain only pays close attention to the first hundred-or-so milliseconds of a new sound. So, Kurzweil did a great job of playing that part, and left us with only the frequency as the note trailed off.

Tom Mariner: Random access memory.

Ultimately, Stevie couldn’t tell the difference between the computer note and a bunch of strings in a giant chunk of wood.

The Long Island connection? At General Instrument Corp. in Hicksville (now Microchip Technology of Arizona), where I was a consultant for about 10 years, we did a lot of electronic sound-making with specialized chips, but also with software on the tiny microcontrollers that helped launch the “electronic gaming” and videogaming industries.

We “borrowed” heavily from other innovators at the time, including Ray and Stevie. (No, I never met Stevie Wonder, but entertainment luminaries were intertwined with a lot of the products we manufactured.)

The big game and toy developer at the time was now-defunct Marvin Glass and Associates, housed in a bomb-proof building in Chicago (seriously). They used to delight in playing sounds and music on a $100,000 Kurzweil synthesizer while whatever concept they were trying to sell to Mattel, Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers played on a screen –  then getting me to duplicate the game, and the sounds, on a $3 microcontroller for mass production.

This all eventually expanded into the first commercial voice synthesizers – also relating to the Reading Machine – and those chips foresaw digital signal processing that morphed into today’s “artificial intelligence.” A story for another time.

Tom Mariner is the chief operating officer of Stony Brook-based SynchroPET, the founder of Bayport-based Kommercialization LLC and the “web guy” for the Benefit Fund Conference.