Alan R. Pearlman died on Saturday. He was the founder of ARP Instruments, which together with Moog dominated the synthesizer business in the early to mid 1970s. Some unfortunate business decisions (which, as I understand it, Pearlman opposed) cut the company’s success short and ARP went out of business in about 1981, as analog subtractive synthesis seemed to be on its way out. Pearlman lived to see analog’s comeback, though, including Korg’s reissue of the ARP Odyssey a couple years ago.

I met Pearlman once. He was an alumnus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where I was an undergraduate in those analog days, and in I think 1975 he donated an ARP 2600 semi-modular synthesizer to his alma mater. There was a WPI physics professor who was interested in electronic music and had various students doing independent study projects on synthesizer circuitry (including me, or at least I registered for one, but then ended up largely blowing it off in favor of other courses and nearly got a fail), so the 2600 ended up in a lab on the second floor of the physics building along with a mixer and a 4-track TEAC open reel tape deck. Anyone with a WPI ID could sign up for a time slot in the physics department office and then use the synth for whatever they wanted. I taught myself the basics of it, and used it in early 1976 to make sound effects for an audio play some friends and I were producing.

WPI offered mini-courses during January between semesters, and in 1977, my senior year, there was a 3-day mini-course on synthesis taught by Pearlman himself. He arrived with a bunch of various synthesizers, maybe eight or ten or so, and we were assigned to individually use them to record some electronic music. Mine was something I called “Introduction and Minuet”: some 2600 burbling leading into the minuet from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Carlos quality it wasn’t, but I was fairly happy with it given that I did it in three days with a pretty rudimentary understanding of what I was working with. When the course was over and Pearlman left, another two synthesizers stayed behind to take up residence in the physics lab, but it was still the 2600 I used that spring for sound effects for that year’s science fiction magnum opus, “Attack From the Third Dimension”.

Then I graduated and left Worcester, and it took me 42 years to get back to using a hardware synthesizer in something like the same league as those ARPs. Odd that this coincided with Pearlman’s passing. But he and Bob Moog left a legacy that’s stronger than ever.

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