Interview: Dave Rossum E-MU, Part One – English Version

Peter:
In 1972 you founded your first company called E-Mu. What‘s the story behind that name?

Dave:
The name „Eµ Systems“ was born at Caltech on December 29, 1970. The Greek letter µ (pronounced „mu“) is the symbol for „micro“, so the name was simply the first syllables of Electronic Music, but had the connotation of miniaturization as well. Though we didn’t become a legal company until 1972, we used the name to purchase parts, and outside our abode in the summer of 1971, a sign read „Eµ Systems – Starships and Synthesizers since 1984.“ Throughout the 1970s, we continued to spell the company name with the Greek letter. But in 1979, when we incorporated, we learned that the law in California required that the corporation name be spelled with only Roman alphabet characters, thus the change to „E-mu Systems.“ About that time, we adopted the Australian bird as our mascot.

The mascot: the Emu

The mascot: the Emu

Peter:
Your first product was a polyphone keyboard, wasn’t it? What did you move from producing synthesizers to polyphone keyboards?

Dave:
The Moog synthesizer keyboard only played the lowest key depressed; the ARP keyboard would play the lowest and highest notes. As we began to design the E-mu Modular Synthesizer, it was clear that musicians wanted a polyphonic synthesizer, but at that time nobody had ever produced one. So I was working on solving that from the early days.

In 1973, I built a prototype digital polyphonic keyboard out of TTL logic. It consumed a couple Amps of power, but our growing modular synthesizer now could play four notes at once. I re-designed the circuitry to use CMOS logic, and created the E-mu 4050 Modular Keyboard product. We showed it to potential customers, and sold the first one to Leon Russell in 1975. The 4050 could be configured to operate as a monophonic keyboard (low note only) or a polyphonic keyboard up to 10 voices.

When 8 bit microprocessors became available, we quickly realized that the polyphonic keyboard was an ideal task for them. The 4060 Microprocessor Keyboard was introduced in 1977. It supported up to 16 voices and included a polyphonic sequencer. Scott Wedge did the programming; I designed the hardware. Both the 4050 and 4060 were designed specifically for use with the E-mu Modular System.

Peter:
Different manufacturer used that licensed keyboard idea in their production. We’re talking about big names like Oberheim with their „Four Voice“ and Sequential with the famous „Prophet 5“. What was the unique thing about that new keyboard?

Dave:
I met Tom Oberheim at the Los Angeles AES show in 1974, and we quickly became good friends. Once, over lunch, he told me that he was having problems matching the FETs in his phase shifter; he was sure there was a way to replace them with CA3080s, but he hadn’t been able to figure out how. I dashed out a schematic on a napkin, and he asked „Did you just invent that?“ I replied I did. He asked if I thought it was patentable, and I agreed it was. We ended up filing for a patent (which also covered the SSM2040) with me as inventor, Oberheim Electronics as the patent owner, and a license back to me for all other rights.

When Tom saw the TTL prototype polyphonic keyboard, we arranged another patent along the same lines. What made our polyphonic keyboard unique was that we chose to make the logic so that rather than assign voices by lowest and highest note, we assigned them by first played, second played, etc. We were the first to market with a solution that actually worked. We also had logic for when you played the same note over and over again: it would assign it to the same voice, eliminating an annoying cycling variation in the sound due to the inevitable slight variations in the analog synthesizer voices.

Tom used the circuitry from the 4050 design for the Oberheim Four Voice, and later we licensed the 4060 technology to Sequential Circuits, which ran on the Z-80 processor in the Prophet. If fact, Dave Smith developed the original software for the Prophet 5 on the same Z-80 development system we built at E-mu for the 4060 project.

OB Four Voice

The Oberheim 4 Voice with keyboard-logic from E-mu.

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