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Renaissance Music Man: An interview with ARP co-founder David Friend

David Friend

Sandstone Concretion

David Friend has a lot on his mind. He has helped to start seven different companies, including the synthesizer company ARP, which he co-founded with Alan Pearlman when he was fresh out of college.

Sometimes innovation takes the form of building a better mousetrap. David and Alan weren't the first to make a synthesizer, but they recognized usability issues with the original designs, and set about improving them. Starting with the ARP 2002 in 1969 the company produced a series of successful products. In fact ARP products are some of the most emulated as softsynths produced by the KVR plug-in community.

David got into the music products market for all the right reasons. He loves music and musicians. He loves to tweak electronics, and he is able to recognize a problem, and be part of the solution to solve it. Post-ARP he has gone on to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs who got their start in our music products industry.

Fans of rock and heavy metal may be interested in the fact that David Friend is also an avid geologist. A part of his collection is contained at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. There are some more pictures at the end.

Did you have formal music training when you were a youngster?

Yea, I took piano lessons from the age of four or five, and studied classical piano all the way through high school.

So you developed a real proficiency. Were there any particular people that have inspired you to play, or did you just like the sound of it?

My mother had a big record collection, so I had a lot of recordings of great pianists—everybody from Arthur Rubinstein to Horowitz to many, many others. And these were all musical heroes growing up, in addition to organists—people like E. Power Biggs, who I still listen to because I think his Bach recordings were the best.

Any particular piano pieces that you could call favorites?

Well, I've always liked the Bach piano pieces, or what was called keyboard pieces, with the Preludes infused...all of them. These were all pieces that I loved and I studied quite a few of them.

How important would you say your musical training was to bringing you into the music products industry?

As a kid, I was always fascinated with being able to make weird electronic sounds. I used to collect old radios, and rewire them to make feedback—all of that kind of stuff. And then I learned from friends about electronic music synthesizers like the one that was built at Columbia in the early '60s, so I went and checked it out.

At the Yale electronic music studio in 1969

I had a double degree in engineering and music from Yale. I just wanted to design and build this kind of stuff, so I got a job building equipment for the electronic music studio at the university. So, throughout my college years, I was working with composers on one hand, and engineers on the other hand, and then designing and building some pretty innovative stuff for the electronic music studio.

What's an example of one of those early innovations?

Around 1965 I noticed that the composers—and this was back in the day when people actually cut and spliced tape and pieced them together, so-called tape compositions. All of the early electronic music from the '30s on was all done by cutting and splicing tape and making loops and mixing the things together—so I built one of the first sequencers, not the first, back in the early or mid '60s, and we used that in the electronic music lab at Yale. This was just before Bob Moog came out with his sequencers.

So that would have been a single track sending Gates and CVs?

Yea, essentially. You would control oscillators. We didn't have analog generators at that time, but we had the ability to control pitch and amplitude. And we could take a prerecorded sound and put it through a switch, which is part of the sequencer, so if you had six or eight audio sources, you could create a sequence of picking each one off in a circular loop or random order.

It had randomness built into it too, so if you could envision a sequencer that would jump from one to three to eight to two to seven to so forth—actually Mel Powell, one of the composers I worked with at Yale was really big on random orders of carefully chosen notes, and so a sequencer wouldn't quite do it for him because it made a loop, and he wanted to create these clusters of notes, each of which were random. So I designed this piece of gear specifically for him because he had been putting these compositions together by cutting and splicing pieces of tape, and it was very arduous.

That's interesting. The initial spark came from a desire to make splicing of sound more efficient...

Yea, exactly. So it was a matter of how do I take some of the labor out of the way people were actually doing composition back then.

And how important was your music training, do you think, in the development of this? Was it just a passion about music or something else about your training that guided you?

I don't think I would have been interested in doing this if I wasn't interested in the music part, because there are a lot of other things you can build as an engineer. But I was particularly interested in this because I was intrigued with the musical results that came from it. And then of course, it might have been in the mid '60s—'66 or '67, something that that—when Switched on Bach came out. There were all of these pieces that I knew so well from my childhood playing Bach, done on a synthesizer. That was one of the things that was an inspiration for getting into art.

And what was your inspiration for ARP? Was there a breakthrough in technology where you went, "Oh my God, this makes my idea real now," or was it something else?

Wendy Carlos

It was more taking what someone else has already done and trying to make it better. That's been pretty much what I've done throughout my career. We saw what people were doing with Moog synthesizers and we saw some of the limitations and difficulties of it. There was Wendy Carlos with this huge synthesizer that was drifting out of tune constantly, and had this maze of patch chords that made it very difficult to understand what was going on, and it was cumbersome. We looked at that and said, you know, there's better ways to do this, and that's when we came up with the idea for the ARP 2500, which completely eliminated the need for patch chords, but it still had all the flexibility of a patch system.

David Friend
with Alan Pearlman

We were using these slider matrices and it gave a user the ability to see what was connected to what—these oscillators were connected to these filters, and so forth—and you could glance at the thing and see the whole patch, whereas you could never do that with a Moog. And then, through the genius of Al Pearlman and his ability to design analog circuits, we figured out how to make oscillators that were stable and come up with the first duo-phonic keyboard. We made some significant enhancements to the whole envelope generator and gave it a couple more parameters to fool with that the Moog didn't have.

Those were improvements on ideas that Moog and others had been developing through the early part of the '60s. And I think the real big leap was taking these things and turning them into stage instruments. That was a big leap because Moog and everybody else, including us, were busy selling these big, expensive synthesizers to universities and a handful of very wealthy musicians who could afford them.

So this made it more mainstream and more accessible. How did you hook up with Alan in the first place? And what were your roles in the company?

David being presentable with George Harrison (The original ARP 2002 is in the background)

When I joined Al, we were just three or four people and engineers sitting around designing this thing. When it was finally built, somebody had to go out and sell it, and I guess I was the person who was designated because I was probably the most presentable, in an otherwise un-presentable group. (Laughs)

In the early days music software solved obvious problems for film composers because, for example, it reduced the amount of math that they had to do. But then all of the sudden it was adopted by a more general customer. How did your marketing change from when you first started, to when you made products that were more effectively used on-stage.

Back in the early '70s, we had sold some big synthesizers to people like Stevie Wonder and Pete Townsend and others, who were using them pretty effectively on recordings. The demand was also there from the high school rock bands, who wanted to be able to make the same kind of sounds. But we couldn't sell directly to a high school rock band very effectively, so it was pretty clear that we had to go knock on doors of music stores, and of course all music stores had never seen a synthesizer before.

And don't come back...

I can remember making my first sales call on Manny's Music Store down on 48th Street in New York City, and having my butt deposited back at 48th Street, because they had no idea what this was for. But it didn't take too long for the market to speak, and I went next door to Sam Ash, and they did take one and it sold almost immediately because there was demand there. It was generated by people using big, expensive studio instruments like the Moog and the ARP. And when smaller bands discovered that they could do some of the stuff themselves with an instrument that they could buy at the music store, that was pretty cool. We really turned our focus to developing a network of hundreds of music stores around the United States and around the world—building a dealer network through which we could sell these products.

Let me backtrack just a little bit and say that you developed a Hex pickup for guitars, which certainly wasn't mainstream at the time I'm guessing. What led to that, because that's obviously mostly for stringed instruments?

Of course there's a lot more guitar players in the world than there are keyboard players, and we wanted to be able to give the guitar players something completely new. We had this vision, that somehow the guitar could become not only an audio instrument in its own right, but it could also function as a controller for electronic sounds. And then, in fact, maybe you had the opportunity to mix or play both the acoustic element of this thing and the audio that you generated through synthesis.

And indeed, that is what people are doing today. It's pretty cool, right? The hex pickup was just a solution—okay, well, we're not going to get into the business of building custom guitars with switches on the frets. That's not a good solution because guitar players bend notes and do a lot of other things that don't translate well. So we said, "how are we going to figure out what note the guitar player is playing?" And with a regular monophonic pickup, you're going to get a whole lot of different sounds from all six strings all at the same time.

And we didn't have super computers on a chip back then that could support digital signal processing. So we had to basically isolate each string, because it was possible to do pitch to voltage conversion just about fast enough to work if you were able to have a fairly simple signal coming in, and the signal from an individual string was about as much as you could handle with the technology at that time. So that's why we had to come up with a hexa-phonic pickup, because we needed to get six frequency to voltage converters on six different strings, and those six frequency to voltage converters then control individual synthesizers that were for each string on the guitar.

This was called the Avatar... right?

Yea, it actually worked. The signal processing that you could do back then was pretty primitive. Today you can figure out what note is being played extremely quickly, but back in our day, it would take several cycles to be able to figure out the frequency. So there was a little bit of a delay between the time that you plucked the string and the time the synthesizer triggered, and that took some getting used to. I mean, today you can pick up a guitar and you've got a synthesizer that is so responsive, but that's all because nowadays we have very fast digital signal processing, and you can figure out what you need to do much faster.

Do you have any recollections of Alan Pearlman that you would like to share? Any funny stories or any things that illustrated what he brought to the table?

Alan Pearlman circuit design

Well, the word ARP itself. He was a prolific circuit designer, you'd go out to lunch with him and he'd flip the piece of paper over on the table and start drawing circuits, and he always put his initials on them, and that was where ARP came from. We'd just call them ARPs because there were just these diagrams flying around all over the place and they all had ARP on them. "Oh, here's another ARP." So when it came time to create the name for the company, the original name for the company when I joined up with Al was Tonus. I think maybe we sold an ARP 2500 under that brand name, but we quickly changed it to ARP because it was short and easily identifiable.

He also taught me to run back in '73 or '74. I was overweight and working 24 hours a day. At lunchtime Al would go out for a three or four mile run and one day he finally convinced me to go with him, and I've been running everyday ever since. So that was a big contribution to my life.

Did you design the circuits to fit behind a panel that was recognizable and understandable, or was it more dictated by what went into what most efficiently?

By the time we got to the Odyssey, we were thinking in terms of stage instruments. And so we really started with...I actually sketched out the paper design for the controls and what would be where and where would the switches go. And then we had to make the electronics fit the human interface. I think in previous generations, you were thinking more about the circuitry more than how usable it was. By that time, we were giving a lot of thought to where do you place this control and where do you place this control and where do you place that control so that you could get to them pretty easily.

You guys didn't have a lot of interface models to go from at the time, and nowadays so many softsynth GUIs go back to your guys' original designs. So you guys were right at the beginning of that, it seems, in terms of synthesizers.

Herbie Hancock with an ARP Odyssey

Yea, I think so. I think, for the most part, people were just trying to put the oscillators and filters and things like that together in a box, without giving a whole lot of thought to if you're playing a tune, how do you do the vibrato? How do you do the pitch bending?—things of that sort. We had some pretty innovative stuff there, and one of the iterations of the ARP Odyssey, we came up with this idea of having three touchpads—one of them bent the note flat, one bent it sharp, and the one in the middle added vibrato. The harder you'd press, the more they'd bend. Nobody had done that before. That was a big departure from things like using a potentiometer knob to bend notes, which works, but it's not the right kind of controls. It's not the right human interface for something like that.

So just with that touch sensitive stuff, and I guess you'd call it early-after touch or velocity sensing, was there a new technology available that enabled that, or did you have to develop your own touchpads? How did that come about?

Yea, we designed it from scratch. We tried a dozen different techniques, and finally came up with something that was based on resistive film. I forget what it was used for, but it wasn't supposed to be used for touchpads, but there were no touchpads at that time. If you wanted to make something that changed its resistance, based on how hard you were pressing it, you had to figure out a way to cobble that together yourself. So we're at a little plastics shop in the back room where we would mold those little touchpads out of silicone rubber, and assemble the parts together. It was a bit fussy and imprecise, but nobody else was doing it. I know the chord replicas of the Odyssey that are coming out—and I think now they're saying that they're going to be bringing out full sized ones very shortly—they've done a very nice job of taking those touchpads and actually improving on them. They're very good and very consistent now. They're responsive and feel better than the original ones.

That was a mechanical design problem to solve...

It was, yea, so it was not really an electrical engineering thing. But, you know, engineering is engineering. You figure out ways to make things work. We'd sit around with glue and sheets of resistive film and scissors and paper punch hole cutters and whatever we could find to help us put these things together.

I don't know if you see many of the software synthesizers or new kinds of instruments nowadays, but if you were to offer any advice, what guided you when you were putting together those front panels? What kinds of pieces of advice might you offer to people trying to design any kind of synth-oriented or sound box like what you guys were doing?

Its ease of use is important, and some of the characteristics to some of the newer digital keyboards I've seen have not been great in terms of the human interface. They're complicated and difficult to learn. I started to look at some of them and they feel like the control panel in my BMW, which is inscrutable. You have to sit there with the instruction manual. It's as if somebody said, "well this is the right way to do it and if you can't understand it, it's your problem, not ours." It's the German mentality.

I feel that way about some of the instruments that are out there right now, and one of the great things about the analog synthesizers and things like the Odyssey, they are pretty intuitive in terms of trying to figure out what's going on.

So I would say a couple of things—one is that people like to be able to look at a synthesizer and be able to understand what's happening. Really, you've got to focus on the usability of it. And people want instant results. They don't have to have to learn a lot of complicated stuff before they can get started using the thing. So that's important. You don't want to turn the thing on and get no sound. If you flip the switch and hit the keyboard, something ought to come out, and that's not always the case.

Is there anything you've learned in the making of music products that you've carried with you for the rest of your career?

Stevie Wonder with
an ARP 2600

One thing I've learned, because I actually spent a lot of time watching musicians coming in to get their first synthesizers. With people like Stevie Wonder and Joe Walsh, you have to learn to be a good observer. You sit somebody down at a synthesizer and you explain a few little things to them, and then you see how quickly they get it, or what is it that's confusing to them. The questions that get asked are extremely important in terms of figuring out, "Well should he have had to ask that question," you know? What could have been done differently about the design that would have made that clearer or self-evident?

That's an approach to product design that has nothing specific to do with synthesizers. It's just something you should do whether you're designing software for an enterprise or an iPhone app or a piece of mechanical gear. It's just learning to assume that whatever you're thinking is easiest may not be easiest for the next guy that comes along. You learn to take off your blinders and just say, okay, I'm going to actually watch what happens when I put this product in front of a user and I'm going to see what comes naturally and I'm going to see what trips them up. And then I'm going to think about whether I think it's easy or not doesn't matter. It's what the user thinks is easy or not. And then I'm being a good engineer and I'm going to figure out a way to overcome whatever it was that was tripping people up and try again.

It's basically today what you'd call product management and we do extensive usability testing, and you learn to have the discipline to step back and say it doesn't matter what I want to put in this thing. What matters is the customer's perception. Now any good software company has people who are product specialists and product managers, and that's what they do. They do focus groups and trials and bring people in off the streets to use the products. They watch and they listen. That's a different approach from back in the '60s when you said, "This is the way I want it to be designed and if you don't like it, tough. It's your stupidity." That's not an attitude that gets you very far.

There's the David Friend Rehearsal Hall at Berklee College in Boston. What was the genesis of your relationship with the school, and what has it meant to you?

ARP was in full gear around 1974, the then provost of Berklee, a guy named Bob Share, came up to me and said: "We want to create the world's first educational institution performance major on synthesizer, and we want to outfit a teaching lab, like our existing piano labs." At the time Berklee was a very small neighborhood music school, and the students were asking; "Why don't we have any of these things at Berklee?"

David with a friend*,
at a recent Berklee event

So ARP outfitted the first teaching lab for synthesizers at Berklee. And that went on to be very important for us because all of the people who graduated from Berklee then went out into the world and bought our products and recommended them, and some of the graduates even became famous. It was a very healthy relationship. Soon after that Lee Berk, who was the president of the college at that time, asked me to be on Berklee's Board of Trustees, and about fifteen years ago I donated the David Friend Recital Hall. I'm still involved with the school as a trustee emeritus, and involved with various projects there.

I think the current president of Berklee, Roger Brown, is one of the best college presidents in the world. He's been a real visionary, and under his leadership the school has continued to grow. There's over 4,000 students now and they've acquired the Boston Conservatory, which gives them a whole window into classical music, but also dance, musical theater, and a bunch of other things where Berklee didn't have a lot of strength. So they've become a powerhouse, and if your ambition is to make a living in the music world, they are kind of unparalleled.

What have you done since you left the musical instruments business.

I'm onto my seventh startup now—ARP being number one and the new company Blue Archive being number seven. Number six was Carbonite, which, you know was the big backup company. Carbonite's a big deal today. Millions of people backup their computers using Carbonite everyday, and there's about a thousand employees.

Blue Archive kind of grew out of that, and we're just about to start beta testing. It's going to be very large scale, inexpensive storage in the cloud. So if you've got a lot of things that need to be stored in the cloud—it could be something big like the output from 250 surveillance cameras on the streets of Boston to the back end of a call center, or just you and I wanted to store a few hundred hours of video some-place in the cloud where they'll be extremely safe and stored at very low cost—that's what we're doing. So we're going to compete with some little companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. Sometimes people think I'm nuts, but that's what we're doing.

Korg has re-issued the ARP Odyssey, which of course makes David happy. They are being assembled by hand in the state of New York.

Re-issued ARP Odyssey

And it would be a shame not to include a few pictures from David rock collection:

Lime green fluorite with quartz

Quartz crystal with calcite from Uruguay

*Jimmy Page.

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