If you were a millionaire music geek in the 1980s, just a
Fairlight CMI and a
enough. You had to spend £10,000 on a SynthAxe MIDI guitar.
It was a ludicrous machine: a fiberglass body wrapped around a phenomenally heavy steel chassis, stuffed with eight computers using 50 separate chips. The full kit, including footpedals, a control panel and a power supply, filled four flight cases. Even the logo was ridiculous, considering it was launched the year Spinal Tap came out.
The SynthAxe was developed in England by a group of former
BBC Radiophonic Workshop staff. In 1978 Richard
Branson invested in the company, spending ?1 million on research and development. The SynthAxe launched in 1984, but
they sold just 100 units in their first three years.
It was purely a MIDI controller with no sound of it?s own. It was fantastically intricate and complicated ? a small current was passed down each string, with each fret divided into six contacts, and strain gauges to spot string bending. You could trigger notes by playing the other set of strings, or hitting touch-sensitive buttons. Obviously, being the 80s, it had a big wangy bar, too.
The SynthAxe came in four colours, which must have lodged in Jonathan Ive?s young mind, later inspiring the iPod Mini. The tiny number of super-rich customers tended to be either jazz-fusion musos who wanted to play 50-note-per-second solos using DX7 flute sounds, or show-offs. Michael Jackson?s guitarist on the BAD tour had a SynthAxe and two Synclaviers.
Today, SynthAxes are incredibly rare. If you want to recreate the vibe for (a lot) less, the new PikAx, a toy-like USB guitar controller, comes pretty close, and the 1988 Casio DG-20 was clearly inspired by the SynthAxe. But the spiritual children of the SynthAxe are StarrLabs, a long-established San Diego company who sell custom-built Ztar midi guitar controllers for $3,500 and up. That?s what Michael Jackson?s old guitarist plays today.