Con Brio ADS-200 advertisement

A rather peculiar synthesizer manufacturer that existed between 1978 and 1982; what was peculiar about then was that over that time span, they manufactured a grand total of four units, managing to sell only one. The story begins with three California Institute of Technology students, among them Tim Ryan, who would later be the founder of Midiman. The three had devised some sound synthesis devices used by some psychology students to map cortex nerve pathways of cats. They decided to build on this work and go into the synthesizer manufacturing business.

Their first synth was the ADS-100, a pioneering high-end digital synth based on MOS Technology 6502 CPUs. 64 digital oscillators could be configured to perform additive synthesis and frequency, amplitude and phase modulation. (The FM capability drew the notice of Yamaha, which viewed it as a violation of the Chowning patents, but they never took any action.) Polyphony varied depending on the patch and how many oscillators were required for each voice; up to 16 voices were possible. The most notable feature of the synth was its detached control panel, with its multiple banks of different-colored and backlit pushbuttons used to select functions; the other pieces of the synth included a dual-manual keyboard (lacking a pitch or mod wheel) on a stand, a monochrome video monitor, and a cabinet on casters which contained the synth's electronics. Only one ADS-100 was built. It was never sold, but it appears that Con Brio did not try very hard to sell it, since they were making money renting out for film soundtrack use; notably it was used for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

One objection that potential customers had to the ADS-100 was the synth being in four separate pieces, which would complicate logistics for a touring performer. To address this, they devised the ADS-200, which packaged all of the elements into one large wooden case. The ADS-200 contained a number of additional features, including a four-track sequencer which could display notes on the staff on the video monitor. The 200 was multitimbral and both keyboards were splittable between patches. The number of available oscillators increased from 64 to 256, and alternate tunings were supported. And the gee-whiz factor of the control panel was upped by adding still more knobs and color-coded pushbuttons. A built-in 5-1/4" floppy disk drive saved patches and sequences.

Con Brio listed the ADS-200 for $30,000 US in 1980. Two units were built and one was sold, to a film composer. The combination of the price and the unfamiliar synthesis methods made it a tough sell, despite the synth's amazing capabilities and highly praised user interface. So the company set about to design yet another version, using the latest electronics components on the market to reduce the price and add more capabilities. The result was the ADS-200R, which listed for $20,000. This dispensed with the heavy all-in-one configuration of the ADS-200 and separated the keyboards from the rest of the unit. The keyboard was a single-manual unit, and, finally, included pitch bend and modulation control capability, in the form of a joystick. Two could be stacked, and both connected to the synth, if the performer desired a dual-manual configuration. There was also a provision for bass pedals, but these were never built. Only one ADS-200R was built, and the company still had it when business ceased in 1982.

Despite the paucity of output and lack of sales, many of Con Brio's concepts were influential on other digital synths of the era; the Fairlight CMI took some of its video display concepts from the ADS-200, and the Synclavier borrowed the concept of reconfigurability of oscillators that the ADS-100 pioneered, as well as the idea of the pushbutton-laden interface. Synth collector Brian Kehew now owns the ADS-200 that was sold, as well as the 200R. Kehew believes that the ADS-100 was scrapped and parts from it were used to build the 200 that he owns. The whereabouts of the other 200 are unknown.

A brief video of Brian Kehew demonstrating the ADS-200R:


Con Brio ADS 200R Vintage Synthesizer

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