in printfrom | Making MusicThe synthesizer genius.

feat. Ray Kurzweil
January 1, 2023


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publication: Making Music
story: The synthesizer genius
date: November 2012

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publication: Making Music
banner: Connecting the world through music.
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An introduction.

Ray Kurzweil was described as ‘the restless genius’ by the Wall Street Journal — and ‘the ultimate thinking machine’ by Forbes magazine. The magazine Inc. ranked him no. 8 among entrepreneurs in the US, calling him the ‘rightful heir to Thomas Edison.’

And PBS included Kurzweil as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America” — along with other inventors of the last 200 years. He founded the company Kurzweil Music in year 1982 — when he applied reading machine technologies designed for the disabled to musical purposes.


1. |

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In year 1965 you were on the CBS television game show I’ve Got a Secret — you performed a piano song composed by a computer you built. How did you do that?

Ray Kurzweil |

It was a thrill for a high school kid to appear with his invention on national television. Especially at a time when there were only 3 networks and no competition to television from the internet. This was my first computer pattern recognition project — and that’s been my primary field of interest for 50 years.

My program analyzed musical compositions by famous composers — and then it created a model of the types of patterns used by each composer. It then composed original music using similar patterns. These were original compositions by the computer. But they did sound like they were composed by a student of the composer the computer had analyzed.

2. |

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That year you won first prize in the International Science Fair for the same invention — and placed in the Westinghouse Talent Search. Where you personally met fmr. US president Lyndon Johnson. What was that like?

Ray Kurzweil |

That year was 1965. I remember as it was happening. I was already immersed in my next project. I remember my aunt telling me that I should stop and enjoy the moment, but most of my thoughts were with my next challenge. I think back on that conversation as a pattern that keeps repeating in my life!

3. |

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How did you met music star Stevie Wonder? How did that meeting prompt you to develop the Kurzweil K250 music synthesizer?

Ray Kurzweil |

The Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind, dyslexic, and visually impaired was announced by Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news in 1976. He used it to read his signature sign-off — ‘and that’s the way it was: January 13, 1976.’

The next day, Stevie Wonder heard me demonstrate it on the Today Show and called my office. We gave him our first production model. In 1982 he invited me to his new studio called Wonderland — in Los Angeles, California.

Stevie lamented that the state-of-the-art at that time was acoustic instruments — still the instruments of choice. Acoustic instruments created beautiful sounds: grand piano, violin, cello, guitar. But many of these instruments weren’t poly-phonic — you couldn’t play them at the same time. And most musicians only had the skills to play 1 instrument.

On the other hand, there was the synthesizer category of musical instruments. But the basic sounds you had to work with were thin + synthetic sounding. Stevie asked if it was possible to apply the very powerful computer control techniques such as sequencing, layering, and sound modification — to the beautiful, complex sounds of acoustic instruments.

I felt that by applying the electronics + computer techniques of signal processing and pattern recognition — it could be possible. We agreed to work together. With Stevie Wonder as musical advisor, I founded Kurzweil Music on July 1, 1982.

4. |

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What do you think about today’s software for making music — such as: Pro Tools by Avid, GarageBand by Apple.

Ray Kurzweil |

Our goal at Kurzweil Music was — and still is — to provide the power of computers to the musical creative process. We’re proud to have contributed to this history. In music,  and in basically every other field, computers are enabling creativity.

Today — with very inexpensive tools — musicians can design entirely new instruments, create their own ensembles from rock bands to orchestras. And even play music without learning the full set of musical playing skills.

Computers put enormous power in anyone’s hands. For example: with cheap tools, college kids were able to start Google and Facebook. Today, a kid in Africa with a smart-phone has access to more information + knowledge than did the President of the United States 15 years ago.

5. |

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What is singularity?

Ray Kurzweil |

A primary theory of mine is called the law of accelerating returns. My formula shows that the price-performance and capacity of every form of information tech is growing exponentially. That means doubling each period of time — where the period is about a year.

So 30 doublings means multiplying power + capacity by a factor of a billion. My mobile phone today is billions of times more powerful per dollar than the computer I used as an undergraduate at MIT — a computer 1000s of students shared.

This exponential growth applies both to hardware + software. My consistent projection has been that computers will match human intelligence in every way by 2029 — and then soar past it. But this isn’t an alien invasion of intelligent machines from the planet Mars. These are tools we’re creating to extend our own mental reach.

We’re already smarter than we were just a few years ago. Because we can now access all of human knowledge with a few keystrokes from a device we carry in our pockets. These intelligent machines will ultimately go inside our bodies and brains — making us far healthier + smarter.

By my calculations, we’ll increase the collected intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion fold — by year 2045. That will be such a singular change in human history — that we borrow this metaphor from physics and call it singularity.

— notes —

PBS = the Public Broadcasting Service
CBS = the Columbia Broadcasting System
MIT = the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

fmr. = former
inc. = incorporated
US = United States