To my dad. Thanks for your example of honor and responsibility and for teaching me to love learning and the smell of flux. My wife and kids who have infinite patience with this obsession. My brothers Rich and Jim (rest in peace Jim) who let me hang out with them after dad died and encouraged me in life. My brother Rob (rest in peace Rob) who took audio into a new era by developing digital audio and the first real time digital audio editing software. My sisters who loved and mothered me (still do), and mom, I really miss you and dad.
I was bitten by the synthesizer bug as a teen in the 70s. ELP, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Walter (Wendy) Carlos, etc. hooked me. I wanted a Moog, but clearly understood I could not afford even the most modest version and I wanted a big one. My father was an Electrical Engineer (EE) and taught me (and my brothers) how to stuff and solder a circuit board, hand wire vacuum tube circuits, electronics, and instilled in me a desire to learn, experiment, and tinker with all things mechanical and electrical. As a teen I could read a schematic, figure out circuit basics, and thought I could tackle building one of these things if I could get designs. In comes Nyle Steiner. I don’t remember how I got his name, but I did and it turned out he lived within an easy walk of my home.
I cold called him one evening and he invited me down to his home. He and his wife welcomed me and took me downstairs to his workshop. There I got the personal demo of my life. He showed me his modular (a big Synthasystem), his recording equipment, gave me my first introduction into multi-track recording, and a demo of his developing EVI. I was overwhelmed. I asked for his help and over the next couple of meetings, walked away with schematics of most if not all of his current modules. I went to work and started to build a case, laid out two huge sheets of aluminum which had been anodized black, and started drilling holes. Nyle also offered me a summer job stuffing PCBs which was a lot of fun. So, if any of you have an early Synthasystem, mid 70’s, I might have soldered your PCBs. You can tell because mine were soldered right. Nyle allowed me to buy some of his PCBs which made it easier to build some other modules like a VCO, but I can’t remember if I got anything more than the keyboard, and a VCO or two and maybe an envelope generator and VCA built. A 17-18 year old has a lot of things going on besides building circuits.
Life happened, and the project slowed. For some reason I had it in my head that everything had to have a common power supply. So, my project stagnated without this mysterious massive power supply. At some point along the way, everything I had done to that point somehow got lost. School, marriage, kids, career were heading my way and I had to back shelf the whole idea.
Zip ahead 35 years. I’m sitting in my chair, mid life crisis welling up inside me. I still think back to my modular and regret never finishing it. I had purchased a couple of keyboards over the years, but never loved them. I started looking on the net and what did I find? PAIA! I immediately ordered a 9700 system. In the weeks and months that followed I was completely sucked in. Blacet, CGS, Oakley, Jürgen Haible, YUSynth, MFOS, and the Bridechamber with all the other usual suspects. As I bought and built modules, I got phone calls from some, like John Blacet, Cynthia Webster, Paul Schrieber always with wonderful help and stories. I wrote emails and got emails from numerous others like Dave Brown, Yves Usson, Jurgen Haible, even Wendy Carlos who was kind enough to answer some questions. wow… As a whole, with only one or two exceptions I try to forget, this is an amazing community.
I bought some already built gear, like a Moog™ MiniMoog Voyager keyboard and RME, and I pre-ordered and now own a John Bowen™ Solaris. I started building kits at first, then PCB only projects til my eyes were weary and my brain hurt. I collected test equipment, tools, and my little system which started with a single rack PAIA 9700 exploded. I started re-reading my old college text books on electrical engineering¹, and purchased some new ones for reference. Software for schematic capture and audio tools, hardware for interfaces and recording, furniture. I was a kid again and it felt good, except…
I still felt like something was missing; my Synthasystem. I knew the schematics were long gone. Both my brother and I looked. I started searching the net. I was floored. There was next to nothing out there for the Steiner Synthasystem modular. Moog, Buchla, Arp, etc. all sorts of information, but for Steiner stuff, zip except for the Synthacon (not Synthasystem) VCF and some other random information for the Synthacon.
I finally found a copy of the Synthacon schematics and the owner’s manual for the Synthasystem. Although the Synthacon “modules” didn’t have all the features of the Synthasystem counterparts, I thought I could at least start with those and build something like a Synthasystem (a big Thank You to Paul Schreiber for his help and advice over the phone one happy Saturday morning). After all, the Synthacon was still a Nyle Steiner design.
I kept looking and decided I needed to try to find Nyle. At the worst, he wouldn’t be able to help. I had seen Nyle a couple of times over the years and had exchanged a couple of emails at the start of my mid-life crisis. But recent emails had gone unanswered.
I managed to find someone who had better contact with Nyle and he acted as an intermediary and sent Nyle an email for me. I got a reply from Nyle right away. Nyle was still as nice, humble, intelligent, clever, and as good a guy as ever. I asked if he would be willing to share his designs with me again. His reply was simple, I’ll help you with whatever you need. Wow… Best part, he was only about a 40 minute drive away.
Next thing I knew, I had access to all his archives and I had scans of all his schematics.
Over the next month or two, Nyle and I spoke and met many times and caught up. He again invited me into his home, and I was able to finally reciprocate and have him in my home. I think he is about as excited with this project as I am. I took his original schematics and made very high resolution scans of all of them, and other important information and started capturing all the schematics and notes into Eagle (now DipTrace). Nyle helped debug the prototypes and also made some corrections to some of the designs so that the Modules are now more robust and capable than ever.
So, motivation? I’ve come full circle. I finally have that system I wanted as a young man, but done right. The first thing I made sure I did was the power supply :) (A combination of Power One and Synthesizers.Com™ supplies). I have all the modules Nyle produced with some improvements that didn’t make it to market. I also have some of the Moog™ modules Nyle never offered which I think I would like to have had back then.
This project has some very deep and personal meaning and satisfaction for me. Renewing a friendship with a truly good man, trying to help him get more of the recognition and praise I think he deserves, and breathing life back into a very unique and cool analog modular synthesizer is an amazing experience. Most important, it’s also help me connect with my dad who died just as I was discovering this great hobby as a teenager and who gave me the foundation and curiosity to explore technology.
It’s my hope that those who come to these pages and build a module or two will come to appreciate the genius in “the man”, Nyle Steiner. He made some real contributions which deserve remembering by those who love synthesizers, especially the monster modulars.
Thanks and enjoy.
1. My degrees are in Mechanical Engineering, Physics, and Bioengineering, but I took a lot of EE courses in pursuit of those degrees because of the admiration I have for my dad, and the inspiration he was to me.