Alan R. Pearlman was the engineer who founded the synthesizer company ARP Instruments. Its analog synthesizers were ubiquitous in pop and electronic music, and provide the five-note signature motif of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Alan R. Pearlman, the engineer who founded the synthesizer company ARP Instruments and designed its pioneering equipment, died on Jan. 5 in Newton, Massachusetts. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Dina Pearlman.
ARP’s analog synthesizers — particularly the compact, portable ARP Odyssey, introduced in 1972 — grew ubiquitous in pop and electronic music. By the mid-1970s, ARP was the leading synthesizer manufacturer, commanding 40 percent of the market and outselling its predecessors and competitors, Moog and Buchla.
ARP sounds were central to numerous songs, including Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” Kraftwerk’s “The Robots,” Underworld’s “Rez,” Nine Inch Nails’ “The Hand That Feeds” and the early-1980s version of the theme to the television series “Doctor Who.”
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The five-note signature motif of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was played on an ARP 2500 synthesizer, which is seen in the film. An ARP 2600, mixed with natural sounds, provided the voice of R2-D2 in the first “Star Wars” movie.
Alan Robert Pearlman was born on June 7, 1925, in Manhattan and grew up in Bridgeport and Milford, Connecticut. His father, Julius, designed projectors for movie theaters. His mother, Ada (Jacobs) Pearlman, was a homemaker.
Pearlman, whose childhood nickname was Arp, liked to describe himself as being a nerd “before the term was invented,” according to “Analog Days” (2002), a history of synthesizers by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco. Pearlman was devoted to engineering and research, not corporate development or the pop music business; he amassed more than 20 patents.
“My father was not a fame seeker; he was humble almost to a fault,” Dina Pearlman said in a telephone interview. “If he put his mind to something, and he knew there was a better solution, he found it.”
Growing up, Alan Pearlman took piano lessons and built ham radio sets. He served briefly in the Army at the end of World War II. He studied engineering at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where his senior thesis project, in 1948, involved electronic music. It was a vacuum-tube envelope follower, which could sense the “envelope” — the attack, volume, sustain and decay shaped by a musician — of a note played on an instrument.
“With greater attention on the part of the engineer to the needs of the musician,” Pearlman wrote in the accompanying paper, “the day may not be too remote when the electronic instrument may take its place as “a versatile, powerful and expressive instrument.”
Pearlman, who lived in Newton, married Buena Alcalay in 1958. She and his daughter survive him.
Pearlman worked for NASA designing amplifiers for Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, then helped found Nexus Research Laboratory, which built precision solid-state analog modules, including operational amplifiers.
Nexus was sold to Teledyne in 1967, the year Morton Subotnick’s “Silver Apples of the Moon,” an album-length electronic composition made on a Buchla synthesizer, was released. Pearlman was impressed, and in 1968, after hearing “Switched-On Bach” by Wendy (known at the time as Walter) Carlos — a hit album of Bach pieces recorded on a Moog via overdubbing and editing — he decided to work again on electronic instruments.
“I went into the basement and did some playing around,” Pearlman told Inc. magazine in 1982.
Pearlman founded ARP, initially named Tonus Inc., in 1969. Early synthesizers tended to go rapidly out of tune. Pearlman solved that problem by placing two functions on the same chip, and that stability became a major selling point.
The company’s first instrument was the ARP 2500, a large console-size synthesizer introduced in 1970; it was acquired by many universities for electronic-music laboratories. The 2500 used a matrix of switches to connect its modules instead of patch cords, which the Moog used. The slightly less bulky ARP 2600, using patch cords but also including built-in preset connections, arrived in 1971. Like other early synthesizers, they were monophonic, playing just one note at a time.
The ARP Odyssey was duophonic (able to play two notes at once), far more portable and easily comprehensible to synthesizer neophytes. It caught on rapidly among musicians.
Other ARP models followed: the even smaller Pro-Soloist, with preset sounds; the String Ensemble; and the polyphonic Omni, which became the company’s best seller. At its peak, in 1977, ARP’s annual sales were $7 million, the equivalent of about $29 million today.
But against Pearlman’s wishes, ARP’s other top management turned the company’s resources away from keyboards to develop the Avatar guitar synthesizer, a commercial failure. ARP went bankrupt in 1981, costing stockholders and creditors $4 million; Pearlman and his family lost $500,000.
The last product developed by ARP, the Chroma touch-sensitive polyphonic synthesizer, was sold to CBS Musical Instruments and became profitable there.
Pearlman went on to start a computer-graphics company, Selva Systems, and later worked for Mini-Systems, a component manufacturer. In the 1980s, he worked for a time with Ray Kurzweil, whose Kurzweil Music Systems was developing new instruments. In recent years, Pearlman had grown concerned with global warming and was designing improved technology for wind power.
Meanwhile, musicians clung to vintage ARP instruments. In the digital era, software programmers strove to emulate ARP’s sounds and interface. Pearlman was a consultant on the TimewARP 2600, a software version of the ARP 2600. In 2015, the Japanese instrument company Korg revived ARP’s trademarks and made an updated ARP Odyssey in both physical and software versions.
Pearlman maintained a lifelong interest in music. On Jan. 6, his daughter posted on Facebook, “At 93, too weak to speak, he still managed to play the piano this morning, later passing away peacefully in the afternoon.”