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An Homage to ARP Synthesizers: Launching the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation

Geary Yelton

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Pearlman put the ARP in ARP synthesizers, and his legacy lives on today.

Alan R. Pearlman was the pioneering synthesizer builder and engineer whose initials inspired the name of his company, ARP Instruments. Born in 1925, he passed away last January at the age of 93. He left behind a series of electronic musical instruments that include the ARP 2500, the first modular synth to seriously challenge Bob Moog’s dominance in the modular market; the ARP 2600, the first semi-modular synth with hardwired connections and optional patch cords; the ARP Odyssey, a tremendously popular synth whose reproductions from Korg and Behringer make it popular again today; and many other well-known ARP synthesizers, including the Omni, the Quadra, and the ill-fated Avatar.

(Photo by Geary Yelton)

Alan Pearlman attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute and designed a vacuum tube-based envelope follower for his senior thesis. After graduating and working for NASA designing amplifiers for the Gemini and Apollo programs, he cofounded Nexus Research Laboratory, an electronics manufacturer he sold to Teledyne in 1966.

In 1969, with $100,000 of his own money and another $100,000 from investors, Pearlman founded Tonus, a synth manufacturer whose name he soon changed to ARP Instruments. The company developed and debuted 20 instruments in 11 years, contributing as much as any synth designer to the sound of popular music for decades to come. After many successful years—including peak annual sales of $7 million in 1977—ARP Instruments liquidated their assets in September 1981.

From the Foundation Up

In August I met Pearlman’s daughter Dina Pearlman while we were both attending the Moogseum’s opening ceremonies in Asheville. (Read the story here.) She told me she was launching a foundation in her father’s name to ensure that his legacy continues. She was inspired, in part, by Michelle Moog-Koussa and the Bob Moog Foundation.

Dina Pearlman of the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation; Vince Pupillo, Sr., of EMEAPP (the Electronic Music Education and Preservation Project); Michelle Moog-Koussa of the Bob Moog Foundation; and Vince Pupillo, Jr., of EMEAPP (Photo by Geary Yelton)

The Alan R. Pearlman Foundation’s mission statement lays out their goals: “Our mission is to celebrate the legacy of inventor, musician, engineer, and entrepreneur Alan R. Pearlman by making his innovative inventions publicly accessible and to inspire future generations to imagine and create.”

I asked Dina about the foundation’s aspirations. “The long-term goals are to establish a very firm identity behind ARP synthesizers. This is not about ARP as a company; this is about Alan R. Pearlman, his vision, and the instruments that came out of this vision. A lot of music, a lot of iconic sounds came out of ARP that a lot of people don’t know. A lot of people who are into synthesizers knew about R2-D2, but the general public doesn’t.” (Sound designer Ben Burtt used an ARP 2600 to craft R2-D2’s voice for Star Wars.)

(Photo by Geary Yelton)

She continued, “If I’m speaking to someone who is not in the music world—I have two or three friends like that—and I talk about the synthesizer, they say, ‘Oh, like Moog?’ Bob Moog was the pioneer who started the journey, and my father continued on that path. It’s important to immortalize the efforts of all of the synthesizer pioneers. Dad’s work was so pivotal to bringing the synthesizer sound to the stage.”

I asked if her father kept a low profile intentionally. “It was by design to some degree,” she said. “I think there was a part of my dad that was kind of shy, or at least really wasn’t comfortable being overtly in the spotlight. If you asked him a question, he would answer in the most endearing, geek way. If it was something that interested him, he could talk for hours and hours. He wasn’t a big small talk guy. He was fascinating and really warm and personable once you got to speak to him.”

(Photo courtesy of the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation)

Dina has some impressive partners in her nonprofit venture. Foundation board members comprise movers and shakers who are well regarded in the music industry. They include Chairman of the Board David Mash, retired senior vice president of Berklee College of Music; Secretary and Vice Chair Jennifer Hruska, who worked for Kurzweil and was the founder of Sonivox and Qubiq Audio; synthesist, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Don Lewis, who Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi credited as the inspiration for MIDI; Mary Lock, former tech support and service manager for ARP Instruments until the company’s final day, and then for Fender Rhodes Chroma and Kurzweil; and Richard Formidoni, product marketing manager for Casio and previously Korg, as well as a synth programmer for major recording artists.

Plan of Attack/Release

With several projects in the works, the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation has plenty of ambition, as reflected in their three-year plan. The year 2020 will concentrate on simply getting organized. This will involve collecting, preserving, and digitizing archival materials, growing and developing the foundation’s website as a source of information, and producing videos and printed materials to familiarize the public with Pearlman’s work. Plans are in the works to stage a fundraising concert at Berklee College of Music in Boston next summer to celebrate what would have been Pearlman’s 95th birthday on June 7. Additional goals are to secure endorsements from prominent musicians, set up a recording studio, acquire an ARP 2500 modular system to serve as the studio’s centerpiece, and find new ways to generate income.

Like many education-oriented nonprofits, the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation hopes to award scholarships to students in need. They’ll begin working with any colleges or universities that may be interested in 2020. Awarding those scholarships is one of their targets for 2021. Their aim is to help train the next generation of electronic instrument designers and musicians by arranging financial aid so that students may attend educational institutions offering compatible curricula regardless of economic situation.

Another of the foundation’s goals for 2021 and beyond is to sponsor an artists-in-residence program in their new studio. They’ll start by building a collection of vintage ARP instruments that may be used for a traveling exhibit. To that end, they are currently negotiating with an established recording studio whose name they can’t yet disclose. Because Alan Pearlman held education in such high esteem, they want to eventually make their artist-in-residence program part of the curriculum for one or more schools.

(Photo courtesy of the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation)

At every step, the foundation will be collecting archival materials for posterity. Dina explained, “I’m going through his files very slowly that my mom moved after my dad passed. There are a lot of gaps. I’ve actually had a lot of help from both former ARP employees and a bunch of fans from the ARP Archives Facebook page that have also been sending me original print collateral and Arpeggios, posters. The last day of the company, one of his former colleagues went into his office (he had already left). She took everything she could for posterity. People are slowly giving me stuff or scanning stuff. I have also four of his instruments, and [I’m expecting another].”

Kicking Off at NAMM

To get the ball rolling, the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation will be exhibiting at the 2020 NAMM Show in January. “We have been gifted a booth in a very good location,” Dina said. “Korg is being very generous in helping us get on our feet, since they re-created the Odyssey. They want to see this happen. We have mutual interests, so it’s been a win-win situation. We’re going to do some outreach there. This is where I’ll do my initial fundraising.”

(Photo by William Bond, designbywilliam.com)

A successful IndieGoGo campaign recently helped raise money to cover NAMM expenses. “Part of the reason is to get us to NAMM in the first place, since we don’t have any operating budget yet. So this is an opportunity to announce to the whole music industry that we’re here and what we plan on doing and that we will rely on them to perpetuate this dream. NAMM is also going to be honoring my dad.

“There was a tradition to have NAMM Jams with ARP Instruments in the early ’70s,” she continued, “and we’d like to do another one there. [In the past] they had three people playing multiple synthesizers and a drummer, and they blew everyone away with the music they were making. It won’t be in the ARP Foundation’s booth; it will be in the Korg space.”

Already the foundation is facing challenges. “Our 501(c)(3) status is taking a lot longer than it’s supposed to. I’m hoping we at least have our status pending by then. If not, we’re probably going to triple our mailing list and our social outreach [at NAMM], so as soon as that happens, we’ll be able to immediately jump into action and get a Donate button going.”

Home Is Where the Synths Are

Dina Pearlman grew up surrounded by synthesizers and synthesists. She was her parents’ only child, and she was fully aware of her father’s accomplishments as far back as she could remember. At an age when other children were sketching picnics on sunny days and dinosaurs roaming the countryside, 7-year-old Dina was drawing synthesizers. I asked her if she grew up in a musical household.

(Drawing courtesy of Dina Pearlman)

“I grew up with sound waves and musical instruments all around me. There were two pianos, lots of synthesizers, an oscilloscope (laughs, if you want to call that musical)… My father had a music room. It had a baby grand, which I took my lessons on and now lives at my house, and a clavichord, which he and I built when I was 6; he did most of the work.”

Along with the instruments, of course, was the music she heard at home. “There was always music playing. There would always be classical music in the music room. And then he also had a wonderful love for a lot of the electronic musicians. He loved Gershon Kingsley, Mort Subotnick, and Wendy Carlos, and would play a lot of that in the house. Wendy Carlos was a huge influence on my dad and a catalyst for him saying, yeah, let’s do this thing, after he heard Switched On Bach. My dad was a classical musician. He played piano on the last day of his life.

(Photo courtesy of the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation)

“Because he recognized that I would place more importance on it than he did, he got me a lot of the early albums that had synthesizer. I was listening to Herbie Hancock at a very young age, and The Who. He also got me Beatles albums. He felt strongly that I would enjoy these. I’m the monster that he made me into; I was a rock musician in the ’80s.”

“He didn’t really love rock music, but he recognized that for posterity, we should have these records because they had early ARP sounds or they were ARP endorsers. To some degree, he was a little bit put off. There were some instances in the early days of ARP with some of the people who were working there that involved some counterculture substances.”

(Photo courtesy of the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation)

“I did do a lot of traveling because of ARP. I traveled to England several times, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hawaii, NAMM in Chicago, Anaheim… I got to go to trade shows, though most of the time I ended up hanging out with the wives.”

It’s impossible to overstate Alan Pearlman’s contributions to electronic music and music at large. His creativity and foresight are reason enough to celebrate his life, and the difference he made in the lives of so many musicians should motivate all of us to support a nonprofit honoring his legacy.

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