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My Ionic "Performer" Synth

Unintentionally, this is turning into a kind of Ionic Performer documentation page, documenting the Ionic Performer Synthesizer made by Ionic Industries and its musician-owner Alfred Mayer. I'm happy to add more pix and information about the unit. If anyone has further contact with the surviving Mayers (photos received in 2015 below), I'd be delighted to post some of their own reminiscences. Please note that I no longer own either of the Ionic Performers. Both are now living in very good homes.

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This page updated August 7, 2016


Performer VSTi!

Here is a screen shot of the VSTi. Looks pretty good, no? And it all works just as crazily as the hardware version! A new beta is now ready. Yes, it is pretty good. I like it.

Performer VSTi screenshot

Here are new (April 2016) versions of the large and small Killer VSTi instruments. These are 32-bit VSTi emulations, working in Windows XP through Windows 10 (32-bit or 64-bit). Windows 95/98 users please use this version, which contains two files (.dll and .dat) required for those versions of Windows.

My "Killer" Performer

Front view of Killer

Front view, showing the legs tucked into spring-loaded holders in the top. Clockwise: 49-key keyboard (full-size keys); left block with keyboard oscillator, output volume and pan; oscillator sources; modifications; modification routings; controls and envelope; noise and trigger; axes controls; right block with fuzz, portamento, etc.

Left block oscillator

The left block contains the keyboard oscillator - frequency, tuning spread (distance between notes), level, octave divider and doubler, and whether the keyboard dynamics or voltage were routed to the modification rails. Also on the block are the left and right output level controls, and their pan positions (affecting only the line output). The fourth (right-hand) control was supposed to change the dynamic range of the keyboard, but I removed it because it was unworkable and unpredictable on the prototype unit. I can't remember if the production units fixed it or removed it.

Oscillator sources

There are two main oscillators (sine/triangle and square/triangle) and one square with an extended low range (to .01 Hz -- a direct-coupled output that caused Killer to regularly blow up my transistorized Dynaco power amps). The shape (duty cycle) is adjustable as is the relative level of the waveform pairs. The two yellow toggle switches are octave dividers added later, and the small nubs to the left of the oscillator levels are tuning spread trimmers. Below is the external input level control (line or microphone could be modified as well as the oscillators) and the routing of the keyboard oscillator as a source. I replaced the voltage source with a finely adjustable control. The last source in the group is white noise, with its level control that I added.

Source modification block

Each source can be modified by an envelope, ring modulator (modulated from any other source), filter, and reverb, and be routed to either or both output amp directly. Note that the filter (either with modified output or ringing at the Q point) could also be a source, as well as the keyboard oscillator, external inputs, and white noise. To make sure the player knew which oscillators were in use, there are four green lights (one for the oscillators, one for any other source). To the bottom is a presets switch added later, which was used to turn on or off the right-hand keyboard block (fuzz, portamento, etc.). Because that block was noisy, I took it out of circuit with this switch. Another control I added was envelope quieting (at the top). The envelope "off" state was very sensitive to temperature changes (and got worse over time), so this control trimmed it to silence.

Control block

Beginning at the bottom is the reverb (spring reverb), with a nice, rich dry/wet mix. To the right is an Attack/Duration/Decay envelope, which I later modified to Attack/Decay/Duration/Release envelope with a cycle control -- this is way pre-digital! The automatic envelope trigger control is to the right (almost out of the photo). The switches at the top patch the output of one device to the input of another. Only the oscillators and filter can't be patched to themselves, and the white noise has no input. But you could create some pretty unbelievable sounds with this matrix! Note the three items first introduced here, the trapezoid controller (actually the envelope used as a voltage source) and the two "sticks" (pseudo-joysticks).

Filters and axes block

The filter allows adjustment of frequency, response (Q, right to the feedback point so it could be used as another oscillator), and output level. The trapezoid (envelope) level is also adjustable. The "sticks" adjust two "axes" -- assignable to any device, and adjustable (using the two limit sliders) from no effect to full range. The sticks make this one heck of a microtonal machine. The system is +/-18 volts, so the limit range is extensive. Power and speaker on/off switches are at the top. To the right is the "Z axis" (auto pan/phase) pullswitch and level control, with my added controls to allow the pan to be placed anywhere in the soundstage. A manual envelope trigger is available, and trigger was normally routed to the keyboard in every case; I made this optional with a keyboard trigger switch.

Right block

The right keyboard block controls final output functions. The two channels can be assigned portamento (which worked quite well) with adjustable pitch slide speed that makes Midi look positively amateur, fuzz (which I later replaced with a fuzzier circuit of my own design), tremolo (triangle controller) and repeat (square controller). The latter two could be given a different variable rate for each channel, and combined with the Z-axis auto-pan, zowdy! These buttons were originally intended to be illuminated, but the lights drew too much current; I later added low-current lights. Also, I added a switch to take this block out of circuit except when needed because it was noisy. All the funky decals on the machine are from Letraset stick-ons.

Inside, right side

Inside on the right shows the double-rail keyboard which determined dynamic from the time difference between striking the top and bottom rails, and divided the voltage with precision resistors. The LM550-controller power supply is at the back, a high-current baby which ran the output ampliers to the high-efficiency speakers (one is just visible behind the wiring harness at the right). This is a self-contained performance keyboard, with hi-fi stereo output from the case sides. All the circuit boards are phenolic and noisy. Lots of transistors needed replacement, too ... the circuits were all designed around discrete parts, as monolithic op amps were new and expensive. The boards were fairly easy to get at and fix or modify, and fortunately, the designers marked the purpose of each section of circuit right on the boards.

Inside, left side

Inside on the left shows the spring reverb (this is a later replacement, a higher-quality unit) covered in labels with notes describing my obsessive modifications. To the back the digital octave divider modification can be seen. The back panel (not shown) had left and right speaker and line outputs, line and mic inputs, stereo headphone output, and trigger and voltage inputs. I also added a +/-18v input connector for outdoor use with motorcycle batteries (in a handmade redwood case with Nice Big Black Meters). Killer was used for the 1975 premiere of Invocation, Dance and Lament for Twandano with dancer Reuben James Christian Edinger, the first performance at Pepsico's sculpture garden before it became a hip venue.

Comfortable performer

Killer is a surprisingly performable instrument. The designers had ergonomics down before IBM invented the term. Color-coding and logical layout made the instrument performable in near-darkness, and in fact I used it in the New Jersey State Museum Planetarium for the live version of Somnambula for recorder and synthesizer (with the green lights taped over with black electrical tape). I printed and bound books of blank layout sheets so that I could switch settings on the fly during a show. Both Killer and David Gunn's Astrosynarce (an unmodified Performer synth made as part of Ionic's small production run) were used in David's Boondock and my Rando's Poetic License, as well as many other performances from 1974-1982. The machines were then retired.

Sigh. Look at it.

It's a beauty. And it still works! Killer was used not only in the pieces mentioned above, but also in Transresistor (1973), The Development of the Consciousness of Space in a Child and Five Daydreams (two half-hour pieces) and Bomber (1974), Song from Isaiah, three versions of Network C/R, and ...and gently lead (1975), Wedding Music (1981), Bugs (1982), and many improvisations and shows, including a series with poet Gerald Pitt. Say, do you covet this Killer? You can have it -- for 10 times what I paid for it.

Demo and Sticky Key Repair

Quick Demo of Ionic Performer (YouTube)

Sticky Key Repair (YouTube)

Other Surviving Performers

More Ionic Performers #1

More Ionic Performers #2

More Ionic Performers #3

More Ionic Performers #4

More Ionic Performers #5

More Ionic Performers.

David Gunn's Ionic is the top photo, with some of my modifications (the oscillator octave switches, additional envelope control, trigger switch) and some of his decorations. As of June 2015, this unit has been sold.

The one below it belongs to a musician in New York who will have the unit for sale once it's repaired; his unit, save for a few lost knobs and knob inserts, is pristine.

The third is the most heavily modified unit I've ever seen, owned by John King. John writes about Alfred Mayer and buying and modifying his Performer. Independently John and I had both seen the prototype sequencers in action, and hoped to buy them if they ever got produced:

From John King:

I went to their house/business to buy the performer. I think I have the original ad from a music magazine where I first saw it. I had considered the Arp 2600, and a Buchla unit with a keyboard (!). I think I still have the liturature for that one. I had already worked with the Electrocomp 101 which was pretty crappy, and a Moog which was too expensive. Already had built many modules and gizmos since high school (dad was a radio ham) and done a bunch of sound on sound recording.

Alfred had the "12th Street Rag" in the sequencer playing 3-part harmony, and I think the other one was doing something else. His rhetoric was exactly the essence of what the literature was, but of course I already knew how to deal with CVs, patching, etc. so it was, er, just 'salestalk' to me.

A few things I did: I changed the pan controls on the keyboard oscillator block to be pitch benders with range sliders and bent up or bent down. Made 'wigglers' for the keyboard using NE566 VCOs as LFOS triangle and square with one side of the square zeroed to the keyboard pitch.

Put in 5-position rotary switches for each VCO to change the frequency capacitor to improve hi-frequency tracking. Added individual keyboard tuning range pots to each VCO, plus filter and keyboard CV on/off switches. Put in two notes (hi/lo) circuit on the keyboard to play two notes at once (from Bernie Hutchins Electronotes). Added envelope follower. Added Rotary switch input selectors to 4 red control input PB columns. Changed bottom two rows of red PBs to external CV outputs. Added second envelope. Added invert switch to all CV rows. I'll have to look as I'm sure there is more, but those are some of the basic things.

I eventually got into making laser shows, using argon and krypton 5-watt lasers with analog and digital waver generators.

The fourth image is one received in March 2010 from Esko Rämö, who purchased his unit in the U.S. and has received it in Finland. I heard from him again in late May 2010, and he is working on the instrument as of this writing.

The fifth image is my own unit when it was almost new, in my studio in Trenton, New Jersey, ca. 1974. What you see on the music stand is "Composition for Tape and Soloists" (1969) that I was finally able to render using the Ionic Performer. You can hear a 1985 performance of this composition using the original output of the Ionic Performer.

Memorabilia and Other Stuff!

Note: I have attempted to reach the surviving Mayer family to obtain formal permission to reprint this material, but without much success. I have heard from a teeange grandson who did not maintain correspondence, and recently from a nephew (below), but not from closer members of the family who may have an interest in this material. I would especially like to hear from son Scott, who as I recall was doing most of the sequencer design when I bought my unit. Please contact me if you are an heir to these copyrights.

(Click the image below for a 50MB PDF copy of the manual; specifications begin on page 48.)

The Performer manual

The Performer manual is a monument to publishing kitsch. The cover only gives a hint of the hideous design inside. But no matter. The simplicity of the manual and its repetitive images of The Performer on every page were exactly what was needed to make use of the instrument easy and immediate. Alfred Mayer wrote this manual and Electronic Music for the Seventies (below) and designed the look and feel of The Performer and (if I recall correctly) with his son designed the instrument. He was a gentleman, and his showroom, design studio, and testing grounds were in the basement of his home in Morristown, New Jersey. I fell in love with the instrument on the spot, and took out a bank loan to buy it the next week.

Electronic Music for the Seventies

Electronic Music for the Seventies has The Putney on the cover. Inside is a dense explanation of complex, analog electronic music production of the day, and tools and techniques for using The Putney to create sounds. Although this wonderful and curious little instrument was featured in the Whole Earth Catalog, it never took off. Mayer turned around and designed The Performer (much too far ahead of its time) which was, of course, an economic failure. I don't know how many were made (based on serial numbers, I estimate 50-100), and would love to know what happened to Alfred Mayer and his forward-looking Ionic Industries. I traced it through part of the 1970s, but it disappeared along with Mayer's house by the time interest in the Performer was rekindled in the 1990s.

Ionic Performer Block Diagram

David Gunn found the original block diagram for the Performer Ionic, along with some tip sheets. The block diagram is above and this is a full-size printable version.

Perform Now, Learn Later   Diogionic Sequencer

Performer Postcard

Other Memorabilia. These discoveries courtesy Brian Kehew, who calls this "my dream synth".

DC Power Supply  

DC Power Supply. This supply, housed in redwood, was built & used by me (as the character "Twandano") with Ruben James Christman Edinger at the Pepsico sculpture gardens for his music-dance piece Sunrose in 1975. The power supply survives, although the motorcycle batteries that gave it heft are long dead.

At the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde 1974   Kilobaud Microcomputing Cover 1980

Battle of the Synthesizers 1977 Justin at Killer

Killer Sings CD

Other Appearances. (Top row) At the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde 1974; Kilobaud Microcomputing Cover, 1980 -- that's me with the long hair. (Next row) Battle of the Synthesizers Advertisement, 1977, with David Gunn being speared; 2-year-old Justin plays Killer, 2002. (Bottom row) Killer Sings CD, 1974 pieces reissued in 2002, available from me.

Items found on eBay; I didn't win them, but here are some images for reference

eBay item 1

eBay item 2

eBay item 3

eBay item 4

Killer TRS-80 interface

Upcoming. Pix, schematics, and software that ran my original 1978 TRS-80 interface to Killer! I will post these as soon as I can find and convert them. To the left is a photo of the interface itself, with channel voltage outputs and triggers.

Alfred Mayer Recollections

The following arrived in September 2008 from Otto Mayer Vondrak:

I was 17 when Alfred passed away, I remember going to his house in Morristown (the same Brady Bunch-era house you remember) and helping to clean it out. My taste in music wasn't as fine tuned then as it is now, but I remember packing up items like signed press photos from jazz greats. Also a good number of old record platters from the 1930s of swing and jazz. An oddity, he had The Doors debut release... most likely he was interested in their use of the electronic bass. The house has been sold, and most likely most of his personal belongings went to his kids (who are in their 50s and have kids on their own now).

Born and raised in New Jersey, Alfred was a graduate of Juilliard, though his education was interrupted by World War II. He served in the Signal Corps., which probably sparked his interest in electronics. After the war, he came back to New Jersey and finished with Juilliard. His hearing was damaged by artillery, but he was still able to pass his final exams, which consisted of flawlessly transcribing music passages that were played back to him.

One of his favorite instruments was the accordion. My mom says he recorded a few albums in the 1950s under the name "Lucky Pierre," which I assume was a collection of Parisienne style café music. My grandmother was an agent for World Book Encyclopedia, and somehow she got Alfred to pen the entry on "Accordion." He also had a swing orchestra he would make appearances with; I remember he brought out the orchestra for one of my cousin's weddings.

We never talked about his business; in fact, I didn't realize he built synths until years later. We weren't very close, and it wasn't a personal thing, he was considerably older and his hearing was gone, so he wasn't very talkative. I've actually been trying to piece together the history of Ionic, since the only thing I've been able to find out is that he nearly beat Moog at marketing a compact synth. Everyone has heard of Moog, no one talks about Ionic.

I like to attribute my interest in jazz, swing, electronica and techno to my Uncle Alfred!

These photos arrived from his younger sister, Deanna Vondrak, in April 2015:

Alfred Mayer, Infant 1921 Alfred Mayer
As an Infant, 1921Bar Mitzvah, Undated
Alfred Mayer Alfred Mayer 1939
Family Postcard, UndatedIn Thought, 1939
Alfred Mayer 1940 Alfred Mayer 1943
With Baby, 1940In the Army, 1943
Alfred Mayer 1944 Alfred Mayer with Accordion
In the Army, 1944With his Accordion, Undated
Alfred Mayer
At Family Gathering, Undated

The Controversy

Somewhere out there are the jealous keepers of sputtering candles of mainly academic history. Alfred Mayer, it's said by some, took the circuitry from the EMS VCS3 and repackaged it as the Ionic Performer. Let's see. A handful of commonplace circuits and commonplace parts but now in a completely new interface design with new electronic modules, integral keyboard, amp & speakers, travel case and nothing extra needed -- not a single cable. The circuitry -- built by every hobbyist with access to the Whole Earth Catalog -- was not the heart of the Performer. It was the new approach, the forward-looking design and ergonomics (that would become the true face of sythesizers years later) that mattered. But somehow Mayer is condemned for having desecrated the synthesizer concept (see "lurid photos" a couple of paragraphs down) by putting it before the slobbering masses in a way that it could actually be played. Yeah, that's really, really wrong. Sorry, whiners. As far as I'm concerned, Alfred Mayer, who put imagination before solder, was the real genius. Alfred Mayer's design was the future, not anything from EMS.

So. Let's begin with the controversy. This gentleman went on in several emails... amazing how overwrought someone can be about a 30-year-old piece of equipment! Truth is, I don't care. Borrowing and outright design copying were rampant in those days before copyrights and patents were easily extensible into the smallest of implementations. The defense of the EMS backward-looking product gives no credit to the true innovation of the Ionic Performer -- its user interface design, which foreshadowed every synth (both hardware and software) of the next half-century.

[February 13, 2001]

Dear Sir

I feel I should make you aware that in your fascinating Performer page there are the following massive mistakes you should know about.

  1. The Putney aka EMS synthi VCS 3 aka (from 71 synthi a & synthi aks models) was released in 1969 , designed in Britain by Tristram Carey , Peter Zinovieff & David Cockerill .It is still in manufacture , has been for over 30 years & has sold thousands of units -Remember Dark side of the moon -Pink Floyd ? that's all Vcs 3 work.Or Putney as you know it. Putney was the u.s. name used for it . your magazine -electronic music for the 70's pictures a Vcs 3/Putney . [My text above has been corrected with respect to the Putney. - DBK]
  2. Ionic were apparently early U.S. agents for EMS , a company who released the first digital sequencer for music , 1st portable synthesiser , 1st video synthesiser , 1st guitar multi fx , 1st dynamic keyboard etc .
  3. the Performer copies almost every unique ems vcs 3 function to fine detail , occasionally using thinly veiled steals e.g. trapezoid is uniquely an EMS envelope term & implementation -the envelope parameters -attack , on , decay , off are unique to EMS -the trigger button , also a distinct EMS Vcs 3, the Filter calls Resonance -Response ,again an EMS specialty -even using the filter as an oscillator -very Vcs 3 [Also known as a "Moog filter", so who's used what by whom? -DBK], The keyboard includes an auxillary oscillator ,tuning spread controls & has dynamic output on channel 2 , identical to EMS , It has 2 output channels & 2 input channels -identical & again unusual , it uses slo-mo dials for 3 osc. freq's -identical & unusual otherwise , The oscillator waveforms are identical & identically implemented with identical waveshapers -how many other synths offered a rectified sine wave ?Another EMS specialty -dealt with more elegantly on the Vcs 3 as a matrix patchbay ,crudely-but similarly done on the Ionic just with less options than the original .Likewise EMS' x-y joystick is cheaply copied with sliders .The only significant differances are the (you admit) poor fx unit & the mods you admit to through the piece.Even the power rails are the same voltage...

All the original designers are still alive , & as I well know -Peter Zinovieff was involved on research into the VCS 3 from '63 . By '65 he was using mini-computers for music .Digital "generations" before '73-when the Ionic was induced.

I'm sure you mean well , but the performer only differs from the EMS VCS 3 in about 4 years & a strap-on f.x. section.It looks fairly odd , as the VCS 3 is very well known , & anyone would see straight away that this is one of the biggest rip-offs ever perpetuated -the similaritys , otherwise unique to EMS leave big fingerprints .I can see why Ionic flopped .You are probably best to rewrite your story.The last section about the Putney being a rip -off.....youre story should read , the performer failed as it WAS a rip-off of a product Ionic had distributed & probably incurred legal threats from the cosmopolitan genius Zinovieff, The whole earth catalogue let Moogs resident bum boy -Wendy/Walter/Walty Carlos do the review -Carlos couldnt figure it -too advanced & interesting -No surprise hearing his/it/her oeuvre .Switched-off shite .

I notice from the Performer handbook , it clearly states NO TALENT     No Requisites     How true.

I would be fascinated to see the spec of the Ionic video synth. Wonder where that idea came from?

Peter [Kember]

The following from Tristram Cary was posted in response to comments on the list CEC-Conference (April 5, 2005):

I'm not surprised at the Ionic story, though the most likely US outfit to be selling it would have been Musonic, who sold the Hi-Fli effects box as theirs with EMS permission (though EMS made it). When we were getting ready for production on the VCS3 (in 1968 I think), we discussed applying for a patent - but in fact it's very hard to patent a thing like VCS3 which is an original idea but made of ordinary pre-existing components anyone can buy. You can easily patent something like a new kind of transistor, but hard to cover a general principle. We had ideas like spraying the PCBs with black paint, but in the end we thought that someone was going to copy it anyway, so we might as well get out there selling it and let it take its chances. In any case Robin Wood is doing well selling secondhand VCS3s and AKSs, and he got new mods and computer interfaces - I think he gets around 2 grand for them (a bit more than the 110 or so we sold the first ones for). But he or Zinovieff may know more about the Ionic thing than I do.

The following from Robin Wood was also posted in response to comments on the list CEC-Conference (April 5, 2005):

Somewhere in my collection of EMS material I have a lurid photo of the Ionic Performer you mention. I remember attending a NAMM show in Chicago in the early seventies where Ionic Industries had a small booth and were exhibiting the Performer. You are correct that it was a repackaged VCS3 with an integral keyboard. Instead of the pin matrix it had rows of rectangular push-button switches - like an early ryhthm box. What really struck me about it was the publicity leaflet which brazenly announced 'No skill required' in its operation, before expanding further on this theme. It still had the familiar vernier dials for tuning the oscillators. I spoke to Steve Mayer on the stand but no Alfred. Dealings with Ionic were soon curtailed and from about 1972 the US side of the business was handled by Dr. Everett Hafner and his company EMSA from Amherst, Mass.

Most interesting to me is that the pushbutton, integrated-keyboard, effects-tailed "no talent" design of the Performer was ultimately the direction of electronic music instruments for the following half century (even emulations use mouse clicks rather than cable drags). The circuitry was the least significant part -- so I reiterate that it was the ergonomics that mattered, despite the crybabies. Mayer had it right. It was all about the interface.

So that's all for now. Please share your images & music made on the Ionic if you'd like to do that!

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