I'm a Fizzer. I'm one of the lucky folks who own, play and love a "loveable loser" of a digital synthesizer with the funny name of Fizmo. It was available from synth and music company Ensoniq a couple of years ago, but didn't last long for several reasons. I believe that the thing was just too damn weird for the people that it was marketed to - people like DJs and techno/dance musicians. For the experimental, industrial and noise musician, however, the Fizmo is a dream. Once digging in and programming, one can create sounds from scratch that range from thick, evolving synth pads to total environments of sound that are so alive-sounding, morphing and constantly growing that it'll make your head spin. Ensoniq's Fizmo was built upon Transwave synthesis. Transwaves are wavetables, which many other synths have used, but transwaves are much different in that that each one has many loop points rather than just one where the sound can cycle back around. Ensoniq has used transwaves since the '80s but the Fizmo was the first synth that they devised that was totally built around them. It features bank of knobs to tweak and tear apart sounds that can easily be used in real time - which is great for performance and for quick work during composition. It also has a superb multi-effects engine to modify sounds even further. One can run any outside sound source through the effects via an external jack, and the Fizmo has a built-in vocoder for processing one's voice via the keyboard. I spoke with Scott Peer, who worked for Ensoniq during the development of the Fizmo and now runs SoUnDEnGiNe.com, a self-proclaimed "creative outlet" where he offers new synth patches to musicians. They've just released a wonderful collection of more meat-and-potatoes sounds for the synth called "Fizmo World", which were designed by Craig Snoke, another Ensoniq/Fizmo alumnus. Previous to Ensoniq, Scott worked for Sequential Circuits, Peavey, Fostex, and Passport. Scott started at Ensoniq in 1996 with the position of Sr. Software Engineer, where he wrote sample import code, worked on the synthesizer engine for the MR-Rack, which eventually evolved into the MR/ZR-76 and the ASR-X series - the same synth engine used in the Fizmo. He acted as project leader and Software Engineering Manager for a group of 4-5 engineers, QA, and Technical Documentation. Soon after, he was promoted to Director of Product Development, which coordinated efforts between Marketing and Engineering to specify and develop product concepts. The Fizmo stands alone in a musical community riddled with synths attempting to model other ones. It's no virtual modeler, nor is it very common-sounding. I believe that its oddball approach, collection of strange sound patches and means of creating even weirder user sounds really put people off when it was released. Scott has unique insight into the Fizmo, it's concept, uniqueness and untimely demise.
What was the creative spark behind the conception of the Fizmo? What were the original ideas for this synthesizer?
Originally, Fizmo was referred to as PHYS-MO. Bill Mauchly (Ensoniq Chief Scientist) and I were talking about developing a synthesizer around a chip called the OTTO-FX which combined the ASR-10 Synth Engine and Effects Engine on one piece of silicon. This chip never shipped in a commercial MI (Musical Instrument) product. What eventually evolved was a product based upon Transwaves, which I felt were the most compelling new sound synthesis technology that Ensoniq had in hand. Things really started to happen after Waveboy (aka the aforementioned Bill Mauchly) and Soundengine.com (aka me) independently released two transwave products for the ASR-10.
When the idea for the synth was pitched to Ensoniq what was the response?
The idea of a transwave synth was pitched to Ensoniq management. I was Director of Product Development at the time, so my role was essentially to generate consensus among Engineering and Marketing Management. I convinced the Director of Marketing, the VP of sales and marketing, and the VP of M.I. Engineering that this was financially viable product, and we got started.
How was the Fizmo to be marketed?
As a non-"me too" analog simulation synthesizer. The notion was that it initially would have more appeal in Europe (with all of the dance music being written there) than in the US.
How long was it actually on the market before being discontinued?
It was actively marketed for about six months. Around the time Fizmo was to be released, Creative Labs decided to merge the Ensoniq MI division with Emu.
Why was it discontinued?
Creative Labs decided to pull all of the engineers that were working on MI products in Malvern (Ensoniq) back onto Sound Card, Video Card and other Multimedia related products. The engineers who remain are still doing this. It's all history now, and in the long run, it really doesn't matter. Fizmo has a history of defects because of one simple reason. It was manufactured by a team of people (the Creative Labs Malvern Manufacturing Team) that were frankly, tired of making keyboards. They were more focused on seeing the hundreds of thousands of Audio and Graphics PC cards go down the product line. Keyboards were much more bothersome to build, because there is much more craftsmanship involved. As I understand it, most of the Fizmo-related defects are power supply related, which means that it's likely that an inferior supplier was chosen for cost reasons.
What do you think were the reasons for it not being very popular? "Fizmo Bashing" is evident on synth review archive sites.
I think the main reasons behind the Fizmo-bashing are two-fold:  For some reason, the message about it not being a virtual analog synth wasn't related well enough, and when customers tried it out, they couldn't find the TB-303 patch or the "Jump" patch.  I think the factory set of presets is a bit too "evolutionary" in nature. What I mean by this is that I have seen the typical way people normally try out sounds on a keyboard in a music store. They have one hand on the Preset button, and the other on the keyboard. If the sound they select doesn't hit home within 1-2 notes, they hit Preset. This method, of course, doesn't let the dynamic, synthetic, transwave technology be heard in Fizmo. Try selecting sounds this way - I think you'll agree.
What do you think are the most innovative and unique things about the Fizmo? What got overlooked?
Transwaves, audio processing through the best sounding effects in the business.
What do you think are its most detrimental attributes? What really hurt its chances with users.
I think if I had the opportunity to design it again, I would include an LCD display with text characters.
Tell me a bit about SoundEngine.com and what your mission with that company is.
SoUnDEnGiNe.com has been around since 1991! At Peavey, where I worked in a life prior to Ensoniq, my employment agreement laid claim to all materials that I developed there, including any sound programming that I did at home. I did programs for all of the synths I designed at Peavey, as well as at Sequential Circuits, where I worked before that. I always wanted to have a sound development company, and when the Internet started to take off, it was a natural venue for me to market what I had created. SoUnDEnGiNe.com now has evolved into something much more. I view it as a creative outlet for me, and an opportunity for sound developers worldwide to apply what I have learned in participating in online sales for 9 years, to market their sounds. I am fortunate to work with extremely talented sound developers from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and the US. I offer a more generous royalty than other sound development houses. I look at SoUnDEnGiNe.com as a collective. With that perspective, the last two years have been the most rewarding in the company's history.
Why have you released a new collection of patches for the Fizmo? Is there a renewed interest in this synth?
I don't know if there is renewed interest. Craig Snoke and I have maintained a friendship since we both left Ensoniq, and this was something he wanted to bring to market. Good thing he did - sales have been great!
Why do you feel that many experimental and industrial musicians have embraced the Fizmo?
Because they get it. They held Middle C on the keyboard for more than 1 second, and tweaked the knobs rather than press the Preset button. I applaud them. They understand that Fizmo is a completely unique sounding synthesizer. Joe Kramer (the former product manager for Fizmo at Ensoniq) and I joke that in 2005, Fizmo will be as valuable as TB303s were two years ago, because they are so rare and unique - a cult classic.
With all the modeling devices popping up every day, there seems to be a revival of synthesis lately. Please share your thoughts on this.
We were discussing this the other day. I agree that there is more synthesis out there. Call me a dinosaur (and to some degree, I call myself one), but I think most of what is considered "the revival" in synthesis is software based products. This technology sounds good, but being the Brontosaurus that I am, it's not fun nor interactive enough for me to tweak virtual knobs on a CRT. I want the buttons and lights. They are what keeps me interested enough that I look up at the clock and realize is 1:30 AM.