Group devises program for live sounds


April 22, 1991|By Rick Ratliff | Rick Ratliff,Knight-Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- Something amazing happens when physicist Steve Shepard plays guitar in the den of his woodsy Southfield, Mich., home. What comes out are sounds of drums, keyboards, a bass guitar, a saxophone, whatever he wants -- up to 16 instruments at once.

It happens because Mr. Shepard's guitar is connected to a Macintosh computer, equipped with MIDI devices, which enable a computer to generate music, and the computer is running a program called Sybil, which he co-developed.

Unlike sequencers, programs that let a musician lay one track of computer-generated music atop another, Sybil lets a musician play multiple instrument sounds simultaneously by assigning specific notes to specific computerized instrument sounds or even to groups of instrument sounds.

Two years after its debut, Sybil has won wide acclaim among such musicians as Grammy award-winning saxophonist Michael Brecker, Spyro Gyra vibraphonist David Samuels, and jazz guitarist Carlos Rios, according to Mr. Shepard. He also says film composer Cliff Martinez is using Sybil to help score a new movie.

The music press, too, has given Sybil rave reviews. Modern Drummer magazine termed Sybil a product that "changes the face of the scene itself." Keyboard magazine called Sybil "a very slick, well-wrought tool."

Mr. Shepard created Sybil with drummer Stefan Lipson, a former Detroiter now living in San Francisco, and Bob Forlenza, a computer programmer in New York. These three, who perform all sales, marketing and manufacturing in their far-flung homes, have invested $60,000 in the project. Mr. Shepard says they have sold hundreds of copies of Sybil all over the world, especially in Great Britain and Japan.

"It's pretty amazing to be making money on this thing," Mr. Shepard says. "After all, we are really targeting a niche of a niche," meaning musicians who prefer to play their computerized music live.

Named after a woman with multiple personalities, Sybil also reflects Mr. Shepard's varied roles.

On most days, Mr. Shepard, 39, who has a doctorate in physics from Wayne State University, develops advanced video-imaging systems as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army's Tank-Automotive Command in Warren, Mich.

But most nights, Mr. Shepard, who wears his hair in a ponytail and graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, can be found playing bass guitar for local jazz singer Ursula Walker, pianist Buddy Budson and others.

Several years ago, Mr. Shepard and his future partners were bemoaning that computers had created a generation of hunt-and-peck composers. Computer programs enable non-musicians to compose and generate music without ever playing it live.

"We wanted to find a way to use this technology for ourselves, a way that would still allow us to play the music," Mr. Shepard says. "Playing music, after all, was what we liked best."

The three decided to work together to create the program. But because of the distances between them, their collaboration was conducted electronically. The three engaged in such exhaustive electronic mail computer sessions, midnight faxes and telephone conference calls that Mr. Shepard's monthly phone bills sometimes topped $400.

But five months after they began, the three had their first version of Sybil. A few months later, the three were playing before marketing executives in a command performance at Apple Computer headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and wowed a music industry trade show in Chicago.

Sold through retailers and direct mail, the product was originally priced at $199 and was available only for Apple Macintosh computers. Recently, however, the price was cut to $99 and versions were created for IBM-compatible and Atari computers.

Early this year, the three released a new program, Tonal Recall, which allows a computer to function like an interactive four-track tape recorder, enabling musicians to seamlessly record pieces of a performance while they are playing them, then accompany themselves without missing a beat.

The good news for Mr. Shepard is he has the programs he wanted; Sybil allows him to better enjoy the spontaneous and creative aspects of live music.

The bad news is he has been forced to take on a role he has neither the time nor desire to fill: a businessman.

Between his day job for the Army, his nightly music gigs and his work as one-third of a software firm, little time is left for his wife and 6-year-old son.

Maybe, he says, it is time to hire a business manager.

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