Flashback: synth legend Suzanne Ciani soundtracks a pinball machine in this mesmerizing '80s documentary

Suzanne Ciani is one of synthesizer history's most heroic figures. Known as the 'diva of the diode', the composer, musician, sound designer and five-time Grammy Award nominee is a pioneering figure in electronic music, and has been working with synths since the '60s. 

The video above, taken from an '80s documentary feature on electronic music, illuminates one of Ciani's notable early achievements: designing music and sound effects for Xenon, the first pinball machine to feature a female voice. 

"Suzanne Ciani, electronic composer, captures the indefinable and turns it into music," the narrator says. "Her instruments are synthesizers, her vocabulary, words like delay, reverb, amplitude. She's written whole scores for movies by touching buttons and patching cords. But now a new challenge: a pinball manufacturer has asked her to design special sounds for a new game."

Ciani programmed Xenon's soundtrack using a set-up that included the Synclavier II and Buchla 200 modular synth, devising a variety of musical fragments that would be triggered by different elements of the game. 

Recent developments in microchip technology had enabled Ciani to incorporate recordings of her voice in the pinball machine's sound design, which were processed using a combination of rackmount processors she dubbed the 'voice box'. The set-up included the Eventide H949 Harmonizer and SP2016 Reverb. 

"Today we hear Suzanne's voice for five seconds. In the future, women with sound chips in the earrings will listen to Beethoven symphonies," the narrator continues. He wasn't far off. 

The official score for Xenon was released on vinyl in 2021 by Finders Keepers.

Watch Suzanne Ciani demonstrate her 'voice box' set-up on the David Letterman Show in 1980 below. 


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