As we welcome in the new year, we remember the artists who shaped us – artists who revolutionized music as we know it, giving us new sounds and new visions. Among those who departed, we’ll dive into the lives and careers of five innovators whose profound effect on music paved a path forward for artists today.
Arthur Rupert Neve (31 July, 1926 – 12 February, 2021)
Rupert Neve’s humble beginnings go back to his childhood as a missionary kid in Argentina against the backdrop of World War II. A natural problem solver, Neve addressed one shortage of the war by assembling radios as a schoolboy. Over the weekends, he would hole up in his room building radios and would then sell them on Monday mornings.
In the 2008 NAMM interview, legendary engineer, Neve sits before the camera, an easy smile on his face. With a twinkle in his eye, he begins speaking about the story of his life:
“On Monday mornings, on my way to school, I would hand carry the radio, give it to the dealer, and get paid for it. [Chuckles] Yeah, that’s where it all started.”
By the age of seventeen, Neve’s knowledge led him to develop mobile recording and public address control rooms– an amazing feat as tape and multi-track recordings were yet to exist.
In 1950, the turn from hobby to career unfolded via the love story of Neve and his wife, Evelyn. Faced with the expectations of Evelyn’s father to find a proper job, Neve jumped into a career in music. In his new job as a chief engineer, Neve designed CQ Audio, creating hi-fi loudspeakers and amplifiers. Propelled forward by his blooming success and new connections, Neve began the Rupert Neve Company (RNC) in the early ‘60s.
On commission from Phillips Records Ltd. and Recorded Sound Ltd., RNC broke down barriers by developing transistor equipment, replacing traditional valve designs, and creating the famous equalizer. The latter proved revolutionary as previously artists had to undergo the costly process of completely re-recording sessions.
In Neve’s later years of life, he moved between founding positions on ARN Consultants, Focusrite Ltd., and Rupert Neve Designs. The legacy of Neve lives on, as he is remembered as a forefather of professional audio recording equipment; his analog recording and audio mixing equipment providing the blueprint for engineers today.
Peter Zinovieff (26 January, 1933 – 23 June, 2021)
A London native, Peter Zinovieff stumbled into the world of music amidst his work as a mathematician – work he described as, “terrible, most terrible.” To offset the boredom of his nine-to-five, Zinovieff turned to experimentation. Off the clock, he'd scour London shops for oscillators to tinker with until late at night in his shed. Once Zinovieff met David Cockerell, a genius in electronic music, the two quickly transformed their hobby into investment, realizing the great potential in electronic music.
In 1969, the two teamed up with Tristram Cary to begin Electronic Music Studio – a studio run by two DEC PDP8 mini-computers (famously known as the first privately owned computers). Under the tagline, “Think of a sound, now make it!” the trio released the first synthesizers available to the public– products including the portable Synthi VCS3, the Synthi 100, and Synthi AKS. Quickly, legendary artists like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream began using the Synthi 100 and Synthi AKS. And the Synthi A made it into the hands of Pink Floyd, as heard on Dark Side of the Moon.
Amongst EMS’s greatest accomplishments came MUSYS, a new composition and sequencing language which evolved into the popular MOUSE audio synthesis software.
Today, Zinovieff’s pioneering contributions undoubtedly shine. Zinovieff’s visionary use of the home computer occurred well before its time in the mainstream and helped catapult electronic music forward.
Malcolm Cecil (9 January, 1937 – 28 March, 2021)
Synthesizer pioneer Malcolm Cecil is remembered as a brilliant jazz artist, genius innovator, and beloved producer. In the ‘50s, Cecil began his career as a bass player for various jazz bands in London. As described humorously by Cecil, he soon became ‘boinged out’ from hearing the synthesizer solely used for basslines. Cecil’s imagination quickly led him into developing a creation of his own: TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), the first multi-timbral, polyphonic analog synthesizer.
To experiment further, Cecil began TONTO’s Expanding Headband with Bob Margouleff, the duo releasing two acclaimed original albums in ’71 and ’72. Together, Cecil and Margouleff playfully experimented to maximize the capabilities of the TONTO. As said in interview,
“We asked the question, "Is this music?” I went to the dictionary of music… I looked up, 'definition of Music: Sounds that are grouped together by people for other people to hear,' or words to that effect… As soon as I saw that definition, I turned around to Bob and said, Yep, its music. We put this together for people to hear.”
Their albums were incredibly well-received; winning Cecil the ‘73 Grammy for Best Engineered Recording (Non-Classical category) and catching Stevie Wonder’s attention. Buoyed by the success, Cecil moved forward to produce for Wonder and collaborate with The Isley Brothers as well as James Taylor.
Mary Wilson (March 6, 1944 – February 8, 2021)
From Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass project, Mary Wilson’s career as a singer and advocate emerged in the late ‘50s. At the age of fifteen, Wilson joined hands with Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown to form The Primettes— a girl group which soon became the world’s most beloved trio, The Supremes. Despite The Supremes’ change in members across the years, Wilson remained the glue of the group; her warm spirit and laughter holding the trio together.
Amidst the Civil Rights Movement, the music of The Supremes carved out a new space for Black women performers, topping the charts with a range of soul, doo-wop and pop hits which transcended limitations.
As said in an interview by Wilson:
“We were not elated that we were not considered R&B, we always wanted to have songs that were more soulful like Martha and the Vandellas. It just seemed that our sound was not soulful enough, but it worked to our advantage because now we crossed over to speak. Alot of people would talk about us and say we sold out, that we’d started singing white music when really that wasn’t true. Really, we weren’t soulful, so we became known as a pop act.”
The crossover referred to by Wilson gained The Supremes an audience across racial lines, and also internationally. The trio’s abundant television and live performance opportunities placed them ahead of their male, Motown counterpart artists - an extremely difficult feat given the racism towards Black women.
Following Wilson’s career with The Supremes, she embarked on her solo career as a singer and bestselling author, and also made a return to college, receiving a degree from NYU in 2001.
On the decision to return to school, Wilson cited the tumultuous contract negotiations with Motown, which often left her with self-doubt. As told by Wilson to NPR in 2006,
“I realized that there was so much that we, The Supremes, had given away because we didn't know how to read those contracts. I mean, we could read. We graduated from high school and all that. But the understanding was not there."
With her degree came a new version of empowerment, and Wilson plowed forward to become an advocate for the Truth in Music Advertising Act. In part to her activism, the legislation passed in thirty-five states, bolstering the rights of musicians and artists.
Sophie (17 September, 1986 - 30 January, 2021)
SOPHIE’s projects spanning across the last decade imagined a future of electronic music free from all binaries. With great precision, SOPHIE pieced together contrasting sounds and textures to convey the endless expanse of human emotion. As said by SOPHIE,
“It would be extremely exciting if music could take you on the same sort of high-thrill three-minute ride as a theme park roller coaster. Where it spins you upside down, dips you in water, flashes strobe lights at you, takes you on a slow incline to the peak, and then drops you vertically down a smokey tunnel, then stops with a jerk, and your hair is all messed up, and some people feel sick, and others are laughing — then you buy a key ring.”
SOPHIE’s experimentation with this idea birthed an unmistakable sound, as heard on collaborative works with Madonna and Vince Staples. In collaboration with Charli XCX, SOPHIE’s style was perfectly encapsulated in the 2016 Vroom Vroom EP; the opening rushing into harsh, industrial claps and then, just as quickly, morphing into a hyper-feminine lullaby. This party girl anthem (as described by XCX) drew inspiration from early disco and house.
The 2018 album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES ushered in a new era for SOPHIE. Prior to its release, a veil of mystery surrounded SOPHIE due to SOPHIE’s disinterest in social media and interviews. With the album’s 2017 single, It’s Okay To Cry, SOPHIE’s intimate ballad entranced listeners and articulated an iridescent dream of a world free from gender; and the music video pulled SOPHIE from anonymity and into the spotlight as an openly transgender woman.
SOPHIE’s transcendent music invited LGBTQ+ folks to exchange dysphoria for euphoria, inspired the hyper-pop genre, and enmeshed pop with the avant-garde.