Don Tavel’s Synthesizer Still Resonates

A woman sitting with boxes and machine parts
Alison Tavel with parts from the Resynator.

Photo courtesy Alison Tavel

A man in a white coat
Don Tavel

knew her father had invented software and electronic gear in the early days of personal computers, but she didn’t know him. Just 10 weeks old when Don Tavel died in a 1988 car accident, Alison says she grew up without an emotional connection to the man who designed a music synthesizer nearly lost to time. She rarely thought about Don’s “Resynator” invention until she toured as an assistant to singer-songwriter Grace Potter. “People talk about synthesizers a lot on tour,” Alison says. “We’re around a lot of musicians who are total gear nerds.”

Through some internet sleuthing, Alison learned the Resynator was a precursor of MIDI technology that combined digital tracking and analog effects. Through family history, Alison knew a Resynator prototype had been stored for 25 years in the attic of her grandmother, philanthropist Kitty Tavel, who was married to Dr. Tavel optometry business founder David Tavel until his death in 2010. Newly curious, Alison visited her grandmother in 2014.

After using her phone and a camera to make an unboxing video in the attic, Alison took possession of the family relic and embarked on a full-scale documentary journey. The 33-year-old has devoted seven years to compiling 150 hours of footage for a film titled Resynator. Drawing on her own money and donations, she has spent more than $200,000. Fundraising through a Kickstarter campaign continues, and Alison estimates the documentary will be released in 2023.

“I’m so glad I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” the first-time filmmaker says. “This has been the biggest education of my life. It has taken so long because of funding, first and foremost, but also because I’ve been learning how to do everything along the way.”

A synthesizer
An early prototype of the Resynator.

Alison found more than the Resynator in the attic where her grandmother also kept papers related to Don’s work. One piece of 1980 correspondence featured the signature of two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Peter Gabriel, thanking the inventor for selling three Resynator units to him. Alison traveled to London to interview the former Genesis vocalist, who shared his memories of Don’s electronic instrument.

Gabriel invited Alison to record with her Resynator in the main room at his famed Real World Studios. “He set me up with an engineer, and it was just the coolest thing,” she says. “I was able to use his film crew. He really went above and beyond for someone he had never met.” Members of Portishead checked out the vintage gear, and Alison says Ethan Johns—producer for the likes of Paul McCartney and Ray LaMontagne—walked into the studio and asked, “I hear there’s a unique synthesizer here somewhere?”

Despite the Resynator’s promising new technology and a commercial launch of 200 units in 1980, the synthesizer never connected with the public. Alison has heard blame assigned to a similar product released by the Korg corporation that sold for $500. (The Resynator’s suggested retail price was $1,980.) Don, who taught music, graphics, and animation classes at IUPUI, next turned his attention to a guitar-themed sequel to his original invention before his untimely death.

Alison’s years of investigating the antique synthesizer have resulted in new feelings about her father. “Originally, it was just going to be this fun little synth resurrection project,” she says. “That’s important to me, but what’s more important is that I’m learning about myself by learning about my dad. I’m trying my hardest to meet as many people as possible who knew him and have stories to share.”