Suzanne Ciani :: Welcome To Xenon

Pinball machines were the original arcade games. Although today have been declined to the point of near extinction, pinball machines are still beloved by those who remember them.
Electrical wonders, invited you in an unreal world. Back in the 80’s, they were not digital.

An elongated, slightly sloping table covered with a strong glass. Under that glass, were surface-mounted obstacles with tires, holes, flashing lights, moving plates and open lane passageways. The player position was in front of the table, opposite to the flashing scoreboard.

On the right side was a spring piston which popped-out a steel ball at the top of the table, which due to its inclination, rolled downwards until it’s lost in a hole. The steel ball bounces the various obstacles, enters corridors, pass through doors, rails, tunnels and when it touches any of that, an electric circuit turned on flashing lights and activated sounds while a tube send away from the “balloon” a moving spring until inevitably, due to the player’s wrong move, the ball fall in the hole again.

You could even cheat by slightly shaking the table to divert the ball from its course – but if you moved it too much, everything was gone, the word tilt was appeared on the scoreboard, ball was lost and everything was suddenly extinguished. The only way to resurrect the machine and restart the game was to throw a coin into the machine’s voracious belly.

Xenon pinball machine was manufactured by Bally Entertainment and hit the market and the end of 1980. Designed by Greg Kmiec and art directed by Paul Faris, Xenon was something different. It maintained a high level of complexity and sophistication. It was the first pinball game to innovatively combine features, like an elevated ball path, multi-ball and a mirrored double back glass with some infinity lighting…something that made it to look awesome in dark rooms and late night sessions!

Also it was one of the first games that had the transformer and power supply board at the bottom of the caboinet, instead having it in the upper front. This created space for large sound boards and helped made the sound even better.

You couldn’t resist in Xenon, consisting of dominant blue artwork, blue bumper caps, plastic posts and bluish out of this world lights that gave the game a futuristic theme.

“Try Xeeeeenon….” a seductive female robot voice was inviting you to the world of Xenon, while you were walking between pinball machines trying to choose where to spend your coins. Once you placed the coin inside the slot, the speakers unleash a cold robot voice saying “Welcome to Xenon”… The game has just begun!

Bally Entertainment hired Suzanne Ciani, an Italian-American pianist, composer and sound designer pioneer, who found early success with innovative electronic music, to produce sound effects and music for Xenon. Suzanne spent some research time at an arcade to come up with an approach in sound that would make Bally’s new game unique. She couldn’t help noticing the reactions of players while playing the pinball machines. She presented to Bally the idea of making the new pinball game react back to the player. Her voice and music, that she composed especially for the game, were first recorded at the Ciani/Musica studio, crammed with Buchla synthesizers (founded by Don Buchla), amplifiers and computers.

​ She had a grouping of voice processing gear that she designed into something she called the “Voice Box”. This included a Harmonizer, a Vocoder & various filters and processing modules. She modified her own voice with the Voice Box to produce all of the voices. Next, her music and sound data were encoded into a special computer voice chip and a music chip. The game was pretty hi-tech for its era with high quality speech samples and a spooky minimalistic dystopian soundtrack that speeds up and builds suspense as you rack up a score on one ball.

Xenon was not only the first speaking pinball machine, but it was also the first game with a female voice, that of Suzanne Ciani. Xenon is now considered as one of the most popular and sought after pinball arcade games, achieving something a cult status between pinball aficionados. This is due to the combination of it’s great theme, stunning artwork and Ciani’s efforts on the sound and voice effects. Her work and knowledge in sound technology helped creating a new chapter at the arcade, coin-operated game industry.

Suzanne never generated sound for another pinball game, though she did work in sounds for Atari and composed commercials scores in TV for corporations such as Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, AT&T and General Electric.

Besides she creates unbelievable music (new age, electronic, avant-garde), with special skills in reproducing sound effects on the synthesizer, that audio engineers had found extremely difficult to record properly. The sound of a bottle of Coca-Cola being opened and poured was one of Ciani’s most widely recognized works, and was used in a series of radio and television commercials. Such was the demand for her services, that at one point she was doing even up to 50 sessions a week.

Audio logos as the Coca-Cola pop and pour, video game sound effects and many more parts of her work appear on the album Lixiviation along with the only currently available excerpts from her 1975 Buchla Concert.

Game over.