Monday, February 15, 2010

Oberheim Polyphonic Synthesizer Programmer, Contemporary Keyboard 1976

Oberheim Polyphonic Synthesizer Programmer from page 19 of Contemporary Keyboard Magazine September/October 1976.

This ad was the first by Oberheim in CK magazine to feature the Polyphonic Synthesizer Programmer. And it must have been a very new addition to the Oberheim family of add-ons for their polyphonic systems because the programmer wasn't included in the Oberheim family ad that ran just two months prior. But Oberheim must have known it was coming because they left a nice little square of empty space (with the most awesome logo in the business) on both the Four- and Eight-Voice synthesizers in that earlier ad photo.

I've really been ignoring my early Oberheim ads lately - probably because most of their early ads were for the Two-, Four-, and Eight-Voice systems, and even though I've played with SEM modules over the years, I've never known much about the complete polyphonic systems, and in particular how the programmer integrated into them.

The February 1977 issue of CK included a description of the programmer in the Spec Sheet section:
"Designed to function with the Oberheim 4- and 8-voice polyphonic synthesizers, the programmer allows the performer to store patches in a memory unit. The controllable parameters can be set and stored separately for each Expander Module in the synthesizer. Sixteen complete programs can be stored."
Mark Vail's Vintage Synthesizers book adds that it "enabled the user to store the knob settings of the voltage-controlled parameters of each module. It was the first programmer of its type made available to the public".

The book also gives a bit of technical detail about the connections, stating that SEM modules connected to "some sort of master programming device" through colour-coded connectors located on the circuit board.

I took a look on the Web to try and find some photos of the circuit boards, and Google search didn't disappoint. has some good hi-res shots of the innards of a programmer - but I didn't notice any colour-coding - but I don't know much about circuit boards either :o)

Now, some might say that this is quite the round-about-way to get polyphonic sound/patching out of individual monophonic synthesizer modules. And according to the book Vintage Synthesizers, it was. Initially, Oberheim considered themselves in the accessory business with the SEM - figuring musicians would use it mostly as a tone generator for the their sequencer or to fatten up other manufacturer's synthesizers. But circumstances with cash flow dictated that they come up with some new products rather quickly, and so they combined the SEM modules with a keyboard, simple sequencer, and later the programmer.

And, like any good marketing department should have done, the ad copy really plays to the strengths of this type of system:
"Complaints about the inability to patch quickly while on stage or in the studio, the creative barriers of pre-set instruments, and the burden of carrying six or more keyboards are now over."
Not a bad way to get started in the polyphonic synthesizer business.

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