Monday, March 15, 2010

Oberheim Four-Voice/Polyphonic Synthesizer, Contemporary Keyboard 1977

Oberheim Four-Voice Synthesizer/Polyphonic Synthesizer advertisement from page 4 of Contemporary Keyboard Magazine May 1977.

In my last blog post I featured an Oberheim SEM 'Evolutionary' advertisement from July 1977 where I threw out the theory that that ad was in response to a Moog chest-pounding advertisement that ran two months earlier (May 1977).

BUT. It wasn't like Oberheim was always on the defense. They had their own hard-hitting advertisements as well, and this one, located opposite the Letters section of CK (awesome real estate!) is one of those ads.

Although the ad-copy doesn't mention Moog and the Polymoog specifically, it is definitely implied as using the lesser method of producing polyphony in a synthesizer (mentioning 'synthesizer on a chip' - a direct connection to Moog's description of the Polymoog). Plus, the journal article text mentions the Polymoog in particular.

I find this ad particularly interesting for a few reasons.

1. Where Moog often pushed in-house resident expert Bob Moog out front to promote their brand, Oberheim, in this case, used external expert James Michmerhuizen, founder of the Boston School of Electronic Music, to promote the advantages of the Oberheim polyphonic system.

James Micherhuizen.... now where have I heard that name? To be honest, I couldn't recall right away, but a quick Google search jogged my memory rather quickly. Among other things, he wrote the ARP 2600 Owner's Manual that is still well-read today!

2. Basically, while Moog and ARP were name-dropping famous rock and jazz greats like Chick Corea, Kansas and Genesis in this issue of CK, Oberheim decided to name-drop the author of an equipment field test article to help promote the more scientific aspects of their Oberheim polyphonic system. An interesting marketing approach.

Even more interesting than this advertisement though, is the article on Tom Oberheim that appears in this issue of CK!

The article, written by Dominic Milano and simply titled "Tom Oberheim, Designer of Synthesizers) is about three pages long and really shows Tom's unique (and in my opinion humble) view of the synthesizer manufacturing world of 1977.

Like any good article from the 1970s dealing with one of the major players in the synth-building game, it starts out with a bit of history, most interesting of which I found was that Tom wasn't into rock music much until he heard the Beatles' 'We Can Work It Out' - he 'was hooked after that'.

The article then covers Tom's voyage from building amps for bands like The United States of America (USA), to discovering ring modulators and building one for Leonard Roseman, a composer working on the score for 'Beneath The Planet Of The Apes'. Soon enough, Chicago Musical Instrument Company (CMI), later Norlin Music and then later Gibson) was distributing Tom's ring modulator, and then his Phase Shifter and Universal Synthesizer for guitars ("...really sort of a turkey"), under the Maestro name.

Aside: In an email exchange with Tom Oberheim a couple of months back, he mentioned that he shakes his head whenever someone says he worked for Maestro. Quote from the email:
"Maestro' was not an actual entity, just a trade name applied by Chicago Musical Instrument Company, later Norlin, later Gibson, to various products made by a number of different companies. When Oberheim Electronics was still my company (1970 thru 1975) I designed and manufactured several products for CMI/Norlin under the Maestro trade name, including the Maestro Phase Shifter (the first phase shifter available for the performing musician), as well as several other effects pedals"
The article then goes through the history of Oberheim Electronics products that I know and love. First the digital sequencer, then the SEM, and finally, the addition of Emu's keyboard to create the 2 and 4-Voice synthesizers.

While speaking about Oberheim's connection to musicians, the article states that Tom met many musicians as an ARP dealer starting in the early 1970s, selling three to four ARPs per year to people like Frank Zappa, Leon Russell, and Robert Lamm. In fact, his first experience with a synthesizer made by someone else was the ARP 2600:
"I took it home one night, put it in my bedroom, and let it run on sample and hold all night".
Tom also admits in the article that one are of weakness for himself is tactile interfaces such as controls for pitch-bending wheels and modulation controls:
' "At the time I designed the units" he explains, "it was a matter of just going ahead. I hoped that I could get by without every little thing that would make them perfect." '
' "One of my past attitudes was that the only controller for the left hand that I liked was the Moog wheel," he admits. "I've always felt that it was so unique that it would be an out-and-out ripoff to use one. I've felt that way for a long time, but who knows? Maybe I'll sell out one day and copy it. A lot of guys do alright with the ARP knob, but I don't think it's right." '
Tom's humbleness comes through when talk of the 'big three' comes up.
'There is little question but that they're one of the big three. "It took me a long time to accept it," Tom relates, "but I think people talk in terms of ARP, Moog and Oberheim. Of course, I spend a little time thinking of how nice that is, but most of the time, I'm seeing how crude the 4-Voice really is. You don't need all those knobs now". '
In the article, Tom also comments on the growth of the synthesizer industry and the beginning of what is now commonly referred to as the gear-lust phenomenon:
"... the guy who makes his living playing, is taking more of his earnings and putting them into equipment. Let's face it, ten years ago a guy could buy a Twin Reverb and think that's all he needed for the rest of his life. Now, how many people you know with just one keyboard instrument?"
"I get people asking me if they buy a 4-Voice, can they get rid of their ARP 2600 or Minimoog? I have to say 'God no. You need that, too!"
Still with me? Great stuff. Thanks for reading!

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