Thursday, September 23, 2010

Oberheim family of products - The System, Keyboard 1983

Oberheim family of products aka 'The System', including the DX and DMX digital drum machines, DSX digital sequencer, OB-8 synthesizer and 700 professional amplifier from page 59 of Keyboard Magazine October 1983.

'The System' - sound familiar? It should.

Because Oberheim was already part of a 'The System' back in 1978, which included the 360 Systems Slavedriver and Oberheim SEM.

Then, in mid-1982, Oberheim came out with their own 'THE SYSTEM', packaging their own OB-X and OB-XA synthesizers with their DSX sequencer and DMX drum machine. Synths, drum machines, and sequencers that all worked well together through their own proprietary technology.

Jump to the beginning of 1983, and Oberheim decides to replace the aging OB-X and OB-XA synthesizers with the newly designed (internally anyways) OB-8 - advertised as having the sound of the OB-XA, but with many new features and a lower price.

Now, if you are still with me, and you have been reading the last couple of my blog posts, you know that by the beginning of 1983, the universal MIDI standard had been introduced to the masses in the form of the Prophet-600, and other companies were also on board. MIDI had the potential to allow all synthesizers, drum machines, and sequencers to work together - no matter what manufacturer they were from.

But, their was still a lot of hesitation in the industry on whether MIDI would get off the ground, and on the surface at least, it looks a lot like Oberheim, with this 1983 advertisement, was betting on that fact by reintroducing their own system of perfectly connected machines to the masses in the hopes that they could leverage their technological investment as long as possible.

So, was it as clear-cut as that? Was Oberheim protecting it's tech investment? Or did it go deeper?

An article in the June 1984 issue of Keyboard called 'Turmoil in MIDI-land' discusses a lot of the issues surround the launch, confusion, and implementation of MIDI by different manufacturers, and includes an interview with Tom Oberheim. One of the questions/answers includes mention of 'The System' and where the company stood on MIDI in the past.
"You were pegged as being very much anti-MIDI when it was first being proposed. Do you still feel that way now that you've started including MIDI on Oberheim instruments?

We made some statements early on that gave people the impression that we were anti-MIDI. That was more an opinion of individuals at Oberheim, not the attitude of Oberheim, the company. I think that MIDI will further to a great extent what we started three years ago with our system idea."
Opinions count for a lot, and I would guess that those individual's anti-MIDI opinions at the time may have helped keep steering the company towards it's own proprietary standard.

Plus, in a way, Oberheim had history on their side. In 'the good old days', keyboard players and synthesists were very brand specific. Because there wasn't a universal compatibility between those high-priced synthesizers, I'd bet Moog people tended to stick with Moogs,Oberheim people tended to stick with Oberheim, ARP with ARP, etc. There's always a good reason to think that the future will remain the same.

But, as synthesizers became more compact and price points came down, players began to build up their synth stacks with many different brands. The game started to change. Suddenly, that good ol' company strategy of a closed proprietary system to help keep your clients investing in your new products, may not look like such a great idea.

Unfortunately for those companies, a universal standard might be the only logical conclusion to come to, because as soon as two of your competitors start to share their tech, they would have a distinct marketing advantage over a company that didn't share with anyone. Better to support a universal standard than to try and go at it alone.

Plus, you have to take into account all the pressure that was probably coming from the outside world. If you look back at those Garfield ads I blogged about recently, you could say that Pia Zadora and all those other famous users listed in those advertisements were making a statement when they bought a Doctor Click. They were effectively telling all those companies that they wanted to use many different brands of sequencers, drum machines, and synthesizers. TOGETHER.

I'm not saying that Oberheim's system wasn't good. Apparently it was VERY GOOD. The fact that 'The System' continued to be advertised in Keyboard well after their own MIDI-equipped Xpander and MIDI-option for the OB-8 became available, goes to show just how powerful 'The System' probably was.

So, maybe 'anti-MIDI' goes a little too far.

'Pro-proprietary' may be a better description. :o)

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