Thursday, October 28, 2010

Roland TL-12 Teaching Laboratory System brochure, May 1986

Roland TL-12 Teaching Laboratory System brochure from May 1986.

Here's something a little bit different. The TL-12 Teaching Laboratory System was part of Roland's effort to get more of their technology into the music education classroom.

Just look at all those DIN cable connectors sticking out of the back of that thing. That's just *hot*.

When I first saw them all, I immediately started getting ideas in my head about how I could possibly take advantage of the the TL-12 to sync all my old Roland gear together. I thought to myself, "Did other people know about this thing? Or did I just discover a way to by-pass the need for six Korg KMS-30 MIDI-DIN sync boxes?!?!".

More about that in a bit. First, a little reminiscing and reference info.

If I recall correctly, I remember a long while back hanging out in a mall somewhere in town and there was this music store that gave group music lessons. And anytime I wandered passed this store, I would see a group of students through a sliding window/door using electronic keyboards and headphones. I can still see all the cables running from the student stations up to the teacher's small platform. So, ever since I came across this brochure, I think back to that group of students and can't help but think (and hope :o) that this was what they were using.

It seems that the TL-12 had a rather long life, because even though this brochure was printed in May 1986, one of the manuals I had downloaded a while back for the TL-12 is dated from December 1982. Also, a really good description of the TL-12 showed up in the Spec Sheet section of Keyboard Magazine back in July 1983. There is some great reference material in that write-up that is not available in the brochure such as pricing information:
"The TL-12 is designed for instructing students how to play electronic pianos, organs, synthesizers, and any other electronic instruments. The basic system requires no special installation or other equipment, and can be connected easily to any keyboard instrument made by Roland as well as most other brands of keyboards. The unit can accommodate up to 12 students. Additional main units can be connected to teach up to 48 students at one time. The device can be divided intro three subgroups allowing the teacher to monitor any group at the push of a button. With the addition of of a connecting box (Model TLC-1) and a headset/microphone (Model RHS-100) to each keyboard in the class, the teacher can talk to everyone in the class, to a preselected group, or to an individual student. The device also lets one student demonstrate for the entire class by pushing a demonstration button. The private and group selector functions allow the remainder of the class to continue to rehearse without hearing every communication between teacher and student. Tape recorders, record layers, rhythm machines, nd other external equipment can be easily hooked up to the TL-12. Performances by students can even be recorded and played back through the system. Measurements are 18" wide, 4-1/2" high, 11-3/4" deep, and weight is 9-1/2 lbs. Price is $695.00 for the TL-12; the TCL-1 connecting box is $20.00; and the RHS-100 headset/microphone is $60.00. Also offered are system packages including all connections, headsets, and cords for classes of 12 (priced at $1,850.00) and classes of 6 (priced at $1,295.00). Roland, 7200 Dominion Circle, Los Angeles, CA 90040."
Also, if you look closely at this spec sheet promo, you will see that back in 1983, Roland's headset model was the RHS-100, while in this brochure from 1986, Roland replaced that model with the RHS-200. Okay, maybe I'm the only one that finds this information exciting... :o)

This brochure is also awesome for a number of other reasons. Flip it open and the first thing your eye hits are the photo images of the front and back of the TL-12. Next, your eye is drawn to the "Typical Usage" diagram with that cool looking instructor guy with the headset. And finally, you get to the "Five different communication methods" diagrams. These alone provide some really valuable information for an educator thinking of slamming down over a thousand dollars for a full-fledged system, as well as some really cool reference information for someone in the future like me.

But, I find that there is a real disconnect between the front of the brochure and the rest of the info. Seriously - that fire engine red front cover design looks like it is straight from the 50's. The title font, the headset image (which I may have to swipe for a design project I'm working on right now... talent borrows, genius steals, suckas!) and even the photo of the unit itself all look really dated. In 1986, it would have been really hard for me to pick up that brochure if it was sitting at a music store. But then again, maybe I wouldn't have been the intended audience.

And finally, on the back page, you see some specs, accessory info, and most awesome, photos of Roland gear "best suited" for use with the TL-12. Really? SH-101? It would be awesome to see 12 students learning monophonic synthesis on SH-101s using this system. In fact, I think I had a dream along those lines last night.

If you are still reading, you will recall that at the beginning of the post I mentioned that when I first saw the TL-12 brochure, my first thought was using it as a way to DIN-sync a wack of Roland gear together. The unit has 12 DIN connectors, right? And the diagram shows a drum machine plugged in - that could easily be the master sync, right? And the brochure does say "Din connector (for connection with student's unit)" - right? RIGHT?


Turns out Roland used DIN cables for a lot of different purposes, and it looks like in the TL-12's case, the DIN connectors are purely for audio. The TLC-1 connector box that would be located near each student's station is the real key to getting all the different audio signals to and from the TL-12. The AUDIO out of each student's keyboard instrument plugs into the TLC-1 connecting box, as does each student's headset PHONES and MIC plugs. Then, the DIN cable is used to carry all that audio to and from the TLC-1 through each of the 12 DIN connectors on the TL-12.


But even if the TL-12 wasn't meant for carrying/splitting DIN-sync signals, could it still be used for DIN-sync purpose? Could you have one of the 12 pairs set up to be master through the 'demonstration' button, and push the sync signal to the other 11 connectors? It would require that the same DIN cable pin/wires used for carrying sync signals be the same ones Roland used to carry these audio signals. And wouldn't it be great to use the separate group and solo features to split DIN-sync signals at different points in a song?

Well, a boy can dream...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oberheim OB-8 synthesizer, Keyboard 1983

Oberheim OB-8 advertisement from page 14 and 15 in Keyboard Magazine, February 1983.

This was the introductory ad for Oberheim's new flag-ship synthesizer. The two-pager only ran once or twice at the beginning of 1983 before being replaced by a half-page version (really? half-page? Yup!).

This ad was meant for one thing: make an impression. It has good real estate - two pages near the front of the magazine, and not the centerfold where you usually expect to find two-pager. And that one... big... photo. Gorgeous! And the angle of the machine in the photo is optimized to make sure the "OB-8" on the front panel is as big as possible.

So, with the photo definitely taking centre stage, Oberheim decided to choose their words for the ad-copy carefully. And keep it short and sweet.

As the intro copy states, the OB-8 really does look like the OB-Xa. Oberheim definitely had the room to yap about all the good stuff that was kept from the OB-Xa, and then they could have spent another paragraph or two on all the new features, including the whole "Page-2" functionality, whereby half the front panel controls controlled a whole other set of parameters!

But they didn't. You only get one shot to make an impression, and Oberheim chose to focus on the beauty of this machine.

Beyond the beauty of the photo, the actual style of the ad brings back a lot of design elements that were used before the 1st generation of "The System" ads. For example the bold font titles, as well as the red accent lines and bullet points could be found in late 1981 ads such as this two-pager DSX/DMX ad with the OB-Xa shaded out in the background. But then, Oberheim changed up their ad style a bit in 1982 with ads such as this first generation "System" ad. In particular, loosing the big bulky title font and going with a muted background.

To me, the big bulky hug-able font *is* Oberheim. I, for one, am glad they brought it back!

Speaking of the "System", this ad appeared smack in the middle of Oberheim's "System ads (actually, between the 1st generation and 2nd generation of "System" ads). But interestingly, the "System" isn't mentioned at all in this ad.

Confused? The time-line goes something like this:

1981: DSX, DMX, and OB-Xa start appearing in ads together.
1982: 1st generation "System" (OB-Xa/DSX/DMX) ad appears.
Early 1983: This OB-8 ad appears - no mention of the "System".
Mid 1983: DX drum machine ad appears - mentions the "System".
Late 1983: 2nd generation "System" (OB-8/DSX/DMX) ad appears.

So, even though the time-line indicates that Oberheim was still actively promoting their family of products as the "System", they decided that it was worth more to them to keep this ad clean and simple. A single key message:

The OB-Xa is being replaced by the cheaper, better OB-8.

But I'm not sure that it was the best move to not mention the other members of the "System". When current owners of Oberheim gear saw this new ad, they may have been wondering if the OB-8 was still compatible. By not mentioning the DSX/DMX compatibility at all, a current Oberheim user may be wondering if Oberheim was dropping the "System" platform all together.

And considering that these Oberheimers were probably the most likely purchasers of new Oberheim gear, a simple statement about compatibility could have gone a long way.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that often when a company is launching a new product, it is wise to keep the image strong and the message simple. But if so many of your customers have invested *a lot* of money in a certain technology, when a new product is launched, it almost becomes what the company doesn't say that is important. And when Oberheim doesn't mention the "System", did anyone get nervous?

As the title of the ad states, often "There's more than meets the eye!"

Future ads tell us this was definitely not the case. Oberheim was still supporting their proprietary "System". But reading that ad in February 1983 may have put me square into the paranoid camp. A simple bullet point mentioning compatibility would have put an end to any anxiousness that an Oberheim user might feel, even before it began.

Time to put the tinfoil hat back on.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Linn Electronics, Inc. LinnDrum, Keyboard 1982

Linn Electronics, Inc. LinnDrum advertisement from page 13 of Keyboard Magazine April 1982.

My obsession with Oberheim and 'The System' family of products is getting a little too intense even for me, so I thought I would throw out this introductory LinnDrum ad to try and get my mind off of Oberheim for a bit.

I mentioned this ad in my previous Oberheim DMX blog post, when I mentioned that I was more drawn to this ad's stark black & white simplicity in comparison to that DMX ad's off-balanced design. And what simplicity it is. I've included as much of the scanned page as possible in order to show just how much white space there actually was. It also gives you an idea of just how small that black and white photo image of the LinnDrum is.

This ad only seems to have ran once, which makes sense if a reader actually took the time to read to the bottom of the page where it says, "Coming next month...". This was obviously the pre-introductory ad to turn Keyboard readers' appetites up a notch before the real advertisement came out in the next issue of Keyboard.

That "Coming next month..." bit is a great little piece of reference info, providing us with the exact month of the release of the LinnDrum. And that list price of $2995 is also a nice reference nugget.

Directly below that date information is LinnDrum's not-so-secret weapon - "...from the inventors of the digital drum machine". To me, that would have given the company *a lot* of cred back in 1982.

But most interesting to me is the spattering of text that Linn decided to bold throughout the main body of the ad-copy. From a historical perspective, I think those pieces of highlighted text really provide us with a look back at what technical developments Linn was focusing on since the release of their first drum machine, the LM-1. And I would guess most of those tech developments would have been driven by what the competition was doing. In particular, how Linn seemed to be playing a bit of catch-up with the competition- the Oberheim DMX drum machine, released a year or two earlier.

In fact, this competition was still in play years later, and was quite apparent in music shop demo rooms, on stage, and in the studio. Heck, even the opening sentence for the DMX section of the book "Electronic Drums", by Frank Vilardi with Steve Tarshis (1985) mentions it.

That opening line simply states:
"The DMX shares with the LinnDrum the position of most popular drum computer."
Doesn't get any clearer than that. :o)

So, I decided to take a closer look at that bold text from the ad. From the ad-copy:
  • "Studio quality digital recordings of real drums - crash and ride cymbals, bass, snare...":

    The LinnDrum's predecessor, the LM-1, didn't have crash and ride cymbals. So, when the DMX came out with both of these sounds, the LinnDrum had to include them to stay competitive. According to other LinnDrum advertising literature, the LinnDrum apparently had "exclusive circuitry [to] permit long sustain time and extended high frequency response" needed for sounds like the crash and ride.

  • "...three toms..."

    According to the ad literature, the LM-1 had two toms, so the LinnDrum's three was a definite improvement. In comparison, the DMX apparently had one single tom sample but at six separate pitches (separated into Tom 1 and Tom 2). Confusing or what? I'll have to dig deeper into this one at some point.
  • "Stereo mixer with volume and pan sliders..."

    Panning was available right on the front panel of the machine for each instrument. Nice and convenient. And quite unique from what I can gather. And as far as I know, the DMX didn't offer panning at all.
  • "Drums may be externally triggered by drum synthesizer, pads or any audio source"

    Again, I don't think the LM-1 had this feature. But the DMX offered trigger and control voltage inputs. Looks like Linn was definitely playing catch-up.
  • "Drum sounds are user-changable"

    I've never opened up a LinnDrum, but apparently you can swap the chips out really easily just by opening up the face of the machine. The chips on the DMX, on the other hand, are a little bit harder to change. They are located on cards that have to be removed in order to swap out chips.
So, those bolded words really do tell us a lot about what features were real selling points at the time, and how Linn was positioning the machine against the competition.

Trying to decide which one of these machines to purchase in 1982 would have been a tough choice for me. The sheer beauty of Oberheim's family of products is hard to resist. But I'm also a sucker for knobs, dials, switches and sliders. And the LinnDrum has plenty. If I had to make a choice on just what I know right now, I think I would have leaned more towards purchasing the LinnDrum.

But, I'll have to do a bit of sound auditioning before making any final conclusions on that one. So, the next question is... do I "go big" and check eBay, or stay on the cheap and look for samples?

*checks wallet*

Samples it is... :o)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Oberheim DMX drum machine, Keyboard 1982

Oberheim DMX drum machine advertisement from page 43 of Keyboard Magazine April 1982.

The DMX drum machine first started appearing in ads starting in mid-1981. The first was an ad that was designed to feature both it and the DSX sequencer, but could also be easily split apart to create two individual ads for each product. And Oberheim did just that a month or two later with the introduction of the DSX-only sequencer Xtra Hands ad.

But, as far as I can tell, a DMX-only drum machine ad based on the same background/theme never materialized. It wasn't until three-quarters of a year later in early 1982 that this DMX-only ad started to run. It continued to run sporadically through the summer of 1982, taking turns to appear in Keyboard magazine with Oberheim's "The System" ad - an ad that featured the DMX as well as all the other members of the Oberheim family at the time.

So, it makes sense that the Oberheim "System" ad and this DMX ad actually share quite a bit of design elements. In particular, the yellow-line design element, the grayish background colour (ugh - not a fan), and the relatively heavy ad-copy. In my opinion, those design elements don't really inspire the reader too much, and the rest of the ad elements don't add much to the mix either.

For one, there isn't really a lot of balance to the ad - it almost looks like there is a right-hand column of text missing under the photos. And the colour photo images of the front and back panels are nice, but probably could have been larger and better placed had space been used more effectively. At least the ad-copy is interesting and provides quite a bit of reference information to the reader.

But, I gotta say, there is a one-page LinnDrum ad appearing in the same issue that is black and white, features a very small photo, and includes only bullets of text. But I find I'm drawn to it more than this ad.

I do like the title of the ad. It's a nice play on words about the technology used to create those fantastic drum sounds: UN-REAL DRUMS.

But if there was one thing in particular I had to point out that bugged me about this ad when I first started looking at it, it's got to be that it doesn't mention 'The System'. My theory on 'The System' has always been that Oberheim was really trying to get in front of the possibility of the universal MIDI specs coming onto the scene in the near future. So, by repackaging their own proprietary tech as 'The System', they get a real head-start on MIDI. And since the DMX ad was running at the same time as that System ad, along with similar design elements, it would have made sense to also push 'The System' in any DMX ad.

The ad does mention that the "drum machine will sync to it's companion DSX Digital Polyphonic Sequencer...". That's a start. But it's the rest of the sentence that gives away Oberheim's marketing approach. The sentence ends with "...and to audio or videotape, as well as most other sequencers".

Ahhhhh. It all becomes more clear. Here's my logic:

The DSX sequencer would do nothing for you if you bought it on it's own. It needed to have other gear connected to it to be of any use - either through that 37-pin computer connector, the CV/gates or the clock in/outs. This makes it much more "connected" with the "The System" than it's DMX brother.

But a musician could easily use the DMX drum machine on its own. You can lay down tracks by itself, or, as this ad states - "sync to most other sequencers". Users could easily buy the drum machine on it's own, with no immediate need to pick up it's sister sequencer or synthesizer. So it makes sense to position the DMX in it's individual ad this way. And then in "System" ads, position as an integrated piece.

Best of both worlds!

End note: For some reason, in my mind sequencers are girls, and drum machines are boys - it will probably take years of therapy and three or four blog posts to figure that one out...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Oberheim DSX Digital Polyphonic Sequencer ad #2, Keyboard 1982

Oberheim Digital Polyphonic Sequencer advertisement from page 9 of Keyboard Magazine September 1982.

Look familiar... again?

Oberheim really got a lot of mileage out of their original two-pager DSX/DMX advertisement. That original ad ran through the second half of 1981, and then the left half of that ad became the strong base for the first DSX ad which ran during the same time period. The DSX then took a break from solo advertising (it still appeared every now and then as part of Oberheim's "The System" ads in the first half of 1982), before appearing in this second solo DSX advertisement which again used the same backdrop, running sporadically through the second half of 1982.

Although it shares much in common with the original solo DSX ad, the overall theme of the ad did change. In this ad, Oberheim decided to really hammer home the idea of the 'digital multi-track'. My thinking is that there were probably more than a few musicians at the time having trouble wrapping their head around the idea of recording, editing, and overdubbing note events rather than actual sound, so Oberheim applied the concept of the already-familiar multi-track recorder to make it more familiar.

It looks like Oberheim also did something you rarely see today. They hiked the price of a year-old product almost $300, from the original list price of $1,700 to $1995. Sign of the times, I guess.

If you recall in my last blog post, I ended it with a promise to provide some of my research on how the different pieces of the Oberheim system fit together to sync everything up.

My first few feeble attempts to look for info took place mostly on YouTube and in forums, and I didn't come up with much. But then it hit me... look for manuals!

I quickly found an August 1982 manual for the DSX at that would have come out right before this advertisement started - so this advertisement was probably tapped to deliberately run right after a new software update came out! And that manual explains plenty.

Basically, the Oberheim DSX sequencer is "the cornerstone of The Oberheim System", and the user connects all their compatible synthesizers and drum machines to it. Not really different from hardware sequencers of today. Just different types of connectors.

The manual's describes the DSX as:
"In the same way that your Oberheim X-series synthesizer remembers the sounds that you program into it, the DSX remembers the notes that you play on the keyboard. The DSX does not record sound, but only keeps track of which keys you played when. When you play back your recording on the DSX, the DSX performs those notes on the synthesizer the same as if you were playing the keyboard."
And the back of the DSX is where all those connections are. MATRIXSYNTH has some good photos on the back (and front) of the Oberheim DSX on his Flickr stream. I used that hyper-linked one as my visual map while scanning the manual.

The 37-pin Computer Interface
If you've kept the MATRIXSYNTH photo displayed in another browser window (Shift-click on the link), the big blue connector in the photo is the computer interface. A cable provided with the DSX links up your compatible Oberheim synthesizer - the OB-Xa, OB-SX, and OB-X (after serial number 803600). And later, the OB-8. The manual explains in very simple terms how the cable allows the computer in the synthesizer to communicate with the computer in the DSX.

One of my favorite quotes from the manual:
"You may notice that the lights on your synthesizer flicker slightly when the DSX is connected. This is a function of the two microprocessors talking to each other and is normal."
Nice! Its like on Star Trek when all the ship's power is being diverted to the shields, causing all the lights on the ship to dim.

The Clock output
The clock output connector is located right next to the computer interface, and it drives your DMX or DX drum machine (or another DSX). From the manual:
"The DSX and DMX have been designed to operate in sync with each other. When the DSX runs in tandem with the DMX or another DSX, one unit must be the master and the other the slave.

Use a cable with a 1/4" phone plug at each end, connect the CLOCK OUT jack on the rear of the unit to be the master to the CLOCK IN jack on the rear panel of the unit to be the slave".
At the end of the section on syncing the DMX, there is a note on the pulse rate:
"The clock in the DSX requires 96 pulses per quarter note in order to achieve its high resolution, therefore a click track or a clock from an analog sequencer will most likely not be fast enough to drive the DSX properly."
Eight independent External CV and Gate outputs
These outputs are located across the bottom of the back panel of the DSX, and allows the DSX to control "any synthesizer with 1 Volt/Octave Control Voltage and Gate Inputs (Oberheim or Moog)".

"They may be used individually with monophonic synthesizers such as the Oberheim OB-1, and/or in combination to control polyphonic synthesizers such as the Oberheim Eight-Voice and Four-Voice."

The manual explains a lot of other uses for the CV and Gate outputs, including:
  • Playing sounds from the DMX drum machine by connecting the DSX CV/Gate outputs to the DMX CV/Gate inputs
  • Controlling a modular synthesizer's VCOs and Envelope Generators
  • Controlling a voltage controlled filter with one CV, and it's frequency with a second CV.
  • Controlling automated mixing boards, video synthesizers, lights, lasers, slide projectors, movie projectors, etc
I know the CV/Gate functionality was always there, but for some reason, I've always thought in my head that this whole system was a truly 'closed system'. You can actually control any other compatible CV/Gate synthesizer!

And we're not just talking Oberheim synthesizers. The manual specifically mentions using the DSX with Moogs.
"Oberheim synthesizers use a gate pulse that goes HIGH (+10 volts) when gated. Moog synthesizers use a gate pulse that goes LOW (0 volts) when gated (S-Trig). To use any of the GATE OUT with Moog synthesizers, it is necessary to change the polarity of the gate. This is easily done..."
And if you have read the ad-copy above, you will have noticed that one of the bullet points at the bottom of the ad also mentions that it is compatible with Moogs:

"Eight independently controllable CV and Gate outputs with both Oberheim and Moog triggers."

It was rather rare to see one company use the name of a competitor in an advertisement in any industry, unless the company was slagging them. But Oberheim knew that by mentioning the DSX's compatibility with Moog would be worth it. And, anyways, it couldn't hurt Oberheim's brand. I think both companies were associated with 'quality products' in the minds of musicians.

Birds of a feather... :o)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oberheim DSX Digital Polyphonic Sequencer, Keyboard 1981

Oberheim DSX Digital Polyphonic Sequencer advertisement from page 31 of Keyboard Magazine August 1981.

Look familiar? It should... Oberheim wasn't just efficient at synthesizer design, but in advertising design as well.

They created that original two-pager advertisement in such a way that the two halves could easily be split up and used as singles. I can't say for sure that it was intentional or not when they created it, but either way, good on 'em for figuring it out at some point. It's an easy way to help keep 'the look' of Oberheim throughout an ad campaign. Even without the Oberheim logo, this advertisement would be recognized immediately as distinctly 'Oberheim'.

As you can see, pretty much this whole ad is taken directly from the right half of that two-pager. All that had to be done was slap the 'Xtra Hands' ad title (great title with the big OB-X-like-X!) and top ad-copy into this ready-made ad, and, Voila! Instant DSX ad.

But their is one other little piece of information that has been added to this ad that I love from a historical/reference point of view. Look for the small text to the left of the DSX photo that reads 'available July'. Tadum! We have the exact month in 1981 that the DSX became available! Excellent!

This advertisement only ran a few times, mostly during the last half of 1981.

I've been obsessing over the Oberheim System for quite a few posts lately. I know that - and that's the first step to recovery. :o) But I keep going on about Oberheim because it really intrigues me to know that they had commercialized a communications system years before MIDI was launched.

But here's the thing. Although I hate to admit it, outside of syncing up my own DX drum machine to other non-MIDI gear (mostly experimentally), I've had very little access to the other members of the Oberheim's system. I've never had the chance to plug them all into each other as Oberheim wants 'The System' to be plugged in together to see the synchronizing magic first hand.

I do know there is that 37-pin computer interface cable involved in somehow connecting an Oberheim compatible synthesizer up to the DSX sequencer. But did that same cable somehow get used to connect the DX or DMX drum machine into 'The System' as well? I doubt it - my Oberheim DX drum machine certainly doesn't have that connector on it.

So, how exactly did everything get connected together? Well, a little research went a long way in this regard.

But those research results will have to wait until my next blog post, because up here in Canada it's Thanksgiving weekend. And you may or may not know how hard it is to write a blog post after eating ALOT of turkey. Most people blame the tryptophane found in turkeys, but I think it just comes down to eating a lot of everything.

Last year I posted a great E-mu Turkey-based sampler advertisement. So, go check it out. Gobble gobble.

End note: Digestion should be an Olympic event.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Performance Music Systems Syntar Series I brochure, 1980

Performance Music Systems Syntar Series I four-page brochure from approximately 1980.

I was reading through my RSS feeds when I came across MATRIXSYNTH's October 4th post entitled "The Syntar Turns 32".


I wasn't going to pass up that click-through! Or miss this great opportunity to take a well-earned break from the Oberheim love/fixation I've been feelin' lately to upload something really special to me - this Syntar brochure.

That MATRIXSYNTH post is a must read for anyone even remotely interested in the history of the first "all enclosed keytar synthesizer". Heck, or if you are just interested in keytars in general. In particular, the post includes two great YouTube videos featuring an overview of the Syntar and showing it in action, and a link to Carbon111's most excellent Syntar page.

Read through Carbon111's Web page to get a good introduction to Syntar's creator George Mattson. You'll find some great historical information surrounding the history of the Syntar straight from George.

For me, one of the highlights of that Web page is the photo of the table top version of the Syntar called the S.W.A.N. (Syntar Without A Neck). And as icing on the cake, look for the S.W.A.N. logo on the instrument - drawn by George Mattson himself. Excellent!

I came across this brochure through an email exchange with George Mattson, who generously offered to send over a few brochures he had kept over the years. After finally convincing him to *at least* let me pay postage costs, the care package arrived. And it didn't disappoint.

Not only did George include this Syntar brochure, but some other brochures and tech sheets as well. I don't want to ruin any future surprises, but let's just say that at one point in time he was an independent factory rep for EML... :o)

In our email exchange, George also mentioned that he bought EML circuit boards to build the proof of concept Syntar.
"Ugly thing, stainless steel control panel and a 3.5 octave keyboard. It weighed 25 lbs. I painted the panel blue and used dry transfer lettering for the control legends and circuit board layout tape for the graphic lines.

I actually hired and paid EML to design the circuits for the Syntar. I didn't have time to do it. I was busy trying to figure out how to build the rest of it."
And many of those EML-designed Syntar circuits were revamped for his current line of "Phoenix Series" modules for his Mattson Mini Modular, with other circuits not found in the Syntar designed new by George.

But back to the brochure for a second, because this thing is seriously sweeeeeet.

The black and white beauty includes a great cover photo of a woman peering out of the door of her car at the night sky, with a Syntar beaming light down like an alien space craft. And the Star-Trek-like font used throughout the ad fits this theme perfectly. George mentioned that the brochure came out around 1980 when sci-fi movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind were burning up the screen - hence the theme. Also, the volkswagon in the photo belonged to the photographer!

Inside the brochure you will find a nice photo of the Syntar with some great creative brochure-copy, and on the flip side is my favorite - all the technical reference information along with two close-up photos - one of the front panel controls, and another of the Syntar's neck with all of the performance controller features. And there are a lot of them.

Finally, the back page includes more information on the Syntar's features and it's quality, as well as some of the additional accessories available.

I know I usually have more to say - but really, I think MATRIXSYNTH and Carbon111 have all the Syntar information you could shake a keytar at. So, if you haven't clicked on the links above, go check 'em out now. And there is also a good interview with George Mattson posted on

Also, make sure you check out George's current offering - the Mattson Mini Modular.

One word - Ichabod.

Happy 32 years, Syntar! :o)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Oberheim DSX sequencer and DMX drum machine, Keyboard 1981

Oberheim DSX Digital Polyphonic Sequencer and DMX Programmable Digital Drum Machine advertisement from page 46 and 47 of Keyboard Magazine November 1981.

This two-pager ad started running in mid-1981, and as I mentioned in my previous blog post, contains one of the earlier mentions of the tech behind what would eventually be marketed as 'The System'. But at this time, Oberheim was obviously excited to sell these two as a pair, keeping the OB-Xa strictly in the background. Although Oberheim didn't let their excitement get in the way of their ingenuity - they built this advertisement in such a way that it could easily be split in half, effectively creating two individual advertisements, if space or ad budget became limited.

The two pieces even appeared together in the Spec Sheet section of the August 1981 issue of Keyboard:
"Oberheim Sequencer and Drum Machine. The DSX is a polyphonic digital sequencer with a 3,000-note memory that can be expanded to 6,000 notes. Its features include editing, overdubbing, 16-voice capability, and the ability to merge sequencers in any order. Direct interface is possible with the Oberheim OB-X,OB-SX, and OB-Xa synthesizers and the DMX drum machine. The unit also has eight independently controlled voltage outputs and eight gate outputs, each with user-selectable positive- or negative-going outputs. Real-time programming, a single-step mode, and synchronization to tape for multi-tracking are additional capabilities. the DMX drum machine uses real drum sounds that are stored in digital memory. You can program song structure, time signature, sequence length, dynamics, and tempo in either real-time or single-step mode. The unit has 24 voices, including soft, medium, and loud bass drum; soft medium, and loud snare; open, closed, and accent hi-hat; six different tom-tom sounds; three cymbals; handclaps; rim shot; regular and accent tambourine; and shaker. The DMX also has separate outputs for each voice in addition to stereo outputs. It has inputs to allow external modulation of pitch and volume, and comes with 50 pre-programmed rhythm sequences. An external sync function makes it possible to sync the unit with tape, the DSX, and Oberheim synthesizers. Both the DSX and the DMX feature 16-digit alphanumeric displays, battery back-up for memory retention when power is off, and built-in cassette interface for off-line storage of sequences. Proces are: DSX: $1,700.00; DMX, $3,000. Oberheim Electronics, 2250 S. Barrington, Los Angeles, CA 90064"
The Spec Sheet write-up is interesting from a historical perspective for a couple of reasons. The first is because it does mention that fact that you can directly interface the DSX with other Oberheim gear ('The System'!). But, almost as interesting is that the Spec Sheet mentions the 16-digit alphanumeric displays of both units.

The 16-digit displays are also mentioned in this advertisement! And they are important enough that Oberheim devotes the resources and space required to provide a photo of both the DSX and DMX displays, with copy promoting the fact that each photo is of the "actual readout".

Funny thing to promote, I thought. And then I started thinking about it. Until now, I've never really thought too much about the evolution of displays on gear. Like most people probably, I've kinda taken them for granted. There there when you needed them.

User-interface design on really old synthesizers mostly dealt with the placement of the physical switches, levers and dial positions - one control for each function. And how those controls were laid out across the front panel to help work-flow (usually following the path of the audio from left to right - VCO section -> VCF section -> VCA section). I hope that's making sense...

Then, as the word "digital" and "memory" started creeping into gear design, small displays started to appear to help users with things like the storage and retrieval of sound patches. As the software side of things progressed further, there was theoretically a decreased need for as many physical buttons, knobs and dials. You could assign one knob to control a lot of different functions - all programmed through the OS with the current function of the knob showing in the digital display. And so the need for good user-interface design started to affect both hardware and software side.

I started flipping through a few issues around the time this advertisement appeared, and sure enough, when I looked at other manufacturer's gear, it turns out a 16-digit display is a PRETTY SWEET DEAL.

The Roland Jupiter 8: 4-digit display.

Linn LM-1: two 2-digit displays.

Prophet-5: 2-digit display.

The Octave-plateau Voyager One probably came closest with their three 2-digit displays and five 1-digit displays. But they were still really limited to the amount of information it could offer. No real words could be displayed very well.

Now, I know what you are thinking - 'cause I was thinking it too. The DMX and DSX were NOT simple synthesizers. They were machines that had a lot more programming ability, so obviously Oberheim *had* to provide a larger display. Well, the Synclavier II, another advertised piece of kit around this time period, slammed a whole computer into it's guts and included a 16 track digital sequencer - and it looks like it only had a 4-digit display (never seen one in RL though).

Oberheim's display was really the next best thing to a full-on computer screen at the time.

In a way, Oberheim's 16-digit display was really the C-3PO of the DSX. I'm Luke Skywalker, and the OS of the DSX is R2D2. And that16-digit display is doing a dang fine job of translating all those 1's and 0's of the DSX OS into something a human can understand.

Did I really just compare Oberheim's OS to Star Wars?!?!

Good grief!