home contact

Wednesday, June 7th, 2023 11:54 am

Synth Glossary

If a synth is monophonic, it can only play one note at a time. Contrast with polyphonic....


Oberheim MX
THE TROUBLE WITH SAMPLE playback synthesizers is that after a while they all start to sound alike. Yeah, it's great to have hundreds of waveforms to choose from, but how many sampled bass guitar harmonics and Hammond organs with distorted Leslie can a musician use? Because manufacturers have relied on the waveforms themselves (and on built-in effects) to give synths a good sound, the features that make an instrument expressive and unique have often gotten stripped off before the finished product made it out the door.

What kind of features? How about knobs that you can twist in performance if the spirit moves you? How about an open-ended modulation matrix and a couple of extra LFOs and envelop^, so you can program sounds that have your own personality stamped on them? Didn't synthesizers used to have those things, once upon a time? Sure they did. In recent years only the Roland JD-800, with its full complement of front panel sliders, has come close to capturing the hearts of those who yearn for the good old days of analog synthesis. Oberheim Electronics is making a bold bid to trump Roland's ace with their new OB-Mx, a rack mount analog synth that is not only polyphonic and programmable, but also has a host of modulation routings missing from the JD-800.

The OB-Mx is sort of a Cadillac of analog, embodying some advanced synthesis concepts from the good old days and putting them under up-to-the-minute MIDI control. It includes both Minimoog-style and Oberheim filters, enabling the programmer to emulate a wide range of classic sounds. And because the two filters can be run simultaneously in parallel, you can create layered timbres that were previously available only on a modular analog system.

The OB-Mx is "modular" in a slightly different way. The basic device, including the 5- rack-space front panel, memory, and a twovoice card, costs $2,150. More voice cards up to a total of six, for 1 2-note polyphony can be plugged into slots in the chassis. They cost $769 each, so the fully loaded instrument that we had for review retails for a hefty $5,995. Ouch. But if you gotta have that sound, consider that what you're paying for are discrete voice boards with true analog filters, envelopes, and VCAs, not clever imitations engineered onto a single chip. Compared to what a Prophet-5 cost in the late '70s, the OB-Mx is still an excellent deal.

How does it sound? Amazing. Big fat bass, rich swirling pads, cutting leads, and special effects to die for. The multitimbral layered patches will move mountains. Admittedly, this type of synth inhabits its own sonic universe. If you put the OB-Mx in a rack next to a digital wonder-toy and switch back and forth, you'll notice that the OB-Mx lacks a certain sparkle and snap. As you settle into its sound, though, and spend a little time with it, the strength of analog synthesis becomes clear. The OB would definitely shine as a solo instrument for the retro tech-no artist who scorns the digital sound, and could also add a vital new color to the hybrid racks of players who have more wide-ranging needs. Engineering on the OB-Mx was completed under the direction of fabled electronic instrument designer Don Buchla, whose first modular systems appeared in the mid '60s. The Buchla influence can be seen in the open-ended design of the OB-Mx voice, with its powerful envelop and modulation routings, and also in the fact that some features don't work quite the way you'd expect them to. It's ironic that after all these years Buchla, who steered clear of the first frenzy of mass marketing when synthesizers took off in the mid '70s, has now designed a product that says "Oberheim" on the front panel, while neither Tom Oberheim nor Bob Moog can put their own names on their new products.

Hosted by Jesse Mullan