The Enduring Appeal Of Classic Synths
Though analogue synthesizers spent much of the mid-80s in the musical wilderness, their enduring appeal has ensured a triumphal return in the '90s. Nigel Humberstone explores the ins, outs and idiosyncrasies of analogue synths with some dedicated disciples.
Whether you are an avid enthusiast or a curious newcomer, analogue synthesizers hold a particular appeal. It is a fascination that continues to grow as a resurgent and important influence throughout the vast majority of today's popular music.
In today's musical climate, analogue synths seem to exist either as integral workhorses in the music making process, or as dusty relics often banished to the distant studio corner or attic. But the regular presence of some item of analogue gear within professional musicians' equipment lists is testament to the longevity and importance attached to the analogue synth; whilst technology relentlessly races ahead, working musicians still look to the classic synths for the sounds they need. Indeed, due to the fact that very few analogue synthesizers are still produced, and considering the simple law of supply and demand, old analogue synths have been elevated to the status of classic collectables. One person's rubbish is another's treasure, and once something starts to be collected it acquires a new value.
One result of the resurgence of interest in analogue gear has been the birth of companies like Exclusively Analog, set up by Tony Wride and Chris Ringham to supply, service and repair vintage equipment.
"My interest goes back to when I was much younger — about 16," says Wride. "Around 1971, I was listening to music and hearing synths, and, like many people, thought it would be nice to own one. Rick Wakeman was my hero at the time, and I remember going to his concert at the Crystal Palace Bowl, listening to the MiniMoog and thinking how brilliant it was. I read various articles in magazines about building synths, and there was one in Practical Electronics called the MiniSonic, which was like a poor man's MiniMoog. I'd always had an interest in electronics from Physics at school, so I built that up over a period of six months, and then went on to build a number of different synths over the years. The Powertran Poly and Mono synth kits were quite good, especially the Polysynth, which could be built for £500-600."
Wride subsequently moved away from analogue when he became a Yamaha DX7 enthusiast.
"I started up the DX Owners Club, largely because there was this marvellous instrument with very little being done to get the most out of it. The club went from nothing to something quite big before being handed over to Yamaha when my 'real' job changed.
"I got back into analogues by chance. There was a Prophet 5 sitting in a shop; I asked about it, and eventually repaired it for a studio in Sheffield. Suddenly there were more people asking 'can you fix this?' So I started doing it as a hobby — finding old instruments, rebuilding and then selling them. This allowed me to start building up a small collection of the 'classic' analogue synths which in my youth had been prohibitively expensive. I also realised that there was a lot of interest in analogue equipment and that the hobby could be set up as a small business.
"Chris and I are of the same era and share the same interests, so I asked him to join me to form Exclusively Analog. Together we're building up a collection of favourite instruments."
Wride's day job as an airline pilot regularly takes him to the USA, where most analogue equipment is still to be found — primarily because that's where most of it was built, and also because the Americans have not yet latched onto the resurgent appeal of analogue gear.
"America is the place to find stuff," confirms Wride, "and I've made a lot of contacts there." They keep an eye out for gear, preferably non-working because it's cheaper and therefore more viable to bring back into the UK and spend some time and money looking at it. "I personally prefer to go right through something, stripping it down and practically rebuilding it," he says. "It means I know exactly what state the instrument's in and can happily offer a warranty. A complete rebuild of something like a MemoryMoog will take around two to three days."
Wride rather accurately draws an analogy between old analogue synths and classic cars.
"The way I see it going is that more and more people will start realising the attraction of analogue synths — like E-Type Jaguars. There was a time when you couldn't give an E-Type away, now they're priced at around £50,000 and in some respects a lot of this stuff is going to go the same way. You're getting a lot of young people, 808 State are an example, who are really interested in analogue stuff. You only have to listen to rave music to hear it. Part of the appeal is that you can instantly grab a sound and tweak it, and it gives a lot of movement to a piece of music. Analogues also have a sound quality all of their own. They make you want to play, they get you experimenting. And with analogue synths you can see where you are, the position of a knob tells you.
"One of the drawbacks of digital instruments is that you just cannot get as thick a sound, particularly at the bass end. This is because it's a different method of producing sound. With an analogue system you're actually producing a pure sine wave and you can take it down as low as you like and it will still be pure. Analogue filters also lend a particular character which digital filters cannot reproduce."
Robin Metcalfe, an electronics engineer who has long been servicing analogue equipment through his company Foxland Electronics, uses a different transport analogy to compare digital and analogue synthesis: "Conceptually the difference that I see between the old analogue and modern digital synths is like the difference between a bicycle and a motor car. In terms of getting around, on a bike everything is slow and you have a lot of time as you're going along to see all the different nuances about the countryside which you never notice in a car. The controls on an analogue synth allowed that degree of observation."
One of Exclusively Analog's aims is to combine the sounds of their collection of classic synths with the advantages of direct to disk recording using Chris' Fairlight MFX2 system.
Tony: "What we want to do is record any sound, sequence or riff, and then manipulate it. The modular synths are great at producing unusual sounds, but to recreate that sound again would mean noting down the positions of lots of knobs and patch leads, so we use the Fairlight to save time. I'm also working towards building my own 'monster' system. I've decided, after looking at all these modular systems, to build something as I want it to be, taking into account the best and worst of all the systems I've worked on. Moogs are notorious in that they've never got enough attenuators (signal level controls), so if you want to have an oscillator at different levels then you've got to route it down and back up. Other systems have particularly good filters — like the early Emu modulars. I've actually been able to pick up a lot of Emu stuff, and I have my eye on a place in the States which has a basement full of unbuilt Moog modules.
"I'm aiming at having a system with 10 oscillators, eight filters, six envelope generators, eight LFO's and then loads of bits like envelope followers and sample-and-hold units."
The classic car analogy is a valid one. Vintage analogue synths, like their motor-driven counterparts, are viewed as aesthetically more distinctive and individual. But in a similar vein they can be notoriously temperamental and unstable. (On which subject, anyone wanna buy a '73 chrome-bumpered MG Midget with a mildly tweaked engine? — impoverished Ed.)
"If analogue synths are looked after, set up properly, and not thrown about," proffers Wride, "they can give exceptionally good service. Invariably what I've found is that most of this kind of stuff has sat shoved in an attic or in the corner because the latest toy has come out. So when you come to switch it back on, the chances of it actually working properly are not good and so it is usually disregarded again. Probably all it needs is for somebody to sit down, clean all the dust off, clean the keys and set it up. A lot of it is down to the build up of dirt and grime. Pots get noisy and jack sockets start to corrode. If you open them up carefully and apply some WD40 or switch cleaner to the pots it makes all the difference. You can also get problems with keyswitches; you have to remember that there's no modern technology, just small wires and bars, and they can break. There are some instruments, in particular the Prophet 5 [rev2], which are notorious for their unreliability. The first thing it does when you switch it on is to go into tune routine. If it successfully tunes all the oscillators it will come to life; if it doesn't, then it won't work at all. With the early Prophets, some musicians would rather play out of tune than press the tune button for fear of it not coming out of the routine!"
There were three versions of the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5; rev1, of which there were very few built, and rev2 both contained custom-built SSM synthesizer chips, wherein lay their instability. The later Rev3s had Curtis chips, the software was much better, and they generally stayed in service a lot longer. Wride: "A lot of people reckon the sound of a rev2 is better, and that it's got a nicer, thicker sound. It's purely the different chips used for the filters and it all comes down to the fact that the oscillators may not be quite in tune. One of the things I did with the programming for the DX7, which was renowned for being too clinical, was to treat it as an analogue synth. What gives the thickness of sound? Detuning and a bit of vibrato here and there.
"All instruments have their quirks. The MemoryMoog is one of my favourite synths, a beautiful instrument — but when they first came out, they were notorious for going wrong and if you look inside the thing [something that Wride does not advise, as irreparable damage can be done], it's a nightmare. Six voice cards, all the envelope generators, another pile of chips — all crammed in. It had lots of problems with stability of tuning because of the power supply. Luckily, a modification can be made to the power supply, making it extremely stable."
The MemoryMoog was the last synthesizer that Moog produced before going out of business in 1983/84. Designed to be like a polyphonic MiniMoog, it came in two versions — standard, and MemoryMoog Plus, which featured a basic sequencer and MIDI. A basic model will today cost around £1,000, with the Plus Costing about £1,200. When buying one, Wride advises that you leave it on for a few minutes and then press the auto tune. It will then tell you how many voices it has been able to tune (up to six), giving you a fair idea of the internal condition.
"The MemoryMoog has amazing sound capabilities," enthuses Wride. "It has two main oscillators and a third for thickening the sound or modulation effects. On top of that it's got a proper LFO, with a lot of routing capabilities. In unison mode you've got 18 oscillators all on one note which, for a bass sound, is phenomenal. A studio recently queried the power of the MemoryMoog but admitted defeat when two very expensive speakers got 'blown' by a unison bass sound!"
In between the huge modular systems and more portable synths like the MiniMoog are the Oberheim 4 and 8-Voice models. Despite being back-breakingly heavy, they were amongst the first to actually remember a sound. Wride is currently renovating an 8-Voice system.
"Each voice is a synthesizer in its own right, with a multimode filter capable of some amazing sounds.You can find 4-Voices but not many 8-Voice systems, and this is possibly one of only three in the whole country. Part of the 8-Voice system includes a whole stack of memory cards under a panel to the left of the keyboard, which control each of the modules and keyboard scanning. There are pan pots for the voices so that you can move them in the stereo field. Their original retail price in 1977 was around £7,000. In full working order, the 4-Voices are now fetching anything between £1,000 and £1,500; the complete 8-Voice is worth around £2,500."
An item that ranks highly in Chris Ringham's collection is the Yamaha CS80, a monstrous beast about which he speaks with both love and trepidation. Just what is it about the instrument that makes it so special?
"The sounds, the playability... well you'll never get a digital synth to sound like it. I have three of them, and one is in absolutely mint condition having had only one owner from new. The performance controls are superb, with polyphonic aftertouch, a superb ring modulator and a suboscillator that you can bring in with aftertouch or velocity. However, they are notoriously bad for tuning. You have to tune every pot, and there are four pots for each of the 16 cards. To actually do it properly is half a day's work — and that's when you know what you're doing.
"The CS80 came out around 1978 with a price tag of £4,950 and was one of the first polysynths. There are no amazing chips — it's all hardwired, and tracing a fault is a nightmare. The best advice is to get it tuned up, MIDI'd, sit it in a corner and leave it there. If you've got £750 to spare and you want a synth to work all the time, it's not the one to get. If you want the CS80 sound but haven't got the money, then you can pick up a 4-voice CS50 for around £250."
A pioneering system that combined early digital control with analogue filtering was the PPG series. Chris has both a 2.2 system and the rarer 2.3 Waveterm 'B'. His favourite is the earlier 2.2, "because it's simpler. The 2.3 was the ultimate PPG synth — it has eight notes and eight outputs, and a sequencer which is a real pig to operate. It's not logical at all. Used in conjunction with the Waveterm, it is a very powerful synth which in 1984 cost around £13,500. The advantages that the Waveterm 'B' had over the 'A' were 16-bit sampling, slicker software using a 68000 processor, and a 5.25" drive, as opposed to an 8" drive. If you buy them separately you have to watch out for compatibility problems, because they will only run with certain ROM versions. They're very quirky and you have to make sure you switch them both on at the same time or else they can blow a chip. I've also been told that if you unplug the parallel connector between the Waveterm and PPG, it will definitely blow a chip — so you have to be careful. They are difficult to fix but parts can still be obtained from Germany."
Prices: expect to pay in the region of £650-850 for a good 2.2, between £1,000 and £1,200 for a 2.3 on its own, around £1,500 for the 2.3 with Waveterm 'A', and £2,000 for the Waveterm 'B'.
As spares for classic cars are becoming increasingly hard to find, so too are suitable analogue spares. Tony: "It's not easy to get parts, but I'm gradually building up a collection. There is, however, a lot of commonality. The era from around 1980, when the first Curtis chips came out, includes instruments like the OBXA, later Prophet 5, Prophet T8 and MemoryMoog, and you can still get those chips, thank goodness, so that keeps those things running. Parts for the Oberheim 8-Voice are hard to get because there are a lot of transistors — some are everyday components, but the specialised ones are very difficult to get, Moog especially, because components that they used in the early 70s are archaic in comparison to what's around now."
"The original Moog concept," says Ringham, "was often said to stem from the fact that a transistor could produce white noise, and if you filtered that white noise, theoretically you could transform the bland spectrum into any sound. I've never spoken to Robert Moog, but the way that I can imagine it happening in the laboratory is that they set off experimenting with what is essentially a filter, and tried different sound sources through it. A regular waveform from an oscillator, when filtered, produced some interesting results, so they worked on some way of controlling the pitch. Voltage control was chosen, and the VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator) was born.
"The VCO and the control of the VCO is crucial to the stability and long-term reliability of any analogue synth. I suspect that a lot of the synths today that have been around for 15-20 years have faulty sample-and-holds. It's the first thing I would look for if I was going to buy one. Just hit a note, preferably set with a long release, and listen to see if the pitch falls. Such a problem is fairly easy to fix; it probably means that the capacitor, because of its age, is leaking current. Broken key-switches and sample-and-hold problems used to be my commonest repair, on analogue synths."
Wride: "A lot of people have heard various myths about analogue, for example about their unreliability. In some respects they're not as reliable as modern equipment and do need a little bit of attention, but invariably it's not expensive attention. If the equipment is kept carefully, it'll run for ages.
The cheaper analogue stuff like the Sequential Pro One and Moog Rogues don't really present too many problems, and you can get into that end of the market relatively easily and get some really nice sounds. For the newcomer it's best to start with something small and understand the way that analogues work. Go for a later synth like a Korg Poly 6, Juno 60 or Juno 106, all of which will give you the nice analogue sounds. The Juno 106 is especially good because it already has MIDI, but all synths can now be brought into the modern world with either MIDI retrofits or stand-alone units like the Kenton Pro 2. Many people buy these instruments for their sounds, but they're also an investment because they're never going to go down in value now."
Through Wride's work with everything analogue, he has come into contact with a number of major artists who rely on him for his enthusiastic commitment and expertise. The Beloved, 808 State, Keith Emerson and Erasure have all called upon his services. His first contact with Vince Clark came about when Wride brought back from the states a very rare Emu modular system.
"Both Daniel Miller [boss of Mute Records], who is an avid collector of old synths, and Vince were interested in the system, which I eventually ended up selling to TSC in London. But I got talking with him and was able to supply a Juno 60 and Jupiter 8 as spares for the Erasure tour. I also set all the gear up before the tour started in Manchester." Tony was given tickets for the opening night, which, as it turned out, meant that he was around to deal with a potential first-night hiccup.
"Vince's basic instrument setup is a Prophet 5, Juno 60, Jupiter 8, Oberheim Xpander (left and right), and a MiniMoog. Using an MC4 Microcomposer (four outputs) the MPX code tells a custom-built switcher box which instruments to route the information to for each song. I went backstage to tune the spare MiniMoog, and got this shout — with 15 minutes to go before the performance, the switcher box was sitting there with smoke coming out of it, and they didn't have a spare. I opened it up and found that the rectifier had blown — luckily I had a spare and bunged it in. They started 20 minutes late but the concert happened. After that, Vince said 'Can you build us a spare, Tony?' It was one of those things that just happened — right place, right time. If I hadn't been there, they would have had to do the whole thing on DAT — so I was a very, very popular man that night!"
Introduced in around 1964, the Moog Modular Synthesizer (popularised by Walter Carlos and Keith Emerson) was one of the first commercially-produced synthesizers, bought by Universities, Colleges and the few others who could afford it. Tony: "The cabinet was a standard size and then people would have basically whatever they wanted put in it. The system could be easily expanded because it had more control voltages than it needed."
Chris: "Most collectors would consider the modular systems as the ultimate, especially the big ones like the Moogs and Roland 700. [Chris and Tony have recently acquired a System 700 and a 1968 Moog 3P system to add to their already comprehensive collection.] Chris also has a number of interesting Moog accessories and controllers.
"Apart from the ribbon controller, I have an genuine Moog percussion controller which you can just plug into the MiniMoog and get these amazing drum sounds. It's powered from the Mini and you can assign it to control pitch and filter cut-off. Then there are other accessories, like the sample-and-hold unit and foot controller, which, like any standard voltage control pedal, is handy as an extra control if you've got analogue synths.There are fewer of these instruments around, compared to Juno 60s and so on, because when they came out it was only the top professional musicians who could afford them, so they were never built in large quantities. Back in 1970, a Moog 3P system cost £4,050, which would have bought you three large saloon cars!"
Exclusively Analog (Contact Details) (Tony Wride). (Contact Details) (Chris Ringhom).
Foxland Electronics (Contact Details).
Feature by Nigel Humberstone
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