The Famous Five: Synths
In the second of an occasional series, Bass takes a look at his favourite five synth classics
In this, the second of an occasional series, Bass sings the praises of his five favourite synths
You just can't seem to avoid MIDI these days. Not content with the synthesiser, it has found its way into computers, guitars, mixing desks and all manner of recording gear, despite all its nasty little problems. Don't get me wrong, I'm not condemning it as a total waste of money or anything like that, but if you're not the sort of person who believes all the advertising, then it is worth remembering that synths were being made long before the advent of MIDI... In fact, a surprising number of top players and studios still rely on some extremely obsolete examples of musical technology to add some flexibility or sheer power to their sound — and this leads me to the reason behind this feature ...
The acceptance of MIDI as a standard has effectively made whole generations of keyboards obsolete, causing a massive drop in both new and second-hand prices of non-MIDI equipment, with synths originally costing several thousand pounds changing hands for a few hundred — which is a great excuse for taking a second look at a few of them.
One of the first synths to become available that didn't take up most of a room was the Minimoog. First introduced in 1971, its logical design and powerful sound quickly established it as a first choice for most keyboard players. In fact, the Minimoog is probably the most popular synth ever built. It features three oscillators (sine, triangle, sawtooth, square and pulse waveforms), a five channel mixer for the oscillators, a white/pink noise source, an external input, that famous 24dB filter, two ADR envelope generators and a three and a half octave keyboard. Other nice touches that, fifteen years later, are still not standard on many modern keyboards are the footswitchable portamento and release, the pitch and mod wheels, the headphone socket with its independent volume control and the A-440 tuning reference.
The only significant change to the Minimoog's basic design during its lifetime was the addition of new oscillator cards in the late 70s — earlier models have a distressing tendency to drift out of tune at the slightest provocation! Apart from that, the models from the last production run in 1981 hardly differed from the original. Even now, few other synthesisers can claim a ten year history. If you're looking for a monophonic synth for unbeatable bass sounds, or for all-round use, look at this one first!
The EMS VCS3 is an instrument that has almost certainly been heard by all of you at some time, even if you've never heard of it! Precious few examples of this wonderfully British device turn up in the classifieds these days, since most of them are owned by theatres, TV or film companies who find them invaluable for the creation of sound effects.
Designed in 1969, the VCS3's angled control panel with its Vernier knobs conjures up visions of boffins in white coats from a Fifties Sci-Fi film. In fact, the VCS3 itself is just a synth — the keyboards (there were a few to choose from over the years) were an optional extra. Not as much of a restriction as you'd think: there are several inputs for control voltages, audio signals, or even, on the VCS3 Mk II, a computer interface! Apart from nice little extras like Ring Modulation, Reverb and Stereo outputs, the main feature that makes this synth such a flexible studio tool is the 256-point pin matrix, which allows any particular part of the instrument to be connected to, or triggered by any other part. A gentleman from EMS once showed me how to get some of the classic Dr Who sound effects that made this machine such a favourite of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, by arranging the pin patch so that half of the synth was effectively working backwards...
The most common of the keyboards designed for the VCS3 is the DK2. This has three octaves, an internal oscillator of its own, and is velocity sensitive. The KS, meanwhile, is a capacitive touch device rather than a mechanical keyboard, but has a 256 note real or step-time sequencer built in! If you ever do have the chance to buy a VCS3 (it stands for Voltage Controlled Studio, by the way), lookout for the MarkII version, which is more stable and reliable than the MarkI and is distinguished by the 32-way computer interface socket located next to the pin matrix.
Monophonic synthesizers with memories never really caught on, at least not until the advent of the Oscar, probably because of the high prices of the few that were initially available. The first of these was the Oberheim OB-1, a versatile instrument with eight memories that can store the settings of all except the performance controls and, rather annoyingly, the LFO rate and the VCO fine tuners. There are a host of other goodies though, like the two VCOs with a five octave range, continuously variable waveshapes and sub-octave outputs, the switchable two/four pole filter and the programmable volume, an important feature lacking from many more modern synths. All the 'fat' sounds that became the Oberheim trademark are here, plus some very modern, metallic textures that would grace any analogue synth, let alone one launched in 1976!
There aren't a great many of these quality instruments in circulation these days, but because few people have heard of them, the ones that do turn up are usually excellent bargains — two years ago I bought one for £195.
Another 'first' for Oberheim, also in 1976, was the introduction of the true polyphonic synthesizer, as opposed to the ensemble keyboards of the string machine variety. The Oberheim Four-Voice is basically four monophonic synth modules in one case, along with a four octave keyboard, and this is both its strength and its greatest weakness. The basic problem is that there are four complete sets of controls to adjust before you can play. As you can imagine, tuning is something of a nightmare, with a grand total of eight VCO fine tuners to adjust. There is a form of programmability available, offering sixteen memories, but this too is an awkward sod to handle; it involves recreating your mega-patch with yet another set of controls on the programmer. Not all of the synth's functions are represented either, so it's not always possible to store the best sounds.
However, with a little patience some incredibly powerful textures can be created (this is more or less four OB-1s, don't forget). Highly complex ones too, since you can build a chord from four completely different sounds. Along with its big brother, the Eight-Voice, this Oberheim is still worth looking at for these reasons, despite the hassles with all those bloody knobs. Another point in its favour is the price — I recently saw one in Chadwell Heath's Music Village on the outskirts of London, a good source of second-hand synths, for £295!
Of all the 'classics' from the 70s, my personal favourite is the Yamaha CS80, an eight-voice polyphonic synth introduced in 1978 and held by many to be the best ever made. Although packed full of impressive features like High and Low pass filtering, ring modulation, chorus, stereo outputs, polyphonic portamento and glissando (like portamento but in semitone steps), possibly the best thing about the CS80 is its keyboard, which spans five octaves, is weighted and is both velocity and after-touch sensitive. What's more, this is individual aftertouch, found only on mega-instruments like the DX1 these days. Add this to the vast range of sounds available and you have an extremely playable and expressive synthesizer.
There are twenty-two preset sounds of a very high quality, which can be greatly modified by the performance controls, plus two comprehensive sets of sliders for the creation of your own patches. Four sets of mini-sliders that duplicate the front panel controls lurk beneath a flap in the top left-hand corner, providing a sort of memory capability to add to the factory presets.
However, even this excellent instrument has its bad points — not the least being that it is enormous and weighs a ton: but then I'm not suggesting that everyone should sell their DXs and JXs and rush out to buy these older synths, just that they are still well worth a look. A general word of warning about second-hand synths though — make sure that you can get them repaired if they go wrong. Curiously enough, this is where the Minimoog and its contemporaries have an advantage over some newer models, since they are built from easily-replaceable discrete components rather than ICs. A friend of mine has recently spent several unsuccessful months trying to get a replacement for one of the chips in his five-year-old Yamaha CS70M (the replacement for the CS80), so be warned — and good hunting.
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