The Mono Man
Chris Huggett, the man behind OSCar speaks
Sean Rothman meets Chris Huggett, designer of the Wasp synthesizer who explains why he has plans to go polyphonic.
Somehow, things are never quite as they seem. I had expected Chris Huggett, synthesizer designer extraordinaire, to look like an extra from The Avengers, a short-sighted genius surrounded by blueprints and soldering irons and perhaps a superfluous blonde — in short, a Great British eccentric. I felt a mild sense of disappointment when I was instead met by a straightforward, clean-shaven man in his mid-thirties. By the time we were conducting the interview in a semi-detached two-up/two-down in an atmosphere of potted plants, dog hairs and a sobering smell of coffee, reality had taken a firm grip on me.
Chris Huggett was, of course, the designer of the infamous/famous (depending on whether yours worked or not) Wasp synthesizer, now long gone but not forgotten and more recently, the truly wonderous OSCar programmable, currently fighting a rearguard action against a horde of foreign objects and tacky keyboards. His first involvement with music came when he was studying for his degree in Electronic Engineering at Newcastle University and discovered the electric guitar. After spending the next two years designing circuitry for Ferrograph, Chris got bored sitting in a laboratory all day and armed with just a roll of solder and his electric guitar, he left for London with a view to getting into the music business. After another two years freelancing as a service engineer, Chris met synthesizer player Adrian Wagner, who had a 3M tape recorder which needed repairing. Wagner expressed an interest in making a cheap, monophonic synthesizer and after a few meetings, Chris was recruited to design the circuitry.
Moving to Oxford, Chris spent some time studying Wagner's vast and ancient modular system to get some idea of what was required and commenced work on a prototype. What eventually emerged was a crude looking affair, about 18 inches in diameter with a vacuum moulded black plastic case and a quite incredible specification for a synthesizer retailing under £200. In order to keep the costs down, Chris decided against a mechanical keyboard, replacing it with a black and yellow touch-sensitive strip with keys printed on it. The colouring reflected the instrument's name — Wasp.
However, there were problems.
"When the circuit design was finished," Chris begins, "there was a hell of a rush to get the Wasp into production and not enough time was given to sorting out the mechanics of it, which resulted in an initial reputation for unreliability."
With time, the standard of construction improved as did the product but by 1982 its competitive life was over and Electronic Dream Plant, the company founded by Wagner to manufacture the product, floundered. At its peak the company was employing about 30 people and Chris attributes their downfall to a combination of mismanagement and over-expansion.
About 3,000 Wasps were sold making it EDP's most successful product by far, but besides that they also manufactured the Gnat, a smaller version of the Wasp with just one oscillator and an amazing yours-for-a-hundred-quid price tag. Other products included the Spider digital sequencer, the Caterpillar keyboard controller and the Wasp Deluxe which was basically a Wasp with a three-octave mechanical keyboard and polished wood housing. A number of products were also announced but never actually produced including the Flea, which was to have been a cheaper version of the Spider and some monstrosity called the Playing Mantis. Chris expands.
"There was also the Eagle — after the insect range we were going to move onto - the bird range! It was a kind of synthesizer spacecraft on paper. You went inside a module and played yourself out landing on the Moon. I left before things got to this point, I'm pleased to say."
After Chris's somewhat acrimonious departure ("I never made any money" he complains), he spent a soul-destroying period working on washing machine test equipment before deciding his true love was the synthesizer, as it combined two of his main interests in life, music and electronics and with the aid of a bank loan he formed the Oxford Synthesizer Company.
The first product was OSCar (reviewed in ES&CM September '83), a fully programmable monophonic synthesizer with some surprising features such as a waveform building facility. It's proved very successful and Ultravox used three on their recent UK tour, replacing their Arp Odysseys completely. Other well known users include Asia's Geoff Downes and Dave It's My Party Stewart.
What was the design concept behind OSCar?
"Initially, I set out to do another Wasp, a Wasp Mk.II which had a lot more features but while it was being planned the idea developed. With the Wasp the idea was to give a lot more for the money and the same criteria applied to OSCar."
You could buy a Juno 6 for the same price...
"Well, I think the Juno is... how can I say this politely? Um, the sound is a bit limited whereas with OSCar what you are getting is nothing less than a PPG, albeit a monophonic one. Of course, £500 isn't cheap but I've used a microprocessor approach which means it can be continuously updated via the EPROM."
Point taken. Where is the OSC production plant? In Oxford?
"No, it's actually in Chesham and it's quite a nice set-up now but of course it's gradually worked up to this level. I had a lot to do with each OSCar initially but as time's gone by and business has developed, it's become necessary to get more people involved.
"At first my parents did the accounting, I did the design and ran the company and the test engineer saw the keyboards through at the end. Anyway, it came to the point where I couldn't cope with the business side of it and so Steve Garth from Sequential Circuits came along and relieved me of all that, so I could get on with much required new products."
A criticism a number of keyboard players have levelled at OSCar is the omission of a MIDI but Chris is currently working on a new circuit which will be offered as a retrofit to new and existing OSCar owners.
What are your views as a designer on MIDI which quite a few manufacturers have developed with reluctance?
"Well, MIDI is definitely too limiting to regard as the final solution to digital interfacing because you can't convey enough information fast enough, but for simple set-ups it's very good. There are enough designers who feel like I do to justify designing another interface which has far more capacity than is needed at the moment but might end up being fully exploited in years to come."
But the whole point of MIDI is that it is meant to be the 'final solution' — keyboard players are sick of interfacing hassles.
"All the synthesizers coming out in future from OSC will have MIDI and possibly this other interface as well, but that's just an idea at the moment."
Which brings us rather neatly to the future. Can we expect something, dare I say it, polyphonic?
"Yes. It will be well above the Juno 6 price range, meaning it won't be the cheapest polyphonic around, that won't be the idea. The OSC waveform building facility will stay, that will be a major part of it only in polyphonic form. We're also considering giving it a digital sampling capability and built-in sequencer."
Chris also expressed an interest in FM but feels that unless Yamaha are prepared to relax their licensing agreements, it's unlikely OSC will move into this area of synthesis.
So what are your other plans?
"Well, OSC are currently considering various possibilities including 19-inch voice modules for the first generation of MIDI controllers like the SynthAxe and even a digital rhythm box. For the moment though, Steve Garth is concentrating on consolidating OSCar's sales in the UK and France, OSC's biggest export market. After that, OSC will be seeking distribution deals in West Germany and Switzerland, even Poland and Yugoslavia, where there is a great deal of interest."
As the interview drew to a close, Chris turned on the hard sell.
"There are an awful lot of ideas — the problem is finding time to do them all. The Japanese and Americans have had a monopoly of things for such a long time it's about time something came from here.
"We can be very competitive, particularly on the home market. People have this funny idea that you have to be Japanese to produce an exciting keyboard — it just isn't true.
"We can end it here — buy British." Right, commercial break over. Patriotism has rarely been a good reason for buying a particular product and OSCar certainly doesn't need that — it can stand up on its own merits. Chris Huggett is a talented designer, a true original, and if he can keep the designs coming I can see no reason why OSC should not continue to prosper.
Interview by Sean Rothman
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