Wild About the OSCar
The Oxford Synthesiser Co.'s OSCAR Programmable Music Synth - with Midi.
Last month we ran news of the OSCar's conversion to MIDI. Since then, Julian Colbeck's been trying one out. Any good? 'IT' asked him.
Fact: Britain is not noted for its production of synthesisers. Fact: the world's leading synth manufacturers have all but given up on monophonic instruments.
Given this state of affairs, you have to feel a certain amount of pride when you consider that Britain's only synth manufacturer of note is the Oxford Synthesiser Co. - whose only product to date is a monophonic synth - and, far from being some sort of mutated throwback to an earlier age (of interest solely to ageing Greenslade fans!), the Oscar's sales have steadily increased during its 18-month lifespan, to the point where the instrument is now taking America by storm as well.
Since its release mid-way through 1983 the Oscar has appeared in some seven or eight versions, and its price has bobbed up and down in accordance with the price of rubber on the commodities market. Yes, the new MIDI version still has the same extraordinary clumps of rubber all over it, serving as panel dividers and end pieces! However, in spite of its quirky looks, fiddly control panel, monophony (well, duophony at times) and seemingly less than generous price, the Oscar remains a superb piece of equipment. It won't replace a poly synth, of course, but once you already have your DX7, Roland or Siel, then the Oscar has to be your next purchase.
As each version came out, many of the Oscar's more irritating features got the boot. They'll be mentioned as each section is discussed.
The Oscar retains the power and human quality of an analog synth in the setting of a stable, digital microprocessor-based system. Sounds can be relatively easily programmed using the two panel-based oscillators, each offering a choice of triangle, sawtooth, square, variable pulse width, and pulse width modulated waveforms. Osc. 1 can be switched off, and osc. 2 can be switched to conform to the same waveform as osc. 1. Both oscillators together can be varied in pitch through a five-octave range, they can be split through a similar range, and osc. 2 may be fine tuned through one tone.
One control governs the relative balance between oscillators, and a further knob balances the combined oscillators with white noise. A master volume control (hidden between these two) can also be used to overdrive the filter, which helps you create sounds last heard (and never as stable) on a MiniMoog in full flight.
As you might suspect from listening to the wide range of sounds stored in memory (later, later...), O.S.C. have provided a most comprehensive filter panel, brimful of options and styles. There are, in effect, two 12dB/octave filters, which can be used in isolation or together for a more powerful 24dB/octave variable. Frequency and 'Q' (cut-off and resonance) can be used for selectable low pass, band pass, and high pass filtering. Controlling the filter cut-off frequency is an ADSR envelope generator (plus amount control) which can be in a normal or inverted position. Some neat effects can be gained by using the repeat functions, which will trigger the filter envelope at a speed governed by the tempo clock.
Now may be the time to bring you up to date with some of the MIDI Oscar's improvements. Originally, to activate a control knob you had to move it back and forth until all the octave LEDs came on. This was a bit silly, and now O.S.C. have devised a way of activating all controls as soon as you begin to change settings. The reason for this being an issue, as I'm sure you don't need telling, is that you can store a number of patches in memory. Prior to the MIDI version, the Oscar's 36 memory locations were divided into 12 user-programmable and 24 preset. This has now been altered so that all 36 are user-programmable.
The LFO offers three basic waveforms - triangle, sawtooth and square - and its six-position waveform control knob is shared by three routing options, for 'Env' (which utilises the filter envelope instead of an LFO waveform), 'Kbd' (for a variety of filter tracking effects), and 'R' - random - (which produces a random sample and hold pattern, controllable by the LFO's 'Rate' control underneath). Delayed LFO effects can be achieved by using the 'Intro' control. The LFO can be used to modulate pitch or tone (filter modulation).
Under the heading 'Envelopes and Triggering', you'll not only find ADSR controls for the VCA (as well as for the VCF) but also 'Triggering', 'Tempo', 'Gate Time' and 'Function' control knobs. Single or multiple envelope generator triggering is both possible and programmable. Non-programmable, but on offer, are three repeat functions - corresponding to EG1 (concerning the VCA, and so volume) and EG2 (concerning VCF), and the third position for both envelope generators. The speed of such repeats is governed by the next knob - Tempo - which also regulates the speed of the arpeggiator and sequencer on playback.
The 'Gate Time' control is an adjustable key on/off simulator for use with repeats and sequences, working from 30ms to 8 secs.
The 'Function' knob governs your basic mode of playing - 'Normal' (monophonic), 'Arp' (arpeggiator) or 'Duo' (duophonic - and can be used to good effect when sequencing, since it frees one oscillator for 'live' playing).
Although O.S.C. offer an almost alarming array of programming facilities, they are mainly presented in familiar style, and - despite all the control knobs being the same shape and colour, on identical backgrounds, with small lettering - the basic functions soon become second nature. What may not is the business of creating your own waveforms. This was made all the more time-consuming an occupation on early models, since the process of stacking harmonics on a fundamental frequency entailed numerous switching and programming tasks. Things have been made a little easier now, and, courtesy of this feature, a fabulous array of extraordinary waveforms can be created. Harmonics can be piled on harmonics (if necessary, overpowering the fundamental pitch) and five such waveforms can be stored for further use in building up your library of sounds in memory. Five preset 'special' waveforms are also on hand. These, along with the 36 memory channels and 22 sequence memory channels, are all activated using the keyboard keys as switches. This multi-multi-purpose affair isn't helped by less than clear hieroglyphics above the keyboard, and the fact that pieces of rubber occasionally mask a particular number altogether. But it helps keep costs down, and, again, once you get the hang of it..!
On the MIDI version, the sequencer capacity has been uprated from 580 to 1500 events. Data inputting is step by step, with spaces programmable for other than metronomic patterns. You can edit, alter playback speeds, and chain a number of sequences together, using the Smartie-like push buttons in the Sequencer Editing panel. An absence of LEDs makes much of this a somewhat hazardous experience, but if you keep your wits about you it's a dazzling facility to have up your sleeve.
And finally to MIDI - offered in full 'Omni Off' 16 channel assignment, as well as the (on power up) 'Omni On' mode. Functions that can be controlled include program changes, sequencer/arpeggiator, mod-wheels, and (obviously) keyboard information, and the function selection is indicated by five LEDs which are primarily there to indicate basic octave pitch range. You'll need to consult your manual for a while before you remember which indicates which.
While testing the Oscar, I MIDI-ed it up to Akai's firstborn, the AX80 poly synth.
Either can be controlled by either, and no MIDI glitches were apparent. The Oscar can be used to great effect as a mono lead sound in amongst a polyphonic patch. Using delayed attacks, you can emphasise certain notes in a passage of chord work... the possibilities are endless.
O.S.C. have thoughtfully provided a 'Pull-off' disable function on the new Oscar, so that the instrument will only sound when keys are pressed - otherwise you'll get rather awkward re-triggering all over the place when MIDI-ed up to polyphonic synths.
People may have wondered why O.S.C. kicked off with a monophonic instrument, but just play the Oscar - as a lead line synth, bass synth, enhancer of polysynths or creator of highly complex and colourful effects, and you'll quickly discover why. A recent review quoted the price as being £625, but O.S.C. called me a couple of days ago to announce that the can now manage £599. God bless the rubber market! Just as good news is that owners of older Oscars can have their versions upgraded to this new spec. For info on that, contact either your local dealer or O.S.C. direct.
A final verdict? I can only repeat myself - the Oscar has to be your next purchase!
Review by Julian Colbeck
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