Bob Williams has one of the finest collections of analogue synthesisers in the world, and cherishes them with a care that would make the Science Museum blush. Peter Forrest crosses hill and dale to Cornwall to take a long, loving look, and uncovers a whole network of Moog and Mellotron devotees. Whatever next - 'The Antique Rhodes Show'?
If you've recently chased up an ad for a classic synth only to be told "Sorry, I've just sold it to a chap in Cornwall" you may have just crossed paths with Bob Williams...
There are many reasons why people hang on to old synthesisers - or go out and spend lots of money getting hold of them. A couple of bits of vintage gear can make a real difference to any music - from rave to new age to cyberpunk. But as with most spheres of interest, some people take it to extremes. Dotted round the world - in Europe, Japan and the States - are a breed of crazed collectors who would kill for a mint Moog, or maim for a pristine Polyfusion. In the guitar world, inflated prices for a gold-top Les Paul, a '60s Strat or an original AC30, for example, show just how keen people can be to own a piece of history.
There can be no doubt that instruments like these have a sound quality and a playability which makes them so valuable. But there's also something of the 'investment' mentality of the antiques collector that creeps in. Even if you have no intention of selling the prized Vox Teardrop you've acquired, it's nice to know that it's not depreciating - that, as long as you've not bought at a foolish price, you could, at the very least, get your money back if forced to sell.
The same thing is now true of classic synthesisers; while they aren't (honestly) as sexy or easy to 'show off' as guitars, they are just as redolent of their era and just as usable. And while there aren't anywhere near as many potential buyers of synthesisers as of guitars, there were, proportionately, less synthesisers made - so in effect the rarity factor should be pretty similar.
One of the people at the heart of the retro synth movement in Britain is Bob Williams. He usually figures in any conversation about the real monsters of the synth world - the old modular systems which are a pig to use, but which have a presence and a sound that cannot be replicated. I went to see him down in Cornwall, and found his synthesiser room was, if anything, even more full of classic instruments than the last time I was there. In fact, spread liberally around the place is a collection of some of the most desirable synthesisers imaginable:
- No less than three Moog modular systems, including what looks very much like the third IIIc ever produced. (Much of the lettering on it is actually done with one of those Dymo labellers, and the VCO module serial numbers go from xx019 - xx027. Since IIIc's have nine oscillators each, it seems a fair bet that this one is the third.)
- An ARP 2500 - the synthesiser in the climactic scene from Close Encounters
- A Roland System 700 - like the 100M but (at least) four times bigger
- A Polyfusion modular
- An E-mu modular - one of only a hundred ever made (and two currently in Britain, I believe)
- A Korg 3200 semi-modular
- Mint examples of Prophet V, Odyssey and ARP 2600 - the second last 2600 ever made
- A collection of other bits of kit like ARP sequencers, Oberheim SEMs, and Moog hardware, including an original handmade X-Y controller, in a hardwood box, with Moog's label stuck on the bottom, serial number 1001.
When I got my breath back, I started asking questions - the first and most obvious being how Bob became interested in synths in the first place...
"At the beginning of the '70s I heard a record called 'Mr President' by Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (Dave Dee had left by then). It had an instrument on it which fascinated me and made my set-up of organ, fuzz-box, wah and tape echo seem redundant. I looked through the only sources of information there were at the time - the national music papers like Melody Maker - and found out it was a Moog synthesiser.
"Then I went to watch Roxy Music at the local polytechnic, and after seeing and hearing what Brian Eno was doing with his VCS3, decided a trip to Macaris in London was in order. I bought a VCS3 MkII and a DK2 keyboard for it."
"No! I found it extremely difficult to use, and as I was the only synthesiser owner in the area I had no local back-up to help me get to grips with it. So back it went to the shop after three months, and I opted instead for a Minimoog and an ARP Odyssey. Being hard-wired they were a lot easier to understand.
"I think synths should create sounds unheard of - not saxophones, pianos, and choirs. That's the realm of samplers or the real instruments themselves"
"Since then I've progressed through a variety of instruments, moving into polyphonics when they became available at reasonable prices, and even getting fairly hi-tech with a MIDI system and gear like the S770. Now, I've come full circle and am using the sort of synths I could only dream of owning in the past - like the big Moogs that Tangerine Dream and Keith Emerson used."
Though they're obviously powerful and beautiful things, don't you find them a bit limiting?
"No. I honestly believe that the true potential of the old modular instruments has never been truly tapped."
What about the sounds and arrangements on Switched-On Bach?
"I can't really comment on that because I don't like the subject matter. But you've got to give credit and great respect to the time and effort and programming skills that went into it - and the enormity of the project. I'd be keener to talk about Isao Tomita. The way he used a Moog was certainly a step in the right direction; check out Snowflakes are Dancing. The textures the early synth pioneers were creating put many modern synths to shame."
What about polyphonic synthesisers; were machines like the Prophet V the start of the slide away from what you like about synthesis?
"I don't know. The Jupiters, MemoryMoogs, Oberheims and Prophets all had something special. Then they gave way to featureless black plastic. Gone were the classy walnut casings, expensive knobs, relative ease of use and, above all, character. How can anyone fall in love with a Wavestation or an SY77? They can sound fantastic and they're vital to professional musicians, but strip away the effects sections and combination programs and things start to sound decidedly thin and bland. Listen to a MemoryMoog or a Prophet V dry and you'll see the point I'm making. They still sound great.
"I think synths should create sounds unheard of - not saxophones, pianos, and choirs. That's the realm of samplers or the real instruments themselves. If you own more than one modern synth the chances are that you'll have a lot of sounds duplicated unnecessarily. I believe synths should be synths, not programmable sample-based playback machines.
What gear do you use at the moment?
"Three Moog modulars - one of each of the Ic, IIc and IIIc; an E-mu modular; Polyfusion; ARP 2500; a Roland System 700, and I was using a Digisound 80 up until last week, but I sold it. It wasn't in the same league as the other synths, but it's surprisingly powerful, and I was quite sorry to see it go. It went up to BJG Studios in London, and I heard that The Orb were using it and were so into its possibilities they were maybe going to buy it.
"As far as keyboards go there's the Prophet V and the Odyssey - and of course the keyboards on all the modulars. The one I use with the System 700 is a Roland 184, which is 4-voice polyphonic."
You used to have a t8. Wouldn't it be preferable to play that than the Prophet V?
"No. I don't like touch sensitivity and aftertouch. They're obviously essential with modern synths, to inject performance and movement. But with classic synthesisers, the keyboards should just be switches; the expression can come from the pitch and mod wheels, and manipulating the controls on the synth itself."
There are various machines in the room lurking in flightcases and boxes - what are they?
"Some of them are awaiting a trip down to Steve Gay of EMS - a few miles down the road from here. His technical expertise keeps my equipment in topflight working order. Some of them aren't in use because they're too precious, like the 2600 - which is brand new, and will go back in its box once this photo session's over - and an absolutely unplayed Minimoog. That's the collector in me. It's completely pristine, never been used, so it stays in its flightcase. I've actually turned down two separate offers of £1000 in as many weeks. It's irreplaceable. I doubt if I could be tempted at £1500."
What about your other synthesisers, or ones you've sold? Presumably some of them are worth a great deal of money?
"I've sold two modular systems for £10,000 each. I saw recently that The Synthesiser Company were asking £11,000 for the only other E-mu system in the country, so you can draw your own conclusions from that. The 2500 I wouldn't personally sell for that sort of money. Pete Townshend's got one of the other two in Britain, and the third one's in storage at the Science Museum."
Are prices rising, falling, or what?
"It's interesting that in this recession, prices are actually holding very firm. It seems likely that if and when the economy improves, there could be a large hike in prices. Now seems to be the right time to buy!"
How do you run all your synths? - not by a MIDI sequencer, that's for sure..!
"I use the ARP 1613 sequencers - very flexible and patchable - the Polyfusion sequencer, and the onboard sequencers on the System 700 and the E-mu. Then there's the Sequential PG700 programmer, with which you can step through 64 memories.
"The E-mu system is actually one of only a hundred ever made. They were originally sold in kit form, but as the reputation spread, complete systems were built to order. They were built to rival the ARP 2500. Scott Wedge and Dave Rossum (who went on to design the revolutionary Prophet V keyboard scanning technique) designed it to beat the ARP specs. Later on, when they took a 2500 apart, they realised ARP had exaggerated their claims. The sound quality is excellent - just like their modern day samplers.
"I bought the system along with a System 700 from Hans Zimmer. He appreciates the beauty of the early modular systems; his collection of Moogs is being renovated at the moment. He has amassed an impressive amount of Roland 100M modules - over a hundred at last count - and the largest Polyfusion system I've ever seen - quite a lot of it came from a guy called Chris Youdell in the States, someone I have close connections with.
"Chris and I call ourselves Analogue Systems, and for the last six years we've been buying up rare vintage synths and supplying them to studios, musicians and producers worldwide, as well as a growing number of private collectors. With him based in Los Angeles, he can source instruments, check them out, and we then import them into the UK, or re-export them to agencies in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Japan."
Is there some kind of network of collectors?
"Yes. In Britain there are perhaps seven or eight major collectors. Mostly they prefer to remain anonymous, but they obviously have connections with each other, and influence prices. On my travels I've seen some very impressive collections - like Chris Ringham's of Exclusively Analogue. I supplied him with a Roland System 700, a Serge modular and ARP 2600, and he's got plenty more besides that.
"Other famous names include Daniel Miller of Mute Records, Blue Weaver, Matthias Becker - a top German collector (who's written the best book I've read about analogue synths except that it's in German), Technotronic, Vince Clarke, Fludd and Graham Massey of 808 State... it's heart-warming to know that people like that are looking after these timeless treasures."
Is there any synthesiser you wouldn't sell?
"Not if someone offers enough money. I love Memorymoogs, but I've sold seven of them in my time. There are some things I wouldn't buy - like TB303s. I get fed up with people phoning up asking for them. Why can't they be original and produce bass sounds with other analogues? It can't be to do with price because TB303s are outrageously overpriced at £150 - £200. You could get any of a number of good old monophonics for that sort of money that would do the job just as well if not better - and be available to do other things besides."
You're based down here in Cornwall - are you the 'Cornish museum' that did the deal with Graham Massey, swapping an ARP 2600 without MIDI for one with?
"I'm the person, but there isn't a museum yet. I suppose it's inevitable that one will have to be started. Geographically Cornwall isn't exactly ideal, but it hasn't been entirely ruled out. I'd like to see a museum set up within the next ten years, but being involved with UK CV and Gate and the Moog User Group in the States takes up a lot of time and resources at the moment. I also run a body building gym which shares time with my passion for synths. Lugging CS80s and System 700s about helps build the biceps, too!
"So the museum project may take longer than I would like. But if any MT readers have interesting cuttings, books, catalogues, or paraphernalia on old analogue synths I'd be delighted if they phoned me to see how they could be put to good use. And while I'm talking about MT, I'd like to thank the magazine for its retrospectives - they make good reading and keep all sorts of musicians informed on the variety of analogues still available."
Bob's phone numbers are: (Contact Details). If you're an enthusiast, or if you have circuit diagrams, bits and pieces and/or literature on early synths, he'd love to hear from you.
Interview by Peter Forrest
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