A synth called OSCAR — Dave Crombie unveil's Britain's latest challenge
There has been little happening in the monophonic synthesiser market place of late — some pundits say that the mono synth is dead, but I think that this new British synthesiser will turn a few heads.
Here at MUSIC U.K. GHQ Europe, our agents have been scouring the world for news of any musical developments and by hook, crook and more we've managed to 'liberate' one of the initial pre-production OSCARs; so we can now be the first to bring you an in depth report on said super-synth.
It isn't every day that we see a new British synthesiser on the market. In fact if we were to produce a new one every year we'd be doing better than we are at present. So it is heartening to find an excellent new instrument bearing the "Made in England" logo (actually the sample we had didn't, but I'm sure future units will). You might consider OSCAR rather a strange name for a synth — I did, but there is method in this madness. "OSC" is of course an abbreviation of oscillator; but it also stands for Oxford Synthesiser Company — the manufacturers. Add an "ar" and you've got yourself a product name — but it's a pity that the name doesn't convey any sense of the technological advancement and design revolution that the instrument proffers.
The OSCAR is designed and produced by Chris Huggett, the inventor of the WASP synthesiser. However, similarities between this new machine and the products of the now defunct Electronic Dream Plant Ltd are few — the OSCAR is a much more up-market and professional product. Chris had little to do with the marketing and running of EDP Ltd, he was just the designer, but clearly he was not happy about the way things went with that company and so he is running the whole OSCAR project himself.
At the time of compiling this report, no exact price tag has been assigned to the OSCAR. It is estimated that it will sell at a recommended retail price of around £499, which isn't particularly inexpensive, but when you discover the power of the instrument, you may think that it's cheap at the price. Some of you may be querying the concept of producing monophonic synthesisers when you can purchase pseudo-poly synths for less greenies. The answer lies in the versatility of monophonic synthesisers; a polyphonic synth requires multiplication of voice circuitry (every voice needing pitch, timbre and amplitude defining circuitry); a monophonic requires just one voice, thus more can be spent on making it more flexible, i.e. giving it more control facilities. Also, it should be remembered that many acoustic instruments are monophonic — all brass and woodwind for example; it is really just the tuned percussion, keyboards and some stringed instruments that are polyphonic. The monophonic synthesiser is still, and will continue to be, an important device, of that there is no doubt; it just seems that, with companies such as Casio bringing out low cost polyphonies, the spotlight has been shifted away from the monos.
Programmability is an even more important facility on a monophonic synthesiser than for a poly. Why? Well, because, as I've stated, a mono synth generally has a more comprehensive range of control facilities, thus it can take longer to patch up a certain sound, and in some cases it may be near impossible to recreate an effect/sound from the past. I'm pleased to be able to report that the OSCAR is fully programmable, and thus joins the Moog Source to become one of the only two programmable monophonics currently available.
Anyway, let's get down to looking more closely at OSCAR in the raw. This is a most striking instrument, and the design revolution doesn't just extend to the control facilities, but to its very appearance. Rubber now enters the game, as OSCAR's two chunky end cheeks are thick rubber mouldings. Not only do they afford the instrument considerable protection against knocks, bumps, etc. but, as shown in the photo, they form a housing for the mains plug (though I'm not sure what European users are supposed to do!) Those strips inserted into the main panel are also rubber, and they protect the control panel from abuse. I rather like this use of rubber, it certainly makes a change from wood, and is more practical. The line out, trigger and cassette dump sockets are inset into the rubber on the right hand side, whilst a push button latching switch, used to apply mains voltage, is located in the left cheek. The mains cable itself is permanently attached to the synth.
"...WHEN YOU DISCOVER THE POWER OF THE INSTRUMENT, YOU MAY THINK IT'S CHEAP AT THE PRICE."
The front control panel is also rather unusual in design. The graphics are creamy-bronze on black, which actually looks rather nice. The controls are mostly rotary (pots and switches) with a series of interesting round push button momentaries just above the keyboard for primary function selections. The OSCAR has taken a leaf out of the Casio book of design, by utilising the keyboard as a bank of control switches; however, here the keyboard is used to a much greater degree, and also more imaginatively.
The keyboard is a three octave Italian job (C to C), and this is the first area for complaint. Although the action is okay, the keys feel very plasticky, and it makes a lot of noise (physical — nothing to do with the audio output of the synth) when played. I'm told that the final production instrument will have a different keyboard, although I think that it will be of similar design, but with white, as opposed to ivory (cream), naturals.
Above each key is a number ranging from -12 (bottom C), 0 (for next C up), to 24 (for top C). These numbers are used as reference for the various extra functions that the keyboard offers; viz — the memory switches for the programmed and preset sounds; for transposition; for the programmable and preset waveforms and harmonics, and for the sequencing locations and chains thereof (more of which later).
Every synthesiser has to have a voice — it's the bit that determines the pitch of the note, its waveshape and timbre, and of course its amplitude contour. As you will have gleaned, the OSCAR has a very comprehensive and versatile voice structure, the like of which I doubt you will find on any other synth — not even a modular one.
A good place to start is with the creation of the pitch, i.e. the oscillators. Naturally the OSCAR has two VCOs which can produce triangle, ramp, square, pulse and pulse width modulated waveforms over a five octave range. Pretty standard stuff, but in addition it is possible to construct your own waveforms for the two oscillators using additive synthesis, by combining together fundamental sine waves (harmonics).
"THIS IS A MOST STRIKING INSTRUMENT... TWO CHUNKY END CHEEKS ARE THICK RUBBER..."
This is a unique development, and one which might take a little explaining, but it's worth it because the power of this facility is quite stunning. Any sound can be broken down into the sum of a set of sine waves at various amplitudes and frequencies. Generally, musical instruments produce sounds that consist of mathematically related harmonics. In other words they form part of the harmonic series. The basic pitch of a sound is known as the fundamental, and this has a frequency; 'f' say. The second harmonic is set at frequency '2f', the third at '3f' and so on. So if a sound has a root of 100 Hz, for example, the twentieth harmonic will be at 2000Hz (20x100). Simple isn't it? It is this principle of harmonic addition that is employed by the electric drawbar organs of the Hammond ilk, with each harmonic having its own draw-bar to set the relative amplitude — these organs generally only went up to the eight harmonic.
The OSCAR can be made to generate sounds consisting of up to 24 different harmonics. The instrument is set into harmonic construction mode, whence key '1' (C sharp) becomes the fundamental '2' (D) the second harmonic etc. By pressing key '1' a low frequency sine wave is produced, then pressing key '2' introduces a sinewave at twice the frequency but half the amplitude up to the same level as the fundamental. This can be repeated for all the 24 harmonics, though as the harmonic number increases, so a greater degree of amplitude resolution is possible, e.g. pressing key '15' (an E flat) introduces a 15th harmonic at one fifteenth the amplitude of the fundamental - you have to press the key 15 times to match the amplitude of the fundamental. Harmonics can be added and subtracted as desired until you are happy with the waveform, when it can be stored in one of the waveform memories. This facility is independently available, as an alternative to the standard waveforms, for both oscillators and it is bloody brilliant!
The two oscillators can be balanced against one another at any intervals, and the sound generation circuitry is complemented by a noise generator, which is similarly balanced against the oscillator signals.
The next stage in the chain is the filter, and again the OSCAR offers something a little different. Chris Huggett has provided two 12dB/octave (2-pole) voltage controlled filters in parallel and arranged them so that they can provide low, high or band pass filtration. But more interestingly, the cut-off frequencies of the two stages can be offset against one another, thus producing some interesting and most usable effects. For example, certain acoustic instruments have more than one resonant frequency, and so with this dual stage filtering, it is possible to simulate such characteristics. I found that this facility was especially helpful in achieving good human-voice realisations.
Needless to say, the filter can be positively or negatively modulated by its own ADSR envelope, and there are other LFO filter modulation routings available. The Filter can be set to track the keyboard if necessary, however this is a 1:1 tracking — non-adjustable. There are two ADSR envelopes, with extremely long time constants — i.e. very slow attack, decay and release times can be dialled. When triggering these envelopes several options are open — envelopes can be made to repeat themselves, single or multiple triggering is available, or you can select an external trigger pulse. The filter envelope can be delayed before triggering, but I'm not too sure if there is any valid musical reason for this.
"THIS FACILITY IS INDEPENDENTLY AVAILABLE, AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE STANDARD WAVEFORMS... AND IT IS BLOODY BRILLIANT."
There are two performance control wheels (rubber) sat on the panel to the left of the keyboard, which fulfil the usual role of pitchbend and modulation. The initial production run of OSCARs will utilise a dead band in the centre of the wheels' movement as the 'zero position', but this isn't very satisfactory, and I understand centre detentes will be included as standard on later models. One nice feature about the modulation wheel is that it can be rotated in both directions — downwards applying an inverse modulation, which is most usable. Also on this panel are two Octave transpose buttons, which raise or lower the registration of the entire instrument over five octaves. Five LEDs indicate the octave selected.
This is a preset/programmable instrument, with 24 preset voicings, and 12 user programmable memories — though these can be extended by dumping the info onto tape. In addition the OSCAR incorporates a real-time sequencer with a note storage capacity of some 500 notes (though this might be changed on the production machines). There are 12 sequence storage locations available at a time, and these are used to store just note and timing information; however, a further ten locations are provided for sequence chaining purposes. With this facility, it is possible to construct a sequence, giving each one specific voicing information; thus you can program patch changes to synchronise with the composition. Naturally, all this program and sequencing data is easily edited, and in fact I think that most eventualities have been covered in the design of the OSCAR.
Quite frankly, no other monophonic will seem the same after using this instrument. It is a bit of a handful as there is just so much to it. We haven't room to detail many of the unit's interesting features — for example, there's been no chance to explain that you can program exactly how hard you wish to drive the filter - if you drive it hard the OSCAR adopts the rich, warm, Minimoog-like timbral character, whilst reducing the power to the filter harshens up the sound, making it more clinical (and contemporary?). The prototype OSCAR that I had for review did have a few little bugs, but I'm assured that these will be removed by the time the instruments get into the shops. I also await with keen interest the Owner's Manual,which wasn't ready at the time of writing — this is going to have to be quite a tome to incorporate all the intricacies of the synth.
The OSCAR is probably Britain's last hope for doing anything in the synthesiser market. I understand that a large order has been placed by France for most of the first production run, and as this is only a relatively small operation it may take a while before plentiful supplies are in the shops. However, the OSCAR is going to be an instrument worth waiting for, and we wish the Oxford Synthesiser Company every success with it.
Review by Dave Crombie
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