Reader Stephen Alcorn let us know that he’s released an album of vintage holiday themed synth music.
An ARP Odyssey Christmas is an album of Christmas carols, recorded in 1976 entirely with an ARP Odyssey synthesizer.
The Odyssey is a monophonic synth, so each carol was multi-tracked, with up to seven parts.
The recordings aren’t studio-quality, as the album collects vintage ‘home-brew’ recordings. “This to me is really a bit of music history,” Alcorn notes, “that might be of interest to anyone who remembers, or is curious about, some of what was happening with electronic music in pre-digital times.”
“An ARP Odyssey Christmas” is a collection of classic Christmas carols performed on an ARP Odyssey analog synthesizer. Arrangements evoking trumpets, flutes, strings, reeds, spacey sounds, and even an operatic soprano were created by recording each part separately in sync with the others.
It was 1976 – “Switched On Bach” had been out for eight years and won three Grammies, the iconic MiniMoog for six years, and the ARP Odyssey for four. Electronic music was becoming more and more popular, and synthesizers were increasingly heard in many genres of music. As of 1976, however, I knew of no existing album of Christmas carols rendered on a synthesizer.
I was in graduate school In 1976 studying geology, and in the fall of that year thought that it would be fun to make a Christmas album to give to family as Christmas presents. It seemed like a good idea, since I had an ARP Odyssey (which I had played with a Rhodes piano in a band, Amethyst, in Athens, Georgia) that was sitting idle, and I had a yearning for unadorned, classic arrangements of Christmas music.
Reaching the goal was an amazing journey, as they say, especially for a naïf like me (I don’t recall “newbie” being used at that time). I’ve sketched the process in the section “Making the album” below.
This list of the carols included on this album indicates the instruments that were simulated on each track. Please bear with me on this – your fertile imagination will be to your advantage!
1 God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (Verse 1 mysterious chanters, wind, astral sounds; Verse 2 horn quartet ;Verse 3 violins, violas, ‘cellos, basses, flutes, trombone)
2 Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (flute quartet)
3 Coventry Carol (flute quartet)
4 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (electric trumpets, bass)
5 Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly (electric trumpets, bass)
6 We Three Kings (clarinet, electric harpsichord)
7 Joy to the World (flute, flute, English horn, bassoon)
8 Angels We Have Heard on High (oboe, flute, English horn, bassoon)
9 O Little Town of Bethlehem (violins, violas, ‘cellos, basses)
10 Good King Wenceslas (trumpet, trumpet, trombone, tuba)
11 O Christmas Tree (violin, violin, viola, ‘cello)
12 Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella (oboe, English horn, bassoon)
13 O Holy Night (operatic soprano, with electric trumpets and sort-of-saxophone accompaniment)
14 Good Christian Men, Rejoice (trumpet, trumpet, trombone, tuba)
15 Carol of the Bells (flutes, electric bells)
16 It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (oboe, flute, English horn, bassoon)
17 Oh Come Little Children (violin, violin, viola, ‘cello)
18 The First Noel (violins, violas, ‘cellos, basses)
19 Oh Come All Ye Faithful (trumpet, trumpet, trumpet, octave bass)
20 Silent Night (Verse 1 Mellotron, wind, cosmic sounds; Verse 2 French horn, violas, ‘cellos, bass
Making the album:
The problem with recording an album in 1976 was that there was no “recording equipment for the masses” available. Much has changed since the 1970s, technology perhaps more than anything else.
A short trip down memory lane: At the time that this Christmas album was put together, synthesizers were analog and almost exclusively monophonic, meaning that they sounded one note at a time. Most of these monophonic analog synthesizers employed “subtractive synthesis”: The synthesizer would generate a waveform, such as a sawtooth or square wave, with a specific harmonic content as the “raw material” needed to develop a particular sound, and then subtract harmonics in a predictable (or intentionally unpredictable) way to create that sound. This waveform was produced by an “oscillator”; components such as “filters”, “amplifiers”, and “envelope generators” were used to contour the sound in real time. The entire signal path was analog; digital techniques weren’t yet available.
So different sounds could be constructed, but to save a sound you had to write down the settings. To return to that sound you had to consult the settings and adjust and tweak the knobs and sliders manually until the sound was re-achieved. This was necessary because digital control and MIDI (a standard for computer control of synthesizer and other functions) weren’t invented yet. All settings and changes needed while performing had to be done manually.
In order to record music in multi-part harmonies, a sound (“patch”) was set up for each individual part, and each part was played and recorded as a separate track on tape. After the first part was recorded, each subsequent part was played and recorded while listening to (monitoring) the previously recorded parts, in order to keep it all synchronized. This part of the process is similar to how things are often done now. But since the synthesizer was monophonic, pressing two keys simultaneously could not sound two simultaneous notes, even two notes with the same sound.
In 1976 most recorded music was sold as records – the tape cassette was growing in popularity, but it wasn’t yet fully developed as a “high-fidelity” medium. Few people had cassette players (“decks”) that could be plugged into a stereo system, and far fewer people had the means to make recordings that could be called high fidelity.
Most anything ‘electronic’ in the commercial music recording world of the mid-1970s was produced by very expensive equipment in laboratories and well-heeled recording studios. Quality production values were hard to come by the home recordist. Signal processing for the masses was in the future (even functions as basic as echo and reverb, except for the metallic-sounding spring reverb found in some guitar amps, and special effects devices like the tape-based Echoplex), so there was no ready means to add good quality reverb or other now-mandatory effects to home-brewed sound. In fact, I had no access to either a mixer or an equalizer.
During the fall of 1976 I did the planning for this tape of traditional Christmas music and set up the patches, and in mid-December did the recording over three long evenings at the music department at the University of Georgia, helped immeasurably with the recording equipment by a music graduate student who was fascinated with the project (and whose name I unfortunately do not have). I was excited, because at the time I knew of no commercially available Christmas music recorded with a synthesizer.
All of the selections were recorded on a TEAC 3340S quarter-track tape deck (direct-in, no mixer). Track-bouncing was necessary for arrangements requiring more than four tracks. An EchoPlex was used for echo and reverb in “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night”. The resulting quarter-track tape was reduced (without mixer) to stereo on a Revox half track tape deck. The resulting stereophonic tape was used as a master to produce cassettes one at a time on a TEAC cassette deck. “It’s a wrap” meant that these cassettes were given to the family as Christmas gifts that year.