Tom Oberheim On The Art Of Synthesizer Design

Tom Oberheim

Tom Oberheim is one of the living legends of synth design.

He’s a physicist, computer engineer, entrepreneur and singer. But he’s best known for his pioneering work in synth design.

In the late 60’s, Oberheim got his start in the field, designing ring modulators, phase shifters and other effects. He was soon deeply involved with synthesizers, and debuted the Synthesizer Expansion Module (SEM) in 1974, followed up by the Oberheim 2-Voice, 4-Voice and 8-Voice synthesizers.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Oberheim created a string of synth classics, including: the DSX polyphonic digital sequencer; the DMX drum machine; the OBX synthesizer; the Matrix 12 synthesizer and more.

And he has not stopped. In the last few years, he’s released updated versions of many of his classic synth designs and he’s collaborated with Dave Smith on the OB-6 synthesizer.

This interview is one in a series, produced in collaboration with Darwin Grosse of the Art + Music + Technology podcast, focusing on The Art Of Synthesizer Design.

In this interview, Tom Oberheim tells the story of how he got involved in synth design, the ideas behind the design of his seminal SEM synthesizer, the truth about his involvement in the development of MIDI and more. You can listen to the audio version of the interview below or on the A+M+T site:

Darwin Grosse: Tom, let’s start off by having you just give us a quick overview of the work that you’re currently doing. I know that there’s been quite a bit of activity in the last couple of years coming out of your design world. Can you fill us in a little bit on your current product line?

Tom Oberheim: There’s, of course, the product line that’s in existence and being sold, which essentially is what we call the 2-Voice, or the 2-Voice Pro synthesizer. Then there’s the stuff that I’ve shown at trade shows. A couple things, going back almost two years. It’s really quite simple.

Everything I do in the synth area now, this is the way it was in the past, because in the past, in my first company, Oberheim Electronics, we did a lot of synths that were based on current technology. In the eighties, the integrated circuit technology advanced at a very rapid rate, so we took advantage of those advances in IC technology. We did a lot of different products.

What I’m doing now is almost exclusively based on my Synthesizer Expander Module, which usually goes by the moniker, SEM, which I first designed and started the build in 1974. That was a 100-percent analog module, based on the technology at the time, which was simple integrated circuits. Nothing complicated. No computer involved.

That became part of the 4-Voice and 8-Voice, which were the first polyphonic synthesizers you could buy in a music store. At the same time, back in ’75, I put two of those modules together, with a little sequencer, and had what I called the 2-Voice.

Darwin Grosse: Right.

A modern SEM Pro.

Tom Oberheim: So, I reintroduced the SEM. That’s basically what I’m doing now and I’m selling the 2-Voice. It’s still the SEM module.

It’s pretty much like they were in 1974/75, but at the same time, I’m working on a new SEM that uses computer technology to a certain extent, so that the new SEM is fully voltage-controlled.

Darwin Grosse: When you say that it’s using the same technology, is most of that stuff – the transistors and all the core electronics of the original SEM – still available?

Tom Oberheim: Yes. In fact, except for one area of new technology that in the integrated circuit world that I use to make the new SEM completely voltage-controlled, the rest of the SEM is exactly the same circuitry as the original one from 1974. Where there was a 10K resistor, there’s now a 10K resistor.

The only thing that’s changed is the ability to replace pots that, in the early version, were directly in the circuit, so there was no way to remember the settings of the pots. Now, we’re using fairly new technology for them – it’s like an electrically-controllable pot.

Darwin Grosse: That’s pretty interesting, because I know from talking to other makers that one of things that often stymies their desire to reintroduce circuits from the distant past, is the unavailability of many of the components that were used.

In a lot of cases, it’s because they were using shortcut IC’s like the Curtis Chips, and some of those things, but it’s really great to hear that, that component-wise, everything has survived for you.

Tom Oberheim: That’s because the SEM, both the original 1974 version, and the one I’m working on now, didn’t use these custom chips.

What I used in later synthesizers were the Curtis Chips, and in fact, in a machine that came out after I brought out the polyphonic machines in 1975 and 1976, I brought a monophonic synthesizer called the OB-1. It was the first … Well, very early in Doug Curtis’s career of supplying custom analogy synthesizer chips.

Unfortunately, Doug passed away at a quite young age, and his chips are, some are still available, but as far as I know, the complete set for making a complete synthesizer, are no longer available.

Tom Oberheim: In fact, (with the SEM, I’m) using parts that have been available at typical electronic distributors now for 30, 40 years.

Darwin Grosse: That does put you in a good position. The other thing, though, that you recently were involved in, is cooperative adventure with Dave Smith Instruments to produce the OB-6, which kicked off last year, at the NAMM Show.

I have a couple friends who have them, and they are all head-over-heels in love with that machine. What was your involvement in creating that?

Tom Oberheim: I’d say that my participation in the OB-6 was largely establishing the SEM as a viable way of doing an analog synthesizer. Then, like I said, I brought it out in ’74, and I put it in my first polyphonic machines in ’75.

Then, over almost a 40-year period, the SEM – even though it wasn’t being made – grew in reputation.

At one point, Dave came to me, and we had a preliminary discussion, and that discussion led to Dave developing the OB-6 with a sound that was an SEM-type of sound.

Darwin Grosse: One of things I like doing is to talk to people about how they got to where they are. And where you are is a pretty amazing place.

You developed this ground breaking synth engine in 1974, that’s still a viable part of a modern instrument in 2016. Just from a design standpoint, that’s an amazing thing.

I’m an old schooler. I’ve had probably ten different instruments that you had your hands in. One of things that I always felt like is that they were extraordinarily musical machines. That the work you did, seemed to have a sense of musical quality, or an instrument-like quality, that I found really compelling.

I’m curious about your story. First of all, where you got both your engineering, and your maybe musical sensibilities? But then also, how that changed and grew over the years? Could you tell me a little bit about like, how did you grow up? How did you learn electronics? How did you interface with music?

Tom Oberheim: I got started in electronics at a pretty early age.

I grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, which is the site of Kansas State University. When I was growing up, it was a pretty small town. It was only about 5,000 people.

I got a crystal set for Christmas when I was in the, I think the fourth grade, where you had to pick a little wire, and fiddle around on a little … They’d call it a crystal, and then all of a sudden, a radio station would pop up in the earphone.

I just fell in love with that, even though I was just in grade school. I found a book, that explained basic electronics. This was, of course, back long before transistors or integrated circuits. It was a book on tubes, how tubes work. Tubes are a pretty simple thing compared to transistors.

I walked into a little radio repair shop in my hometown there in Manhattan, Kansas, to ask the simple question about tubes, because I started reading a Radio/TV/Engineering kind of magazine, and I had a question about tubes.

The guy in this radio shop was very helpful. Pretty soon, I was going back every day asking a question about this or that. I built one tube radio, et cetera, et cetera. Finally, they hired me at 25 cents an hour to sweep the shop out every night.

I just started learning a lot about electronics, and I continued to do that through junior high. In high school, I started building Hi-Fi systems for friends, and it’s just been a continuous soldering wires together ever since I was ten or eleven years old.

Darwin Grosse: Were you like in school band? Did you have any interaction with music at all, or was is strictly electronics, at that point?

Tom Oberheim: I didn’t pick up on music at all when I was in my younger years. It wasn’t until I got to UCLA to work towards a degree in physics that I just happened to join a church choir, and enjoyed singing.

Then things went along, and by the time I was about halfway through UCLA, at one point, I was singing in five choirs.

Darwin Grosse: Oh, my!

Tom Oberheim: In time, found that I could, although I had no musical training, whatever, I could read just about any kind of music that was put in front of me.

I worked my way up to a couple of the large professional groups in the Los Angeles area. Choir rehearsal almost every night of the week, except the weekends, so I started getting some ear training by being in all of these choirs.

During that time, while I was getting my degree, I didn’t know much about music, other than what I was learning from being in choirs. Eventually, I took a music appreciation class at UCLA. At that point, the only thing I knew, was a little bit of music I came across when I sang in the choir, but I really didn’t know much about music.

The music appreciation class was taught by a teacher who I really liked, and after the music appreciation class, I asked the teacher if I could continue taking his classes, and he said, “At this point, all I teach are music major classes”. I said, “Can I be in those classes?” He said, “Yes, but most of the students that are in these classes have some musical background”. I said, “I’ll give it a try”.

I got in, and with a lot of music majors, and I pretty much aced every class I took. I didn’t get a full music degree, but I took a lot of classes in music, and really just fell in love with it, and found what I felt, was a pretty strong connection between music and physics.

Darwin Grosse: Sure. Some of your first, your earliest interactions with professional music world, happened about this time to, right?

The Maestro Ring Modulator

Tom Oberheim: I finally got my degree at UCLA in ’65, and by that time, I had taken a lot of music classes, and had several friends that were musicians. After graduation, I had the occasion to build some electronics for several of these people.

One, in particular, was the person who had revived a rock group who had formed around some people around UCLA. This woman who’s leading this group, came to me. At one point, I think in 1968, and asked me to build them a ring modulator, because the earlier version of this group had a ring modulator that the people used in this band.

I didn’t know what a ring modulator was, but I went up to the UCLA Engineering Library and spent a good part of a day there, and found out pretty much what it would mean in music, and started building ring modulators. One at a time, for this friend, or that friend.

Somehow, the word that Tom Oberheim in Santa Monica, California, was building ring modulators, and this got back to a marketing manager at what was called the Maestro Division of Chicago Musical Instrument Company, later called Norlin.

The guy called me up and said, “Would you like to make some for us?” So I started making ring modulators under the Maestro label.

Darwin Grosse: The first time I think I actually saw a product with your name on it, an Oberheim labeled product, was a phase shifter. Is that correct?

Tom Oberheim: That’s correct. Although, there are some people that would argue that the Uni-Vibe was the first phase shifter in 1971, I came up with a phase shifter.

At the time, I thought that it was the first phase shifter on the market, because even though I was a familiar with the Uni-Vibe, my recollection here, 40-something years later, that it was not in its original configuration what we now call a phase shifter.

Darwin Grosse: Right.

Tom Oberheim: I started making phase shifters for Maestro. It was just me and a woman who did soldering. Together, over a three year period, we sold about 75,000.

Darwin Grosse: I remember the first time I ran across that.

I went into this music store, and they had, at the same time, plugged together, one of your phase shifters, and they had a tape echo unit. I was a budding young guitarist, and I plugged into them, and I practically cried, because I never heard anything that sounded so amazing in my life. It was really, really an incredible experience.

I think it kind of set the way for me, because at that point, I was far more interested in playing with the electronics and the gear, then actually learning the instrument well. I hate to say it, but …

So how did you start connecting with the LA ‘tech musicians’ – people who were phenomenal players, but who also had a love of new technology?

Oberheim’s early work helped create the sound of ‘Beneath The Planet Of The Apes’.

Tom Oberheim: The thing that led to my getting a little bit of early fame was when I was making the ring modulator, and that was 1970. In those days, there wasn’t a large selection of electronic devices for the musician to use.

Of course, there was a wah-wah pedal, which came out in the 60’s, and there were a couple of other things that came out in the early 70’s.

The main musical area that was starting to use electronics was more jazz people than rock. Certainly, I did, at some point, meet Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, and of course, Joe Zawinul, later in Weather Report.

One of the things that was happening at the same time, is the thing that really got me going making ring modulators. We go back to 1969, was when a movie composer named Leonard Rosenmen asked me to bring a ring modulator to a scoring session for a movie called, Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

I did that, and it was on the score. So, long before I started selling these to jazz people, I sold a lot of them to studio musicians in Los Angeles.

Darwin Grosse: Sure. That was the fastest way to get “bizarre sounds” for cinematics..

Tom Oberheim: At that point, there was certainly the use of synthesizers and other electronic things was happening, but it wasn’t a big thing yet. You had, Forbidden Planet, and of course, there were other places where electronics of both synthesizer and non synthesizer.

Synthesizers were starting to show up in professional music, it was pretty much the effort of one guy named, Paul Beaver. I think when the Minimoog came out, and when then the ARP 2600 came out, and there were actual machines that people could take on the road, then it started to move forward.

Darwin Grosse: What is it that propelled you in 1974 to put the SEM together? How did you decide to go down this synthesizer trail?

Tom Oberheim: Two things led to that. The first thing was, in the early 70’s, I think, probably ’72, around 1972, I was building a lot of phase shifters and ring modulators, but I was looking for ways to expand my financial base.

At the NAMM show in Chicago, summer of 1972, I believe, I went to the ARP booth, and saw the ARP 2600. I still had a lot of contacts with professional musicians because of the ring modulator, and the phase shifter, so I asked the marketing manager of ARP if I could be a ARP dealer in Los Angeles. At first, he didn’t show much interest, because he wanted to open Guitar Center, but it was a little too early for that.

Darwin Grosse: Right.

An ARP 2600

Tom Oberheim: I did become an ARP dealer. In fact, I still remember when my ARP 2600 arrived, I stayed up 36 straight hours playing with it.

The period from 1960 to 1969, I worked at a computer systems engineer, and did a lot of hardware design in computer based equipment, designed three general purpose computers when they were not a single chip like they are now. I had a lot of digital logic experience.

While selling 2600’s, I came up with this idea for a digital sequencer that would use digital logic, so I developed that device. It’s called a DS-2, and later a DS-2A. It was unlike the typical Moog or Buchla synthesizer where you had to turn knobs to create the sequence. You could simply play the synthesizer keyboard, and the digital sequencer would remember whatever you played into it.

There was a problem with that, in that those were in the days when the typical musician would have only one synthesizer. It wasn’t like today where there’s three, or four, or five, or whatever. It brought up a dilemma in that you had your synthesizer, whether it was a Minimoog, or an ARP 2600, that you could play it yourself, or my digital sequencer could play it, but you couldn’t do both.

So, I came up with this idea to develop what I thought would be the absolute minimum, but still fully useful, synthesizer module. That became the SEM. Then you could have the digital sequencer play the SEM, while you played your synthesizer.

Darwin Grosse: I had forgotten about the sequencer. That was the sequencer segment of your original 2-Voice, right?

Tom Oberheim: No – the 2-Voice synthesizer, which came out in 1975, did have a little traditional knob types sequencer.

The DS-2, was a digital sequencer, had no knobs. The keyboard was used to load the sequence into it.

Darwin Grosse: This is really interesting, you developed what you thought was the minimum viable voice, but as we mentioned before, that voice is still sort of like the basis for a lot of the work that you’re still doing.

What is it about the way that you designed the SEM that has given it such longevity?

Tom Oberheim: I can’t directly connect the longevity to what I did, but I can tell you what I felt was important.

That was features of an analog synthesizer voice that I had considered essential. One was, you need at least two VCO’s.

Of course, there’s been many synths that have come since 1975, that only had one oscillator. Various things were done to fatten up one VCO, but I was then, and am still, a firm believer you have to have two independent VCO’s.

At the time that I was creating the SEM, the two main synths that were on the market, were the ARP 2600, and the Minimoog, and they both had the similar kind of filter, mainly a 4-pole low pass filter. I decided that it might be interesting to use a different filter in the SEM, for variety, so I made the decision to use a 2-pole state variable filter. It had the interesting feature that you got a low pass, high pass, and bandpass out of this same circuit, at the same time.

Then the rest is pretty straight forward. Envelope generators and an LFO, which at that point, was pretty much, the standard voice.

Darwin Grosse: As you went from these things based off the SEM, then your developments started in on the poly synths. There was the OB-8, the OB-X, the Expander, which is another one of those machines that so many people that I know are a little obsessed with.

What drove you from that standpoint? Were you taking advantage of new technologies with each one? Or did each one have some sort of market draw? What cause you to go through those various iterations, in the way that you did?

Tom Oberheim: One of the significant landmarks in the development of the original Oberheim Electronic Synthesizer line, as well as, same things happened with other companies, was when Doug Curtis came on the scene with his set of synthesizer chips. That appealed to all of us, because the quality was good. In some ways, it made sense with additional features in the voice itself. Also, the reliability was better.

There was a time, going from ’75 to ’85, in the field of analog synthesizers, that was just this mad rush of new machines to use new technology as it became available.

This was not only in Doug Curtis’s chips, but also microprocessors came along that were economical enough to use in a product like a music synthesizer.

Darwin Grosse: Sure.

Tom Oberheim: When I did the 4-Voice, and 8-Voice, the microprocessor technology, really wasn’t quite there yet. I think when Smith brought out the Prophet-5, that was in 1978, by then, microprocessors had become economical.

And also, in Dave’s case, he had experience in the computer industry, of applying microprocessors to products. Which, in the 1978/79 timeframe, my company, my original company, we did not have that technology.

Darwin Grosse: Right.

Tom Oberheim: It was a mad rush, all through ’75 into ’85…..learning how to make these machines more reliable. All that was happening at a rapid pace.

It was really not a time when the musicians told us what they wanted, because it was all so technology based, that the musicians, only in rare cases, even had a clue of what can be done. And we were learning as we went along, also.

This was not a period when the musician was asking for new features, because it was happening so fast. It really wasn’t the case of, “I’d love it if it could do this”.

Darwin Grosse: The other thing, though, that was going on at that time was the movement towards a self-contained studio. One of the things I remember was Oberheim Electronics running ads that would have synthesizers, plus a drum machine, plus a sequencer. The idea of an entire studio. That was what kind of led to the development of the MIDI protocol. You were involved in MIDI, in the development of the MIDI protocol, right?

Tom Oberheim: That’s one of these interesting industry myths.

Darwin Grosse: Ah, okay. Let’s uncover what really happened then.

Tom Oberheim: History books say I was involved with the MIDI protocol, and that is not true.

Darwin Grosse: Okay.

Tom Oberheim: To the large extent, MIDI was developed by Dave Smith, and the Roland corporation, specifically, Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi.

There was other input, I believe from other companies, at that time that MIDI was being developed, although I do not personally remember the situation.

I think, at some point, there was a meeting, after a NAMM show, which I participated in. I do not actually remember that meeting, but I think that’s where this myth arose that I had something to do with the design of MIDI. I did not.

Darwin Grosse: Okay.

Tom Oberheim: I did serve for one year as the first … I don’t know what the job title was, but basically the MMA was formed, and I was the President, or whatever it would be, for a year. That was mainly a job of getting MIDI information out to people who wanted to get involved in MIDI, but I had literally nothing to do with the design of MIDI.

Darwin Grosse: I see. Okay. As I recall, the communication between devices was done using a parallel cable – very similar to computer printer port, right?

Tom Oberheim: We simply took the microprocessor bus, and put it on a connector, and then that connector allowed us to connect the OB-XA, or and OB-8, to a sequencer we had called the DSX, which was designed by Marcus Ryle. It was his first design project when he came to work for me at age 19.

Darwin Grosse: Oh, wow.

Tom Oberheim: We also had a clock sync circuit. A simple clock sync circuit that allowed the drum machine to set the tempo.

It was a kludge system. It was expensive. It had monstrous ground loop problems, which we did eventually solve, but it was crude, expensive, and not very flexible.

It was in an age when, at least, one or two other companies, also had their own computer … Well, I’ll say computer interface, not meaning they hooked to a computer necessarily, but they were using computer technology.

Roland had one. It could be that, I don’t know if Sequential had one in those days, or not. It was in the days when companies were starting to connect the synthesizers to other pieces of equipment through some kind of a digital interface. It was chaotic, and there was no common standard. It was kind of the infancy of what became the ability to connect all these machines together with MIDI.

Darwin Grosse: Sure. Now if we spin forward a bit, when did you start Marion Systems?

Tom Oberheim: I actually started it way back in 1987.

Darwin Grosse: Oh my goodness, really?

Tom Oberheim: After the demise of my first company, I did a couple of things. My first music product with Marion Systems back in the late 1980’s was a circuit card that you could put in an S900, an Akai S900 sampler, and make it a 16 bit sampler.

That was my first product with Marion Systems. Then, I did a number of things with Marion Systems, a few years consulted to Roland, et cetera, et cetera.

Darwin Grosse: I see.

Tom Oberheim: I did some other stuff with Marion Systems. Then, that led on to the mid ’90s, through the development of what I called the MSR-2, which was meant to be a system involving different technologies in a basic synthesizer mainframe.

Although I was able to sell some of the MSR-2’s, and later a subset of that called a ProSynth, it was just too big of an undertaking for the small company I had, at the time.

Darwin Grosse: That was an aggressive design, because it literally was a chassis, but you could swap out entire synth engines. Right?

Tom Oberheim: That was the plan. Although, the only thing that ever actually hit the road, and was sold, was the analog synthesizer card.

It was an 8-voice, 8-way multitimbral, analog synth, with a digital oscillator, but with a Curtis Chip that took the digital clock, and converted it into an analog wave forms. And it had a Curtis filter and Curtis VCA.

It was very similar to the chip that Dave Smith used in his early synthesizers at his current company, DSI. Other companies used it, as well.

Darwin Grosse: I remember that being kind of a ground breaker because it was a time when there was a ground swell around analog systems, but not a lot of new devices available. When it came out, it kind of captured people’s attention, because here’s a new analog-based poly synth, at a time that you couldn’t really get them off the shelf from anyone else. Right?

Tom Oberheim: Yeah. One of the things that led to me developing the MSR-2 concept was an opportunity, and I don’t remember the venue. In fact, I was at a studio, where I have a friend who had an Oberheim, I think an OB-8, and a Wavestation.

He was playing that combination of the two at the same time, and I just thought, “Wow, this is great”.

I still remember how excited I was about that, at the time, because that was long before where you had plugins, and all kinds of sounds you could combine in the studio. This was in the early days of where there was more than one synth in the studio. I got the idea to make a system that involved a mainframe that could take different modules, but the company was just me. It was way too big a project for me.

I did sell a number of the MSR-2 and ProSynths that had the 8 Analog Voices, the 8-Way Multitimbral. It had a pretty good sound, but also had some definite deficiencies. I got as far as having an agreement with Korg to buy the Wavestation chips. I built up a board, a circuit board, that had those chips on it, but I never had the time to get it working.

The plan was to have a whole set of boards –  that analog board, several different forms of digital, et cetera. That was the original plan, but like I said, it was just too much for me.

Darwin Grosse: Manufacturing, and even synth design, has changed a lot, even since then, but certainly since the early ’70’s, and you are clearly keeping your hands into it.

What are the things that are making it maybe more viable for you now, than they were in the late 90’s, or earlier?

What are the things that’s making small manufacturing viable for music instrument development now?

Tom Oberheim: There’s a couple of things that are well along as far as synth world’s concerned, and I am kind of getting into it later than some other people have: the arrival of the Eurorack concept, combined with a resurgance, a revival, of interest in analog.

Some of this, certainly, a big part of this, has to be credited to DJ/Producer/EDM phenomenon.

Darwin Grosse: In the kind of development you’re doing now, when you’re coming you with updated versions of classic stuff, and putting it out there. Do you show these at the NAMM show? Do you have a distributor that shows it? Or do you just depend on the internet to get the word out?

Tom Oberheim: It’s being marketed in a traditional way. I don’t have distributors.

I work with a rep, who actually was an employee at Oberheim Electronics, back in those days. We all went our separate ways, and we joined up again here, a few years ago. It’s just sold through music stores, and word of mouth.

In the old days, we’d put ads in magazines. That’s slowly dying off.

There is the NAMM show. I was just at the NAMM show, a month-and-a-half ago, showing some stuff. Though the industry’s changed a lot, in a lot of ways, it’s just like it was in the 70’s. You rent a booth at NAMM, and show your wares.

Darwin Grosse: Do you interact much with artists anymore?

Tom Oberheim: That’s rare, because I’m not in the mainstream business as much as I used to be. The industry has changed, and I think, like you were saying, in the sense that it’s become more of a commodity business.

The idea of a $999 12-voice synthesizer, as recently as a couple years ago, there was just no way that was gonna happen. Now, of course, it is happening, and now we have $300, $400, $500 synthesizers.

What’s happening is that the synth business has expanded a lot, and so the stars are not the stars they were, 30, 40 years ago. People form a group, and synths will be the basis of the group, where’s back in the 1970’s, 1980’s, they were kind of an add-on. It was a traditional music where synthesizers were kind of added on, and added a little extra color.

Now, it’s the basis for many groups.

Darwin Grosse: It is true. To the point, where almost the nature of stardom has changed.

We don’t necessarily have a Rick Wakeman, or a Keith Emerson type of individual anymore, because electronic music technology is integrated into the core of the music.

Tom Oberheim: Yeah, and, in my opinion, there’s a divide.

I was not familiar with the DJ/Producer/EDM phenomenon until 2008, and by then, it was well-established in the world. I came across this, I called it a phenomenon, and at the time, it occurred to me that the typical person over 30, doesn’t even know what’s going on.

Yet, there’s DJ’s doing concerts many, many times a day, all over the world, every day. It’s just amazing. Of course, this has been a shot in arm for the analog synth industry, for sure.

Darwin Grosse: Do you see yourself getting involved in the Eurorack world?

Tom Oberheim: Definitely. Like I said earlier, the other thing I’m working on right now, announced for the second time in two NAMM shows. A year ago, I showed it at NAMM, but it was the very beginning stages. Now, we’re in the final process of bringing the SEM out in Eurorack format.

Also, at this NAMM show, I brought back another couple of products. I put my original phase shifter and my original ring modulator in Eurorack format. Those will be out in a couple of months.

Darwin Grosse: That’s great news. I think your stuff will really fit in to that environment really well.

Well, I’ve used up my time already, and I have so many more questions. I’m gonna limit myself here to one more question that I always love asking people whose opinion I trust as much as yours.

What do you think that the future looks like? What is your view of where all this stuff is going?

Tom Oberheim: That’s a tough one, because we’re into a new phase, like I was mentioning just a minute or two ago, – we have this plethora of very inexpensive synthesizers, and I don’t really know where that’s leading.

I haven’t yet seen an inexpensive machine that would satisfy me, but there are some very good machines out there that sound really good, and for a lot less than what they used to cost. I would say that, that would lead to greater usage of synths. They seem to be doing pretty well, I hear, over the last six, eight, ten years, because of the analog revival.

It’s really curious to think about where it’s all leading. Synthesizer in every home, huh?

Darwin Grosse: Two in every garage!

Is there anything in your lab, or on your bench right now, that is future looking and that you’d be willing to give us a hint on?

Tom Oberheim: My concentration right now, interestingly enough, is on three of my old products. The ring mod, the phase shifter, and the SEM.

In all three cases, they’re now going to be Eurorack products, and in all three cases, they are more than the originals, because of the phenomena called Eurorack, where you can patch things together.

I don’t have any magic new invention up my sleeve, at all. I’m just rejoicing in the revival.

Darwin Grosse: I know you’re a busy guy, so I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about a little history, and a little bit of future too.

Tom Oberheim: I enjoyed it thoroughly. Thanks.


Additional Resources: 


darwin-grosseAbout Darwin Grosse:

Darwin Grosse is the host of the Art + Music + Technology podcast, a series of interviews with artists, musicians and developers working the world of electronic music.

Darwin is the Director of Education and Customer Services at Cycling ’74 and was involved in the development of Max and Max For Live. He also developed the ArdCore Arduino-based synth module as his Masters Project in 2011, helping to pioneer open source/open hardware development in modular synthesis.

Darwin also has an active music career as a performer, producer/engineer and installation artist.

Additional images: Tom Oberheim, Tone Chaser, Roger Linn, Wikipedia

16 thoughts on “Tom Oberheim On The Art Of Synthesizer Design

  1. It appears from the interview, unless I am mistaken that he simply lent his name to the Ob-6 synth and not any technical competency or actual design. Rather he allowed DS to use his ‘technology’/sound.

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  2. Legends, and my heart goes out to the man hours these physicists have put in to ,are the world a better place. Long live electronic music and salute to you Tom, and Dave and the others. Wish I could contribute too. Billions of humans on this planet and yet mostly so ineffectual. The waste of it all. Alas. Time.

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  3. This guy is 80 and is still a baller. What a legend!

    It’s awesome to see icons like Oberheim, Smith and Dave Rossum making gear that stands up to anything they or anyone else has ever produced.

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  4. Iv’e owned and loved my Oberheim gear for many years now and especially my SEM Pro, thanks very much Tom keep it up and keep on trucking!

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