Electronic music

Synthesizer pioneer Tom Oberheim restarts his business at 85

They all made hit records, but what else to do Van Halen, super tramp, What do the prince and queen have in common? The characteristic sound of hits like Jump, Fool’s Overture, 1999, and Glow (along with many others) all came from a synthesizer made by Oberheim Electronics.

Oberheim instruments were created by music technology pioneer and inventor Tom Oberheim. Without any formal business experience, Oberheim did not seek to find success in the industry that still reveres his designs. And he got into the industry almost by accident.

As a child, growing up in Manhattan, Kansas, Oberheim found himself hanging out at the local radio store where he got a job sweeping the floor. His fascination with electronics first led him to Kansas State University before moving on to UCLA where he combined physics with the study of music.

Some of his early work spent in aerospace and the fledgling computer industry might have seen Oberheim go down a very different path if some of his college friends hadn’t landed a record deal and asked him to conceive. an innovative tonal processor to give natural sounds a “spatial ring”. ”. The gadget Oberheim invented for them was called a ring modulator.

Word spread quickly about Oberheim’s design skills and it wasn’t long before he was supplying the ring modulator to jazz musicians, recording studios and even the band’s composer. original film for Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Oberheim Electronics was born. The company experienced modest growth in the early 1970s until Oberheim came up with the idea of ​​making products to meet the growing demand for electronic music: synthesizers.

Synthesizers were a radical break for music makers at the time, and innovation didn’t come cheap. Early Oberheim synthesizers started at $4,000 (about $21,000 in today’s money), a daunting price for most musical instrument retailers. But the sounds of Oberheim’s kit were unique and appealed to customers. And so the legend of Oberheim was formed.

“I was fifteen when the Oberheim OB-8 was about to come out,” recalls filmmaker and synth enthusiast JJ Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek, Star Wars). “No store had them yet, and I couldn’t find any details about this magic keyboard anywhere. So, like a madman, I rode my bike to the Oberheim offices in Los Angeles. I walked in and I I asked if they could give me a demo. To my amazement, they did. The sounds I heard in that room that day blew my mind.

Commercial success followed and soon the Oberheim company had grown to almost 100 employees and was posting eight-figure annual revenues. Oberheim and his team found themselves at the top of the heap in the musical instrument industry’s hottest new category. A decade of success followed with countless hits inspired by his unique sounding instruments.

“Oberheim instruments were extremely important to me in the 1970s and 1980s,” recalls Steve Porcaro of 1980s supergroup Toto. “The OB-8 with the [Oberheim] DSX was an integral part of my setup with Toto and every session I did.

However, in the mid-1980s, a wind of change was blowing through the music industry. Tastes changed and Oberheim’s sound had to evolve. A crucial new development project has fallen behind schedule and the company has begun to stretch its line of credit. Oberheim was led to believe by his advisers that foreclosure of the business was the only way to avoid putting his family home in jeopardy. One Monday morning, Oberheim arrived at his office to find that Oberheim Electronics had gone into liquidation. His legal advisers now owned the company’s assets. A lawsuit ensues, but Oberheim ends up losing his business.

“Those were dark days, and I thought maybe I couldn’t continue in the industry that meant so much to me,” Oberheim recalled. “I wasn’t quite sure where to take things next.”

As the sound of the 1980s gave way to new waves of technology-driven trends like sampling, remixing, and self-tuning, the role of such early synthesizer brands like Moog, Fairlight, and Oberheim declined. . After a decade of increased success and an immeasurable impact on the sound of popular music, the brand disappeared in the late 1980s, along with most other pioneering American synthesizer brands. The synthesizer craze had burned bright and briefly and might have been just a curious footnote in the history of modern music.

But like vinyl records, classic cars and fashion, everything old eventually becomes new again. Starting in the mid-2000s, a new generation of gamers and producers began to rediscover the evocative sound of these legacy machines, and enthusiasts began bringing some of them back to life.

As JJ Abrams observes: “My [original] OB-8 remains one of my treasured synths. The idea that Tom Oberheim [and others] join forces on a new synth makes me want to jump on my bike and find out more.

And the recent surge in interest is driving new musicians to seek out the original vintage instruments. Some models are now changing hands at exorbitant prices on the second-hand market. A recent ad asked for $23,000 for a 40-year-old Oberheim OB-X; a model originally sold for $4.5k.

This wave of musicians inspired Oberheim to take a very unusual step for an 85-year-old. He is putting his unique instruments back into full-scale production for the first time in three decades. In May, Oberheim will launch a new keyboard synthesizer based on the popular OB series. Oberheim says, “It may sound weird, but I’m as excited about this startup as I was the first time around. I have always had a very optimistic outlook and felt that one day when the time was right, Oberheim products would come back.

Trent Reznor, the creative force behind Nine Inch Nails and Golden Globe Oscar winner and Primetime Emmy-winning composer, was one of the artists who caught wind of Oberheim’s revival and asked for a taste of the new synth. . “My first moments with him were all about nostalgia, but I quickly realized that Oberheim’s incredible sound absolutely belonged in the present,” Trent said. “I’ll make room for one in my studio.”

In musical compositions, a “coda” is the final passage, often a repeat of the main theme, but with a new twist. This resurrection of the Oberheim company is perhaps more than a coda, perhaps even a whole new opus. And as for Tom Oberheim, it’s time to play.

More information: Oberheim is back and products will be available at MI retailers in May 2022. For product details and where to buy, visit www.oberheim.com