The video stream for this lecture can be watched here.
Starting out in the music electronics business in the late ’60s, early ’70s by building legendary devices for Maestro and using his storefront to sell ARP synthesizers to everyone from Leon Russell to Frank Zappa, Tom Oberheim went on to shape the development of music equipment – and the sound of popular music - like very few other people. Actually, for a time in the ’80s it seemed like it was just about impossible to have a hit without an Oberheim DMX or OB–Xa, as anyone from Run DMC to Van Halen relied heavily on those machines. It seems like he never lost his enthusiasm when he first started working with computers in the ’50s, all while keeping a decidedly consumer friendly outlook: “My philosophy in building music equipment has always been not to try to second-guess the musician.”
RBMA: A lot of the things we've heard this week would not have been possible without the pioneering work of men like this gentleman sitting next to me, and it is a very great privilege to welcome, Mr. Tom Oberheim.
Tom Oberheim: I'm glad to be here. It's been an education for me already, which we'll maybe talk about later.
RBMA: But before we go into that, ’cause there's an awful lot of history to cover, and we're not even starting with talking physics yet, but there's a lot of things and information that we had to process this week and there’ll be more coming. So we figured this might be a good chance to have two or three minutes to let it all sink in and get ourselves ready for this one. Are you ready? Hmm, the audio's not ready...
(music: United States Of America - Love Song For The Dead Che Guevara)
I wish I had anything to do with this, but you might want to ask yourself: "We came here to talk about synthesis, why the heck is he playing some hippie, psychedelic, folky nonsense there?" Well, you might actually have the information to that. That song was, by the way, called ”Love Song For The Dead Che Guevara", and it's by a band called The United States Of America.
Tom Oberheim: Oh, my gosh. I forgot all about them.
Tom Oberheim: First of all, there is not an Oberheim on this record because when this record was made there was no Oberheim synthesizer. This is 1966 and I was a student at UCLA in Los Angeles, and even though I was a physics student, I was always in the music department all the time. I'd take a class in physics and then go back to the music deptartment and there I met this guy named Joseph Byrd who did some incredible experimental music at UCLA in the mid-’60s. It wasn't classical music, it was actually more happenings than music. Later, I became to know him pretty well and he had a girlfriend named Dorothy, and after I finished my degree I went off to do computer engineering, he started this band called United States Of America. They lasted less than one year, they made two records and the band wasn't so interesting, but the people were interesting, so that's kind of that story. Oh, and the most important part of that story is that the original band broke up because they always fought. I know nowadays you don't fight and everybody's very happy, but in those days these people fought and they broke up the band and the singer started the band again with different people. And in the original band there was a device called a ring modulator, which was designed by some guy I never met. When the band broke up he took his ring modulator and went, so when she started the band again, she came to me because she knew I was an engineer and she said: ”Build me a ring modulator.“ And that was the beggining of Oberheim when I built her ring modulator, that lead to... to there.
RBMA: And I believe that's one of the main reasons why the sound from the first album to the second kind of changed.
Tom Oberheim: Yeah, it could be. It was different.
RBMA: Now obviously, we take a lot of things for granted these days but when you said: ”Oh, I've got my physics degree, I can build a ring modulator.“ How did you actually find out how to build it?
Tom Oberheim: Ha! Well, this girl Dorothy came to me and said: ”Tom, you need to build us a ring modulator.“ Well, I had no idea what it was. But by then I'd been a computer engineer for six or seven years, so I went to the UCLA library, and spent several hours looking through the books, and I found this book that had this circuit diagram in it. I couldn't figure out why this circuit would be of interest to a musician, but anyway, I kept on looking. And finally, I found an article from a magazine from 1960, where a famous engineer who was originally from Germany and who moved to America in the 1930s and designed organs, he started designing some stuff to make electronic music, even before Moog did. He designed a modular - it wasn't a synthesizer - but he designed a modular electronic music system, and one of the things he had there was a ring modulator, and he explained what a ring modulator was and how you could use it for music. So I took that and started making my own ring modulators.
RBMA: This Harald Bode guy that you're talking about, I believe it's actually the same article that inspired Bob Moog as well.
Tom Oberheim: Well, they were good friends. Mr Bode was an older guy, and Bob Moog, this was early 1960s, so he was just in college, just beginning. I think in some ways Bode was like a mentor for Bob, and the idea of taking circuits and making modules that you could hook together with patch chords, which is, of course, the first Moog synthesizer was that, the basic idea of doing that came from Bode. But Moog added onto that where he brought in oscillators and filters and envelope generators and that was the birth of the analogue synthesizers as we know them. So it was a combination of these two guys working.
RBMA: At the same time, like many of us when we grew up, you didn't know much about these things. And you were born in a different Manhattan, just slightly different from the one in the big apple?
Tom Oberheim: Ha, ha! Yeah, I was born in a small town in the very centre of the United States in a state called Kansas, where growing up I built stereos for friends, but this was before stereos were invented, so I was building hi-fi's for friends. So I started in electronics in junior high school, and built amplifiers for people, and later on I started doing much the same for musician friends that I met at UCLA.
RBMA: Now, radios have this absolute intricate fascination for kids – well, at least FM radios did - you could turn that dial and get all these weird frequencies. And somewhere the line splits, like the ones who were looking for the new station, and the ones that take the screwdriver and take it apart.
Tom Oberheim: Well, I think I know what you're talking about. You're looking at it through the eyes of someone today, where people are more willing to experiment with electronics, or any sound whether it's electronic or not. But I think in the ’60s it was more conventional, and there wasn't the facility to present experimental music like there is today. I mean, this is a long time ago, this is 50 years ago, so when you went to music school, first you learnt Bach, and then you learnt Beethoven. It took special interesting people to break out of that and do experimental stuff. It started slow, not everybody who heard strange sounds coming from their FM radio were ready to make music with it. It took much time for this to develop, I think.
RBMA: But just take a step back, and you're 11-years old and you're literally taking your mum's radio apart.
Tom Oberheim: I didn't experiment with the sound of radios. When I was growing up it was big band jazz, and I'd listen to Stan Kenton and bands like that. My friends and I would get together and play records from different bands and see which trumpet player could play the highest note or something like that. It was much later when I started to experiment with electronics to actually make music. Really, I wasn't the pioneer that Moog was, I was the second generation, so it took me a while to break through from being interested in conventional music to more interesting things. But we'll talk about that more when we talk about the ARP thing.
RBMA: Speaking of interesting things, there's a rumour that you and many other greats from some of this room to Merle Haggard share a deeper love of trains?
Tom Oberheim: Yes. A friend of mine, we used to do our studies and then at about 11 o' clock at night we'd go down to the train station and wait for this train go through, which was going from Chicago to Los Angeles, dreaming of going to the big city, which I did many years later. So whether it was a very cold winter day, or winter night, we'd be down there watching the train go by.
RBMA: There's this dream of the big city, but nevertheless, Kansas state has a pretty renowned university.
Tom Oberheim: It wasn't that great when I was there, later on it became better. But in those days I wasn't so interested in music. I mean, I got into music late, I'm sure most of you know what a fugue is, it's a counterpoint that if you're a music student you learn to play on the piano or whatever. But I learnt about the word fugue off of a Dave Brubeck jazz album. I didn't know anything about music until I was in high school and studied music later, so I kind of came in a different way. Not the normal piano lessons, music school, none of that. But I was listening to records back when they were still called 78s and I drove my parents crazy ’cause I had one record in 9th grade by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, which was a group from the early ’50s that had this one song I played over and over for hours and drove my parents nuts. Maybe that's something that might happen later.
RBMA: One or two people might know that feeling, yes.
Tom Oberheim: Ha, ha!
RBMA: So what was the initial feeling for leaving Kansas behind and going West?
Tom Oberheim: As I said, I was listening to a lot of jazz when I was in high school and decided to go to Manhattan to earn some money to go back to college, and not have to work after school every day. I met some people who were older than me, and I also in those days, I read a magazine that is still in existence mainly about jazz called Downbeat. In the back of the magazine there were little ads for different things and one ad was for a jazz club in Los Angeles. Basically, the ad said: ”You can come to this jazz club for free.“ Now, what they didn't tell you was you have to buy two drinks, but I thought, ’Wow, I can go and hear all these great jazz musicians and you don't have to pay!’ So I was ready to go to California, and when someone said: "Tom, we're going to California," I said: "Great, I wanna come!" And so I went to California and I never regretted it, it was a good move.
RBMA: L.A. isn't exactly the smallest village on earth, you can't just go to the town centre, you kind of need some anchor points to navigate.
Tom Oberheim: Well, when I arrived in July 1956, I had 10$ in my pocket and no job and my parents had no money, they were back in Kansas so I was totally on my own and had to live very, very cheaply. In those days petrol cost a quarter of a Euro per gallon, it was incredibly cheap, so I couldn't afford to go to good restaurants or other entertainment things like that. So I just would fill up my car, my broken down car that barely ran, and just drive around Los Angeles, learning what the city was. I could've become a taxi driver, I knew the city very well.
RBMA: So what other profession did you choose?
Tom Oberheim: Well, when I got to L.A. at first I worked at an aircraft company, just because it was the first job I could find and that job was pretty boring. But in December of 1956, I was just 20-years old, I saw an ad for a draftsman trainee job, which is drawing engineers drawings. It was at a company called National Cash Register, which was a big company in America so I went to apply for this job and it turned out that this company was a very early company in the computer business. This was in 1956, I didn't even know what a computer was. So I got there, and I was just a very lowly guy, I didn't have a college degree yet, I was just out of high school, but they gave me the job because I had had a little drafting. When I got to this company, it was just like the first time some of you saw a mixer or saw a synthesizer or heard music you like. It was just instantaneous love for something and that was the computer idea and the computer technology. In those days, of course, the computer went from here to that wall, just one computer. I thought this was what I want to do. I had no idea of going back to university, I was just 20-years old having a great time in the big city. Once I worked at this company and saw these engineers building these incredible things called computers I thought I just have to do that. I knew I had to go back to college, but the company let me stay on and work part time while I went to UCLA. But at this point I had no plans to do anything, just be a computer engineer for the rest of my life and work for some big company.
RBMA: You had quite a few jobs at various kind of well-known companies these days.
Tom Oberheim: Well, from 1959 to 1969 I had several jobs at six or seven computer companies. I was the kind of guy, who, if I didn't like the job, I just left. So some places I worked a year. There was one computer company I worked at for three weeks. I didn't like the boss, so I left. In those ten years I'd had seven jobs, and at that age when you had a resume that showed you had many jobs, everybody would say: ”Well, there’s something wrong with you. You're not a good worker ’cause you always leave.“ And I said: ”Ah, I don't care. I was having fun.“ So if the job wasn't good I left, I think it's more common to do that now, but it wasn't then.
RBMA: Now in those jobs they took you to USE, which is a major military provider, Lockheed, NASA, and what is it that people nowadays seem to underestimate about the connection between sound synthesis and military industrial complex on the other hand?
Tom Oberheim: What a lot of people I think in this world don't understand, is that the essence of art, and I mean everything, music, painting, poetry, happenings, whatever, maybe Red Bull is an exception, but the typical company is not interested in the artistic side of our world, they're interested in making money. It's a rare connection between art and the military industrial complex that only happens when the company is so successful that they can throw a little money at art. But it's not common in the US, I don't know about Europe, but you'll hear: ”Oh yes, Cybian sponsored something at a museum,“ but of course, it's a tiny fraction of their total income that they contribute to art. Art is one of the step-childs of our society, and it's usually quite a struggle for people, I think.
RBMA: So if you consider ourselves as one of those step-childs, could you give us one or two examples of something taken from the military world technologically to create art?
Tom Oberheim: When I first got involved in electronic music, the first thing was the ring modulator and then later I did another pedal, but the first thing was when I started selling ARP synthesizers. I was the first ARP synthesizer dealer on the West Coast, it was just me. And the thing that characterised ARP is that the ARP synthesizer maybe didn't have as rich a sound as the Moog, but it was designed by an engineer called Alan R Pearlman, [who] was ARP, and he had for ten years before that been designing circuits for the military. As it turned out there were certain circuits that you need to design for industrial and military purposes that actually are also useful for synthesizers. Probably the most important one is that he knew how to design an oscillator that didn't drift. We all love the Minimoog, but it did have a reputation for having a drift problem. I think as the years went on they found solutions to that, but Pearlman from his experience designing circuits for the military, he knew a way to design oscillators that didn't drift.
RBMA: Now, an oscillator is one thing we need to know about, but can we get actually a pedestrian explanation of what these things are?
Tom Oberheim: Of a ring modulator?
Tom Oberheim: OK, a ring modulator is really a simple device that makes very complex sounds. I'm sure you've all had enough experience with music enough to appreciate that what we would call a harmonic aspect that music is based on an overtone series, that I think human beings are naturally attuned to. In other words, octaves are a frequency ratio of 2:1, and a major fifth is a frequency ratio close to 3:2 and so on. So there's this thing that exists not just in Western music but in African tribal music this idea that fifths and fourths and octaves, it's just something universal in a human being, and that's based on frequencies that are related by ratios. What the ring modulator does is that it totally destroys that thing that our ears are attuned to and it changes the frequencies by absolute amounts of frequency. Let me give you an example: if you put a 300 hz tone into one side of the ring modulator, and a 200 hz tone on the other side of the ring modulator, what you'd get is 100 hz - which is 300 minus 200 - and 500 hz, which is 300 plus 200 and these are totally non harmonic, our mind doesn't find them as nice pleasant sounds. And yet, is it always to be pleasant? So the ring modulator destroys the harmonic that you're used to and in the hands of a great musician, unfortunately I didn't bring any ring modulator with me today, but in the early days of selling ring modulators to musicians like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, and many people like this, making really great stuff with this crazy sound you can get from the ring modulator. But what it does, it adds and subtracts frequencies, rather than multiplying them by ratios, which is what happens.
RBMA: So I'm pretty sure we all got that in a short note. But like you said, even if you don't understand these things, you can still feel them, and like with most art the aesthetic of relationships, just like in design and whatever whatever, and I believe you met another person at UCLA that was challenging that from a different side, like this guy Don Ellis? Which people might know from different contexts.
Tom Oberheim: Oh, yes. One of the guys I met at UCLA was a jazz trumpet player named Don Ellis, who went on to start a very innovative jazz big band, and he became famous because most of what he did with the band, and the songs he wrote and arranged for them, was typically not in 4/4 time or 3/4 time. They were in 7/4 and 11/4 and 19/8 and whatever. I got to know Don very well, because he was one of these people that I built ring modulators for before I started Oberheim and he would have ring modulators on his trumpet and octave dividers and did some really interesting experimental music in the ’60s. Working for him was also an instrumental part of me getting into the music thing, because it was through the United States Of America and Don Ellis and some other people that I saw the future for me in a subtle way. After ten years I was tired of designing computer stuff, and was ready for something else, so this lead me into electronic music instruments.
RBMA: Which brings us to this little thing... (brings up slide show)
Tom Oberheim: Well, this was my first commercial product, which is called a Maestro ring modulator. I couldn't find a picture, but electronically and [as far as] the box, it's the same but the graphics were much different from this. The company I sold this through didn't like that it was a little bit too adventurous, so they went for this look. I wish I had a picture of the other ’cause for a first product it's just a great thing.
Participant: Maybe there's one on the Internet?
Tom Oberheim: I looked for one earlier today but couldn't find one. (to interviewer) But go to the letterhead. When I started the Oberheim company in 1969, I did it in the traditional way and went to a company who designed me a logo. This was the letterhead (shows slide) and I would use to write letters on, although I really never wrote that many letters, the guy who designed this logo was very big in the Los Angeles advertising and art scene back in 1969 when comics and comic art was very popular in advertising. Many years ago in Rolling Stone there was always a column by a guy called Robert Crumb, and the main character had a big foot that was always sticking out, and it was called the Trucking Note, or no! Trucking? Have you ever heard of this phrase before? So this is called the Trucking Note, and it's one of the all time great logos. Unfortunately, I no longer own it, but we'll get to that story later. The point is that the original ring modulator had this logo on the front very big, with this beautiful exploding graphic and the name Oberheim was in this exploding typeface, it was just beautiful. But they didn't like it, they wanted more conventional black and silver.
RBMA: I guess it's pretty mind-blowing, even with details like the logo like this, that you get to people that we'd rather only know through the film American Splendour, or else in a really roundabout way, it seems like a lot of things were happening as a small entity despite it being a really big city.
Tom Oberheim: Well, the influence here is that by the time I started Oberheim I really was sick of designing computers, I'd done it for ten years, and I really just wanted out. The guy who designed this and the ad agency that helped me do this, they were into ’way out music’, so it wasn't going into a big advertisement agency and spend lots of money, it was more like friends doing stuff. It was a very creative time, and I had no idea if I would ever have a successful company, it was just me in my bedroom.
RBMA: But just about before you started, you worked quite a decent job, with 14 hours a day before you went into your own business.
Tom Oberheim: I don't know if I always worked that much, but I had worked at these seven computer type companies, and I enjoyed it while I did it because computer design is an interesting profession that very few people do now because it's all for you in a little chip. But when I did it, it was all done in little individual parts. But by then I'd had several years experience working with experimental musicians, and it was very exciting to be a part of that. I wasn't a performing musician myself really, not an instrumental musician, so I got my joy in doing stuff for my musician friends. Well, we'll talk more about that later, but that's always been my driving force. I'd make something, and then a musician takes it and creates something else from it. So I was ready to leave the computer thing and do this, even if it was very small and didn't make any money I was happy.
RBMA: Well, your musician friends are one side of the game, but if you do want to go into business, the places where you would go to look for investment, you might start at your neighbors?
Tom Oberheim: Well, I just went around and got some money from a few friends, enough to get started. I think my total investment was 5 or 6.000$. I thought that was a lot of money then. It's not much to start a company on, I had no business plan, no plan how I'd be able to pay them back or anything - so it wasn't a lot of money.
RBMA: Rumour has it that a thousand of those five or so thousand came from a neighbour of yours.
Tom Oberheim: Oh, yes! I know what you're talking about. Well, I don't know if this has any meaning, but my first investor was a guy who worked for a company that did secret work for the US government. They did war games and studied what would happen if the Soviet Union attacked the United States and how many bombers they'd need to respond, this kind of crazy stuff. In 1970, the political world in the United States was turned upside down when a friend of the neighbour of mine went public with what was called the Pentagon Papers. Basically, it told the story of the defense department of the US government showing that the war in Vietnam was a disaster. Everybody thought we were going to win that war, and this document that came from within the US defense department actually said: ”No, there's no way we can win this war.“ So this one guy made it public, and my neighbour was his friend and helped him with it. What's the point of this? Well, the company that helped me get my logo designed, and get this letter head design, was the same paper, well, the same xerox machine that these [Pentagon] Papers were printed onto. Of course, it's a 35-year old story, but it's interesting to some people who remember this horrible time when we had this crazy war. It sounds like today, America having a crazy war, where have we heard that before?
RBMA: One starts to wonder. You gave him his money back, right? Was it before or after he was in the court case?
Tom Oberheim: Well, he came to me about a year or so after he invested the sum, and he said: "Tom, I need my investment back," and I said "fine", and gave him his 1.000$ back - and that's the last time I ever saw him. The next time I heard anything about this was when someone knocked on my door and said: "Hello Mr Oberheim, I'm so-and-so from the FBI, have you seen Mr Russo?" [Who was] this guy, his name was Tony Russo. And I said: "No, I've not seen him for many months." And I didn't know why, and I only found out later that the US government was coming down on the guy who made these papers public, and my friend, who was his helper. So I had the FBI knocking at my door.
RBMA: Well, these days you can sell a lot of records with that (Tom laughs). Now, back to this little thing, that got you quite a few phone calls, especially with Los Angeles being the film capital.
Tom Oberheim: Right, probably one of the things that got me going after I decided to start the business, was before I designed this particular ring modulator, which was designed specifically for the performing musician, I designed some ring modulators that were earlier versions. As I was learning how to make them, word got around the music community in Los Angeles that I had this thing called a ring modulator, and I got a phone call from a movie composer who said: ”I'm doing a movie, and I want to use the ring modulator on the movie soundtrack.“ It was a soundtrack for the movie called Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, so I took the ring modulator to the studio and they used it on the soundtrack. Then, during the break, several of the people in the movie orchestra came up and said: ”Oooh, what's this? Can I buy one?“ So that was really the start of the business.
RBMA: So this was really like what we see every night on the streets here – ”cerveza beer?“ - and you'd go and approach people like an original merchant?
Tom Oberheim: I don't quite understand.
RBMA: It's really like a face-to-face business at this stage?
Tom Oberheim: Well, it was, yes. All I was doing was making a few of these for local musicians in Los Angeles. But then, when I decided to go from making just one ring modulator at a time - I think at the beginning they were rack mount type of things - I decided to do this (nods to 'official' Oberheim model). It was a time in music, pretty much in jazz only, I think the history books say it started when Miles Davis started doing this in the late ’60s on - I forget which album - but he insisted that Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, two famous keyboard players play for him, but he didn't want them to play acoustic piano, he wanted them to play the Fender Rhodes piano. It turned out that this was a sound that once the musicians had discovered it, it became very popular. But at the same time electronic music was starting to be heard on synthesizer records, but it was not possible in this time - this was ’69 to ’70 - to take a synthesizer on the road, unless of course you're Keith Emerson and you've got roadies and a big truck. There was no small synthesizer yet. So I started selling a lot of the ring modulators to people who would use them on their Fender Rhodes pianos, and there are records out - I just wasn't able to find any of them for today - so either Herbie Hancock, or Chick Corea playing solos with the Fender Rhodes through the ring modulator.
RBMA: Did that within the jazz community cause a similar reaction to Bob Dylan playing the electrified guitar at Newport?
Tom Oberheim: I think that was more the crowd reaction to Dylan playing the electric guitar. It was a little different to that. Well, I know for sure Keith Jarrett didn't really want to play electronics, he's said that in interviews, he hates electronics, but I think the jazz musicians who did this kind of experimental work with ring modulators, they immediately made it a musical thing and it was more accepted. In the case of the Dylan example, it wasn't so much a musical rejection, it was more like, 'Our hero is playing electric, how can this be?'
RBMA: A big part of your business at that time was from another entity of a similar size. Could you explain what a phase shifter is?
Tom Oberheim: Oh! Still in the 1960s, one of the things I did was I met some musicians - not at UCLA, but through some friends - who were doing what later in the ’70s we would call folk-rock. I don't know what it was called when I first met them, it was the kind of stuff that lead to The Eagles and whatever. These people didn't need electronic devices because they were doing traditional music, but they did do some recording and I built them some sound amplification equipment. What was the question again?
RBMA: The phase-shifter?
Tom Oberheim: Oh yeah, and so this group of musicians were still in high school when I first started working with them, and they were trying everything. One of the things that they had discovered or listened to was George Harrison playing guitar through a Leslie speaker. I don't remember what Beatles song that was on, but I recently read about it in a really great book by one of the engineers who made a lot of The Beatles recordings. My friends were so fascinated by this idea instead of playing a guitar through an amp you play it through a Leslie rotating organ speaker and thought, 'That's a great sound'. And I thought, 'Well, that's a great sound', and I so was looking for another product, so I started to experiment. To make a long story short, I found a circuit called a phase shifter circuit, that simulated the sound of the swishy sound that you get from a Leslie speaker. At the time I was selling these ring modulators through this big marketing company, so I took the phase shifter to them, and they were interested and over the next three or four years I sold about a hundred thousand phase shifters because it was before MXR or any of the other companies. So that was the first phase shifter that was on the market. And that really put me in business, to the point where I now had enough money to do more things.
RBMA: To do the fun stuff.
Tom Oberheim: Yeah!
RBMA: I mean, that's quite a transition, going from soldering together a few circuits for your friends to go to to selling, how many units did you say? Six-figures?
Tom Oberheim: Over three or four years about a hundred thousand. Most of that time my company was just three or four people so it took four years to do it but it was really exciting. And, as we say in America, 'beans and rice', which means very little money to where I was actually starting to make some money with my company. It was an exciting time.
RBMA: But at the same time we're talking everything hand-made in your workshop?
Tom Oberheim: I had a place in those days, Oberheim was about one-fourth the size of this room. It was just myself and two or three other people, but some days we'd make 50 phase shifters. It was a good time.
RBMA: How long can you work on recreating something like that again and again? I mean, it sounds like conveyor belt work.
Tom Oberheim: If all you did was make them and ship them out the door, then it would be very boring work. But when you do that and at the same time you get a phone call from someone like Herbie Hancock or Jan Hammer, and they say: ”Tom, we love your phase shifter,“ I could work 24 hours and do it. And that's the way it's been for me for all the years I've been making electonic music stuff. For me, it's not 'make the stuff and make some money', it's, as we'll hear later when we play some music that has Oberheim on it, it's like even today it's still a thrill to build something. Because the process for me has always been that I use my engineering knowledge and love of music as my first step, and that's to build the instrument. But the process is not finished, that's only the start of the process. The process is only ends when that machine makes it into the hands of the musician and they complete the process. Even with something as simple as the phase shifter, I was just part of the process, and the feedback from these great musicians coming to me saying: ”Tom, I love this, I love the ring modulator, I love the phase shifter,“ and of course later, other things. It wasn't just like turning a crank, it was a thrilling thing, and if I do it again, it'll still be fun.
RBMA: So it feels a bit like unleashing a sonic nuke?
Tom Oberheim: Well, I guess most people in this room aren't looking forward to being a great lawyer or a great business manager and having a big company, but you're here because you make music, and there's something about making music that's hard to explain to people that don't. In my case, I don't make the music itself, but I'm part of the process, and in my case the process has been very fulfilling and exciting. I don't play the music, but I make the instrument and then I either go to hear the musicians play. Well, they started out as LPs and then CDs, so let's face it, not everybody in this world is creative, and that's a good thing, we're just different than most other people. Otherwise, you get a job at the insurance company or the bank or whatever and the important thing is to climb up the ladder of success. That's not what’s important to me. In my case I had a hit synthesizer, you'd like to have a hit record, I'm sure, but still, the process is just different for us. We're driven by a different power, I think.
RBMA: Now, when you deal with that different power on a day-to-day basis, and then, all of a sudden, you've got to face reality with your first NAMM show.
Tom Oberheim: When I look back now 30 years later it seems like it happened rather quickly. But for me, after I got the ring modulator and the phase shifter, I was able to go to some trade shows, and again, that's part of the process of building up, but it didn't happen over night. Rarely does it happen fast. You have to do the work and that means designing and selling, and going to trade shows and meeting musicians and doing all of this. Is that what [what you mean]?
RBMA: I'm just trying to imagine, what if I had an ARP 2600, and if I also had to sell it to someone at a trade show, what it would be like then? Because I imagine it's quite different from Anaheim, or the Frankfurt Music Fair.
Tom Oberheim: Well, I did the ring modulator, and then the phase shifter, and I was looking for a way to make a little more money to keep my company going, and so I started becoming an ARP dealer, I think that's what you're referring to. But I didn't show ARP’s at trade shows, I sold them in Los Angeles to different musicians, studio musicians, movie as well as a lot of jazz people. And it was starting to sell to rock musicians then, too, in the early ’70s. I'm not sure that's the answer you're looking for?
RBMA: There's something interesting in there, which is, on the one hand you go to these shows, and it's still interesting to see the atmosphere there, but there you’re representing something you build with your very own hands. Whereas with the other thing, you've got something pretty alright, but that thing probably lets you benefit on different levels.
Tom Oberheim: When I first started going to the trade shows like the NAMM show, it was to see what people were doing. The first Oberheim products were sold by a big company in Chicago, so I didn't have to do the selling. But I'd go to trade shows and see what other people were doing with different pedals and synthesizers, and started to get ideas. I'm not sure that's quite where you're going.
RBMA: But was that the only way to find out about these things?
Tom Oberheim: You mean synthesizers? The synthesizer was being accepted in movie music since the ’60s and there was a pioneer guy in Los Angeles who was a synthesizer expert. He wasn't a designer he was a user. I got to know him real well, and so I had my introduction into synthesizers around '71. I remember talking to him about the synthesizer work he did on Beach Boys and some other things, and not only did he do synthesizers, but he knew theremins and all of this. So, if some of you know "Good Vibrations", there's a point where this 'whooo whooo whoooo' - he was the guy who did that on "Good Vibrations" with a theremin. But there was a group of people in L.A. and he was kind of in the middle of it, where people were starting to use synthesizers and it was starting to grow. I was a part of that, not a big contributor yet, but I was seeing it was developing and growing. He was a guy who had this idea, if you've ever been to see a movie that said the sound is by THX, I think was the company, it has this big chord and then it all comes together in this fat harmonic chord. Well, that's kind of the poor digital copy of what this guy did with two large Moog synthesizers that makes your hair stand up on end when you hear the really big version, that he did on a record with a friend in the early ’70s. I should've brought that ’cause that sound alone is just great. But anyway, his name is Paul Beaver, and he was really a pioneer and I learnt a lot from him. That's where I think the spark of wanting to be involved in synthesizers began and he showed me some things and made me think, ’What is this thing? It's really interesting’.
RBMA: Could you help us a bit - if you recall that moment when you were standing before a [ARP] 2600, and whether you're in front of a software, or a classic analogue piece, there's all these buttons and faders and stuff, and you just want to create a sound that's not been used before, are there some general techniques of how to find your way or manoeuvre around the surface of such a thing?
Tom Oberheim: In the days when Oberheim was starting to build syntheziers, a young engineer came to me and said: ”Tom, I really want to build synthesizers.” And I said: ”OK, well, then explain to me the basic analogue synthesizer patch.“ What we call the basic patch. And he said: ”What do you mean? I don't know, what is this basic patch?“ And I said: ”OK, well then, goodbye!“ Now, I could get real philosophical and talk about how this relates to physics and whatever.
RBMA: Can we do the CliffsNotes version of it?
Tom Oberheim: Yeah, OK, so if you take an ARP 2600, or a Minimoog, or a large Moog, or any analogue synth, the place where you start and where you do 90% of your work, is very simple: it's two oscillators - and you can choose the different wave forms - that may not track a keyboard, depending on how adventurous you are, and those two oscillators go through a simple two input mixer into a voltage-controlled filter, and then the voltage-controlled filter goes to the voltage-controlled amplifier, and you have an envelope generator to modulate the filter, and you have an envelope generator to modulate the VCA. That's it! I mean, you could take everything off a 2600, but if you had two oscillators that you mix into the VCF, and two envelope generators to the VCA, you could make incredible analogue synthesizer music with just that. And the power of analogue synthesis is this idea of the basic patch is so simple to understand from a mechanical point of view. You know, oscillator, oscillator, filter, VCA, envelope generator, envelope generator - that's it! You've all heard synthesizer music, and analogue synthesizer music, that's the essence. Everything else is like the windshield wipers on a car. You don't need it, it's nice and you can do something with it. But the basic patch is, when you understand that, and you understand how to make good sounds with that, that's the essence of analogue synthesis. It's that simple. And once I learned that and I read that in an obscure little book, it was actually the ARP2600 owners manual, they talk about that on page one. And once you do that and understand that, that's the basics, then everything else you add one by one. But the basic patch is what it's all about. You do that, then you're making great sounds.
RBMA: This is obviously a chance to go off on about eight million different tangents. Can we get a quick show of hands who wants a one on one about what these elements are? Like waveforms and stuff? Is that interesting? Yes, no, maybe? If not, we do it later. OK, well that's a good half. Can we take it [there]?
Tom Oberheim: Well, keep in mind that the basics are two oscillators, filter, VCA, two envelope generators. Now, you can have three oscillators, you can have more, you can always expand it, but then when it comes to waveforms, waveform is like in an orchestra, the difference between a flute and a violin. Do you want a flute, do you want a violin, do you want a clarinet? Or in this case, do you want a sawtooth, a square wave, sine wave, and these are now really easy concepts and you change the waveform, you change the quality, but you haven't changed the basic patch. It's still oscillators into the filter with envelope modulation. So you want a little different quality? You can change the waveform from sawtooth to pulse. If you want a sound that moves in time, you can modulate one of these things. But it's just keeping in mind the basic patch, and you can change these little elements one by one.
RBMA: Can we do it probably in a graphic or karaoke version? I mean, you've got the oscillator, which is the first thing you start with.
Tom Oberheim: Well, the best way to make a really awful synthesizer sound is to work with one oscillator. You always have two and you don't really need three. Three adds very little, but you can't do it with one. So that's the first basic lesson you learn. Well, at least that's how I think of it when trying to make a really good sound. You can't do it with one, so you have two oscillators. Then, to get the overall writing quality, you do different things with the filter.
RBMA: What does the filter actually do? I mean, let's start with something simple, say a sine wave. Ben [Zinc]], can you do a sine wave sound?
Tom Oberheim: A sine wave's not a good example.
RBMA: There you go. We're amateurs, you have to teach us.
Tom Oberheim: The idea behind the filter is to change the overtones that are coming out. So if you want more high end, you open the filter. If you want more of a mellow sound, you lower the filter. But what's more important is that you can modulate the filter. You can make the filter setting move through time by an envelope generator, and what this leads to is the sound you hear, especially in the early synthesizer days. Another thing you can do with the filter is to add what's called resonance, which makes a little peaking sounds. And then, as you use the envelope to change the filter frequency with the resonace turned up, you get the famous 'pweeeeeeoooooww' sound and that's been used probably too much. But you just add these things one by one and see what they do, and it's up to the creativity of the musician using it [as] to how these things come together to make real music.
RBMA: A lot of your later machines were credited with having that 'fat' or 'warm' sound. Are these categories that apply to an engineer in any sense?
Tom Oberheim: Well, this is of course something I had to deal with for all the years that I made synthesizers. Why does the Oberheim have a certain sound? Why does the Minimoog have a certain sound? I've never heard of a good engineering explanation as to why a Minimoog sounds better than, say, some lesser synthesizer. From an engineering point of view it's probably too complex to analyse, but it has to do with whether it's a Minimoog filter or an Oberheim filter. There's a little bit of distortion, the way the harmonics are subtracted out as you change the filter frequency. You can't explain them from an engineering point of view, because the ear is much more sensitive to sounds in many ways than you can use a piece of test equpiment. It's like in the studio, some peope say: ”I would never use a digital mixer because I want the sound of an analogue fader.“ I don't know if people still do that, because the ear and the brain are so much more sensitive than engineering instruments.
RBMA: You just mentioned the Moog, and the late Robert Moog very much argued that there're still parts of the ghosts of the men who made it in the machine.
Tom Oberheim: Well, I got to know Bob Moog quite well, although he was an East Coast guy, and I was a West Coast guy, so I didn't see him that often. But Bob was not the kind of person you forgot. He was very warm, a very funny guy, he wasn't a snob at all. You could go and have a drink or two with him and have a lot of fun. He had a quality, and I'd like to think I have a similar quality, too, and I've known other engineers who didn't have this quality, is that he appreciated, like I do, the result of the engineering work we did. And I mentioned it before, this wonderful music that comes out of great musicians using this equipment - and I don't mean great by fame, I mean great by their devotion – and, of course it’s well known he was a good friend of Keith Emerson - and I remember the story of when he got to know Keith Emerson in the Emerson, Lake & Palmer days. Keith was using a big Moog that was impossible to take on tour because it needed a roadie full time just to keep it going, but still, he was able to understand what Keith was doing. He appreciated what Keith and other great users did, whether with the Minimoog or whatever. So he was able to take the knowledge he had of engineering and the love he had of music and continuously refined the process of making his machines sound great. And I'd like to think that I had some success there as well, because I think I can tell the difference between a fat synthesizer and a not so fat synthesizer. We won't mention any names, but I think ultimately one... hmmm, this isn't necessarily a good thing to say, but people are drawn to something that has a different kind of musical element, even though it's a machine. Now, that doesn't mean that it's clean, or without distortion, by any means. Maybe it's got just the right amount of distortion for one person's taste, or maybe it's got lots of distortion for somebody's taste, it's hard to explain. But in terms of the classic analogue synthesizer sound, what Moog was able to do partially by design and by how he loved music and understood music, was that when you have this big analogue synthesizer sound and it's one of these 'bwwwoooooooow' sounds, and you get to the bottom and the thing dies out. Well, maybe that's not the best. You want to hear the walls shake, and he understood that.
RBMA: I kind of like it how there's this element of hip hop in there - there's the East Coast and the West Coast, there's a lot of hating on the really wack competition, and you don't even want to give them props by naming them.
Tom Oberheim: Well, I wasn't so much thinking East Coast, West Coast, hip hop, I was thinking that over the years I've known - or the synthesizers I have known and not loved. Now, in the hands of a creative musician, which we presume all of you are, even the worst synthesizer on the planet can become an effective tool. But still there's just certain things that I love in the way of sound, and you might love something completely different. To me, what drove me to work 16 hours a day for years and years and loving every minute is not when I have the soldering iron in my hand, and I get down and think, ’Oooh, look at this great circuit’, it's when I hear it and when I hear someone take this great sound. And it's like: ”I made that, and it makes that music?“ It's just... (clasped chest) But still I think it's different kinds of synthesizers make different sounds, and I'm more from the classic period you might say of the ’70s and ’80s, and I've learned in many cases there's stuff that I've looked down on in the ’80s and now I hear them being used in the newer music, like the stuff that you people make, and it's like: ”Oh, I didn't realise that that could make that great a sound.“ So it's education. I have to admit that my love of making synthesizers is big fat sounds, and that happens to be what I happen to like. And fortunately, there's other people on the planet who happen to like that as well, so it's been fun.
RBMA: There's a part two to the hip hop analogy as well because in the same place that you were really tough competitors in the market place, there seems to be an awful lot of respect for certain key players as well.
Tom Oberheim: Well, when I was starting to do synthesizers, and through the late ’70s and ’80s, the main competition was... Well, ARP was never really a competitor because by the time I was building my Oberheim stuff, ARP was pretty much out of business, but still there was a point in time where I was – well, one of my claims to fame would be the first polyphonic synthesizer that you could buy in a music store - so I had some fame for a couple of years. But then the Prophet 5 came along, and pretty much almost put me out of business, but it pushed me onto other stuff. In those days Sequential Circuits was run by a guy named Dave Smith, and he could sell everything he could make, and I could sell everything I could make, so we were technically competitors, but it wasn't ever a problem. Same thing with Roger Linn, who's a good friend, he had the LM-1 and the Linn Drum, and I had the DMX, and again, we could sell pretty much everything we could build. And so, yes, we were competitors, but it wasn't like he was taking my sales away, we co-existed. Now, I don't know in the hip hop world how the co-existence works, maybe it's not as friendly.
RBMA: Well, to close this little hip hop trilogy off, most of you guys meet up nowadays in a thing called the Dead Presidents Society, was there some kind of institution like that back then?
Tom Oberheim: No, that didn't existed then because when Roger and Dave and I were in the snythesizer business, it was this frantic race to utilise the latest technology. Because the technology was changing so fast, when I look back on it, I was really only in the synthesizer business ten years, from ’75 to ’85, and if you look at the first synthesizer I did in ’74/’75, and then ten years later, technologically they're so different. We'd maybe meet at the trad show and have dinner together, but we were all so busy trying to do the next best thing, or make enough profit to keep the company going, or worry about the technology or whatever, that we didn't have time then to meet often for social things. We were running scared, all of us small companies. This was the time when we were all looking over our shoulder to Japan, because it was about the time in ’80 when Japan was getting into the synthesizer business and we were worried about that. So we were always running as fast as we could, we didn't have a lot of time for social things.
RBMA: Just before the Japanese enter the game here, you and Bob [Moog], despite the respect, had very different views on polyphony.
Tom Oberheim: Oh, yeah!
RBMA: Could you first of all explain what that is?
Tom Oberheim: Well, the synthesizers that were made up until 1975 were all monophonic, in that you could only play one note. You could put five fingers on a keyboard, but you'd only get one note, one sound. Well, you could have lots of pitches, but it was still one note. I had done an experiment with a friend of mine, who was an experimental composer in Los Angeles in the ’70s, who was really a fantastic keyboard improviser. He would improvise on themes he took from the audience for the first half of the concert, and in the second half we would hook up some ring modulators, and a Revox tape recorder for tape echo and things like this, and he'd do live electronic music. And during one of those concerts, I brought two 2600’s, which were monophonic synthesizers, but I had built a little circuit board within the ARP 2600’s that allowed you to play two keys and two pitches - not two voices, the two oscillators could be played at two pitches - they still had to go through one filter and one VCA. But I took two 2600’s to one of these concerts and set it up so he could play some simple four-part Bach-type stuff, and even though it was extremely crude - we had to very carefully set the synthesizer - to me, it sounded like this is something I have to pursue because it just sounded great to hear polyphonic music on a synthesizer, although that was not really practical yet. So this was in the back of my mind, which lead a few years later to me doing a true polyphonic synthesizer.
RBMA: So, polyphony against monophony in just one sentence?
Tom Oberheim: It's the ability to play more than one note at a time. If you have a four-voice polyphonic synthesizer, you can play four notes, whereas on a Minimoog or an ARP 2600, you can only play one note. That's the difference. I think if synthesizers had stayed monophonic, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting a world as it is today. At least not for me.
RBMA: Nevertheless, could you understand Bob's stance towards it?
Tom Oberheim: Well, the way he came into synthesizers was the idea that a synthesizer could make very complex sounds and then you could overdub to add them together, like the famous Switched On Bach, which really put synthesizers on the map. Bob didn't really concentrate in the early days on making instruments for musicians who went on tours or who were performing musicians. Of course, as I said earlier, if you had enough resources, you could take a big modular Moog on the road, but you'd have to have a roadie and all that. My goal from the beginning when I was doing this with the ring modulator and the phase-shifter, was to build equipment for musicians who want to tour with the equpiment or carry it from one place to another and wasn't just locked in their studio. It could be, as I said in an ad once ”take the studio to the stage“, so he was always thinking more in terms of, ’Well, you're in the studio, you can overdub like Carlos did on Switched On Bach, so you don't need polyphony ’cause you can do it by overdubbing’. But if someone wants to play polyphonic synthesizer stuff on tour, they can't overdub, obviously.
RBMA: I guess, his favourite quote in that context was: ”If God had meant you to sing in polyphony, he would have given you more than one voice.“
Tom Oberheim: I guess, but he did give us more than one finger.
RBMA: Well, too late to argue on that one. But the thing that gives us the next and very important topic in designing these interfaces, is the interface as such: do you use an interface or not?
Tom Oberheim: The interesting thing about the invention of the synthesizer was that it wasn't exclusively the invention of Bob Moog ’cause at the same time as Bob was inventing the synthesizer in New York, there was another engineer that I also see at our coffee on Thursdays called Don Buchla, he also invented the synthesizer about the same time Bob Moog did. They didn't know each other, it was just independent. Bob's philosophy was to make it so that you could relate to it from a conventional musicians point of view, so you had a black and white regular conventional keyboard. Buchla didn't believe in that, and still doesn't to this day that much, so he was building synthesizers that you interfaced with various kinds of touch keyboards, and other non-traditional controller ideas. So thats the way some people go in one direction, and some go in another direction.
RBMA: What's the thing we see there (video screen)?
Tom Oberheim: OK, this is an Oberheim Four-Voice polyphonic synthesizer. This is what really put me on the map in 1975, and the way this synth was born, was in 1974 I developed a little snythesizer module, and you can see four of these modules on this machine. The idea of this module among other things was to fatten up the sound or add to the sound of, say, a Minimoog, or an ARP 2600. It was just a synth that had slightly different sound from Moog or ARP and you could parallel them together and you could get slightly different sound. Originally, this module was just going to be that module by itself to implement the sound on existing machine. But I remembered this experiment I did with my friend several years before at this concert, where we did a kind of crude polyphonic thing. Then one day I decided I just had to do this, and so in January 1975, I got the idea to put four or eight of these modules together with just a simple digital keyboard and have the first polyphonic synthesizer. And so I designed this module, it was already in existence when I made this decision, so it took me about six weeks to design this machine. Later, these things would take a year to design, but this one I did in six weeks. Actually, it was a matter of survival, ’cause up to this point in time the company in Chicago that had been selling lots of my phase shifters and ring modulators, and I had some other pedals by this time also, and one day in January 1975 they called up and said: ”Tom, times are bad, our business isn't good and we're cancelling all our orders with you.“ So, all of a sudden, I had no real business and that's when I said: ”Well, maybe the time has come to do this polyphonic idea.“ So I took this module I already had, and put four of them together with a keyboard and a few months later showed it at the NAMM show, and the Oberheim synthesizer world was born. It was kind of out of desperation. But sometimes we need to be pushed along in what we're going to do - you have to get it done by tomorrow, you better get it done. So things we normally wouldn't do if we had lots of time to do them.
RBMA: I guess, this would be the time where we should probably listen to something as well. So this is a little medley of things you put together.
Tom Oberheim: What I've got here is a few examples of Oberheim things that I love.
(music: Pat Metheny - Are You Going With Me?)
This is the Pat Metheny Group, one of my favourite musical groups, and the orchestral sound is an Oberheim. So the kind of string sound, that's an Oberheim.
This is a famous Doobie Brothers song, and that sound you hear in the background is an Oberheim. So the orchestral sound is the Oberheim.
(music: Gary Wright - Dream Weaver)
This next song is ”Dream Weaver" by Gary Wright - big hit in the late 70's. All of the synthesizer stuff are Oberheim. Sorry, not all of it is Oberheim, some of it is electric piano. First people were experimenting with the orchestral sound, but little by little they started to get a bit more adventurous, as we'll see in the next song. That's not an Oberheim, that's of course a Rhodes. So the string sound and some of the other backing is Oberheim.
(music: Rush - Tom Sawyer)
Now we get a tiny bit more adventurous, with the Oberheim. This is "Tom Sawyer" by Rush. I can barely hear it. Who wants it louder? Yes! Torsten, this sound level is for little old ladies, can we bring it up a little?
RBMA: I know there's a better version on mine.
Tom Oberheim: Oh, good. OK. Basically, what happened I think is that one of the early interests people had in the Oberheim was the desire to do a bigger sound live, and some of this was orchestral stuff that people were doing, and it took a while before people who used the Oberheim a lot got into more adventurous stuff. So what I've tried to do with this medley is start it with this orchestral backing and then slowly build up.
(music: Rush - Tom Sawyer continues)
It's a little better!
RBMA: Another one of your earlier customers. Oh, did we get through [the medley]?
Tom Oberheim: There's some more.
RBMA: Might as well get through it.
Tom Oberheim: I call this 20th century classical music. It's from the past, but it's still good. For me.
(music: Stanley Clarke - Strange Weather)
This is Stanley Clarke, a jazz bass player and a song called ”Strange Weather". This is him and I don't know who the keys player is, it might have been him overdubbing in the studio. Little by little people got a little more adventurous. As we were talking earlier about the basic patch, this is very simple oscillators and filters. There's nothing complicated about the patches on this.
(music: Weather Report - Birdland)
This is one of my favourites since it’s what I call one of the Oberheim demo records, which is Weather Report "Birdland", which was popular in '77 or '78. Now, there's no Oberheim in this part, the synthesizer on this part is an ARP 2600, but he uses the Oberheim later for a kind of big band sound. This is still the same song, I just skipped to the Oberheim part. Then the all time Oberheim demo, this is nothing but Oberheim, drums and bass.
Tom Oberheim: You have to play it now!
RBMA: This is what's called a rewind. It's the ultimate audience appreciation.
Tom Oberheim: Oh, is that all we're gonna hear?
(music: Van Halen – Jump / applause)
RBMA: Obviously, at that time my parents couldn't get any of these machines, I guess, none of ours could. I mean, how many units did you sell of this?
Tom Oberheim: Of the polyphonic stuff? Not that many in those days.
RBMA: What was the going rate for it?
Tom Oberheim: It was 4 or 5.000 dollars? But what else? I mean, TR-808’s weren't sitting in used music stores or whatever for $300. You were in it or you weren't in it. The first track I played of my medley was Pat Metheny Group, which is a very popular jazz group, and they've been in existence for almost 30 years, and very, very popular. I saw Pat Metheny about a year ago at a concert that he gave, a fantastic concert, and after all the people who wanted to say hello to him had left, I waited around and he talked to me and said: "You know Tom, when I started my group I had to have an Oberheim, and I took the last money from my paper round to help pay for my Oberheim." And I think I was telling Torsten, I knew Tangerine Dream in the early days, because they bought an Oberheim in the very early days of Oberheim polyphonic in ’76, and I visited them in Berlin many times. They would do a concert and take every pfennig or whatever it was, and put it into gear. So, yes, they were expensive, but what else was there? If you had to have it, you had to have it. So people found ways, and I'm sure you find ways, too, if you have to have something you must do. Of course, it's a different mix then. Like I said, I was mainly oriented towards the performing musician that would play in clubs and go on tours. But most of them in the early days weren't rich, so it was expensive, but that's all there was.
RBMA: When did you find out about that second generation that were using this stuff? Like the second-hand markets that were re-using your gear?
Tom Oberheim: Well, in a very general simple sense, the synthesizer world went from analogue in the ’70s and the early ’80s and then became digitalised with the DX-7 and other digital machines mainly from Japan, and this kind of killed analogue. I think there was one time when no company was making analogue synths. Then computers got more powerful, and now it went to plug-in’s, but it's like these different threads are going along and one will come and one will go, and another one will come along. I assume most of you have seen a DX-7, or know what one is, it's a digital synthesizer that was real popular, and it came on the scene and exploded and five years later it was dead. And analogue did the same thing, it became very popular in the late ’70s early ’80s and then it died out. These things come and go and other things get big and die, it's a continual process. So there was a time when you could buy an Oberheim – well, it was before eBay - but you could buy an Oberheim for nothing. You could get a Four-Voice for $200. Now, of course, it's a little different. I think it's cycles, probably in another five years, nobody'll want it again, who knows? It's continually cycles.
RBMA: And even in these cycles, it really depends on where you are. I mean, $50 might mean a terribly different thing depending on where you are, or those hundred dollars. Here's a little example of some boys that used an Oberheim in their local church, because it had this really fat organ sounds again, and did something quite different with it.
(music: X-101 - Sonic Destroyer)
I guess, you get the idea. Now, this is maybe not necessarily what you design the machines for in the first place.
Tom Oberheim: Oh, that's absolutely not true. This is the first time I’ve heard this track when I came here today, and it wouldn't necessarily be the kind of music I'd listen to all day long, but I love it, it's great. I suppose, if I heard it in a different context... I don't go around listening to songs thinking, ’Oh, is there an Oberheim on that?’ I listen to the music to listen to the music, so the fact it's got Oberheim on it, that's great but the instruments are made knowing that the process isn't done. So whether it's Pat Metheny, soft jazz almost symphonic in a way, or something like this, which is almost a completely different genre, I have the same feeling. Now, I won't say that everything I hear I like, but it's the same in every music. But I don't agree, I think the same emotion is there. I built this thing, you give it to a musician, and they do what they want to do with it. Not everyone is going to do soft jazz, thank goodness.
RBMA: Well, in a pretty direct way, these guys were influenced kind of heavily by another artist you had a stronger relation with. (speakers hum) And that is not the hum.
Tom Oberheim: I don't think that was an Oberheim.
RBMA: It's kind of hard to get the right song.
(music: Stevie Wonder – Village Ghetto Land)
Anyway, you get the hint.
Tom Oberheim: OK, let me talk about this because this not an Oberheim, as a matter of fact, although there is an Oberheim story here. This was in fact a big, monstrous, 250 lb Yamaha machine called a CS-80, I think. This is Stevie Wonder Songs In The Key Of Life, and at the time that he was making this album, I had a friend in America who was a producer, and wrote a column in a magazine called Mix [Magazine]. Have you ever read Mix Magazine, any of you? No? OK, it's a recording studio magazine, and my friend wrote for that. Anyway, he knew Stevie Wonder very well, and in the early days of developing the Oberheim, he took me to the studio in Hollywood where Stevie was doing Songs In The Key Of Life. I met Stevie and it was just coincidentally that I had the first prototype of the Oberheim, so I took it to the studio and Stevie loved it. Now, what you hear here is a CS-80, but what he used later was an Oberheim, and he bought it. I was like: ”Wow, my first sale is Stevie Wonder,“ which never hurts to have something like that. I'm not sure which songs he used it for on Songs In The Key Of Life, I'm not sure he used it on that, but thanks Torsten for playing that, because it is connected, but that was the CS-80. You wouldn't want to carry the CS-80 to your studio, or anything else, because it weighed something like 300 lbs, crazy machine. There were only two or three ever made, I think. But thank you.
Participant: He had two.
Tom Oberheim: He had two? Well, maybe they made 10 or 20. I forget who had one now, but it was a monster. What was interesting was that ultimately, in the studio, I don't know if Stevie ever said this, but one of the engineers said this, after Stevie learnt the Oberheim, he got much better sounds out of that than from the Yamaha. Now, the Yamaha had more capability, but it's not the sound I like. It was encouraging.
RBMA: I think the first time I saw the word Oberheim was on the back of a Stevie record, or the first time I saw one was on the back of a Stevie record, a very popular record with my mother that I didn't like so much at the first sight. But then I turned it around, and saw, ooh, there's a different song on the flip side, and next to the song was this picture of Stevie sitting in this castle of keyboards, and in the middle of it, yeah, there was an Oberheim, and he had everything that was written on it in braille.
Tom Oberheim: Oh yeah, sure, and he was also very good at playing the 2600, because the paint on the 2600 panel, he learned. So in other words there were little marks, the 2600 is all fader type things, and he would feel the marks and he would programme that himself. He couldn't see it, but in the end it's not how it looks, it's how it sounds.
RBMA: He had two guys with him who also did other crazy electronic stuff. I always tend to mix up their names. Lars (sitting in the audience), bitte?
Lars: Tonto's Expanding Head Band?
Tom Oberheim: Oh, yeah! There was a couple of guys in Los Angeles who made this monstrous analogue synthesizer - what was his name, crazy guy? Bob Margouleff, who was a producer on early Stevie Wonder, and this other guy [, Malcom Cecil], they had many different synthesizers, and this thing they had called Tonto's Expanding Head Band was ARP's and a little Oberheim and some Moog's and a big monstrous thing. I don't think they took that to Stevie's studio though, that one didn't move.
RBMA: Now, when you were starting out, it sounds like you were some sort of circuitry chef, like you were in the kitchen and handing it out to other people to enjoy the feast. What role did these people play in the middle?
Tom Oberheim: Well, first let me say, to this day I'm not the kind of circuit design expert that Bob Moog was. He was a genius with circuitry. Although most people look at his fame as having invented the synthesizer and what he did there, but it's from an engineer's point of view and some of the circuitry he did that I admire. Because, as I said earlier, he had worked with another engineer, this guy Bowder came up with the original idea of having patch cords and stuff, but Moog did the filter that we all love. People talk about the Minimoog filter, but it all started with the big Moog Modular, that was Bob's invention down to the transistor level. He was a genius there. When I did Oberheim, I didn't consider myself a great circuit guy, so I had help. In one case part of the Oberheim module was designed by an engineer at ARP, and another was designed by an engineer at E-mu, by the guy who started E-mu, who originally started as a company building modular synths before they invented the sampler, or helped invent the sampler. So I had help there. I spent time putting the modules together and making it so that it was at least partially playable by a human being. It wasn't always easy.
RBMA: There's an awful lot of things that we haven't even gone near yet, and one thing that we definitely can't miss out on is we've talked about synths, and probably there isn't a difference, but a lot of people know you for this little thing as well (connects to screen). What you should see here is a DMX drummachine. Can you tell us what you learnt from building synths and how you implemented that into the drummachine?
Tom Oberheim: Well, there's a few stories, I guess, about the DMX. In 1979, by then I had been in the polyphonic synthesizer business three plus years, and someone mentioned to me that this guy named Roger Linn had invented a programmable drummachine. And I wondered, ”What is that?“ You probably weren't exposed to this, but in the early days there was the Hammond organ, and they made little boxes that would play electronic tango or crap, really just horrible stuff, and nothing you'd ever want to listen to very long. But when I heard about this progammable drummachine by this guy Roger Linn, who I hadn’t met, I thought, ’Well, it's programmable, so you make your own rhythms, and it's real drum sounds. This is a genius of an idea!’ So it turned out Roger was in L.A. and those days I was in L.A., so I invited him over to my office. In those days, I had 20 or 25 people, so I was really in business, and Roger was just himself, he was a rock’n roll guitar player that had this idea. So we talked for a while and I said: ”Why don't we do this together? We'll make it and sell it and pay you a royalty.“ He said: ”No, I want to start my own company, I want to do it myself on my own.“ So Roger went off and started his company Linn Electronics and the first product was the LM-1. Later on, he did the Linn Drum, and we thought, ’Well, this absolutely connects to the synthesizer. It's not a synthesizer, but the two go together.“ So we came up with our own drummachine, which is called the DMX. And it was another situation where Roger could sell all he could make, and we could sell all that we could make, so again, we were technically competitors, but we weren't fighting it out. And some people liked the sound of the LM-1 and the Linn Drum, and the particular sounds he had and the particular user interface he had, and some people liked what we had. But that lead to another thing I'll just mention very briefly. Before long we realised that we've got the synthesizer that's controlled... By then, we had the OB-X and the OB-Xa that were computer-controlled and progammable and could store patches of memory so they were controlled by a computer. So we designed a computer interface for the OB-Xa, and also I hired a young kid who hadn't even finished high school, and gave him the job of designing the first polyphonic sequencer we called the DSX and then we figured out a way to hook all these together. And this was before MIDI, MIDI hadn't even been invented yet. So we had this what we called the Oberheim system, which was a synthesizer that was driven by the DSX sequencer that sent a clock to the DMX that synchronised the drums to the sequencer, so that was popular for a year or two until MIDI was invented.
RBMA: First of all, what is MIDI? And I understand that MIDI wasn't a sole invention as such either, there was a lot of different people involved, right?
Tom Oberheim: Well, there wasn't that many people involved. The idea for MIDI started with Dave Smith, who he was the founder of Sequential Circuits and the Prophet 5, and is now back in business with the 08, doing very well. He had the idea for what we call MIDI, which is a way of hooking synthesizers together using digital signals. He first presented that idea by himself at a technical conference, and then later he expanded and started working with Roland. Really, MIDI wasn't that many people, it was basically this guy Dave Smith at Sequential, and then Roland did most of the work, and now, of course, MIDI is everywhere. But it was really just the work of a couple of engineers at Roland and this guy Dave Smith and one of his engineers, and now it's everywhere. At first we wondered if it would work that well, but over years software engineers have found ways to make it work pretty well. It's used a lot, and Dave's another one of my good friends. He doesn't live in San Francisco, where we have our coffee on Thursdays, but he lives maybe two hours away, so I see him every once in a while. We don't talk about the old days, we talk about what's happening now. People think we have this coffee thing with all these electronic music people, but we don't talk about electronic music, we talk about: ”Can you get OSX to work with this program?“ ”Oh, no.” ”How do you get this to work? Let’s call our friend at Apple." That's what we talk about at coffee, we don't talk about synthesizers (laughs).
RBMA: What did you have to tackle differently in selling a machine that only contained a handful of sounds, instead of a machine that rather gives you almost infinite possibilities?
Tom Oberheim: At the time when the DMX and the Linn Drum came on the market, there had been some drum synthesizers. There was a company in England, one in the US, and they just weren't successful. So I think at that time, about 1979 or 1980, whereas synthesizers can be programmed to sound just by changing a few things, people want real drum sounds. They want real drum sounds because, like I said, I catered for making instruments for travelling musicians, and I won't go into the philosophy of telling your drummer to go to hell, although that did happen to some extent. But for whatever reason people wanted real drum sounds, and they weren't that interested in synthesized drums because it's a lot harder to synthesize a real powerful drum sound. Although it's do-able as the TR-8 proved, ’cause there's some sounds in the TR-808 that aren't recorded, but it takes a lot of work to make it sound good. So it was easier just to do recordings that you could play back. By then, the Fairlight was an entity, so we understood the Fairlight and sampling was just beginning. So it wasn't a big thing yet, but we knew we could do it. Basically, the market wanted real drum sounds, not synthesized. The mindset was a little different then. We listened to the track from the Detroit guys, I mean, the drum makes it happen. I just never heard in 1980, not in 2008 or ’09, I just don't think the drum snythesizer that were available then had the power people wanted. So it never became popular. So the recorded sounds was what people wanted, at least I perceived that at the time.
RBMA: From today's nerd perspective it's an absolutely fantastic thing that you need a programmer and burn your own little chip to change a sound, but I imagine at the time, if I had to build such a thing, I would be so devastated.
Tom Oberheim: Well, there were people making different drum chips at the time. We eventually made a product at Oberheim that you could burn your own drum chips, it was called The Prommer. It wasn't very successful, but there were companies that sprung up in garages and did this kind of work, and so there were little companies you could buy drum chips from. In fact, that's exactly how Digidesign started. It was two guys in a garage building drum chips for Linn Drums and Oberheim drummachines. Then they got the idea to do hard disk recording, and of course, now Digidesign is monstrous.
RBMA: They've done quite alright.
Tom Oberheim: Yeah, they've done OK.
RBMA: Ever thought you should have chipped in there, and given them a $250 dollar grant or something?
Tom Oberheim: Well, when they got out of the drum chip business, and got into recording on hard disks, that was a big step, and they were the first to do that successfully.
RBMA: Probably, there's a lot of beat-heads in here, so I'll probably just run through a couple of those Oberheim drum sounds, who loads of you will recognise from anywhere from Lionel Richie to Run DMC and back. (plays a selection of Oberheim drum sounds) Are we playing a round of ’spot the drum’, now? And anyone yells out names of things? (plays a selection) But obviously, these are really sad sampled renditions of it, and it's a totally feel again from having the actual instrument in your hands.
Tom Oberheim: Hearing what you're playing, it seems they're a little cleaner than a DMX.
RBMA: Just a little bit.
Tom Oberheim: ’Cause in the early early days of sampling, all the circuitry necessary to do high quality sampling was expensive. It was before the days of CDs and digital recording wasn't very popular yet, so we had to make do with a fairly crude recording, but the DMX was our most popular and most successful product, so obviously, people liked what they heard. I guess, some still use it, although it's only been eight or nine months ago that I took my DMX out of the attic and put it in the trash ’cause I thought I'd never need it again. I should've brought it with me, we could've had a raffle.
RBMA: Or we could've had a pretty nice auction in here, I guess. You did other companies later, but one crucial point I want to touch upon before we open it to the floor, is that at some stage you walked down the street or into a shop, and you saw an Oberheim product that wasn't yours anymore ’cause you lost the name. Is that like losing a child?
Tom Oberheim: Well, it's a slightly different emotion. Let me first say that I haven't ever actually walked into a music store and seeing an Oberheim that wasn't mine. But I know you're talking in more of a metaphorical way. You might ask: ”Why did you stop in 1985?“ Well, this is very much an American story, and I'll make it very brief. Essentially, what happened is when I started the company, I hired a lawyer to do the basic company stuff. I decided I wanted to make it a corporation, and so this lawyer did the stuff that you do to make it a corporation, the paperwork. Over the years I went to him for advice as Oberheim got bigger. Then in 1985, Oberheim got in trouble financially because we were developing the Matrix 12, which was the biggest and most expensive machine we'd done, and basically we weren't careful with the finance, and we pretty much ran out of money. So I went to this lawyer, whom I'd known for 15 years and trusted, and he gave me advice that over the first few months of 1985 led to pushing the company to the edge of bankruptcy. It wasn't that Oberheim wasn't making a profit, but we were taking the profit and using it to buy parts for the Matrix 12, and we just ran out of money. And, of course, it was a big mistake. I should've been more conservative because the Matrix 12, I don't know if you've ever seen one, it's a big machine, 12-voice, polyphonic, etc., etc. So anyway, my lawyer convinced me that he had a plan, that even though Oberheim wasn't going to continue in the way it had been, he had a plan. He told me if I didn't follow his plan, the bank that Oberheim owed money to would probably not only shut down Oberheim, but also would take my house. The thought of that wasn't very happy to me nor my wife, so I went with his advice and it was a complicated legal thing involving lawyers with stuff that I didn't understand, didn't make a lot of sense, but to make a long story short, he ended up buying the assets from the Oberheim bank with the plan that he and I talked about that we'd be 50/50 partners in this new company that owned the assets for Oberheim. But the 50/50 never happened. After working for him for about a year and a half, and also talking to other people, and Oberheim also did a little work in patents, and I had a patent attorney who helped me get some patents, and I went to lunch with him one day, and I told him what happened, and he said: ”He's screwed you!“ And I was like: ”Wow, I thought he was such a great guy.“ And he was: ”No, he should never have done that.“ And, of course, by then it was history, and so that was the end of Oberheim for me. Then, what he did was drain all of the readily available money out of what was left of Oberheim, and he then gave to Gibson for future royalties, the Oberheim name and the Oberheim logo. So that's why Gibson now owns the Oberheim name. So that's the sad story of the end of Oberheim. So I had nothing to do with the OB-12, or the... Oh, there's several things made by Gibson and also made by Viscount, I had nothing to do with any of those. So, as far as I'm concerned, those are not Oberheim products.
RBMA: You went on and founded Marion & SeaSound, but probably what's a lot more interesting to the people here is, that's like the ultimate scenario of mistrust and everything that you always fear about. Like, ”Oh! Stinky lawyers.“ You called it an American story, and in a way it is, in Europe everyone is incredibly afraid of ever going bankrupt, ever, otherwise you immediately need to commit harakiri-style suicide. Whereas over there it seems like...
Tom Oberheim: It happens a lot.
RBMA: How did you find the strength to brush yourself off and try again?
Tom Oberheim: Well, that's the love of doing it. I think I made the point that I didn't do this to get rich, I did it because it's thrilling to make instruments, whether it's these guys in Detroit or Eddie Van Halen or whoever. I never met Eddie Van Halen, but I don't have to, I can hear him. And the thrill of seeing this particular song or whatever, I just had to do it. So I just started a new company and built a new synthesizer, and did it too fast and didn't do it right and it wasn't a success and so I took a retirement from the synthesizer business. And also, to me the business had become so uninteresting. The business had become all workstations from Japan, and I have no interest in this at all. But when I started hearing bits and pieces about this new - what I consider new, when you look at my career, I've been in engineering for 50 years and been in electronic music some 30 years, to me that DJ / producer thing is what I call new - hearing what they've been doing and starting to hear some interesting music. Of course, I heard some of this music before I knew what the name was. It's easy to say jazz - everybody knows what jazz is, and it's easy to say rock’n roll or heavy metal or whatever, but it's harder to say what you people do, there's so many little names for stuff. I don't know enough about this music to know the difference between bass and drums and the next one, but still I discovered that I heard a lot of this music, and a lot of it's synthesized, and I love synthesized music. Yesterday, when Joel [Martin of Quiet Village] played that piece from that LP from the Italian group from the ’70s, it's just fantastic to hear that. Now there's no Oberheim on that at all, and I think he said that was done before Oberheim even had a synthesizer, there's no Oberheim on that, but I just love synthesized music in many different states. So I had to start over, the problem was that I did it too fast, because I was going to prove to the world that I could do it, and I just didn't do a good job and so the machine wasn't a success. But now I'm here, thanks to Red Bull and it's really inspiring to see a different way that synthesized music has gone and I may do it again, who knows? (standing ovation) So that's a good place to end it, huh?
RBMA: I'm pretty sure there's an awful lot of questions to ask, but I'm not too sure how to deal with the interim standing ovation here.
Tom Oberheim: I'm not sure he was done, but that's fine.
RBMA: I really have the feeling there is a lot of questions here, but you are here for quite a bit more.
Tom Oberheim: Oh yeah, I hope you don't consider me this god, and you're too afraid - ask me anything. I hope I've made the point that I love doing this, and whether it's at home in the lab designing some circuit, or it's talking to musicians about what they do, I love it all. Feel free to ask me whatever you want.
Participant: Hi. Thanks again for being here and sharing your knowledge. I had a little question about the first polyphonic synthesizer. I was wondering why you decided to put four modules together and not three or five or six?
Tom Oberheim: The reason I did that is, first of all, when I decided to do it, I had the concept of making it expandable because it was very expensive, and so you could start with a four-voice and later expand it to six-voice or eight-voice. Now, three versus five well, I was always very curious when the Prophet 5 came out. Like: ”Why five voices? That's strange, maybe five voices, I dunno.“ But in my case, the circuitry in several levels worked in pairs, so another machine I did at the same time as the Four-Voice I did one that was called a Two-Voice, it had two of those modules, but basically it was an engineering decision on a couple of levels - that things worked in pairs, and basically I wanted to make it expandable, so that the person could buy four and then later expand.
Participant: Thank you.
Participant: Hi. I was wondering, do you play the keyboard?
Tom Oberheim: No, I'm not an instrumental performer.
Participant: No, not a performer, just on your own at your house or while you were working on something? Did it ever tempt you to play, surrounded by all these products you were making?
Tom Oberheim: Um, no. And the reason is the way the process started was that I started working with the stuff and started immediately meeting these great musicians, and so it was like: ”Well, I can't play like Herbie, so why bother?“ So I think there's so much to learn to be a keyboard player and a composer, or a band leader, I can't do it all. I'm happy to be an engineer, and hear what other people do. So no, I never really played. I mean, I always doing this, and trying this, and changing this, and changing the circuitry, and: ”Did it sound right?“ So I'd do that, but not play music.
RBMA: We have a few couple of boring announcements to make after this, but absolutely not before we say a big thank you for sharing with us and changing the odd brain wave now and then. And here's to Mr Tom Oberheim, please.
Tom Oberheim: One more comment. Those of you who are serious, which we will assume is all of you, about your musical work, just remember this from an old man: you can be an engineer, you can be an accountant, you can make a lot of money, but you'll never be as happy as if you do great music. So you may make music that everyone will say is shit, but if you believe in it, you must continue. And maybe it is shit, and maybe you realise it, but you've done it and you make the next step. Or maybe just shit music becomes popular, whatever.
(laughter & applause)
Music can be a pathway to a great life, it has been for me, so just remember that. Cheers.