I SATELLITE Electro Music

retro futurist minimal electronic new wave analog synth electro pop music

 

Oberheim OB-X

I chose to review this synth first, because I simply love it to death and have used it on practically every track I've ever done. Most people know it as the synth that Rush used on the intro to Tom Sawyer. But it was also one of the main synths Richard Barbieri used to make the wonderful exotic synth textures in the group Japan. Peter Forrest in his A-Z of Analogue Synthesisers says that Richard used an OB-Xa, but every book, picture, and video I've ever seen shows him playing an OBX. It was also the synth used by Killing Joke to make those great shimmering string sounds on practically every song on their NightTime release (1985), and of course Rush used it all over Moving Pictures among others.

 

Money Pit?

Oberheim synths are known for having a huge sound, but a poor maintenance record. The more stable they got, the worse they sounded. I personally think the instability of the OB-X is the reason it sounds so good. My Rev. 2 OB-X has had its share of problems, that's for sure, but ever since I had mine overhauled by Tony Clark, who runs a nice web page about the OB-X here, it's been perfect. Tony replaced the pots on every voice card with high-res pots making the tuning procedure a lot easier. My OB-X rarely goes out of tune now since Tony worked his magic on it. I've probably sunk more money into this one synth than any of my other synths, but it was worth the money, and I'll never sell it.

 

The Sound

I've owned quite a few Oberheim synthesizers over the past 12 years, from the standalone SEM, to the 4-voice, OB-8, Xpander, and Matrix-12. But my favorite for sound and ease-of-use is the OB-X. It sounds huge, wonderful, and very much alive. I find as time goes by that I prefer the sound of the synths from the 70's to those of any other era. This is certainly true of the OB-X. Whether it's the discreet components that were used, or the slightly out-of-tune VCO's that thicken up the sound, or a combination of these factors, all I know is it sounds beautiful. Tom Oberheim said he prefers the sound of the earlier Oberheims, the SEM and OB-X, to the later models. I would have to agree. The OB-X blows away every single virtual analog or modern digital synth ever made. It has so much more life, character, and sonic power than any of the modern synths I've owned or heard, I swear it's got a life of its own! I can just mess with it for hours, totally captivated by the sounds it can make.

 

Encore MIDI kit

If you own an OB-X, I highly recommend getting the Encore MIDI kit installed in it. It's very reasonably priced, easy to install, & works great. And there's no telling how much longer they will be made. The OB-X was the synth that inspired John Kenton Price of Kenton Electronics to start making MIDI kits for dozens of vintage analogue synthesisers. However, Kenton discontinued most of their MIDI kits, including the one for the OB-X, about a year ago. One thing I really like about the Encore kit is that the CV/GATE inputs still function with the kit installed, and the OB-X sounds awesome triggered by an analog sequencer (or digital sequencer like the Roland MC-4 MicroComposer).

 

Documentation

Need a manual? No need to pay those outrageous eBay prices:

OB-X Owner's Manual (1,578k pdf file)
OB-X Service Manual (2,907k pdf file)
OB-X Encore MIDI kit manual (129k pdf file)

 

OP-X Softsynth Plugin for Reaktor

For those of you who haven't been able to track down a real OB-X, or just don't want to deal with the hassles of repairing and maintaining one of these vintage beasts, I recommend checking out the OP-X plug-in for Reaktor by Sonicprojects.

I'm normally not a big fan of softsynths because I believe that a synth is more than just the sounds, and all of the sonic subtleties of the OB-X simply cannot be emulated. But this plug-in is a pretty good attempt. And it takes the softsynth idea one step further by slightly detuning a number of variables (VCO'S, VCF'S, ENV'S) on powerup to emulate a real OB-X. It sounds remarkably close to a real OB-X, but the filters still sound a bit thin to my ears, and it still sounds a little too perfect.

It would be nice if Sonicprojects took the idea one step further and allowed the synth engine to evolve, emulating the gradual degradation of components over time, and incorporating the temperature changes that result in slight detuning issues, so that no two OP-X softsynths would be alike. There could be an aging component that can be sped up to emulate years of misuse and abuse and temperature changes, so that the softsynth eventually sounds like most OB-X's out there! :-) If you could then save these settings as different OP-X's, that would be pretty amazing. I've suggested it to Peter at Sonicprojects and he's going to see if he can do it.

In the meantime, if you want to check out what an OB-X can do before tracking down the real deal, or if you prefer to work with softsynths and computers and actually like tweaking sounds with a mouse, then the OP-X may be your answer. There are side-by-side comparisons of sounds on their site, but they also attempted to recreate the above sounds using their plug-in. You be the judge.

Sonicprojects OP-X THX
Sonicprojects OP-X Sweep
Sonicprojects OP-X Tom Sawyer

 

Photos

(to be added)

 

Who Used the OB-X?

Roxy Music (Avalon)
Richard Barbieri (Quiet Life, Gentlemen Take Polaroids)
Rush (Moving Pictures)
Killing Joke (NightTime)

 

*Thanks to Mark Henley for the soundclips.

View a list of other equipment I SATELLITE will be reviewing in the near future.

 

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