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Oberheim

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Prominent synthesizer manufacturing company from the 1970s and early '80s. Founded by namesake Tom Oberheim, who had previously worked for the guitar effects company Maestro, Oberheim released its first synth product in 1975. This was the Synthesizer Expansion Module, now known as the SEM. A keyboardless tabletop module, this was intended to provide more capability for other analog synthesizers of the day; it was connected via a CV/Gate interface.

Oberheim soon realized that by combining a bank of SEMs with a scanning keyboard, they could build a polyphonic synth. In 1976, they introduced the first versions of the Four Voice and Two Voice. These were the first widely available polyphonic synths to employ the modern concept of having a limited number of voices and using voice allocation to assign voices (in this case individual SEMs) to notes played. (The Yamaha GX-1 preceded the Four Voice / Two Voice by a year, but it was unaffordable to most musicians and not marketed outside of Japan.) Oberheim realized that, especially in the case of the Four Voice, it was impractical for the performer to make all of the patch settings on each SEM individually in order to play a single patch polyphonically, so they introduced a device called the programmer. This duplicated all of the controls associated with all of the voltage controlled parameters of the SEMs, and sent the control voltages to all of the SEMs at once. It had patch memory for eight patches -- a groundbreaking feature at the time. However, since not all parameters on the SEMs were voltage controlled, it was still necessary for the performer to make some settings on each SEM invidually. An Eight Voice version appeared in 1977.

The company then turned to increased integration for its polyphonic synths. Its first such product was the OB-X, released in 1979. Voice circuitry was on cards that allowed the synth to be expanded from its basic two-voice configuration up to eight voices. The fully integrated system eliminated the multiple-voice-parameter-tweaking problem of the Two/Four/Eight Voice line, and the synth offered, among other things, 32 patch memories and polyphonic portamento. The OB-Xa and OB-8 models followed over the next few years. The company also made drum machines (which are highly sought after by collectors today)), monophonic lead synths, and some unusual items like the Strummer, which was basically a stand-alone arpeggiator that could be connected to another synth. There was also the Prommer, which allowed the user to sample and process drum sounds, and then burn them into EPROM chips for installation into DMX drum machines.

In 1984, the original Oberheim company ran into financial problems and declared bankruptcy. It was purchased by a company callled ECC and continued to operate. At this time, the company was working on an innovative concept which became the Matrix series. This was to be the last hurrah for Oberheim proper. In 1986, ECC sold the company to guitar maker Gibson. By all accounts, Gibson management didn't really know what to do with the company, and management upheaval led to most of the Oberheim staff departing or being laid off. Tom Oberheim himself left the company to form Marion Systems. A last analog synth model, the OB-MX, was in work, but Gibson had to bring in Don Buchla to try to finish it. By most accounts, Buchla and his consultants had to scramble to find workarounds for a poorly designed system architecture, while battling dissent, poor morale, and severe budget and schedule pressures from Gibson management. The OB-MX was released in an incomplete state and was widely panned by reviewers and customers.

After this, Gibson shut down the operation and licensed the Oberheim name to Italian organ maker Viscount. That companuy released several new products under the Oberheim name in the early 1990s, including the OB-12 synth. The OB-12 remains somewhat controversial among Oberheim collectors; some argue that it has no lineage to pre-Gibson Oberheims and lacks the essential Oberheim qualities, while others argue that it is a good synth in its own right. Viscount quit making synths around 1998, and although Gibson still owns the Oberheim name, it has lain dormant since.

Most of the Oberheim synths are considered highly desirable among collectors. The innovative Matrix-12 and Xpander are the most highly sought after, followed by the OB-Xa and OB-8. SEMs are also considered desirable. The Matrix-6, 6R, and 1000, on the other hand, are avaialble at reasonable prices and often recommended to performers looking to get into vintage analog synths.

In 2009 Tom Oberheim began manufacturing new SEMs, based on the original design but with some available improvements such as a MIDI interface. To avoid problems with Gibson, which still owns the Oberheim trademark, these are being sold under the business name TomOberheim.com. In 2011, Oberheim introduced the "Son of Four Voice", a new integrating case which combines four SEMs into a four-voice polyphonic synth, with a programmer like the original, but lacking a keyboard; it is MIDI controlled.

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