(1936-) Musician, synthesizer designer, and founder of Oberheim Electronics. Originally from Manhattan, Kansas in the USA, Oberheim moved to Los Angeles at the age of 20 to play piano in a jazz band. To support himself, he worked as a draftsman and gofer for computer companies, and played gigs while attending college at the University of California - Los Angeles. In 1961, he read a magazine article by Harald Bode describing how to build a ring modulator circuit that would work at audio frequencies (as opposed to the more common radio circuit, which only worked well at RF frequencies). He built one and begin using it as an effect in his band. People noticed, and other musicians began asking Oberheim to build one for them. Over the next several years, Oberheim played in bands and did session work in Los Angeles using his ring modulator and other effects that he built, and he made some money building effects for others. At the time, he was still working for computer companies as a circuit designer.
In 1969, he decided to go into the music industry full time. With some investor money, he founded Oberheim Electronics, whose initial line of business was stomp box effects units. He contacted a company called Chicago Music Instruments, which marketed a line of effects under the name Maestro, and arranged to sell Oberheim Electronics-built effects units under the Maestro name. This was successful. Meanwhile, he had met and had been working with Joe Byrd, Paul Beaver, and Beaver's modular Moog, and that got him interested in synthesizers. Oberheim proposed to ARP Instruments that his company become their West Coast dealer; ARP accepted and this took place in 1971. Oberheim bought a 2600 for himself and begin making modifications to it, using it to play gigs. Oberheim, noting the capabilities of the new microprocessor circuits that were beginning to appear on the market, designed one of the first digital sequencers, later to become Oberheim's DS-2, to have something to accompany him on stage. Because it was inconvenient to try to drive the 2600 with the sequencer while also playing it, he designed a small, keyboard-less synth for the sequencer to play. This became the Synthesizer Expansion Module, and once again, other musicians noted what Oberheim was using, and they wanted one.
At this point Oberheim decided to go into the synth manufacturing business for himself. He terminated Oberheim Electronics' relationship with ARP and introduced the SEM as Oberheim's first product. With the money he made from that, he began exploring ways to make a polyphonic synth that would be relatively inexpensive -- a sort of Holy Grail of the industry at the time. Oberheim reasoned that if he had a bank of four SEMs, and a way to get control voltage signals to them from the keyboard, that would constitute a polyphonic synth capable of playing up to four notes at a time. He was familiar with the technique of designing an analog duophonic keyboard, having built one for his 2600, but he realized that that would not extend easily beyond two voices. So he worked with E-Mu Systems on designing a keyboard that would use a microprocessor to detect notes being played and produce the control voltages; such a design could be extended to as many simultaneous notes as desired. This became the digital scanning keyboard; E-mu patented it and granted a license to Oberheim. With this and a bank of SEMs, Oberheim had the first practical polyphonic synth -- the Four Voice.
The business grew rapidly. The Four Voice sold well, and Oberheim designed versions of it with two and eight voices, plus several accessory modules that could be integrated. As electronics miniaturization progressed, Oberheim began shrinking the SEM circuitry into individual voice boards, and in the late '70s, the company used them to produce models such as the OB-X, synths that were fully integrated rather than the quasi-modular approach taken with the Four Voice.
However, as the 1980s dawned, Oberheim began facing price competition from the Japanese manufacturers, undercutting sales. Then the big blow hit -- Yamaha's introduction of the DX7. Sales of analog synths declined precipitously, and Oberheim quickly got into financial trouble. Oberheim sold the company to a group of investors in 1985, going on to form Marion Systems and doing consulting work for Akai. Later he founded SeaSound, a manufacturer of computer sound cards, and moved away from the music industry for a time.
In 2009, Oberheim decided to try building and selling a few SEM units with updated features, such as a MIDI interface. This proved popular enough that he founded a new company, Tom Oberheim.com. The company's flagship product (as of 2017) is the Two Voice Pro, an updated version of the original Two Voice; it also sells the updated SEMs and some accessories. Oberheim collaborated with Dave Smith on a design for a new polyphonic synth, the OB6, which is being marketed by DSI.