Synth and Software contributor Jim Combs bought a retro synth looking for the inspiration of his youth…
I was hoping a classic sound and simple layout, with no options for saving patches, would lead me back to making music that was fun, unique, and an adventure like I remembered it being when I started. I think I’ve succeeded.
As a kid, I first got into synthesizers in the early ‘70s. I built an inexpensive PAiA modular synth kit that taught me the basics of modular patching and sound construction. It was about as close as I could get to my ideal synth; the ARP 2600 semi-modular.
I’ve owned and loved many synths since then, but the ARP 2600 I worshipped as a kid never made it into my collection. It just always seemed out of reach. Too rare to find, too expensive to own if you could find one, and too expensive to maintain even if you owned one.
Last year, a synth forum asked what ideal synth would we add to our collection? My immediate response was “ARP 2600”. A well-known synth programmer friend replied cryptically something like, “be patient, you may get your wish”.
On January 10, Korg announced the release of the limited-edition ARP 2600 FS. My chance had come.
The delay had a silver lining. I did research on the history of the 2600 and the current state of modular synthesizers in case I lost this opportunity to acquire my holy grail of synths and had to fall back to something else. Several modern equivalents matched up to what I was hoping for in my head, but none of them would likely fill the hole in my heart of losing a chance to get a 2600.
New 2600s were trickling out around the world, and each new arrival was announced with photos, unboxings, and videos showing off the sounds and explaining patches. One guy posted a video of every patch in the 2600 patch book and even corrected the parts that were incorrectly documented. Gold!
After nearly seven months of virtual learning and synth voyeurism, serial number 0628 arrived on my front porch.
My unboxing was an hour of pure joy, much like a synth version of Russian nesting dolls. I toted all the pieces upstairs to my studio. The synth itself was lighter than I expected, but definitely an armful getting up the stairs.
I like having the ARP close at hand and I’ve set it up within arm’s length of my mixing console and DAW keyboard. Its built-in arpeggiator and sequencer is an immediate sketch pad for roughing out musical ideas on the fly or demoing and refining a new patch. The synth easily connects to one of the many MIDI sequencers I have at my disposal.
I’m finding that almost every track on my new album is benefiting from some aspect of the 2600 sound.
It’s become my go-to sound design workhorse. For some pieces, it’s a noise whoosh or other interstitial sound effect to bridge sections. For others, it’s an extra sequenced layer or five to augment the existing arrangement.
Small moves of a slider or application of a modulation source can move its sound into very different timbres. Simple waveform addition is my first eye-opening experience. The ARP comes with three oscillators and each oscillator generates several different waveforms, though not each set of waveforms is the same.
What I hear when I combine and adjust the volume of two or more of these waveforms is a much more elastic range of wave shape than I’m used to on my digital synths. On my first 10 minutes with the synth, I even stumbled into Joe
Put those dynamic waveforms through the amazing 2600 filter, and that’s where the real character of this synth hits you over the head. It goes from smooth classic analog bass and solo
What surprises me most about the 2600 FS is how much it is teaching me about basic synthesis that I took for granted or perhaps never really understood as completely as I thought I did in the first place.
This synth begs you to move its sliders. Just a little shift in oscillator pitch, or filter frequency or resonance, or modulation of the oscillator or filter, and whole sonic worlds appear.
This 2600 FS is an instrument in its own right. It has to be tuned like a guitar each time you use it. It needs to be played beyond what note is being selected on the keyboard or via sequencer or MIDI. You have to practice constantly, try and fail, to be able to make use of all the power and subtlety the instrument brings to you. It really is a Stradivarius of synthesizers.
I’d recommend three things to work easier and quicker on the 2600 –
The first is an inexpensive tuner. The second is a patch tree hanger to hang cables for easy access. And third is a mess of patch cables of many lengths and connectors for the 2600 itself and other synths and equipment in the studio.
I’ll likely not take my 2600 FS out of the studio and I doubt I would use the included flight case even if I did. But with four locking roller wheels attached, it is a perfect synth stand for putting the patching and switches at eye level.
I now totally ‘get’ the return to the modular movement that’s taken off in the past few years.
I think the ARP 2600 FS will hold this old dog for a while, but I can see adding a few modules in the future to take its classic sound to another level.