Oberheim’s Lost Classic: The OB12
Mark Jenkins profiles a synth that continues to divide opinion after 20 years
The title of this piece is intentionally contentious, because the distinctively blue-paneled OB12 – born in Italy rather than in the USA – had little or nothing to do with the original Oberheim company or with its founder Tom Oberheim.
Now that Tom has long left behind his Marion Systems profile, re-issued some original designs, collaborated with Dave Smith of Sequential on the OB-6 and (it’s rumored) started to plan new releases under the Oberheim brand, it may be a good time to re-evaluate what the OB12 achieved.
The original Oberheim company had great product lines, from effects units, modules, and drum machines to master keyboards and an early programmable monophonic synth, the OB1.
Large and powerful Oberheim polyphonic synths were popular with professionals. The Oberheim sound on Van Halen’s “Jump” became an all-time classic, and other users included Tangerine Dream and Patrick Moraz with Yes.
But the company closed in 1985 with the assets transferred to Oberheim ECC, which continued to make the Xpander and Matrix 1000 modules among others. Tom Oberheim continued to work for the company briefly but left to form his own new outfit, Marion Systems, which marketed two MIDI synth modules.
The company was then bought out by Gibson. They marketed a looping delay unit Echoplex under their own name and also under the Oberheim brand, in the distinctive white livery.
Gibson actually had some manufacturing carried out in Italy by the organ makers Viscount (owned by the family Galanti, itself a great name in keyboard manufacturer), which manufactured for Vox and Baldwin. In 1988 they launched the Oberheim Viscount Joint Venture to bring to the market a whole line of new instruments.
Synths from Italy. Italy had a fantastic reputation for manufacturing middle-market instruments rather than high fliers. Italian-made organs were a go-to option for early “krautrock” musicians like Klaus Schulze, Can, Ash Ra Tempel, and many others.
On these and other early electronic albums you can hear the sound of organs, string and brass synths, and ensemble keyboards. They were made by Teisco, Farfisa, Davoli, and later SIEL (a company that manufactuered affordable lines for Sequential), Elka-Orla, and others.
If you couldn’t afford a Polymoog, you may have been able to afford a Crumar Stratus or Elka Rhapsody – or both; if you couldn’t afford a Hammond B3, the Farfisa VIP series was much more accessible.
And the Italian synth market did have one or two amazing highlights. That includes the massively powerful all-analog Elka Synthex, for example. Late and poorly marketed on its release, it has now become extremely expensive and collectable largely due to prominent use by Jean Michel Jarre.
The Italians made instruments affordably and knew what they were doing. A product line under the Oberheim brand name but made in Italy seemed a sure-fire hit.
The Oberheim Viscount Joint Venture created lots of instruments. Those included organs and electric pianos; a large master keyboard, the MC1000 (in 76 or 88 key versions). There’s a still-collectable drawbar organ module as used by Polly Harvey’s band (as the white panel Oberheim OB3-2, or in brown with wooden cheeks as the D9 under the Fujiha/Viscount brand).
In 1994 they released a very large rackmount MIDI module, the OB-Mx. This looked very much like a classic white-faced Oberheim product, though Tom Oberheim had no involvement in its design (but it’s rumored that Don Buchla did). Offering a variable number of voices according to how many sound cards you could afford, the OB-Mx has been popular with The Human League.
It wasn’t until 2000 that the Oberheim Viscount Joint Venture came up with the OB12, in an unexpected and striking blue finish. There doesn’t seem to have been any attempt to market a white one in classic Oberheim style, and very little is known about the designers of the instrument. Circuit diagrams are rare and there’s no technical support now; system software updates are exchanged between owners.
On its launch, the virtual analog OB12 was judged buggy and sluggish in operation, over-priced, and filled with unimpressive factory sounds. Viscount offered firmware upgrades that solved several problems, and cut the price to 800 pounds (UK) which made the synth more competitive, but it was too late.
Although Viscount continues to this day as a successful manufacturer of upmarket digital organs and PA, the Oberheim Viscount Joint Venture was abandoned and the circulating OB12’s left orphaned for 20 years.
What’s in an OB12? On approaching an OB12 – once you’ve recovered from that striking blue panel finish, and noted that the end cheeks look like wood but are actually plastic – you’ll realize that the instrument only has four octaves of keys, which is unusual.
Despite this it’s not very compact, since the control panel is very deep, and it’s heavier than many comparable instruments of its time, having a great deal of metalwork in its chassis. On the rear are two pairs of stereo outputs, MIDI In/Out/Thru, and sockets for footswitch and pedal controllers. There’s a mains power socket, so no fiddly external power supply.
The next thing you notice is that the LCD display is very large for its time. Whenever you adjust an OB12 control, the display switches to show graphics and numeric tables for those adjustments, That’s a tremendous facility, making editing and performance potentially very spontaneous.
Strike the OB12 with your best opening chord (it’s 12-voice polyphonic) and experience – well, nothing much, if it still has the factory presets. There are some rather thin strings, synth basses that aren’t very twangy, some leadlines that aren’t as powerful as a MiniMoog or even an ARP Odyssey, and some tame special effects sounds. And a hi-hat.
This is one of the major reasons why the OB12 wasn’t a huge success – it just has a very poor factory set of sounds, though there are 256 of them. Now, with a huge number of knobs, sliders and other controllers at your disposal, you would have thought it easy enough to create some new sounds – and it is, but maybe not while you’re standing in a store with your credit card at the ready.
So it’s only when you get it home and start to re-program that you realize how mighty the OB12 can be.
Rolling up sleeves. If anything says “Oberheim” about the OB12 it’s the use of a thinner, more precise 12dB/octave filter rather than a Moog-style 24dB/octave filter. But there are two of these, which can give 24dB/octave when used in series, or which can be used in parallel for other effects.
There are two oscillators per voice but these can be set to a sort of “supersaw” mode, as well as handling pulse width modulation, for a very rich sound.
And there’s aftertouch! This has a very wide range of response and doesn’t seem prone to getting worn out as it does on so many other instruments.
The aftertouch possibilities on the OB12 are absolutely insane – you can open and close filters, bend or modulate oscillators, and most importantly, speed modulation LFOs according to aftertouch depth. This puts you immediately into Yamaha CS80/Keith Emerson Yamaha GX1 territory, a trick available on very few other keyboard instruments.
The OB12 has a strong Unison solo mode, impressive Portamento glide, dual LFOs routable almost anywhere for crazy modulation options. It also has a set of variable effects – delay, reverb, chorus and distortion – to put the finishing touches to your sound.
Above the “Timbre” level is a “Program” level of up to four sounds in programmable split or layer configurations, and the effects can apply to all of these. So can the arpeggiator, which is also programmable for some very unusual time signatures.
There’s a Morph mode, found later on the Yamaha AN1X. And a Motion Recorder can automate this slow change from one patch to another.
Diving deeper. After fixing up a couple of sounds and starting to edit and play the OB12, you realize you’re being presented with many, many more sound options than usual.
As well as the arpeggiator there’s a “phrase recorder” with a capacity of some thousands of notes. You can lock either exactly to an external MIDI clock or divide their playback rate by some programmable amount.
The aftertouch can quickly be flipped to apply to the modulation wheel, and the keyboard velocity can be sent to a number of different parameters. There’s a multi-channel graphic equalizer, but this can be flipped to act as a parametric equalizer. A ring modulator and white noise can easily be mixed in to the oscillator sound.
There’s a whole section just for autopan, which is terrific – you can quickly get everything from subtle Leslie speaker effects to crazy fast stereo panning of any sound. Both LFOs can be delayed in onset, and also have a Random setting so you don’t need a specific sample-and-hold section.
These days it’s popular to contrast programmable synths with modular systems, since they’re once again popular. Probably nobody thought of the OB12 at the time of its release as a competitor for modulars.
But it could well be – endlessly sustained sounds are possible using the Arpeggiator Hold, you have a generous number of voices and infinite modulation options from two completely independent LFOs, and the effects are deep and highly variable.
Enduring issues? So what are the remaining problems with the OB12? Well, if you have an early software model, they can be cranky and sluggish in operation. The last operating version is thought to be 1.52 but I’m not going to try an installation on my own OB12.
What’s for certain is that the sound sources can overload the effects, causing bad distortion, so you have to program carefully. On my unit the multi-voice/multi-MIDI channel mode and its patch saving options are currently cranky, though the single voice mode is fine.
Also, it’s very common for the OB12’s LCD display to become streaky and even to die over time. Not very easily installed replacements are on eBay at around £100/$100.
Many reviewers of the OB12 on release found it incapable of true, cutting leadlines, and for some reason this seems to be the case – programming in the style of a MiniMoog doesn’t quite get MiniMoog-like results.
But you have other instruments for that, right? You may like to keep your OB12 for Yamaha CS80-like duties, creating vast, shifting, chorused pads, slowly screaming aftertouch oscillator sync sounds, heavy Unison mode basses, or drifting, developing arpeggiator patterns.
How many OB12s are still around should you want to buy one? There are at least ten good sound demos on YouTube, so plenty of players still have functioning OB12s. But it’s funny how many of these reviews start with “I had consigned my OB12 to the basement until I brought it out and tried it again, and now I really like it.”
And as for prices? Well, any old analog (even an old, potentially unreliable virtual analog) will now attract a lot of interest, and for a fully working OB12 you may be looking at spending up to £1000/$1000.
I originally owned an OB12 years ago and sold it through having, at the time, far too much (real and virtual) analog. But having found another OB12 recently, I think I will spend more time getting into it in much more detail, particularly taking advantage of all those crazy aftertouch and modulation options, and will keep it as part of the arsenal for more textured, unusual and highly effected polyphonic sounds.
Though the OB12 never had much in common with “real” Oberheim, to this day it still has a lot to say for itself.