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The Phoenix Rises: Tom Oberheim Interview Part 2

This is part 2 of the interview with Tom Oberheim. Part 1 can be found here.

When we last left our hero he was standing amid the wreckage of his first company. After a number of adventures inside and outside of the music products industry Tom returned to building synthesizers in 2009. Since then he has released a number of products from his own company, and most recently two products with Dave Smith Instruments, the OB-6, and the new OB-6 Desktop.

Let's jump ahead about 30 years. You've come out with OB-6 with DSI. So you have had friendship with Dave over the years, how did you first meet him?

Tom Oberheim and Dave Smith

Well, I don't remember for sure, but Dave (Smith), Roger Linn, and I would run into each other at the NAMM Show every year. We were friendly competitors, because we could pretty much sell everything we could make at the time. My first company, Oberheim Electronics, ended in '85 in a kind of ignominious way. And then Roger's first company ended shortly after that and Dave's too. So we had that in common.

The thing that really got me back into this though was in 2008, I got this invite to the Red Bull Music Academy's thing in Barcelona, I didn't really know much about the DJ thing, but the guy that invited me said, "Bring an Oberheim." I didn't want to take my OB-8 all the way to Barcelona, so I took an SEM, and cobbled together a little MIDI interface for it. And by the time we were done, I had three or four guys that wanted to buy one. I came home in the fall of 2008, and I thought maybe I could build a few in the garage just for fun.

So I did it, and within two years I'd sold almost a thousand. I thought, if I brought back one Oberheim, I'll bring back another. I worked for a year on what I call the "Son of 4-Voice", which would be SEMs, just like the originals. And just like those, it would not be programmable, and it'd be impossible to use. So I worked on it for a year, thinking that that didn't matter, but this was a new age, and a large number of customers are used to an instrument where you press A1 and you get Fender Rhodes, or whatever.

Product design on
the way to Gearfest

So I'm back in the business, and then last summer, Roger, Dave, and I were invited to speak at GearFest at Sweetwater. On the plane ride to Fort Wayne, Dave told me a little about the technology of the Prophet 6. I was pretty impressed, because it's quite a modern design. He told me that the analogs were on little voice cards. So on the way home after Gearfest we talked about the idea of having a Prophet 6 type of machine with voice cards that had SEM circuitry.

So this all happened within a year—from the idea to the production? That's impressive.

Yea, because inside, unlike a lot of machines that Dave did when he first started DSI about thirteen years ago using a Curtis chip that was still available, there's no Curtis chips in either machine.

Didn't you use Curtis chips in the Xpander?

The OB-Xa

Oh yea, I was Doug Curtis's first customer when I had him design a voltage-controlled envelope generator chip for the original Four Voice/Eight Voice. Now, the OB-X was the SEM circuitry, but the OB-Xa was the first machine where the whole machine was Curtis chips. And we used those through OB-Xa, Xpander, Matrix 12, Matrix 6, and by then, I was gone. But these two machines are, from an engineering point of view, similar. My participation was mainly as a consultant at that point, like, "Oh, you've got to put on the blue lines." "Oh, okay." And we also used the knobs that I'd been using on the SEMs.

I think the OB-6 sounds a lot like the older Oberheim stuff. You know, we could commiserate over a given patch or different instrument, but it's a great machine.

Conversation with Dave Smith

Do you have any memories of competing with Tom when you were both starting your first companies?

See if you can identify the following in this picture from a CCRMA event: Robert Moog, Roger Linn, Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, John Chowning, Don Buchla

Back in the late 70s, all of us, Tom, myself, Bob Moog, Roger Linn, Mr Kakehashi (founder of Roland), even back then we were all friends, and we used to get together at trade shows and talk, but on the battlefield we were all enemies.

The whole synth market back then was pretty tiny, so it was easier to get to know everyone involved and we of course had a common goal, of designing musical instruments. It was really pretty cool.

Did you learn anything new about Tom during the development of these products that you hadn't know before?

Hmm... Good question. I've known Tom for close to 40 years, so I can't say there was anything in particular that popped up this time around. I don't think either of us has changed significantly over the years. It was just a fortuitous thing that we got to talking about this particular project, and I'm really pleased.

He started more as a computer guy that drifted into analog stuff. We're pretty similar in that we both just like to go in an make things work.

Back to Tom

So you're having fun?

Having fun. I'm 80 now, and really having fun.

What do you think of what's going on in the industry at the moment?

That's an easy one. Thank God for EDM, because analog is back with a vengeance. All you have to do is look at the machines that are out there. Obviously there are people out there that appreciate the difference between that and a true VCO or specialty filters. And there's all of this modular stuff. The Eurorack thing is just exploding. So it's a pretty interesting time.

DSI Evolver

For me, I thought it was over. I saw Dave get started in 2003 or 2004 with the Evolver and I thought, "I don't know if I could do that. I'm too old." But all it took was that trip to Barcelona and coming back and saying, "Well, maybe these people would like some SEMs." And I'm back. Now, where it goes... one of the things I'm doing is moving the SEM into the Eurorack world, so I announce at NAMM a Eurorack version of the SEM with a couple of additions, and we'll see where that leads.

Tom and DSI have recently released the new OB-6 Desktop module for people that don't need the keyboard, and have some extra desktop space to spare...

The OB-6 Desktop



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The Phoenix Rises: Tom Oberheim Interview Part 2