Tom Oberheim, Designer of Synthesizers

May 4, 2016

This Tom Oberheim feature by former Keyboard Editor-in-Chief Dominic Milano is reprinted from 1976. 


Synthesizer designer Tom Oberheim could have been an engineer working for an aircraft company had he finished his training at Kansas State University. However, he did quit his hometown college after his first year there, moving to the wilds of California, where his interests opened up to include not only engineering, but the arts and music also. Today, he is the guiding force behind Oberheim Electronics, manufacturers of a variety of widely-used synthesizers and synthesizer accessories.
After having moved to the Los Angeles area, Oberheim found a job at the National Cash Register Company (NCR) as a draftsman trainee in the company's computer division. According to Tom, "The Company was just starting out then; now it's huge. I got interested in computers and knew that I had to go back to school to get an engineering degree. I enrolled at UCLA." He quickly learned the engineering department was very strict about taking outside courses not related to engineering, so Oberheim switched majors, focusing on physics. 
"It literally took me nine years to get my Bachelor’s degree in physics," Tom reports. "Around the second semester that I was at UCLA, I remember seeing that Dave Brubeck improvised in the style of a Bach fugue on his Jazz Goes To College album (out of print), and I didn’t know what that meant. I didn't know anything about music other than that I followed jazz religiously. So I took a music appreciation course—the one for all the football players and sorority girls. The teacher was very dynamic; I picked up a lot of music from him."

A few semesters later, Oberheim did a short stint in the Army, came out, and got another job working for Abacus, Inc., a tiny, now defunct computer company. "Supposedly, I was a draftsman," he explains, “but within a few months, they had me doing actual design. For the next six years, I worked for this computer company as an engineer, even though I was years away from having a degree."·

In his spare time, Tom took as many music courses as he did physics courses, and even started singing with various choirs.

“The highest pinnacle of my musical career was when I sang with the Gregg Smith singers," Oberheim notes. "I was on the two Columbia albums that Stravinsky conducted [Stravinsky Conducts, MS-6992; Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky's Choral Music, MS-31124], and the first recording Gregg did of Ives’s choral music [The Choral Music Of Charles Ives, MS-6921]. I did a one-week tour with them in California, and I was on the verge of being good enough to be in the group permanently—I was the only one in the group who wasn't a professional. But Gregg liked me and I could read very well."

It was also at this time that Tom began listening to rock more. "Before then," he recalls, "I had said things like 'don't play the Beatles. Don’t bother.'  But one of their tunes, ‘We Can Work It Out’,  just caught me. I was hooked after that." By chance, Oberheim was attending a seminar during his last semester at UCLA when he met trumpet player Don Ellis and keyboardist Joseph Byrd (see CK Nov./Dec. '75), who were attending this same class. Oberheim became friends with the two musicians, staying in contact with them even after he had left UCLA.

"I built my first musical equipment for Don Ellis," Tom states. "It as a straight 70-watt hi-fi amp that he used for a PA. This was before Don was into any electronics, except for the Echoplex. Then, Joe Byrd’s band, The United States Of America (USA), went up, came down, and tried to get back up again. Dorothy Moskowitz was the girl singer who tried to revive it with some people. One of them is now the bass player with Linda Ronstadt, and the keyboard player was a good friend of mine, whom I knew from that seminar at UCLA, Richard Grayson. I had built those amps for Ellis, and now I was building USA equipment. I had built them a couple of Heath-Kit guitar amps when Dorothy came up to me and asked me to build them a ring modulator. I had no idea what that was, but in the original USA, some aerospace engineer had built Joseph one. So, I went up to the library at UCLA and started looking through books and books and books. I found your basic textbook ring modulator circuit, and I didn't have any idea what to do with it."

Tom finally ran into an article by Harold Bode (of frequency shifter fame) that explained how ring modulators work. From that, Oberheim built one for Richard Grayson, who hooked it up to his piano. "Richard is an incredible improviser. He can take material from just about any source and improvise on it in various styles," Tom claims. "A lot of  sounds started happening, and I thought it was really interesting, so I built a better one. I took it to Don Ellis, and he loved it. I think he still uses some sort of ring modulator  of mine to this day. Word got around to Leonard Roseman, who is a film composer, that someone in Los Angeles had a ring modulator. He called me up and asked if he could get one for a score he was doing for a  film called Beneath The Planet Of The Apes. I built one for him and took it up to 20th Century Fox.''

There, studio musicians got their first taste of Oberheim's gadgets. The interest they expressed in them caused Tom to abandon being a computer engineer in order to go into business designing musical equipment. As he puts it, "I went from being a full-time computer engineer, to half-time computer engineer, to no-time computer engineer. My little company was based in my apartment."

In order to promote business, Tom placed a freebie ad in an electronics publication that was slanted towards the musician. Within a couple of months, he received a call from  the marketing manager of Maestro, then under the wing of the Chicago Musical Instrument Company (which is now Norlin Music). Oberheim was informed that CMI was looking for some new products and was interested in his ring modulator. An agreement was reached, and CMI took on the distribution of Tom's ring modulator.

Expanding his product line was Tom's  next concern. "At that  point in time," he explains, "a lot of people were playing guitars through Leslie speakers. George Harrison had done it on 'Something,' and the sound was there—all the rock and rollers were following suit. I thought it would be neat to produce the same effect electronically."

Oberheim took home a Leslie, played with it, and devised some circuits which would hopefully re-create the Leslie sound. Unfortunately, the circuits failed, and that idea was abandoned.

"I remembered  that  people were using what was then called phasing a lot—it's now called flanging. That whole bit." Tom states, "It was a studio trick then. I called Paul Beaver to ask him how they did that, and he told me how you take the same signal on two different recorders, mix the outputs together, and then slow one of them down. I  wasn't too experienced in those  days with what we now call analog circuits.  I was the digital type, so I had to look a few things up in some magazines. But I got a prototype phase shifter going fairly quickly. I didn't  know about Countryman then. It turns out that theirs was the first true phaser on the market, but it wasn't a live musical thing. It was more a studio device."

Upon showing his phase shifter to some musician friends, Oberheim found that they thought it "sort of interesting, but it didn't do much." He got the same reaction from  Norlin Music. However, in one mode, his device sounded a little like a Leslie, and the Norlin people suggested that  Tom put a circuit in it that would simulate the sound of a Leslie speeding up and slowing down.  That was done, and what resulted was the Maestro phase shifter. Tom recalls, "I built 25,000 of those within the next three years. One  year, I even made a bit of money from  it."

Tom was also responsible for the Universal Synthesizer that Maestro put out for guitars. Tom describes it as being “really sort of a turkey. It was a good idea, but it didn't  work out." By 1971, he had begun experimenting with what is now the Oberheim digital sequencer, because he was getting tired of effects boxes. "I  didn't want to hurt my  relationship with Norlin," he explains. "I was so naive in those days. What I should have done was left Norlin as soon as the phase shifter took off. I'd be in the position that MXR is in today. I'd be rich. But I didn't do that. I didn't know any better. I built an object. that I figured wouldn't bother them. And the digital sequencer didn't bother them at all. I sold about three or four a month.

 "That  was the first Oberheim Electronics product after the first ring modulators. But it created its own sort of problem," he continues. "Namely, when you'd plug it into an ARP 2600 or a Minimoog, you couldn't play your Minimoog or 2600! The sequencer just took over the machine." 

That's when the idea for the Oberheim Expander Module occurred to Tom. He recounts, "I thought it would be nice to have a minimal little synthesizer that a guy could use with his sequencer, so he could play along with it on his other synthesizer.  It was first shown at the Audio  Engineering Society convention in Los Angeles, in May of 1974."

According to Oberheim, the first  Expander Module was birthed  as a bare-bones device. But, realizing that it only cost slightly more to add some meat to the unit, it was built up to the  point where, in Tom's words,  "it  was more like an ARP Odyssey. It had two oscillators, a filter, and so on. Looking back on it, I'm glad I did it. At the time, I didn't have any plan of what to do with it. It was to just give me some extra income over what I  was getting from  Norlin. A few people bought it then. Jan Hammer was one of them."

In 1975, the music industry experienced a slight recession, which forced Norlin to cancel about  $100,000 worth of orders wit  Oberheim. Using what little funds he had saved, Tom weathered the cancellation, and focused  his energies on the survival of Oberheim Electronics. E-mu Systems of Santa Clara, California, had a polyphonic keyboard that  Oberheim was aware of, and it occurred to him that it would  be the perfect thing to wed with his Expander Modules to yield a polyphonic synthesizer. Today, E-mu licenses their keyboard design to Oberheim, and he pays them a royalty for its use in what are now the Oberheim 2- and  4-Voice synthesizers.

All of the designing  of Oberheim's equipment might seem to have been done without aid or advice from prominent keyboard artists. While Tom did not get direct feedback  from artists in the beginning, he was able to draw on past experi­ence from having become an ARP dealer in the  Los Angeles area, in 1971. "I was mainly looking for a way to supplement my income again,"  says Oberheim. "This was mainly before the phase shifters had taken  off. By the middle of '71, I  was selling maybe three or four ARPs a year, which at that time was a lot of ARPs. But doing that, I met a lot of Los Angeles studio musicians. In fact, I sold Clark Spangler his first synthesizer.  He didn't even know how to plug  it in. Leon Russell and Robert Linn got their first synthesizers from me. Frank Zappa bought one from me, also. That's where  I met Ian Underwood. I faded out of doing that, but in dealing with musicians of that caliber,  I learned what they were basically after in synthesizer gear."

What about  Oberheim's first experience with a synthesizer made by someone else? "I was fascinated with my first 2600, but of course, I basically understood what it did electroni­cally. I took it home one night, put it in my bedroom, and let it run on sample and hold all night." He continues, “Richard Grayson and I used to do noon concerts at college, where the first half of the concert would be piano improvisations by Richard, and the second half would be played with a ring modulator hooked up to the piano. We'd use two Revox tape recorders to get four channels of delay, feed the output of the fourth channel through a ring modulator, and then feed that back into another channel, which  gave us ring-modulated echo reverb. When I got into the ARP thing, I noticed that the first 2500s had a sort of crude 2-voice keyboard. They built the 2600 with the same  circuit  board that they had used in the 2500. When I became  a dealer,  I got the schematics and saw what thy had done. So I came  up with a kit that would turn the 2600's keyboard into a 2-voice unit. Grayson and I bor­rowed another 2600 and used two keyboards that  could do two voices  each. We did concerts of Switched-On-Bach­ type stuff. Richard  played the keyboards, and I worked  the electronics. People loved it. From that, I knew that the polyphonic synthesizer was a valid concept."

People used to tell Tom that the polyphonic synthesizer would sound like an organ, but in his words, he “knew better." Within three or four months, he had designed his two  instruments, the 2-Voice and 4-Voice synthesizers.

One of the areas Oberheim admits his weakness in is in actual electromechanical/tactile interfaces, i.e. pitch-bending wheels, ribbons, and modulation controls. "At the time I designed the units," he explains, "it was a matter of just going ahead. I hoped that I could get by without every little thing that would make them perfect."

Oberheim's analog Mini-Sequencer took only one week to design. States Oberheim, "It happened so fast because the circuitry is fairly simple. There's like two integrated circuits for the sequencer and about five for  the clock."

While the  Mini-Sequencer was designed for reasons of personal desires that Oberheim had, the programmer for the 4-Voice was the result of many people saying 'they wanted one. "After I built the 4-Voice," Tom says, "I realized that it was unplayable onstage. You can set it up to do one sound, but that's it. The kind of quick changes that have to be done live were impossible on it. So in 1976, my engineer Jim Cooper and I were thinking the way to go would be to use a big bank of pots. But then, for some totally different reason, I was looking through my computer file one day, and I came across a piece of paper that I had clipped out of a computer magazine. It was a credit card reader, an optical thing. You'd mark the card with a felt pen, stick it in, and a motor would run it giving you data off the card. A guy could put a card in and get strings, harpsichord, or  whatever. After a while I realized that wasn't a good way to go. That's when I looked into the integrated circuit memory. The reason I didn't think of it to begin with was that I thought  it  would be too expensive. Anyway, we didn't go out and check if it was what musicians really wanted  because of the number of constrains. It had to fit into all the old 4-Voices, on the left side of the keyboard where I'd left space for what was going to be a polyphonic sequencer. It had to interface with the Expander Modules in the 4-Voice."

As for the position that Oberheim  occupies in the field of synthesizer manufacturing, there's little question but that they're one of the big three. "It took me a long time to accept it," Tom relates, "but  I think people talk in terms of ARP, Moog, and Oberheim. Of  course, I spend a little time thinking of how nice that is, but most of the time, I'm seeing how crude the 4-Voice really is. You don't need all those knobs now."

Left-hand controls are something that Oberheim is going to spend a lot more time on when designing his next system. "One of my past attitudes was that the only controller  for the left hand that I liked was the Moog wheel," he admits. "I've always felt that it was so unique that it would be an out-and­-out rip-off to use one. I've felt that way for a long time, but who knows? Maybe I'll sell out one day and copy it. A lot of guys do all right with the ARP knob, but  I don't think it's right. Some people like the Micromoog ribbon, too,  but  the question is, do they want something to move physically, or do they just want to touch something?"

How does Tom feel about the recent emergence of so many new synthesizer companies? "I was a little company that sprang up in 1969, and I've seen a lot of companies come and go," he reports. "A lot of them came up with the right product at the right time and are doing quite well. MXR is a perfect  example. There will always be companies springing up, because it's very easy to be a company. You can spend $500 and be a corporation, building your products in your bedroom. But, I don't believe in the idea that synthesizers have suddenly sprung up in the last few years. I can't see anything more happening now than I saw in 1971. It's just that we're on a curve. If you looked at things on a graph you'd see that we've really only come a short distance. I see things as being more evolutionary. It's an exponential thing.

"I  feel that the growing awareness of synthesizers has little to do with the companies involved in their design," Tom goes on. "They've been trying to make it big all along. I think what has done it is that the working musician, the guy who makes his living playing, is taking more of his earnings and putting them into equipment. Let's face it, ten years ago a guy could buy a Twin Reverb and think that's all he needed for the rest of his life. Now, how many people do you know with just one keyboard instrument? I get  people  asking  me if  they buy a 4-Voice, can they get rid of their ARP 2600 or Minimoog?  I have to say, 'God, no. You need that, too!' When you start talking about the growth of the synthesizer market, you have to look at what some organ manufacturers have been doing. Their marketing  technique is just like what the movie industry used to do. They’re appealing to the dumbest, least talented, housewife type of person. They use lights, cassettes, auto­matic orchestra buttons, and so on to make things as simple as possible. As you want to  increase your market you have to make machines that are easier to play. Once you start doing that, you move toward organs. No matter how you define an organ, you're moving into the area where you can't possibly give the guy low cost, and the ability to instantly program a machine that also has total functional  capabilities. The para­dox, as I see it, is that in moving towards a bigger market, you get into making organs. But what if the Moog modular stuff only had a few switches on it? The market wouldn't be there at all. I think that the very fact that it takes work to use a good synthesizer is going to keep the market at a reasonable  size." 

Musicians like Joe Zawinul and lan Underwood, even though their  approaches to synthesizers are diametrically opposed, impress Oberheim in their use of the instrument. Underwood plays his synthesizers with the backing of tech­nical electronics know-how, while  Zawinul,  according to Oberheim, "knows what he's doing from a semi-mystical point of view. He gets incredible sounds out of his 2600, and he knows how to use the  Oberheim 4-Voice very well. He gets some of the best sounds I've heard from it, yet he doesn't have the electronic understanding that Ian Underwood has. And then there's the Les McCann type who will never use a machine that's more complicated than a Pro Soloist or an Omni." For Oberheim, those three people cover the whole spectrum of the type of people who use synthesizers. Tom Oberheim hopes to appeal to those who want to push things a step ahead of where they're at. "There are always going to be people who are interested in the challenge of  making new sounds—sounds that are more  magnificent than what's been heard before. My hope is that pop music maintains its position  of importance in our world, and that the artist and engineer continue to put pressures on each other to continue growing. I don't see any median ground between building machines that have complete flexibility and ones that are easily used. That's a contradiction. The equipment that's available now only approximates what acoustic instruments do. We've got oscillators, filters, very crude envelope generators. Not that it's important  to synthesize the sounds of real instruments, but what makes real instruments interesting is that they've got very complex sound structures. And that's what I want  to see in synthesizers—machines that will pro­duce magnificent sounds."    

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