At NAMM 2017 we were all dazzled by Jacob Brashears, the 18-year-old genius behind the Shear Electronics Relic-6 recreation of the Oberheim OB-X. Taking advantage of lapsed patents he studied the schematics and set to work reproducing the circuitry. It’s out this summer and priced at around $3500.
Meanwhile, Synth Anatomy has discovered that Music Group IP Ltd (parent of Behringer) registered a trademark for OB-XA at the end of last year. This can only mean that Uli Behringer has his eyes on the classic Oberheim OB-Xa as one of the many synths his synthesizer division are cooking up. You can bet that if it is then it’s going to be an awful lot cheaper than the Relic-6.
OB-X verses OB-Xa
Now, these are different animals. They do share many components and a lot of that Oberheim “sound”, but the OB-Xa changed many of the vitals. The OB-X used the 12dB/Oct state variable filter from the SEM synthesizer, whereas the OB-Xa used Curtis chips to add a switchable 12 dB/oct (2-pole) or 24 dB/oct (4-pole) filter. It’s the SEM based discrete analogue of the OB-X that gives it it’s raw character. It’s the Curtis CEM IC’s in the OB-Xa that brings in the stability and smoothness. Somehow that classic Oberheim sound manages to bridge both instruments.
Behringer have announced that they are reissuing (with Cool Audio Semiconductors) new (old) SSM and Curtis chips. Uli posted on Gearslutz that they had just received their first batch of Curtis CEM3340 chips. This is the VCO found in not just the OB-Xa but also the Roland SH-101, Jupiter 6, the Prophet-5 (Rev3), Pro-One and MemoryMoog. They are also reissuing the CEM3320 filter which you’d find in similar places as well as the Fairlight II and PPG Wave. With this technology, Behringer could recreate all manner of different, classic synthesizers.
We all love new synths and new sounds. There’s no doubt that Behringer is going to be producing a whole world of sonic fun at affordable prices. But I worry about the likes of Jacob Brashears. He went out there, dug up old schematics and through sweat and audacity is bringing something amazing to market. And he’s charging the right amount for his trouble. If Behringer and his team of talented synthesizer engineers can snap up all the technology, and produce the chips and the products at a fraction of the cost, how will that impact on the potential of new pioneers? He’s already talked about Eurorack, which is a place of extraordinarily creative cottage industries. What happens if he releases every type of module for half the price? Maybe we’ve been here before. The Eurorack scene sort of emerged from the blandness of mass produced synthesizers. Maybe this is just another evolutionary step. Perhaps the availability of these chips will bring in all sorts of synthesis possibilities.
Whatever happens, I don’t imagine this is a great day for Jacob and Shear Electronics, but I hope his audacity and the favour he’s garnered in the industry, carries him through.
You can compare the sound of the two Oberheim synths in this excellent video by RetroSound.