Nothing sounds quite like that ____________! ( fill in the blank )
IF YOU'VE FOUND YOURSELF UTTERING ANY OF THESE PHRASES YOU MAY BE A GEARAHOLIC!
Thanks to current trends in our music industry, the gear of yesteryear has been on a value roller coaster that for now is only going up. Back when programmable polyphonic analog synthesizers were all the rage, you could have easily snagged a monophonic synth like a MINI MOOG or ARP 2600 for just a few hundred dollars. I still kick myself for passing on a MINI back in the late eighties for $100.00 ! I thought to myself "It Needs A Good Cleaning" and "It Needs A lot Of Work" and the ever popular "Its Only Monophonic".
It looked like the arrival of programmable polyphonic analog synths like the Prophet 5, OB-X, Arp Quadra, Memory Moog to name a few, marked the end of the road for MONO pioneers like the MINI MOOG, ARP 2600 and other monophonic analog synths. These poly synths offered convenience to the keyboardist. You didn't need to start dialing up a new sound in between songs while the lead singer asked the burning question "How's Everybody Feelin Tonight?" thanks to battery backed memory in these units. The new synths seemed to be the answer to keyboardists' prayers ... or were they?
The new machines, although very convenient , were not without disadvantages. Weight and tuning instability made them less than a breeze to gig with and high price tags kept some keyboardists from buying these new synths. A Machine like the Prophet 5 had a list price of around $4000.00. Think about it, it was 5 note polyphonic. It wasn't touch sensitive. It didn't have MIDI. It only held 40 patches in memory. Sequencer? No Way! But we all wanted one. Many of the now "Vintage" synths were in the same price point and had similar features.
Then a new breed of lighter and cheaper synths that were stable in the tuning department came along and made the pricey polyphonics, shall we say unnecessary. Synths like the KORG POLYSIX and ROLAND JUNO 60 helped to change the market again. They were warm sounding, programmable and fairly inexpensive. Now people were selling off their heavy weight keyboards for these lighter newer ones. Lets not forget about the arrival of MIDI equipped keyboards like the PROPHET 600, JX-3P, and the Jupiter 6. The funny thing about MIDI at that time was only a few people saw its potential and even fewer knew what to do with it but we all had to have it.
Then right on the heels of this adjustment that we were all trying make along comes the DX7. This was an expressive keyboard for the day. Sounds could change in timbre depending on how hard you hit the keys. We saw this touch sensitivity on analog beasts like the Yamaha CS-80 and Sequential's Prophet T8 but the average musicians who held day jobs until that big record deal came thru weren't accustomed to a touch sensitive synth. Now every keyboard player on the gig circuit was thinking "If I don't get one of those they won't call me anymore" and once again people started getting out from under their old synths. Once sought after Prophets, Moogs, and Oberheims were unwanted like the guy who wore a leisure suit to his prom. A Prophet 5 for $500? A T8 for $750? An OB-Xa for $400? What about a Prophet 10 (double keyboard) for $700? These are all prices that were common in the late eighties and early nineties (I remember, I passed on a few of these deals).
In today's synth world a few things may be contributing to the upward climb in prices for these older keyboards on the vintage market. Thanks to musical styles like House, Techno, Rap, and even Rock these former " Heavy Weights " are making comebacks. These machines are now in fashion once again. Just turn on your radio. You'll hear some of these older sounds in the newer music. Also contributing to the upward climb in the prices for these instruments is export to other countries, actual numbers produced (in many cases only a few thousand, giving these instruments a collectors appeal), and the fact that many of the original synthesizer manufacturers are now out of business. This starts GearAholics thinking "What if my vintage synth dies?"
In our never ending quest to stay in fashion we find ourselves trying to buy gear that we thought ceased to be useful years ago. Now thanks to this need to be hip and greedy dealers specializing in "Vintage" gear some musicians may be considering the purchase of a TB-303 BassLine (wanted by techno musicians) for between $800 and $1000. Consider purchasing a TR-909 Drum Machine for between $1000- $1800. This is more than the machine cost when it was in production. In these days of 64 note polyphony becoming the norm why would anyone pay between $1500 - $1800 for the six note polyphonic Oberheim Xpander? Why would so many people be willing to pay $1000 - $1500 for a MINI MOOG ( without MIDI ) ? Please keep in mind that the original list price for a MINI MOOG was only $1495.00. Lets not forget a synthesizer like the Prophet T8 is only 8 note polyphonic and because of it size is not practical for gigging yet you may see these selling for $2500.00 or more.
The synth gods may think me blasphemous but ...
Do we need to spend $1500.00 on a MINI MOOG or $1800.OO on an Oberheim Xpander? NO!
If you've been shopping the vintage gear market then you know that people have been asking and getting ridiculous prices for these older pieces.
They are simply preying on the weaknesses of ... THE GEARAHOLIC.
Being a "Gearaholic" is not the worst of habits, but there are a few ways to curb this addiction. Before buying any of these older machines you must ask questions. Question the seller, be they music store or individual just trying to get rid of that keyboard that they don't use anymore.
You must also question the buyer - YOU.
1. Why do I want it?
2. Do I really need it?
3. Can I get those type of sounds from my current gear?
4. Will this need costly maintenance?
5. Who can do the repairs on this synth?
6. Given the cost of the synth plus any repairs it may need ... IS IT WORTH IT ?
Lets say you have three or four other synthesizers maybe a powerful sampler and a drum machine yet you find yourself "NEEDING" this other piece of gear. You'll need to analyze what is it about this piece of vintage gear that you can't live without. If it has a specific sound that you like why not try to get that sound with your current gear. Is what this machine has to offer so specialized that it can't be reproduced using some other means? Is there a synth that is currently available that can give you the same results? Remember those huge multi thousand dollar sampling workstations? Sure they were cutting edge ten to fifteen years ago but their capabilities have been surpassed by today's sampling workstations like the Ensoniq ASR10 or the Kurzweil K2000 or K2500 samplers.
Many electronic musicians feel that the presence of real time controllers like knobs and sliders allowed us and even encouraged us to explore synthesis without necessarily needing to know synthesis theory. This is why so many of these older synths have made a comeback. Part of the magic of a TB-303 is the fact that you can edit the bass sounds while this little wonder is playing the bass sequence. Tweak the filter while its pumping out that new million dollar techno hit your writing. REAL TIME CONTROL ! Its what we all want.
Many samplers available today have extensive synthesis capabilities. Things like FILTER CUTOFF or FILTER RESONANCE could be routed to a controller like your MOD WHEEL or maybe a DATA SLIDER. Now you could have you sequencer playing your New Synth while you pump that slider up and down, opening and closing the filter, working that CUTOFF FREQUENCY and RESONANCE. If you do this right the track could sound like you used a TB-303. Why not have your MIDI sequencer record the movement of the MOD WHEEL or DATA SLIDER? Now the sequencer would be making changes to the filter in time with the track.
Do you find yourself saying "I Need Those Really Fat Bass Sounds"? The MINI MOOG has become the undisputed "KING OF BASS". Why? Three oscillators beating slightly out of tune with each other to create what we all lust after – a "FAT" sound. Some currently available synths could produce some very analog sounding patches with the added benefits of modern MIDI implementation and tuning stability.
BE HONEST. Will you hear the difference between the Oberheim or Prophet imitations found in a Roland XP50 and the real things, once the track is mixed? If you have a sampler and access to a analog synth, try this little trick. Create a bass sound that you'd like to use in your track. Multi sample it and create a program based on these samples. Once you've done this, layer the same sound over itself and detune it slightly. If you need the sound to be thicker add a third layer of the same sound and detune this too. If you mix this properly it will work.
Lets talk about drum machines for a moment. Many currently available drum machines like the Roland R8mkII or the R70 have those TR-808 and TR-909 sounds which are very necessary on the dance floor, yet all of us purists have to have the " Real Thing ". Why ? In the context of a track, it is not going to matter if you use the 909 kick from the R70 or the R8mkII or if you use the kick from the real TR-909. Using one over the other will not cost you a record deal. Some fans of these machines feel that other drum machines are just to "clean" sounding and that they need the "grit" these older machines have to offer. Think about this, not too long ago people were selling these machines off because they didn't sound "real" enough.
Here’s a way to add some "grit" to your drum sounds. Try sampling some of your favorite drum sounds at your sampler's high rate ( lets say 44.1 kHz ) and save these to disk. Now resample the same sounds at a lower rate ( lets say 22 kHz ). Compare the fidelity of these two sets of samples. You'll notice that the set of sounds taken at the lower rate may have the "grit" you were looking for. Now go to the filter section of your sampler and start experimenting with different filter settings for the drum samples. This technique will not make a traditional kick drum sound like a 909 kick but it could be just the type of "Spice" the track needed.
Here's another trick. Sample a Hi Hat at a low rate then go to the sample edit page in your sampler and transpose the sample down a few steps ( experiment to see what you like ). Once you've done this try experimenting with different filter settings to add that "Grit" to the hats. Try to be as creative as possible. Why not set a trend instead of following one?
If you must have an older unit you should research who can do the repair work on it. Remember that many of the synths that are on the "Vintage" list were made by companies that went out of business years ago. If the manufacturer is out of business you should find out who still supports the synth as far as parts, owners manuals, and service manuals. Many of these "Vintage" synths are still supported even though the manufacturer no longer exists. For example, Wine Country is where you can get Sequential Circuits support. Forat Electronics still supports Linn products.
Here is a scenario, you've just found a great deal on a "Vintage" synth, lets say a MINI MOOG. A MINI for $ 500.00. Wow , nice deal. It needs a little work, and maybe cosmetically its not perfect but its a MINI MOOG ! You bring it to your favorite tech and he says "It will cost $250 - $300 to put it in playable shape. Now you want to get that MIDI kit installed into it at an additional $500. Now this MINI has cost you $1300. Now you're kicking yourself because you passed on a "Mint" MIDIed MINI for $1300 in the for sale section of your favorite music publication.
When contemplating the purchase of a "Vintage" synth, you must consider "The Hassle Factor". If a synth seems like a great deal you must add in the cost of any repairs it may need to the purchase price. If the repair center for this synth is out of town you'll need to factor in any shipping charges you could incur. Once you've done this math then ask yourself if its still a good deal. Try to buy smart.
Until Next Time... Stay Well.
This article appeared in the December 1996 Issue of EQ Magazine.
NOTE: This article originally appeared in 1996 and vintage synthesizer prices have drasticly increased. Stay Safe!