When I was but a wee lad I had a craving for synthesizers -- magic boxes that could, at the tweak of a knob, make me sound like my keyboard heroes. If I had a synth (so I thought) I could be excused for wearing a long blonde wig and a flowing cape. Moreover, I could incite the adoration of thousands simply by inserting knives into my organ.I got my synthesizers, but I managed to avoid the wig and the cape. Unfortunately, I was also singularly successful in avoiding the acclaim. Ego ensured that I never considered a severe lack of talent as an excuse but, nonetheless, I knew that I had never produced the powerful sounds I so desired. Was it me or, unlike a bad worker, was I experiencing a genuine deficiency of the tools themselves?
Then I happened to meet the imposing Robert John Godfrey. Robert, founder and leader of the (then) cult band The Enid, had come to talk to me about word-processors but, inevitably, the conversation drifted round to synthesizers. I explained that my keyboard rig -- Crumar Organiser, Logan String Melody II, Hohner Pianet T, RMI Electrapiano 368X, Roland SH1000, Korg MS20 and Casio CT202 -- still didn't offer the type of sounds I wanted. "You need a decent synth" said Robert, "something with guts. I think we've got an old Odyssey knocking around somewhere. Come round one evening and I'll give it to you." So, thanks to Robert's generosity, I acquired my first 'decent' synthesizer.
The Odyssey came to my rescue just in time to convince me that it wasn't only my playing or synth programming that was deficient. For years, the missing piece in my keyboard jigsaw was class: the elusive quality that makes certain keyboards 'instruments' in their own rights. The Minimoog had it, the Mellotron had it, even my RMI had it. But, by the standards of the day (long before the dance fraternity adopted the fizzy delights of the MS20) neither of my Japanese synths had it. The Odyssey had it in spades.
What made ARP's new baby so special? It wasn't the keyboard, which was neither velocity nor pressure sensitive and, with just 37 notes, was seven keys shorter than a Minimoog's. Nor was it the simplicity and immediacy of the controls because, despite drastic simplification compared to the 2600, they were neither simple nor immediate. And, let's face it... its construction was basic, the knobs and sliders broke off, and it offered neither pitch nor modulation wheels. But the Odyssey scored where it mattered most. The Sound. Nothing could match an Odyssey in full flight. Yes, the Minimoog was also superb, but in a different way. The Odyssey had a character all its own, and one that was to set it apart from just about every other synth.
Much of this was a consequence of ARP's famously aggressive oscillators. These generated all the basic waveforms -- sawtooth, square wave, pulse, and pulse width modulation (PWM) -- that, to this day, remain the building blocks for almost all analogue sounds. (PWM was quite a luxury, and one not found on many synths. Even the Minimoog lacked it. But, since PWM forms the basis of many of the richer, more lush analogue timbres, its inclusion ensured that the Odyssey sounded 'bigger' than it was, generating sounds normally reserved for more heavily endowed instruments.) With oscillator sync and a ring modulator, ARP's twin oscillators put the Minimoog's three to shame. Furthermore, with a tuning drift of less than 1/30 of a semitone (in sharp contrast to other synthesizers of the era) the ARP oscillators were extremely stable. A well-maintained Odyssey, once set up, would remain just about perfectly pitched in all conditions, from sweaty bars to sub-zero outdoor stages. This was a godsend for the gigging musician.
In addition, the Odyssey combined more sound-shaping features than any other non-patchable synth of its era. It had extensive pitch-modulation capabilities, a very flexible sample & hold, single and multiple triggering, noise generation, two filters, and two envelope generators. It also incorporated an innovative keyboard-scanning system that assigned the oscillators to the highest and lowest keys played, making it the world's first duophonic synthesizer. But it was the model 2800's superb 24dB/octave filter (the 4012) that was its crowning glory. This had a frequency response extending to nearly 35kHz, and it is this that now makes 'white-face' Odysseys the darlings of synth collectors.
The Odyssey immediately became one of the hottest synths on the market so, despite making very little profit, ARP got on with the honourable occupation of selling lots of instruments. Then, in 1973, upstarts such as the Keio ORGan company (geddit?) and Roland dug deep into ARP's market with $500 synths that players found almost as attractive as the Odyssey. It took until 1975 for ARP to respond, taking the proven but relatively expensive Odyssey, and stripping out facilities until it reached an acceptable compromise between low cost and retained performance. The result was a simple monosynth that, despite a lowly price, retained much of the character of its parent. Thus the Axxe was born. Together with the Odyssey, the 2600, and the ProSoloist, this helped ARP to win 40% of the mid-'70s American synthesizer market -- a phenomenal feat by any standards.
By way of compensation, most 2810-2813s incorporated new and comprehensive CV and Gate interfaces, plus an external audio input. There was a very specific purpose for these. They allowed players to replace the sound generated by the internal oscillators with that generated by, for example, an ARP String Ensemble. The Ensemble could then make use of the Odyssey's filter and envelopes, to create a primitive, but usable, polyphonic synthesizer. ARP called this combination their 'Polyphonic System' and, although the Odyssey could only respond to single triggers and provided just one filter for all the notes played on the Ensemble, it produced brass ensembles, pipe and electric organs, plus a few piano-like, clavi, and other percussive sounds. (The Polyphonic System was superseded by the Omni -- a single instrument with its own filter and envelope generator -- that went on to become ARP's most successful product.)
The final incarnation of the Odyssey arrived a few months later. This eventually encompassed four revisions (models 2820-2823) but all are now known as Mark 2s. Recognised by their black and orange control panels and steel chassis with leather end-pieces, these offered further changes compared to their predecessors. The most visible of these was the chassis itself: less robust than the vinyl case of earlier models, it left the last inch or so of each white key exposed. Fine in the studio, it wasn't so suitable for gigging, and an alarming number of keys were broken as a result. Less obvious, but perhaps more important, was the adoption of ARP's unique 'PPC' (proportional pitch controller) which, on the last 'in-betweenies', had replaced the unconventional and unpopular pitch-bend knob with what proved to be an equally unconventional and unpopular pressure pad arrangement. The three PPC pads sat under the fingers of your left hand and gave pitch-bend 'down', vibrato, and pitch-bend 'up', each effect in proportion to the pressure applied to the appropriate pad. Minor external improvements were also made: the unconventional 'phono' input was exchanged for a standard quarter-inch jack socket, and the quarter-inch 'high' output was replaced with a balanced XLR.
On the inside, the VCO was redesigned for better tracking and stability, the power supply regulation and the S&H circuit were improved, and the keyboard offered better CV generation, for more accurate control of other synths. Furthermore, later service documents show that ARP changed the filter yet again, first to the 4023, and finally to the 4075, which offered a claimed frequency response of 16kHz. Whether these revisions were different to the earlier versions, or whether the nomenclature has become garbled after all these years, is unclear. However, apocrypha has it that the sound of the filters in the last few Odysseys challenged the Moog-esque circuits of the earliest model. Whatever the truth may be, the 2823 Odyssey was an excellent instrument, period.
Nowadays the Odyssey is revered as a prime example of the 'twiddly' school of synthesizers. With all its controls on the large top panel, it encourages even the most reticent of us to experiment. But however you use your Odyssey, you'll be assured of one thing: class. Robert came to my rescue just in time. I got the sound I wanted, and nobody had to stick knives into anything.
CURRENT ARP VALUES
|From the wonderful Odysseys and Pro-Soloists to the ghastly Quartet and the electronic pianos, ARP went from one extreme to another. Here's a list of all the ARPs you're likely to see advertised, plus my marks out of 10 for each. You disagree? Great -- I love a good argument.|
|MODEL||2ND-HAND BARGAIN||2ND-HAND RIP-OFF||MARKS OUT OF 10|
|4 voice piano||25||75||0|
|16 voice piano||50||100||2|
|Odyssey (model 2800 'Mark 1')||150||500||10|
|Odyssey (models 2810-2813)||150||550||9|
|Odyssey (models 2820-2823 'Mark 2')||150||450||9|
|Quartet||0||50||minus several million|
|Solina / String Ensemble||50||125||5|
|* depending upon configuration. ** OK, make that a '5' for a white-face in mint condition.|
ODYSSEY AND MINIMOOG COMPARED
|Despite costing about the same throughout the 1970s, in many ways (on a 'features per pound' basis) the Odyssey beat the Minimoog into a pulp. Check out the specs for yourself:|
|MOOG MINIMOOG||ARP ODYSSEY|
|No. of waveforms||6||Unlimited|
|Pulse Width Modulation||No||Yes|
|LFO Pitch Modulation||Yes||Yes|
|Audio frequency Pitch Mod||Yes||No|
|Noise||Yes||Pink & White|
|24dB/oct LP filter||Yes||Yes|
|Keyboard tracking||4 options||Fully variable|
|Dedicated Envelopes||2 x ADSD||1 x ADSR, 1 x AR|
|No. of Envelope destinations||2||6|
|LFO AND S&H:|
|No. of LFO destinations||2||8|
|No. of LFO waveforms||6||2|
|Sample & hold||No||Yes|
|No. of S&H destinations||n/a||5|
|Keyboard||44 note||37 note|
|Transpose +/- 2 octave||No||Yes|
Inevitably, this simplicity has also led
to some units being modified in rather unconventional ways. The Enid's
Odyssey saw the business end of a soldering iron on more than one occasion,
eventually sporting a guitar input and a modification that allowed a 24dB/oct
wah-wah foot pedal, with resonance, to control the filters! There's no
accounting for taste.
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