As some of you might know from reading my Retrozone features about vintage synths over the past few years, the ARP Odyssey was my first 'serious' synthesizer. I had owned a Korg 700 and MS20, and a Roland SH1000, before that, but these instruments were never able to give me the sounds I wanted: fat and edgy by turns, aggressive, and overflowing with je ne sais quoi. The 'white-faced' Odyssey Model 2800 did this, and in spades. It shrieked at the top, growled at the bottom, and cut through a mix in exactly the way that my Korgs and Roland didn't.
For many years the Odyssey and its simpler stablemate, the ProSoloist, were my 'synthesizer section'. Then came MIDI, and I was soon playing solos on a Roland Super JX10, with which I became adept at programming ARP-ish sounds. This is not that surprising, because the basis of the JX synth engine is quite similar to that of the Odyssey. The JX10 also allowed me to play solos over six octaves, and even create keyboard splits with an ARP-ish bass and lead on either side. The Roland lacked the rasp of the Odyssey and was less flexible, but with its benefits of MIDI and a superb velocitysensitive keyboard action with aftertouch, there was no competition. Despite their justified positions in the keyboard pantheon, my ARPs were retired from live duties.
I've never lost my love for the Odyssey or the ProSoloist, often digging them out for a few hours of noodling. But nowadays I'm a creature of convenience, so they have never regained their places in my live rig, nor have they contributed to any studio recordings since the late 1980s. So when David Spiers of Gmedia contacted me to say that his company was — together with plug-in manufacturer, Ohm Force — developing a software version of the Odyssey, it would be an understatement to say that I was interested. 'Excited' would be much nearer the truth.
The Oddity arrives in a seriously chunky box that belies the affordability of the contents: master CD, 20-digit security code, and a manual as robust and well produced as the box.
Power Mac G4
64MB RAM (128MB for Mac OS 9)
Mac OS 8.6 or higher
Pentium III or better
Any current Windows version
Loading the software could not be simpler. Insert the CD, click the icon, then open the folder that matches your needs. I loaded the VST version onto my 1GHz G4 Powerbook running OSX 10.2.4, and a MAS version (to plug into Digital Performer 2.7) onto my 400MHz G4 tower running OS 9.2.2. The MAS version was supplied by Gmedia via email, because at the start of the review period only the VST version was available, but in both cases the software loaded and installed without a glitch.
Since I don't use my Powerbook for music, I have no sequencer on it that will support the Oddity, but many moons ago I downloaded a beta version of VSTi Host, by Dan Nigrin. Provided that you have OMS on your Mac, this allows you to use plug in VST instruments as stand-alone synths. I'm aware that it has been superseded by a more sophisticated program that you can purchase [www.defectiverecords.com/], but the beta works for me, so I leave it alone.
Launching VSTi Host in the Classic environment, I clicked on the 'Select VSTi' box and directed it to the folder containing the Oddity software. I selected 'Oddity_VST2Mac', then clicked on 'Edit', and the Oddity appeared. I checked that the MIDI Input and Output devices were set to VST in the Set Up menu (no other options were available) and it was ready. Pressing a note on the on-screen keyboard produced an Odyssey-ish note from the Powerbook's speakers, so I was confident that everything was working correctly.
Launching the MAS version proved to be just as simple. A few frustrating moments were wasted working out that QuickTime instruments must be enabled in FreeMIDI for Digital Performer to direct the MIDI input from the MOTU MIDIExpress XT MIDI interface to the plug-in, but once I had worked that out the Oddity was up and running. Again, I checked the MIDI Input and Output, and these had set themselves to MAS. Perhaps because I still use an ancient Korg 1212 audio I/O card, there was unpleasant latency when I first played the Oddity from the Korg Trinity Pro that I use as a master keyboard, but reducing the 'studio' and buffer sizes in DP eliminated this. I was ready to start testing...
As you can see from the screen heading up this review, the Oddity is a faithful reproduction of the original instrument on which it is based, albeit with a longer onscreen keyboard. The Odyssey's unique and quirky sound generating architecture, as well as its appearance, has also been recreated in software, although Gmedia have added velocity sensitivity for both the VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) and VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier), optional beat synchronisation of the LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) if the host application supports it, and an option to switch off the LFO reinitialisation that occurs each time you press a key on the Odyssey. Other additions include the A440 tuning switch that was so useful on the Minimoog and so sorely missed on the Odyssey, a Monophonic/Duophonic switch, and a slider to set pitch-bend range. All of these are sensible additions that do nothing to detract from the sound or functionality appropriate to the original.
Everything on screen may be controlled using the computer's mouse or touchpad, and every time a control is altered its current value appears in the display found at the bottom left.
Four ways of adjusting faders (all movements of which can be sent as MIDI continuous controllers and saved for use as automation within the host application) are offered: grab the fader head and move it vertically to the desired position; grab it and move the mouse left/right to move the fader in finer steps; click in the fader track to move the value up or down in fine steps; or click just above or below the fader and 'throw' it to one extreme or the other with a quick swipe of the mouse. If you want to see the mouse cursor while you move a control, switch off the 'Enhanced' mouse mode under the Set Up menu. I did this and found it much easier to make fine adjustments.
Patches are loaded from and saved to local RAM in groups of 64 called Preset Banks, and these are cross-compatible between the PC and Mac versions of the Oddity. If, like me, you prefer to create your own sounds and save individual patches to disk, forget it. You can't. Instead, you must use the 'Memorise' switch to store the patch in the RAM location of your choice, then save the whole bank that contains it. You might think (as I did) that this would be a little clunky, but in practice it proved not to be a problem.
What is a problem, however, is the inability to scroll through patches without going via the menu, and the fact that it is not possible to change sounds using MIDI Program Change messages. I found this quite frustrating. However, Gmedia point out that in the VST version, using Cubase, it's possible to scroll through sounds using the Cubase Patch Manager.
Before starting to play, I decided to make sure that the joystick and ribbon controller on my Korg Trinity were controlling sensible parameters on the Oddity. You do this using the Auto-Binding facility in the Set Up menu. Simply click on 'Auto-Bind', move the control on the Oddity that you want to bind, and then move a control on the physical instrument to send a MIDI continuous controller. The two are then linked by the software; you need do nothing else.
It's possible to save and recall MIDI configurations via the Set Up menu, but if you're happy to use the factory configuration, Gmedia have linked all 62 Oddity parameters to continuous controllers. These do not conform to current standards — for example, CC#7 controls VCA Modulation Source, rather than VCA Level (CC#110) or VCA Mod Level (CC#111) as you might expect — but you can change them without too much hassle.
Unfortunately, you can't map the same control to two destinations simultaneously. Oh yes... and the modulation controls are far too sensitive, exactly as they were on the Odyssey. This is, of course, true to the spirit of the original instrument, but I think that it's one of those cases where bending the rules would have been acceptable.
One area in which the Oddity radically exceeds the capabilities of the Odyssey is Morphing. This facility allows you to move smoothly between two presets, with the transition time — from zero to 99 seconds — determined by the Morph Time knob. Morphing begins as soon as you select a new preset, but I was unable to get it to work from DP's automation, so I had to initiate each Morph by hand, selecting the new preset from the patch list.
Strangely, Morphing works differently with the VST version to how it works with the MAS version. In the case of the former, any changes to the positions of switches occur in the middle of the morph, whereas with the latter they occur at the start. Either way, such changes introduce an inevitable glitch as, say, modulation routings change. Consequently, Morph works best with sounds having identical switch settings but different fader settings. This is not a deficiency of the Oddity, it's just how the world works.
To paraphrase something I wrote recently when I compared the Moog Voyager to the Minimoog, there are yobs on the net who state that the Oddity sounds "nothing like a real Odyssey". Again, I don't have a clue what they're talking about and, again, neither do they.
I ran the Oddity under DP 2.7 next to my near-mint Model 2811 Odyssey, and within moments it was clear that, with the exception of one inconsistency, one control limitation (both of which I shall discuss below), and a few minor differences that are no more significant than the variations between revisions of the original, the Oddity sounds like an Odyssey. In fact, the similarities are at times astounding, whether you're inspecting single oscillators across seven octaves in an analytical way, or creating and playing complex patches.
I patched a number of sounds on the Oddity and then on my Odyssey, playing a melody on one and the counterpoint on the other. I then reversed this, playing the counterpoint on one, and the melody on the other (if you see what I mean). I couldn't tell which was which. OK, it was possible to hear slight differences if I compared single notes, but these were the differences between two Odysseys, not the differences between an Odyssey and something else.
Consequently, the Oddity sits in a mix every bit as well (or as badly) as the original, it's every bit as unpredictable, it's every bit as annoying, and it's every bit as exciting. I could go into details and tell you that the oscillators exhibit the same aggressive qualities as the original; I could tell you that the edgy filter responds in the same way; I could tell you that all the complex and wacky modulation routings respond correctly, and that the envelopes retrigger in the right way, but given that I've stated that the Oddity sounds like an Odyssey, what's the point? Indeed, the accuracy of the emulation even extends to quirks such as the fact that the original Model 2800 retriggered every time you pressed a note, but from the Model 2810 onwards it only did so for the first four notes, after which multi-triggering ceased. A side-effect of the cut-price keyboard architecture used on later models, this is yet another characteristic that has been reproduced faithfully for the Oddity.
Clearly, I'm not the only one to feel that the Oddity is a faithful recreation of the Odyssey, and Gmedia are happy to supply references from a number of respected players who have given permission for their views to be used as endorsements. Herbie Hancock says, "the Oddity is so authentic!" and Klaus Schulze not only said, "beautiful, great sound!" but offered to write sound banks for it. Other endorsees include Billy Currie (who was a famous Odyssey user in his Ultravox days) and Ted Pearlman (production credits including Diana Ross and Whitney Houston), who said "this soft synth sounds like you went back in time and snatched the original and dragged it back to now." Most telling of all is possibly the endorsement from Mike Overacker, the owner and co-writer of the definitive Odyssey web site, www.arpodyssey.com. Now there's a man who should know!
Now for the differences.
The inconsistency I mentioned above is a subtle one. On all the Odysseys I have played (and that's quite a few, because I've owned four of them, and played others), 'Sync On' has locked the oscillators together to precisely the same pitch. On the Oddity, there's a slight chorusing effect. It's not unpleasant, but it's not hard sync.
The control limitation is more serious: the controls 'step' when you grab them on screen and move the mouse up/down, or when using a 7-bit MIDI controller. Given that Oddity sounds slew smoothly when you use the Morph facility (see 'Morphing' box), I suspect that this may be a consequence of the rate at which the computer polls the mouse position. Whatever the cause, there are going to be players who find it annoying.
The zipper effects are almost eliminated when you use the fine modes of control mentioned earlier, but you are then precluded from quick movements between extremes. Depending upon how you use your synthesizers, this will either be a problem or of no consequence whatsoever.
The only significant sonic difference I noticed between my Odyssey and the Oddity was that — with the filter wide open — the Oddity was distinctly the brighter of the two. Given that my 2811 has a hobbled ARP4075 filter (see 'Odyssey Filters' box) I had a good idea why this might be. I contacted Gmedia to discuss it and, sure enough, they had modelled the sound of the Oddity on a later model with a corrected 4075 that did not suffer from the bandwidth restriction. Knowing this, I can now say with some confidence that my Odyssey's filter has a maximum cut-off frequency of just 10kHz because, at this value, the Oddity sounds like my Odyssey with its filter wide open.
As for playing the Oddity... what can I say? It's unlikely that performing with a plug-in will ever be as satisfying as having the original work of art at your fingertips but, on the other hand, the faders are not going to snap off when you get carried away and tweak them just a little too hard. (Yes, it happened.) Anyway, mapping the controls to CCs overcomes many of the restrictions, and with the joystick, ribbon controller and buttons of my Trinity linked to important parameters such as pitch modulation depth, filter cutoff frequency and so on, it was easy to forget that this was 'just' a bit of software.
Wondering whether the Oddity restricts you to a single emulation of the Odyssey, I allocated eight tracks within Digital Performer — four MIDI tracks to control four instances of the Oddity in four audio tracks — and composed a short Symphony For Four Odysseys. I patched each Oddity differently, with a bass sound, a percussive accompaniment, a lead synth, and a duophonic 'carpet', recorded parts of each, and then pressed 'play'. Everything went swimmingly until Digital Performer stopped (not crashed), telling me that I had exceeded the system's capacity. I was using tiny buffers, so I extended these. That helped, but the system was still unable to play all four parts. Reading the manual, I discovered that the most power-hungry part of the Oddity is its S&H (Sample & Hold) section and, sure enough, three of my four patches made use of this. So I flipped all the relevant switches, and bingo! The Symphony For Four Odysseys was reproduced perfectly. Consequently, £79.95 isn't buying you a single Odyssey: it's buying as many as your computer can handle. This is excellent news. Given that my G4/400 is now getting long in the tooth, I am sure it's possible to achieve even better results on a modern Mac or one of the latest PCs.
The Odyssey Sound
The Odyssey had a character that set it apart from any other synth of the era. ARP's famously aggressive oscillators offered pulse-width modulation, sync and ring modulation, putting the competition to shame. In addition, the 2800 had sample & hold, multi-triggering, a superb 12dB/octave low-pass filter, a high-pass filter, and dual envelope generators. It also incorporated an innovative keyboard-scanning system that assigned the oscillators to the highest and lowest keys played, thus making it the world's first duophonic synthesizer.
ARP revised the Odyssey on numerous occasions and its final incarnation appeared in 1978. Recognisable by its black and orange control panel and steel chassis, this offered further changes, of which the most visible was the chassis itself: this left the last inch or so of each white key exposed, resulting in a number of breakages. Less obvious was the permanent adoption of the Proportional Pitch Controller that replaced the unconventional pitch-bend knob with three unconventional pressure pads.
Other changes included a redesigned VCO, improved power supply regulation, better Sample & Hold, better CV (Control Voltage) generation, a standard quarter-inch audio input, and a balanced XLR output.
Despite their chequered history, Odysseys never failed to sound bright and zappy. It might have been more difficult to coax warm, mellow voices from them, but they excelled at basses, wild effects and aggressive lead sounds, and many of their patches remain to this day the standards by which other analogue and virtual analogue synths are judged.
As the chaps at Gmedia have themselves admitted, it would have been easy to design an Odyssey front-end and bolt this to a standard set of digital oscillators, filters, and amplifiers. But people like me would have noticed this immediately, and would torn the company to shreds for it. Fortunately, shredding is not necessary, because the Oddity is indeed a remarkable emulation of the Odyssey.
But it's not only that. Consider that I'm controlling four Odditys from a split, six-octave, velocity-sensitive keyboard with aftertouch, and you'll see that I've come back full-circle to the territory once occupied by my venerable Super JX10, with all the benefits that that offered, plus the true sound and flexibility of the Odyssey. So if you have any love for the sounds of the '70s and are happy to use plug-ins, I recommend that you try the Oddity.
Hmm... let me change that. Given that Odysseys are rare, expensive, unreliable, often have damaged faders, always have scratchy faders, often drift out of tune, and are always a nightmare to tune, I don't merely recommend that you try the Oddity. I very strongly recommend you try it.
There has always been some dissent regarding the exact configuration of each Odyssey model. In no small part, this is ARP's fault, because the company was not averse to building new models using components and sub-assemblies from previous ones. While this used up ageing stock, it makes it very difficult to determine which oscillators, filters and so on were used in each model.
The following information seems to be the most accurate, although you will find statements that contradict it in books such as Mark Vail's Vintage Synthesizers. If so, please don't write in to tell me.
This was ARP's own 24dB/octave filter, and appeared in many of their later instruments. It offered low noise and distortion, but a design fault (easily rectified) limited its maximum cutoff frequency to just 12kHz or thereabouts.
* PPC: Proportional Pitch Controller