Oxford Synthesizer Company Oscar

Synthesizer (Retro)

Published in SOS September 1999
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Reviews : Keyboard

Under hypnosis, Paul Wiffen regresses to an earlier life when he was involved in the development and marketing of what is now regarded as a British classic.

 

Championed by some of the biggest-selling British bands of the early '80s (most notably Ultravox and stadium supergroup Asia), finding belated international respect with Jean-Michel Jarre and Stevie Wonder, and now much sought-after for dance music production, the OSCar was a British-designed two-oscillator hybrid digital/analogue synth. It was originally designed to be a sort of programmable Minimoog -- Moog's own Source having failed so spectacularly to capture the sound of the American classic in a synth with program memories. Although the end result came no closer than the Source to emulating the Minimoog, it had its own character which endeared it to a generation of synthesists -- many of whom had started on earlier and cheaper designs by the same designer.

Genealogy

The OSCar was a phoenix which rose from the ashes of the second Electronic Dream Plant company. Producers of the family of 'insect' synths which included the Wasp, Spider and Caterpillar, they had already gone into receivership once and re-invented themselves as Electronic Dream Plant (Oxford) Ltd. Unfortunately, the cheaper single-oscillator Gnat, a sort of cut-down Wasp, came too late to save the second incarnation from the inevitable results of the same mismanagement which had taken down the first company, even though the managing director in question had been removed six months prior to the second winding up.

It is a measure of this MD's incompetence that he gave the job of Education Consultant at EDP to a certain over-confident graduate who managed to convinced him he was a synthesizer whizz after just one evening with his

  Why OSCar?  
  People used to ask if OSCar were named after someone, but the answer is much simpler and can be deduced by looking at the rather idiosyncratic way that OSCar is spelt. After EDP(O) went down the pan for the second time, Chris had to decide what to call the new company his father and mother set up for him (he didn't want to be a company director because he was still being chased for debts from the demise of the first EDP). Chris had never liked the Electronic Dream Plant name, which was a product of the MD's hippy roots (and now invested with bad memories of financial hardship), so they settled on the more down-to-earth Oxford Synthesizer Company, which quickly got abbreviated to OSC. The new synth was the first product or Model A. Putting these together gave you OSC-a, and it just seemed natural to put the 'r' on as well. The closest we ever came to suggesting what that 'r' might stand for was 're-programmable' because it had user presets, but that never got any further than the pub.

However, using the name rather than a model number was the best marketing decision we made. I soon observed that anyone who ever used an OSCar for any length of time tended to anthropomorphise the little fellow by dropping the definite article and refering to it as 'OSCar', not 'the OSCar'.

 
mate's Wasp! Although I'd been using various string synths and electric pianos (and even a Korg Micro Preset) in bands for years, I had never laid hands on a programmable synth until the night before my interview. This same MD used to tell everyone who would listen that he had designed the Wasp, but it only took me two weeks to realise that there was no-one currently working within the company capable of designing the Wasp or its descendants. Having plugged the Wasp and prototype Gnat into an external amp (something most people never did, so they only ever heard the tiny sound of the internal speaker), I was desperate to meet the guy who had produced this monster sound.

Eventually, at a product launch I had organised for the Gnat at the Oxford Union, I got to meet the designer, who at the time was designing washing-machine control systems in an effort to rehabilitate his financial standing after the demise of the first EDP (of which he had been a director, and therefore liable for the company's debts).

The Birth Of A New Synth (And Company)

Amazingly, Chris Huggett, a quiet, modest fellow (until he had had a few drinks, at least) and I, brash and full of schemes, hit it off and I soon found myself invited to his flat near the Oxford Ring Road to talk synthesis. It turned out he was planning another synth, a professional machine which did not hide its light under the bushel of an internal speaker this time, but which people would be forced to hear properly as they had to plug it into an external amp. Like the Wasp family it would have all-digital oscillators and analogue filtering, but it would go much further than the Wasp had ever done in terms of features and facilities. I was flattered to be asked to contribute ideas, and there were many sessions over a pint (or three) discussing possible features and their implementation. Soon the new synth existed as a mass of tangled wires hooked to a disembodied keyboard at one end and Chris's emulation plug-in from his computer on the other. After our discussion sessions I would go back to London and come back a few days later to find Chris would have the new feature ready for me to try. I would comment and he would refine it for my next visit. By now my job with EDP(O) had evolved into a general demonstrator/product specialist role (I had flogged Eton College, Oxford University and the GLC all the Wasps they were ever going to need!) and in my travels I would spend hours in stores checking out all the other synths on the market, stealing all the best ideas and looking out for pitfalls and shortcomings to avoid.

A Filter With A Split Personality

Not that Chris didn't have some great ideas of his own, of course. We had agreed that a professional synth had to have 4-pole filtering (the Wasp was only 2-pole), but as Chris planned to use two of the same filters as were in the Wasp in series, he suggested some way of moving their cutoff frequencies independently -- and thus the new instrument's Separation control was born. At the beginning of its range, the two filters operated at the same cutoff frequency, but as you increased the amount, the two cutoffs were moved further apart. In Band-Pass mode, (OSCar had Low-Pass, High-Pass and Band-Pass settings), one of the 2-pole filters was set to High-Pass and the other to Low-Pass. This meant that the Separation control actually allowed you to adjust the width of the band from very narrow to very wide (something I have never seen on another synth, before or since). This was particularly effective with the Q set quite high, the two resonant peaks giving a vocal effect that was previously unheard-of on a subtractive synth, especially if you moved the Separation knob in real time. I still run into people today who praise this as OSCar's best feature.

On the subject of the filter, there was another idiosyncratic feature which gave OSCar a unique (if split) personality. It came from a suggestion of mine, inspired by reading somewhere about art

"We had agreed that a professional synth had to have 4-pole filtering (the Wasp was only 2-pole), but as Chris planned to use two of the same filters as were in the Wasp in series, he suggested some way of moving their cutoff frequencies independently -- and thus the new instrument's Separation control was born."
ists like Billy Currie of Ultravox and Jan Hammer putting their synth solos through fuzz-boxes or distortion pedals. I thought it would be a really good feature if we could implement this inside the OSCar so the distortion setting could be saved within a program. Chris suggested that the same effect could be achieved more simply by overdriving the analogue filter. As a result, the volume knob had a mark two-thirds of the way round which represented full volume without distorting the filter, and then the rest of its travel would progressively overdrive the filter without the end result getting any louder. This volume setting was then saved as part of the patch, and gave OSCar a powerful capacity for raw screaming lead sounds.

The first time I tried this new feature, I came up with a patch emulating Billy Currie of Ultravox's lead sounds. Eventually, a refined version of this was chosen as preset number one, so that when you switched an OSCar on it was the first sound you heard. The greatest moment of job satisfaction I got from the whole OSCar experience came six months later, when I had the chance to show it to the guys in Ultravox while they were finishing off the Lament album in Matrix Studios in Primrose Hill. Billy Currie turned to Midge Ure after hearing just that first preset and said, "We'd better have one of these each before the [ARP] Odysseys break down for good." In fact, by the end of the afternoon, they had ordered three, one for Billy, one for Midge and one for Chris Cross to run synth bass lines from. From that day on, they stopped touring with the Odysseys and even used the OSCar as the main instrument on the last 'classic' Ultravox single 'Love's Great Adventure'.

Additive As Well As Subtractive

Mentioning 'Love's Great Adventure' brings me on to the unique oscillators which OSCar boasted, as their additional feature is clearly audible in the breaks in that track. Based on the design which had given the Gnat a huge sound despite its single-oscillator status, they featured not only triangle, sawtooth, square and variable

  OSCar Users  
  Billy Currie, Chris Cross
and Midge Ure -- Ultravox.
John Foxx.
Geoff Downes -- Asia.
Dominique Perrier
and Jean-Michel Jarre.
Keith Emerson --
Emerson, Lake & Powell.
Stevie Wonder.
Tim Simenon -- S-Express.
 
pulse waveforms, but a preset version of Pulse Width Modulation which gave the oscillators a fat, harmonically varying sound without tying up the LFO to produce it. This setting was called 'Enhance' on the Gnat, but shortened to PWM on the OSCar. Chris had noticed that there was only a short range of speeds at which Pulse Width Modulation actually sounded really good (too fast and it sounded out of tune, especially in the lower registers; too slow and it became so subtle you hardly noticed it). As OSCar had two oscillators, Chris made the PWM speeds on each slightly different, so if you set both to PWM, the sound got even richer as they moved around each other. With the two oscillators slightly detuned and played in the bass register, this was the closest thing I ever heard to the original Moog Taurus pedals' characteristic sound from another synth. I once set this going through a Meyer PA at Wembley Arena while sound-checking for a week of Stevie Wonder gigs, and members of the crew and band came running under the stage (where the Synclavier guy and I had our nest of technology) to find out what was making that incredible sound. They were most surprised to find that it was this funny-looking little keyboard and not the Synclavier (though we did end up making loads of OSCar samples in the Synclavier, as its unique 16-bit 50kHz sample rate was the only thing which did the bandwidth of the OScar justice back then).

But this dual out-of-sync PWM was not the unique feature of the OSCar you hear on 'Love's Great Adventure'. That feature is the bonus of programmable additive waveforms. Chris came up with a very creative way of allowing users to build their own waveforms by adding individual harmonics. The top two octaves of the keyboard have their keys numbered from 1 to 24. When one of these keys is pressed in harmonic-creation

  Step Time Sequencing, Arpeggiation And MIDI (Eventually)  
  OSCar's sequencer, like so many at the time, operated only in step-time mode, but was still fairly sophisticated. It featured the rare ability (at the time) to lengthen notes or insert spaces, so that it wasn't restricted to producing an endless stream of notes of identical length. This was done by holding down the required note while advancing the step button, or pressing the Space button just below the wheels. Twenty-four simple sequences could be stored (those numbered keys being pressed into service for one more function) but then these could be chained together into more complex sequences, complete with program changes (a real innovation at the time). As a result, with a bit of planning, you could produce really quite sophisticated bass lines and other monophonic sequences, whilst playing a second part over the top, if you wanted.

All this could be triggered externally via a Click In which was ideal for interfacing with the drum machines of the day (Linn, Emu Drumulator, Sequential Drumtrak) and OSCar could often be seen as one half of a very tight rhythm section at live gigs. There was even the facility to sub-divide the incoming clocks to create slower or faster lines without spending hours inserting Spaces or making each note four times the length. The same triggering was available on the arpeggiator, which made it amongst the most flexible of the day with multiple octave ranges and random ordering.

But the thing which really caused OSCar to blossom was the addition of MIDI after a year or so on the market. MIDI had been no more than a vague rumour when OSCar first shipped, but Chris managed to go back and integrate MIDI into the design, both mechanically and in software, in such a way that it could even be retro-fitted into the original units. In addition to making all 36 preset locations user-programmable, it also provided a much more reliable way for sounds to be saved and reloaded than the hideous tape backup facility, and meant that OSCar could be intergrated into any more modern sequencing system. An interesting by-product was that the 3-octave keyboard could actually be used polyphonically to control external modules like the newly-released TX7 (which used to happen a fair bit in the early days, until people realised that OSCar wasn't ideal for this as it wasn't velocity sensitive).

 
mode, it adds the harmonic of that number into the waveform in real time. You actually hear the harmonic come in to the waveform as you press the key, which was unprecedented back in the early '80s. Pressing a key repeatedly increases the volume of that harmonic proportionally in the overall result. The method produced additive waveforms very quickly, unlike all the additive systems which had preceded it, and meant that untutored users could be making their own waveforms in seconds. Indeed, the process of creating the waveforms sounded so interesting that I used to use it as a live introduction to a song onstage. What's more, you could have a different additive waveform on each of the two oscillators.

This additive feature was unprecedented on a synth with filters, unless you counted the PPG Wave with waveforms downloaded from a Waveterm computer (this combination appeared around the same time as OSCar, but was in a slightly different price league). In fact, Wolfgang Düren, the worldwide distributor for PPG, clearly recognised a kindred spirit as he took on OSCar for German distribution. The palette of timbres which the OSCar offered as a result of this additive facility was far broader than any other monosynth had ever had. You could produce spiky, angular sounds, thin sharp digital sounds and just plain weird sounds and then you could filter them. Or you could combine a fat PWM analogue-style waveform on one oscillator with a sharp angular additive waveshape on the other, making a bass line, for example, with an attack that would cut through anything but provide a huge fat underlay of sound to your track. Lead sounds could have the same combination of warmth and edge.

More Than A Great Solo Voice

Actually, there is one inaccuracy in the last paragraph. OSCar may have been used monophonically most of the time, but it actually had a duophonic capability -- you could split the oscillators and play two notes at a time from the keyboard. However, the filters and envelopes didn't split, so they only re-triggered when you had released the keys completely. It was fine for playing two-note parts where both notes were played and released simultaneously, but any kind of independence between the parts would show up the shortcomings. Where the duophonic capability of the OSCar really came into its own was when running the sequencer (which is covered in more detail in the box). It meant you could have one voice being triggered by the sequencer, say on a bass line, and the other in a completely different register for a lead solo part. When used duophonically, the sequencer voice didn't use the filter or amplifier envelopes but had its own fairly basic AD envelope with gate time, which was all that was needed for fairly fast sequencing. This meant you could use an additive digital waveform on the sequencer (for example) and solo over the top with a fat analogue sound with full enveloping and proper multiple triggering (or vice versa). Technically, I think this makes the OSCar not only duophonic but also bi-timbral.

The sequencer and arpeggiator weren't the only way for OSCar to trigger automatically. In addition to the standard ADSR functions, the OSCar's filter and volume envelopes had all sorts of independent repeat (or cycle) functions. You could set the volume envelope to re-trigger at the speed of the onboard clock (which governed the sequencer and arpeggiator as well) but have the filter envelope only re-trigger when you played a new note on the keyboard. This gave you a repeated note which would get duller or brighter depending on how you set up the filter envelope and played the keyboard. Alternatively, you could set the filter to repeat and have the volume envelope on re-trigger from the keyboard. Both of these repeat envelopes could be externally triggered using the same method as the sequencer/arpeggiator (see separate box). You could even use the Hold feature to keep a note triggering in perpetuity until you played a new one. This was fantastic for bass lines, and was used like this live by Chris Cross in Ultravox to trigger those distinctive electronic bass lines from the drums, while he just selected the required note from time to time.

  Whatever Happened To...  
  The Polyphonic OSCar? In 1985, OSC actually exhibited a polyphonic rackmount module at Frankfurt called the ASG (whch stood for Advanced Sound Generator). This held up to 16 OSCar voice cards, and was to have been able to sample and replay real sounds on the digital oscillators. Programming was via a button keypad, soft knobs and a monitor screen (à la PPG Waveterm) which also allowed it to have had a 16-track polyphonic sequencer which scrolled horizontally, so the current moment was always centre screen -- removing the need for the irritating screen redraws which we still suffer today. Unfortunately, the design was never finished due to lack of money (it was difficult to finance a more expensive unit from the sales of a cheaper monosynth) and when a last-ditch attempt to save it by getting Ultravox to invest in the company fell at the final hurdle, it was shelved. I had the prototype for a while and it sounded monstrous just with OSCar presets, but eventually Chris repossesed it and cannibalised it for the OSCar voice cards to sell.

Chris Huggett? In the same way that I had to go and get a proper job with E&MM and then Sequential to make a living, Chris eventually had to get a more reliable source of income. I put him in touch with Akai, for whom I was doing S900 sound development, and the next thing I knew he was writing the operating system for the new S1000. Chris worked for Akai behind the scenes on most of the sampler operating systems for more than 10 years until he grew frustrated with their refusal to let him work on the hardware design as well (with the Wasp and OSCar, he had of course done both). Having fostered Novation in its early days with help and advice, he eventually joined them full-time a couple of years back and is the guiding light behind the virtual technology of the Supernova. So a very British designer is once more working on a very British synth for a very British company.

The 2,000 OSCars made? Many are still in service in the production of dance music, and changing hands for more than the original RRP of £599. I ended up without one when mine was given to Vangelis and never replaced, but thanks to a kind soul who turned up at my 40th birthday party with one, OScar and I are now re-united.

 

Factory Programs & User Presets

Quite often when Chris Huggett was writing the code which controlled the OSCar parameters on the computer, I would be sat at this strange disembodied development system (OSCar's unique housing was still a glint in the designer's eye and we hadn't seen it yet), trying out the parameters. Every so often I would come up with something which I had never heard before (well, at least not from a synth) and there would be a rush to save it to the antiquated cassette backup system before the power got interrupted and it was lost forever. The 'cello preset was one such sound which suddenly appeared from a slight tweak of a knob, and to this day I have never managed anything even vaguely resembling a 'cello on any other analogue synth (it was the Separation control which allowed this). Other sounds I distinctly remember being saved in this way before disaster struck were the fat Moog-type bass (the closest we ever came to the original Minimoog idea), the Taurus-style drone and the overdriven lead sound which made it to preset 1.

But OScar's real selling point was not that it came with factory presets (although that was fairly rare for a monosynth), but that you could also store your own sounds. The original OSCar only allowed 12 user sounds (plus 24 waveforms and 24 sequences) to be stored, but people were delighted to get even that facility on a monosynth, since these traditionally didn't come with memories at all. Later, with the MIDI OSCar -- or the MIDI retrofit -- all 36 memory locations were made user programmable, so you could overwrite all the factory presets, although I was flattered to see how few people did. I have heard the original OSCar presets being used by artists as diverse as Jean-Michel Jarre, Stevie Wonder, Tim Simenon and Geoff Downes -- which is a miracle when you consider they were mostly created on a caseless web of naked keyboard, exposed circuit board and umbilical connection to the computer, with Chris's two cats wandering backwards and forwards across the unholy mess.

Wild (Looking) Oscar

Which brings us to the distinctive casing, probably the first thing most people think of when they remember the OSCar. But I knew OSCar long before the case arrived. After about six months of these extended visits to Chris's place, suddenly one day OSCar acquired a new look. The circuit board and keyboard chassis were now hidden behind a formidable combination of plastic and rubber, with a wooden base. I had been aware that Tony, a friend of Chris's who had been responsable for the Gnat casing was working on a design for OSCar, and I had even helped Chris decide how the rubber sections would divide up the control knobs into logical sections to help understand the signal flow and make programming easier, but nothing had quite prepared me for what I saw that day.

People tended to love or hate the look of the OSCar. Original reviewers' comments ranged from "the ugliest synth I have ever seen" to "OSCar looks like it could win World War Three all by itself". For myself, I grew used to it. The great rubber 'bricks' at each end were clearly practical (I'm sure they saved many an OSCar from damage when dropped) and the rubber dividers had the dual role of grouping the knobs into a logical operational order and protecting them from being sheared off if it was dropped upside down. But the whole thing was certainly a departure from the normal synth look, just at a time when the Japanese manufacturers were making smooth, sleek housings the way to go.

In hindsight, it made the OSCar instantly identifiable from afar, even if you weren't close enough to see the name badge stuck on the back -- and that can't be a bad thing. It did make the unit a real pain to service, and Chris forever had supply problems with the rubber bits. But it also gave it a big, tough image which matched the sound of that first preset perfectly, and now I can't imagine it looking any other way.

  OSCar Winners  
 
ARTIST TRACK PART(S) OSCAR PLAYED
Ultravox
Band Aid
J.M. Jarre
Stevie Wonder
S-Express
'Love's Great Adventure'
'Do They Know It's Xmas'
'Skeletons'
'Revolutions Overture'
'Theme From S-Express'
Solo, Atonal sequence
Bass line
Bass line, Solo at climax
Bass line (with Elka Synthex)
Bass line
 

OSCar Is Born

It was in this housing that I first smuggled it to the Frankfurt Musikmesse trade show in my suitcase (no free movement of goods in Europe back in '82) and then on to Paris. By this time I was a freelance demonstrator for Elka on the Synthex, which was how I got to Frankfurt that year. Peter Pulham allowed me to put the OSCar on the Music Business stand, as it was a British product, and I would shoot over from the Elka booth and do quick demos in between my official duties as Synthex demonstrator. There followed a year and a half of fun and foreign travel (but almost no money) as I developed a technique of what I now refer to as 'guerilla marketing and distribution'. I would use my increasingly busy freelance demo schedule as a way to get around, or borrow Chris's ageing BMW (which he eventually gave me as thanks for my efforts in lieu of money, which was scarce) to visit trade shows where I wasn't hired to demo the Elka Synthex or the Rhodes Chroma. When I went on programming work, I would always have an OScar in the boot of the car and when the Emulator II wouldn't make the sounds people wanted, OSCar could usually manage it. I don't think I ever made a penny out of OSCar, but that didn't matter; what mattered was that OSCar opened doors for me. It did get me to the offices of Electronics And Music Maker, where I was offered a proper job, writing for the mag (and invited to shared a flat with another young journo, Ian Gilby, now publisher of SOS). It got me known round the UK dealers so that the following year, when I landed a job as UK rep for Sequential Circuits (the Prophet people) I wasn't starting from scratch.

On the way, I managed to get OSCar in places where more traditional designs wouldn't go. I have already cited Ultravox, but there were many others. Geoff Downes (of Buggles and Asia) took to it even though he already owned four Minimoogs, Jean-Michel Jarre had his lead soloist Dominique Perrier soaring over everything else with it in live gigs as well as using it extensively in the studio. Stevie Wonder bought one years later when I used mine in his studio, and we doubled it via MIDI with the Synthex to produce the killer bass sound on his 1987 single 'Skeletons'. From its humble origins on Chris's worktop, OSCar certainly went a long way.

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