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Sounding Off: Vintage Synths

Andy Foster
Published February 2005
By Andy Foster

Why are we still in love with vintage synths when all they do is break our hearts?

I suppose over the years I have been bitten by the vintage analogue synth bug as much as anyone. As a young lad growing up in the late '80s and early '90s, my musical diet was a combination of rave and Vince Clarke's analogue rumblings with a smattering of Jean-Michel Jarre thrown in for good measure.

Of course it was not long before I yearned for the machines that created the sounds on the records I listened to. A long stream of classics passed through my fingers — ARP 2600s, a brace of Minimoogs, the entire RSF Kobol line and even things like the Synton Syrinx and Steiner-Parker Synthacon. Each synthesizer would quench my lust for a while before I would have to hunt down something else.Sounding Off: Vintage Synths

However, after a while an ugly problem reared its head; that of keeping these machines working fully. It quickly became apparent that these items of desire could cost a lot of money to maintain on top of their initial purchase price. Good technicians are few and far between these days, and the cost even of fault finding can be £50. I soon realised that each machine was basically a time bomb. The RSF Kobol is a prime example, stuffed full, as it is, of hard-to-find SSM chips. These are the chips that filled the early mass-produced synths such as the Prophet 5. What people never tell you when you're buying these old synthesizers is that these chips are very hard to get hold of these days. Even if you do find a replacement it will more than likely not be new, but will have come from a non-repairable unit. The trouble is that these chips were only designed to last around 20 years or so, and many are now reaching that age. There's also another problem — due to the way these chips work, the more you use them the more they fade away, so even your replacement chip could be on its last legs. It's not only the chips that are the problem; knobs, sliders and even displays are all becoming scarce. I used to live in fear that one of the displays in my Oberheim Xpander would fail — and it had three!

I spent some time trying to work out what it would take to maintain my collection of vintage synths, but the answer I eventually came up with was not the one I imagined. I don't want to start the old 'analogue versus digital' debate, but I do want to say that there are alternatives to these ageing beasts.

I have cleared out almost all of my vintage synths; a lone Jupiter 8 and a customised Oberheim OBSX are now my only repair worries. I have replaced everything else with either virtual-analogue synths like the Clavia Nord 2 or new analogue units. The surprising thing is that my friends, the general CD-buying type, cannot tell the difference between a real Minimoog and a good copy of one, either live or on a recording. I know some will say that the sound is just part of the appeal of these units, and that the tactile control surfaces and the look and style are also a big reason for their popularity. I would have to say that synths like the Alesis Andromeda and the range of large-format modular systems that are now available, such as the MOTM, Oakley and Modcan ranges, look just as good and give you just as much control as the old Prophet 5 or indeed a big Moog System 55 ever did, and without the long-term repair bill.

I find it unbelievable that anyone would still want to purchase something like the Memorymoog — a dire unit that didn't even work properly when it was first made. I recall reading an interview in the mid-'80s with a band who said that their two Memorymoogs kept breaking down on them — and that was when the machine was two years old, not 20!

I can appreciate that some people will never change their opinions of vintage synths, and I cannot blame them for that, but is it really worth hanging on to these machines any more when there are good alternatives that will continue to work for the next 20 years, and also be easy to maintain? There seems to be a lot of prejudice against the newer-generation synthesizers at times. I can only liken this to when you were a child and you refused to eat something; you would say you didn't like it, even though you had never tried it. Maybe it's about time we tried some of the new things, and left these ageing machines to the collectors and museums of the world.

About The Author

Andy Foster has been hooked on synthesis since he discovered his school's MS10 at the age of 15. He is currently working on two albums and getting to grips with some of the larger modular synths.

Published February 2005