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ARP Odyssey

Duophonic Analogue Synthesizer [Retrozone] By Gordon Reid
Published December 1997

ARP Odyssey

For the synth aficionado, the ARP Odyssey is up there with the Minimoog in terms of its power and sonic quality. Gordon Reid explains why he loves his Ody...

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.

The First Odysseys

Alan R Pearlman's company, ARP, launched its first synth in 1970. The ARP 2500 was a huge affair — imposing, intimidating, and offering many improvements over the modular Moogs that had preceded it. The company's second offering, the ARP 2600, was also released in 1970, but this was far from an immediate success ("How do you get it to stop?" pleaded Joe Zawinul). In a world where synthesis was new and mysterious, the 2600 was almost completely impenetrable and, as a semi‑modular instrument, it needed patch leads to get the best from it. Years later, the world would embrace both instruments as classics, but ARP needed products that would sell to a wider market of less technical musicians. So, in 1972, the company announced a cut‑down version of the 2600, with one fewer oscillator and extensive internal pre‑patching of the sound‑generating modules. It had a white control panel and an excellent vinyl wrap‑around case that projected right under the keys to protect them from damage. It was the ARP Model 2800 'Odyssey'.

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.

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.

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.

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form...

So respected was the Odyssey that, in 1976, New York company Octave Electronics released a blatant imitation called the Cat. (They even had the cheek to introduce the 'Kitten', which copied much from the Axxe.) ARP responded through the American courts but, despite Octave's clear infringement of ARP's duophony patent, the Cat remained in production and Octave stayed in business. In truth, despite the obvious similarities between the Cat and the Odyssey, there were also many significant differences between the synths. For example, the Cat offered additional — and mixable — oscillator waveforms, and incorporated a quite different filter. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, the Cat remained in production for five years, and the Kitten for four, after which the manufacturer metamorphosed into Octave‑Plateau, and finally Voyetra Technologies.

Second‑Generation Odysseys

Early in 1977, ARP announced a revised Odyssey that offered many improvements over the original model. However, after developing the new electronics, ARP continued to use existing cases and control components — thus creating the 'black‑faced' models 2810‑2813. These 'in‑betweenies' retained the vinyl case and the pitch‑bend knob of the 2800, but ARP ditched the superb 4012 filter in favour of a new circuit, the 4072. The reason for this was simple: ARP had copied much of the 4012 from a Moog patent, and after years of inter‑company wrangling, Alan Pearlman decided that ARP should develop its own, non‑infringing, filter. Unfortunately, somebody calculated the component values incorrectly, and the 4072 offered a maximum cutoff frequency of just 12kHz. This made the new Odysseys audibly inferior to their predecessors.

The author's second gen 'black-faced' Odyssey.The author's second gen 'black-faced' Odyssey.

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&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.

So What Went Wrong?

ARP's zenith was in 1977, and the company then moved into a rapid decline. Despite a turnover of millions of dollars, profits were minimal, and there were three uncoordinated research and development projects eating into the company's meagre resources. One of these was the world's 'ultimate' polyphonic synthesizer, the Centaur. Hopelessly complex, hopelessly unreliable and, with a projected end‑user price of $20,000 (more than £50,000 at 1997 prices) hopelessly overpriced, the Centaur was doomed. The company built just two. Stranded without a flagship product, ARP rushed out a half‑baked polysynth that also marked its penultimate fling with monophonic synthesis. The Quadra was, in essence, a hybrid of an Omni II, a cut‑down — but pressure‑ sensitive — Odyssey, and a basic monosynth devoted to bass duties. Unfortunately, most players agreed that contemporaries such as the Prophet 5 completely outclassed it. The Quadra bombed. Other projects, such as the Avatar guitar synthesizer and the 4‑voice and 16‑voice electric pianos, were also unmitigated disasters. By 1980 ARP was in a mess, crippled by mismanagement, while, in contrast, Japanese competitors such as Roland and Yamaha were putting the finishing touches to the Jupiter 8 and the world's first FM synth, the GS1. In 1981 ARP collapsed in a heap of recrimination and unpaid bills. Development and production of all ARP synthesizers (except for the CBS/Rhodes Chroma) stopped, and the Odyssey died.

In Use

Despite the chequered history of their filters, all Odysseys sounded bright and zappy and, if they were never as punchy as a Minimoog (which is debatable), they blew away the Rolands, Yamahas and Korgs that had caused me so much frustration. They excelled at the squelchy basses, industrial effects and shrieking lead sounds that are now so fashionable, displaying a cutting edge that was missing from their competitors. On the imitative side, their solo trumpets and tubas are still the standards by which analogue synths are judged, and a little judicious juggling of the filter and envelope would produce flutes, oboes, and Clavioline imitations that had you playing 'Telstar' before you could stop yourself. The manual also offered guitars, trumpet and string choruses, electric bass and percussion patches, while 75 further sounds appeared in the patch‑book that came with every synth.

If there was a criticism, it lay in how difficult it could be to coax warm, mellow voices from an Ody. You could do it, but the results lacked the characteristic warmth of a Minimoog — impressive, maybe, but cold and distant by comparison. The Odyssey's sound, despite its ascendancy in some areas, was limited in others, and for this reason perhaps, it was always overshadowed by its more famous competitor. This is a shame, because the combination of the warmer, fatter Minimoog and the more 'edgy' Odyssey offered a far wider range of timbres than could be provided by either alone. The Enid recognised this, as did Jean-Michel Jarre (Oxygene), and the Electric Light Orchestra (Out of the Blue).

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
2500 * 2000 5000 6
2600 750 1600 7
Avatar 100 400 6
Axxe ** 50 200 4
Explorer 50 150 5
Odyssey (model 2800 'Mark 1') 150 500 10
Odyssey (models 2810‑2813) 150 550 9
Odyssey (models 2820‑2823 'Mark 2') 150 450 9
Omni 50 140 5
Omni II 50 150 5
ProDGX 75 200 9
ProSoloist 50 200 10
Quadra 250 500 8
Quartet 0 50 minus several million
Solina / String Ensemble 50 125 5
Solus 100 300 6
* depending upon configuration. ** OK, make that a '5' for a white‑face in mint condition.

Don't Believe Everything You Read

There was at least one area in which, on paper, the Odyssey fell short of ideal. This was in the attack speed of its ADSR and AR envelope generators. Consider this: plucking, hitting or slapping any musical object results in almost instantaneous transients, both in terms of amplitude and harmonic variations: the sound doesn't increase in volume slowly, it immediately goes 'boingg'. On a synthesizer, even the slightest deviation from this ideal results in weaker, less interesting sounds.

The ARP's envelopes each had minimum attack times quoted as 5ms, so they should never have sounded as snappy as the Rolands and Yamahas that claimed attacks of 1 or 2ms. Having said that, the Odyssey was at least a match for the best of the Rolands, and was much punchier than any Yamaha or Korg of the era. Indeed, the snappiest synth of them all was probably the Minimoog, with a quoted attack of 10ms. It just goes to show how misleading specifications can be.

Odyssey & 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
OSCILLATORS:
Audio Oscillators 3 2
No. of waveforms 6 Unlimited
Pulse Width Modulation No Yes
LFO Pitch Modulation Yes Yes
Audio frequency Pitch Mod Yes No
Oscillator sync No Yes
Fine Tuning No Yes
Ring Modulation No Yes
Noise Yes Pink & White
Pitch bend Yes Yes
Portamento (Glide) Yes Yes
FILTER:
24dB/oct LP filter Yes Yes
High‑pass filter No Yes
Filter self‑oscillation Yes Yes
Keyboard tracking 4 options Fully variable
ENVELOPES:
Dedicated Envelopes 2 x ADSD 1 x ADSR, 1 x AR
No. of Envelope destinations 2 6
Envelope inversion No No
LFO re‑triggering No Yes
LFO AND S&H:
Dedicated LFOs 0 1
No. of LFO destinations 2 8
No. of LFO waveforms 6 2
Sample & hold No Yes
No. of S&destinations n/a 5
OTHER FEATURES:
Polyphony 1 2
Keyboard 44 note 37 note
Modulation wheel Yes No
Pitchbend wheel Yes No
Transpose +/‑ 2 octave No Yes

Servicing An Odyssey

The simplicity of the Odyssey's construction is now a 'plus' point, albeit a rarely appreciated one. You can disassemble one with no more than a screwdriver, there is no VLSI or other digital circuitry to fall foul of, and its operation can be understood with even a limited knowledge of electronics. This means that servicing, if the parts remain available, remains straightforward. Beware, however, instruments with broken sliders or defective filters. The spares for these have begun to assume all the characteristics of hens' teeth, so you could be facing an expensive repair bill if you need to replace either. You may even end up, as I did, buying a second Odyssey to use as a source of spares for the first.

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.

Published December 1997