Combining strings, a monosynth, a bass synth and a polyphonic synthesizer, did ARP create the keyboard equivalent of 'Wash and Go', or a jack of all trades and master of none?
Existing, as I do, somewhere in the age range between grumpy and wrinkly, I feel no embarrassment admitting I was a huge fan of Genesis. This was the first time round in the 1970s, before fiendishly clever compositions and exemplary musicianship gave way to the band's cunningly crafted, but simplified adult pop in the 1980s.
Like most die-hard fans, my friends and I found the band's transition period from 1978 to 1983 a difficult time. We still hoped for a return to the good old days of 22-minute extravaganzas about life, the universe, and angels standing in the sun, while secretly knowing that Banks, Rutherford, and Collins had moved on.
If there was one source of solace, it was that, even when promoting new albums, the band still played much of its earlier catalogue. In the mid-to-late '70s, a Genesis gig still meant a Hammond, an RMI Electrapiano, a Mellotron, and an ARP Pro Soloist. True, a Polymoog and a Yamaha CP70 piano had appeared on the And Then There Were Three tour in 1978, but the majority of fans still clung to fond memories of the classic keyboards of yesteryear.
Now leap forward two years to a warm night sometime in the spring of 1980... On the night in question, you would have found me wrapped in a sleeping bag, lying on a pavement outside Leicester town hall. Together with a few other nutters, I was queuing for front row tickets at the forthcoming Duke tour. I wanted to be in the first row of the circle, as far to the right as possible, staring right down on to Tony's bald spot (which, as it turned out, he didn't have) and studying every move he made. Every patch, every voice selection, and every note he played would be laid bare before me!
The night of the concert duly arrived, my girlfriend and I took our seats, the curtains opened, and I found myself staring down at... uh? Where was the Mellotron? Where was the RMI? Where was the ARP Pro Soloist? And what was that multi-coloured monstrosity with all the orange, green, and blue blobs over it? Before a key was pressed, or a note played, I knew I was witnessing the end of an era.
Of course, I've used a little artistic license here, because I knew what a Roland VP330 Vocoder Plus was, as I did the Yamaha CP70 piano; but the blobby thing had me fooled. Had I been facing the rear of the instrument, I would have been able to read the name printed in large, friendly letters on its back panel; but as it was, I had to wait for the solo to 'In The Cage' before I was certain. It sounded fabulous. It could only have been an ARP.
The synth was a Quadra, and Tony Banks was one of only a handful of players ever to use one in anger. But when that handful includes Tony Banks, Rick Wright from Pink Floyd, Kerry Livgren of Kansas, and Josef Zawinul from Weather Report (who also endorsed the instrument), it suggests there's something a bit special about the Quadra. So let's jump once more into the Sound On Sound time machine, and start our story a few years earlier than my chilly sojourn in Leicester. The year is 1970, and the place is Massachusetts, USA.
Beware the paint job on the Quadra's exposed panels. In an apparent effort to save a few cents, ARP dispensed with primer when painting the sheet metal, which results in the paint lifting off at the slightest provocation. This is unforgivable, and whether you love or hate the look of the instrument, it deserved better.
This was the year ARP released its first synthesizers, the ARP 2500 and ARP 2600, competing directly, or so it seemed, with the Moog Modulars (of the day) and the Minimoog respectively. The ARPs were, from day one, more stable and flexible, if a little lacking in the 'thick and fat' department.
From that moment onwards, it appeared nothing could stop the company and that it was destined to churn out classic after classic. The Odyssey arrived two years later, and following years saw the launch of the Pro Soloist (the predecessor of which proved to be the inspiration for the Moog Satellite, Roland SH2000, Kawai K100P, Multivox MX2000, and others), the Axxe, the Omni, and the Omni II. ARP became so successful that in 1977 it claimed 40 per cent of the entire USA synthesizer market, although this figure needs to be put into perspective.
Although the music industry complains of tough business conditions today, the synthesizer market in the 1970s was much smaller than it is today. The Omni was ARP's most successful synthesizer yet, and in Mark Vail's book Vintage Synthesizers it states that the company sold just 4,000. Compare this to 250,000 Korg M1s, and you'll appreciate how quickly things changed. So, unfortunately, much of ARP's success was a veneer that covered some truly awful management. With a chairman kept in the dark by development engineers, who feared criticism of their ideas, and rival factions that waged a war to gain control of the company, ARP was in a mess.
Foremost in this tableau was the Chairman, Alan R Pearlman, a brilliant engineer who'd given his initials to the company. Next came David Friend, an engineer and musician, who would be responsible for some of ARP's successes, but even more of its failures. Then there was Lewis Pollock, a lawyer who, according to some people, was the man who pulled the strings. But unfortunately, these three men clashed continually, and no one seemed to have the skills, power, or backing to seize absolute control of the company. It's also said they started to believe their own advertising, becoming expansive in their tastes and spending money the company didn't have.
Despite a turnover in the millions of dollars, ARP's profits were minimal. Furthermore, none of the three directors would yield to the other two, so by 1976 there were several uncoordinated and expensive R&D projects eating into the company's resources.
In addition to the problems posed by its protruding keys and inadequate case, the Quadra has a poor reputation for long-term reliability. In part, this is justified because the shafts of its sliders become brittle with age, meaning that, as the lubricants in the faders wear away and the controls become stiff, the shafts tend to snap. Given these faders are now obsolete, and rarer than British grand-slam tennis champions, there are many tatty Quadras lying unloved in the repair shops of the world.
On the other hand, my Quadra has been superbly reliable, and its only period of disuse was my own fault: I short-circuited the power supply and blew up a handful of components. Even so, it has performed perfectly since its repair, just as it did before.
The biggest of these projects was the Centaur VI, which was designed by Friend's faction within ARP to become the world's 'ultimate' polyphonic synthesizer. With two polyphonic sections, a dual-oscillator lead synth, a single-oscillator bass synth, and a polyphonic pitch/CV section to make it controllable from a guitar, you can see how some within ARP believed that it would be a world-beater. However, the truth was very different. Hopelessly complex, hopelessly unreliable and, with a projected end-user price of $20,000 (around £50,000 at today's prices), hopelessly over-priced — the Centaur VI was doomed. Just two prototypes were built, and Philip Dodds (the Vice-President of Engineering at ARP) has since gone on record stating that Pearlman's failure analysis showed these units had a mean time between failures of just two hours!
By 1977 the company was developing two different Centaurs: the original Centaur VI, and a simplified keyboard-based version proposed by Dodds. This neatly side-stepped the apparently unsolvable technical nightmare the pitch/CV conversion had become, and seemed to have a better chance of appearing as a commercial product. Unfortunately, David Friend was an evangelist for guitar synthesis and cancelled the development of the keyboard instrument, re-focusing the company's efforts on the guitar synth. Not surprisingly, ARP still proved unable to solve the problems plaguing it, so Friend split off some of the Centaur's concepts to develop the Avatar, a simpler guitar synthesizer he believed could still bring synthesis to the attention of the unwashed masses — guitarists.
At the time, Pearlman complained Friend's decision had caused the company to jump out of the frying pan and into another frying pan (my words, not his). Unfortunately, the board didn't heed his advice and ARP proceeded to sink almost its entire R&D budget into the project. Furthermore, the company also bought huge quantities of components to build large numbers of the (as yet unfinished) product. Again, Pearlman complained, stating the company could not assume the high level of sales Friend had projected, and, again, the other directors and shareholders ignored him.
When it arrived in the shops late in 1978, the Avatar flopped horribly because its pitch tracking was a nightmare, leaving the company reeling. Its cash flow,which had never been healthy, was in a terrible state, and its reputation had suffered a serious blow. With no money to invest in radical new developments, ARP had lost its way and needed to do something — fast.The result was the Quadra, a beautiful, sleek, powerful, fully programmable polysynth that sounded amazing and returned ARP to its rightful place at the head of... Oops! Sorry, that was an alternative universe. Rewind... The result was the Quadra. It was a turkey.
Perhaps the most unexpected user of the Quadra was John Carpenter, who composed (and contributed to the playing and recording of) the music for a number of his films. You'll find the ARP Quadra featured on the soundtracks for both Halloween II and Escape From New York.
When the Quadra appeared in 1978, it looked very beguiling. ARP's advertising offered "four separate synthesizers in one microprocessor controlled system" and "overwhelming sonic capabilities", which was heady stuff, and seemed like a cracking good wheeze. Combine classic ensemble sounds with a monosynth, a bass synth, and a polyphonic synthesizer; add a programmable phaser, stick the whole thing under the control of a microprocessor, and you had to have a winner.
But try to think like someone who, in 1979 or thereabouts, has a few thousand quid to spend. Psychedelia was dead, and the excess of prog-rock lay cold in the musical mortuary of the early '70s. This meant screaming synth solos were 'out', as were droning bass synths and the ethereal timbres of string ensembles. And what did 75 per cent of the Quadra offer you? That's right... Long before Homer Simpson was a twinkle in anybody's eye, someone should have had the presence of mind to say, "D'oh!"
The feature that could have saved the Quadra was its polyphonic synthesizer section. But with little time to design something innovative, Friend and his team had developed what Philip Dodds later referred to as a "synthesizer sandwich", combining the guts of an Omni II, a dual-oscillator monosynth, and a couple of other bits and pieces in one instrument. The much-touted 'polyphonic synthesizer section' was no more than the single filter and VCA found in the Omni II itself, and it fell far short compared with the new generation of polyphonic synthesizers.
Furthermore, the Quadra's pressed steel chassis (which was adequate for ARP's smaller monosynths) proved less than satisfactory for the much larger synth, and would flex considerably if mishandled. Indeed, it would flex considerably if you played the keyboard hard enough to take advantage of the aftertouch offered by the monosynth section. Add to that the risk of broken keys (which were almost guaranteed by the exposed keyboard protruding more than an inch beyond the front edge of the case), and you had a recipe for damage and unreliability. Then there were the end-cheeks. At first sight, these appeared to be covered by leather patches, but the covering was actually easily damageable dense cardboard.
However, even these inadequacies might have been forgivable had 1978 not been the year Sequential Circuits unleashed the Prophet 5, which, in contrast to the Quadra, looked and felt fantastic. A million miles from the nasty, plastic Polymoog, a fraction of the weight and awkwardness of the Yamaha CS80, and slick in the precise way the Oberheim Eight-Voice wasn't: it combined a beautifully designed control panel layout with a stunning Koa case and expensive control-panel hardware. Unlike the Quadra, the Prophet became an instant dream-machine for the hordes of keyboard players who couldn't afford one.
Shortly after, the OBX arrived and it became clear the Quadra was in a class of its own — the remedial class. Compared to the competition, it was just an oversized string machine with a monosynth bolted on. It bombed, big time.
In many ways, the Quadra should have been the end of the ARP story. The company that had so recently been the world's most successful synthesizer manufacturer struggled on for another couple of years, but never recovered from the Centaur/Avatar/Quadra debacles. Nevertheless, ARP still had one trick left up its sleeve.
Despite the almost insurmountable problems within ARP, Philip Dodds had not been sitting around waiting for the company to die, and had spent the late '70s developing an amazing new instrument. First shown at a trade show in 1980, it was everything the Quadra wasn't. It was a true polysynth — it was the Chroma.
In addition to being a superb-sounding polysynth, the Chroma was truly innovative. Firstly, it offered 16-voice polyphony — you can appreciate how radical this was compared to the five voices on the Prophet, and the eight on the OBX. Secondly, it featured powerful modulation capabilities, bettered only when Oberheim released the Matrix 12 five years later. The Chroma even offered primitive routing 'algorithms' for its voices.
However, the Chroma didn't stop there, and three years before the Yamaha DX7 would make digital parameter access a commonplace programming system, it was the first analogue polysynth to offer such a facility. And three years before MIDI, the Chroma sported a computer interface allowing you to connect it to an Apple II (and later the Apple IIe), and eventually to a PC.
Unfortunately, ARP was in terminal decline and had only managed to survive this long through juggling finances, with its last products doing little to delay the inevitable. The Solus, a self-contained monosynth in a neat little suitcase, wasn't a bad instrument; but the 4-voice and 16-voice electric pianos, and the Quartet (a re-badged Siel Orchestra) were nasty. So in 1981, before the Chroma entered production, the company collapsed in a heap of recrimination and unpaid bills. All development and production stopped, and ARP died.
Shortly thereafter, Rhodes purchased the rights to the Chroma and, sporting a beautifully weighted velocity-sensitive piano-action keyboard and a more sober control panel, the Rhodes Chroma hit the streets in 1982. The first few were hand-built by Dodds and his team, and proved to be stunning instruments. Sure, there were limitations — for example, some parameters were stored only in 3-bit resolution, offering just eight possible values. But this shouldn't have stopped the Chroma from becoming another huge success.
Two things interfered. Firstly, there were reliability problems after Dodds' team ceased hand-building the Chroma. Fellow Sound On Sound contributor Nick Magnus was asked to become the official British demonstrator of the Chroma by Arbiter, the UK importer. Nick tested all six units in the first shipment delivered to these shores, only to find none worked for more than a couple of hours. He declined the job because he couldn't guarantee he'd be able to complete a presentation before the demonstration instrument failed.
By 1983 these problems had been largely overcome, and the Chroma's keyboard had been upgraded to feature aftertouch. It's rumoured that if Philip Dodds had got his way, the Chroma would have also sported an 88-note keyboard, rather than its more conventional 61-note keyboard. But then, the major reason for the Chroma's failure appeared — the DX7, which single-handedly ended the era of the large analogue polysynth. Production of the Chroma and its keyboard-less sibling, the Chroma Expander, lasted little more than a year, and by 1984 they were gone.
The Chroma Polaris (called the Fender Polaris in the USA) was probably the last synth to incorporate authentic ARP technology. It had much in common with the Rhodes Chroma, including its somewhat garish control panel, and the computer interface that, in theory, allowed it to communicate with the Apple IIe and early PCs.
The Polaris was a fine synthesizer in its own right and, although limited to the common 6-voice architecture of the era, it offered 12 true analogue oscillators (with sync), analogue filters, audio VCAs, and powerful five-stage contour generators. It also sported ring modulation, and performance facilities such as a keyboard split and a basic sequencer.
Unfortunately, the Polaris also shared the Quadra and Chroma's penchant for being unreliable, and you're just as likely to find one standing unloved in a repair shop as you are to find one in use at a studio. Despite this, the Polaris is a fine instrument and if you're hoarding one that's still in excellent condition, I want it!
Although ARP's classic monosynths have always retained the public's respect, from 1985 until 1990 you could buy an ARP 2600 for under £400 and, as I did, be given an Odyssey for the price of the petrol it cost to collect it. As for former favourites, such as the Omni and Omni II, the Pro Soloist, and the Axxe, it was possible to hear the immortal words, "take it away mate, or I'll throw it in the skip".
Nowadays, however, analogue anoraks dream of such opportunities, and ARP synths are, once again, very much in vogue. ARP String Ensembles change hands for over £500, Omnis are almost as expensive, Odysseys command in excess of £600, and you'll be lucky to get change from £1,800 for an ARP 2600 and 3620 keyboard in good condition. In this climate of fickle tastes and ephemeral fashions, it's perhaps not surprising the Quadra has found favour, and there are now players and collectors who are prepared to spend large amounts of money to buy and maintain them.
Indeed, the Quadra's renaissance (or, more accurately, naissance, since it was still-born the first time round) is, in part, fuelled by its rarity. Few were sold, and so many have died over the past 24 years that there are few working units left in circulation. Like a Rev 1 Prophet 5, or an Oberheim Eight-Voice, you really have to want a Quadra, and be prepared to spend a serious amount of time and money to get one.
But why should you bother? It was a bodge-job rushed out by an ailing company to bridge the gap between one failed product (the Centaur) and another (the Chroma). Few players bought it, few played it, and even fewer remember it. The Chroma was poorly constructed, unreliable, and prone to breakage. Even among the handful of prominent players who used the Quadra, few seemed to make the effort to get the best from it, and most used it as a souped-up Omni II.
However, I had studied Tony Banks as he played his Quadra in 1980, so I knew it was more than it seemed. And, as the years passed, I watched as he continued to use it on the Abacab, Genesis, and Invisible Touch albums, in addition to the double live album, Three Sides Live. So I went hunting, and in 1987 I got lucky, buying my first Quadra from a store happy to see the back of it. Three years later, I got even luckier when a phone call from Bob Williams (the owner of modular synth manufacturer Analogue Systems) alerted me to the existence of a near-mint Quadra for sale on the south coast. And, as you can see from these photographs, it was in beautiful condition and has been the recipient of TLC ever since my purchase.
So what is the Quadra? Is it, as I suggested above, a turkey of the first order? Or is it a misunderstood and overlooked masterpiece? In Part 2, we'll take a closer look to find out what makes it special, or not.