Andy Davies casts his eyes, ears and fingers over two new products from Oberheim: a controller keyboard which aims to replace your piano, and an organ module which threatens to do the same with your Hammond...
After a few quiet years on the keyboard front, the legendary Oberheim seem to have stepped up the pace of product launches. The perennially popular Matrix 1000 sound module continues to sell consistently, and the more recent OBMX analogue synth keeps the Oberheim profile high at the top end of the synth market. Now the company have launched not one, but two new products, both of which might seem rather out of character: the Eclipse master keyboard/piano, and the OB3, a retro organ module complete with drawbars and wooden end cheeks.
Physically, the Eclipse is a substantial instrument, with an 88‑note weighted keyboard, built into its own aluminium flightcase. The bottom half of the case serves as a base, attached to the keyboard, while the top half can be removed. The case and keyboard are sturdy and well made, and the Eclipse package also includes a floor unit comprising three foot pedals for sustain, sostenuto and soft pedal — just like a real piano.
Oberheim describe the Eclipse as a 'piano/ controller'; it's a non‑multitimbral instrument with 12 high‑quality preset sounds, and though very little editing is possible to modify those sounds, Oberheim have provided on‑board digital effects to enhance them.
I'll start the tour of the Eclipse's front panel with the pitch and modulation wheels, which are mounted on the left of the panel, above the keyboard. I always feel that pitch and mod wheels are rather uncomfortable to use when positioned so far from the front edge of the keyboard, but it's a personal point. Moving swiftly on, we come to the two sliders provided for Master Volume and Brilliance, which are nicely notched for precise control. The sounds themselves are selected using the two rows of six buttons, labelled Piano 1, 2 and 3, Harpsichord, Electric Piano 1 and 2, Pipe, Vibe and Jazz Organ. There are also two basses, Electric and Acoustic, which, when selected, effectively split the keyboard and occupy only the first three octaves, leaving the remainder for the main instrument. The last sound, Strings, can be layered with any one of the other sounds, and a Strings Volume slider lets you set a good balance between the Strings and the chosen main instrument.
The Eclipse's effects processor is useful, if not exactly full featured. Physically, the effects section consists of eight buttons, and a slider marked Parameter Adjust. The first four buttons — Hall, Stage, Room and Ambience — relate to four reverb types. The remainder access Chorus, Flanger, Tremolo, and a Rotary (Leslie simulator) treatment. Any sound can be processed by one type of reverb, plus Chorus or Flanger, and Tremolo if required, although the effects themselves cannot be edited in any way. The Rotary setting is only available when using the Jazz Organ preset, and the soft pedal then acts as a fast/slow switch for the Rotary effect. The Parameter Adjust slider simply alters the amount of combined effects level in normal use, but it also operates as a speed control for the fast setting on the Leslie simulator when using the Organ preset.
The last couple of control buttons, on the far right of the front panel, access global functions that affect the keyboard as a whole. These are labelled Transpose, Dynamics, MIDI and Demo, and are used in conjunction with selected keys on the keyboard. I assume the Dynamics button has something to do with controlling velocity via keyboard response, but I was unable to detect any difference with it switched on or off, and as the review model came without a manual, I called UK distributors MCM to see if they could help. Unfortunately, they didn't know either!
Back‑panel controls and connections comprise an on/off switch, mains socket, 5‑pin DIN for the footpedal unit, a recessed grub screw for tuning, and a jack plug for a pedal to control the volume of the strings. Also at the rear are the obligatory MIDI socket trio, a pair of jack outputs for connection to an amp or mixer, and a stereo headphone output.
The Eclipse seems designed to appeal to club and live performers — it's fairly simple, it offers stock sounds, and it's built to travel. It doesn't, however, have the hammer action of a real piano, and I found the keyboard feel a little light for true control during quiet passages. If you're using the Eclipse as a master controller, you might require MIDI functions it doesn't have, such as keyboard splits, or the ability to transmit controller information, both features I'd look for in a master keyboard. A greater cause for concern is the keyboard's aftertouch implementation, which seems to be extremely coarse. After setting up a one‑octave rise in pitch, on a rack module using aftertouch, I was surprised to hear it stepping up and down, almost in semitone increments, as pressure was applied to the keyboard.
The sounds themselves are very good, with the pianos being comparable to the best I've heard. There are no dramatic changes in tone as you move from note to note, and no buzzy loops or digital noise during note decays. In these days of 64‑note polyphony, the Eclipse's 24 notes appear a bit on the mean side, but in practice the difference is hardly noticeable, unless you deliberately try to bring on note stealing. With the acoustic pianos, the Brilliance control is especially welcome, as all three are a little bright in their normal state.
The effects processor, although very simple, actually sounds very good, the reverbs are quiet and well behaved during the decay stage, and the Chorus is particularly pleasing on the Electric Piano 2 preset. The Rotary effect too, is quite convincing on the Jazz Organ preset.
After playing the Eclipse for some time, I began to like it very much, particularly for the acoustic piano sounds and the expression offered by the three footpedals. However, I think the keyboard is let down by its feel and its scaled‑down controls, which (for the price) could have been so much more comprehensive. I could find no way of storing sounds along with their effects, and a method of selecting patches via a footswitch would have been useful for live work. Keyboard splits and transmission of controller information to remote modules, as mentioned earlier, and effects editing would also have added so much to the desirability of a unit which has been built to last and sounds great. No one has yet succeeded in shoe‑horning a grand piano into a portable keyboard, but the Eclipse comes close.
Ultimately, this instrument will appeal mainly to those who need a rugged, good‑sounding piano for live use, but as a master keyboard, it misses a few tricks. Though the Eclipse does what it does exceptionally well, I don't think the £1,780 price tag is really justified.
For most of us, the words "synth module" bring to mind an image of a black rackmount box with an LCD display — a picture which couldn't be further from that of the OB3, a cream‑coloured unit with wooden end‑cheeks and a decidedly '60s look. In these retro days of valves and vintage equipment, the sound of the tone‑wheel organ is making something of a comeback, and the OB3's antique appearance fits in perfectly with its intended function. Oberheim, in common with a handful of other manufacturers, have set out to build the digital equivalent of a Hammond into a small, transportable package, but whereas some manufacturers wed the old sounds to a modern push‑button control system, the OB3 stays true to its roots, complete with mechanical drawbars and an integral Leslie simulator.
The OB3 is not rackmountable, because it's intended that you should be able to get at the drawbars during performance, just as you can with a real organ. The top of the unit is stepped to form two flat areas, with all the controls positioned at the front, and the rear section far too tempting as a repository for mugs of coffee (or bottles of Jack Daniels, depending on the nature of the music...). The control area is divided into two rows of buttons, each equipped with an LED, and above these there's a row of nine drawbars, which enable you to create your own organ tones. The two remaining controls take care of Volume and Overdrive; the latter is used to progressively add distortion, for the creation of an overdriven rock organ sound.
The first six buttons in the bottom row are used to select different organ sounds, rather like calling up patches on a synthesizer. These sounds cannot be altered in any way, and can be considered as presets. To the right of these is a button labelled Drawbars, which allows the user to construct sounds from the nine drawbars mentioned earlier. Two further buttons control the Rotary effect, one labelled On/Off, and the other Slow/Fast, though the speed change can also be controlled by a foot pedal connected to a socket on the rear panel.
The second row of buttons is divided into three groups, the first used to add a percussive edge to the basic sound — it's possible to add an accent to either the 4' or 2 ' drawbar, and to simulate 'key click', an unintentional side‑effect of traditional Hammond construction that found its way into electronic music history. The speed and volume of any selected accents can also be changed, using buttons labelled Slow/Fast and Soft/Loud. To the right of these are three more buttons that bring in vibrato at differing rates and finally, a single button to set MIDI mode and channel.
At the back of the OB3 we find a captive mains lead and power on/off switch, a headphone socket and main output (surprisingly, in mono only), two MIDI ports (In and Thru), and three jack sockets to accommodate the rotor speed switch, a foot switch to cycle between presets or drawbar settings, and a volume pedal.
Operationally the OB3 is a very easy machine to come to terms with — you simply pick a preset sound, or use the drawbars, then add any Vibrato, Rotary, Overdrive, or percussive effects you require. Drawbars were first introduced to serve as an electronic version of the pipe organ, with each drawbar representing the sound made by a pipe of a particular length. The OB3 has bars at 16', 5 1/3', 8', 4', 2 2/3', 2', 1 3/5', 1 1/3', and 1', each with 16 notched graduations between off, and fully on, which effectively alter the volume of that particular harmonic. When playing some musical styles it's not uncommon to hold a chord down with one hand and move the drawbars with the other, to create a constantly changing timbre, and of course this can be done on the OB3. Regrettably, however, the drawbar data can't be sent or received over MIDI so you can't automate this function — a serious missed opportunity.
If you switch between presets or drawbars while playing, the OB3 will obediently wait until all notes are released before making the transition, which allows any sound changes to be carried out at a convenient time during the playing of legato passages.
To my ears, the sounds produced by the OB3 are all very authentic, with plenty of character and tonal variety, and the 'key percussion' section works effectively to recreate many classic organ sounds. However, being more of a synthesist, I invited an organ‑playing friend over for a second opinion. He agreed that the basic sounds were full, with plenty of depth, but was not so complimentary about the Rotary effect which, he said, lacked the phasing element necessary to be quite convincing. In fairness, no one has yet produced a Leslie simulation to exactly equal the real thing, although we both agreed that other manufacturers have come closer. He also commented that the Overdrive effect was not entirely authentic, but in my opinion it comes close enough once the sound is in the context of a mix.
As most players are happy to use an organ patch from one of their synths when the need arises, I feel this module must be compared directly with a traditional organ used by the more discerning player. With this in mind, I found the facilities on offer and the basic sounds very good, although I would like to have been able to store my own sounds with some form of patch system and record the drawbar movements via MIDI. In addition, the lack of a MIDI Out port, the lack of programmability, and the mono output seriously limit the creative potential of this machine, which ultimately offers you little more than a traditional organ would have offered. In fact, the mono output is a step backwards, because a true Leslie rotating speaker effect has to be heard in stereo — maybe this is why the Rotary effect isn't quite up to scratch. On the plus side, having access to real physical drawbars makes a world of difference for true organ players.
Though I found the OB3 pleasant and easy to work with, its lack of sophistication in the MIDI department leads me to conclude that Oberheim have set their sights on the cabaret market for this instrument, rather than trying to meet the needs of the creative synthesist.
- Great acoustic pianos.
- Built to a very high standard.
- Easy to use.
- Footpedal unit included.
- Keyboard feel could be better.
- Price is high for facilities on offer.
- Lack of some MIDI controller functions.
A practical choice for the gigging musician who needs good acoustic piano sounds plus the usual stock electric pianos, organs, and so on. However, the keyboard action and the limited facilities make the price hard to justify for studio use.