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Octave CAT, Kitten & Voyetra

Synthesizer (Retrozone) By Gordon Reid
Published May 1999

Octave's The CAT duophonic synthesizer.

Most US synthesizer manufacturers followed the now all-too-familiar corporate history of rapid growth in the 1970s followed by acrimonious dissolution in the 1980s. What happened to Octave, however, was a little different...

This is a story about a company which, while very successful today as a computer peripherals manufacturer, was neither particularly well-known nor particularly successful when it built innovative analogue synthesizers. But, before telling you who it was, we'll begin our story with a far more famous manufacturer that, at one time, had the synthesizer world at its feet.

ARP first appeared in 1970, when they launched the now-classic ARP 2500 and ARP 2600 synths. The former was a monster, with a twin manual keyboard and three large cabinets of discrete synthesizer modules, while the latter was its little brother — semi-modular, but still a lump that needed extensive patching to create its best sounds. The 2600 eventually became a commercial success, but ARP knew that it needed a smaller and more portable synth if it wanted to compete against the all-conquering Minimoog. So, in 1972, the company introduced the Model 2800 (later called the Mark 1) Odyssey. This was, in many ways, a cut-down version of the ARP 2600, with one fewer oscillator and extensive pre-patching of all its constituent modules. Right from the start, the Odyssey proved to be a winner. It was an ideal gigging synth with aggressive oscillators that would cut through any mix, twin envelope generators (an ADSR and an AR), and a superb, beefy sounding filter called the 4012. Unfortunately, this was a blatant copy of Moog's patented low-pass filter, and trouble was to follow...

The Odyssey was, and remains, a superb monosynth, although in 1972 its greatest claim to fame was possibly its duophonic capability. This allowed you to play two notes simultaneously, with one oscillator supplying the upper note, and the other supplying the lower. Of course, there was no bitimbrality involved (bar that of selecting different waveforms for each oscillator) because the double-pitched signal passed along just one signal path. Another limitation was that, if you released one of the notes, both oscillators became played by the single remaining note, thus changing the timbre and volume of the sound dramatically. Still, there were no other duophonic synths at the time, so this was not seen to be much of a problem.

Unfortunately for ARP, Moog objected to the unauthorised use (ie. blatant copying) of its low-pass filter design, and threatened to sue ARP for its transgression. Searching for a legal counter to this, ARP discovered that Moog had infringed a patent on one of its circuits so, for a while, there was the legal version of a Mexican stand-off between the companies. But while all this was happening, something else was stirring in the murky depths of New York's electronics laboratories...

Birth Of A CAT

Octave Electronics was the brainchild of an engineer named Carmine Bonanno. He founded his company in 1975, and his first product was a synthesizer called the CAT. When this appeared in late 1976, it proved to be a very powerful little instrument. For one thing, it sported twin oscillators, each with squarewave and sawtooth outputs, plus sub-oscillators. In addition, oscillator 1 offered a triangle wave output, and pulse width modulation of the pulse/square waveform. Furthermore, you could mix all seven waveforms simultaneously for some really thick sounds. If this wasn't enough, either of the oscillators could cross-modulate the other (and both could modulate each other simultaneously), making the CAT a powerful special-effects machine. The fully resonant 24dB/octave filter was also a star, and you could direct the ADSR and AR envelopes — and the LFO — to a generous number of destinations. With Sample & Hold, auto-triggering of the envelopes, a noise generator, and portamento, the CAT was... well, the cat's whiskers.

Indeed, the CAT was a little screamer, a superb-sounding instrument with all the 'bite' normally associated with the best Moogs and ARPs. It excelled at the squelchy basses and tearing lead sounds that are currently so fashionable, and it frequently displayed a cutting edge that was missing from its competitors. If there is a criticism (and it shared this to some extent with the Odyssey) it lay in how difficult it was to coax convincing imitative sounds from the CAT. But unlike the Odyssey, which lacked the characteristic warmth of the Minimoog, the CAT could be warm and mellow, too.

This flexibility was further enhanced round the back, where its twin audio outputs were complemented by twin pedal inputs that offered control over the filter cutoff frequency and portamento on/off. These were augmented by an external audio input that allowed you to pass other sound sources through the CAT or (copying a trick known to most Minimoog players) route one of the outputs back into the synth to alter the sound. There were even (although not on the earliest models) sockets for CV and Gate inputs and outputs.

Octave CAT rear panel connections.Octave CAT rear panel connections.

The CAT was also duophonic, and a control on the top panel allowed you to switch between 'mono' mode, 'off', and 'poly' mode. The first of these was self explanatory. The 'off' mode disconnected the keyboard from OSC1, and allowed you to use the oscillator as a source for sync and cross-modulated sounds. Finally, poly mode allowed you to play two notes simultaneously, with one oscillator providing the upper note, and the other the lower. Hang on a second... haven't I already written this? Sure I have — there were remarkable similarities between the CAT and the Odyssey, and it was inevitable that ARP would eventually notice that something was amiss.

Ah yes, ARP... where did we leave them? In 1973 (or thereabouts) they and Moog were at each others' corporate throats, and it took some time for them to realise that there was nothing to be gained by lining the pockets of American lawyers. The two companies agreed to back down when Alan Pearlman, ARP's founder and guiding light, agreed that the 4012 infringed Moog's rights and decided that his company had a duty to replace it with a different design.

Octave CAT VCO1 controls.Octave CAT VCO1 controls.So, in early 1977, ARP launched the Model 2810 Odyssey, a revised instrument that, apart from the colour of the control panel, looked almost identical to its predecessor (this tale is told in the December '97 SOS Odyssey Retrozone). This model incorporated a new ARP filter, and introduced comprehensive CV and Gate interfaces, plus an external audio input. Hang on again... if you think that the specification of the Model 2810 looks remarkably familiar too, you're not alone. Indeed, it took ARP very little time to notice that the CAT was a copy of their new Odyssey. And, since litigation was in the company's blood, it decided to sue Octave Electronics.

But wait a minute... the CAT had appeared a year before the Model 2810, so this was crazy, wasn't it? Well, yes and no. Many of the 2810's features appeared first on the CAT, but ARP nonetheless seemed to have a point: the CAT's keyboard circuitry appeared to be identical to the earlier Odyssey's. Indeed, Philip Dodds, who worked for ARP throughout the mid-'70s and who eventually became the company's Director of Engineering, went on record some years later stating that the CAT was a "knock-off ARP Odyssey" clone. He even claimed that Octave had copied the duophonic circuitry from an ARP service manual.

So ARP attempted to sue... and failed. Indeed, the episode has passed into synthesizer legend, and many apocryphal — and conflicting — stories abound. It is unclear whether the case even reached the courts, but Dodds' contention (since reiterated countless times in many keyboard magazines and books) that ARP slapped an injunction on Octave Electronics and put the company out of business, is bunkum. Maybe, to be kind, his memory has played tricks on him, but Octave not only stayed in business, it continued to release new models throughout the late '70s.

What's New, Pussy CAT?

Whether the threat of legal action provided the impetus for the CAT's next leap (or not) Octave deleted the original model in 1977, and replaced it with the CAT SRM (Series Revision Model). Alongside minor improvements such as delayed vibrato, the most significant enhancement on the new model was what Octave called "2-note memory". This grandiose name referred to a new keyboard scanning circuit that memorised the highest and lowest notes depressed. This meant that, in poly mode, the CAT remembered the most recent interval, and didn't allow the 'other' oscillator to jump to the single remaining note if you released one of the keys.

This was also the year that Octave released the Kitten, a cut-down CAT with just one oscillator, but two sub-oscillator options: one octave down and two octaves down. This was a neat, and cheap, little synth that in many ways paralleled the ARP Axxe, the single-oscillator derivative of the ARP Odyssey.

The final incarnation of the CAT appeared in 1978. Called the CAT SRM II, this was little different from its immediate predecessor, except that it offered better interfacing with individual CVs and Gates for the upper and lower notes. Finally, in 1979, Octave completed the CAT family with the 'Catstick', a powerful but fearfully over-priced modulation controller that incorporated a joystick, two LFOs, and four VCAs.

The Early '80s

In 1979, Octave merged with Plateau Electronics, a New York synthesizer service centre. The new company was renamed Octave-Plateau Electronics, and continued to manufacture CATs and Kittens, and to repair all manner of other synthesizers. But in 1981, the company ceased production of all its existing products and, at that year's NAMM show, introduced the prototype of a radical new synthesizer called the Voyager Eight, an 8-voice polyphonic, 3U rackmountable synth module. It was to be two more years before production started. When the module finally appeared it had been renamed the Voyetra Eight, and was accompanied by the velocity- and pressure-sensitive VPK-5, a MIDI controller designed specifically to complement the Voyetra itself. This keyboard was no slouch. It offered variable settings for its pitch-bend and pressure sensitivity, plus keyboard zoning — whole mode, split mode, layers, and unison — and it could control multiple Voyetras simultaneously. Unfortunately, both the keyboard and the module used a non-standard form of MIDI connection — a 3-pin XLR cable rather than the usual 5-pin DIN.

The Voyetra itself offered two VCOs per voice, each with sawtooth, triangle, pulse, and sub-octave square waves. You could select the waveforms individually or mix them together, and cross-modulation and sync'ing of the two oscillators were also possible. There were even eight analogue 24dB/octave resonant filters. Are you getting déjà vu again? Of course you are. The Voyetra Eight was in many ways an 8-voice polyphonic CAT. But it was also significantly enhanced, with two digitally calculated ADSR envelopes — each with keyboard tracking and an ADR mode — and two digitally generated LFOs with multiple waveforms and S&H. Most impressively, there was a matrix of poly-modulation options and routings. With 100 memories that stored performance parameters as well as voice parameters, a two-channel sequencer, and a two-channel arpeggiator, the Eight was a powerful package, and in some ways ahead of its time. Indeed, for its short life, the Voyetra Eight enjoyed an excellent reputation and a high profile, although it never sold in great quantities.

One reason for this may have been the price — at £3,750 for the module alone it was far from cheap. More likely, potential purchasers were put off by the problems they would have experienced trying to edit the Eight from its front panel. It offered a number of knobs, called 'Program Parameter Trimmers', but these, together with a range of 'hidden' functions, accessed and controlled numerous obscure functions in the complex (and largely unannotated) editing system. This made the instrument a programmer's nightmare. The only way to edit one quickly and intuitively was by using its little brother, the Voyetra One, as an editor. This was a monophonic version of the Eight that had its whole front panel on... well, its front panel. Consequently, the One was more a necessity than a luxury. This was a crazy situation, and one that was never going to win many friends. The only alternative for Voyetra Eight programmers was to edit the synth using a computer, to which end Voyetra supplied software for the Apple II, the Commodore 64, and the earliest IBM PCs.

And Then?

The two Voyetras were the last synthesizers that Octave-Plateau ever produced, and they were never particularly successful. Complex and unreliable, they competed directly against the huge range of cheaper MIDI products being released almost monthly by Japanese giants Yamaha and Roland. So, in 1986, Octave-Plateau abandoned its synthesizer business, and decided to concentrate on developing MIDI software and MIDI interfaces for PCs. At the same time it changed its name from Octave-Plateau to Voyetra Technologies, and that was the last the world ever saw of the 'Octave' name.

In 1984 Octave-Plateau had developed Sequencer Plus, a professional-quality sequencer for the PC, and the company eventually went on to sell more than a million copies of this, making it perhaps the most significant manufacturer of DOS-based sequencers in the mid-'80s. Then, in 1989, Voyetra teamed up with Creative Labs and Media Vision to provide the software that accompanied many of the world's first PC sound cards. Later on, it developed applications such as music notation, audio drivers and signal processing for PCs. Voyetra also acted as a consultancy for many other companies including Intel, IBM, Compaq, Creative Labs, NEC, and Rockwell. Indeed, Voyetra software has now been bundled with millions of soundcards and PCs.

In December 1996 Voyetra merged with Turtle Beach Systems, a manufacturer of cheap hard disk recording and editing systems that had enjoyed brief fame in the early '90s with its affordable '56K' editor. Still headed by Carmine Bonanno, the new company, again called Voyetra Technologies, continued to produce integrated software and hardware add-ons for PCs.

It's all a far cry from the days of the CAT, and not nearly as romantic. But where are ARP today? I guess that Philip Dodds and his associates are the ones with egg on their faces. Not only is Octave alive and well, it's still making profits more than 20 years after ARP claimed to have put it out of business, and fully 15 years after ARP itself collapsed in a heap of internal disputes and recriminations. The CAT enjoyed three lives, and its creator clearly has a long way still to go with the other six.

A Trick Of The Tail

Octave also made a lot of noise about their so-called "4-note Sequencer Patch" on the CAT. This was a trick by which you turned OSC1 to its subsonic range for LFO duties, and then used the sub-oscillator (a square wave) and the pulse wave to modulate the pitch of OSC2. The result was a 4-note sequence which, it you set the sliders on OSC1 very carefully, could be used to play arpeggio-like effects.

Was It A Copy Or Wasn't It?

By the time that the CATs were discontinued, a number of mainstream players had adopted one model or another. These included Rod Argent, David Bedford (who frequently worked with Mike Oldfield), Stewart Kershaw of OMD, and Dave Greenslade, a well-known fan of the Odyssey. But was it a blatant copy? You decide...

  Octave CAT ARP Odyssey
Audio Oscillators 2 2
Waveforms Sawtooth, Triangle, Pulse Sawtooth, Pulse
Number of Sub-oscillators 2 0
Pulse Width Modulation Yes (OSC1 only) Yes
LFO Pitch Modulation Yes Yes
Audio-frequency Pitch Modulation Yes No
Cross Modulations OSC1/OSC2 Yes No
Cross Modulations OSC2/OSC1 Yes No
Oscillator sync Yes Yes
Fine Tuning Yes Yes
Ring Modulation No Yes
Noise White Pink & White
Pitch bend Yes Yes
Portamento (Glide) Yes Yes
24dB/oct LP filter Yes Yes (only on models 2810 onwards)
Filter oscillation Yes Yes
Filter tracking Fully variable Fully variable
High-pass filter No Yes
Dedicated Envelopes 1 x ADSR, 1 x AR 1 x ADSR, 1 x AR
No. of Envelope destinations 4 6
Envelope inversion No No
LFO repeat modes Yes Yes
Dedicated LFOs 1 1
No. of LFO destinations 4 8
Number of waveforms 1 2
Sample & hold Yes Yes
No. of S&H destinations 3 5
Number of notes 37 37
Polyphony 2 2
Velocity sensitivity No No
Pressure sensitivity No No

Communicating With A CAT

The CAT's CV and Gate technology went through a number of revisions that weren't directly related to the SRM revisions.

The earliest version of CAT had no CV and Gate sockets at all. Later examples of the same model had two sockets marked 'To Slave' and 'From Master'. These were stereo quarter-inch jacks that carried the CV on the tip and the Gate voltage on the ring. If this wasn't strange enough, the Gate voltage was a non-standard 7.5V, which led to unreliable envelope triggering when used with conventional synths. It was only on later SRMs that Octave got its act together, although the synth retained the stereo jack arrangement rather than offering four individual sockets for the CV and Gate inputs and outputs.

If you would like to add CV and Gate to an early model, or modify a later one to standard specifications, Kenton Electronics provides a kit at £35.25, or it will fit the sockets and PCB (which adapts the Gate to a standard voltage) for £82.25.

Kenton Electronics

The Octave/Voyetra Catalogue

Here's a complete list of all the keyboards and related products produced by Octave and Octave-Plateau. Because of their rarity, the Voyetras are now commanding silly prices, but don't pay them. And don't forget, unless you're into wiring up obscure converter cables, you'll need a VPK5 to go with them. You have been warned!

Year of Introduction Name Type 2nd-hand bargain 2nd-hand rip-off
1976 CAT Duophonic synthesizer £125 £250
1977 Kitten Monosynth £75 £175
1977 CAT SRM Duophonic synthesizer £150 £350
1979 CAT SRM II Duophonic synthesizer £150 £350
1979 Catstick Modulation controller £75 £150
1983 Voyetra Eight Rackmount 8-voice polysynth £500 £1,000
1983 Voyetra One Rackmount monosynth £300 £600
1983 VPK5 Polyphonic controller keyboard £100 £250