Synthesizer Pioneer Tom Oberheim Starts Business Again At 85
They all made hit records, but what else do Van Halen, Supertramp, Prince and Queen have in common? The characteristic sound of hits like Jump, Fool’s Overture, 1999, and Flash (as well as many others) all came from a synthesizer made by Oberheim Electronics.
Oberheim instruments were created by music technology pioneer and inventor Tom Oberheim. Without any formal business background, Oberheim didn’t set out to find success in the industry that still worships his designs. And he got into the industry almost by accident.
As a child, growing up in Manhattan, Kansas, Oberheim found himself hanging around the local radio store where he got a job sweeping the floor. His fascination with electronics first led him to Kansas State University before moving on to UCLA where he combined physics with the study of music.
Some early work spent in the aerospace and nascent computing industry could have seen Oberheim following a very different path were it not for some of his college friends landing a recording contract and asking him to design an innovative tonal processor to give natural sounds a spacey “ring”. The gadget that Oberheim invented for them was called a ring modulator.
Word soon spread of Oberheim’s design skills and it wasn’t long before he was supplying the ring modulator to jazz musicians, recording studios and even the composer of the movie soundtrack for Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Oberheim Electronics was born. The company saw modest growth through the early 1970s until Oberheim hit on the idea of making products to feed the growing demand for electronic music: synthesizers.
Synthesizers were a radical departure for music makers at the time and innovation didn’t come cheap. Early Oberheim synthesizers started at $4,000 (about $21,000 in today’s money), a daunting price point for most musical instrument retailers. But the sounds of Oberheim’s kit were unique and drew the customers in. And so, the Oberheim legend was formed.
“I was fifteen years old when the Oberheim OB-8 was on the verge of being released,” recalls filmmaker and synth enthusiast JJ Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek, Star Wars). “No stores had them yet and I couldn’t find details about this magical keyboard anywhere. So, like a crazy person, I rode my bike to the Oberheim offices in Los Angeles. I went in and asked if they would please give me a demo. To my shock, they did. The sounds I heard in that room that day blew my mind.”
Commercial success followed and soon Oberheim’s company had grown to nearly 100 employees and was posting annual revenues in eight figures. Oberheim and his team found themselves at the top of the heap in the hottest new category in the musical instruments industry. A decade of success followed along with countless hits inspired by his unique-sounding instruments.
“Oberheim instruments were incredibly important to me in the 1970s and ’80s,” recalls Steve Porcaro of the 1980s supergroup Toto. “The OB-8 together with the [Oberheim] DSX was an integral part of my setup with Toto and on every session I did.”
However, by the mid-1980s, the winds of change were blowing through the music industry. Tastes were changing and the Oberheim sound needed to evolve. A crucial new development project hit some delays and the company started to stretch its line of credit. Oberheim was led to believe by his advisors that foreclosure of the company was the only way to avoid putting his family home at risk. One Monday morning, Oberheim arrived at his office to discover that Oberheim Electronics had been placed into liquidation. His legal advisors were now the owners of the company’s assets. A lawsuit ensued, but Oberheim ended up losing his company.
“Those were dark days, and I figured I might not be able to continue in the industry that had come to mean so much to me,” Oberheim reflects. “I wasn’t sure where to take things next.”
As the sound of the 1980s gave way to new waves of technology-driven trends like sampling, remixing and auto-tuning, the role of those early synthesizer brands like Moog, Fairlight and Oberheim declined. After a decade of heightened success and an immeasurable impact on the sound of popular music, the brand disappeared sometime in the late 1980s, along with most of the other pioneering American synthesizer brands. The craze for synthesizers had burned brightly and briefly and could have ended up just a curious footnote in the history of modern music.
But as with vinyl records, classic cars and fashion, everything old eventually becomes new again. Starting in the mid-2000s, a new generation of players and producers started to rediscover the evocative sound from these legacy machines and enthusiasts began bringing some of them back to life.
As JJ Abrams observes: “My [original] OB-8 remains one of my prized synth possessions. The idea that Tom Oberheim [and others] are joining forces on a new synth makes me want to jump on my bike and find out more.”
And the recent resurgence of interest is driving new players to seek out the original vintage instruments. Some models are now changing hands at eye-watering prices on the second-hand market. One recent listing was asking $23k for a 40-year-old Oberheim OB-X; a model that originally sold for $4.5k.
This groundswell from musicians has inspired Oberheim to take a highly unusual step for an 85-year-old. He is putting his unique instruments back into full-scale production for the first time in three decades. In May, Oberheim will release a new keyboard synthesizer based on the popular OB series. Oberheim says: “It may sound outlandish, but I’m as excited about this startup as I was the first time around. I’ve always had a very optimistic outlook, and I felt that one day when the time was right, Oberheim products would return.”
Trent Reznor, the creative force behind Nine Inch Nails and Golden Globe, Academy Award, and Primetime Emmy-winning composer was one of the artists who got wind of Oberheim’s renaissance and requested an early preview of the new synth. “My first moments with it were all nostalgia, but I quickly realized the incredible Oberheim sound absolutely holds its own in the present,” said Trent. “I will be making room for one in my studio.”
In musical compositions, a ‘coda’ is the concluding passage, often a repeat of the main theme, but with a new twist. This resurrection of the Oberheim company may be more than a coda, perhaps even an entirely new opus. And as for Tom Oberheim, it’s time to play on.
More info: Oberheim is back, and products are available through MI retailers in May 2022. For more details about the product and where to buy, visit www.oberheim.com