What do Led Zeppelin, Star Wars and Elton John have in common? Well, there's one thing for sure - they've all used an ARP Synthesizer! And as Korg prepares to launch their new ARP Odyssey at NAMM 2015, here's the story of the synths that, alongside Moog, revolutionized music in the seventies. It's time to get really excited!
On a previous article about the 50 Years of Moog, we talked about how they were the most popular synths in rock'n'roll history. But that's only partially true - in the seventies and early eighties, they had to share this position with the ARP synthesizers, which lay semi-forgotten for years but are now set to make a spectacular return at NAMM 2015, thanks to Korg, who'll be launching their ARP Odyssey synthesizer, first announced almost a year ago, and eagerly awaited ever since. Here's the ARP story...
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE SYNTH KIND
The first ARP synthesizer was the ARP 2500, invented by Alan R Pearlman in 1969, hence the "ARP" name. Pearlman was a former NASA engineer, and the 2500 was one of the most revolutionary musical instruments ever. It was, however, too big, expensive and almost impossible to programme, being more complex than a Moog modular. Maybe no more than 100 were made, but it managed to put its mark on popular culture, thanks to Steven Spielberg - the film used the sounds of an ARP 2500 on the famous sequence when the scientists communicate with the aliens:
It is said that there are so many sound possibilities with an ARP 2500 that even today a musician would be able to find entirely new, unheard sounds playing one. Famous users include Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page, who used one to compose his "lost" soundtrack for 'Lucifer Rising'. According to page, "It's a fabulous instrument capable of translating literally any sound you can hear in your mind into a reality. It is a joy to own."
PETE TOWNSHEND'S ARP OPERA
The next chapter in ARP's history is the ARP 2600, which became much, much more popular than the previous model. This semi-modular monophonic synth had three oscillators and sounded richer, fatter than a Moog.
Though, it's not fair to compare ARP with Moog - like Fender vs. Gibson, they are simply different beasts, with their own sounds. However, Bob Moog did concede that the ARP oscillators were better, besides featuring Pulse With Modulation (PWM) something Moog models didn't.
The ARP 2600 was used by the production of Star Wars in 1977, to create R2D2's "voice"!
But the main champion of the 2600 was Pete Townshend, who used it extensively in the creation of his two major rock operas, 'Tommy' and 'Quadrophenia'. A synth enthusiast, Townshend uses a 2600 to explain in this video how he came up with the famous 'Won't Get Fooled Again' synth sound:
Since then, the 2600 became a very popular model, used by David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Joy Division and countless others.
THE ODYSSEY BEGINS...
As the compact, more affordable and portable Minimoog became increasingly popular, ARP released their on portable synth, the ARP Odyssey. Despite its size, the Odyssey was capable of producing the same fat, warm sounds that made bigger synths such as the 2600 so popular. It was in fact pretty much a small, hard-wired version of the 2600, but now duophonic rather than monophonic, and featuring only two oscillators. But the fact it still had PWM gave it an edge over other synths!
Jimmy Page (pictured above) was one of the earlier adopters and used an Odyssey on some Led Zeppelin recordings. And Jon Lord would also use one on his incredible solos, such as this one:
The Odyssey went on to become one of the most popular synths ever, rivalling with the Minimoog, and a list of users is a virtual who's who of rock'n'roll, pop and electronic music of the 70', 80's and beyond:
ABBA, Bomb The Bass, Jimmy Page, Ultravox, Gary Numan, LTJ Bukem, Air, Tangerine Dream, 808 State, Apollo 440, Nine Inch Nails, Chick Corea, John Foxx, Vangelis, Elton John, Jethro Tull, Jimmy Edgar, DEVO, Jean-Luc Ponty, R.E.M. ,Herbie Hancock, 808 State, Apollo 440, ELO, Elton John, Jon Lord, Gary Numan, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Jean Michel Jarre and many others.
... AND THE ODYSSEY CONTINUES
In February 2014 Korg announced they would be making a newer version of the ARP Odyssey. Fans of analogue synthesizers got really excited by the news, but the launch was postponed and seems almost 100% certain to happen at NAMM 2015. If, as expected, it really happens, the Korg ARP Odyssey is sure to become one of the hottest musical instruments of the year.
So far, Korg has only shown glimpses of the new model, which looks inspired by the Odyssey MkIII, and should share its features such as: resonant low pass filter, ADSR envelopes, sine or square wave LFO, and a sample-and-hold function. Users hope it'll feature modern specs too, such as patch memory and MIDI. Finally, considering that Korg have released the MS20 Mini, it's possible that the new ARP Odyssey will be slightly smaller than the bulky original!
If synthesizers are to be BIG in 2015, there's no doubt few models will be as hot as this new ARP Odyssey. It's time to get very, very, excited... roll on NAMM 2015!
These two demos are a good showcase for the sort of sounds an ARP Odyssey can create:
By Ivan Silva