Peter Gretch, Collector
Synthesizers have come a long way since Thaddeus Cahill announced his invention of the Telharmonium (also known as the Dynamophone) in 1906. This monster weighed (believe it or not) no less than 200,000 Kilos, requiring 30 boxcars for transport! I'm sure gigs would have been out of the question. It's rotating electric generators were meant to transmit the sound to a telephone audience, but never got much use 'cause it interfered with New York's telephone system.
In 1920, a Russian by the name of Leon Theremin came up with the first working synth, named the Theremin. His success would inspire many an inventor in the coming years, leading to the first commercially successful, carry-friendly as well as user-friendly synth invented by Robert Moog in 1963. The legend of the Moog Minimoog lives on.
Synth manufacturers and musicians alike find themselves more and more in search for that illusive sound of the past. Has technological progress deceived our ears? This is the analogue dilemma. Peter Gretch, a vintage synth collector, shares his views with Pro Juke.
How did you start out playing music?
PG: "Basically, through the years of Santana really - or through my brothers, being in bands. Like, I had one brother, going back, during the period of the Shadows. My other brother getting into drums, and being into Mahavishnu, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Santana, and all that sort of stuff. So I've always had music around me, since I was a kid. It just grew from there. And when I was old enough, where I knew the direction I wanted to take, I got into percussion. Soon I began to play keyboards. I always had a love for the sound of the synthesizer, I really did! The synthetic sound of the synth."
What was your first synth?
PG: "The first synth I had was the Korg Poly 800, and then I bought a Minimoog, a DX7. Later I managed to get hold of a Prophet 5, and sort of fell in love with that because it was just such a thick natural sound. That's where I really thought analogue had something classic about it, compared to the DX."
What attracts you to the "analogue sound"?
PG: "I just think it's what a synth should sound like. Basically, it warm, it's round, and you can get a lot of variables. Plus, you're able to change a sound while you're playing. You're also able to get a really nice touch on your modulation, which you can't get on any other synth.
"It's funny actually, when I started collecting, I had a lot of people in shops tell me, "What do you wanna collect that garbage for? You wanna get the new stuff." I said, "Yes, but it doesn't sound like the old stuff". It's just got a more fatter and bigger sound."
Can you tell about the beginnings of analogue?
PG: "It all started, as far as the musician's user-friendly type synth, with the Minimoog. The Minimoog was the very first, besides the Arp 2600, they were the big main synths on the go. Before then, most of it was more studio type, like the modular type, big setups with the patch leads. Arp and Moog had a setup. I think Oberheim was dabbling in that area at the time too. And from there, in the mid seventies, the Oberheim SEM (Synthesizer Expander Module) came out, which was pretty well recognized by keyboard-players of that period. It used either 4, 6 or 8 voices and a method of tying monos together to get your polyphonic sound. Moog also had a polyphonic synth, the Polymoog. But the big thing that hit the scene in '78 was the Prophet 5, which was the first fully programmable/polyphonic synth. You could store all your sounds, and it was truly polyphonic. At the turn of '83 everything went digital."
In your opinion, how do you rate the analogues?
PG: "I think Oberheim's always had really classic brass and string sounds. And then, the same with Prophet.
"I like the Minimoog for lead and bass. The Moog I've got is the last series, a series D, which because of the pots used, is a lot more stable than the earlier models. Although, each Moog sounds a bit different, no Moog is exactly the same. You will also get a dud Moog. One that just doesn't have that nice sound to it. When you buy a Moog, check the sound with others, and see if it's got that particular sound that's right. The series D's got a lot more attack than the earlier ones, I find.
"The Minimoog and Prophet are amazing for doing different weird effects. The Prophet 5, especially being the Rev1 (serial numbers 0001-0182) and Rev2 (0183-1300) have got a definitely big sound, using the SSM chips. The sound voice chips were a lot more out of tune, like a string section would be, sounded a bit richer in sound compared to the later Prophet 5s, which had the Curtis Music chips. A bit more like a DX would sound like. Too perfect, too stable.
"The T-8 is in between the two, but then it's got a lot of other sounds which I can't get on the Prophet 5. They are two good combinations of Prophets. It's a matter of using them in the way of context. One's got a slightly different string sound to the other.
"The Arp 2600 is a distinctive mono. It was purposely designed to sound different to a Minimoog. It had ring modulation, you could get FM out of it, and had a wide range of parameting. But then again, a lot of this early gear is only good for studio use, not good if you have to be playing live.
"One of the synths I would like to get a hold of, which Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock were using, is called a Rhodes Chroma. Arp were just about to finish it, but got taken over by Rhodes. Arp was failing, and had to sell out. That synth is actually the last of the Arp synths that was designed.
"Another synth, that probably hasn't been taken notice of, which comes from Japan, made by Yamaha, is the CS-80. That has a monstrous sound. Actually, I'm pretty sure it's the same synth that was used on the Emerson, Lake and Palmer album, Fanfare of the Common Man. This synth, which came out roughly around the same time as the Prophet 5, was way ahead of it's time."
What do you think of the Solina?
PG: "The Strings? From memory, I thought they were quite present. The typical sort of sound I would hear in an Italian backing band. The cabaret type sound, but quite nice."
What about Japanese makes such as Roland and Korg?
PG: "For me, the Japanese market, at that period of time, were getting something that was good and improving on it. But I just prefer the American sound. If you go to those early analogues, they'll still sound different to anything after that period. Now, probably to the average person - Well, they'll say that they sound the same, but when you get involved in them, then you can start appreciating what sounds good and what doesn't.
"Although, Korg came out with things that sounded nice. The Vocoder is one of the great things they brought out. I always liked their Poly 6 and Poly 61. I had their Poly 800, and for a cheap little synth, I thought sounded really warm."
Have any of the recently released synths made an impression on you?
PG: "I haven't really been inspired by what I hear of today's modern technology. It's not so much state-of-the-art technology, it's more "this is what's out new, buy this one". Every year you have to update. I just think it's stupid, when the classics are lying around, and everybody's just updating to the stuff that's trying to sound like an image of the good stuff. The old analogues might not have all the advantages of some of the MIDI and FX's, but there's one thing that they've got that no other synth can have, and that's the true, flat out and pure sound that they have."
What can I expect to see in your collection in the future?
PG: "A later model Arp 2600, because I'm very particular about which one I get. In the later model, they got a bit better in the hardware. If I could get one of those would be nice. But the one to really get would be the very first Oberheim 4 or 8 voice, which was just a big white monstrous box with gadgets and controls. If a Yamaha CS-80 came along, that'd be the other synth I'd grab."
Who is still using analogues these days?
PG: "Joe Zawinul (ex-Weather Report) is mainly using a lot of Korg gear now, but he's also still using his Prophet T-8 and a few other old analogues. You'll find a lot of Jazz artists are still using analogues, mainly for recording, more than anything. Peter Gabriel still uses his Prophet 5 as his main synth.
"It's only a matter of time, I always believe what is old will become new somewhere along the line. To me, a modern synth is what I call a two litre motor versus the big block chev. The old analogues have got heaps of guts and power, and push out a good sound, where you need four or five of this new gadgetry gear to produce that one big sound. The old analogues are a bit more human, in the sense that they can go out of tune a little bit, move a little bit, do funny things. And that's what makes them sound more like an acoustic instrument, 'cause an acoustic instrument is not perfect in sound. All I can say is that an analogue synth is a f... great synth."
You can contact Peter Gretch on (61 3) 309 2738. If you are interested in reading further about the early analogues, a book is available through "Music Maker Books" called "KEYFAX - The definite guide to buying electronic keyboards" by Julian Coldbeck gives an overview on all the synths mentioned in this article, as well as more recent releases. I'm only aware of the existence of the 3rd (1988/'89) edition, but even this edition is adequate for the analogue era.
'Pro Juke' (Juke, National Rock Weekly) ~ Issue 11 , May 29, 1993, No. 944
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