Ever since Oberheim released a mysterious teaser video of Tom Oberheim, Marcus Ryle and Dave Smith drawing circuits on napkins for an as-yet-unrevealed new synthesizer, excitement has grown for the OB-X8 across the music world. Needless to say: the OB-X8 came, it saw and it conquered.
Here at MusicTech, of course, we were more than ready to find myriad reasons to be disappointed with the OB-X8, so hyped was its release. Consistent teasing and hyping of rebooted classic designs can and does become tiresome and considering Tom Oberheim was simultaneously singing the praises of GForce Software’s Oberheim-endorsed SEM emulation this year, one began to wonder if priorities in the Oberheim camp may have shifted.
Besides, it’s not as if the company has had a smooth ride over the last few decades. Two bankruptcies and various buy-outs have at points left the once-great developer fighting for its survival in a rapidly shifting marketplace. And the fact that Oberheim as a brand had even returned in its original form was only due to a so-called “gesture of goodwill to the musical instrument industry” from former owner Gibson, who returned the trademark and intellectual property to Tom Oberheim in 2019. Surely even Gibson didn’t expect anyone to buy that story, and the real reason might never be known.
Tom Oberheim clearly still had the energy in the period leading up to Gibson’s announcement, however; in the meantime having entered the fold of longtime friend and market rival (let’s not forget that the original OB-X was introduced in 1979 to compete with Smith’s Sequential Circuits Prophet-5) Dave Smith to create 2016’s well-received OB6. “A once-in-a-lifetime collaboration between the two most influential designers in poly synth history, Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim,” said Dave Smith Instruments (now Sequential once again). How wrong they were.
As it turned out, it would be a twice-in-a-lifetime collaboration and no more. In May of this year, just two months after that initial teaser video, it was announced that Dave Smith had passed away at the age of 72, leaving a titanic legacy behind him that has helped shape the sound of music as we know it.
The OB-X8 is alleged to be the second-to-last synth Smith worked on, the last being the recently-announced Trigon-6. Amid the heartbreak felt across the music world upon Smith’s passing, there was a poetry to the timing of it all. Tom Oberheim’s name would once again adorn the chassis of a premium hardware instrument that would prove Dave Smith’s swan song. The OB-X8 had an entire industry cheering it on, and boy, did we breathe a sigh of relief to find that the OB-X8 was everything we hoped for and more.
Tom Oberheim put it best, during a roundtable discussion of the OB-X8 with co-designer Marcus Ryle, lead hardware engineer Tony Karavidas and Dave Smith: “We’re taking the basic concept of analogue synthesis— which has been explored for 30, 40 years now— and refining it, combining it with different features,” he said, “but it’s a new machine. It’s a new machine doing things like an old machine, you might say, but there’s a synergy there.”
That’s exactly what MusicTech found in the OB-X8. It takes pains to replicate the circuitry and sound of prior OB-series models with astonishing accuracy while gearing its functionality toward nowhere but the present. An OLED screen with further under-the-hood options, for example, and an infinitely more expressive keyboard.
The filter is switchable between the OB-X’s SEM-descended two-pole discrete low-pass filter and the OB-Xa and OB-8’s Doug Curtis-designed CEM3320 filter at the push of a button. The reliability of the OB-X8 can even be degraded if desired, with a Sequential-inspired knob able to dial in the analogue unpredictability of older models.
“Turning on the OB-X8 and selecting any preset at random, an entire lineage of synthesis excellence flows effortlessly out of our speakers,” we said. “But the OB-X8 is far more than a simple reissue or reboot. For one, it adds a myriad of mod-cons into the mix, including a gorgeous FATAR-keybed endowed, velocity-sensitive keyboard with aftertouch, slots for over 600 user presets, USB MIDI and – purportedly a Dave Smith suggestion – a Vintage dial. This wonder knob adds an element of old-school unpredictability and parameter slop to the OB-X8’s otherwise squeaky-clean behaviour.”
It’s been nothing short of a victory lap for Oberheim following the OB-X8’s release, exemplified by a positively heaving booth at this year’s NAMM Show. Artists from Trent Reznor to Jamiroquai’s Matt Johnson have publicly gone wild for it and, across the board, critics have sung its praises. In an industry where legacy is so often brazenly reduced to a two-dimensional marketing tool, the OB-X8 is in equal parts a time capsule from the golden era of analogue polysynths and an instrument oozing with modern-day usability and longevity.
So, where next? One thing that’s clear is that the OB-X8 was intended not to conclude but to initialise the collaboration between Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim.
“We’ve already developed other interesting design ideas with Tom for follow-up products that will allow us to take Oberheim into the future as a synth brand,” Smith said at the time.
In light of this, the OB-X8 nonetheless feels like the closing of a chapter of sorts. Oberheim could have chosen any one of the OB-series to channel through its hardware, but has essentially, boldly, gone for all of them at once; to the degree that further exploring the heritage of OB-series synths in future models would at this point feel like treading old ground. We can only hope, then, that those aforementioned ideas are right now being developed into more exciting instruments. As Smith added with trademark gentleness and positivity, “It’s a very exciting time to be a musician.”
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