Oberheim TEO-5, photo by Simon Vinall

TEO-5, as told by Tom Oberheim: “If we made this 30 years ago, we’d have ruled the world”

We speak with Tom Oberheim, the synth designer who’s still innovating in his 50-year career, to learn more about the TEO-5 and why it’s crucial to keep on discovering.

Oberheim TEO-5. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

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Thomas Elroy Oberheim removes his glasses and wipes his cheek. “It still makes tears come to my eyes, I’m sorry.”

On the morning before his new synthesizer, the TEO-5, is released, Tom isn’t shedding tears of sadness. He’s just astounded by the impact of his 50-year career and the myriad ways artists have crafted legendary sounds with his namesake Oberheim synths.

“I gave lectures at some colleges and gatherings, like Moogfest 19 years ago” Tom says from his Moraga, California home. “And I had six or eight clips that show some Oberheim sounds — Dreamweaver by Gary Wright which, depending on the audience, they’ve never heard of. And then, of course, Weather Report…But I always end it with [Van Halen’s] Jump. Whether they’re 60 or 15 years old, they’ve all heard Jump. Then people leave saying, ‘Oh, now I know what you do!’”

Oberheim is approaching his 88th birthday. “It’s hard to think of another job I could have done,” he says, “that would give me such satisfaction.”

The new TEO-5 expresses Tom’s dream: to put that instantly recognisable sound into a compact machine that’s more affordable than any Oberheim since the company began in 1974.

After speaking to Tom Oberheim, you understand why musicians and synthesists revere him. You believe the quirky anecdotes — how he apparently once invited a fan and his dog over for dinner when he learned the dog, Obie, was named after him. You get why his instruments have stood the test of time and why his name is synonymous with Bob Moog, Dave Smith, Don Buchla and Roger Linn. He’s dedicated his life and career to putting immense instruments into the hands of creatives — and he’s learned a lot.

“What I’ve found over 50 years,” Tom says, ”is that, as an engineer, you develop a machine, and then you put it in the hands of a musician, and what comes back are sounds that you never thought were possible. That’s still the thrill for me.”

With the TEO-5, named so for his initials, Tom believes he’ll get that same joy from those who take the chance to play it. At $1,500, it’s not immediately accessible to all synth lovers, but he says the “goal was to have a machine that was more affordable [than other Oberheims] and yet not have to apologise for it. And I think that that’s been achieved.”

Tom Oberheim and the TEO-5. Image: Press
Tom Oberheim and the TEO-5. Image: Press

For those who’ve always wanted an Oberheim synth, then, the TEO-5 might be the easiest way in. “It’s the exact filter circuit from the original Synthesizer Expander Module (SEM) from 1974,” says Tom, and it sports that classic blue-striped finish – “I’ve always loved that look,” he adds.

But the TEO-5 is more than just a tribute to the glory days of Oberheim. It’s designed for modern producers, with built-in digital effects including chorus, delay, reverb and phaser, a modern take on oscillator X-Mod, a 64-step sequencer and multimode arpeggiator, plus a Fatar keybed with aftertouch.

Tom is pretty chuffed. “I have to say, having lived through the Four Voice, the Eight Voice, the OB-1…” he rattles off the names of products like they’re his children. “…We’ve had the OB-6 for a few years, and now the TEO-5. I couldn’t be happier. If we made this 30 years ago, we’d have ruled the world.”

Oberheim TEO-5, photo by Simon Vinall
Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

The beauty of the TEO-5 — along with the design — is how quickly you can patch in a sound and get lost. It immediately sounds fit for a stadium. The presets boast inspiring sequences and patches (yes, including a sound in the style of Jump), and there’s no need to dive into menus — it just has the sound.

Tom admits that even he wasn’t sure how good a $1,500 Oberheim synth could be. After all, the most recent and celebrated Oberheim is the OB-X8, which costs an eye-watering $5,000.

“It doesn’t do any good to put every bell and whistle on a machine, sell it for $8,000 while some of the features never get used,” he explains. “It’s always a matter of thinking about the sound, effects and modulation, but keeping the cost in mind. It’s a puzzle and, if you’re lucky and know what you’re doing, you can solve that puzzle in different ways. After 50 years, you find yourself getting good at that. There’s still some compromise but with the TEO-5, we did things that I didn’t think were possible.”

Oberheim TEO-5, photo by Simon Vinall
Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

So what is it about retro synthesizers? For the past few decades, producers have been enthralled by them, as software emulations of vintage gear and buzzwords like ‘warm’ and ‘imperfect’ are thrown around. Why would you want the sound of 50-year-old synthesizers rather than something fresh and new?

Tom laughs — “We live in a high-tech world, but the music instrument business does not follow suit. I don’t think anybody would ever consider Apple reviving the first iPhone. But here we are.

“I recently had a prototype SEM module in my lab and got it working. I gave it to a young musician — when I say young, he’s under 30 with a great career; he’s got 15 synthesizers. And this module was either going to the recycling or to somebody who could use it. And I sent it to him, and he said, ‘That sounds so good.’ There was no talk about it being retro, even though it’s…let’s see…50 years old. It has nothing to do with retro; I’ve learned over the years that if it doesn’t have a sound that a musician wants, then they won’t want it. And it’s thanks to some brilliant people like Bob Moog, Don Buchla and Dave Smith and a long line of others, that this idea of an analogue synthesizer has become a standard.”

Tom encountered the synthesizer that got him hooked on the scene in 1971, several years after moving to LA and becoming “burnt out” from working in general computer design. He needed something new.

“I talked ARP [owned by Alan Robert Pearlman] into letting me be an ARP dealer in LA. I didn’t know that much about synthesizers. I’d read about them. I’d seen a big Moog in a studio in LA in 1971. But I got my ARP 2600, and I was up playing it for 36 hours straight and I thought, ‘This is amazing! Where have these things been? Why has it taken so long?’ I still remember the sounds I made. I don’t really play an instrument but I found lots of things to do with that 2600, and it stayed with me.”

Oberheim TEO-5, photo by Simon Vinall
Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

You might think Tom Oberheim, with his name branded across almost 20 beloved machines, would have an impressive studio with racks of coveted music gear like the ARP 2600. “But that’s not true!” he says with a chuckle. That hasn’t stopped him, at 87, from learning new studio techniques, though.

“I have never had a studio. I’m not trained on any instruments. So I’m at a point where I’m looking at different DAWs and learning about samples. I’m collecting stuff, and I’m like some young kid that just just got out of junior high, and I think it’s amazing.At the beginning, I talked to friends and, of course, if I take five of my friends, each one has a different DAW so I’ve been pretty much on my own.”

Tom continues, beaming and chuckling: “My wife continually scratches her head. ‘Why are you doing this?’ But it’s fun discovering this stuff. I’m embarrassed to sometimes call a friend and say, ‘What does this mean? How do I get USB MIDI into my computer and make sounds? Oh, it’s like that. That’s simple!’ But I’m having fun and continuing to learn. Once you stop learning, you got a problem.”

It’s easy for many of us to take modern instruments and software for granted. Tom is among those who paved the way for our go-to plugin synths like Serum, Diva, and Pigments. He began at a time before bedroom studios; before plugin emulations and hardware clones. Many Oberheim synths have been subject to emulation — some subtle, some blatant. But Tom isn’t so bothered by that.

“Anything that brings new sounds to, let’s say, young musicians just starting out, is exciting to me. And I don’t care what the brand is.

Oberheim TEO-5, photo by Simon Vinall
Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

“There’s been a few different simulations of Oberheim over the years and, I have to say, GForce did a great job. I don’t have the ear training to get into the fine details — I’ve been relying on musicians to tell me what sounds good since the 70s. But the reaction to the GForce stuff was very positive, and I certainly think it sounds really good.

“I mean, the fact that you can spend $1,000 and get a great system in your bedroom is exciting, no matter what’s being simulated. Imagine if you were able to do this in 1970.”

“And I’m sure there’ll be more to come. So much has happened — Dave Smith really pushed the idea that became MIDI. And I think that was really a revolution.”

The late Dave Smith, a friend and colleague of Tom, was known as the godfather of MIDI. Not only did he invent MIDI and convince other synth brands to adopt it, but he was also the person behind Sequential Instruments. Later acquired by UK brand Focusrite, Dave and Sequential became a major part of bringing back the Oberheim name in 2016 with the Sequential OB-6. The trademarked Oberheim name, however, was owned by Gibson until 2019.

Oberheim TEO-5, photo by Simon Vinall
Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

But, after Dave’s passing, he and Sequential continue to inspire Oberheim. Keen synth lovers will note the similarities between the TEO-5 and Sequential’s Take-5, released in 2022. Like Tom, Dave was a visionary. And there was one thing he did that Tom still admires.

“One thing that I wish I had done sooner is what Dave did in the early 2000s. He realised that analogue was coming back. He got back into the business. At first, it was with the Evolver but when he did the Prophet ’08, it just exploded. I wasn’t going to start another company at the time but now things have changed. Now I’m in alliance with Focusrite and I’m back in the business.”

Before we say goodbye, we can’t help but wonder what Tom’s favourite synthesizer is, given his time in the game.

“It’s hard to ignore the Roland Jupiter-8,” he says. “At the time it came out, we were making either the OB-Xa or the OB-8. I saw the machine and just didn’t think I had the resources to go as far as [Roland did with the Jupiter-8. That’s a great machine. But there really hasn’t been that much that I said, ‘Oh God, I wish I’d done that. I was never enamoured with the Yamaha DX7 because it was just too mysterious. You know, maybe five people on planet Earth could programme it — and they’re getting old now, like me!”

Oberheim TEO-5, photo by Simon Vinall
Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

It’s impossible to talk about synthesis and not talk about Tom Oberheim. The past five decades have been a rollercoaster, he admits. But, at 87 years old, he’s still looking for the next challenge; the next opportunity to learn.

“A lot’s happened since Focusrite came on the scene,” he says. “And there’s a lot to do. Some people think the industry’s reached a pinnacle. I don’t see that. I’m certainly not at the point where I’m going to do major design work — I’m getting up there,” he says as he nods upward. “But I think we’ll continue to see a lot of creativity in this business because you can take a certain bag of parts and do a lot of different things with it.

“I mean, you can do a lot and make an awful big sound at home with an Oberheim. I usually wait until my wife takes the dog out for her morning walk, and then I turn it up loud!”

Oberheim TEO-5, photo by Simon Vinall
Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

Read more music technology interviews and features. Learn morea bout the TEO-5 at oberheim.com

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