Since it was first published in 1993, Mark Vail's VintageSynthesizers book has become an important resource forelectronic-instrument enthusiasts. Vail's coverage of legendaryinstruments such as the Moog Minimoog and EMS VCS3 made for aninformative and entertaining read. Due to the meteoric rise inpopularity of just about every pre-1990s synthesizer, Vail's secondedition has been much anticipated.
Vintage Synthesizers does not provide an exhaustive technicallook at analog and early digital synths. Instead the book coversthe stories behind the important manufacturers of the ’60sand ’70s, such as Arp, Buchla, Moog, and Sequential Circuits,and their instruments.
Classic Synths Galore
Vail has added more than 40 pages to the second edition,including 6 pages of color photos. The added chapters coverimportant manufacturers that didn't appear in the first edition,including Serge/Sound Transform Systems, Polyfusion, and Korg. Thenew material also covers the popular Roland beat boxes — theCR-78, TR-808, and TR-909 — and the enigmatic Optigan fromMattel. Not carried over from the first edition are the chapters“Sequencer History in a Nutshell” and “RolandMC-8 MicroComposer.”
One chapter of note is Barry Carson's “Electric Pianos,Harpsichords, and Clavichords of the ’50s and’60s.” Carson covers the Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and Hohnerproduct lines as well as the wonderful keyboards from RMI. Forexample, RMI's Rock-Si-Chord was favored by artists as diverse asLovin' Spoonful and Sun Ra. Unfortunately, the book only hints atthe analog synthesizers being made today, though it offers majorcameo appearances by the digital and not-yet-vintage Clavia NordLead, Elektron SidStation, and Propellerheads' software-basedReBirth.
The book's final section, the Patch Bay, provides a host ofuseful reference materials, including recommendations of books,recordings, and Web sites for the synth savvy. The chapters“Buying a Vintage Synth” and “Vintage SynthSupport, Service, Rental, and Sales” alone are worth thecover price. Vail has updated the list of vintage instruments andthe prices that collectors can expect to pay. Even with the widevariation in price that he gives for many of the instruments, thelist already seems out of date in a collecting world dominated byonline auctions.
Although Vintage Synthesizers is an engrossing read, I couldn'thelp noticing some problems. For example, the depth of coverageeach instrument is given is inconsistent. The information presentedon the Arp 2600 and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 is exhaustive; infact, the chapter on the 2600 includes a wonderfully detailedsection about the instrument's various components and how they canbe upgraded and modified. Meanwhile, the two pages of text on thevenerable — though admittedly less popular — Polyfusionmodular synthesizer make that chapter seem like a throwaway.
Likewise, many of the instruments, including the Steiner-ParkerSynthacon and EVI, the Aries, and the Ondes Martenot, presented inthe color photos added to the second edition, aren't fully coveredin the text. Other instruments, such as Star Instruments Synareelectronic drums and the British synth-kit company Digisound, areconspicuous by their absence. It's also annoying that the textreferences to photos weren't updated in this edition.
Point of Reference
Those minor problems aside, the second edition of Vail's VintageSynthesizers is a fine reference for synth enthusiasts at everylevel. Even if you already own the first edition, the second is amust-have if you are serious about collecting classicsynthesizers.