Made in: United States
Designed by: Tom Oberheim
Number produced: 3,000
Synthesis system: analog, subtractive
Price new: $4,545
Today's prices:Like new$1,000Like, it's okay for its age$700Like hell$500
The OB-8 was last in the line of classic Oberheim analog synthesizers that included the OB-X, OB-Xa, and OB-SX, each of which is well regarded for its warmth and richness. Although Tom Oberheim said that the OB-8 is too perfect, lacking the earlier models' grit, it's still a human-sounding instrument. Most synthesizer aficionados agree that the OB-8 doesn't sound inferior to the OBXa, and they appreciate the OB-8's extra programming facilities, stability, and economy.
The OB range was keenly embraced by merchants of rock ’n’ roll, R&B, and dance music in the late ’70s and ’80s. The block synth chords on Van Halen's “Jump” — the keyboardist's equivalent to Led Zeppelin's “Stairway to Heaven” — were played on an OB-Xa, and the conspicuous synth riff on Prince's “1999” was an OB-8. The OB-8 was also the weapon of choice for Styx's Dennis de Young.
During the mid-’80s, the OB-8 exemplified the archetypal L.A. sound — glossy, expansive, and expensive. Today the Rappino Brothers, a top Italian remix team, use an OB-8 as their primary purveyor of analog pads and gate-effected rhythm synth parts. Recently Trent Reznor, Jimmy Jam, Janet Jackson, and others have tapped into the OB character and groove.
The OB-8 has two voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs; based on the Curtis CEM 3340) per voice, each with sawtooth, pulse, and triangle waveforms. For searing, hollow lead lines, the VCOs can be tuned separately and then shackled together in hard sync. Departing a bit from the earlier OBs' filter design, the OB-8 offers a choice between 2-pole or 4-pole filter slopes. The OB-8's voltage-controlled filter (VCF) is certainly precise, which likely accounts for Tom Oberheim's slight misgivings about the instrument. An ADSR envelope generator (EG) is dedicated to controlling the filter.
The low-frequency oscillator's (LFO) wave shape can be triangle, square, positive or negative ramp, noise, or sample-and-hold. The LFO can modulate VCO frequency or pulse width, VCF cutoff frequency, or the voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA). Probe deep into the programming pages and you'll find additional LFO functions for altering the LFO's sweep in half steps and “unsynching” the LFO, which results in excellent out-of-phase effects. The LFO can effectively track the keyboard, speeding up as you play higher and higher. There are plenty of neat tricks here.
Many advanced features are hidden in Page 2 mode. Pressing the Chord/Page 2 button twice activates a second set of programming parameters controlled by the front-panel knobs and switches. The Page 2 concept caught on to such an extent that, for $150, Oberheim offered a front-panel screen that labeled these cool functions.
In addition to playing individual timbres, the OB-8 keyboard can be split or doubled (layered). The internal memory contains 120 patch programs, 12 split programs, and 12 double programs. Although the cassette interface provided the original medium for external patch storage, patch data can be dumped and loaded through MIDI on later versions.
The OB-8 was released before Oberheim adopted MIDI, which was later offered as a retrofit. From software revision B onward, MIDI was standard on the OB-8. It was obviously a bit of a rush job; Oberheim's official MIDI version can communicate only on channels 1 through 9. Only Note On, Program Change, SysEx program dump, and Modulation lever information can be transmitted. A ray of sunshine here is that in split mode, the two parts transmit on separate channels.
Although the OB-8 is sizable, it's not particularly heavy; at 45 pounds, it's about 12 pounds lighter than a Roland Jupiter 8. The keyboard has standard weighting for a synth of this vintage, but it has too much bounce and can be rather noisy. It offers neither Aftertouch nor Velocity sensitivity. You can select from smooth or quantized portamento, and polyphonic portamento can make the notes glide at different rates.
The multimode arpeggiator can be synched to an external source through an arpeggiator clock input jack. A maximum of eight notes can be played forward, backward, or in random order. Half a split or a layered combination can be arpeggiated.
The OB-8 does have some quirks. No matter what position a knob is in, it initially functions at the stored setting; you have to twist it fully counterclockwise to activate the entire sweep of control. The flipper-style pitch and modulation levers are idiosyncratic; whether you love or hate them is simply a matter of taste. If you don't have a Page 2 overlay or an instruction manual, operating the OB-8 is hit-or-miss.
Here's a tip you probably won't find without a manual: to discover your OB-8's software revision, press Page 2 twice, hold the button down, and then press Sync. The number revision will display on the programmer's LEDs.
Aside from the clichéd sawtooth-brass patch made popular by “Jump,” classic OB sounds provide a wide timbral range. Lush, silky pads can be spiked with a touch of resonance, and the eight notes can be panned across the stereo spectrum, adding to the sound's expansiveness. A little detuning can “phatten” up organs and strings. Fierce lead and bass patches can take advantage of the instrument's unison mode, portamento, and slightly grainy resonance, giving sounds density and power.
The OB-8's real presence helps establish its sound in a mix. Many keyboardists overplay simply because their sounds lack sufficient character, so presence is a crucial attribute. The OB-8 has no built-in effects processing, which also helps prevent aural clutter.
The OB-8 was the hub of the Oberheim Synthesizer Performance System, which linked the synth to a DMX drum machine and a DSX sequencer. Before MIDI blew the system's restricted capabilities to bits, it was the unit to have.
You can find downloadable manuals and support at a number of Web sites, including www.tcapp.com/synths/oberheim_heaven. For parts and repair services, try Kurt's Amps and Keyboards at kurtsamps.com. In the Los Angeles area, service and repair specialists include Advanced Musical Electronics (310-559-3157) and MusicTech Services (818-506-4055).
The OB-8 is a superb instrument for players and programmers. Although OB-8s are not plentiful, they are still somewhat of a bargain at current prices and well worth looking out for.
Julian Colbeck has toured everywhere from Tokyo to São Paulo with artists as varied as ABWH/Yes, Steve Hackett, John Miles, and Charlie.
Price Guide: The quoted prices reflect typical street prices you must expect to pay in U.S. dollars. The buy-in on vintage instruments, as with vintage cars, is just the beginning, however. Most of the original manufacturers are long gone, so maintenance and repairs are expensive.