Made in: England
Designed by: Chris Huggett
Number produced: 1,800
System: analog/digital hybrid, subtractive and additive synthesis
Price new: $1,000
Like new$2,000Like, it's okay for its age$1,600Like hell$1,000
When British manufacturer Oxford Synthesizer Company (OSC) introduced the Oscar in 1983, it was anything but an overnight success. Despite its current near-legendary status and undeniable charm, the odd-looking monophonic synthesizer was about as marketable as cricket pads in East Los Angeles. Made of plastic with a wooden base and rubber end pieces and section dividers, the Oscar has an attractively industrial appearance. A British monosynth made of plastic and rubber? Perhaps people thought it was designed by Monty Python.
The Oscar is the brainchild of Chris Huggett, who also developed the Wasp, an earlier oddball synth manufactured by the Electronic Dream Plant. OSC consisted of Chris, his mom, and Paul Wiffen — hardly enough people to compete with Japanese giants peddling their popular Junos, DXs, and CZs. Nonetheless, Oscar users have included Stevie Wonder, Jean-Michel Jarre, Ultravox, Liam Howe of the Sneaker Pimps, and Geoff Downes of Asia.
The Oscar's strength is its ability to deliver idiosyncratic lead, bass, and obbligato sounds with tremendous power and flexibility. You can create custom waveshapes, set up and externally clock sequences and arpeggio patterns, and store your tweaks into its programmable memory. Although the Oscar is lumped in with the Minimoog and friends as one of the great classic analogs, only its filters are truly analog; everything else about the Oscar is digital.
With atrocious timing, the Oscar was launched just before MIDI became standard. The Oscar underwent frequent revisions, with at least seven models during its life span. MIDI models were introduced in late 1984, and OSC made subsequent refinements to its MIDI implementation. Pre-MIDI models can store 12 user patches and 24 factory presets; MIDI models can store user patches in all 36 memory locations.
On the front panel, 36 identical knobs are so tall that you might have to crane your neck to see their functions. Two digitally controlled oscillators (DCOs) provide sawtooth and triangle waves as well as three types of pulse waves — square, variable pulse, and modulated. The Oscar is considered a monophonic instrument, but its two oscillators can independently respond to the keyboard or sequencer, allowing it to play two notes simultaneously. The envelopes, however, trigger monophonically from the keyboard. Still, the Oscar's duophonic capabilities make it possible to play one oscillator with the keyboard as the sequencer plays the other.
Two 12 dB — per-octave multimode filters can be combined in series for 24 dB — per-octave filtering. Lowpass, highpass, and bandpass filtering are supported, with control of cutoff and resonance. A unique Separation parameter governs the two cutoff frequencies independently; in Bandpass mode, it provides what David Lynch might call twin peaks — two distinct resonant frequencies with control over the bandwidth. If blitzkrieg power is your goal, you can overdrive the filter using the master volume control and store the overdrive setting with each program. With the volume knob turned two-thirds of the way up, full volume is attained; turning it higher increases the overdrive but not the gain.
Two ADSR generators modulate the filter and amplifier, and you can invert the filter's envelope. You can create some excellent repetitive effects by automatically triggering either or both envelopes at a rate determined by the internal clock's tempo control. On later models, you can synchronize external instruments to the Oscar's clock using a trigger output.
In addition to low-frequency triangle, sawtooth, and square waveforms, the six-position knob controlling the low-frequency oscillator (LFO) offers Env, Kbd, and R options. Env uses the filter's envelope generator instead of an LFO waveform, and Kbd provides a number of filter-tracking effects. R generates a random sample-and-hold pattern controlled by the LFO rate. The LFO can modulate pitch, pulse width, and filter cutoff, and the Intro control delays the onset of vibrato.
When you grow tired of sedately driving an Oscar along leafy Oxfordshire lanes using standard waveforms, gentle filtering, and pedestrian envelopes, you can turbocharge down the motorway by constructing custom waveforms. The Oscar's additive synthesis functions let you build upon a fundamental frequency to assemble complex, even atonal sounds, by selecting 24 harmonics and their amplitudes with the keyboard's top two octaves. One oscillator can generate an analog waveform as the other makes an additive waveform. The Oscar's memory can store as many as 24 user-defined waveforms.
The Oscar's sequencer provides 24 sequence locations, and you can link sequences with a patch change at the beginning of each sequence in the chain. MIDI models can store as many as 1,500 events, including rests. You enter sequencer information by specifying notes, rests, and rhythms one event at a time; you can develop a left-and-right-hand technique that approaches real-time entry. Many users swear by the variety of inspirational rhythms and effects they can extract from the instrument.
Although it's notoriously difficult to find one in good working condition, the Oscar has endeared itself to dance-music producers in recent years. It's difficult to service, though, and finding replacement parts is something of a nightmare. Unfortunately, when you pry off the end pieces, you have to truss up the instrument with rubber bands to prevent it from spilling its guts. Replacing the lithium battery wipes out the memory, but you can save its contents using a cassette interface, and on later models via MIDI.
If you're shopping for an Oscar, be aware of its many revisions. As production continued, OSC ironed out some of the Oscar's more irritating characteristics and added some cool features. On MIDI models, for instance, the keyboard can play external instruments polyphonically, but it lacks Velocity sensitivity. Because operating an Oscar is hardly intuitive, a user manual adds substantially to its resale value.
Although it frequently crops up on Web sites featuring vintage keyboards, I know of only one site dedicated to the Oscar (www.airburst.demon.co.uk/oscar). In 1986 Chris Huggett began working on the S1000 and subsequent samplers for Akai. He continued with Akai for ten years and was eventually hired by Novation to work on the Supernova series of synthesizers.
Julian Colbeck has toured everywhere from Tokyo to São Paulo with artists as varied as ABWH/Yes, Steve Hackett, John Miles, and Charlie.
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, though. Most of the original manufacturers are long gone, so maintenance and repairs are expensive.