You are likely to have heard the Oberheim OB-Xa’s sound many times without knowing where it comes from. Together with the other ‘Big Boys’ polyphonic synths, it opened the way to new musical genres: industrial music, synth-pop, new wave and electro-pop, just to name only a few. Discover its history and its influence on pop music in this
1. Ode to Polyphony: Queen
Queen, ‘Flash’ (1980)
The synthesizers available until 1975 were all monophonic; you could only get one sound. But, in the early 80s, new polyphonic synthesizers like the Oberheim led artists and musicians to explore new sonic frontiers. “This was in the back of my mind since the first experiments in the 1970s,” says Tom Oberheim, founder of Oberheim Electronics. “I thought it was great to hear polyphonic music on synthesizers.”
The introduction of polyphony marked a turning point in Queen’s discography. Unlike many other pop and rock groups in the 1970s, the band never used previous models of synthesizers, as clearly stated in the liner notes for their first albums. The first synthesizer appeared on The Game and Flash Gordon, released in 1980 as the soundtrack for the famous movie.
“I’m afraid that was my fault,” Roger Taylor writes in the 2010 biography Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. “I had bought this Oberheim polyphonic synth. I showed it to Fred, and immediately he was like, ‘Oh this is good, dear…’” In the video above, you can see Brian May playing the Oberheim OB-X!
2. The analogic growl: Rush
Rush, ‘Tom Sawyer’ (1980)
Can you hear that ripping nasty growl at the opening of Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’? It was created using an Oberheim OB-X in Unison mode. It is an ever-changing sound effect caused by subtle imperfections in the filter tracking and different decay curves on each voice. The result is a really peculiar sound that many people have unsuccessfully tried to emulate.
“It’s a common view that, because synths are electronic, they are just machines, and you only need to press the buttons,” says our Curator of Sound Technologies, Annie Jamieson. “But they are real organic instruments. Analogue synthesizers in particular are just as variable and just as temperamental as a violin or a guitar. They are even more sensitive and more difficult to tune than a concert grand piano. And the same model doesn’t always sound the same.”
3. Exploring new sonorities: The Police
The Police, ‘Invisible Sun’ (1981)
The Police started using keyboard synthesizers on their album Ghost in the Machine, and pretty much every synth sound you can hear on the album is produced by an Oberheim. For this band, the adoption of Oberheim OB-X was connected to a change from the past and the research of new sonorities: the synthesizers, together with the use of Sting’s saxophone and multi-tracked guitars, create a much denser sound.
In the liner notes, Sting says: “Our last records were experiments in commercialism. I’d been obsessed with the idea of coming up with a commercial record. Ghost doesn’t have that concern. After our first three albums, we wanted to go as far away from the sound we’d already created.”
Listen to ‘Invisible Sun’, one of the three singles from the album: can you hear that dark, looping beat? It is an Oberheim OB-X!
4. A one-man band setup: Rod Stewart
Rod Stewart, ‘Young Turks’ (1981)
This song by Rod Stewart, from the album Tonight I’m Yours, represents the new wave and synth-pop turning of the singer. Duane Hitchings, one of the keyboard players, when talking about the composition process specifically mentioned the Oberheim OB-Xa: “I put together the whole song at my house[…] and used an Oberheim OB-Xa, Oberheim DMA sequencer and the Oberheim DMX drum box. It was really one of the first one-man-band setups. We took the whole setup in the studio and recorded straight to tape. I started the idea because Devo was real big and one of my favorite groups, thus the fast pulsing synth groove.” At the beginning of the 1980s, Devo were one of the precursors of synth-based new wave bands.
5. A synth sound you won’t forget: Prince
Prince, ‘1999’ (1982)
One of the truly great polyphonic synthesizers could not have failed to fascinate the multi-instrumentalist Prince. Oberheim OB-Xa was used to kick off every opening track in his album trilogy: Controversy, 1999, and Purple Rain. What made the Oberheim so special for Prince was the ability to store and quickly recover patches, thanks to the in-board memory. Prince’s synth sound from ‘1999’ was so popular that Smith and Oberheim included it as a preset filter in the OB-6 when the instrument was released in 2016.
6. The Oberheim in jazz: Miles Davis
Miles Davis, ‘Star People’ (198283)
The Oberheim synth crossed also the path of one of the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th century music: Miles Davis. On the album Star People, he plays trumpet and Oberheim synthesizer—often at the same time—for the over-18-minute-long title track. In the liner notes, the critic Leonard Feather writes: “On several occasions he extracts full, rich sounds from the Oberheim using only his left hand, while playing trumpet with his right.” He adds: “The surprisingly dramatic Oberheim introduction, leading directly into Miles’ muted exploration of the everlasting beauty of the blues, is one of the most exquisite transitions I have heard on a recorded performance.”
7. 100% synth: Gary Numan
Gary Numan, ‘Warriors’ (1983)
For Gary Numan, the Oberheim OB-Xa was part of four decades of experimentation with synthesizers. He used Minimoog and Polymoog synths on The Pleasure Principle, an album written and performed almost entirely on synthesizers. The album Warriors shows a shift on style, together with the addition of different kinds of synthesizers like the Oberheim OB-Xa.
“To me,” said Numan, “Warriors just sounds like me, they always do. We’ve got all these great jazz musicians on the album and there’s little old me in the middle of it all on the electronic side. The Minimoog and Polymoog are still like old friends to me and I turn to them when I can’t think of what else to do. I used the ARP Odyssey more for bass things because it has more cut to it, and my favourite at the moment is the Oberheim OB-Xa.”
8. Jump on the riff: Van Halen
Van Halen, ‘Jump’ (1984)
Did you know that one of the most iconic riffs of all time comes from an Oberheim keyboard? The successful single ‘Jump’ (1984) marked the appearance of massive synth riffs in place of guitars. The synth content in this song—the key line that kicks off the entire tune—is undeniably the most recognisable audio component.
This sound became so iconic that people attempted to recreate it on all sorts of synths: on the web there are loads of tutorials on how to play the synthesizer’s part of this track. But the original synthesizer used by the band was the OB-Xa and its characteristic sound and outline clearly appear in their original music video!
9. A very special soundtrack: The Terminator
Brad Fiedel, The Terminator soundtrack (1984)
The Oberheim was the sonic star of another famous movie soundtrack of the 1980s, all composed and performed on synthesizers. The movie was The Terminator, and the artist was Brad Fiedel, an American composer known for his signature synthesizer-heavy style. Described by AllMusic as a ‘spectacular piece of haunting synthesizer music’, this soundtrack is still an iconic score in the field of synthesizer composition.
10. The Oberheim on stage: Simple Minds
Simple Minds, ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ (1985)
In their earliest days, Simple Minds experimented with different music genres. The album New Gold Dream (1980) is full of synth-heavy arrangements, and the Oberheim was still in use in 1985, when the band achieved its greatest level of success with ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, from the soundtrack of the film The Breakfast Club.
At that time, new digital synthesizers had already begun to replace analogue synths. But the sound of the Oberheim could not be entirely replaced, as keyboardist Mick McNeil reveals in a recent interview: “I was so used to the sound of the Oberheim. What I really loved was the fact that you just press the Hold button and you could play with your two hands again. My first keyboards had a pedal to keep the notes: here, with only one button I could just hold a big couple of basses and make a noise with that. I never did anything like that with the new wave of FM digital synths!”
Listening to this playlist, have you recognised the unique and peculiar sound of the Oberheim? In the video below, you can hear the synth by itself.
This is just part of the Oberheim story. Help us to write it! Do you know other stories about the synthesizer, or tracks where it played a role? Tell us in the comments!
Further reading and listening
- Oberheim OB-Xa YouTube playlist
- Tom Oberheim on the DMX, polyphonic synthesis and the Oberheim sound (video)
- Mark Jenkins, Analog Synthesizers: Understanding, Performing, Buying (2nd edition) (2019)
- Bob Moog, ‘Oberheim SEM Module: Building Block of an Early Polyphonic Synth’ in Mark Vail (ed.), Vintage Synthesizers (2000), p167–172
Thanks to Annie Jamieson, Paul Harkins and Rob Puricelli for the expert guidance in the development of this article.