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Interview with Marcus Ryle: Oberheim OB-X8 + More

Oberheim Collaborator Talks Brand History + Reformation

Ryan Gaston · 05/17/23

Everyone loves a good comeback story; and if I may be frank, Tom Oberheim's story recently had one hell of a comeback. Regaining the right to use his company name and logo after decades without it, Oberheim came back into the synthesizer production scene in full force last year with the introduction of the brand-new OB-X8. For many, this felt like the rightful return of a voice that has long been missing in the synthesizer sphere. Dave Smith, Roger Linn, and many other electronic instrument pioneers had already long been at the helm of their own companies, and it simply felt right to have Tom Oberheim's work brought back into the spotlight.

Of course, Tom Oberheim didn't do it all alone; help from benevolent friends and other creators in the synthesizer space helped pave the way for the re-formation of Oberheim as a company. Of course, Oberheim has just today made a big announcement: the OB-X8 is now available as a desktop module maintaining all of the features of the full-size keyboard version. In light of this good news, we sat down to talk with Marcus Ryle—someone whose name is deeply intertwined with the story of Oberheim's past successes, as well as the company's recent reformation.

In fact, Marcus Ryle has had his hand in a number of different projects which many of you no doubt know and love: classic machines from Oberheim, Alesis, Digidesign, and more. In the following interview, you'll hear about Marcus's history in the music industry, tales from the early days of Oberheim, the details about Oberheim's reformation, and of course—the story of how the OB-X8 came to be. If you're interested in industry insights into the history of synthesizers, you're in for a treat.

Marcus Ryle: Background and Introduction to Oberheim

Perfect Circuit: Hey Marcus! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. First of all, we're super excited at all of the buzz since Oberheim's re-entry to the synth scene last year; it seems like it's been a very warm reception. We'll talk about the OB-X8 in a minute, but first, I'd love if you could tell us a little bit about your own background. How did you first get interested in/involved in electronic music?

Marcus Ryle: I had an interest in music and technology from a very young age, and was fortunate enough to have parents that encouraged both. I started classical piano studies at age seven, and began tinkering with electronics soon after. My father brought home a record called Moog: The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman when I was nine, and hearing the sound of synthesizers for the first time triggered my lifelong passion. By 1974 at the age of 13 I’d saved up enough money to buy a used ARP Odyssey, and started playing in bands as well as digging further into the technology by taking gear apart.

PC: Of course, we know you got a start in your formal "music industry" career via Tom Oberheim. How did you originally meet Tom? Did you have any prior experience with Oberheim instruments at that time? How did you come to work for Oberheim?

MR: By early 1980 I was 18 years old and was playing in several bands. My rig then included a cut-down Hammond B3, a Hohner Clavinet D6, an Orchestron, a Fender Rhodes, and an ARP 2600. Most of these were purchased used and with problems I was able to fix, so I was able to build this rig pretty affordably. I was familiar with and longed to have a Prophet or Oberheim, but they just seemed out of reach for me financially. During this time, I was also spending my days (and many evenings) in the recording studio and synth lab at Cal State University Dominguez Hills. I was making use of all of their gear, and I was supplementing my income by teaching some classes there, since by then I’d had several years of synthesis and recording experience and they were understaffed. The school had managed to purchase the only Synclavier west of the Mississippi (I’m told only about 12 of these first-generation units were made). I convinced New England Digital to send me the XPL source code for the synthesizer so I could teach a class in programming ways to make the hardware do new things.

[Above: Cal State Dominguez Hills synthesizer lab, c. 1979. Marcus Ryle (left), Professor Richard Bunger Evans (right). Image courtesy of Marcus Ryle.]

Up to that point I’d only imagined having a career making music, or possibly recording engineering. But Tom Oberheim had caught wind of there being a Synclavier at the school and was curious to see it. He came down and did a guest lecture for one of our classes (and brought an OB-X with him!). Like most there, we were thrilled to be able to meet a synthesizer pioneer in person. Afterwards he asked me to show him the Synclavier. I gave him a run through and didn’t think much more about it. Next thing I know, Tom is contacting me to offer me a job. At the time, the summer of 1980 and now age 19, I wasn’t really sure I wanted a “real” job, but when Tom said I could also have an OB-X on permanent loan, I jumped at the chance and became an engineer at Oberheim.

PC: What projects were you involved in during your time at Oberheim in the early/mid-1980s? Do any stand out in your memory as being particularly special, or exciting?

MR: The first product I helped with was the OB-Xa, which was already well into development when I joined. Tom Oberheim and Jim Cooper were the primary engineers, and I did my best to learn as much as I could from them. A few months later Tom gave me the challenge to lead the definition and design of a polyphonic sequencer (later called the DSX). Although archaic by today’s standards, it was everything I had dreamt of having in a sequencer at the time, and I am still fond of it since it was my first “baby”. Of course, every product I got to work on from that era (1980-1985) was pretty exciting—the complete Oberheim system (DSX, plus OB-Xa or OB-8 synthesizer, and DMX drum machine) predated MIDI by two years and was the first time you had multitrack sequencing and digital drums all syncable for recording and playing in real time. And then the Xpander (1984) and Matrix-12 (1985) were exciting as well, since these really allowed us to push the state of the art of analog synthesis.

[Above: Tom Oberheim & co. at NAMM Chicago, June 1981, introducing the DSX and DMX. Pictured left to right: Gordon Rudd, Lisa Lagattolla, Geoff Farr, Marcus Ryle, Tom Oberheim, Russ Jones, and Woody Moran. Image courtesy of Marcus Ryle.]

PC: After leaving Oberheim, you started your own company, Fast Forward Designs—a firm which assisted other companies in the development of new audio products. What sort of companies did you work with/what sort of projects did you work on? How did that work affect your trajectory or set the stage for the next steps in your career?

MR: In April of 1985 there were some signs that the Oberheim business may be having some financial difficulty. In addition to working at Oberheim, I was playing in a band with my wife Susan Wolf (who is a singer, songwriter, and keyboard player), and I was doing a lot of synthesizer session work in LA. Susan was also working in finance, so with our other sources of income we decided it was time to venture into a new chapter. I left Oberheim, and shortly thereafter so did fellow engineer Michel Doidic, and the three of us started Fast Forward Designs in May of 1985. Our simple goal was to be able to continue designing interesting music and audio technology products, but without the burdens associated with manufacturing, marketing, and selling them. Right at our launch our first client was Dynacord from Germany. They asked us if we could design a new digital drum set, and of course we said yes! Nine months later, at the Frankfurt Musikmesse of 1986, we launched the Dynacord ADD-one.

We designed several other products for Dynacord in subsequent years, while also doing work for other brands. In late 1986 we began designing products for Alesis, starting with the HR-16 drum machine and MMT-8 sequencer. Over the following decade we designed 40 products with Alesis, including the Quadraverb series of effects, the Quadrasynth (QS) series of keyboards, and all of the ADAT digital tape recorder products. Other companies we developed for included Digidesign (Avid), Fostex, Steinberg, Panasonic, and Studer. It was a great opportunity for us to learn about a lot of technology, meet lots of musicians, and learn about the values and structures of several different companies.

In 1996 we felt compelled to start our own brand, Line 6. We felt there was a real need to bring technology to guitarists so that a wide palette of sounds could be instantly available, just as they had already been for keyboard players. As a keyboard player, I hadn’t imagined that the next two decades would be focused almost exclusively on guitar products, but things grew very quickly and we had so many innovations we wanted to develop, so there ended up being time for little else. I’m quite proud of what we achieved, and proud that Yamaha was impressed enough to want to acquire us. We joined the Yamaha family in 2014, and both Susan and I continued leading the organization until we decided to begin a new chapter in 2019.

Oberheim's Reformation

PC: So, as many know, Oberheim as a company declared bankruptcy in 1985, and subsequently, the brand was purchased by Gibson—at which point, Tom Oberheim was no longer involved in the company at all; and eventually, Gibson more or less ceased to produce Oberheim products altogether. What can you tell us about Tom's gradual return to analog synthesis and the reformation of Oberheim, the company?

MR: Tom did a number of things, both inside and outside of the music industry, after losing the rights to his name in 1985. But in 2009 he decided to reenter the synthesizer world with a new generation of his SEM. It was very well received, with several different models released, and then in 2016 he partnered with Dave Smith and Sequential to bring out the very successful OB-6. But throughout all of this he couldn’t directly use the Oberheim brand and logo. Instead, he used his “Tom Oberheim” signature as his brand.

For me and many others, it seemed a shame that Tom couldn’t use the name and logo that he had originated and that were so revered by musicians. Initially without him knowing it I started exploring if there could be any way to get him his trademarks back. Gibson had purchased the trademarks in the late ‘80s, but had not been using them for some time. I approached Gibson a few times over 10 years ago to try to get them back for Tom, but they were not interested at the time. But in January of 2019 I met with the then-new CEO of Gibson, JC Curleigh, and tried once again. I was thrilled that after he heard Tom’s saga he enthusiastically agreed to return the Oberheim trademarks to Tom.

By the summer of 2019 we had worked out the details and made an announcement. However, our saga didn’t end there—due to Gibson’s inactivity with the Oberheim brand, the trademarks had been ruled abandoned in some countries, and Behringer had decided to register their ownership of the Oberheim marks. Gibson was able to give Tom back his trademarks in the USA and a few other countries, but in several others he still would not be able to use his name. But after a series of events and several discussions with Behringer, all of Tom’s worldwide trademarks were returned to him in August of 2021. And now I can’t help but smile every time I see that iconic Oberheim logo.

The Oberheim OB-X8 In Detail

PC: Of course, the OB-X8 is one of the best-received new electronic instruments in ages. Partly that's because we were all so happy to see Tom back in control of his name—but partly, it's because it's just an incredible instrument, and a bold re-entry to the world of synth-making. What can you tell us about the genesis of the OB-X8? Where did the idea come from, and why was the "OB" concept the right idea to revisit as the first new Oberheim product?

MR: I think we were very lucky to have a convergence of several things that led to the OB-X8 being created. First off, Dave Smith and the team at Sequential brought out the new Prophet-5, which was so well done and so successful that it led to discussions between Dave and Tom about revisiting the OB-X. These discussions started even before Tom regained his trademarks. At the same time, Susan and I were already working with Dave, helping to form the relationship between Sequential and Focusrite. So given our relationship with Dave, and my past with Tom, I was quite happy and excited to join with the team in envisioning what a new Oberheim could be. Before too long we committed to the ambitious task of not only bringing back the OB-X, but combining it with all of the capabilities of the OB-Xa and OB-8 as well. These three flavors of the OB series have contributed sounds to so many legendary songs over the years and have become highly sought-after collector’s items. So the team tenaciously sweated out every detail to make sure we captured all of their sonic magic.

[Above: Michel Doidic (left) and Marcus Ryle (right) discussing the OB-X8 design, March 2022; Michel Doidic (left) and Marcus Ryle (right) clowning around at Oberheim, January 1984. Images courtesy of Marcus Ryle.]

PC: What was your role in the development of the OB-X8? What challenges did you encounter during its development?

MR: I suppose my main role was to help define for Dave and the Sequential team what the unique elements were that make an Oberheim an Oberheim. The Sequential team are the very best synthesizer designers out there, and are of course experts at what makes a Prophet a Prophet, but my experience during the ‘80s had been almost exclusively Oberheim. Although the OB-Xa and OB-8 used the same Curtis oscillator, filter, and envelope chips that were in the Prophet-5 rev 3, these synths sound quite different. I own all of the original OB synthesizers, and have all of the technical documentation and even the original microprocessor source code, so I was able to help quantify what hardware and software elements were critical to the Oberheim sound. And since Michel Doidic was also a key architect of the original synths, I was very grateful to get his input on some of the technical elements as well. In the end, to verify all of our work, I loaded the original ‘80s factory data cassettes into the original OB-X, OB-Xa, and OB-8 units, and into the new OB-X8, and once we confirmed they were all identical we were ready to release it to the world.

PC: What are some of your favorite OB-X8 tricks that you can't do on a classic OB synth? How do you find you use the OB-X8 differently from the original instruments?

MR: There are many! First, I love that you can easily mix and match the features from each of the original OB synths. For example, you could have the LFO from the OB-8, with the envelopes from the OB-Xa, while using the state-variable filter from the OB-X. Then there’s the addition of the extra highpass, bandpass, and notch filter modes from the original SEM, which weren’t in any of the OB-series. And of course, we’d wished we could have had a keyboard with velocity and aftertouch back in the ‘80s, so that’s a great addition in the OB-X8.

PC: Did the design team encounter any unique challenges in developing the new desktop version of the OB-X8? That's a heck of a lot of synth to pack into such a small package.

MR: Making it as compact as possible was certainly the biggest challenge! The design team did a fantastic job of keeping all of the OB-X8’s functionality (except the keyboard and bend box, of course) in a really sleek and compact package. The desktop and the keyboard version are sonically identical in every way, so now musicians have a choice of getting the Oberheim sound with or without a keyboard.

PC: How does it feel to see the public response to the OB-X8? How does it feel to see Oberheim back on course, putting instruments in musicians' hands?

MR: For me personally, the OB-X8 is almost surreal. I would never have imagined that I could have the chance to reintroduce these classic synths so many decades after we first released them. Our goal back then is exactly as it is right now, which is to simply make the very best sounding synthesizers we can. It has been so very gratifying to hear from so many musicians that they are as inspired by these instruments as we are.