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Sonic LAB: Oberheim OB-X8 Analogue Poly Review
The legacy returns 30/09/22
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The fact that we have a new Oberheim Poly synth is somewhat heartwarming, Tom Oberheim - now in his eighties, lost the name when his company ran into difficulties, and now through the work of ex-employee Marcus Ryle and the team at Sequential, (including from the late Dave Smith) we have a loving recreation of the classic era Oberheim 8 voice poly synth. They wanted to create something that was true to the originals (OB-X/a, OB-8, OB-SX)
These things were never cheap and the OB-X8 certainly couldn't be classed as such, but the used prices of the originals often far exceed that and you also have to factor in the maintenance costs. So maybe $5k isn't all that unreasonable.
What we get is a lovely big fat analogue 8 voice poly with many of the original features and character of those originals. The filter types from the OB-X, OB-8 and OB-Xa are all included as well as the SEM Hi-pass, band-pass and notch. These use CEM 3320 chips with the extra electronics to configure them included under the hood.
But essentially what we are looking at is a modern recreation, rather than a 21st Century modern poly.
There are some additional functions - more memories, (5x16x8 singles and 16x8 doubles and 16x8 split) MIDI and USB/MIDI as well as some additional Page 2 functions.
First up, this thing is built. Nice and solid, no flex, hardwood end-cheeks, solid pots and really nice solid tab style buttons. The display is a little on the small side, but certainly clear.
It has a stereo output (would like to have seen a pair for each side of a dual patch) and unusually, a mono output as well, Though listening to this in mono is a bit of a travesty. These OB polys were amongst the first to introduce the idea of sending voices out in stereo - you get a selection of modes (Spread, 4L/4R, pingpong and others) It's part of the OB signature sound.
Oscillators sound good and large: plenty of fundamental and buzz - Triangle, Saw, Square, and Saw/SQ combined, the tuning and tracking was also spot on - one of the benefits of modern engineering, though you can dial in the wonk with the dedicated Vintage knob. There are also a number of Page 2 features such as OSC 2 X-MOD Triangle to OSC1 amount - in addition to the fixed X-mod (Saw to Osc 1), Square wave levels can be set to OB-X/B or OB-8.
Filters are typically sweet and smooth not really the massive resonant peaks and drive of modern synths here, but a more finessed musical 2-pole sound, though you can dial in the OB-Xa 4-pole you dont get much resonance as it's essentially a reconfigured CEM3320 . I would like to have seen the additional SEM modes accessible from the front panel as well as that blend/morph control we get on the SEM filter, but I was told "it wasnt like that on the originals" - I guess so and it becomes apparent that this is the main purpose of the OB-X8.
The LFO is interesting, actually not one per voice but one for each voice group (1-4 and 5-8) so you can get a little cascading effect but not like the OB-6 for instance. Goes from 15s to 50Hz with quite a lot of additional Page 2 features to give it some extra finesse. The two mod busses are set by fixed switch with amount knob, so quite simple, I guess I would like to have seen some more Page 2 modulation routings, but this would have messed with the original synth functionality and aesthetic - OK I get it!
Envelopes are ADSR type, a filter envelope that can also be used for pitch and the VCA envelope. As I understand it, the VCA is analogue whereas the control is digital, and you can dial in OB-X or OB-8 envelope curves which are subtly different. Again - they could have added a loop function to this maybe just for kicks.
Control and Arp - the performance section features the old school OB levers which both work in the positive towards you though you can invert the pitch bend to be the opposite in the global settings. An additional LFO and switchable routing for the levers to one or both Oscillators means you have quite a lot of scope.
The Arpeggiator is fairly simple, either random, up, down or up/down with octave range and a hold function that lets you play over the running arpeggio clockable to MIDI of course.
So this is really case of do you want the original Oberheim sound and aesthetic? If the answer to that is yes - you may be sick of sending your old girls to the repair shop every couple of months - these things are getting old now, then this could be a good option for you. If you are in the market for an original, then you should definitely consider this. It just makes total sense. For a first polysynth, maybe not, you can get a lot more features for your money, but they won't sound like this. Of course there's the OB-6 which is a good solid alternative if you want the Oberheim sound.
It does feel like somewhat of a luxury, but thats OK, it's got a lovely story, legacy and it sounds great. If you have the cash - treat yourself.