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March 09, 2015 05:09 PM

Industry Close-up: Korg Revives ARP Odyssey

150228_ARP5302Korg’s ARP Odyssey analog synthesizer made a sensational debut at the last NAMM Show in January. (photo: Presenting the new Odysseys at the 2015 NAMM Show.
from l. to r.: Tadahiko Sakamaki, David Friend and Tatsuya Takahashi, holding Rev3. Rev1 and Rev2.) The original manufacturer has gone long ago, but there are growing demands for analog synthesizer in the global market. Why did Korg recreate ARP Odyssey 40 years after its first launch?

Founded in 1969 by Alan Robert Pearlman, ARP Instruments contributed to the music scene as a pioneer of analog synthesizer with a series of masterpieces in the cradle of synthesizer. The company liquidated in 1981, however Odyssey, the flagship instrument of ARP, won wide reputation together with Minimoog among musicians.


When Korg announced the plan to build a modern version of Odyssey in February, 2014, in collaboration with David Friend, co-founder and former ARP CEO, synthesizer enthusiasts throughout the world greeted the news with great sensation and expectation.


Korg has launched some new products and recreated models in pursuit of analog synth technology recent years. In 2010, it introduced monotron, a dedicated palm-top analog synthesizer. It was followed by some variation models, Volca Series instruments, MS-20 mini, a complete recreation of the legendary MS-20, in 2013, MK-20 Kit a year later, and MS-20M Kit + SQ-1, a package of MS-20M Kit and SQ-1 step sequencer this year.


Tadahiko Sakamaki, manager of Product Planning, has played a key role in development of analog technology at Korg. He says, “I was thrilled by sensational sound of MS-20 as a college student. We started from the point how we could provide our customer with true analog sound. The problem of analog technology today is that it costs us enormous. So, we decided to rebuild MS-20. It was a good timing that Tatsuya Takahashi, Engineering Division, joined us.”


Takahashi is an analog mania to the core. The London-based mechanical freak visited Korg for a job interview with a self-built analog synthesizer. He was immediately assigned to the development team of monotron.


Sakamaki looks back how his team came up to an idea to recreate Odyssey. “It was when we just completed the new MS-20. Korg customers requested us 2nd and 3rd recreation models of our hit machines. However, we opted to go back to our original concept that was to experience inexperienced. Then ARP came into our mind. Overheim, Moog and Prophet synthesizers still exist today though each manufacturer now operates under different corporate structure. ARP no longer exists. Everyone remembers ARP synthesizers and their sound. It was a natural course for us to recreate Odyssey.”


Visit Friend and Show a Prototype

Sakamaki contacted David Friend in Boston later in 2013 to ask his endorsement and support for the project. He brought a prototype with him because he thought it would be easier to convince Friend what Korg was doing. Already Korg examined the possibility of the project building a circuit board. Happily, Friend was interested in the concept of new Odyssey to be rebuilt by Korg. David Friend now serves as CEO at Carbonate Inc., which is known as a leading manufacturer of backup tools for PC.


Initial Odyssey was known for its extremely stable pitch on stage. Friend was particularly concerned about oscillators and their resistance for thermal change. Sakamaki says, “We showed him that the new synth worked well in equivalent level to the original instrument even not using old parts of the time, and he confirmed it himself.”


Korg engineers asked musicians owning the original Odyssey to inspect the recreated model. They demonstrated controlling filters while playing the keyboard as such play feel was not reflected on the specifications of the new instrument simply done by math works on desk.


Sakamaki explains, “The oscillators differ from models to models. They reflect original historical background. During the decade when Odyssey was manufactured, not only chassis but also internal structure changed. Which model does well reflect characteristics of original instrument? It’s quite complicated. So, we decided to include every conceivable element of the old instruments into the new one. The filters come in 3 types to represent individual generation models. How portamento works when in key transpose mode is another point we meticulously studied.


Total Commitment to Music Scene

New Odyssey is designed with print circuits and the production process exclusive to analog synthesizer, which Korg acquired through development of new MS-20.


Takahashi explains, “MS-20 uses a host of pre-set registers inside not visible on the surface. They must be adjusted one by one on the production line. That means extra works on manufacturing. But, Korg has an advantage as we had established matched production system at our factory in China. During the development, we often thought all the works could be easier and simpler if they were built with digital parts. Of course we know it’s not the point. The concept was to do in totally analog style.”


Despite a host of unexpected difficulties to get necessary analog parts, Odyssey comes with same audio circuitry as the original one including signal and VCO circuits, and filtering ICs all in exactly the same old type. It has a new drive switch for edgy sound created by distorting VCA, headphone out, MIDI In and USB ports. Field appreciated those modern functions helpful for players of this day.


The new Odyssey is available in 3 types: Rev3 with a black-orange front panel, a regular model to be distributed end of March, Rev1 with a white front panel in limited edition, and Rev2 with a black-gold front panel to be distributed in May.


Sakamaki said, “The last model of original Odyssey came with a black-orange front panel. That’s why Korg calls Rev3 as the regular model. Interestingly, customers of other models complain that they are not selected as the regular model. The fact is individual models have their original characteristics.”


They are designed in 86% size of the original body, sliders, switches, pressure sensors for the pitch bend, and thickness of wood, using the same keyboard as MS-20. The same U.S.-made material of the original is employed for the sides and bottom of the chassis to make them a perfect recreation.


Sakamaki concluded that Korg engineering team felt quite happy when Friend told them seeing the finished models, “ It’s like I got back to the old days on a time machine. I was very much excited that even the finish is exactly the same as the original.


“The new Odyssey drew massive attention of the visitors at the last NAMM Show. We have spent substantial time in developing analog synthesizers with modern technology since last couple of years in belief of our efforts would take us to another stage of product design and manufacturing. Looking back the industry history, music ultimately changed as an innovative synthesizer was put into the market. We are extremely happy if we can contribute to the music scene and musicians explore their music inspired by the new Odyssey synthesizers.”

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