Alan Pearlman was destined to be an engineer since the day he was born. His father designed movie theater projectors and his grandfather made parts for phonograph machines. A fascination with sound occupied his interest from an early age. As a child he built amateur radios and in 1948, as a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he wrote a paper on electronic music in which he said: “The electronic instrument’s value is chiefly as a novelty. With greater attention on the part of the engineer to the needs of the musician, the day may not be too remote when the electronic instrument may take its place as a versatile, powerful, and expressive instrument.” Quite a foresight that early on, 20 years before commercial electronic instruments hit the market. In 1969, after spending the first part of his career developing amplifiers for purposes unrelated to the music industry, he heard Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, the influential album that overdubbed multiple tracks played on a Moog synthesizer. He decided to design his own electronic instrument and started a new company. He christened it Tonus and later changed it to ARP, his childhood nickname (after Alan R. Pearlman). This is the story of the instruments his company created during the 1970s and the wonderful range of music realized with them in the hands of skillful musicians.
The first ARP instrument is interestingly a rare one due its lack of commercial success, yet the only model that got a visual exposure at a major Hollywood movie. Pearlman knew its competition well, and scrutinized the Moog synthesizer, the uncontested manufacturer of synths up to that point. While the Moog was highly regarded for its excellent quality of sound, it had two main deficiencies in its early models. A synth uses various modules that generate, modify and impact a sound in various methods, thus changing the characteristics of the sound. You can control various aspects of these modules, each modifying the sound in unique ways. This is what knobs and sliders usually do on a synth panel. Back in the day these modules were each a chunk of electric circuitry, with a signal in and signal out connectors. You could determine how the modules will feed each other by connecting them with patch cords. With large panel and lots of inputs and outputs, this essentially rendered you a switchboard operator when you were experimenting with new sounds.
Pearlman realized this user interface problem and came up with a set of sliding matrix switches for each module. It was still an intimidating interface as you can see in the picture below, but the first synthesizer that came out of his factory, the ARP 2500, did not require patch cables and was easier to use.
An even more important feature of the ARP 2500 was simply its ability to stay in tune. A critical module in a synthesizer is an oscillator, the circuit that produces a signal such as a sine wave or a square wave. It is essentially the sound tone generator that other modules in the synth shape and transform to create interesting sounds. The Moog was notorious for its inability to keep these oscillators consistent when temperatures changed. Pearlman found a simple engineering solution: “Bob Moog came up with a generator for logarithmic function and exponential function in different locations. They were not at the same temperature and would drift apart and get out of tune with each other. I saw papers by other engineers which showed means of stabilizing these functions by building constant temperature devices. It was much easier to simply put them at the same chip.” Sometimes it takes a fresh eye to look at a complex problem and find the simplest solution for it.
In the early days pf ARP Instruments the company was selling its product mainly to universities and sound labs. The instrument was not thought of as a musical instrument per se, but rather an experimental device in the context of education. However, musicians with an ear for new sound possibilities caught on and started using it. One of the first to get himself an ARP 2500 was Pete Townshend, who was already experimenting with electronic instruments while making demos for the now classic album Who’s Next. The opening sequences to Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Riley precede his use of the ARP and are fine examples of Townshend’s ability to realize musical ideas by tinkering with organs and synth modules like EMS VCS3. When the ARP 2500 entered the picture he used it on songs such as Going Mobile (feeding the guitar into one of the modules) and Bargain (The synth melody line in between the verse and chorus). He kept using the ARP 2500 on Quadrophoenia and the soundtrack recording for the film Tommy in 1975. Townshend would become an avid endorser of ARP synths and use them as instruments and effect processors on various albums by the Who and his own solo projects. Famously the ARP 2600, discussed shortly, was on the hit Who Are You to create the pulsating overdrive guitar sequence that starts the track.
In 1973 the ARP 2500 got plenty of airplay with another classic rock album, this time Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The 11-minute dramatic opening track Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding starts with over a minute of multiple tracks played on the synth. David Hentschel, who was the sound engineer on the album, takes the credit on that one: “The working title for the album was Silent Movies and Talking Pictures. Gus’ [Dudgeon, producer of the album] original idea was to use the 20th Century Fox music overture as the introduction to the album. But he couldn’t get clearance to use the music, so Gus said to me, ‘Why don’t you write an arrangement, and we’ll segue it into the song’.” Hentschel, who had used the ARP on earlier songs by Elton John, most notably Rocket Man, had a unique way of handling the multiple parts on Funeral for a Friend: “The way I used to work was to write charts out and then play monophonic parts on the ARP so I could play with one hand and adjust the gain and so on at the same time, to give it more dynamics. Playing polyphonically on analogue synths can give rather flat results. You don’t get any sense of movement. But if you write the parts out and then play them monophonically, then you get a lot more control.”
Unknown to most, the ARP 2500 sound got its widest exposure when it appeared on the set of the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s science fiction hit. The film’s key moment, when the UFOs are about to arrive at the landing site, features not only the ARP 2500, but also its operator, none other than ARP Instruments’ VP of engineering Phil Dodds. It is ironic that a synth so capable of sonic possibilities reached fame with the simplest sequence of five notes, but that’s Hollywood.
ARP 2500’s successor was a major improvement in a couple of areas. Pearlman and the folks at ARP Instruments realized that there is a happy medium between flexibility and practicality. The ARP 2600 was a smaller unit that came with pre-wired modules, resulting with fewer sonic possibilities but easier access to playable sounds. You could still use Patch cords if you wanted to experiment, but they were optional. This made the instrument more suitable for live performance, contributing to its popularity. Better yet, one other improvement made it world famous. Again, its about the little things. The keyboard in the ARP 2600 could be detached from the sound modules unit and connect to it with a cable. This was done in order to deal with tight live situations where there was no opportunity to put a bulky cabinet in front of the keyboard. But creative artists have a mind of their own, one being Edgar Winter: “Basically, there were Moogs and ARPs back then. And the Moog was a built-in unit with the keyboards being a part of the control unit itself. But the ARP 2600 had a separate keyboard, a remote keyboard that connected to the brain or the guts of the instrument with an umbilical-type cable. I looked at the keyboard and I said, ‘Wow, that looks pretty light. It looks like you could put a strap on that thing like a guitar.’” Winter took the term ‘portable’ well beyond the imagination of the instrument’s creators. Not portable as in travelling from one performance to the next, but portable on the stage. With the strap and a long cable to connect it to the mothership you have the earliest prototype of a Keytar. And what better tune to show off this new gizmo than the classic instrumental hit Frankenstein?
Decades later, it is peculiar to note how blind were the technologists at ARP to the potential their instruments had in the commercial music domain. From an article Bob Moog wrote about the ARP 2600 in Mark Vail’s book Vintage Synthesizers: “Pearlman believed that schools with small or medium-sized music departments were the main market for this new instrument. To further enhance the 2600’s educational value, Pearlman put graphics on the console’s front panel so that the signal patches were easy to follow, and used sliders and slide switches so that the control and switch settings were easy to see.”
But that potential was not lost on many amazing keyboard players in the early 1970s, who now had the freedom of using it live on stage. Jean Michel Jarre used it to a good effect on his trend-setting albums Oxygène and Equinoxe. He later said: “ARPs are like the Stradivarius or the Steinways of electronic music. They were invented by craftsmen who, today, we’d place on the same level as the luthiers that built violins, clavichords, pianos“. Stevie Wonder, who in the early 1970s experimented with many types of synths, labeled his 2600 control panel in Braille. Like his predecessor, the 2600 made history in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. Unlike the suspense that accompanied the arrival of aliens on Earth, this time the ARP was the sound manifestation of one cute, short, rotating assistant droid robot. Sound designer Ben Burtt remembers: “The script of Star Wars just said that R2-D2 made electronic sounds. It took me six months to figure that out. I was really nervous, because R2 had to talk and act with Alec Guinness of all things. It ended up being a problem solved by combining a keyboard ARP synthesizer and my voice making funny little R2-like noises and performing them together, spending endless hours editing little clips and stringing them together. It was probably the hardest sound effect I ever worked on.”
ARP Instruments found an enthusiastic audience within jazz-rock and fusion bands that were so popular in the 1970s. One keyboard player that loved the ARP 2600 was Australian-born Allan Zavod, who played with Jean-Luc Ponty during his peak commercial success. Ponty, a gifted violin player, had already played with many major artists of the genre, including Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa. After signing with Atlantic Records in 1975 he started releasing increasingly successful albums. Allan Zavod joined his band a year later and participated in his 1977 album Enigmatic Ocean that reached the top of the Billboard jazz chart. Like other jazz musicians who embraced synths around that time, he was able to showcase the sound of those instruments in virtuosic solos. A great example is his performance on the tune Mirage, a favorite in Jean-Luc Ponty’s repertoire. In the clip captured from a 1982 performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival, he plays the detached ARP 2600 keyboard on a solo that starts at 3:10.
Perhaps the most avid user of the ARP 2600 was Joe Zawinul, founder of Weather Report, one of the leading jazz-rock combos on the 1970s. Zawinul embraced technology in his music and used it to a great effect in the compositions he wrote for the band. His music was influenced by world and ethnic sounds and rhythms and he loved incorporating sound effects. He was constantly seeking new sound possibilities. In the early 1970s Moog and ARP were the leading vendors for synthesizers, so naturally Zawinul had experience with both. In a 1975 interview he voiced his preference: “I like the Arp because of what I can do with it. I hear the Moog, it’s immediately the Moog. With the Arp I can do things that will fool the heck out of you. I can hide between voices, I can do all kinds of things. To me it’s a much more natural sound. The variety of colors is greater, too.“ But Zawinul, an insatiable tinkerer in pursuit of new ways to use electronic instruments, found new methods to play them: “The ARP was great. I still play it today. It was the first keyboard that could be inverted, in other words, when your hands go up, you’re sounding down. It’s a mirror system where C remains C, D flat becomes B, D becomes B flat, and so on. When you play chords with this, you have to have a good brain. What’s good about it is that you get different ideas. Weather Report’s Black Market was played on an inverted keyboard. Check it out.” Indeed, the track Black Market is a marvelous showcase of the ARP 2600 in Zawinul’s able hands.
1972 was a great year for ARP Instruments. The company released two new products to the market, this time focusing on performance rather than education. The first was the ARP Pro Soloist, an improved version of the Soloist, an earlier innovative but unsuccessful venture into the world of presets. Patch cords and a ton of knobs and sliders appealed to musicians who were not deterred by technical complexity, but it was not every keyboard player’s cup of tea. Presets are pre-wired settings of the internal synth modules that generate sounds prepared at the factory. You hit a button and voilà, an organ, piano, clarinet or a cello lands at your feet. Very easy to use, but very little in the way of modifying the sound. The original market for the instrument was home keyboard players, but it did not find a niche there. That market would explode a few years later with much cheaper instruments, mostly Japanese. Serious musicians also rejected the Soloist due to its limited possibilities and other technical problems. But the brains at ARP Instruments did not give up and the Pro Soloist fixed the issues of its predecessor and almost doubled the number of sound presets. Its smaller, all-in-one form was designed so keyboard players could place it on top of their main instrument, usually an electric piano or organ. Combined with the attractiveness of its preset sounds, the Pro Soloist found a home with some of the best keyboard players’ rigs. A glimpse at the ad below shows a mouth-watering list of musicians and albums featuring the ARP Pro Soloist: Steve Walsh on Leftoverture by Kansas, John Tout with Renaissance Live at Carnegie Hall, Herbie Hancock, Billy Preston, Tom Coster of Santana.
A year after its release the Pro-Soloist got a huge exposure with an instrumental R&B hit that shot to number 1 on the Billboard charts and sold 1.4 million copies. Billy Preston, a top session keyboard player in the late 1960s with a celebrated musical relationship with the Beatles, became a mega star in the early 1970s with many hits, including the instrumental Outa-Space that popularized another keyboard, the clavinet. In 1973 he released a follow up single, appropriately named Space Race. The Pro Soloist is prominently featured on that track. When asked in 1977 what he thinks about modular synths, Preston replied: ”They’re very good, but I prefer pre-patched synthesizers, because they are easier and quicker to use onstage.” The Pro Soloist was a perfect option for pragmatic keyboard players. An ARP newsletter from 1974 reads: “In Space Race Billy Preston concentrates on two basic voices, the trumpet and the trumpet plus the ‘wow’ effect. The touch sensitive keyboard is used to add brilliance to the sound and gives Billy the finger control that he needs to create distinctive and expressive musical line.”
It is no coincidence that Progressive Rock musicians embraced synthesizers. The genre was pushing the envelope on many fronts, one of them the melding of a symphonic orchestra dynamic range within the context of a rock combo. The Pro Soloist was ideal for pragmatic musicians with a classical background. Anthony Phillips, original member of Genesis, used it on his solo album The Geese and the Ghost in 1977. The sounds he played on it not only appeared on the album, but also inspired its name, as his website explains: “This originates from two sounds on the ARP Pro-Soloist synthesizer, which Ant played on the album. There was one sound with repeat echo that reminded Ant and Mike Rutherford of a flight of geese and another one that had a ‘ghostly’ quality to it, hence The Geese & The Ghost.” But none has used the Pro Soloist as magnificently as Tony Banks, gifted keyboard player with Genesis. In a 1976 interview to Keyboard Magazine he said: “I have stuck with ARP Pro Soloist on stage for about three years. I feel for my own purposes I don’t need a more complex synthesizer. You can change tones so quickly on this one.” Cinema Show, one of the crown achievements in the band’s repertoire, was released in 1973 on the album Selling England by the Pound. It features a nearly 5-minute solo by Banks, full of twists and turns. Banks is using different voicings of the ARP Pro Soloist and its after-touch capability, allowing it to bend the notes when you apply more pressure on the keyboard. He can be seen playing the instrument in a 1976 footage, starting at 1:43.
The other instrument ARP released in 1972 is the one that outlived all others, the Odyssey. This was the company’s first compact, all-in-one modular synthesizer for performance. It was a direct rival to the Minimoog, Moog’s extremely popular (for a good reason) synth. The Odyssey was duophonic, the first instrument created by ARP to have the ability to play more than one note a time. This was a major improvement, as early synthesizers were monophonic, limiting players to one simultaneous note. A few years later the first polyphonic synths appeared, eliminating that limitation. David Friend, co-founder of ARP Instruments who designed the Odyssey, later said: “By the time we got to the Odyssey, we were thinking in terms of stage instruments. I actually sketched out the paper design for the controls and what would be where and where would the switches go. And then we had to make the electronics fit the human interface. I think in previous generations, you were thinking more about the circuitry than how usable it was. By that time, we were giving a lot of thought to where do you place this control and where do you place that control so that you could get to them pretty easily.” Indeed that user experience worked really well. Long after ARP Instruments ceased to exist, the Odyssey got a second life when Korg revived it in a new model that kept an almost identical layout as its ancestor.
One loyal customer of the ARP odyssey was George Duke, who got into synths during his time with Frank Zappa’s band in the mid-1970s. Zappa, ever on a quest to expand the variety of sounds he could realize with his bands, was the force behind the move that changed Duke’s career: “Frank Zappa is responsible for my introduction to synthesizers. He told me one day that I should play synthesizers. It was as simple as that! He bought an ARP 2600 and put it next to my Rhodes. It had all these knobs and looked totally intimidating. I took it home a few times with the manual, but got nowhere. I thought I was back in College studying some abstract foreign language. I finally settled on something simpler. It was an ARP Odyssey.”
Duke was a practical keyboard player, and the layout of the Odyssey was perfect for him. Even more important was the playability of the instrument: “With the ARP knob there are certain things I can do to make a guitar sound that I can’t accomplish on the Moog, because of the physical relationship my thumb has to the Moog pitch-bend wheel. With the ARP I can switch between two notes and get the pitch to go sharp and flat in a different way than I can on the Moog. It just sounds completely different. When I did the tune Dawn on The Aura Will Prevail album I used the Odyssey to play the melody because I could get a kind of vibrato physically on it that I couldn’t get on the Minimoog.” Dawn, the track that opens his 1975 solo album The Aura Will Prevail, is a fine example of his mastery of the instrument.
There is no shortage of footage showing different incarnations of Zappa’s bands performing live. One of them catches George Duke with the ARP Odyssey in a funny (what else?) exchange with the master. 3:15 into the clip demonstrates what Duke could do with that synth.
Perhaps the most recognizable riff that was played on an ARP Odyssey is one by another master. In 1973, after releasing a series of spacy experimental albums, Herbie Hancock was looking for something a little more commercial. The result was the album Head Hunters, an album that mixed fusion, funk and soul and also produced a big hit for Hancock with the track Chameleon. Over 15 minutes long on the album, it was aggressively shortened for air play, but the synth bass phrase that starts it off remains throughout the song. The Minimoog was famous for its fat and deep bass sounds, but the Odyssey was no slouch in that department either. The Odyssey got a fine exposure with Chameleon, as Hancock’s popularity soared with Head Hunters, the best-selling jazz album of all time at that point. In a mid-1970s clip you can see Hancock playing that bass line on the Odyssey, starting at 2:44. There is also a great solo on that synth at 10:53 into the performance, with Hancock milking all the sound possibilities from the synth – pushing, turning and sliding knobs left and right. Better than any lab demo ARP Instruments could hope for.
ARP instruments continued to create more instruments during the 1970s, some more successful than others. Bad management and even worse strategic product decisions crippled the company until it shut down in 1981. This was the sunset period of the analog synthesizer, with mass produced and cheap digital synths soon taking over. Alan Pearlman moved on and continued his career in high tech and software, at one point being involved with a software emulation of the ARP 2600. But the legacy of ARP Instruments, and the music played on those analog synthesizers during the 1970s, is timeless and recorded for posterity.
Resources used during the writing of this article:
Retro Synth Ads, a great resource for analog synths pictures
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