Last week I purchased a Korg ARP Odyssey Module. When I was young I owned all three renditions of the Odyssey. It was probably my favorite synthesizer, among all the models I’ve owned. Hence, I’ve been keeping a jealous eye on Korg’s reissue over the last couple of years, and, because I presently need a third instrument, decided to finally give one a try.
I have to commend Korg for the instrument. It is of impressive quality. The metal body is solid as a rock, rather heavy, the sliders have a bit of wobble but are still stable and precise, the switches are firm, and the general appearance is pleasing to the eyes. An additional nice touch was to include in the package, together with Korg’s own new manual, ARP’s original diagram-rich owner’s manual, first published in 1976. I’ve been enjoying this little piece of history, and reading a bit from it each night. The old manuals are so much more interesting than the modern ones, and, coming from the days when synthesis was still new and fresh, comprise a miniature course in additive synthesis. And I must admit to feeling a touch of pleasant nostalgia with the turning of each page.
The tonal character of the instrument is clean, consistent, and leaning towards the thin side. Although it has plenty of fullness in the lower registers and would make an excellent bass synthesizer, it is not boomy; the lower notes still sound clean and fit for fast playing.
It was an excellent idea to include the three different filters of the original revisions. They’re each quite different in character. The first revision is most distinct from the other two in that, when the resonance is turned up high, the voice does not lose its bottom end, but remains full as when no resonance is used. And the filter in general is lovely. I would say it’s the aspect I most like about the instrument. A brass patch has a wonderful crispness to its quick envelope sweep of the cut off frequency – possibly the best I’ve ever heard. Even turning up the filter 1’s cut off frequency all the way sounds magnificently brisk and bright, in a Curtiss sort of way.
The character of the oscillators is also pleasing, and they’re reliably stable after only a few minutes of warming up. You’re given only sawtooth and pulse width, although you can design a playable sine wave from the self-oscillating filter. The square wave sounds pure and satisfying.
The Odyssey offers a very different designing and playing experience from a DSI/Sequential instrument, almost the opposite. Since the instrument has no program memory, the synthesist is left in an almost helpless state. But the challenge can be met with creativity and planning. For example, the oscillator waveforms are set by switches that can be changed in a split second. You can go from PWM to sawtooth almost as quickly as you could hit a program button. The same is true for the three filters, which could be the difference between having a patch that used a lot of resonance and then one that seemingly used none. And the ease of using the very visual panel means that, with one hand, you could go from a mellow flute patch to a caustic filter sample and hold effect in only seconds. In many cases, it’s just so easy to move from one sound to another, as long as you plan your sounds carefully with the changes in mind. Of course, that can be limiting, too, so this sort of panel is not for everyone.
Pulse width modulation is an important patch for me; I use it constantly and in various ways – sometimes at a slow rate and moderate depth for bass sounds, sometimes at a moderate rate and extreme depth for solo patches. But I nearly always use it with a vibrato. So, the Odyssey’s single LFO is definitely an issue. One solution is to use the first oscillator put in sub audio range as a source of modulation, but this allows only for radical types of effects, and not a sweet and gentle vibrato. The best solution is the old remedy of assigning the ADSR generator to control the pulse width. With a very slow attack, decay, and release, and no sustain, you can create an excellent substitute for a few seconds, until the envelope reaches the bottom of its sustain. But for steady playing, it suffices.
That’s a short list of the positives, and there are many more. There are, of course, negatives: that single LFO is definitely a drawback, as well as the only two-stage (AR) VCA envelope, the lack of a master tuning control, an octave switch that moves the keyboard up or down by two octaves rather than one, and the lack of programmability. And as is always the case when I play on old school analog synthesizer, I also find the tuning to be a problem; even the oscillator fine tuning is too coarse. I find myself adjusting the beating rates by lightly tapping the slider with the top of my finger nail. And even that moves the pitch too much. But worst of all, when using both oscillators and playing in a legato style, there is an annoying “click” with each note strike, due to the two-note paraphony. I’ve noticed this on all Odyssey videos of both the original and reissue instruments, and it’s very bothersome. I’ve listened carefully to this effect when playing the Odyssey with the other synthesizers, and it remains noticeable. It doesn’t disappear into a mix. You can eliminate it with a detached type of playing, but that often doesn’t suit the music; nor is it possible with long release times. Plus, it’s difficult not to accidentally trigger the second note as you smoothly play. Korg should have corrected this flaw and offered a switch that would select either mono or duo triggering.
As to the future of the Odyssey in my set up, I’m undecided. I go back and forth about it. If I kept it, I would add a second Odyssey Module and possibly control the two with a five-octave MIDI keyboard, such as the Extra Deluxe MFG The Sixty-One with Module 01.
These are exciting possibilities, but one problem remains: in closely comparing the Odyssey’s general sound with that of the Prophet ’08, I’ve found that the two are very similar…very. I’ve played the same patches on each instrument side-by-side – the ones I use most frequently – and I can’t say that I clearly prefer the Odyssey’s renditions. I like both equally. And the fact that – off the top of my head – a P’08/Rev2 can do anything an Odyssey can do and so much more, means that the Odyssey is a hard sell for now.
I really do like the Odyssey. Having a non-programmable instrument, as much as it’s problematic, is also exciting in a backwards kind of way. It makes you behave differently and do things you wouldn’t normally do on a modern synthesizer that has all the features. And it’s a pleasure to be able to glance across a control panel – whether the instrument is on or off – and know precisely what sound is sitting there looking up at you. This is one of the advantages of sliders over knobs – the better visual assistance.
The Odyssey provides a refreshing type of immediacy and simplicity, in the midst of a madly complex field.