MATRIXSYNTH: New SEM from Tom Oberheim

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

New SEM from Tom Oberheim

via bleepology who has some notes on it.
Update: new pics via stretta below.
Update (5:40 PST): some additional notes via the AH list: via alt-mode:
"Tom is showing a new SEM with the same circuits plus an integrated MIDI/CV. Price < $1k. Available in a few months." via James Husted: "Looks like he has dropped the expensive mechanical knob movement that turned the pots into multi-turn and is using a smaller knob next to the main knob. That used to be where the scale trimmer was on the original. Saves money by not having those concentric knobs that you always lost the caps from. Also the BP filter switch is a separate switch and not one built into the LP-HP knob. a little saved there too. Hopefully all the internal connections will be available too (maybe on cheaper connections). And hopefully it will run on a more standard power supply like a +/-15v and not +/-18.5 like the old ones did. New manufacturing techniques like SMD etc may lower the cost by lowering the board count and interconnects too - lots of board to board molex connectors in the old ones." Update 5:45: image is from: Web:
I saw it on bleepology in my RSS feed before checking Twitter.

via: [note the URL just below the controls]
and "Stretta is here with a large lens for better pix later." Come on Stretta! :)

Update 8:24 via Dan on the AH list:
"Apart from the new SEM, what I found completely fascinating about Tom Oberheim's talk here in Boston was how oblivious he seemed to have been to the use of analog synths (including his own creations) in modern day music; he talked about how the Red Bull Music Academy series that he is participating in, in particular the one in Barcelona that occurred at the end of last year, was eye-opening and inspirational for him (and strengthened his plans to recreate the SEM BTW).

During the talk he played snippets of audio tracks that had featured Oberheim gear over the years, and so he played tracks by Pat Metheny, Weather Report, Stanley Clarke, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Van Halen, etc... But then he played a track that he was turned on to for the first time in Barcelona, by Underground Resistance ("Sonic Destroyer"), and he said he was bowled over by it, having never heard such a thing.

It was very refreshing to see how energized he was by this revelation, but at the same time it was a bit sad to see how in the dark he had been to the last 20 years or so of music. Likewise when asked about whether he knew how important the DMX was in the early days of rap music, how some artists even used 'DMX' in their stage names, he also said that at the time, he didn't ever really know it -- it was only later, after Gibson had taken over the company, that he started to hear about the importance of his creation..."

"He said that Gibson owns the rights to the old logo..."

Update 9:37PM: flickr shots via stretta are in. Click for more.

top shot is the old and new SEM

Update 9:04 6/4 via alt-mode on the AH list:
"First, I think we owe a big "Thank You" to the Red Bull Music Academy for hosting this event and also for their continuing series that gets musicians together with current leaders as well as earlier technical visionaries like Tom.

As far as the new SEM goes:

- You will notice that the faceplate is the same size as the original SEM. He intended to make it compatible with the old SEM.
- He hated the original concentric tuning knobs and couldn't get them anyway so he went to the coarse/fine knobs.
- He said it took 10 months just to find pots that would work and figure out replacements where he couldn't get them.
- There is a switch for the BP response because he couldn't get the same kind of switching pot he used in the past and also didn't like the reliability of the old ones.
- He tried doing the original design as thru-hole but it was just too expensive so he made it mostly surface mount but there were a few parts that made more sense as thru-hole.
- The connectors on the modules are not the same Molex as used in the past. He had to change the connectors but all of the signals are still there.
- The MIDI/CV tries to have many of the common routings that he thought would be useable. There will no doubt be debates as to whether they are correct.
- It did sound a feel like a real SEM. I tried to get some classic patches going on it but didn't really have much time.
- Patch points are certainly possible and he left the same top lip on the box that could be used for them. I don't know if he will offer that as an option or not.
- This is a labor of love. He isn't doing it for the money or to sell lots of them. It is likely that they will only be sold by one distributor that he is friends with. He doesn't want to have any employees so all of these will be assembled by Tom.
- Roger Linn can be credited as one of the people who bugged him enough to recreate the SEM. I think Tom has been toying this for awhile and the Barcelona event pushed him further.

I was amused by his stories and hearing that he gets together with Roger Linn, Don Buchla, and Dave Smith at some Berkeley coffee house regularly made me want to be a fly on the wall of those gatherings. ;)

Tom said he has ideas for more things and mentioned a design of an analog sequencer that he wants to put out. He would like to recreate the Oberhiem Two Voice since that was his absolute favorite synth from the Oberheim line.

He didn't sound like he was interested in getting his company name back. He felt that it had been tarnished by things like the OB-12 and the OBMX. He did miss the logo though...

Remember Tom is 72 and he is doing this because it is fun and occupies his time. I think it is fantastic that he tried to keep to the original design and bring back such a classic synth. He did give his email address out to some folks but I don't think it would be appropriate to broadcast it to the list."

Update 9:38AM 6/4 Tom Oberheim Day flickr set by danger.fellini
originally posted 8:21 EST. (click for more)

Tom Oberheim and the new SEM from stretta on Vimeo.

"This is an edited version of Tom's Red Bull Music Academy presentation in Boston of the new SEM on June 3, 2009.

Don't worry, after about a minute the focus settles down. I wanted to capture the two units next to each other. The light was horrible (backlit, with no direct light on Tom) so sorry about the overall quality.

Tom discusses the changes made to the new SEM and the reasons behind them, pricing, and demos a few sounds.


See the write-up on The Stretta Procedure


  1. Welcome back, Tom. We missed you.

  2. Wow, same great sound? Guess he won't have to dumb it down with an "e."

  3. Paging Alan R Pearlman... come in Mr. Pearlman...

  4. So Stretta was the intelligent guy with the big camera? I would have said hello!

  5. I'll take one. Hmmmm. Maybe he'll sell them in batches of two (or four or eight), in a nice wood and tolex case, maybe with a keyboard...

  6. sounded great !! good to see Tom has got his groove back :-))))

  7. Paging Alan R Pearlman... come in Mr. Pearlman...

    Agree, would love to see an ARP 2600e :-)

  8. I wonder if Alan Pearlman is in the dark too?

  9. there are 2-3 really competitive alternatives....looking forward to this. maybe he could collaborate with someone who works in the same wein ??!?! Like the Bubblesound SEM 20 VSF

  10. Not sure about this. Had an old Obie Sem for years with a Midi/Cv as functional as this and gets a bit boring too being limited in controls. To start all over with this design and not add a few more options or patch points to interface with modulars seems not thought out.

  11. Rewire-

    I think that, in this case, he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. If he added new features, people would find reasons to complain about the new SEM not sounding close enough to the original.

    Hopefully this product does well, allowing for Tom to explore other designs in the future. Who knows, maybe he already has some modular plans in store for us.

  12. I hope it comes avaible without the midi stuff and psu.
    So we can patch it out ourselves.

  13. also a shame so many people havent heard some totally brilliant instrumental elecronic music for 89 to today

    Atom TM

    but they have heard of Moby

  14. Interesting and sad that Tom had never heard of UR, I imagine that is just the tip of the iceberg. Probably is in the dark with the entire uber-genre of contemporary (25 years) electronic musicians who use vintage analog gear. Somebody needs to load up an ipod and send it over to him.

  15. When asked about purchasing the new SEM w/o the MIDI interface, he initially replied "sure" but then went on to say that it would likely be the same price so you might as well obtain it with MIDI.

    I think it was Stretta that said something at the time about preferring to see some CV In jacks on the back instead. TO's response basically implied that it would be a DIY thing...that there's panel space available on the back, and that the internal connectors would provide the access. He didn't make it sound like it would be a production option.

    I'm guessing he knows little, if anything, of the vibrant 3U and 5U modular communities!

  16. that's a coffee meeting i'd like to attend!

  17. " pac said...
    there are 2-3 really competitive alternatives...."

    I can only assume that you have never heard what these 'Alternatives' sound like then or have never heard the raw Brutal Gorgeousness of a SEM ! ! !

    There are no alternatives as none come close to the sound impact of the SEM. FACT ! !

    Tom, Thank God you're doing this. I'll take four ! !


  18. hardware wont diminish. don't forget that most of us buy hardware because of gear lust, and still do.

  19. Please excuse this, but I just have to make a few comments.

    a) Tom is selling this thing for a screaming bargain price. He really should ask more, but he's doing it as a labor of love. You should kiss his feet, preferably in front of journalists.

    b) people who obsess over analog synths have an inflated opinion of analog's importance in the industry. It is very likely that Tom was "kept in the dark" primarily by the endless mobs of industry people he's talked to...who all say the same thing these days: "Gee, your old analog gear was great, but all anyone wants now is digital..." Think of it as a self-fulfilling prophecy. That bias took 20+ years to become established, and it will take years to disabuse it.

    c) already, I see that people are complaining that it isn't "EXACTLY LIKE THE OLD ONES". It won't be, and you're not helping Tom's attitude.

    d) No matter how inexpensive this is, Tom will still be pilloried on various fora for making such an "expensive" device. Seen it happen too many times before with new versions of old gear.

    e) it's becoming difficult/costly to source the dual transistors used in nearly all V/octave synth circuits. And don't even ask about CEM chips or BBD delay chips. In fact, despite this recession, the price of things like thru-hole ICs and potentiometers continue to rise. Again, the industry has a bias, and the sales still aren't big enough to change it.

    If you guys want more attention from the world (including Tom), you should be MAKING YOURSELVES VISIBLE. Showing up at an AH meeting doesn't count. Why don't you put your money where your mouths are, and put together some kind of industry group? Rent a table at NAMM every year, and go around passing out info. Put out press releases whenever a new analog synth or module comes out. That's how you get attention.

    Almost 10 years ago I told various modular makers to get together and support a trade group. They wouldn't do it, so now they're extremely marginalized--from inside it looks like a "vibrant community", but its actual sales are still chickenfeed compared to digital-synth makers like Nord or Clavia. (Which, in turn, are dwarfed by the electric-guitar business.) My yearly gross sales wouldn't be enough to pay for the coffee service at Roland's corporate headquarters. Just keep that in mind.

  20. oh, one other thing: just remember that Tom already has direct competition, in the form of the Analogue Systems SEMblance....

  21. This is really stalker-ish, but what was the name of the cafe? I'm moving to Berkeley and would love to 'accidentally' bump in one of those guys. Not in a creepy way, of course.

  22. ive owned a 2 voice for years and recently have traded it. this is awesome.
    tom is the man! sems kill. hands down.
    -shawn rudiman

  23. Hi All you Oberheim fans-I am Tom Oberheim's daughter-*no joke* and I am very excited about this new product. hope to get my dad out and selling! we need your support

  24. Jonathan- by the way the Berkeley Cafe is called Brewed Awakening

  25. Maybe premature, maybe obvious - but who will sell this thing? End when? My wallet is eagerly waiting, packed with cash.

  26. Any idea if you can link 4 of these together like with the Semtex and Semblance?


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