Korg are back with another Odyssey release, this time a full-size kit. Is a 51-year-old analog synth still relevant in the 21st century?
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a movie title but it could just as well apply to the state of the synthesizer market in 2023. We have every type of hardware synthesizer – from keys to desktop to modular (in multiple formats, no less) – combined with every kind of synthesis.
We’re also being inundated with updates, remakes and clones of all manner, with new ones being announced all the time. Like the movie’s multiverse, something somewhere is going to have to break at some point, but for now, it’s one wild ride to be on.
Japanese company Korg helped kick off the clone wars with a remake of its own MS-20 ten years ago. They then surprised the world by recreating the iconic ARP Odyssey. A few format varieties later and they’ve done it again with the Korg ARP Odyssey FS Kit, a full-size recreation that you have to assemble yourself. With so many synths on the market, do the many worlds really need yet another ‘70s synth update? We grab a screwdriver and find out.
What We’re Gonna Do Right Here Is Go Back: ARP History
Before we get to Korg’s latest version of the Odyssey, the Korg ARP Odyssey FS Kit, it could be helpful to back up to the early ‘70s and the time of the original synth’s release. ARP (which stood for Alan Robert Pearlman, the founder’s name) got its start in 1969 making the 2500, a massive modular synth. This was followed by the more accessible semi-modular 2600 in 1971. Inspired by Moog’s Minimoog Model-D, ARP set out to make its own compact synth. The result was 1972’s three-octave Odyssey.
Almost immediately, artists declared their loyalty to one manufacturer or the other. Moog had the massive rock acts like Yes and ELP while ARP could claim a number of funk, soul and jazz musicians. Herbie Hancock was a huge ARP fan, for one. The Commodores, Kool and the Gang and The Ohio Players were all ARP users. ARP’s sound was less creamy and round, more biting and nasally than Moog’s and this lent itself to funk extremely well.
The Assembly Line: Putting It Together
As excited as we were to start laying down some G funk leads, we still had to put the Odyssey together. This is a kit, after all. It arrived in a large box with the panel and case separated plus smaller packs for the keyboard and internal circuit boards. It can seem like a lot initially. We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Korg had sent us a prototype to play with and we were worried about scratching their property. Thankfully, we didn’t have anything to worry about, as the packing material can double as protective sheets and padding to aid in assembly. The instruction manual recommends that you lay down a towel as well. We went one better and used foam pads. This is a pricey item so be sure and take precautions.
The actual assembly is not difficult at all. The instructions are crystal clear. At no point did we worry that we had done something wrong putting it together. While we did need to supply our own screwdriver, everything else was ready to go, including additional tools like a hex wrench. There’s also no soldering necessary. These are modern surface-mount boards rather than through-hole so everything has already been done by machine at the factory.
It’s not often you get the opportunity to poke around inside a synth without voiding its warranty. We’ve always found that working on synths brings us closer to them as instruments. Getting the chance to connect the different boards with cables and see how everything works can be really enlightening.
Super Freak: Getting Around The Front Panel
Once everything is all together, it’s time to plug it in and start playing. Except hold up, there’s no sound coming out. Don’t worry, you didn’t put it together wrong. Korg have made it pretty difficult to mess that up. No, you have to spend some time understanding the panel layout first because remember, the Odyssey is from a time when synthesizer signal flow had yet to be standardized.
To modern eyes, it’s more of an oddyssey than an Odyssey. While the dual oscillator sections are on the left, as expected, the mixer is on the right side of the panel under the filter confusingly grouped together with the filter modulation and VCA. Envelopes are on the far right – yes, there are two, an ADSR and simple AR – while the middle section is occupied by a sample and hold circuit. Very strange. Once you realize that you need to bring oscillator volume up to the mixer, plus increase envelope control to the VCA, you’re good to go.
Although flummoxed at first, once we had the lay of the land we found the unusual layout creatively inspiring. It can be helpful to break out of familiar patterns and try new things and the panel of the Odyssey certainly encourages that.
Tear The Roof Off The Sucker: Funky Synthesis Possibilities
While the Korg Odyssey sounds fantastic (as you’d expect), it’s also incredibly flexible. Esoteric synthesis elements like ring modulation, sample and hold and frequency modulation are not afterthoughts, like on many later synths, but central to the signal flow. It’s also duophonic, meaning you can play two notes at the same time. This, when combined with Korg’s extras like all three filter revs from the original’s near-decade of production plus new filter drive, makes for one monster machine.
Let’s hear some of what it can do.
Here’s the sound we’d been waiting for. Want Bill Conti ‘Gonna Fly Now’ – fill your boots pal. This is a simple sawtooth from one oscillator with plenty of portamento to bend between the notes.
Pulse Width Bass
The pulse width modulation on the Odyssey is insane. Here it is doubled with a second oscillator running a sawtooth wave with some tasteful detuning to thicken things up.
Just needs a break:
FM On Everything
Too much is never enough, so here we have frequency modulation on both oscillators plus noise modulating the filter. Gritty.
Sample and Hold
The sample and hold section holds pride of place right in the center of the panel. Here it is modulating the filter in self-oscillation mode with both oscillators turned off.
Calling the satellites:
Like on an EMS VCS3, you can set the envelopes to loop via the LFO.
Looping the envelope:
Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough: The Final Word
And now the elephant in the room. At £1699, the ARP Odyssey FS Kit is pretty expensive. Don’t expect any discounts for putting it together yourself. However, it’s still much cheaper than buying an original ARP from the 1970s plus you get the added bonus of modern conveniences like MIDI (both five-pin and USB). If you’re balking at the price, there are always the smaller Odyssey (with mini keys or in module form) or the original FS version, although these are all sold out so you’ll need to buy used.
The Odyssey is a piece of synth history. Korg’s recreation lets you experience that history for yourself. It sounds amazing, strong, profound and like you expect it to, while the plethora of synthesis options ensures that it will continue to inspire and surprise for years to come. It’s also a rare chance to get a guided tour of the inside of a synthesizer. If you can afford one, we highly recommend it. It also might be your last chance to get an official Odyssey fresh off the factory floor.
Purchase: ARP Odyssey FS Kit
The Final Word
If you can afford one, we highly recommend it. It also might be your last chance to get an official Odyssey fresh off the factory floor.
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