I’m a recent self-declared synth geek. I may be new but I’m enjoying the process of learning a new instrument. It’s nice to know there is even more money to spend on audio gear than I had previously thought.
We’ve all heard of Junos, Prophets, Arps and DX7s but what about the synthesizers that weren’t as popular? I think it’s fascinating to think about the smaller run projects and how they were all at one point the culmination of someone’s imagination.
Unfortunately, not all synths had as much widespread appeal as some of the aforementioned industry staples. There are many reasons a synthesizer might not do well commercially, whether it be faulty components, a bad user interface, or just failed marketing efforts from the company, most of the time it has nothing to do with the actual sound of the instrument. The following five rare synthesizers weren’t very popular but their scarcity and uniqueness makes them even more valuable today.
Wersei is a German digital organ maker who is still in business today. They were one of the first Organ manufactures to embrace digital technology. After 10 years of manufacturing Organs, they decided to try their hand at synthesizers and entered the market with the EX20 module, a digital 20 note polyphonic synth. The sounds are based on an arrangement of sound modules such as wave, pitch-envelope, amplitude envelopes and analog effects to produce fourier, waveform sample, and modular synthesis.
There’s also an EX-10 model that looks similar and uses cartridges however the cartridges are not cross compatible and are extremely difficult to find. Owners and users of this unit say they are very difficult to program, nearly impossible without the manual which is completely in German.
Wersei has also made some other interesting synths that are just as rare including the Bass Synthesizer and the Stage Performer Mk1.
When asked about what synth started his journey into programming he directly mentions the ES-20 from Wersei,
“It’s from the German organ company Wersi and it is called MK1 (Series III). It was a 20 voice, 8 part multitimbral additive synth with up to 32 harmonics, an integrated chorus/ensemble effect, and only one VCF, but that one was a copy of the Moog 24dB VCF plus a good-sounding overdrive.
It had a lot of very interesting features that you won’t find in any other synth like modular envelopes with 8 stages where each stage could hold a module that did something like generating random steps, vibrato, linear or exponential ramps or simply holding the level for a certain time.
If you ask why we didn’t put something like this into our Waldorf synths, I can easily answer that I was probably the only person outside of Wersi who could program this thing!”
Beilfuss Step Synth
This one is part folklore, part real synthesizer. There are videos of it so it must exist but mentions of this on the internet go all the way back to 1996 and others have claimed to have seen advertisements in Keyboard Magazine even years before that. The company has self-declared this unit as “the first ever Step Synthesizer”,
The first unique thing that sticks out about this synth is its 93 keys which are actually just two 4-octave synths connected together.
The Beilfuss Step Synth was developed by Keith Williams who also goes over the instrument in depth in this video posted to YouTube in 2011,
“Unlike any analog or digital synthesizer’s controls, the patented tone control consists of sixteen steps simply outlining the waveform as set by the Signal Controls you see at the left of the control panel. Similarly, the envelope and filter contour transients and their time intervals are also set by the Signal Controls for rhythms or extended notes. You may easily add prompted, parallel voicings, combining settings of both sides for complex notes.
There are 32 controls and 142 switches for direct programming. Dedicated LED switches always read out their side of the full eight octaves, split keyboard. Five octaves of transposition is possible.”
Synthia was a very rare “all in one” high-end synthesizer released in 1982 by Adaptive Systems, Inc. These units started at 20,000 which may be why there aren’t many people that have ever seen, let alone played a working unit. There aren’t even any sound clips or video demos posted online anywhere. I wish there were videos or recordings of this one so I could verify this claim but I guess I’ll just need to use my imaginations.
These premiered in the form of two prototypes at the 1982 NAMM show. The prototypes did not sell and soon after manufacturing ceased. The synthesizers are currently not functioning and sitting in the basement of the inventor, Mark E. Faulhaber.
One very unique feature that would warrant the incredibly high price tag was the touch responsive plasma screen which at the time was very new technology but is now seen in just about every modern all in one keyboard.
The plasma screen followed the user’s finger which could be used to adjust bar graphs that controlled the different adjustable parameters on the synth like harmonic content, envelope parameters, controller assignments and more.
Most of the information on this synthesizer is from the book Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail.
The Novacord is considered to be the godfather of the modern polyphonic synthesizer. The Hammond company debuted the instrument at the 1939 World’s Fair only 4 years after the invention of the tonewheel organ. These synths included many features that are now standard in polyphonic synthesizers, like the use of subtractive synthesis.
This behemoth of an instrument was truly a marvel including more than 150 vacuum tubes, over 1,000 custom-made capacitors, two 12” speakers and a power amp. Everything was beautifully housed in a wood cabinet similar to that of the more popular B3.
The Hammond team found a way to derive a full keyboard from just 12 tuned chromatic oscillators. This was accomplished by using a divide-down architecture which became standard in later synthesizers. This principle gives the Novachord its 72 notes of polyphony
Production ceased in 1942 because of the lack of parts due to World War II and the sales being so low. One of the reasons it did not translate well during the time was organists and pianist had a hard time playing it as it was better at making more ethereal sounds rather than recreating the more familiar sounds of a piano or organ.
It is estimated that there are only 200 Novachords still in existence and even less that are operational.
Ensoniq was an American synthesizer and sampler manufacture that was founded in 1983 and eventually acquired and merged with E-Mu and eventually discontinued completely in 2002. One of their more interesting synthesizer released by the company was the Fizmo. Developed in 1998, the synth uses a “digital acoustic simulation Transwave with 4 MB of ROM, up to 4 voices per preset, each voice with 2 oscillators, independent LFOs and FX: 48 voices maximum, with 3 separate FX units built in. “
The name F-I-Z-M-O comes from the 5 real-time control knobs on the unit, “F” adjusted the effect modulation, “I” adjusted wave modulation, “Z” adjusted filter cutoff, “M” adjusted the detuning, and the “O” parameter changed based on the preset.
Problems with the synth that lead to its demise were the unfinished operating system, clunky user interface, and issues with the power supply. Another problem was the look of the unit made people think it was similar to the other analog synthesizer of the time period but it was very difficult to create classic “analog” sounds. The Fizmo was mainly known for its atmospheric and ethereal sounds.
It is estimated that anywhere between 500-2,000 of these synthesizers were produced.