Vintage Synthesizers, second edition
by Mark Vail
reviewed by Jay Williston
When Synthmuseum.com was started, 4 long years ago, Mark Vail's book "Vintage Synthesizers" (originally published by Miller Freeman Books in 1993) was a great inspiration. The first three articles got me hooked. These three stories, "American Synthesizer Builders," "The Rise & Fall of ARP Instruments," and "The Rise & Fall of Moog Music," made me realize how compelling and yet how seldom heard are the actual stories of the companies that changed music as we know it. How fitting that these companies emerged in the 60's and 70's, the two decades that are synonymous with change in the 20th century.
Mark's book, comprised mostly by articles he and his colleagues have written for Keyboard Magazine over the years, not only talks about the products created by these companies, but also tells the stories behind the companies, their formation, their struggles, and, quite often, their demise. Of course, knowing how ARP eventually went bankrupt (even after Alan Pearlman, the founder of ARP who was cut out of the business a few years earlier, sunk a considerable amount of his own money into a company to try to bail it out) is not going to make you play their instruments better. However it might make you appreciate the influence ARP's instruments had on future synthesizer designs and innovations.
In the new second edition of the book, published by Miller Freeman on May 5th, 2000, Mark Vail has updated many of the chapters, adding and (unfortunately) removing articles, increasing the size of the book from 300 - 340 pages. Like the first edition, the new edition starts out with "A Photo Gallery of Vintage Synths," 22 pages of historical synths and prototypes (this is expanded from the 14 pages in the previous edition).
The articles of the book are divided into the following six sections:
Section 1 -- Hearts of the Modern Synth Industry - This section contains the first three articles refered to above and articles about the European synths and a great article entitled "It Came from the Music Industry," cataloging some of the one-hit-wonders from the synthesizer industry, from the unique to the down-right peculiar.
Section 2 -- Modular Synthesizers - In addition to the articles on Moog (specifically Keith Emerson's Moog), Buchla, EMS, E-mu, EML, and the ARP 2600, from the previous edition of the book, there are also new articles about the Serge Modular and Polyfusion Modular.
Section 3 -- Famous Analog Synths - These articles include the Minimoog, Oberheim's SEM module, the Prophet-5, the CS-80, the Rhodes Chroma, and a new article entitled Valley of the Korgs about pre-MIDI Korg synths.
Section 4 -- Digital Synths and Samplers - This section has articles about the PPG Wave, Synergy, Fairlight, and the E-mu Emulator.
Section 5 -- Miscellaneous - This section contains a variety of specialty s about the Mellotron, PAiA, Organs of the 60's and the LM-1 Drum Computer. Unfortunately gone is Jim Aikin's article about sequencers ("Sequencers in a Nutshell"), and the article on the Roland MC-8 which appeared in previous editions of the book. However, the article for the Vox Continental has been expanded to include the Rhodes Piano Bass and there are new articles about Roland's famous drum machines, and the ever so collectable Optigan Music Maker by Mattel.
Section 6 -- The Patchbay - Unsure why this is called "patch bay" but this is basically the collector and owner's guide to vintage synths, with everything you need to know about buying, evaluating, and finding support for vintage synthesizers. However I must caution against using this or any book as a Blue Book for synthesizer prices. Prices for vintage synths are extremely subjective. This is demonstrated clearly by some of the prices listed in the "What They're Worth" section of the book. For instance the ARP 2600 has a price range from $150 to $2,500, and the Minimoog has a price range of $300 to $1,600. I don't think anyone is going to trade his or her ARP 2600 for a Casio VZ-1 that is listed at $300. However, to be fair, the title of this section is implies what these synths are worth and not what people pay for them. There has been much debate over the "worth" of the TB-303 which because of its popularity among the dance music crowd has sold for more than $1,500. In Vail's book the worth of the TB-303 is valued at between $150 to $1,250. This one I can probably agree with.
Last but certainly not least is the Glossary of synthesizer terms, which is very helpful when reading about and talking about vintage synthesizers.
If you are interested in vintage synths, if you are a collector or if you own one of these wonderful (and sometimes challenging) instruments and want to know more about the companies and people who designed and created them, this book is a must read. Not only will you appreciate more the vintage instruments you own, but also you will have a superb resource for buying and collecting more vintage synthesizers.