7 Synth Companies That Tried and Failed

All things must pass: when George Harrison said this, he was referring to the breakup of The Beatles, but he may as well have been talking about synthesizer companies. It’s a notoriously difficult market to find success in, with new outfits coming and going all the time. Even some of the biggest players in American synths—Moog, Sequential, and Oberheim—all declared bankruptcy at one point, with current iterations having been resurrected like a phoenix from the ashes of their former business entities.

It’s a given then that nothing lasts forever. But for every synth company that had some success like ARP and PPG, there are also many that never made it beyond a few choice instruments. This, then, is a celebration of those companies that started with a vision to build a better machine and—despite giving it their all—ultimately couldn’t hold out for the long haul.

Some of these synths are desired collectibles that deliver unique takes on synthesis, while others are just plain odd—regardless, they’re all worth another look and listen.

Check out this walkthrough of the Steiner-Parker Synthacon, courtesy of Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio.


In the mid-‘70s, if you were a gigging musician and you wanted a synthesizer, you probably had your eye on either a Moog Minimoog or an ARP Odyssey. As the two biggest synthesizer manufacturers at the time, Moog and ARP had the market pretty much sewn up. Enter a new challenger: Steiner-Parker.

The Stiner-Parker Synthacon.

Based in Salt Lake, Utah, the duo of engineers Nyle Steiner and Dick Parker began working on synthesizers in their basement such as the Synthasystem Modular, a made-to-order machine. Available modules included a sequencer, frequency divider, voltage controlled phaser, a unique triple envelope generator, and the usual complement of VCO, VCF, and VCA.

Steiner-Parker are perhaps best known for their Synthacon, a three-VCO monosynth with a four-octave keyboard. It was intended as an affordable alternative to the Minimoog, and while only a few hundred were ever made, its legacy lives on in its Sallen-Key 12dB/octave multimode filter, which has found new life in Arturia’s Brute range of synthesizers.

Although the original company dissolved in 1979, earlier this year, Neil Steiner, along with musician Robbie Connolly, announced a reissue of the Synthacon, now with Fatar keybed. Pre-orders for the Steiner-Connolly Synthacon are now underway.

A demo of the Octave CAT, courtesy of GForce.

Octave Electronics

Another company that made a go of it in the mid-‘70s was Octave Electronics. The New York startup company entered the fray with the CAT, a duophonic synth with some unusual synthesis extras. It was equipped with two oscillators, each with sawtooth and square waves plus sub-oscillators, while the former sported pulse width modulation and a triangle wave. What made synthesists sit up and take notice were its cross-modulation capabilities, which supported simultaneous cross-mod between the two oscillators. Pair this with the ability to layer all seven waveform types at once and this CAT could really yowl. Octave followed up the CAT with the single-oscillator Kitten.

After merging with service center Plateau Electronics, Octave-Plateau debuted the Voyetra 8, an eight-voice polyphonic rackmount synth. Although popular with some high-profile bands like New Order and the Eurythmics, the high price and frustrating complexity of the operating system kept it from being the hit that Octave-Plateau needed. It’s not a total sob story though: the company moved into computer software and later merged with Turtle Beach Systems and is still going, manufacturing computer gaming headsets. Since then, the CAT has been cloned by Behringer.

Thomas Heckmann plays the RSF Kobol.


The name RSF doesn’t get mentioned as much as other European synth manufacturers like Siel or Crumar. This is probably because its output was much more limited. However, their Kobol synth almost took the world by storm.

The RSF Kobol Expander.

Released in 1978, the Kobol was a monophonic synthesizer that is notable not only for its sound—prized by artists ranging from Jean-Michel Jarre to Hans Zimmer—but for its programmability. With two banks of eight memories, it could save user presets, something of an exciting proposition in 1978. The company followed it up with a series of expanders to flesh out the sound.

If the Kobol is rare (only around 200 were made), the PolyKobol is practically unobtanium: the velocity-sensitive polyphonic synth allows users to continuously select waveforms between ramp, square, triangle and pulse, and you could even use the envelope or LFO for modulation. A handful were built but the cost of development and the resulting massive price tag bankrupted the company. Unsurprisingly, Behringer is reportedly working on a Kobol Expander clone.

In this video, Heinbach shows off the Seiko DS-System.


Not every attempt at setting the world on fire with a new synth comes from a boutique brand. Sometimes established brands take a stab at it. You might end up like watch company Casio and getting it right with the CZ series—more about that here—or you might end up like watch company Seiko and getting it… well… not so right.

To be fair, the instrument in question—the DS-202, released in 1983—is pretty unique. It's digital but you could expand it with two add-on units, the DS-320 sequencer and DS-310 additive expander. The main unit wasn’t anything to write home about—Casio and Yamaha already had the home keyboard market for kids and their hobbyist parents covered. Once you hooked up the additive expander, though, you were able to pile up sine waves to create new and unique tones.

Although Seiko tried again in 1985 with the DS-250, a single unit that combined the usual digital home keyboard tones with additive functions (and gained a fan in Jean-Michel Jarre—seriously, is there any synth he hasn’t owned?), Seiko soon returned to what they did best: digital watches.

Check out this demo of the Synton Syrinx, courtesy of Perfect Circuit.


In 1983, your synth had to have been one of two types: polyphonic or digital—preferably both, like the world-beating DX7. Analog monophonic was strictly ‘70s. No one had time for something so old-fashioned in the high-tech ‘80s, especially if it didn’t even have MIDI or patch memory. That didn’t stop Synton, a synthesizer company from Holland, from releasing the Syrinx, a rare monosynth that has only grown in renown over the years.

The Synton Syrinx.

Based on Curtis chips, the Syrinx had two analog VCOs plus a sub, as well as three filters in two different configurations: 24dB lowpass and two bandpass filters. They could be used in either series or parallel, with four different paths available. Add two LFOs and ADSR envelopes, FM, oscillator sync, pulse-width modulation, and ring mod, and you had a very capable synth on your hands. Speaking of hands, go ahead and put one on the unusual touch plate, which you can use to control various parameters. Unfortunately, the company—which also ran an instrument import business—went bankrupt in 1989.

Synton also made modular systems, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise when the company reformed in 1997 to create the very limited (and highly regarded) Synton Fénix modular, and then again in 2010 for a new run.

Ian Hall's demo of the Cheetah MS6


It’s not every synth manufacturer that gets immortalized by Aphex Twin, but that’s just what happened when he named his Cheetah EP after the now-defunct Welsh company.

Formed in the early ‘80s, the outfit began making computer peripherals but switched over to affordable MIDI controllers a few years later—think of them as the Nektar of the ‘80s. Not content to push out instruments with no sound, they did the unthinkable and made an analog synth in 1988, the MS6 (well, not entirely unthinkable, as Oberheim did something similar the same year with the Matrix-1000). Like Oberheim’s Matrix line, the MS6 used Curtis chips for its innards, with two digitally controlled oscillators for each of its six voices as well as 24dB/octave lowpass filters. No Oberheim-style mod matrix here, but it was multitimbral.

After the well-received MS6, Cheetah tried a number of other instruments, including digital drum machines (MD8 and MD16), a sampler (SX16), and their most famous—or should that be infamous—instrument, the wavetable-based MS8000. Bizarrely complicated, it flummoxed all but the most tenacious users. Someone who was not flummoxed was Richard D. James, who used it to create the Cheetah EP.

Cheetah went under in 1993 but founder Ian Jannoway went on to start Novation, which also occasionally worked with Chris Huggett, a veteran of two short-lived UK synth companies, Electronic Dream Plant (maker of the Wasp) and Oxford Synthesizer Company of OSCar fame.

Here's a factory demo of the Peavey DPM3.


Most of the companies featured on this list started with a couple of guys tinkering around, trying to make something new, but that’s not always the case. Take Peavey for example: the amplifier company decided to take its chances in the synthesizer market starting in the late-‘80s with a series of digital synths. Based on their inclusion in this list, you can guess how well it went.

Thanks to Roland’s D-50 and Korg’s M1, the late ‘80s were all about digital synthesis. Peavey took this ball and ran with it with the DPM line of synths. Debuting in 1989 with the 61-key DPM 3, the Digital Phase Modulation synthesizer (to use Peavey’s full name) was a DSP-based synth with two DCOs, a lowpass filter, two LFOs, four envelope generators, and digital effects. Given the penchant for workstations at the time, it also had a sequencer and disk drive. If you needed sampling, you could complement it with one of two rackmount units, the DPM SP and DPM SX.

Peavey followed up the DPM 3 with the DPM 3SE, which added sampling to the synthesis architecture. Over the rest of the ‘90s, the company dutifully continued adding to the line, improving the interface and upping memory, but the high price of the instruments—and not to mention tough competition from Japanese workstations as well as Kurzweil’s DSP synth endeavors—were enough to sour Peavey on the experience. After releasing the low-price Spectrum series of rack ROMplers, the company went back to doing what it did best: amplifiers.

What companies did we miss? Let us know in the comments.

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