How ARP Introduced the First Preset Synth

The ARP Soloist was the first commercial preset synthesizer, and Tony Banks got his hands on the revised version, the Pro Soloist, in 1973. It was his first synthesizer, and he immediately began using it with Genesis. A few years later, he told Dominic Milano at Contemporary Keyboard that he didn’t need a complex synthesizer on stage. “You can change tones so quickly on this one,” Banks said. “I tend to use [my] Mellotron a bit like the left half of the organ and the ARP like the right. There’s no general rule in that at all—I just find the ARP gives me much more color for lead lines.”

There in a nutshell was the attraction of a preset synth, which at the time was a rarity. The Pro Soloist was designed by Jeremy Hill, who joined ARP Instruments in 1971, just a couple of years after Alan R. Pearlman started the company.

Hill was a British electrical engineering graduate who’d worked on shipboard missile radar before emigrating to the US in 1967. While working for Avco Electronics in Cincinnati he met a church-choir director who was very enthusiastic about some new-fangled instruments called synthesizers. He told Hill about a new company called ARP. Hill, dissatisfied with his work on military jamming equipment, phoned ARP to offer his services. Shortly thereafter, the 20-something found himself with a new job.

“ARP was based just outside Boston in a place called Newton Highlands, and I loved it,” Hill tells me. “Actually, at first it wasn’t ARP, it was still called Tonus, in a very unimposing building on Kenneth Street. There were probably half a dozen of us there, and Dennis Colin was the only other hired engineer when I arrived. Alan’s wife Buena did the bookkeeping and answered the phone. David Friend, who put money into the company, was there, and his wife, Margaret, did the logos and the art for advertising. There was a guy called Manny Mandell, too, who did a range of jobs.”

ARP’s first product was its big 2500 modular instrument, with matrix switches replacing Moog’s patch cords. One of the first things Hill worked on was the impressive follow-up, the 2600 semi-modular, today considered a classic among early analogue synthesizers.

“It was intended to have wider appeal and be less expensive than the 2500,” Hill recalls of the 2600. “All default connections were hardwired. In other words, you didn’t have to use patch cords, but you could override the default wiring with patch cords if you wanted to. Otherwise, you could just operate it with the faders and link things together and start making music—you didn’t necessarily need the telephone-exchange wires. And, importantly, the 2600 was portable, and that led to the ARP Odyssey, a sort of boiled-down 2600. I worked on the engineering for that, as well, with Dennis and Al. It was very portable—popular, too, and it became a good seller.”

Remember, this was at a time in the very early ’70s when synthesizers were relatively complex user-programmable systems that only just were becoming familiar to some musicians. If you wanted a synth in the US, it was more or less a choice between ARP and Moog, aside from a handful of lesser known brands such as EML and E-Mu, and outliers like Buchla, plus EMS in Britain. Korg and Roland would not introduce their first synths until 1973, Yamaha the following year. Meanwhile, Hill found that some potential ARP customers seemed baffled by the apparent complexity of the synths available in those early days.

They’d come in to ARP to see what was going on, Hill recalls, and then often would ask if the 2500 systems could be made to sound like a cello, or whatever. “We’d wonder why the heck they wanted to do that. We felt we were making instruments that could create new sounds, which were much more interesting, and different, you know? Who wants to make a beautiful cello? You can’t make a beautiful cello electronically. But still they’d say they wanted to hear a trumpet or something. Well, OK, yes, we can make a trumpet. And we came to the conclusion, even though we didn’t think it was particularly interesting, that some people wanted a synthesizer that could make instant sounds. Literally instant sounds.”

Enter the Soloist, the first preset synthesizer and the model that led relatively quickly to a similar but improved version, the Pro Soloist, which ARP announced in 1972. “We thought if you had a synthesizer where you had presets, and you also could do some basic modifications on top of that, you’d have a winner,” Hill says. “Dennis did a lot of work on the original Soloist, and he was very good with filters. The trouble was it was thrown together in a big hurry and was poorly engineered—and I’m sure I must have had a part of that. It was terribly unstable and used to go out of tune like crazy. There were stories about people throwing it against the wall in exasperation.”

Steely Dan's Donald Fagen used an ARP Soloist on the Countdown to Ecstasy highlight "King Of The World".

Steely Dan’s keyboardist and frontman Donald Fagen used an ARP Soloist in the band’s early years, but it didn’t survive. Guitarist Denny Dias told about the sessions for the band’s 1973 album Countdown To Ecstasy, when Fagen played the Soloist for “King Of The World” and in particular for an attempt at four-part harmony of tracked-up saxophone-like sounds for “Bodhisattva.” Dias reported that Fagen grew increasingly angry at the machine’s precarious tuning and eventually threw it down a stairwell.

“He then chased after it and started jumping up and down on it,” Dias said. “Several of us joined in with a few kicks and thumps. Roger [Nichols, engineer] got some alcohol from the studio and we proceeded to set the thing on fire.” Apparently some record company people discovered the Soloist remains the following day. “It must have touched a raw nerve, because they had that twisted lump of burnt plastic framed and mounted on a wall with an engraved plaque. I don’t remember the inscription, but it said something about Steely Dan, men and machines.”

The short lived Soloist gave way to the Pro Soloist, and Hill says his background working with digital systems and servos came into its own. “The new model was my baby,” he tells me. “I did all the electronics on it, building upon what we had before. Al came up with a touch sensor system for the keyboard, which was very novel at the time. I think we were the first ever with the Pro Soloist to have aftertouch, so we could introduce various sound modifications—add growl, change vibrato, we could pitch bend, change the resonance, about six different things you could control with the pressure-sensitive keyboard.”

pro soloist
A 1972 ARP Pro Soloist.

One of Hill’s major contributions to the Pro Soloist was its oscillator. “I came up with a really stable oscillator that still allowed you to portamento and slide between notes,” he says. “One of the problems with the original oscillators, as with all analogue synth oscillators, was that you needed a logarithmic converter, because your keyboard was basically a whole string of resistors selected in a long linear ladder by notes, by switches.”

What was required was an exponential system rather than the Soloist’s logarithmic one, which contributed to its instability. “I decided on an oscillator in a closed loop,” Hill recalls. “I had a digital keyboard on the Pro Soloist, for the first time, and each note was defined by a digital number. I had an F-to-V converter which turned that into an analogue voltage very accurately. An analogue comparator compared the output with the required input, and high closed loop gain compensated for any drift in the simple in-loop oscillator and log converter.”

Also, where the original Soloist had 18 presets, ARP provided the Pro with 30. “I introduced a new system where every parameter was controlled digitally—the pulse width, the envelopes, the ADSR, the VCF, the VCA, and all switching throughout the system. I had 15 switches for regular sounds like Bassoon, Piano, and Violin, and then another 15 operated by the same switches but as a different bank, including Telstar, Comic Wow, and Space Base, so you got 30 voices out of 15 switches.”

Hill worked with ARP’s marketing director, Dave Fredericks, to finalize the presets. “Dave was excellent on the keyboard and demonstrated the ARP synths really well, and he was selling the instruments quite successfully all over the world. We worked together for a few evenings on the Pro to get the sounds just the way we wanted them. I used a 64-bit digital word to define each voice, and then when we were all done, they were blown into read-only memories.”

Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks used an ARP Soloist on "The Cinema Show", from their 1973 album Selling England By The Pound.

ARP described the new monophonic Pro Soloist in 1972 as “easily attached to any electronic organ,” adding that “its ease of operation and fantastic instrumental and electronic effects make it a must for every enthusiastic home organist.” However, as Tony Banks discovered, it had other uses. Take a listen to his work across the second half of “The Cinema Show” on the 1973 Genesis album Selling England By The Pound, where he cycles through a number of the Pro’s presets to build his satisfying solo.

Other creative keyboardists saw the attraction of the simplicity and directness of the Pro’s preset system, as on a couple of ’73 singles: Billy Preston on “Space Race” and Junie Morrison on The Ohio Players’ much-sampled “Funky Worm.” And in the still relatively new world of synthesizer manufacturing, ARP’s preset innovations prompted similar instruments from Moog (the Satellite), Yamaha (SY-1 and SY-2), and Roland (SH-1000 ).

Hill left ARP in 1974 and went on to carve a successful career in electronic engineering in the medical industry. “But ARP was the most fun I’ve ever had, with those synthesizers,” he says, “and the one I’m most proud of is the Pro Soloist, where I was responsible for so much of the innovation. It was the first really preset synthesizer, where literally you just flicked a switch and the sounds were completely different and definable. I loved, too, that I could regularly see clear results of what I’d done, that I could see people up on stage enjoying my work. I really did have a great time, you know?”

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Electric Guitars: Design And Invention and London Live. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at

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