Remembering ARP Founder Alan R. Pearlman: 7 of His Synths' Finest Moments

When synthesizers made their way to the musical mainstream in the '70s, a plucky little company called ARP dared to challenge Moog's hegemony, eventually becoming one of the era's major names in synths.

Named for and founded by Alan Robert Pearlman, a Jewish kid from New York City who worked for NASA before finding his true calling, ARP introduced a modular synth called the 2500 in 1970. The instrument eschewed the messy patch cords of the modular Moog and boasted oscillators that could remain more reliably in tune.

Before long, that innovative beast's more streamlined little brother, the 2600, came along to change the game still further, and soon non-modular synths like the Odyssey blew up in an even bigger way.

In the '70s and early '80s, everybody from Stevie Wonder and Elton John to David Bowie and Joy Division made the most of Pearlman's electronic offspring. But ARP closed up shop in 1981, with its namesake going on to work in computer software.

Pearlman died on January 6, 2019 at the age of 93, leaving behind him a world considerably more plugged-in for his presence. In honor of his passing, here's a handful of musical moments that help define the ARP legacy.

Herbie Hancock – "Chameleon"

In 1973, Hancock unleashed the fusion milestone Head Hunters. Its opening cut, the fiercely funky "Chameleon," inspired countless samples and became a classic track. Hancock's solo on the ARP Odyssey is fiery enough on the album, but check out this live version where the keyboard genie seemingly decides to deliver a crash course in just about every damn thing the instrument can muster, as he goes from jazz-funkateer to high priest of noise in a matter of moments.

Genesis – "The Cinema Show"

What Rick Wakeman did for Moog, Tony Banks did for ARP. As the keyboardist in England's second most influential prog band, Banks loomed large in '70s rock, and it was on 1973's Selling England by the Pound that he first explored the potential of synthesizers. When he launched into his epic solo in the second half of "The Cinema Show" on, appropriately enough, the ARP Pro-Soloist, Banks not only marked out new territory for Genesis, he made a leap that would be followed by the band's musical disciples for decades to come.

The Edgar Winter Group – "Frankenstein"

Released as a single in 1973 from Winter and company's They Only Come Out At Night, this offbeat instrumental became an unlikely No. 1 hit. And aside from that monstrous main riff, the ARP 2600 was surely the main contributor to the song's success.

Winter's serpentine synth solo underscored just how expressive the instrument was. And in live appearances like this, he boldly went were no synth player had gone before, slinging the keyboard controller over his torso like a guitar and making a convincing bid to become the Hendrix of modular electronics. Be sure to stick around for the firestorm towards the end of the clip.

Kraftwerk – "Autobahn"

The side-long title track of Kraftwerk's epochal 1974 album was incalculably influential on everything from synth pop to techno, and while there are some other synths in the mix, the ARP Odyssey is a major part of the tune's relentless forward momentum, making some of the main melodic statements via its duophonic capabilities. (When it was released in '72, it was one of the first synths with polyphonic capabilities). Electronic pop in its purest form was born, and the world would never be the same.

Gary Wright – "Dream Weaver"

As popular as the 2600 and the Odyssey were, the String Ensemble was probably ARP's most widely used instrument. Created by the European company Solina, ARP began distributing it in 1974, and the new synth quickly eclipsed the Mellotron in the realm of keyboard-generated string sounds. It was used by just about every artist in every genre from the mid-'70s through the early '80s, but while it was mostly employed as a background element, Gary Wright's 1975 hit places it squarely in the foreground for a spacey, spectral feel.

Ultravox – "Sleepwalk"

As popular as ARP synths were in prog rock's heyday, they were equally as in-demand when New Wave rolled around. Ultravox were pioneers of both synth pop and the New Romantic movement, and main keyboard man Billy Currie's whole sound was based around the ARP Odyssey's ability to emulate the sounds of a psychotic catfight, if you really leaned into it. His solo on this single from their landmark 1980 album Vienna perfectly demonstrates the instrument's ability to disturb your dreams.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Hollywood had an infatuation with ARP instruments too. Let it never be forgotten that when aliens finally made contact with humanity through Steven Spielberg in 1977, the device that facilitated the interspecies communication was none other than a dramatically deployed ARP 2500 in all its outsized modular glory.


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