Synth Moonlighters: 6 Times Famous Builders Created Gear for Other Brands

In the collective musician consciousness, some synthesizer designers are inseparable from certain manufacturers. Of course, there are the companies that bear the namesake of their founders, like Bob Moog and Tom Oberheim. Then there are outfits like Sequential and the Oxford Synthesizer Company, where the chief designer (Dave Smith and Chris Huggett, respectively) had such a massive impact on the output that their names are practically synonymous with the company’s creations.

It’s very rare, though, for such talented designers to stay at just a single company their whole lives. Brands don’t last forever. Even if the name does continue, like Moog, the company itself often changes hands numerous times, with the founder sometimes even getting ousted. Because of this, many famous synthesizer designers have bounced around manufacturers, some working full-time and others coming on board as consultants. However, because of the sheer brand recognition of their names, these moonlighting turns might not be as well known as their main gigs.

With that in mind, here are seven times that famous synth builders lent their talents to another company.

Bob Moog

In the world of musical instruments, few names are more well known (or mispronounced) than that of Moog. Robert Moog started R.A. Moog Co. in 1953 to sell theremins and theremin kits through the mail. In 1964, he began manufacturing modular synthesizers, and in 1970 debuted the Minimoog Model D. Although one of the most popular synthesizers ever made, the company itself was not doing so well, and R.A. Moog merged with Norlin Musical Instruments in 1971.

After staying on as an employee until 1977, Bob set off on his own, founding Big Briar in 1978 and consulting for a few different manufacturers. One was Kurzweil Music Systems, where he worked for five years in the 1980s as vice president of new product research, reportedly working on some of the K series instruments like the K-250 and K-2000. Another was for Alesis’ legendary Andromeda. He also took a trip over to Italy to help out with Crumar’s 1983 monosynth, Spirit.

Crumar Spirit
Crumar Spirit

Designed by a dream team of former Moog employees that included Jim Scott, Tom Rhea and of course the good doctor himself, Spirit offered plenty of flexibility for a monosynth. It was a two-oscillator affair with dual multimode filters and a whole host of unusual modulation sources. It also offered a ring mod, an arpeggiator and three performance wheels for making the most of the wild LFOs. Despite the interesting synthesis possibilities on offer, the Spirit was held back by the era. It was 1983, after all, and analog monosynths were old hat.

Big Briar would come back in a big way in the ‘90s, with the Moogerfooger effects pedal series and then a new line of analog monosynths, including the Minimoog Voyager in 2002. Old hats become new again.

Dave Smith

The name Dave Smith is inseparable from that of Sequential Circuits (later Sequential), the company he started in the 1970s that turned the world upside down with its incredible Prophet-5 polysynth. However, his output wasn’t restricted to just Sequential.

It’s hard to imagine now but by 1987 things weren’t going so well for Sequential Circuits. Yamaha stepped in, buying the company and putting the team to work under the new name of DSD, Inc., or Dave Smith Designs. Along with some forays into physical modeling and software synthesizers (Dave did hold a dual degree in Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, after all), they jumped ship and headed over to Korg, where they started a California R&D branch for the Japanese company.

Something else that DSD had been working on for Yamaha was the SY22, a vector synthesizer. Borrowing some ideas that the team had pioneered with the Prophet VS for Sequential Circuits, it featured a joystick that allowed users to toggle between up to four sound sources, two sampled and two FM. There was also a tabletop version dubbed the TG33 and later, the expanded synth, SY35.

Vector synthesis would figure heavily into the instrument the group made for Korg, the Wavestation. A runaway hit, it allowed not only crossfading between waves but wave sequencing, with waves laid end to end in rhythmic and evolving phrases. It was followed up by a number of additional Wavestation models. This technology continues in Korg’s current Wavestate series.

Tatsuya Takahashi

As an engineer for Korg from 2006 to 2017, Tatsuya Takahashi worked on an astonishing number of popular and game-changing instruments, from the original Minilogue and Monologue to the early Volca range and even the first wave of ARP recreations. Tats, as he’s known, is now back at Korg, this time involved with Korg Berlin, the European R&D branch.

E-RM Polygogo
E-RM Polygogo

In between Japan and Germany, however, Tats worked on a number of different projects, including Eurorack. E-RM’s Polygogo is a graphical stereo oscillator with Polygonal Synthesis, which, according to the company’s website, is based on complex two dimensional amplitude shaping of sine waves. Tats came on board to help work on the interface, which sports a single knob, single function design.

David Cockerell

Few synthesizers get the pulse of synth nuts racing like the EMS VCS3. Made in 1969, it was (and still is) an incredibly influential and inspiring instrument. EMS later followed it with the portable Synthi A and decidedly not portable Synthi 100. EMS’s star designer of these products—and many more—was David Cockerell.

In 1974, David took a trip across the pond to visit friends in New York where he was introduced to Mike Matthews, the founder of guitar pedal company Electro-Harmonix. Taking on the position of Chief Design Engineer, he started the second phase of his career, designing an equally impressive selection of devices, including the Electric Mistress, POG Polyphonic Octave Generator, Small Stone, Micro Synthesizer, and 16 Second Digital Delay.

It was his digital work at Electro-Harmonix that lead him to change careers once again, this time in the 1980s for Akai. By the mid-‘80s, Akai had abandoned its line of analog synthesizers (more on this later), choosing instead—and wisely, it turned out—samplers. David worked on the S612, S900, Synthi AS1000S1000 and even the MPC60 (spearheaded by a drum machine moonlighter, Roger Linn).

Chris Huggett

Where most famous synth designers have a single company attached to their name, the late great British engineer Chris Huggett had two. The man was responsible for not only the EDP Wasp (1978) but also the Oxford Synthesizer Company OSCar(1983). Both were digital/analog hybrid instruments that were ahead of their time and both are much beloved by musicians and collectors.

EDP Wasp
EDP Wasp

Chris’s career didn’t end when Oxford went out of business though. As with fellow countryman David Cockerell, he moved over to Akai to work on the S series of samplers. He put his digital expertise to work on the operating system for 1988’s S1000 as well as follow-up models, including the S3200 in 1993.

Not finished moonlighting, Chris subsequently hooked up with Novation, first working as a consultant on the original BassStation (which took some inspiration from the Wasp) and then joining full-time to design the Supernova. His collaboration with Novation continued through the Nova line, the BassStation II, and the Peak and Summit synths, among others.

Tom Oberheim

Few synthesizer manufacturers scream analog more than Oberheim. Known for its fat, warm tone, Oberheim synths are anything but digital. And yet Tom Oberheim has done quite a bit of digital moonlighting.

As with many other analog synthesizer manufacturers in the 1980s, Oberheim hit a rough patch in the middle of the decade and the company was bought by Tom’s lawyer in 1985, becoming ECC/Oberheim. After staying on for a few years as an employee, Tom left to start a new venture, Marion Systems. Marion released the MSR-2 rackmount analog modular synth in 1994 but it was actually busier doing digital consulting work for Japanese companies.

“The first product I had planned (as Marion) was an industrial‑strength sampler,” Tom told Sound On Sound in 1994, “but there followed a period when RAM prices went sky high, and since the product was based around a lot of memory, it would have been too expensive.” Rather than completely write off the R&D, Tom was able to put some of that sampler knowledge to use for Akai, pulling out a 12-bit to 16-bit upgrade board for the S900.

Roland then came calling, asking Marion to develop a hard disk recorder, what was to become the DM80 (1992). “I hired a couple of engineers, including Chris Meyer, who was the architect of the DM80,” Tom explained to SOS, “and for about 15 months we worked on the project until Roland took it back to Japan.”

Kazuo Morioka

The name Kazuo Morioka may not be as well known as others but the man was extremely important to the Japanese musical instrument scene in the 1970s. He designed Japan’s first synthesizer and, for a time, his company Hillwood (later known as Firstman, among others) rivaled Roland and Korg in terms of output.

Akai AX80
Akai AX80

By 1981, however, Kazuo’s various endeavors had all come to an end and he found himself without an outlet. Enter Akai. (Seeing a pattern here?) At this point, Akai was still known primarily as a consumer electronics company specializing in audio. In 1984, though, it launched Akai Professional. Its first musical instrument was the AX80 analog synthesizer. Eight-voice polyphonic and with two DCOs per voice, the synth was part of a lineup of gear aimed at home recorders called the Akai Music Studio System. The man responsible for all of this? Kazuo Morioka himself.

Although the AX80 is sought after now, it was a poor seller at the time. Akai followed it up with the VCO-powered AX60 and AX73 in 1986. However, the company soon jumped feet first into the sampler business. Kazuo departed, his expertise in analog synthesis no longer necessary, and Akai started its epic digital poaching of designer greats.

Any builders that we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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