What is it that makes certain vintage gear so valuable? Obviously the sound is key, but ‘sound’ is a broad description when it is really the character and range of sounds produced with it that makes some gear so sought after, combined with a uniquely functional and highly evolved user interface that is made to be played or performed with.
There are plenty of contenders for synths in this category – the EMS Synthi would be one near the top of my most wanted list, for form & function… But scarcity is also an important factor – would these devices be as sought after if they were readily available? I guess the fact the Synthi is back in production would indicate not, although the cost of US$2,500 is a definite factor, but what if the cost comparison was more akin to the original TB303 versus the TT303?
What got me thinking about unaffordable outboard was an EBay auction I bid on late last year, for a Musitronics MuTron BiPhase phaser. I’ve been interested in these ever since reading that it was one of Lee Scratch Perrys not-so-secret weapons. I adore the tonality of a lot of the sounds from dub reggae from the 70s (Perry, Scientist etc.) which is exactly why I love and own a few Space Echo devices…
Apparently the MuTron phaser was designed by Mike Beigel along with Aaron Newman at Musitronics USA in about 1973-4 And so a mint condition MuTron BiPhase Pedal came up for sale on eBay, the starting bid was low & while I thought I was being pretty indulgent placing a max bid of US$750 I needn’t have worried… it ended up selling for over US$3,000! Holy sh+t! Similarly there is one for sale on eBay now, with a BUY NOW price of US$3,499!
“For your consideration is this vintage 1976 Musitronics Mu-Tron Bi-Phase electric guitar phaser effects pedal. This particular example, (serial number 04674), is in excellent all original condition and includes the original C-100 Opti-Pot control pedal (serial number 1428). With significant provenance, this unit belonged to Elektra Records (with Elektra labeled inventory numbers 1190 and 1193) and was used by numerous artists on dozens of classic records. While no exact list was documented nor compiled by studio engineers, the potential list of artists who had access to this unit reads like who’s who of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, including; Bob Dylan, Queen, The Stooges, Television, The Cars, Tom Waits, X, Metallica, Jackson Browne, and The Eagles. This 100% all original example works perfectly and sounds great. It includes reproduction overlays.”
So other than finding one in a junk store, the likelihood of me ever owning a real MuTron Phaser is pretty much zero, which leaves only a few options. If you’re happy to work ITB then there are plugin replicas available eg the AudioDamage Phase Two for US$39 attempts to be an exact replica, and when you consider there is US$3,460 difference between real and digital, it means it is not an either/or consideration… Other options? In the analogue world I picked up a MAM Phaze 2 stereo phaser rack unit for not very much, and while it doesn’t pretend to be a MuTron it does have CV input… But where the MuTron does still serve a purpose, as it did for that plugin, is as a potential model or topology for creating similar processing using analogue synth modules, patching audio and control voltage to recreate it, whether its in the real world via eurorack modules (or other formats of course) or via software eg the Moog Modular Synth plugin
The front panel could be considered a statement of intent, but it is important to remember just how much individual components contribute to the character of its sound, there is a link to the schematics here & on the same site some comments after making a clone of it: “to build a complete version it you need (and if my computations are exacts ) to solder 122 resistors, 17 OPAs, 22 semiconductors, 31 caps, 8 LDR cells, a handfull of pots, switches ,jacks and many other little things…. Density is rather high on the Phasor pcb!” But he is kind enough to sell PCBs for a DIY clone foe EU$45…. Hmmmmmm…
The idea of patching together and experimenting with custom processing is what got me started down the endless road of eurorack modular synths, and while some euro modules have been specifically created to allow CV control of classic analogue outboard such as BBD Delays etc, it is in the consideration of larger effects processing patches that these classic and highly evolved outboard effects are a very interesting source of inspiration. So it got me to researching other obscure but sought after outboard effects. Next on the list:
Meet the EMS Synthi Hi Fli – a full feature list is available here along with many audio examples…. And as with the EMS Synthi they are being made available again new: “I am pleased to say I have negotiated with Robin Wood at E.M.S. to re-release the HiFLi under License. The price for each HiFLi unit (including pedals) will be £2000 + shipping. This price is a reflection of the many hours of build time each unit takes (this is not a glorified ‘stomp box’ and is closer in complexity to a Synthi A or a VCS3 than it is to any stompbox. Dont forget the original HiFLi sold for £350 in the early 1970’s which conservatively translates to about £3500 today!)”
But, you will have to be VERY patient… a more recent update: “I have now stopped taking orders for Hi-FLi units having almost 50 people on the build list (15 on the official list and 35 on the supplementary list for units which will be built subject to agreement by E.M.S.) At current production levels it will take at least 4-5 years to get through these orders! I may at some future time open up the list again”
Third in a list of drool worthy outboard unobtanium is a processor I wasn’t even aware existed. I have owned two different Sequential Circuits Pro One synths over the years, and still have a SC SixTrak synth but the Sequential Circuits ProFX was news to me! Turns out it is/was a modular effects unit, according to this site: “From what I know, there were only 200-300 systems of various configurations produced by Sequential Circuits from summer 1982 to 1983. Eight modules were produced in the systems two year life span including 510 Distortion, 512 Phaser, 514 4 x 2 Mixer, 516 Parametric EQ,518 Reverb, 520 Transpose / Sync, 522 Flanger / Chorus and 524 Digital Delay Line. Sometime in 1983 the Pro-FX was re-marketed as the “Pro-FX Ambient Package” which consisted of the 500 System Controller as well as the 518 Reverb, 522 Flanger / Chorus and 524 Digital Delay Line.” Read here for more info on the functionality of each available module… According to the Synth Museum: “The Pro-FX was completely digitally programmable with a “glide” function that allowed you to move smoothly between patches” which is fascinating, in that despite all of the advancement in technology -analog and digital, there are not many/if any audio devices that have this feature even now!
One configuration sold on eBay not so long ago for US$1,650
So what other outboard devices would you consider unobtanium? Many years ago there was a studio in Auckland that used to have an EMT 250 Reverb, which was a very early digital reverb…. I don’t remember how it sounded but I well remember it looked like something from the future! Coincidentally there is a refurbished unit for sale on eBay at the moment, with a buy now US$7,500!
I also hate to think how many beautiful and truly amazing sounding plate reverbs were lost along the way…. I fully appreciate how difficult they would be to physically relocate (some advice is given here) and some history about the EMT-140 plate reverb PDF here as well as instructions to DIY build one PDF here Someone also made a wooden plate reverb and there is also an intriguing minimalist site for JCC & Associates who “manufactures and sells upgrades for your aging or home-built plate reverb unit.” Hmmmmmmm……
So what outboard would you love to own, if cost wasn’t an issue? I haven’t included any EQ, filters or dynamics processors of which there are many, many highly sought after classics…