The Matrix 12 was undoubtedly the zenith of Oberheim's history and when it was released, there could not have been a serious synth player in the world who didn't lust after this, possibly the ultimate analogue polysynth.

Its control surface looks clean and uncluttered but behind it was a synth that, a decade earlier, would have filled an entire room - the Matrix 12 was a hybrid analogue/digital modular synth with a truly impressive complement of audio generators, audio processors, controllers and control processors that could be connected not with patch cables but in software.

Each voice had two (analogue) oscillators, a powerful (analogue) multi-mode and multi-pole (1 - 4-pole) filter, fifteen (!!!) VCAs (some analogue, some software), five (software) envelope generators, five (software) multi-wave LFOs (each of which offered no less that 64 control waveforms) not to mention tracking generators, ramp generators, lag processors and more! It was undoubtedly the serious programmer's dream.

But it came at a cost - $5,000 - and at a time when you could buy 6-voice Roland Junos for a fifth of the cost, the Matrix 12 looked like a relic of the past clinging on by its fingernails for survival. That the Yamaha DX7 was also out there redefining our expectations of the sounds a synth can produce didn't help the 12's cause either, steeped as it was in a decidedly analogue paradigm.

Because of the high asking price for the instrument, the Matrix 12 sold only to a handful of rich users - people like Boris Blank (Yello), Michael Boddicker (seasoned session player), Herbie Hancock, Jason Miles (another seasoned session player at the time), Steve Porcaro (Toto) and Van Halen - you get the gist of the calibre of the Matrix 12's user base at the time! The Matrix 12 also became a popular choice with rental companies who could hire out the instrument with an accompanying programmer (at extra cost of course!) who could take care of programming duties for producers who wanted to have this new toy on their records.

Given the sheer number of modules and parameters, having dedicated knobs and switches for every one of them was economically unfeasible but the alternative (a single data entry slider and a small LCD) was operationally unfeasible. Instead, Oberheim devised a unique user interface that lay somewhere in between.

Down the right of the panel were block diagrams of each of the various modules and each of these had a button which selected the module and put the parameters available to it on the two central LCDs with twelve buttons and six encoders to access and control them. Of course, it wasn't possible to fit every parameter on these screens and there could often be a fair bit of page swapping.

Modulation matrix assignments were made using a further row of dedicated buttons just above the central LCDs and it was possible to route 27 sources to 47 destinations (but with only 20 connections allowed per voice).

The LCD and numeric keypad on the panel's left panel were used to select and store voices/sounds.

At first glance, the user interface appears to be pretty straightforward (and indeed it was - select module; tweak its parameters). However, with such potential complexity buried beneath the panel, it was often difficult to keep track of the voice's signal path and unlike a 'proper' modular synth where you see at a glance what is connected to what, you had to (somehow) retain a mental picture of the patch in your head. To ease this, there were some 'hardwired connections so you could get started with the minumum of effort.

The Matrix 12 was 12-voice polyphonic with various playing modes - it could act as one 12-voice synth playing just one sound or twelve monosynths (each one playing different sounds on different MIDI channels) or it could be anything in between. Furthermore, voices could be layered and/or overlapped and if anything, this is where the Matrix got really complex especially when editing or creating sounds because one small slip when selecting voices could have you editing the wrong one(s) - I remember having exactly this problem when I encountered a Matrix for the first time on a session and I got myself in a right old mess!

Of course, the Matrix was essentially two Oberheim Xpanders strapped together in one (big) box and with the addition of a 5-octave, velocity-sensitive keyboard.

When the Xpander was released in 1984, it caused quite a stir being the first truly all-analogue, multi-timbral synth with a comprehensive and 'modern' MIDI implementation. However, the lack of a keyboard caused some confusion and consternation - "What the hell is this... a synth with no keyboard?". For Oberheim, it was a simple concept and a modern extension of their earlier SEM (Synthesiser Expansion Module) which established the company back in the early '70s.

However, at the time, keyboardless modules were pretty much unheard of and something else that we had to understand in this new, post-MIDI world. Interestingly, it was users of Akai EWI wind synth that were early adopters of the Xpander as it fitted in perfectly with many of the core performance concepts that the unique EWI had (and indeed still has!) to offer.

The Xpander also had some advantages over the Matrix 12 in that it had individual outputs for each of the voices and so could act as six totally independent monophonic mini-modulars. The Matrix 12, on the other hand, only had a stereo output (although voices could be mixed and panned internally for a stereo effect). To overcome this, Oberheim later released an optional upgrade that brought all twelve voices out on individual outputs (though this required you butchering the left hand wooden end cheek to accommodate it).

Of course, given the prices of the Xpander/Matrix and the fact that programming and editing required some highly deep and specialised knowledge of synthesis, neither sold in abundance but their impact on the design of synths is evident with many of the user interface principles they introduced - modulation matrices are now common on almost every synth and sampler and many products use the concept of virtual encoders that line up with parameters on an LCD above.

In an attempt to reduce costs (and hence increase sales and revenue), Oberheim made the Matrix 6 (and 6R rack mount version). This was a 6-voice analogue synth with pretty much the same basic spec. However, to get costs down, Oberheim used less expensive DCOs (digitally controlled oscillators) and other digital alternatives to expensive analogue components. Despite the compromises, it still sounded good and if the Matrix 6 had a problem, it was that Oberheim utilised the growing trend for 'parameter access' - i.e. a single slider and a small LCD with parameters selected using menus and other obtuse methods. With the huge potential for sound programming, the Matrix 6/6R were a nightmare to program. That and the dominance of (of course!) the Yamaha DX series of synths meant that neither the Matrix 6 or 6R set the world alight.

But if the Xpander and the Matrix series weren't entirely successful for Oberheim, their diminuitive Matrix 1000 was - for a mere $500, you could buy essentially the same technology in a 1U module that offered 1000 preset sounds.

For the money, there wasn't (and still isn't) a better way to have access to the classic Oberheim sound. Many will say that they don't sound as good because of the use of DCOs and other cost-down compromises (and up to point, that is true) but unless you have a genuine old (and impeccably serviced) '70s Oberhem OBX to compare them side-by-side, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference - the Matrix 1000 is a fantastic source of rich and vibrant analogue synth sounds that leave most 'modelled' and software synths standing, sounding wimpy and weak by comparison. Oberheim made two models - initially a black-faced model but later, a cream-faced version in the original livery of Oberheim's original '70s synths.

But despite these variations, it is undoubtedly the Matrix 12 that is the stuff of legend and fabled for its lush and fat, no-compromise analogue sound.

Phillippe Laurent has painstakingly multi-sampled his Matrix 12. All the samples are recorded through a Universal Audio 610 tube preamp and they capture the majesty of this magnificent beast.

Philippe is a producer who recently enjoyed chart success with the band "Galleon" and the song 'So I Begin' which got to #4 in the dance charts.