Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Oxford Synthesiser Company OSCar "Why would anyone buy this ugly, monophonic synthesizer" ad, Keyboard 1985

Oxford Synthesiser Company OSCar "Why would anyone buy this ugly, monophonic synthesizer" half-page black and white advertisement from page 35 in December 1985 issue of Keyboard Magazine.

I love the December issues of Keyboard. They are always a slightly different beast from the rest of the months. They are usually packed with more pages and within those pages are a lot more ads. As a result, I've seen many advertisers try something a little different or take a bit more risk and step out of their comfort zone in order to break through the noise.

Sometimes those ads are just a change from their normal campaign to wish readers a happy holiday or merry Xmas. Good examples are this SCI's "Happy Holiday Season" ad. Another is this Oberheim "Sounds of the Season" ad.

But sometimes, just... sometimes... readers get a real treat. And this OSCar advertisement is exactly that!

I'm sure you'll agree that the opening line immediately grabs your attention:
"Why would anyone want to buy this ugly, monophonic synthesizer"
Remember, this isn't 1981. Readers are on 1986's doorstep. Polyphonics had not only been on the market for a while, but prices were starting to tumble. There were lots to choose from - Korg's DW series, Sequential's MultiTrak, Yamaha's DX100/21 and Roland JX3p come to mind.

But being upfront and honest about your product is a great way to help cut through all that advertising clutter. A good comparison is Buckley's Cough Syrup's long running "It tastes awful and it works" campaign. You throw the reader the bad news first to get their attention, and then hit them with the good news. And that's exactly the strategy this OSCar advertisement went for.

The ad copy below the title expands on this idea:
"When you've got a synthesizer with endbells that look like deflated Uniroyals and a front panel design that could double for a rat maze in some scientific research program...". 
That's synth comedy gold. And it works.

Its only then that the ad gets to the point of the question - why would anyone want to buy it? And here's where the real pitch begins. The good news.

And what is the good news? That it sounds great! As Wikipedia puts it, this is mostly due to "its many unusual features and design quirks". I'm not going to get into all the features and quirks here in this post, except to say that it had such good sounding digital oscillators that the book Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail noted "its sales took off very quickly despite the fact that it was monophonic and cost almost as much as a Roland Juno-60".

And it still sounds so good that even today the OSCar sells for the same, if not for more, than a Minimoog.

That's saying something.

Another highlight of the ad, especially if you caught that little asterisk after the word "anyone" in the headline, is that list of bands that used the OSCar - Go West, Ultravox, Asia, Dead or Alive, and the System. That's a fine list of "anyones"!

But, I have to say, the most interesting thing about this ad is that the OSCar synthesizer wasn't being promoted by the company that manufactured it, the Oxford Synthesiser Company, but by their North American distributor Europa Technology Inc.

Europa was responsible for bringing some of the best European synths to North America in the 80's, including the PPG as well as the OSCar. And one of the owners of Europa, Geoff Farr, who was previously an Oberheim Electronics sales rep in the 70s, went on to distribute the Waldorf Wave and Access Virus as part of the GSF Agency, where he continues to represent Tom Oberheim, Knifonium and Acoustica Audio.

That guy has a keen eye for good gear!  :)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Korg DDD-1 Dynamic Digital Drums brochure, 1986



 Korg DDD-1 Dynamic Digital Drums four-page colour brochure from 1986.

I've been slowly learning that Moog Song Producer software, but that manual is so crazy that I need to take a break and work on something else every now and then.

And I gotta say I've also been on a bit of a Korg kick lately that has begun to flow into the blog. First with that lovely 1982 Korg catalog I last posted, and now with this equally lovely D.D.D.1 (aka DDD1 aka DDD-1) brochure.

Where do I begin? How about with that lovely 80s-style front cover design created very much in the style and colouring of the Korg drum machine itself. Stacks of rectangles in the shape of the drum pads representing all sound possibilities the DDD-1 has to offer.

Flip open the cover and you've got tons of interesting brochure copy to read inside. Yet the text doesn't feel too crowded thanks to the large main image and plenty of white space between each column as well as each paragraph of text. Makes for a nice, easy read.

And flip over to the back, and we see all the specs as well as a few interesting options, including an intriguing sampling board! But I'll get back to that later.

In order to understand the significance of the Korg DDD-1 and where Korg was trying to fit this piece of kit into a crowded market place where technology was developing fast and feature/price ratios was falling even faster, we have to look at what had come previously, both from Korg and others. Here's a few examples:

 - Roland TR-909: 10 sounds, $1,195
 - Sequential Circuits DrumTraks : 13 sounds, $1,295
 - LINN 9000: 18 sounds, $5000+!

 - Roland TR-707/727: 15 sounds, $595
 - Sequential Circuits TOM: 8 sounds, $799
 - E-mu SP-12: 24 sounds, $2,745 - 1.2 seconds of sampling
 - Korg DDM-110/220: 9 sounds, can't find a price anywhere!).

 -  Casio's RZ-1: 12 sounds, $599 - .8 seconds of sampling
 -  Roland TR-505: 16 sounds, $395.00

And, now, we slot the DDD-1 into this mix of drum machines with its 18 sounds. All for $995.00.

What's that you say? The Roland TR-505 has 16 sounds for only $395.00?

Yes, but its not just about the number of sounds the drum machine has. It's also about the features!

With the Korg DDD-1, we getting dynamics and tuning. And we can also add more sounds by plugging in up to four ROM cards (from the more than 20 to choose from). Plus, if you shell out a bit more cash, you can get the sampling board, which gives you 3.2 seconds worth of sample time - a lot more time than the RZ-1 had.

My point is, the DDD-1 found a nice niche to settle into and a pretty fair price point with lots of future possibilities for expansion. Unfortunately, I could never track down an original price of that sampling board, which would have allowed a better comparison with some of the other sampling drum machines from the time period. I'll keep looking.

Now to get back to that Moog Song Producer software I've been slowly learning for a near-future blog post.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Korg "We put it all together" catalog, Vol.3, 1982

 Korg "We put it all together" four page catalog - Volume 3, 1982.

I love Korg catalogs.

This one from 1979.

This one from 1984.

There are others on the blog too!

Every one of them packs so much gear into such a little package. And the legends are all there - Korg Trident, Polysix, PS-3200, Mono/Poly, MS-10/20/50, VC-10... the list goes on and on. It all makes me so happy.

But out of all the gear spread across the three pages, one rather unassuming section of this catalog gets my full attention every time.


I can hear you say it... "What? Bags? SOFT BAGS...?!?!?"

But if you look closer, they just aren't just bags. Some of them aren't even just Korg-branded bags. Three of them are PRODUCT BRANDED. 

The funky blue bag proudly exclaims in bright yellow that it was specifically made for the LP10 electric piano. It kinda reminds me of my 80's blue and yellow Adidas gym bag I used to lug around. Or maybe that was the colour of my pants? Or shirt? Maybe both.

Anyways... back to those bags. That fire-engine red one? You can see it clearly written that it was designed to hold an X-911 guitar synthesizer.

And, although its hard to make out in the photo, the grey writing underneath the logo on that smaller brown bag at the back says "RHYTHM" - clearly made to carry their KR-55 and/or KR-33 Rhythm drum machine. You can see a photo of a KR55 snuggled right in on Polynomial's KR-55 Web page

photo from MATRIXSYNTH!
The larger brown bag doesn't say what it was destined to carry in its belly, but I have seen it on MATRIXSYNTH - its made to fit the MS-10 perfectly. Drool.

For me, these bags are right up there with Roland's black and silver TB-303/606 vinyl carry bags.  But unlike those bags, I've yet to trip over one of these Korg product bags IRL. In fact, I've only ever seen the red and blue bag in Korg catalogs. 
So, if you have one of these bags, I'd love to see a better photo - preferably with an X-911 or LP-10 sitting it 'em. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk "IBM Sequencer" advertisement, Electronic Musician 1988

Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk "IBM Sequencer" 1/3-page colour advertisement from the bottom right corner of page 13 in the March 1988 issue of Electronic Musician.

Note: This is Twelve Tone Systems' third advertisement. I've blogged about their first ad and second ad as well. Not essential reading to follow along, but part of the fun ride.

This third Cakewalk ad ended up running in the January, March, April and May 1988 issues of Electronic Musician.

The only colour in this ad is the word "Cakewalk" itself - and even then, the ad only got the colour treatment in the March issue. In all the other issues, the ad is fully black & white. Looking at the rest of the page of that March issue, there are red sub-headings for the "letters to the editor" article that appears there, so I guess Twelve Tone had the option to include some colour in their ad and they took the opportunity when presented.

Considering this is the first time the logo has appeared in advertising material, I found it interesting that they chose the word "Cakewalk" to be red. One thought is that it could have been easier to colourize the word Cakewalk as its just text. Also, from that earlier interview with Twelve Tone Systems' founder that I referenced in the blog post for their first ad, it was clear that people were already referring to the company as Cakewalk  (and why they later changed the name of the company to Cakewalk).

But we do finally get to see the logo in the ad though. That makes me happy.  :)

The ad-copy in this third ad takes a different approach than their previous two. In the first two ads, the company focused on relaying Cakewalk's main features to the reader - 256 tracks, ease of use, editing power and low price. But this time, they quickly got their speaking points out in bold lettering in the first paragraph, and then used the majority of the ad space to promote themselves through quotes from recent product reviews conducted by relatively well-known authors - Matt Isaacson from Music Technology Magazine and the one and only Jim Aikin from Keyboard.

Letting the industry professionals do the talking is always a good strategy, as long as there is no disconnect between the statements made in the ad and those found in those VERY recent reviews. You never want to be called out for taking a someone's words out of context to benefit your product.

Well, you can guess what happened next - time to hunt down those original reviews.

Up first was the Cakewalk review in the November 1987 issue of Music Technology. An awesome issue that also includes great interviews with Kitaro and fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois. But, I resisted the urge to let myself get distracted and start flipping through the magazine. I went straight to page 75 to read the review.

It was clear right from the start that reviewer Matt Isaacson was a fan and that the review was no doubt going to be a positive affair. Right out of the gate the introduction begins with:
"For every problem technology solves, it creates another. The main problem which Cakewalk poses for me is how to do it justice in the limited space allotted for the review." 
It continues to spell out the specs of the software and what is required to run it. Looking back at reviews thrity years later is great because you read it from a totally different perspective. According to the review, it supports colour monitors and Microsoft Mouse, but is quite usable in the absence of both.

What? You could use a mouse with Microsoft DOS? I don't recall this *at all*.

Anyways, the three and half page review continues on, first with a basic "Getting Around" section. This includes among other things explanations on the pull-down menu, keyboard short cuts, and online help. The next section, an extension of the first really is "Looking Around", describing the main window itself.

With those basics out of the way, Matt then digs in deep with a section called the "The Sequence View Window", where he describes the Track, Measures and Event views. Most if not all the work is done on one of these three screens.

The last two sections of the review are "Recording" and, quite easily the largest section "Editing".

Before we get to the conclusion, there is a sticky little section called "Problems". Matt basically came up with four issues. The first was that playback timing of some tracks became "askew" after recording. The second and third issue were basically software bugs - one that could affect event editing and another that affected the MIDI start command under certain conditions. Not too shabby for version 1.1 software of anything. The final problem Matt identified was the software's total disregard for system exclusive messages.

His conclusion more than made up for pointing out these faults in the software, with Matt calling Cakewalk "one hell of a sequencer", who's "editing capabilities are too good to ignore". Nothing taken out of context here.

I next looked up Jim Aiken's review in the December 1987 issue of Keyboard. At only two pages, it might seem that its not as in-depth as the previous review, but Keyboard's small font size and single line spacing probably more than makes up for this difference.

Jim's review starts even more positively than Matt's.
"Standards in sequencer design are pretty high these days, but software newcomer Twelve Tone Systems scores quite well with Cakewalk, a full-functional sequencer program for the IBM PC."
And, just like Matt, he too points out in his introduction that you can use Cakewalk easily with or without a mouse.  Interestingly, unlike the review in MT that leaves the messy list of issues and bugs until the end, Jim likes to point these out within the sections themselves. For example, in the introduction he point out one of Cakewalk's faults right at the get-go - no automated punch-in. Two different review styles - both legit. Although I prefer the first so all the problems are featured in one place.

Like Music Technology's review, after the introduction we get an in-depth overview of the software and its main screens - navigation and the Track, Measure and Events view. While the MT review didn't seem to mind the Measures view, Jim described it as looking "vaguely like the main screen on the Roland MPS/Mesa sequencer, and is probably just about as useless...".

The next section of the review focused on editing, detailing some of the more complicated (in a good way!) aspects of the software. He does point out they found a serious bug in the event filter that would crash Cakewalk, but also offered up a work-around.

The final section before the conclusion is called "Utilities", which points out some of the "miscellaneous goodies in Cakewalk", which included storing of tempo settings, the ability to run a second program without dumping Cakewalk from memory, some of Cakewalk's save features including it's autosave, and the filtering of incoming MIDI data. One feature he called "unusual" and "could be real lifesaver" was that incoming data that was on separate channels could be kept separated on different tracks in Cakewalk.

Dang! The things we take for granted now. 

Jim's conclusion shouldn't surprise you...
"Greg Hendershott appears to have done a thorough and effective job, and we can recommend Cakewalk with complete confidence. There are several good IBM sequencers around, but if you're shopping for one, we'd definitely suggest that you get an in-store demo of Cakewalk so you can make an informed decision". 
So, as you can see, within the space of eight months Twelve Tone Systems' had managed to launch a product in April 1987, advertise effectively and get two very positive reviews in at least two large and influential industry magazines by the Christmas season.

Not too shabby.

Hey, did I mention how happy I am to see a Twelve Tone Systems' logo?   :)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk "IBM PC/XT/AT OWNERS!!!" advertisement, Electronic Musician 1987

Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk sequencer software "IBM PC/XT/AT OWNERS!!!" 1/4-page black and white advertisement from the top-right corner of page 13 in the August 1987 issue of Electronic Musician.

Hey there! This is blog post #2 of my walk down Cakewalk memory lane. If you haven't read the first one... you may want to do that now. Or don't.

If you recall from my previous post, Twelve Tone Systems' first advertisement (right) had run from April through June 1987. If you had picked up that July issue and noticed it missing, you might have thought that was the end of Cakewalk.

But, as you are no doubt aware, it definitely wasn't. And after a brief one month hiatus, this second Cakewalk ad appeared in the August issue and continued to run for four consecutive months through to November 1987.

From that first small advertisement's humble beginnings, Twelve Tone Systems began picking up users a few at a time. But that costs money and a new product can always use a bit of earned media (in other words, free) to help get their legs running in the right direction.

Electronic Musician included a small write-up in its June 1987 What's New section:
"Cakewalk ($150.00), a MIDI recorder/editor for the IBM PC/XT/AT (256K memory and Roland MPU-401 required), features 256 tracks of unlimited length, a pull-down menu interface, a detailed Event View for editing MIDI parameters, and extensive global editing commands. Edit regions can be marked by ear and further refined using Event Filter criteria. A demo disk is available for $10. Twelve Tone Systems. PO Box 226, Watertown, MA, 02272 617/924-7937."
And although Keyboard magazine had yet to publish an ad for Cakewalk, they also gave their readers a taste of Cakewalk within their June 1987 Spec Sheet page:
"Cakewalk MIDI recorder/editor. Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk software features 256 tracks of unlimited length, a context-sensitive, on-line help system, and easy pull-down menu interface, a detailed Event View for editing MIDI parameters, and extensive global editing commands. Edit regions can be marked during playback and refined using Event Filter criteria. Cakewalk runs with an IBM compatible with at least 256K, a Roland MPU-104, and at least one MIDI instrument. $150.00. Twelve Tone Systems, Box 226, Watertown, MA 02272."
It's interesting to see just how similar these two little write-ups are. And I don't think that's a coincidence. I'm guessing someone at Cakewalk trotted out a small news release or product announcement. It's every marketing and PR person's dream that you will send out an announcement and the over-worked writers and editors will use your direct wording. Based on the fact these two write-ups are so identical, I'm guessing it worked for the most part. :)

One thing that I did notice was missing, both from this second ad and from these magazine product write-ups, is Twelve Tone Systems' buzzwords that was so boldly... er... bolded in their first ad:  "Aural Editing". They used it to describe how editing regions could be marked by ear during playback. Well, it looks like they decided to drop the term already (but not the feature).  Such is the life of buzzwords. Boooooo!

As for the second advertisement itself, Twelve Tone Systems decided to enlarge the ad space from 1/6-page to 1/4-page, and this was a good decision on their part. Most particularly because it allowed the fun, laid-back personality of the company to shine through.

Phrases like...
"This hot sequencing software gives you lots of power for not much coin." 
"You are guided through all this power by a nifty user-interface..." 
"Or dip into over 100 pages of the clearest documentation you've ever not had to read."  
"Cakewalk is all yours for just $150. Of course, if paying $500 for Cakewalk will make you feel better, we'll play along."
 That's just good branding. I'm reading it 30 years later and it still sounds like Cakewalk to me.

There is one thing I'm still missing. Although the company has now defined their personality, they are still in desperate need of a logo.  But they do have everyone's attention... and so its time for the next step.

Which I'll get to in the next blog post.

Update: The third blog post is now live!