2600

The ARP 2600 was introduced in 1971 — fifty years ago. It was made by a company called Tonus, which later became ARP Instruments, that had been founded by Alan R. Pearlman (hence ARP) with David Friend two years earlier. It was a semi-modular synthesizer with three VCOs (switchable between audio and low frequency), one VCF, one VCA, two envelope generators, a noise generator, ring modulator, sample and hold, preamp and envelope follower, and spring reverb. So it was firmly within the realm of east coast style monophonic subtractive analog synthesis. (Or duophonic; the keyboard that came with later versions could send two notes to different oscillators.) It was discontinued in 1980, before MIDI, before widespread proliferation of polyphonic synths and digital technology — no presets here, unless you count paper patch sheets! The ARP 2600 was state of the art half a century ago. Who cares today?

ARP 2600, PNW SynthFest 2013. Photo by Daniel Spils, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ARP_2600,_PNW_SynthFest_2013.jpg

A lot of people, evidently:

  • It hasn’t been made in forty years, but you can still buy vintage ones, refurbished. If you have the money.
  • In 2004 Way Out Ware published TimewARP 2600, a software emulation. Way Out Ware looks as though it might be defunct now, but TimewARP 2600 appears to still be available.
  • In 2005 Arturia introduced ARP2600 V, another software emulation, still on the market.
  • 2014 saw the introduction of the TTSH (as in Two Thousand Six Hundred), a build-it-yourself reduced size clone of the ARP 2600; TTSH rev. 4 came out in 2019 and is still in production.
  • A year later Antonus came out with their Antonus 2600, a built and tested ARP 2600 reduced size clone, still available.
  • In 2020 Korg brought out the Korg ARP 2600 FS, a full size ARP 2600 clone designed in collaboration with David Friend. It was a limited production run and sold out almost immediately.
  • Also in 2020, Cherry Audio introduced CA2600, another software emulation. It’s still available.
  • And also in 2020, Behringer released the Behringer 2600, a synth modeled after the ARP 2600.
  • In January 2021, Korg announced the Korg ARP 2600 M, a clone like the FS but in a reduced size, probably shipping in mid 2021.
  • Also in January 2021, Behringer announced two new variants of the Behringer 2600, the Blue Marvin and the Gray Meanie, shipping February 2021. (That made three 2600-based synths announced in two days.)

It looks as though in a few months you could, if you wanted to, go out and buy at least six different new 2600-based hardware synths from four companies and softsynths from at least three more! But why? What is it about the 2600 that so many want to imitate it?

A lot of it is nostalgia, of course. Old fogies who remember the ARP 2600 fondly and want to recapture a bit of their (*our) youth. But that doesn’t account for young members of Congress:

Then there’s the bandwagon effect. But what gets the bandwagon going in the first place?

In part I think it was that the ARP 2600 was one of the first, and one of the best, semi modulars. ARP’s intent was that you should be able to do with the 2600 about 90% of what you could do with the company’s modular ARP 2500, at a much lower price and smaller size. From Moog you had big complex modulars and you had the small and practical but limited Minimoog. The 2600 sat squarely between the two, having subsystems the Minimoog didn’t — ring modulation, sample and hold, envelope follower — and more flexibility to connect its subsystems together.

Another factor in ARP’s popularity at the time was their oscillators. They had a unique quality: They stayed in tune. Moog’s oscillators didn’t. They were notorious for drifting out of tune on a time scale of minutes. ARP engineers took techniques for temperature stabilization that had been recently developed in other applications of electronics and brought them to synthesizer oscillators. The results were the best oscillators in the business.

ARP initially thought the market for the 2600 would be schools and colleges. It was with that in mind they created a front panel with clear and profuse labeling of the inputs, outputs, and signal paths. Looking at a patch you immediately see a block diagram of what’s going on. The intended educational market also would account for such features as the built in speakers and spring reverb tank, which don’t make a lot of sense for a studio or stage synth, but are natural for a classroom instrument. Of course the actual market turned out to be different: Edgar Winter, Jean Michel Jarre, Stevie Wonder, Joe Zawinul, and Hollywood sound designer Ben Burtt, who used the 2600 to create the voice of R2-D2 in Star Wars.

It’s not just that, it being semi-modular, you can plug just about anything into just about anything. On the ARP 2600, you can plug just about everything into, well, some things. For instance, the audio inputs to the VCF are normaled to the three oscillators, the noise generator, and the ring modulator. Each of those connections has a jack to override it with a different audio source and a slide pot to vary the amount of each signal. Five inputs to one filter! You can, if you want to, make a patch that blends signals from five audio sources into one big fat sound. You might not want to do that often, but you also can use the sliders to bring different signals in and out, so you can easily change from one sound combination built from three sources to another built from two more. That gives you tremendous flexibility for varying sounds in performance on the fly, without having to plug and unplug cables. Likewise, each of the VCOs has four inputs for pitch control voltages, and the VCF has three.

That’s why there are so many sliders. Sliders which are easier than rotary pots to manipulate in real time. You can fade out all five signal sources on the VCF simultaneously with one hand, if you want to. (A feature the software emulations have trouble capturing.)

There have been lots of synths since then, including lots of mid size semi-modulars, but few if any with that kind of clean usability and massive connectivity. It almost seems an evolutionary dead end — aside from the non-modular ARP Odyssey and Axxe, small synths with some of the 2600’s DNA, nothing much like the ARP 2600 has been made since. Except for the ones that are clones and near clones, of course!

The versions

The ARP 2600 went through four major and several minor versions from 1971 to 1980. For details see http://www.vintagesynth.com/arp/arp.php. Simplified list:

  • 2600 “Blue Marvin”. Blue/white panel, metal case. Original VCOs and VCF. 1971.
  • 2600C “Grey Meanie”. Grey/white panel, metal case. Original VCOs and VCF. 1971.
  • 2600P Grey/white panel, wood case with Tolex. Noisier VCOs, original VCF. 1971–74.
  • 2601 Orange/black panel, wood case with Tolex. Noisier VCOs, replacement VCF. 1974–8.

Generally the later versions were more reliable and more readily maintainable than the earlier ones, but had inferior sound. The VCOs were redesigned to use more reliable but noisier chips, and the original 4012 VCF was replaced under legal pressure from Moog in favor of the 4072 which had a design error and, even with the error corrected, is regarded as a major step down from the 4012.

The Clones

For reference the ARP 2600P presumably was the same size as the Korg FS: 32.9 x 9.13 x 20.0 inches. The front panel was about 31 by 16 inches. All the clones have a MIDI interface.

ARP 2600P and various descendants. Sizes are approximately to scale. Some versions include keyboard, not shown.

TTSH

Reduced size clone of 2600P. Panel is about 24 by 12 inches. 4012-based VCF. No keyboard. Intended as a build-it-yourself kit although built and tested units are available.

Antonus 2600

Reduced size clone of 2600P. Panel is about 24 by 12 inches. 4012-based VCF. No keyboard. Built and tested.

Korg ARP 2600 FS

Full size (hence FS) clone of 2600P. Panel is about 31 by 16 inches. Both 4012- and 4072-based VCFs, switch selectable. Includes CV keyboard with arpeggiator added. Built and tested. Discontinued 2020.

Behringer 2600

Initial version based on, but physically modified from, ARP 2600, with panel visually similar to 2601 model. Panel is 19 by 14 inches. Both 4012- and 4072-based VCFs, switch selectable. Some oscillator enhancements. Electronic (not spring) reverb. Rack mountable. No keyboard. Built and tested.

“Blue Marvin” and “Gray Meanie” versions, based visually on the 2600 and 2600C versions and upgraded with better components and a spring reverb, will ship in Feb 2021.

Korg ARP 2600 M

Reduced size clone of 2600P. Panel is about 20 by 10 inches. Both 4012- and 4072-based VCFs, switch selectable. No keyboard. Built and tested. Shipping mid 2021.

Money matters

From the sublime to the crass, let’s talk about money. Pricing.

The ARP 2600 cost $3300 back in 1975. In 2021 dollars, that comes to about $16,000. Not exactly impulse purchase money!

Electronics generally has gotten a lot cheaper in the past five decades, when measured in constant dollars. Here are current prices for various 2600 synths, hardware and software:

ARP 2600$3300 (in 1975; about $16,000 in 2021 dollars)
Refurbished price range $6000–$10,000
Way Out Ware TimewARP 2600$100
Arturia ARP2600 V$150
TTSH$3600 assembled and tested
$1950 full kit with case
Antonus 26002640€ (about $3200)
Korg ARP 2600 FS$3900 (in 2020; discontinued)
Cherry Audio CA2600$40 ($25 introductory price)
Behringer 2600$600 (street; MSRP $1050)
Korg ARP 2600 M1800€ rumored (about $2180; ships mid 2021)
Behringer Blue Marvin
Behringer Gray Meanie
$700 (ships Feb 2021)

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