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Raiders of the Lost Arp (or “should I sell my 2600?”)

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WRITTEN BY: Tony Miln

UPLOADED: 21st Jan 2020

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Another new year, another iconic synth resurrection. Behringer ruthlessly copying yet another venerable/iconic classic synth into handy (until it requires service or repair) pocket-sized form? No (not yet at least), this time it’s Korg, unveiling what appears to be a faithful and honourable relaunch of the venerable ARP 2600.

But what does this mean for the original 2600s out there? Should you dump them quickly before prices crash? Once again we poke the synth reissues nest of vipers and see what scuttles out…

“Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.”

[Editor’s note: in case you are wondering, yes we have replaced all the titles in this blog with eerily appropriate quotes from Indiana Jones movies.]

The ARP 2600 hardly needs an introduction: Dennis Colin’s design for Alan R Pearlman is one of the undisputed all-time greats of synthesizer history. Not only is there the renowned Star Wars connection (more on that below), but it’s credited by Underworld’s Rick Smith as being the synth he used to create ‘Rez’, and was widely used and abused by all manner of synth botherers, from Pete Townshend to Stevie Wonder to Joe Zawinul (who reportedly rang ARP to ask “how do I turn it off?”). An Arp 2600 and sequencer was also heavily-used by Daniel Miller on Depeche Mode’s Speak And Spell debut, and thereafter on many seminal Mute recordings – here he is talking Depeche in the excellent Synth Britannia documentary:

“You’re meddling with powers you can’t possibly comprehend.”

Rick Smith describes the gestation of Rez in the excellent ‘Bright Sparks’ documentary – a cautionary tale about how important it is to always be ready to  capture the moment. He had that amazing Rez riff running on his 2600 in the studio, but everyone was itching to go out for the night and telling him to hurry up and leave it til the morning. He knew he was onto something special so quickly recorded a pass before powering down to head out (not before carefully noting down the settings on the 2600). Returning the next day to continue work, he was unable to coax that sound out of the 2600 again: it was to prove a one night only sound, and his prescience to record that take delivered one of the greatest techno records of all time.

“…we are simply passing through history. This… this is history.”

The Arp 2600 was famously used by Ben Burtt to create the chirrupy voice of R2D2 for Skywalker Sound when designing the sounds for George Lucas’ Star Wars.

Anyone who’s spent some time with a 2600 will recognise the unmistakable sound of this beloved synth in R2’s voice. Check out Red Bull Music Academy working to recreate this process.

For those wanting to know more, this excellent Reverb film – conveniently released to coincide with the Korg 2600 launch (OK, it was a joint effort between Reverb and Korg) is currently the definitive potted history of the Arp 2600: 

“I always knew someday you’d come walking back through my door. I never doubted that. Something made it inevitable.”

I’m sure I’m not the only synth lover who was cheering that it is Korg, not Behringer, who have been able to announce the first reissue of the 2600. Korg already have admirable form with their release of the classic ARP Odyssey and have assured the synth world that their 2600 will be a faithful recreation, but with the addition of “a 128-note sequencer, USB and DIN-style MIDI connections, XLR audio outputs, and an arpeggiator.” The initial demo video certainly sounds excellent, and I’m prepared to suspend my usual scepticism over new vintage synths in this case, given Korg’s backstory with the Odyssey. In fact, I’m keen to play with one: I’ve not been this excited about a “new” synth since the excellent Moog Model D reissue.

While nobody is likely to shed a tear that Behringer have been beaten to the post by Korg, spare a thought for Antonus in Spain, makers of excellent 2600s and sequencers. Jo and I caught up with David Dewaele of Soulwax/2ManyDJs backstage on the recent Chemical Brothers tour and he told us what great synths they are and how much he enjoys playing his live. I do hope that Antonus are not adversely-affected: there should still be a market for a quality hand-built compact 2600 alongside the Korg reissue. The Antonus sounds great and, with led-equipped sliders, is perfectly suited for use on a darkened stage or in a dingy studio.

“Look at this. It’s worthless — ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.”

One possible side effect of the Korg 2600’s release could be a softening of vintage prices as people either trade in their old synths for new or, as happened with the MS-20, concerned owners/investors rush their originals to market to avoid holding on to a depreciating asset. One of the first emails I received on news of the release asked whether “Should I sell my original ARP 2600 now that Korg are reissuing it?”

So will the value of an ARP 2600 fall now? While I don’t possess a crystal ball, I’d be surprised if vintage 2600s don’t see some sort of downwards adjustment in the short term. It’s a tough call to determine exactly what will occur further down the line, but I can’t see synth dealers paying high prices in 2020, given the uncertainty. 2600s have been in short supply for quite some time which has inevitably driven prices upwards. Finding one in good condition, reliably-restored and ‘future-proofed’ by a tech who knows them inside out, was even harder, so collectors and users who wanted an example in faultless working order and excellent cosmetic condition were increasingly required to dig ever deeper. 

Here’s a rare, early “Tonus” ARP 2600 in stunning condition that we had the privilege of selling earlier this year:

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“I think it’s time to ask yourself; what do you believe in?”

If I was someone who bought vintage synths purely for their investment potential, I might be considering liquidating my 2600, which of course is the exact kind of behaviour that will further undermine prices: a glut of expensive, rare synths become available in a short time period and we move from a sellers’ market to buyers’ and prices inevitably fall. This year might see a slight downwards adjustment in vintage ARP 2600 prices, as gushing reviews of the new Korg suggest it’s every bit as good as an original (better even: more reliable and with extra features). I for one welcome these new arrivals: if we’re going to hear more music made on 2600s, that’s also fine by me. But given the limited number of 2600s Korg are saying they’ll build, this is but a short term blip and the Korgs are possibly set to be future classics in their own right. Whether a £300 Behringer 2600 would stir things up more remains to be seen.

 

“Choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.”

Of course, those who own vintage synths because they enjoy using them should hold firm: if you’ve owned yours for many years, why would you sell a synth you love just because it might not be worth more on paper for a short time? If you had no intention to sell your 2600 before Korg’s announcement, then to consider doing so now only makes sense if you quite fancy trading your creaky old beast for a shiny new one with extra bells and a sequencer. I’m expecting a few calls asking “how much to trade my original Arp 2600 for a new Korg?” and, while we might be cautious about taking too many old 2600s into stock right now, we’d be hard-pressed not to consider one or two. [STOP PRESS: Korg are saying that the new 2600s have all now sold out. As you were].

 

“It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”

For those of us mere mortals whose hopes of owning one had faded as 2600s disappeared into the distant realms of synths more expensive than our cars, the new Korg should be greeted warmly. I’ve always wanted a 2600, and now maybe I’ll have one, but which should I choose? My vintage heart would always go for an original, but if I play the Korg and find it comparable sonically, I’ll be tempted by the extra features and, I admit, also by the reliability. While the Soundgas Synth Tech Department can repair and restore these old beasts to the highest standard, anything that’s mine languishes at the back of the queue, so an old 2600 might actually not be the best option if I want to use it this year! 

And (because no article is complete without a Soundgas demo, here’s that Tonus 2600 in action:

Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

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