Electro-Harmonix V1 Micro Synthesizer
As you by now know, the Cabinet is crawling with curiosities. We’ve covered several innovators, including a lesser-known synthesizer device that was released in the early ‘80s. This decade was the exact period of time that Minimoogs and 2600s were being heaved into Dumpsters or pawned for pennies in favor of digital synthesis (us opportunists were recovering them just as quickly). In other words, the technological pinnacle of analog synthesis was on the horizon, and guitar synth equipment reflected this. But part of the fun is figuring out where the pieces fit. Today’s entry, a V1 Electro-Harmonix Micro Synthesizer, beat all other units to the punch in terms of raw synth power.
The year was 1978. Roland released the SH-1 and Jupiter 4; Korg released the iconic MS-20. The new wave of lower-cost synthesis was upon us, with the brute strength of bulky synth potency in the rear-view mirror. However, since these pieces had recently been featured on tons of rock records, guitarists silently coveted that sound. Maestro’s USS-1 pedal, while designed in part with Tom Oberheim, simply squashed together a spate of synth-like effects. Nothing out there gave guitarists actual synth controls to play around with. Even the Korg X-911, made by an actual synthesizer company, couldn’t muster the same architecture.
With real synthesizer controls, the Micro Synthesizer lived up to its name and then some. Players were given full, expansive control over every parameter of the filter sweep and other synth fixings, including triggering parameters and some rudimentary ADSR functions. You can completely cut out the dry signal if you want to go full Edgar Winter, or keep it present for a full-bodied tone. There are two separate octave mix controls, which the manual describes as having extra “harmonic distortion.” A feature, not a flaw, you see.
For being so feature-rich, the manual does not mince words about the degree of difficulty attached to wrangling the Micro Synthesizer. Each slider function is delineated in great detail, including how they interact with the other sliders. With that said, it’s very easy to make the Micro Synthesizer sound . . . interesting (but never bad), but dialing it in is a task in itself. And since this particular model is so rare to find with the manual, there is one particular parameter that is capable of throwing the whole system into peril.
It is explicitly stated in the documentation that the Micro Synthesizer is factory tuned to support the output from a Strat. As some Strat aficionados know, Strat pickups made in the late-’70s were somewhat undesirable—in the canon of Strat pickups, these are known as relatively thin and microphonic sounding. As such, the Micro Synthesizer is factory-set to accept and process wimpy pickups. Players equipped with a little more magnetic beef must open the enclosure and fiddle with a trimpot, while futzing with a semi-complicated calibration procedure involving all ten sliders.
The manual promises “popular lead synthesizer voicings,” and it’s fair to say that Mike Matthews and company hit the nail on the head. There’s just one problem: the oscillator. In the realm of synth, an oscillator is the sound source, which can be tuned, adjusted and then processed through a network of outboard operations before it reaches the output jack. The analog (har har) to guitar would be the strings. And because the guitar is a much more harmonically complicated sound source than any oscillator, it is notoriously difficult to pipe into the same synth outrigging and expect the same results.
To get around this, the Micro Synthesizer employs a pulverizing fuzz circuit that amplifies the incoming signal to a near-vertical amplitude, then shears off the peaks to fashion a crude square wave. Problem solved. This soothes the innards of the unit and allows it to work its magic without glitching out; the boon of almost every analog synth pedal ever created.
As a testament to the pedal’s longevity and the simultaneous secret desire of guitarists to tickle the ivories without having to learn a whole new instrument, the Micro Synthesizer is still being made today, a full 42 years later, with only a couple teensy changes. Even though synths can now do basically everything, including MIDI, there’s something to be said for the basics.