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Oberheim Ring Modulator

The cabinet, dear readers, is a plentiful one. One side of it is filled with effects that I’ll be more than happy to tell you about in due time. It remains shut with its contents concealed behind an opaque door. These pedals are by no means duds—the Jet Phaser and DC-2 both came from it—but they’re simply not fit to sit inside the adjacent cabinet, one filled with certified display pieces. We’re talking Echorec, a cherry EP-3 and a Multivox Multi Echo among others. But just one is an actual pedal, the only one in our possession worthy of a display case footprint: the Oberheim Ring Modulator.

For those that don’t know, the effects world is studded by certain names that are written in the effects pantheon as great innovators and engineers. Some more notable examples are Gary Hurst, Mike Matthews, Keith Barr, Mike Beigel and many many more. More often than not, people sleep on one Tom Oberheim, but he deserves a seat at the table—perhaps even the head seat. 

Mostly known for his synth ventures these days (think Van Halen’s “Jump”), Oberheim grew up studying physics and building amps, which led to his career as a computer engineer. Eventually, he discovered that music gear was his true passion after designing an effect written about by Harald Bode in an issue of Electronics Magazine. He parlayed this passion into a budding career in guitar effects and synthesizers, releasing the first pedal-style ring modulator and phase shifter.

 Now, after surveying the cabinet’s contents, I realize that there is not another piece within it that is even tangentially linked to Bode, and his place in the effects business is small but oh so important. The spirit of this column would be remiss without acknowledging his contributions to the field, so here goes.

Apart from being the first man to publish an article about ring modulators, he was also the first to sell them under his own name. Bode also played a crucial role in the adaptation of tubes to solid-state transistors, as well as the advent of the vocoder, a device now known as “that robot voice effect” but originally used by WW2 intelligence officials to encrypt high-clearance conversations between world leaders. Bode was the man, and don’t you forget it.

So it should come as no surprise that Oberheim’s Ring Modulator is perhaps the most sublime example of the effect—in both aesthetics and tonality—despite being the first “pedal” version with many subsequent contenders to the throne, yet nary a usurper. As far as its modern practicality is concerned, there’s a reason you don’t see any on any pedalboard anywhere, beyond the pedal’s insane price point and collectibility.

For one, the thing is as big as a phone book. If that’s not enough, the two switches in front are—you guessed it—toggles. There’s a jack in the front that one might think is for an auxiliary footswitch, but alas, it is for a “control pedal.” Fortunately, this made the pedal a boon for keyboadists, especially those favoring the Rhodes piano. Jan Hammer of Mahavishnu Orchestra made significant use of one (in addition to other Oberheim-designed goodies) on several tracks, one of which I’ll link below (3:28).

Ring modulators work by using an internal pitch called a carrier frequency, which is derived from a ring of components, which modulates the input signal. Unlike many ring modulators that stick you with one carrier value, Oberheim’s version offers you a plethora of carrier options, with the option to output the oscillator itself to other effects, supply your own carrier oscillator (thereby making the pedal a throughput processor), as well as two switchable carrier frequency ranges and many more options under the hood.

If you know how to dial in ring modulators (sadly, a dying art), you’d be hard-pressed to find a better sounding unit than Oberheim’s original. And because finding one is so hard, there’s a good chance you may never get to play one. True to most geniuses of the craft, Oberheim’s device relied on then-cutting-edge tech, using an MC1495 four-quadrant multiplier chip that has long since crossed over to the tech graveyard.

Lastly, it begs to be mentioned that the Oberheim Ring Modulator may very well feature my favorite pedal art of all time—the whole shebang looks like a Devo album cover. Oberheim’s “muscly note” is simply one of the coolest logos ever, and the incredible and thorough attention to detail give it beauty with brains to match.