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The ARP 2600 is regarded as one of the greatest analog synthesizers ever created. The semi-modular monophonic synth was intended for teaching purposes but due to its intuitive design, many music professionals jumped on board when it was first launched in the 1970s. ARP and Moog were the two big American synthesizer companies back in the early years, synth music owes a lot to these two as they both managed to create a way to bring synthesis to the masses. The ARP 2600 was the forerunner of this era and the sound and flexibility it offers is still relevant today.
Standout features of the ARP 2600
The ARP 2600 introduced synth music to the general public, at a time when modular setups were expensive and had to be custom built to suit the buyer’s requirements, ARP gave us the semi-modular synth that opened the doors to affordable synth music production.
The 2600 comes with a selection of synthesizer modules already pre-wired, removing the daunting task of wiring up patch cables for beginners. This makes it a lot easier for someone to take it home, plug it in and start making music without any further set up required.
You also have various patch points located on the front of the synth, these allow the more experienced synth users to override the pre-wired connections and customize how the modules are routed, this opens up the synth and makes it possible to experiment with more sounds.
This vintage analog synth comes with three voltage controlled oscillators (VCOs) with several standard waveforms available. The ARP 2600 is built for subtractive synthesis and these oscillators create rich sounds that can then be shaped via the amplifiers and filters.
The oscillators in the 2600 are standout components and they prove to be very powerful as you start to tweak and draw out their sound-shaping potential.
Built-in speakers and spring reverb were two features that helped to put the ARP above the rest of its competitors, along with the renowned built-in envelope follower that was used in the Star Wars movies for R2-D2’s robotic voice!
The superior sound of the first run of 2600s was down to the powerful onboard filters, however, these filters were based on a Moog design that was patented. After the threat of legal action from Moog, ARP were forced to head back to the drawing board and design their own filters.
Unfortunately, these filters were not quite up to the same standard as the impressive filters that Moog had designed. Meaning the resulting sounds of the newer 2600 models (by then they were called 2601) were a lot duller and weaker than the originals.
Why was the ARP 2600 popular?
The 2600 is a truly powerful analog machine capable of outputting some huge and crazy sounds. It is designed with a complete analog signal path and includes many modules with which you can tweak and experiment to make your own unique character sounds.
As mentioned, three powerful oscillators are at the heart of this synth but it’s the sum of the parts that make the 2600 so popular. You’ve got the pre-amplifier that allows for external sound sources (mic or line) and an envelope follower that will convert input signals into CV.
Ring Modulation is also available for when you want to combine two signals together, whether that might be one audio signal and one CV signal for traditional amp modulation, or two audio signals to get those metallic and bell types of sound.
The Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF) is comprised of a resonant low-pass filter that is controlled by sliders, these control the cut-off frequency and amount of resonance. You will also find that these sliders are used for most of the controls on the 2600.
ADSR and AR Envelopes are available for creating character within your sounds, enabling you to create filter curves and amplitude curves with ease. There is also a useful Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA) function with volume and gain sliders that will amplify and shape your sounds
The ARP 2600 comes with plenty more additional features that include a noise generator and an LFO with sample and hold capabilities (you will need to sacrifice one of the main VCOs to make use of the LFO).
A quick search of the different models of the 2600 and you will notice that there have been quite a few over the years. Due to the Moog lawsuit, a couple of component issues and some minor cosmetic changes, there was a constant turnaround of model revisions between 1971 and 1980.
The sound quality was never really matched when compared to the original model, dubbed the blue meanie, from there the sound went downhill. You could still make great music on the later models but the original just had that extra special overall sound that could not be replicated.
Various models included the original blue meanie, with only 25 being made (in a garage!), next came the grey meanie with a new color and updated keyboard (only 35 made). The next model, the 2600P, was the more roadworthy version as they were built in a suitcase-styled housing.
The last model to be issued was the 2601, these included newer designs of sliders and input jacks and what are now known as the infamous ARP designed filters, these are the filters that were produced and implemented until they stopped production in 1980.
Only around 3,000 were produced during those ten years, so these vintage ARP synthesizers are very rare and it’s no doubt that they will command a large price tag on the used market.
In recent years there have been some software recreations, Arturia’s ARP 2600V looks realistic and gets close to the sound, but it will never recreate the exact power and quality of the mighty blue meanie, the original ARP 2600.
The ARP 2600 has already cemented its place in the synthesizer history books, with its huge analog sounds and unique features, many synth purists would love to get their hands on one. However, production of this synth was limited so unless you are lucky enough to find a seller and can afford the asking price, you might just have to make do with some of the software replicas that are now available. Either way, the ARP 2600 is a monster of a synth and a true vintage synth, that also allows beginners to easily learn the basics of synthesis.
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