Tom Oberheim is an American inventor, instrument designer and electronic music pioneer. From his involvement in the emerging electronic music industry of the 1960’s to the present day, Tom has been a leading figure in synthesizer design and introduced many notable innovations in the electronic music field which have since become universal.
Born in Manhattan, Kansas, Tom’s fascination with electronics began at an early age while building crystal sets and vacuum tube radios, and hi-fi amplifiers. As a young engineering student, he moved to Los Angeles in 1956 where he worked at several computer engineering jobs in the emerging field of digital systems. He attended UCLA for physics and also sang in multiple choirs, an experience that would profoundly shape his musicality and instrument design.
Soon after graduating from UCLA Tom started building electronic equipment for some former classmates. In 1968 Tom started experimenting with ring modulators and built several different versions, followed by a number of other effects devices, including the first phase shifter to become popular.
As demand grew, Tom founded Oberheim Electronics in 1969. The Santa Monica-based company began producing effects pedals, digital sequencers, and the Synthesizer Expander Module (SEM), a unique synthesizer module originally designed to accompany ARPs and Moogs. However, Oberheim soon integrated the SEM into the world’s first commercially available polyphonic synthesizers: the revolutionary Four Voice and Eight Voice. In his first decade Oberheim produced these groundbreaking instruments as well as the Programmer, the first digital patch memory storage system for a synthesizer.
Tom’s legacy of innovation continued throughout the 1980’s, as Oberheim Electronics grew from a small operation to a good-sized company. Notable devices from this time include the DMX, one of the first digital drum machines, the DSX polyphonic sequencer, and the legendary OB-X synthesizer series. Oberheim synthesizers have been ubiquitous throughout the last 50 years of recorded music, appearing on genre-spanning records. They have been integral to the sonic identity of countless artists, including Lyle Mays, Prince, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Stevie Wonder. Tom continued to design synthesizers and professional audio equipment into the 90’s, and in the past decade reissued the classic SEM module and Two Voice Synthesizer for a new generation. His most recent collaboration has been with Dave Smith for the OB-6, a six-voice polyphonic synthesizer inspired by the SEM sound. Tom currently lives in Moraga, California, where he continues his work on new Oberheim synthesizers.