Synth Form Factors: Where did those rack synths go?

Recently, I did what synth nerds do: I had a look at some of the synths I have, and then I thought about some of the synths I don’t have.

Of the hardware synths I currently use in my setup (a total of 17), I don’t think I need more keyboards than the eight I already have. True, the SY85 is a synth that could be replaced without being that much missed (although its screaming filter is a unique selling proposition indeed), I don’t need more keyboards (and don’t want to spare the place for them), so everything that would be added would be what is typically called a “synthesizer expander”, or expander for short.

The last four expanders I added to the arsenal had two things in common: they were 1 or 2 HU rack units, and they were made in the late 80s or early 90s.
If, on the other hand, I do my usual market study by looking at what a larger online retailer has to offer, there’s only 7 out of 56 devices in the 19” rack form factor, only 3 of which are in the 1 or 2 HU format.

Which prompts the question: Where did those rack synths go? Especially the 1- and 2-HU ones?

Early History of the Rack Synth

It’s interesting to see that the synths of old (we’re talking 60s) here were all kind of rack synths, albeit not in your standard 19” racks: the modular synths.
It was, of course, the Minimoog, which changed that, by simply packing all of the rack modules for one voice and the keyboard into one box and thus inventing the keyboard synthesizer.
A next step (albeit, at that time, something that didn’t catch up very quickly) was to tae everything for one voice without a keyboard and fit that into a small box – in the format of the Oberheim SEM (Synthesizer Expander Module), which also introduced the “Expander” name, based on the idea that this thing could simply expand the number of voices available (and was, in that form, the basis of the two- four- and eight-voice Oberheims).

For the products to move into the availability of loads of 19” 1HU and 2HU rack units, two enablers were required:
Number one was that the playing of the sounds mounted in the rack was easily possible from another keyboard. This was enabled by the introduction of MIDI.
Number two was to reduce the required UI surface area from the big areas of knobs and sockets to a few soft buttons and a two-line LCD display. The enabler for this was the move to early digital synths with a low-cost user interface.

The Golden Age

It was not only for digital synths, but also for the rack synth expander, that Yamaha’s DX7 paved the way. In case of this synth, the rack version was the TX-816 module which held “voice cards”, allowing for eight parallel DX7s in a rack.
In the following years, each important (keyboard) synth had its 19” rack brother: the Roland D50 had the D550 (1HU), the Ensoniqs had the SQR, the Korg M1 had both the M1R (2HU) and the M3R (1HU), the Kurzweil K2000 had the K2000R etc.

All of those had one thing in common: editing sounds on those rack unit wasn’t fun, a trait they mostly shared with their keyboard variants. So the next step was only consequential (and Oberheim’s Matrix-1000 one of the first devices in that realm):
Take a keyboard synth (in that case, the Matrix-6), and remove everything safe for sound generation and patch selection, to fit it into a 1HU case. To play it, people will connect a MIDI keyboard. To edit patches, people will connect a computer.
Jumping on a similar train (albeit with advanced digital technology) was E-mu with the Proteus platform. Here, they took the voice architecture of the powerful EIII sampler, fitted it with a few MB of high-quality samples in ROM and added some good presets.

As with the Matrix-1000, patch editing was only possible via computer (and exchanging the samples was impossible), but really, who cared? With those things, from the first Proteus to the Proteus 2000 and 2500, you received a high-quality engine and samples, loads of polyphony, and all of that in a small form factor. While access to a vast array of sounds from otherworldy FX to authentic acoustic instruments had been available for some time, this was the first time that it was within a 1HU rack package.

Moving to VA…

The Proteus was perhaps the pinnacle of 1HU-rack synth power, and extended well into a time when the sample-based synthesis was already on the decline – a decline that was triggered by an approach that also meant the decline of the small-size rack synth.

For quite some time, the sample-based synths had stood well against competition, such as, to give but a few examples, the Korg Wavestation, the Kawai K5000 or the Yamaha FS1R. And the reason for that was rather simple: it seemed to the non-nerd synth user that a sampler-based synth could sound exactly the same as a Wavestation, a Kawai K5000 or Yamaha FS1R. And this was the case, if you sampled those synths (sometimes with very long loops).

This “we can sample aynthing”, however, quickly fell together when you started to influence parameters in realtime. Incidentially, no-one (or at least no-one in product management at a big synth manufacturer) ever thought about adding a user interface with 40 dedicated knobs to a FS1R or Wavestation – it took the Swedish and German of Clavia and Waldorf to model analogue synths and give those digital things back the 40 dedicated knobs they did have in the past. And putting that into a rack case didn’t make that much sense, obviously, as you’d need tons of HUs of rack space (and those synths were made – just look at the Waldorf Microwave XT rack as an example).
So at that time, the “creative” synths (whatever that meant, but at that time, it meant virtual analogue, or at least virtual something/anything) were clearly made to be keyboard synths. In which case the Proteusses and similar beasts would just remain in the (now smaller) rack, together maybe with the FS1Rs and similar.

…and to VSTi

To remove those last synths from our rack, enter VSTi technology: synthesizers running in your computer. True, they didn’t have a proper hands-on (meaning non-mouse) user interface (but our rack synths didn’t have that, either), and they had the advantage that all of our favourite synths (well, at least some of them, and at least digital ones) could run on one and the same hardware device – meaning cost and space savings. And with that, our computers started to replace everything from our Eighties’ synth setup, with the exception of the possible master keyboard, and the synths with lots of knobs (which were either keyboard or desktop synths, to allocate enough place for all of the knobs).

And here we are. Rack synths have disappeared, because what they were in their heyday is now done as a piece of native code in a computer. And there’s but a small group of people willing to retain their impractical K5000Rs, FS1Rs and SQRs…

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