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RIP Chris Huggett: Great British Synth Designer

28/10/2020

Obituary

It is with great sadness that we report that Chris Huggett, Britains greatest synth designer of the EDP Wasp and Gnat, OSCar, Novation BassStation and SuperNova, has lost a two-year battle with cancer and passed away on 22 October 2020 in Headington, the suburb of Oxford he had made his home for 40 years.

Chris originally hailed from the North East but moved to Oxford originally to work as a service engineer for Ferrographs 3M multitrack tape machines and it was in this capacity that he made a service call to Red Gables in Stonesfield, Oxford in 1977 to provide a regular maintenance check on the multitrack in electronic composer Adrian Wagners Electronic Dream Plant studio.

Adrian had been recording synth-based albums there for several years for the Charisma label but had been toying with the idea of producing a low-cost synth to make synthesis more widely available.

Adrian mentioned this to Chris, who had been looking to move from service to design, and very quickly Chris understood that the new MOS-FET technologies he had been reading up on could be used to realise Adrians dream of an everyman synth. Chris worked evenings and weekends to design what became known as the Wasp while Adrian set up a limited company called Electronic Dream Plant (of which Chris was also a director) to manufacture and market the black and yellow plastic-cased synth, which also housed a built-in speaker in case an impoverished owner didnt have an amp or headphones to listen to it with.

EDP Wasp synthesizer.The Wasp was one of the very first synths (along with early PPG designs by Wolfgang Palm) to have digital oscillators for absolute tuning stability but most owners refer to it as an analogue synth because of the warmth and power of its filters. Rod Argents Keyboards, the leading UK retailer of synths at the time, took it on straight away and had immediate success, expanding their operation into distribution and sold thousands in the first couple of years. Keyboard players like Dave Greenfield of The Stranglers used its capacitance-sensitive keyboard (with no moving parts) to play very fast arpeggios that impressed the ear far more than the case impressed the eye. Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics even micd up the speaker for transistor radio bandwidth sounds.

Unfortunately, Adrians desire to hit the 199 price point meant that there was not enough profit in each unit sold and reliability issues dampened Argents enthusiasm. By 1980, the company was in financial difficulties despite the healthy sales and had to be wound up leaving Adrian and Chris with huge debts. Chris declined to be a director of Electronic Dream Plant (Oxford) Ltd but licensed them to manufacture his new design, the even more economically priced Gnat, a single oscillator version of the Wasp with an innovative preset Pulse Width Modulation waveform (called Enhance) to make it sound fat and beefy in the bass end. They also continued manufacture of the Wasp and the Spider 256-step digital sequencer (designed by Stephen Evans of Oxford University).

When Oxford languages graduate (and SOS contributor) Paul Wiffen was hired to launch the Gnat at the February 1981 Frankfurt Musikmesse (Adrian saw international distribution as the way forward), he soon realised that the instruments had not been designed by anyone currently working for the company and asked Adrians wife Kathy who had done the designs. She told him that Chris was now working as a washing machine tester in nearby Banbury and agreed to introduce him to Paul at a Wasp & Gnat demo he was doing at the legendary Oxford Union debating society.

OSCar Chris and Paul hit it off immediately and began to trade ideas for a more professional implementation of Chris trademark innovations. As the fortunes of the second company began to fail (there was still insufficient profit in each unit sold), they resolved to set up a new company to manufacture and distribute a 599 price point synth with a real keyboard, a built-in sequencer/arpeggiator, additive synthesis of custom waveforms and the ability to split the two oscillators for duophonic performance.

Chris parents put up the money to start the company and the name Oxford Synthesiser Company was adopted to boost the credibility and profile. During the design phase, they referred to it as the OSC model A but this soon became OSCar.

OSCar synthesizer - designed by Chris Huggett.

By the end of 1981, the second EDP company was in receivership leaving Paul unpaid but he found work with Elka voicing and demoing the Synthex until the OSCar was ready to launch at the 1983 Frankfurt show, where it picked up French distribution and PPG agreed to distribute it in Germany. Paul would hitchhike from London to Chris flat in Headington to voice the workbench prototype. By the time it shipped in April, Paul was working part-time at Argents in London, who then agreed to give Chris designs another try.

The OSCar quickly found its way into the hands of Ultravox, who bought three (preset one had been modelled on Billy Curries ARP Odyssey through a distortion pedal lead sound using the overdriven filter feature), and Geoff Downes bought one in time for the third Asia album.

Chris during his time at Novation.Photo: courtesy of NovationLoves Great Adventure (featuring that lead sound and a digital waveform sequence between verse and chorus) charted and Ultravox used the OSCar on several Top Of The Pops appearances replacing both Odyssey and Minimoog; the word spread like wildfire that there was a new British synth in town and sales rocketed. Geoff Downes used it in an Asia video and live concert on MTV and PPGs US distributor Europa Technologies ordered 200.

Stevie Wonder used the synth on his hit single Skeletons, Jean-Michel Jarre got Dominique Perrier to play some virtuoso OSCar solos on Revolutions, S-Express used it on Top Of The Pops performing
LINK: https://www.soundonsound.com/news/rip-chris-huggett-great-british-synt...
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