If you agree with me that the purpose of blogs – this one in particular, if not blogs in general – is to be gratuitously self-indulgent in public, then I trust you won’t object to what follows, which is a technical and, as Mrs Crox would have it, up-one’s-own-bottom account of the latest developments in my rock keyboard rig. If you don’t agree, I am sure you have many other more profitable means of employment.
So here goes.
At the bottom is a Yamaha P80 Stage Piano, bought recently from eBay for a very reasonable price. It is a fact universally acknowledged that the only way you can properly articulate piano parts is through a properly weighted keyboard. You can try – as I have been doing recently – to play piano parts through an unweighted synthesiser or organ-type keyboard, but it’s like going ice skating with new-born foals. It’s so hard to gauge the correct degree of attack. Mostly one plays too hard and too fast, and when attempting anything more than ever so slightly twiddly one’s fingers tend to skitter off in all directions. No, you need a proper piano action, one that’s big and beefy and allows you to really dig in. Even better, it’s good to have a keyboard coupled to a convincing piano sound.
Many years ago my stage piano was a Korg SP200. I’ve always liked Korg keyboards as I get on with their user interfaces. Although it served me well, the grand piano sound seemed limp and boxy, even through a big combo, or in stereo, though it did redeem itself with some extra features such as strings (Korg strings are always great – expansive without being overpowering) and a very nice electric piano sound, somewhat like a Wurlitzer. And although one needs a piano keyboard to fight back, playing this one was like trying to play squash with a dead rat. When I bought the Korg I knew in my heart that I should really have bought a Yamaha, but the Korg was cheaper; looked better-built than the Yamaha on offer; I needed a piano for the band I was in – and, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
As years went by, though, I acquired a Yamaha Clavinova at home and really enjoyed the action and dynamics. The Clavinova range is really meant for home or school use. It has its own speakers, stand, pedals and so on, in full-on drawing-room style, and would be a pig to gig with. What I really needed was something like a Clavinova but stripped down to the essentials.
Meanwhile I got to play one or two Yamaha stage pianos in studios. I remember one in particular being a joy to play, and without its own speakers, sounded absolutely great even through a tiny practice amplifier. Lots of balls and no boxiness.
I’ve now come full circle with the Yamaha P80, which was sold to me with a tiny practice combo. It’s a delight to play, easy to transport (weighs just over 18kg) and sounds much more realistic than I remember the SP200 sounding – even better than the Clavinova. The keyboard is weighty without being a struggle. Sure, proper classical pianists (which I am not) will immediately notice that it’s no Bechstein, but then it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be part of a keyboard rig and sound good in a band context. If it sounds pretty smart through the 5″ speaker of the practice combo, it sounds marvellous through my current stereo amplifier rig – a pair of Carlsbro 90W combos, with 15″ woofers and some rather nice compression drivers.
In the middle is my Hammond XK1 organ. Now, no rock keyboard rig is worthy of the name without a Hammond organ or something similar, to recreate the iconic sounds you’ll hear on practically every rock record from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s and beyond, whether it’s Steppenwolf or Yes, Deep Purple or Pink Floyd. Even if vos oreilles are never sullied by such stuff, you’ll know the Hammond sound instantly from virtually all classic soul records, as well as many jazz and blues tracks.
The problem with Hammond organs is that they are huge, heavy, fragile and complicated electro-mechanical devices that were meant for use at home or in church, where they would stay put. To move a large Hammond you really need six mates and a transit van. My old friend and mentor the late Ray Bartrip used smaller (though still enormous) Hammonds, and I remember him packing up of an evening, heaving a Hammond into the back of one of a succession of beaten-up Volvo estate cars.
But wait, there’s more.
The true Hammond sound gets much of its character from the Leslie speaker system. This is another huge, heavy, complicated and fragile piece of electromechanical kit. Leslies come in various sizes, the smallest being the size of a fridge. In the Leslie system, the woofer is mounted face down, surrounded by a cylindrical baffle with a slot in it that rotates, powered by a motor. The tweeter is mounted upwards, its sound projected by two horizontally directed horns, mounted 180 degrees to each other, and which also rotate. The motors have three speeds – fast, slow and stop. The rotation of the baffle and horns, especially as they increase or decrease in speed (at different rates, the baffle being heavier than the horns) adds a very characteristic movement to the sound that’s caused by the Doppler effect, a mixture of pitch-shifting and phasing that’s notoriously hard to reproduce electronically.
In the late 1970s, therefore, companies started producing electronic simulacra of Hammonds that sounded like the real thing but without inducing hernias in those tasked with carrying them around. These keyboards also had circuits that simulated the sound of the rotating Leslie speaker, though some were better at this than others. I owned one of the first, a Korg CX3, swapping it much later for the big, dual-manual Korg BX3 (these models were analogue keyboards, and have since been re-invented in digital guise.) After I got the BX3, and finding the Leslie speaker simulator not that convincing, I acquired a stand-alone Leslie speaker simulator, the Korg G4, which was better than the one built into the organ. A couple of years ago, though, I bought a digital organ from Hammond itself, the XK1 as you see, which is far better than any other simulacrum I’ve heard. It was recommended to me by Ray, who, getting rather tired of lugging a ‘real’ Hammond around, bought one of these instead, and found it a perfectly good substitute – better than the real thing, as it weighs just 11kg. And if Ray, a true Hammond aficionado, thought so, then it would be just fine for anyone else.
Rock organ, as opposed to soul or jazz organ, is animated by overdriving the amplifiers in Leslie cabinets. Jon Lord, the original keyboard player of Deep Purple, played his Hammond C3 through Marshall guitar amplifiers, creating a sound which I suppose is the aural equivalent of being hit over the head with a bacon slicer (scroll to 3’00″ in this video for a demonstration from the man himself.) So, all Hammond simulacra have rather good overdrive circuits, and the XK1′s overdrive is satisfyingly vicious.
On top is a Korg TR61 synthesizer. I like Korg synths. Over the years I’ve owned and played a wide variety, including the MS2000, EX800, DS8, Wavestation, Wavestation A/D, Prophecy and the M1 (twice).
The M1 was and still is the best-selling digital synthesizer of all time. Synths have a reputation – deservedly so – of being rather recondite machines for erudite knob-twiddlers, rather than useful instruments for musicians who just want to get good sounds with a minimum of faffing around. The M1, therefore, was one of the first keyboards designed with ease of use in mind. It’s rationale was very simple – load up a keyboard with lots of samples (digital recordings, essentially) of the kinds of sounds that most musicians need.
Not too many weird bleeps, but lots of pianos, organs, brass, strings, guitars, basses, saxophones, orchestral tones, drums, percussion and so on (The M1 piano sound is all over dance records from the late 1980s and early 1990s like a rash.) You could combine and edit these sounds in all sorts of ways, add effects and even turn them into songs with a very simple-to-use eight-track sequencer. Korg used the same winning formula in generation after generation of keyboards, and my TR61 is merely one of the later incarnations. Technology has, however, matured, so that my TR61 has five times as many sounds as the M1 but cost half as much. If I can only take one (1) keyboard to a gig where I’ll be called upon to do a wide variety of sounds, it’ll be this one. It does some very passable Hammonds, quite a few reasonably decent pianos (the lightweight keyboard, of course, being something of a let-down) and everything else. Strings, lead synth, brass and so on. In my rig it gets let off organ and piano duties, but if you need flutey sounds for the intro of Stairway to Heaven, or strings and horn-like lead synth for Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond – it’s right there.
Each time I acquire a new keyboard I am minded that these are fragile, expensive pieces of computer-controlled equipment that find themselves being humped around the countryside in cars and vans, so straightway I acquire a flight case for each new purchase. For many years I’ve had my cases custom made by John Gothard at Gothard Flightcases. John uses a composite material called astroboard that works more easily than wood, but is much stronger. This means that the cases are lighter by far than anything made of plywood and so really easy to carry around. I’ve had Gothard cases for the Hammond and the TR61 for years and they show barely a mark, and I have commissioned John to make one for the stage piano.
Well, you may ask, this big rig is okay for stage, and perhaps dress rehearsal, but it’s rather a rigmarole to set up and break down if all you want to do is learn a few chords or nail down the structure of a song. You’d be right, and for such tasks I have this -
This is a very handy wee keyboard with a USB socket. This means that I can plug it into the back of my computer and trigger all the sounds in GarageBand, Apple’s wonderfully intuitive music sequencer, which comes loaded with some frighteningly realistic instrument sounds, including Hammond organs. And, what’s more, while I am about it, I can use these sounds to play along with songs in iTunes – simultaneously, together, at once and – notwithstanding inasmuch as which – at the same time. I can even tune the keyboard to match the track, and, what’s more, transpose it, so I can play in an intelligible key – some bands transpose their tunes into all sorts of odd keys like L flat to make copying very difficult, a stratagem that no longer works in today’s world of digital wizardry.
Now, you may ask yourself
how do I work this? is this not my beautiful automobile? why? - that is, to what end is all this fervid activity directed? I hope to tell you more about that in January. Stay tuned.