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.

Here is my keyboard rig as of earlier today.

A keyboard rig, earlier today.

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.

Some amplifiers, earlier today, although later than the previous photograph

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, even more recently than That.

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.

About cromercrox

Cromercrox is a recovering palaeontologist, author and editor who lists his recreations as writing, beachcombing, playing hard rock organ, supporting Norwich City FC and falling asleep.
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37 Responses to Rig

  1. John Gilbey says:

    Professor T’s care worker has asked me to point out that you can’t just add a cat/kitten to a photo of keyboards without including winsome details about said feline… Adding a title like “Kittten on the Keys” might have done the trick initially – but I fear matters may escalate…

    For myself, exposure to the magic phrase “Hammond C3″ was quite enough to dissolve me into a pool of prog rock nostalgia. Heaven help the neighbours tonight, that’s all I’m saying… :-)

  2. cromercrox says:

    Ah yes, said feline is Elvis, the most curious of all our kittehs, who as you see was very … er … ‘helpful’. He was very fond of chasing the ends of all the jack leads during assembly and disassembly.

  3. Nice rig, dude.

    I am a failed guitar player, so never into keyboards much, but I always did like the Hammond sound. Though most associated with 70s prog, you could also find some serious Hammond-ing here and there in the new wave acts, most notably from the Stranglers’ Dave Greenfield, a special favourite of mine.

    I have a Roland mini-keyboard somewhere (only four octaves but with a vaguely acceptable action) which I rigged up a couple of Christmases ago on an old laptop with a PC-based freeware Hammond emulator and some tinny computer speakers. It entertained Junior One for a while, though she did tend to tire somewhat of my (admittedly spectacularly dire) rendition of the keyboard part from The Stranglers’ version of Walk On By.

    Amazingly, there have been one or two childish request for a repeat recently. Given how dire the weather promises to be this Christmas, I may have to dig the stuff out and reconstruct it.

    • cromercrox says:

      Hey! You’re talking about my teenage years here, when just before I was finally seduced by hard rock I enjoyed quite a lot of the early New Wave. I had the first Stranglers album and I always admired Dave Greenfield – one of several underrated keyboard players in the genre. Another was ‘Fingers’ who did some great piano lines in the Boomtown Rats, and whoever it was who played with Blondie. The punks always made a big thing about being anti-muso and saying that anyone-can-play, but the best of them were always fiercely good musicians. Paul Cook and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols were phenomenal, and John Lydon was no slouch either.

      • John Gilbey says:

        Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and their respective (respectable) bands are two cases in point…

        Both played Norwich in the late 70s – I have some pix somewhere… :-)

        • cromercrox says:

          Elvis Costello and Ian Dury’s Blockheads – two good examples of excellent bands full of the kinds of musos that the New Wave affected to despise. Perhaps the best/worst example is The Police, a band in the New Wave made of very skilled, very knowing jazzers. The guitarist, Andy Summers, was a well-known session man who, before The Police, had played on a solo album by … Jon Lord of Deep Purple. I have a feeling that musicians are all the same under the skin and the much-touted differences at the time were little more than journalistic conceits fanned by PR operators such as Malcolm McLaren.

  4. ricardipus says:

    Ah, that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy and reminds me of my days devouring Keyboard magazine, and my nights twiddling knobs on a veritable raft of 80′s-vintage synthesizers at the blunt end of the pro range.

    The overlap of my gear with yours is limited to the mighty mighty Korg EX-800, an example of which you can still find in my basement. Square waves galore. It had a very pleasing, somewhat plasticky 80′s sound that I rather like.

    I am also a Korg sample-playback fan, having used an O5R/W (=X5-in-a-box) at the centre of my proprellor-hat rig for many years. The rest was a weird blend of FM (Yamaha TX7, i.e. DX7-in-a-really-heavy-wedge-shaped-box), digi-analogue hybrid (Akai AX80), phase distortion (Casio CZ5000) and ancient sampling (Akai S612), liberally sprinkled with home-made distortion boxes and the like.

    Ah, those were the days. My experiments these days are mainly limited to plunking out bits of Handel and Satie on the Korg digital piano in the living room, more frequently used by Jr. Ricardipus #2 for practicing her piano lessons. Its action is a bit limp IMHO, but it sounds and works decently well.

    I’m awaiting this January announcement… :D

    • ricardipus says:

      Or, I could have just said:


      • John Gilbey says:

        The stuff (“kit” seems to be something of an overstatement….) we used to use never needed the addition of extra distortion – it was kind of built in… :-)

        This presented some problems for yours truly, who was usually installed behind a rather hissy 12 (later 24) into 2 mixer – where it was considered I could do the least damage. This became permanent, by popular vote, following my experiment with rock vocals…

        I still get a funny feeling when I see an Akai or Revox reel-to-reel recorder…

        • cromercrox says:

          @Ricardipus – I am full of admiration for people who do such experimentation – I have never really had the patience, much preferring to play live. I didn’t, in fact, list every single keyboard or module I have ever owned, but now you mention it, and if memory serves, ivories tickled by me not mentioned hitherto have included the Casiotone 202, Hohner Pianet T, Hohner Pianet/Clavinet Duo, Yamaha DX21, Casio CZ1 remote, Yamaha TX81Z, E-mu Emax, E-mu Classic Keys, Sequential Circuits Pro-One and Roland RS09 string synth.

          Of all these, the Pro-One was the most realio trulio genuine analog synth I have owned, but I never really mastered it. I had it for a couple of years when Crox Minor was a baby, and I used the synth to create contra-bass farting noises that amused her, but startled the cats. I never had the knack of knowing which combinations of knobs to twiddle and sliders to slide to get the sound I had in my head, especially those lovely, fluid Minimoog leads I’d heard on Jan Hammer records. And the beast was always going out of tune – something digital synths don’t do – which made it a somewhat wayward and fussy machine to use live.

          @ John – mixing is an art whose finer points will forever pass me by. For reasons of space (!) I didn’t mention that I mix my keyboards in a very small Behringer mixer which allows me to send a stereo feed to my amps, and another stereo feed to a PA if required.

          Many years ago when the world was young I did a traineeship at the BBC when it still used Revox tape recorders. I spent many languid hours with razor blades and sticky tape splicing things out, backwards, upside down and so on. Happy days.

          • ricardipus says:

            Nope, no more intersections there, although your CZ1 and my CZ5000 are very closely related. I forgot my Yamaha FB01 module, which isn’t a million miles from your DX21, and a Sequential Split-8, which has a lot less street cred than your Pro-One.

            Hohner Pianet, Roland RS09… these are the things of legend. :D

          • I have a scientific friend who has an extensive collection of analogue synths and drum machines but who can’t play a note. Said person is a collector by nature (owning literally thousands of records), and is also a die-hard music fan / rare groove aficionado type, but I’ve often wondered quite what the attraction is if you can’t actually play the damn things.

            Of course, that could be some of the people who go on to be that mysteriously popular modern type known as ‘the DJ’. Though quite a few DJs actually seem to be ex-musicians.

          • John Gilbey says:

            It was after a particularly late night of razor-blade-and-tape editing that I gained the nickname “Mobious”… I’ll leave you to work out what happened! :-)

            I guess it is the price you pay for mixing with (and for) scientists who gig….

    • cromercrox says:

      Here is the announcement – after a protracted courtship, a classic rock covers band called Stealer has proposed to me and I have accepted http://www.stealerband.com

  5. cromercrox says:

    @ Ricardipus – It wasn’t a CZ1 – my mistake – I meant ‘AZ1′, the remote MIDI keyboard Casio did for a bit. A lot of these keyboards I got as swaps or secondhand, but on the whole I much prefer the modern digital recreations. We tend to be rather misty-eyed about these things and forget that some of these keyboards had very definite drawbacks.

    My Hohner Duo, for example, was lovely. The clavinet was to die for, being the Real Thing, and mixing its fast attack with the more rounded pianet tones made a very good and unique-sounding electric piano. But if it went out of tune it was a bugger to get back into tune again. The miles and miles of copper wire inside it meant that when it got under the lights it would start to hum … and I still have the scars from the vertebral disc I ruptured when I lifted it into the back of my car when I was 23.

    To take another example – the Emax was, in its day, a terrific sampling keyboard designed for stage use (I bought it for a song on eBay much later.) But people were obviously much more patient in those days. You could only play what you had loaded into it from a diskette, and changing these mid-song or even mid-set was unfeasible, as the loading took almost forever and often had to be aborted for disk errors. What’s more, the disks were DS/DD, which were virtually impossible to find ten years ago and are now, I suspect, extinct in the wild. So in the end I used it for just one preset orchestral string sound, which was very nice, but after a short time it seemed a bit of a behemoth to be shifting around for just one sound, no matter how good it was.

    • John Gilbey says:

      Were the disks 3.5 or 5.25? I have a stash of five and a quarter DS/DDs if that helps? Probably a few 3.5s too – but most of them got used yonks ago…

      • cromercrox says:

        3.5, but no matter, I sold it many moons ago – along with the DS/DD diskettes I’d managed to source on eBay – to someone who I hope had more patience.

        • ricardipus says:

          I can do worse than that. My Akai S612 sampler uses 2.8″ QuikDisks. I think they hold 64k or something like that – one sample, anyway.

          • cromercrox says:

            I hope you have a ready supply… I believe that the first thing done by people who buy vintage instruments is to make a lot of samples of their purchases, but if your vintage equipment is a sampler … you’re way ahead of me…

    • Definitely don’t miss having to move musical equipment. I used to have an old 60s Vox AC30 guitar amp, which weighed something like 40+ kilos. Made every rehearsal in the school or village hall a potential pain in the lumbar region. Though being young we didn’t really notice. Hey ho.

      Ironically, I knackered my back a few years later, not shifting anything, but kicking a filing cabinet. It was in a fit of anger late one Saturday in the lab, after the malevolent lab computer had eaten the entire reference list for my Thesis that I’d spent the whole of the day typing in.

      • cromercrox says:

        Now that things don’t really need to be heavy any more, I sense an inverse relationship between equipment weight and age of musicians. For example, when I was a student a friend bought an Orange 2×12 guitar combo and invited me to pick it up. I tried, and it felt as if someone had nailed it to the floor. Those speakers had huge magnets, and the amp had a whopping great transformer.

        Nowadays transformers weigh hardly more than the full stop at the end of this sentence, being much more efficient, and, being more efficient, generate a lot less heat, so you don’t need all those cooling fins. Equipment for bass frequencies tended to the gothic – at discos run by the Leeds University Union Progressive Rock Society (Ah! My Mis-Spent Youth!) we used these 2×15″ bass bins loaded with Gauss drivers. These shed-sized contrivances had the words ‘THIS IS FUCKING HEAVY’ stencilled on the back, and could only be shifted by a crew of Hell’s Angels certified as having descended from mountain trolls.

        Twenty or thirty years after the Orange Invitation, a bassist friend invited me to pick up his bass combo, loaded with two 10″ speakers … it weighed hardly more than a shoebox and would have been much better than those 2×15″s – all thanks to new fabrics to replace paper in speaker cone manufacture, new adhesives to stick them together, and super-light, super-efficient magnets made of neodymium, the wonder-metal du jour in speaker magnet construction. Any old iron? Forget it!

  6. cromercrox says:

    @Austin – some of this equipment looks gorgeous, if you have a particularly geeky mindset. Analog synths have all sorts of knobs and sockets and dials of unguessable function. And, if they are in good condition, they will hold their value – being much more collectable as ‘collectables’ than useful as musical instruments. I know people who have extremely beautiful, expensive vintage guitars who’d never dare take them out to gigs for fear of damaging them. They use cheap copies which are perfectly serviceable for the job. There’s no reason why a non-musician shouldn’t collect analog synths – in the same way that non-smokers collect snuff boxes and non-microscopists collect microscopes.

    • Yes, I think you’re right about the geek appeal of “knobs and sockets and dials of unguessable function”, Henry. Funnily enough, I’ve always thought electrophysiology amplifiers had a lot of the same ‘mojo’.

      I also reckon knobs and dials etc etc have a kind of special appeal to those of us born in the 60s and raised on the exploits (and gadgetry) of International Rescue.

      • cromercrox says:

        I love knobs and dials as much as the rest of them. I love the fact that only the most geeky can work out what they are for. Of course, in old-fashioned analog synths a lot of these knobs were interactive, leading to non-linearities, such that a skilled user was really something of a magician. I once read that there were several different ways in which a moog modular synthesiser could be programmed to create complete silence – every way being to the bafflement of the programmer.

        • ricardipus says:

          I’ve heard stories of people who found Moogs and suchlike in sales, and managed to buy them super-cheap because they turned them on, twiddled a few knobs, and convinced the seller they were broken because they didn’t make any noise.

          On the other hand, I once built a Moog ladder filter from first principles that didn’t work. But that was a hardware problem. Or maybe a wetware (i.e. brain) one.

          • cromercrox says:

            I also heard a story of someone buying a vintage Fender Twin cheap from a junk shop because the owner wanted to be rid of that radiogram thingy that he couldn’t tune in to any stations…

  7. CraigDAxe says:

    well, i’ve found a reliable modern emulation of old and Classic synths is http://www.arturia.com/evolution/ – digital component-level modeling of the original kit – with some useful tweaks – and lots of banks of presets – well – where else can you get your hands on a Moog Modular?…….

    • cromercrox says:

      Looks lovely – but really for the studio, and it costs £££££

      • CraigDaxe says:

        Well, cheaper than the originals, and seen used live by a lot of acts like Scissor Sisters (and Tangerine Dream if i remember correctly) – Analog Factory/Laboratory is a “greatest hits” version. One Laptop + any USB/Midi controlller (M-Audio do one with an inbuit Sound module), add software an e-licenser

        • Cromercrox says:

          Is there a version that’s completely stand-alone? I have an aversion to taking computers to gigs.

          • CraigDaxe says:

            That would be the rather pricey “Origin” – though that has the ability to make up synths that never existed – Moog VCOs into Prophet Filters, anyone?…… Stunning work of engineering & art

  8. cromercrox says:

    Craig – I’ve listened to the demoes and they are gorgeous – very realistic. However, in the end it all comes down to price and convenience and balancing what you really want as against what you actually need. For gigs, my Korg TR61 is hardly glamorous but it does what I want, and most people in a gig situation wouldn’t know the difference between a 24db Low Pass Filter and a hole in the ground :(

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