Tines, Bells and Warmth – Rhodes, Vintage Vibe instruments
The Rhodes piano has definitely one of the most iconic keyboard sounds out there, being it in jazz, hip-hop or even pop music. Since decades, this is a sound that was commonly used in many music styles and it has always found its way to bring so much flavor in so many tunes. So today’s story will focus on the Rhodes piano, or maybe, better-said, on tine-pianos (and not only..).
The Rhodes is actually an electro-mechanical music instrumental and the sounds is generated in the following way: similar to an acoustic piano, you have a mechanical key-pressing system, the difference is that you are not actually hitting a string, but you are hitting a small metal rod – this is the “tine” – which is connected to a larger tone bar. Do you remember the music lessons you did in primary school when the teacher had a small metal thing (called a tuning-fork) and she was shaking or hitting it on the desk, after that putting it near her ear, in order to hear the correct note before starting a song with you – this is actually what is happening when you are hitting a key on a Rhodes: the tine hits the larger metal bar and starts resonating, thus producing a frequency, thus producing a musical note. Of course, depending on the length and size of the upper bar, the tine resonates differently so you can have a much larger specter of notes, in other words, for each of the keys, you have a different tone-bar – tine construct in order to be on the right frequency, for the right note (this is the mechanical component of the Rhodes piano). At the end of each tine, you can find a pick-up which induces an electric current, therefore you can amplify the sound produced (this is the electrical component of the Rhodes piano). Of course, a Rhodes piano can sound without being amplified, because of the resonance produced between the tines and tone bars, but for proper stage or studio playing, the amplification is quite important (imagine playing an electric guitar without amplifying it… it’s somehow similar). The final sound is quite unique, it can range between warm bell-like timbres and also growling ones, depending on how hard you are hitting the keys, but also on the internal mechanical tweaking. The signature growl sound, or “barking” is pretty unique to every instrument, it is obtained by overtones, these are captured in the magnetic fields generated by how the pick-ups take-over the resonance from the tine and tone bar setups. Slightly changing the tine & tone bar setting could end up in obtaining a different “growling” sound. If you own a Rhodes piano, try it!
I got my first vintage Rhodes some years ago, it’s a ’79 Mark II, I traded it for 2 Roland keyboards (a Juno-D and an XP 80 – meanwhile I got another XP80, I love that keyboard, reminds me of my childhood dreams). It’s a brilliant instrument, in very good cosmetic shape, and I did some upgrades on it (changes dampers felts, some tines, re-tuned it and added a Dyno Pre-Amplifier). I got a very sturdy repair kit from Vintage Vibe company, please check them out, they are really great at what they are doing. I use my Mark II mainly in my home studio, since it is quite hard to carry it, but it’s quite a lot of fun playing it. Going back to Vintage Vibe, besides their repair kits and replacement parts, they are building their own custom Tine-Pianos, which are absolutely amazing! I would say that their sound is in-between a Rhodes and a Wurlitzer, it’s very interesting and warm, and it suits pretty well with the music I play. I also own a Vintage Vibe 73 Deluxe piano which I used in many live shows with JazzyBIT, and you can also hear it in our “Remember” track, on our “Horizon” album. Besides the sound, what I really love is that you can carry it quite easy to any concerts, since it ways less than 30 KG, compared to almost 100 KG for the classic Rhodes. Besides the tine-piano, I also have a Vintage Vibe Vibanet, this is their custom approach on the classic Hohner Clavinet D6 (I am sure you are all familiar with Stevie Wonder’s funky sound from “Superstition” or “Higher Ground”). The Vibanet is also an electromechanical instrument and it’s very similar in approach as my Williams Keytar, which I presented some weeks ago here on my blog. What is really cool, it has a built-in WAH-WAH effect, which you can trigger and customize on-the-fly. I also used this instrument on “Horizon”, you can hear it both on “Remember” and “Le Tunk” tracks. A thing which I like a lot is that you can combine all these instruments with several effect pedals, such as Phaser, Distortion, Chorus or Delay, and you can build-up your sound and customize it in so many ways. Also, to add some warmth to your sound, you can use tube-amplifiers. In my current setup, I use MXR pedals and a Traynor K4 amplifier. Nowadays, the tine-piano sound has been sampled in very high quality, for example Nord library contains very good Rhodes sounds. In the past, the first FM synthesized Rhodes sound came from the well-known Yamaha DX7 synthesizer (more info about this one soon), and quite many keyboardists decided to use keyboards with sampled Rhodes sound instead of the real-deal. I would say nowadays, especially in jazz, it seems there is a comeback towards old-school tine-pianos, but maybe it’s just my opinion.
I use my Vintage Vibe keyboards both in live shows and in the studio. I remember our “Horizon” tour with JazzyBIT, where we had a show at the Philharmonics in Oradea, my hometown. Usually, the concert halls are at the ground floor, or let’s say a smaller elevation, and I don’t really know why I remember that in Oradea it was the same… you guessed it, I was totally wrong. We were coming from Bucharest after one show there and maybe 5 hours of sleep at night, and I was ensuring Michi and Csongi not to stress with the logistics (music gear carrying…) in Oradea, because everything should be fine. All went fine, we parked in the private yard of the Philharmonics with direct access to the back door, so great! We opened the door, but there was not concert hall! Just stairs… and stairs… and stairs.. 3 floors from the back door entrance.. Did I mention we had to carry all our gear, including Csongi’s full drum set, amplifiers and my keyboards (including of course Vintage Vibe ones, Hammond, Leslie, Nords). This goes out to you: if you want free gym exercises, come with us in tours, you will have more than enough, but don’t forget the fun part also!
Electro-mechanical keyboards will always have a special place in many music stiles, and there are so many hits that are based on these classic sounds, that hopefully will never disappear.
The Redhead Gang – My Nord Rig
In my last stories I mentioned quite often the “Nords”, so I decided to dedicate this blog entry not to one specific keyboard, but to all Nord keyboards I have. No worries, I don’t plan on writing a full novel about them, I will focus on describing my live rig and also the Nords I use in my studio.
I wasn’t always a Nord fan, actually first time I tried them I was in Sweden, their birthplace, where I had the chance to play on several Nord Electro 2 models. Don’t get me wrong, they were quite nice, but at that time I was more focused on my Kronos and Hammond setup, not knowing or maybe not realizing the boot-up time of the Kronos (remember my blog about it…) or how heavy the Hammond is (poor Csongi…. ). Nevertheless, the concept of the Nord Electro being focused on the acoustic piano – electric piano – organ – clavinet sound setup was pretty interesting, especially that these sounds I tend to use quite a lot.
After finally deciding that I shouldn’t carry around my Hammond anymore, I focused on finding a much lighter alternative, however still keeping in mind the importance of having all the organ features which you find on a real Hammond (drawbars, chorus-vibrato, percussion, Leslie simulator, waterfall keys etc). And this is how I actually got my first Nord: the C2D! It’s their version of a portable Hammond organ, having all the features described above, with a great Hammond sound and Leslie simulation, and everything in a 16 KG pack.. now that is a big change compared to my 100 KG Hammond & Leslie rig. I usually prefer to customize and tweak a little bit the sounds I use, so, even if the C2D sounds really impressive at “out-of-the-box” power-on, you could get a little bit more in the settings and actually create a much better organ sound (try to play around with the key click or decay settings, Leslie simulation parameters and several other functions, small things matter). Since I got the C2D, I have never ever taken the Hammond out of my studio, and for live concerts and even recordings, it’s really a great organ (I even used it for our 2nd album with JazzyBIT – “Horizon”, connected to my Leslie 2101). What is also pretty cool about the C2D, it has also other organ sounds than the Hammond, for example it can transform in a church organ (the drawbars will act as registers) or it can also simulate a transistor organ (like Farfisa or Vox Continental – remember Ray Manzarek’s organ sound with “The Doors”).
I had some concerts with the Kronos – C2D setup, but in the end I decided to go “all-red”, so, I decided to replace the Kronos with a Nord Piano 2 for my live setup. It’s quite a big difference especially in the key-action between the Kronos 88 and Nord Piano, I find the Nord much more lighter and easy-to-play, but I believe it is also a matter of taste. But the thing which really impresses me is the piano-sound library from Nord! Even if it is sample based, usually a Nord-library piano-sound occupies in average 150 Mb, compared to 8-10 Gb pianos from the Kronos, and the characteristics and sounds are easily in the same range or sometimes even better. Of course, it is a clear matter of taste, but I am really impressed about many Acoustic and also Electric Piano sounds on the Nord, for a live gig and even in the studio, they could be very close to the “real-deal”. I usually use a tweaked Studio Grand sound on my Nord Piano, but there are many others which are amazing, if you are a Nord player, try to find the one which brings the best of your music’s flavor!
Even if these 2 are my main “boards” for a show or recording, I have another Nord which actually I used quite a lot recently: the Nord Electro 5D. I have the smallest version, with 61 keys, and the “D” means it has drawbars for the Hammond engine. As mentioned above, the Electro series are built very wisely, they have the exact sounds that a keyboardist needs for a gig (for me it actually brings together the C2D and Piano 2 in a smaller package – it has the same organ engine as on the C2D, and the same Piano Library sounds as on the Nord). The Electro comes with a waterfall keyboard, perfectly suitable for playing Hammond leaks, but it’s not really the best option for a pianist who is used to the classical 88 hammer-action keybed. Even so, it’s extremely light (8 KG), very easy to carry around and I actually did a lot of concerts only with this keyboard, without having my full rig. Both the Piano 2 and Electro 5D have also Sample area, you can either create your own samples or use the Nord Library ones, and you can play them independently or stacked on your other main sounds. Sometimes it can be a pretty cool effect to have something “different” layered on top of your Rhodes sounds, for example. My Electro 5D travelled quite a lot with me and I was lucky to use it on quite famous stages, such as Blue Note Jazz Club in New York or Porgy&Bess Jazz Club in Vienna, and it behaved very well both at over 40 degrees in Doha or -12 degrees in Sibiu.
The 4th Nord which I currently use in my setup is the newly released Nord Wave 2, which is a synthesizer beast! I don’t have it for a long time, I haven’t actually played with it live yet, but I am preparing some new sounds especially for the new JazzyBIT compositions we are working on. A feature which I really like is the 4 layered zones, where you can create and combine and layer 4 independent sounds. Since it is a synthesizer, you have the possibility to create sounds from scratch based on wave forms or samples (similar to what I was telling you about the Moog Little Phatty, the difference being that the Nord is a digital and not an analogue machine). And a quite new thing, the keyboard is actually waterfall type: personally, I love it, however, this key-bed is clearly not very common for a synthesizer.
So, my current setup consists of the Nord Piano 2 (mainly for acoustic piano sounds), Nord C2D (for Hammond sounds), Nord Electro 5D (for Rhodes, Clavinet and additional organ sounds) and the Nord Wave 2 (for synthesizer sounds and effects). I also use a Haken Continuumini (which I will describe in another post) and my electro-acoustic Hammond melodica. Additionally, I use an 8-channel Radial ProD8 DI-Box and Monster Rock audio instrument cables, Nord triple pedal for the Piano, 2 x Hammond FS-9H foot-switches for the Electro 5D and Wave 2, one Yamaha FC7 volume pedal and one M-Audio Sp2 sustain pedal for the C2D. I also use one K&M Spider Pro – Red double stand, 2 x Adam Hall SKS05 stands and a Mey chair (which looks pretty crazy, but it’s very comfortable and helps you keep a correct back posture while playing – pretty important for me after having a serious back issue some years ago) - this maybe was a too technical paragraph, sorry for that, sometimes I just can't help it.
In my home studio I also use a Nord Lead 3 (probably one the best synthesizers Nord ever created – before the Wave 2), a limited edition Nord Lead 2X (with inverted keys – this was created for Nord’s 25 year anniversary and it comes with a certificated signed by Nord Keyboards’ CEO) and a Nord Modular G2X (this a very interesting and pretty powerful concept form Nord – it is digital modular synthesizer, you are actually creating sounds by digitally linking synthesizer modules in between each other – it’s quite complex to use, but it offers you endless possibilities and it also includes a sturdy Vocoder). Sorry to disappoint you all, I do not have a Nord Stage, this being the flagship of Nord Keyboards company. The simple reason is that the current rig I have is more than enough for both my live shows and any recording sessions, nevertheless, ask me again in one year and I might answer you in a completely different way!
There are many other great keyboards on the market, I truly believe that it’s important to have, first of all, a very “comfortable” rig both for your playing style and also for your music, and secondly, a rig which actually brings the best out of you and does not limit you in any craziness you might try to achieve, but that’s just me… a keyboard-IT-ist who truly believes in doing thinks with passion.
When Music Meets Science: Moog Little Phatty
Last time I was telling you about my personal categorization when it comes to keyboards. Today we will enter the synthesizers category which is really one of its own. Furthermore you can split the synthesizers into several groups, depending on different factors. One of the most common split is analogue vs digital, you can also split them based on the number of notes you can play simultaneously, like monophonic, duophonic or polyphonic, or you can split them by their built type, like modular synthesizers or “self-contained” ones. But going back to the “debate of the century” – analog or digital? I truly believe this will be a constant topic of discussion and it is really hard to decide for a winner, for me both technologies have their own value when it comes to sound design, reliability and even logistics.
Going back to today’s story, my first ever synthesizer was a Moog Little Phatty, this is a really great machine and it’s one of the last synthesizers fully designed by the great Bob Moog. For those who haven’t heard of him, he is really the father of synthesizers – actually he was an engineer, not a musician, and he invented things like VCO (voltage-controlled oscillator), VCA (voltage-controlled amplifier), pitch shifting or envelopes, all of these are the basis of most of today’s synthesizers. He was really a game changer, feel free to google him and read his biography and interviews, they are very catchy. The Little Phatty is an analogue monophonic synthesizer and even for newbies, this is an extremely easy-to-use and versatile machine, the built design is very good and, personally, it helped me a lot in learning from basics what “synth-ing” is all about. The sound is produced by a combination of factors, the main one being the VCO. The actual oscillator is a simple electronics concept which produces a waveform (it can be of different types, like sine or sawtooth). The waveform obviously has a timbre and the next step is to actually shape this by adding a filter on it. What you can also do is apply an envelope and you are already in the harmonics shaping part (remember the Hammond organ tonewheel concept which was the basics behind of the organ’s harmonics), and, last but not least, you can amplify the volume of the signal by using a VCA. This is just the basics how you can create sounds with a synthesizer, in analogue machines it’s really a combination between understanding the electronics concepts and applying them in order to customize your sound.
I actually own 2 Little Phatty Moogs, one is the Stage 1 edition, in classic grey look, and the other is a limited Red-back Stage 2 edition (yes, it’s red, and it goes along greatly with my Nord keyboards.. it’s all about fashion looks..). Nevertheless, both machines are really great and I’ve been using the Stage 1 in many live shows, both with JazzyBIT and also Quo Vadis. I really enjoy the deep bass sound of the Moog, it is their signature sound and it’s unmistakable. But you can create so many other crazy patterns with it, just by experimenting around with its main components.
Out of all the synthesizers I own, the Little Phatty is really a fun-to-play one, but it can be full of surprises as well. I remember a concert with JazzyBIT at Sibiu Jazz Festival, where the stage was outside, but in big tent. It was pretty cold at that time, it was in May 2012, and we had our soundcheck around noon and the keyboards remained on stage until our concert in the evening. But during the afternoon, it rained a lot and it got even colder, and I was about to have a big surprise at the concert when doing a solo on the Moog. Because of the cold weather and because the Little Phatty is an analogue synth, it actually got detuned during the afternoon, so when I started my solo I was in a complete different key than the actual song. I know what you think… it’s jazz.. it doesn’t matter… Well, it does! Trust me, when you are in-between keys, it sounds good only for microtonal music fans (about this in a future post), so, the best is to quickly get back on track and find a way to either re-tune yourself or adapt to the situation. Luckily the Moog has a tuning knob, however I only had time to “tune” it to a fix value, and I was still under the song key with one tone, at least it was much better than to be in-between. Therefore, I had to play my entire solo in a different key, but it turned out well in the end. Anyways, it’s pretty funny to hit a key and you get a totally different note than expected, so, since than I have a portable heater with me at every concert….of course I don’t… but I can imagine what would have happened if I would have used the Little Phatty especially at the Christmas Carousel Festival in Sibiu, where we are playing at well below freezing temperatures.
I will write more about synthesizers in my next posts, personally for me it’s great to be able to adapt and link together things I learned in high-school and university with parts of my music. In the end, your music can be also a combination between art and science, between emotions and reasons, between dreams and reality..
Formula One Red Rocket – Williams Keytar V2
I guess you all expect that I am writing my blog chronologically, I hope you will not be disappointed if I tell you that, actually, I write this strictly by feeling. These last days I had a specific keyboard in mind which I was thinking to write about, however I changed my mind 10 minutes ago… funny, right? There are times when I change my mind quite often in a short period of time.. especially when referring to the music rig I use for a specific concert (especially Michi knows this…and I am positive he likes it a lot…NOT..).
When you are a keyboard player, you are more or less strained on a chair the entire concert, sitting and playing in your stage-corner, sometimes even hidden behind all your keyboards. But there are some “escape” possibilities out there, and even a keyboard player could actually run all-around the stage during a concert… in a good way I mean, with an instrument, playing music.. not just running around like a marathon (I’ve seen that also one time….). The solution is having a keytar: imagine having a guitar-like keyboard, you hold it like a guitar, with a strap, and you have keys instead of strings. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea or George Duke often used keytars in their live shows, and I really enjoyed watching them entertain the audience and actually playing their keyboards from a complete different perspective. So, as Teo usually says, “I must have one… “.
I did not have a specific keytar model in my head, but I wanted it to be quite special. When searching for new instruments, I especially look for unique or specific sound characteristics or features, this is quite hard to get in a keyboard instrument, however, trust me, it’s possible. And the uniqueness appeared one weekend, while I was in my hometown, at Oradea, browsing through Ebay. I stumbled on a really interesting item called a Williams Keytar. I have never ever heard of this brand before, so I started to dig a little bit more. The Williams Keytars were built around 2005 in Arkansas by a guy called Vinson Williams (as far as I know, it has nothing to do with the Formula One brand … or tennis champions Serena and Venus), and they are very rare today, because, sadly, the company did not last long. These are not electronic instruments, so actually they have only one sound which is produced more or less like an electric guitar: when you press a key, you are hitting a string, and from here it’s the classic guitar mechanism – the Williams has actually 2 custom-made EMG pick-ups which help in producing it’s very interesting sound. There were 2 models built, the V1 – which had 1 octave of notes, and the V2 – with 2 octaves. Going back to my Ebay excitement, this was a V2 in perfect condition, with original case and strap, in “Ferrari-Red” color (never thought at that time that it will fully match my future Nord keyboards). The keytar was located in US, and I had 2 major problems: how to get it from there and, obviously, how to pay for it (better said, I couldn’t really afford it on my own). Luckily, my dear grandma helped me with the entire “acquisition budget”, and one of my work colleagues was having a business trip in US exactly during those days…I was soooo lucky… So, I bought it right away on Ebay, and I immediately called my colleague in US to ask for a delivery address, unfortunately for him it was early afternoon for me in Romania, which means I called him at 3 AM … did not realize that until I heard his voice… Even so, he was so nice to help me with it and he brought it back to Timisoara as his personal carry-on luggage (many thanks Alin Bria for that).
I’ve used they keytar a lot in live shows with JazzyBIT, especially the ones during the “Touch the Sky” album period, and I loved to combine it with Wah-Wah effects or my Talk-Box pedal, for a more funky sound. Basically it sounds like a clavinet (think of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”), but it looks like an “alien-crafted” instrument. Almost everywhere I played with it, it was quite a highlight, especially because of its appearance. A friend of mine from Bucharest told me that we would have played an entire show only with the keytar, if it would have been in my position… well, this is a challenge which I am not ready to fulfill.
I remember two funny stories with the Williams keytar, first was at Alba Jazz in 2013, where we were so lucky and happy to open for Omar Sosa’s quartet. At the soundcheck, Omar was very curious about my keytar, and he played quite a lot on it (he actually used my keyboards for his concert and since than we are good friends), I remember him saying that this is a “super crazy” instrument. The second story was at Budapest Jazz Club, with JazzyBIT (yes, this is the famous place where Csongi was carrying my Hammond and Leslie, remember my last story..). I was preparing my keytar for the soundcheck, and I was having no sound.. I became quite stressed because this never happened to me before, and I did not understand what was happening… I plugged the keytar in several Amps and still nothing… I am sure that all guitar players reading my blog already know the issue, but me, as a keyboards guy, I was clueless… what actually happened, the battery for the EMG pick-ups was gone… I had no idea that I had a battery in there, now I certainly do! The sound engineer from the club was really nice and bought me one, both him and Michi realized it must have been the battery, so with their help I could successfully use my keytar in the show. Speaking about that, tomorrow I will check the battery again, since I haven’t played with it for some time…
Hammer, Rocket, Alien-Rig, Formula-One, Tomahawk… my Williams has been named in many ways, but for me it’s just my first red keytar and I must say, I love it since it’s pretty unique!