Rhodes MK80 Piano
The Rhodes electric piano features on countless classic tracks, and is one of the most imitated keyboard sounds of all time. Now Rhodes are back, with a new keyboard that updates a classic sound with all the benefits of contemporary MIDI technology. Tony Hastings checks it out.
The sound of a Rhodes electric piano has a special place in recent musical history - it features on countless classic tracks, and is one of the most imitated keyboard sounds of all time. Now Rhodes are back, with a new keyboard that updates a classic sound with all the benefits of contemporary MIDI technology. Tony Hastings checks it out.
The Rhodes piano is dead, long live the Rhodes! Please excuse the cliche, but in the circumstances it does seem rather fitting, now that this legendary keyboard has been re-born. The Rhodes, as you must all know, is one of the classic keyboards of all time (along with the Wurlitzer piano, Hammond organ and possibly Hohner Clavinet D6). Its distinctive sound has graced so many hit records that I couldn't even begin to name them all, but just like the dinosaurs it slid from world domination to extinction in a remarkably short space of time. However, whilst experts still argue about the reasons for the great lizards' demise, those of the Rhodes are obvious: its notorious 'three roadie' weight, tuning problems, and ultimately its lack of any MIDI facilities in an increasingly hi-tech environment. The final nail in the Rhodes' coffin was knocked in by the DX7, with its ability to reproduce a MIDI-controllable, perfectly tuned Rhodes sound - and you could carry it under one arm. With the proliferation of synthesizers able to produce so many different electric piano sounds, a lot of people (myself included) have almost forgotten what a real Rhodes sounded like. But that's all due to change now, for there's a new kid on the block and he means business: the Rhodes MK80 piano from Roland.
The MK80 and its smaller 64-note brother, the MK60, are the first products to appear under the Rhodes banner since the company was taken over by Roland. Others, including a synthesizer, are expected soon. The MK80 promises much, partly because of the Rhodes legend, and also because Roland have consulted extensively with Harold Rhodes himself with regard to the design of the new instrument. An exciting combination of the old and the new is therefore promised.
The first thing you notice about the MK80 is its styling. The all-important electronics - the sounds of this new Rhodes are not based on a mechanical system - are housed in a sleek matt black case that sports the Rhodes logo, and manages to successfully retain a lot of the visual flavour of its predecessor. The MK80 keyboard has an 88-note piano action, and the whole instrument weighs in at 34.5kg. If you find that difficult to imagine, think of carrying an old Fender Rhodes with a friend. Well, your half would feel something like the whole of an MK80. Not exactly under-the-arm stuff, but a lot more manageable than the original. The top is big and flat, and therefore highly suitable for supporting another keyboard (the forthcoming Rhodes synthesizer perhaps?).
In the centre of the front panel is a display, surrounded by the buttons necessary to find your way around the operating procedures of the machine. Three rows of eight buttons are located to the right, with left/right and up/down cursor buttons beneath. The display itself is a 16-character, two line backlit LCD type. To the left are five sliders: one for the main volume and four that can be assigned to control different modes of operation, which I will cover in a little while. There is also the familiar Roland style bender/modulation lever and the back panel incorporates a headphone output, stereo outputs, control and damper sockets and MIDI In, Out and Thru.
Before getting down to the bones of this beast, let me quickly whet your appetite with a brief outline of what's on offer. There are eight different basic Tones in the MK80, which are non-editable presets. Variations of these can be created, and the edited versions stored in eight memory locations for each basic Tone - seven of these are retained on powerdown, and one is a volatile temporary buffer. This gives a total of 56 editable user memories and eight temporary locations that revert to the preset Tones when you turn the machine off. The basic Tones are 'Classic', 'Special' and 'Blend' (the real Rhodes sounds) 'Contemporary' (a DX-type sound), 'Acoustic Piano 1' and 'Acoustic Piano 2', 'Clavi' and 'Vibraphone'.
The MK80 is 16-note polyphonic except when playing the 'Contemporary' or 'Clavi' Tones, in which case polyphony is reduced to 10 notes. An effects section is included that offers Chorus, Tremolo, Phaser and three-band EQ. There are also good MIDI control facilities, making the MK80 a possible choice as a mother keyboard.
So does the MK80 have the sound that Rhodes became famous for? I went straight for the basic 'Classic' Tone to find out, and was not disappointed. This is an unadulterated Rhodes voice straight out of the history books - a very smooth timbre that changes, with velocity, from a gentle tine sound to a real 'woody' rasp. Unlike the comparatively thin, bell-like sounds of its imitators, this has all the body of the original. It wasn't long before I found myself playing How Long by Ace, one of the quintessential Rhodes classics of the '70s.
The first Variation on 'Classic' turned out to be called 'Classic Faze': it was exactly that, much warmer and with a delicious soft phase moving the sound from side to side. Remember I'm Not In Love by 10cc? Well then, you know what this patch sounds like. Running through the Variations is like taking a trip through pop music history, with names like 'Daniel Chorus', 'Steve Sunshine' and 'Living 4 City' to remind you of where you've heard the sounds before. These Variations, by the way, can be more than slight modifications to the basic Tones: there is enough editing power to make each Variation dramatically different from the last.
The second Tone bank is based on the 'Special' Tone. This basic timbre is a little lighter than 'Classic' and has a bit more of the bell/tine sound in it. Amongst the named Variations here are 'Greenflour St' and 'Just The Way UR'. The third basic Tone is 'Blend', which seems to be a cross between the 'Classic' and 'Special' tones: lots of body but with a good hard attack. The fourth Tone bank is 'Contemporary', offering eight Variations of the, by now, de rigeur DX7 electric piano sound: very bell-like and tinkly but with the potential to be quite aggressive when needed.
At this point we leave behind the Tones inspired by the original Rhodes and move onto two banks of Acoustic Piano sounds. Oddly enough (coming from the manufacturers of the RD series of pianos) these sound not so much acoustic as electric, inspired, to my ears, more by a Yamaha electric grand than a Steinway.
"The parameters provided by the MK80 for sculpting the sounds are intended to be easy to relate to and understand, rather than requiring you to get to grips with a complex sound programming system. Consequently, they are given 'user-friendly' names and affect the Tones in ways that produce obvious changes in the sound."
This is a surprise, but quite a pleasant one, for the Yamaha grand is another classic keyboard that was massively heavy, prone to tuning problems and initially not graced with any MIDI facilities. 'Acoustic Piano 1' is richer and more like a real piano than 'Acoustic Piano 2', but to be honest two banks of electric grand sounds seems a little excessive to me. I would rather have heard a more natural piano from Roland's RD series substituted for the 'Acoustic Piano 2' Tone, thus giving access to nearly every piano sound you might want. Still, this is a fairly minor criticism in the context of what is otherwise a very good instrument.
The seventh basic Tone is 'Clavi', which turns out to be more Clavichord than Clavinet. For me, this provided the least inspired Tone bank - the sound was very synthetic and quite harsh, with no string pluck to give it life. I have no doubt that in context, with a band playing or in a mix, it would do itself justice - but in its naked form it didn't impress me. The final basic Tone is 'Vibraphone' and the eight Variations here were very realistic and usable. Personally, I never actually need this sound, but it fits nicely in the same musical area as the Rhodes and I could see many players (possibly more in the jazz field) finding plenty of use for it.
Having familiarised myself with the basic Tones, and the factory preset Variations on them, I felt it was now time to try my hand at programming some sounds of my own. I chose the 'Classic' Tone as the basis for my first edits. The parameters provided by the MK80 for sculpting the sounds are intended to be easy to relate to and understand, rather than requiring you to get to grips with a complex sound programming system. Consequently, they are given 'user-friendly' names and affect the Tones in ways that produce obvious changes in the sound. The parameters are as follows:
PUNCH. This sets the level of the attack in the sound, from 0-32. Punch appears to be very subtle, but does just take the edge off the attack at higher settings.
TIGHTNESS. This basically alters the release time of the Tone. Even with the maximum value set, the release still isn't very long, so don't expect 'string' type sound tails.
BODY. This parameter determines the amplitude of the fundamental, and a few of the overtones in the proximity of the fundamental. Controlling the Tone's harmonic content in this way allows you to increase the 'thickness' of the sound with higher values. Body really is a very suitable name.
BRIGHTNESS. This is the last parameter that directly affects the timbre, and as it implies, higher values will make the Tone brighter and more bell-like.
AUTO BEND. A set of parameters that allow you to set a pitch (anything from an octave above to an octave below) from which each note will bend until it reaches the pitch of the note you are actually playing. A Depth control varies the time taken to reach the correct pitch, from nothing to four seconds. Two more parameters give you the choice of affecting the amount of pitch change by Key Follow (four levels of sensitivity) and/or by Velocity (also at one of four levels of sensitivity).
Further parameters determine the effects settings for each Variation:
"So does the MK80 have the sound that Rhodes became famous for? I went straight for the basic 'Classic' Tone to find out, and was not disappointed."
TREMOLO. Tremolo is, of course, almost synonymous with the Rhodes sound, and was the original non-digital on-board effect. So, finding Tremolo here is no surprise. The effect can be turned on or off, and the Rate and Depth are also adjustable with values of 0 to 100.
PHASER. Phasing was another effect widely used in conjunction with the Rhodes (eg. 10cc's I'm Not In Love) and seeing it as standard here is quite fitting. Again, the Depth and Rate can be controlled as well as the value of the Feedback level in the effect.
CHORUS Chorus is an effect that came on the scene a bit later in life than the good old Phaser and as we all know, it can add a very subtle stereo feel. The implementation here is extensive, offering two modes (true stereo or chorus on the left output only) as well as Rate and Depth. The modulating waveform can be a sine or triangle wave. The triangle chorus will sound more 'wobbly' at a higher Rate and Depth setting than the sine wave type, which is a little smoother.
EQUALISATION. The final set of parameters in the effects section controls the three-band digital equaliser. Levels can be boosted or cut for Bass, Treble and Middle. The latter range has an adjustable centre frequency (200 to 4000Hz) and a 'Q' parameter for narrowing the frequency range to be affected. An overall Level for the EQ effect can also be set.
STRETCH. Stretch is a 'humanising' parameter that gives you a choice of three tuning curves that are meant to mimic the way a real acoustic instrument behaves over the span of the keyboard. In case you didn't know, a real piano is tuned by ear so that all the notes resonate with each other and produce a pleasant result.
If you were to tune a piano with a digital tuner so that each note was exactly correct by the needle, it would actually sound out of tune. The higher the Stretch value, the more detuned the higher (and lower) range of the MK80 keyboard will become, with a greater deviation for the Acoustic Pianos than the other Tones. This was an effect that I found quite subtle, only being really noticeable when chords are played as opposed to single notes. However, often it is the subtle touches that go a long way to recreating the characteristics of a real instrument.
That wraps up the parameters available for editing the MK80's Tones. Shaping sounds with these parameters proved to be very easy: they are easy to understand, cover all the most important aspects of the sound, and allow effective tailoring of the sounds to your requirements. In a very short time I was able to produce some very different versions of the 'Classic' Tone I had selected. However, there are more parameters available within each Variation, which relate to internal and external (ie. MIDI) control from the MK80's keyboard.
The Internal parameters for each Variation deal with what might be called the performance aspects of the MK80. The first two parameters set the key range over which the Tone will be played. One of eight velocity curves can be selected for the keyboard: these vary from a straight linear response, right through to two reverse curves.
If you recall my opening description you will remember that I mentioned four assignable sliders located next to the volume slider. Well, it's at this point that you first find a use for them. Each slider can be programmed to control any of the parameters contained within the Tone bank of functions (see separate box for details). So it is possible, for example, to assign Brightness to slider one. Phase Rate to slider two, Auto Bend Depth to slider three and Mid Frequency to slider four. When you select this Variation again, the four sliders will be ready and waiting to adjust your chosen parameters.
"The MK80 takes the classic Rhodes sound, plus a few more keyboard 'standards', and puts them into an instrument with the control and reliability offered by contemporary equipment."
The parameters grouped together in the External section control the MK80's MIDI facilities. For each Variation, you can specify a keyboard range from which MIDI data will be generated, a MIDI channel on which it will be sent, and a Program Change number to be sent on that channel when the Variation is selected.
The four sliders can also be used as sources of MIDI data: each slider can be set to generate any MIDI Continuous Controller data, enabling you to change, for example, the overall Volume of a MIDI instrument or its Pan position, or any other parameter that can be assigned to MIDI Controllers. This is an extremely useful feature, especially in performance situations, that gives the MK80 some of the mother keyboard status that I alluded to earlier.
The parameters described so far are programmable within Variations, but there are also means of shaping the MK80's sound in real time. By selecting Trem/Phase, Chorus, EQ or User (when in Play mode) you can temporarily allocate the four sliders to effects parameters, allowing real-time editing of each effect. Whilst the parameters which are selected with Trem/Phase, Chorus and EQ are preset, those assigned with User are programmable by you as described above.
The Tune/MIDI button gives access to the master tune setting of the keyboard, transposition, and MIDI functions (including Local On/Off, System Exclusive facilities, MIDI Modes etc). Two further buttons let you change the MIDI transmission channel without having to edit the current Variation, and also send a Program Change message without having to select a new Variation.
My initial impressions of the MK80 were of the "well, it's okay..." variety, and had I spent only a few hours with it I might have carried on in that frame of mind. But the MK80 has a way of improving with familiarity, and after more than a week with the instrument my feelings were quite different. As a dedicated pianist who normally uses synth-type keyboards, I gradually fell in love with the feel of this weighted piano action keyboard - the biggest compliment I can pay is that I started writing songs on it, and that's an important test of the value of an instrument.
I think that the MK80 is probably going to appeal mostly to people who consider themselves 'players', because it's not an all-singing, all-dancing, hit-making workstation like so many other recent keyboards. You will only get out of the MK80 what you put in, and that means performance and ability are rewarded. Perhaps most importantly, the MK80 takes the classic Rhodes sound, plus a few more keyboard 'standards', and puts them into an instrument with the control and reliability offered by contemporary equipment. Editing the basic Tones to produce your own Variations is simplicity itself, and the use of terms like 'Punch' and 'Body' helps demystify the process for people not used to dealing with digital parameter access. The MIDI functions are useful and workmanlike, although maybe a few more keysplits and another MIDI Out would have been welcome. Very occasionally I ran up against the limits of the 16-note polyphony: some notes would cut off when I was using a lot of sustain pedal and playing big chords. Perhaps 16-note polyphony for an electric piano is a little stingy in this day and age, but I presume there was a logical (or financial) reason for more notes not being available.
All in all, I enjoyed playing the MK80 immensely, and I can't help feeling that the Rhodes name is poised for a triumphant return. So, if the idea of having a real Rhodes piano designed to work in a contemporary music environment appeals to you, don't just play one quickly and make an instant decision - this keyboard is a grower. Do it justice and find a music store where you can spend time playing it - you might not want to leave without it.
MK80 £1799, MK60 £1299 (inc VAT).
Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Tony Hastings
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: