MK 80 Electronic Piano
In its day the Fender Rhodes changed the course of musical progress; now Roland have resurrected and improved Harold Rhodes' classic electric piano. Simon Trask plays on...
Keyboard instruments don't come more classic than the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Now Roland have resurrected the Rhodes name - but have they also managed to resurrect the Rhodes sound?
EACH GENERATION HAS its own catalysts for musical creativity. In the '80s we can look to the polyphonic synthesiser, the sampler and the drum machine. But for a whole generation of keyboard players in the late-'60s and early '70s one instrument was crucial: the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
The Rhodes was made available in several versions: the Stage 73 and the Stage 88 (the numbers in each case referring to the number of notes on the keyboard) and the Suitcase versions which had their own amplification built in. It relied on a system akin to the electric guitar, requiring the electrical amplification of physical vibrations mediated via the disturbance of a magnetic field. Consequently the Stage versions had no on/off switch (a strange concept today) as they required no electricity themselves. There were various practical considerations in the Rhodes' success: even though it was far from being lightweight it was still more portable than an acoustic piano, its audio output meant that it was easy to amplify (no miking involved) at a time when amplification had become the norm in music, and the fact that it was polyphonic and dynamic put it leagues ahead of the early synthesisers, which were of course monophonic and non-dynamic (if anything, this very contrast meant that the Rhodes could and did happily co-exist with the early Moog and ARP systems).
And then there was that pure and yet well-rounded Rhodes sound. The decay envelope of the Rhodes sound was longer than that of an acoustic piano, its bass end was purer, its upper range was much stronger (helping it to cut through in an amplified setting - an advantage it had over its only real competitor, the Wurlitzer EP200), and its sound broke up in a unique way when played hard.
The result was that it occupied a special timbral and linear space in music, a factor which made it crucial to the development of Miles Davis's electric music in the late-'60s and early-'70s, when he had Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarret all playing Rhodes. Listen also to the early Weather Report albums, to Hancock's early-'70s electric albums, to Mike Ratledge's playing in Soft Machine, to the three Rhodes tracks on Stevie Wonder's 1972 album Talking Book and you'll understand the significance of the Rhodes if you don't know it already. In the Rhodes lexicon of love I'd also place Max Middleton's sparing but telling use of the Rhodes in the Jeff Beck group, and Lonnie Liston Smith's string of mellow jazz-funk albums in the latter half of the '70s. Then of course there are classic songs like 10cc's 'I'm Not In Love', Ace's 'How Long' and Minnie Riperton's 'Lovin' You'. The original Rhodes' only onboard effect was tremolo, but it became common practice to put its signal through external effects, which usually meant guitar pedals (Still a valid technique for today's digital keyboard instruments, despite the advent of rack-mounting digital multi-effects). Chorus. phaser, wah-wah, ring modulator and echoplex were all pressed into service, contributing to the Rhodes' chameleon-like ability to adapt to different musical settings and moods. It could be spacey, mellow, angry...
But the Rhodes was destined to be replaced by the synthesiser. The rise of the polyphonic synth, the advent of MIDI and consequent emphasis on syncing and sequencing all played their part. But it was the famous 'Rhodes' electric piano preset on Yamaha's DX7 digital synth, combined with the facts that the DX7 could produce a wider range of sounds than the Rhodes, was (comparatively) light and portable, had a lighter keyboard action and was MIDI-compatible, which really closed the (talking) book on the Rhodes. Of course, the DX Rhodes sound was really the start of an '80s electric piano sound rather than a true recreation of the original Rhodes. Yamaha's synth became as ubiquitous as the Fender Rhodes had once been, though its reign has been nowhere near as long, perhaps most obviously because physical development timespan no longer governs instrument development. For many years the Rhodes had no competition. The monophonic synthesiser had to develop into the polyphonic synthesiser and reach a point where it could not only compete with the Rhodes on sound quality but also provide a reasonable degree of polyphony. Look at it this way: there is the sound and there is the physical form of the instrument which produces the sound, and traditionally the two have been intimately related. With the advent of analogue synths this relationship began to break down, but the physical components and the physical configuration of those components still determined to some extent the size and shape of an instrument. As electronic instruments have moved into the digital realm, the physical relationship between sound and originating medium has totally disappeared. Now, there is no physical reason for an instrument to sound any particular way. The constraints (if that's the right word) are far more arcane than that: processing power, signal conversion circuitry and human understanding both of sound and of how to produce sound digitally.
At the same time, digital technology now has the power and sophistication to measure and analyse existing sounds in great detail and to model them in software. Roland are one company who have put plenty of R&D effort into analysing and reproducing the sound of an acoustic piano digitally. Their RD series of electronic pianos uses a highly sophisticated sound modelling system known as Structured Adaptive synthesis. So it seems a logical step to apply this technology to another classic keyboard instrument, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, and this is exactly what Roland have done. The company's new all-digital Rhodes electric piano uses Adjustable Structured Adaptive synthesis to model the original Rhodes sound together with several other sounds, but the technology isn't all they've employed to get the end result right. They've also engaged the advisory services, and in particular the very keen ear, of the Rhodes piano's inventor, Harold Rhodes, thus maintaining a continuity with the past.
Following in the tradition established by the original Rhodes. Roland have brought out two versions of their new electric piano: the 88-note MK8O and the 64-note MK60 (whose range is "expandable" by means of an Octave Shift switch). The MK60 has the same source sounds and the same polyphony as the MK8O, but in other respects is a scaled-down version, forgoing the 80's programmability and phaser effect, simplifying the 80's three-band EQ to bass and treble, its chorus to on/off, and providing a simpler MIDI implementation. If anything, the MK60's minimisation of front-panel controls brings it closer than the MK8O to the original Rhodes, and this greater simplicity of approach may appeal to some musicians.
THERE ARE EIGHT basic sounds on the MK8O: four electric pianos (Classic, Special, Blend and Contemporary), two acoustic pianos (Concert and Electric grands), Clavi and Vibraphone. This is really the same formula employed by just about every digital piano over the past few years, except that here the emphasis is placed on the electric rather than the acoustic pianos.
Seven Variations of each of these sounds can be programmed and stored onboard, giving you equal access to a total of 63 sounds (each of which can be given its own 12-character name). Although the MK80 has no RAM-card storage, you can bulk-dump its memory via MIDI SysEx to a suitable storage device.
If you read MT's British Music Fair report (MT, September '89) then you'll know that I was impressed by the new Rhodes on initial encounter. Now, after having got to grips with the MK80 over a longer period of time. I can say that I'm just as impressed, if not more so. The all-important sound is Classic. It's here that Roland have managed to capture the essence of the original Rhodes sound, that special mixture of clarity and fullness, right across the range. Start playing this sound and all the memories come flooding back. Sensibly Roland haven't only gone for the classic Rhodes, but have included a Contemporary sound which is what it says: a bright, metallic '80s electric piano sound - which is as good in its own way as the old Rhodes sound is in its. The two other electric piano sounds, Special and Blend, sit somewhere in between Rhodes and Contemporary in character. In fact, if you move across the four electric piano sounds you'll find that they get progressively brighter and "tinkly'.
Equally it's a good idea to include acoustic pianos. The MK80 has two of them, both supposedly acoustic grands, but Piano 1 sounds more like an upright to me, and Piano 2 is definitely an electric grand. There's nothing wrong in that, but in truth I found them adequate but on the disappointing side, with a rather messy bottom end and a thin top end, and an overall lack of body. Basically, they just don't do for the acoustic piano what Classic, Special, Blend and Contemporary do for the electric piano.
The Clavi isn't exactly a clavinet (which is probably why Roland have left off the "net"), and certainly doesn't do for the classic Hohner D6 what 'Classic' does for the Rhodes, but once you start tinkering around with the sound and effects parameters (see below) you can get some nicely funky sounds from it.
Finally there's the vibraphone. I'm not sure why manufacturers so often insist on including vibes on their digital pianos, but I suppose it can be useful in a jazzy context. Anyway, it's a vibrant and well-rounded sound which sparkles nicely when you add a touch of tremolo.
The MK8O's piano-style keyboard has an 88-note span and is attack velocity-sensitive. Playing it calls for a firm touch, but the travel is moderate and the action thankfully falls short of ponderous. Roland have given the MK80 a substantial casing, including a generous top panel which could readily accommodate all the old muso paraphernalia of sheets of music, pints of beer and an ashtray - an improvement over the original Rhodes' convex surface that always threatened to deposit your pint/joint/synth in your lap as soon as you started playing. It could, however, just as well find a second keyboard or perhaps a combination of expander, drum machine and sequencer placed on it.
At just over 76lbs the MK80 is no lightweight, but it's still a big improvement on the original instrument.
The MK60 weighs in at a more readily carryable 59lbs (in fact, the weight consideration was important in Roland's decision to go for a 64-note as opposed to a 76-note keyboard).
The original Rhodes was of course fully polyphonic, as it worked along the same principle as the electric guitar with each string having its own pickup. This is one area where digital technology (currently) falls down in comparison. Polyphony on the MK80 is limited to 16 voices (only ten in the case of Contemporary and Clavi), though it could be said that 16 is a reasonable limit - unless you're into two-fisted block chords and/or liberal applications of the sustain pedal. Quite why Contemporary and Clavi should be singled out for less polyphony isn't clear (are they really more difficult to create?), but it's slightly ironic when you consider that Contemporary is supposed to represent the '80s electric piano sound, which first found its expression on the 16-voice DX7. I should point out that the MK80 can only produce one sound at a time, and there's no overlapping of sounds when you select a new patch while notes are held down. The MK80 waits until all notes and the sustain pedal are released before calling up the new sound - actually quite a musically helpful feature.
Whereas on some of their instruments Roland have gone for a minimum of buttons and a maximum of button-pushing, on the MK80 they've adopted a more balanced approach. A greater number of buttons and sliders bring the Rhodes' functions closer to the surface operationally, while a certain amount of dual functionality together with multiple LCD pages (the central backlit LCD window is a modest 2x16 characters) help to ensure there isn't a confusing sprawl of buttons. Four assignable sliders play a key role in creating the sort of immediacy of sound editing which musicians long for on digital instruments.
To the left of the keyboard you'll find the familiar Roland bender/mod lever, while the rear panel provides MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, L/Mono and R stereo out jacks, and headphone out jack together with control/expression and damper pedal jack inputs. A dual pedal unit and a sturdy tubular fold-out stand are both provided with the MK80.
Essentially the MK8O's eight preset sounds can be modified by adjusting four parameters which have been given such refreshingly non-technical names and readily useful functions as Punch, Tightness, Body and Brightness (all on a scale of 0-32). Punch defines the strength, or hardness, of the sound's attack (except for the Contemporary or Vibraphone sounds, where a hard attack is deemed to be part of their character), and is not so much to do with attack rate as with how much of a bright percussive "chink" there is in the attack. Tightness allows you to adjust the amplitude decay of a sound, while Body creates a more full-bodied sound by increasing the amplitude of the fundamental and the lower harmonics, and Brightness creates a brighter sound by increasing the amplitude of the upper harmonics.
"Roland have managed to capture the essence of the original Rhodes sound, that special mixture of clarity and fullness, right across the range."
THE ABOVE SOUND parameters are only part of the story. In the current fashion, Roland have included onboard digital effects processing, but instead of chucking in everything but the kitchen sync they've stuck to tremolo, phaser, chorus and EQ (tremolo being the only effect that was available on the original Rhodes - not digitally, of course). You can adjust the rate and depth of the tremolo effect, the phaser rate, depth and feedback, and the chorus mode, rate and depth. There are two chorus modes (stereo and Left), and two LFOs which offer a combination of triangle and sine waves for the chorus effect, each LFO having separately adjustable rate and depth (the ratio is 80:20 in favour of the triangle wave at maximum depth). The EQ is three-band with a parametric mid-range. You can set bass, mid and treble levels (+/-100) together with a mid frequency in the range 200-4000Hz and mid bandwidth (the frequency range over which the mid EQ will be applied) on a scale of 1-8.
As mentioned earlier, musicians used to think nothing of putting the original Rhodes through all manner of external effects. As with the electric guitar it was a means of creating a wide variety of sounds from a monotimbral instrument. Now that we have synthesisers which can generate a wide variety of sounds through programming, effects have been perceived as a means of covering up for inherent weaknesses in a synthesis system. Well, for people who think like that, let me say that the MK8O's sounds (and especially the electric pianos) work well on their own without effects. But you can use the effects (in conjunction with the sound parameters) to greatly widen the palette of sounds at your disposal, and in the process (re)create many of the classic sounds associated with the original Rhodes. So whether you like a rich, warm, shimmering, floating electric piano sound which caresses your soul or an aggressive, biting, percussive and all-round nasty sound to frighten the neighbours with, you can get-it with a spot of editing. You can also push the effects to extremes to create weird sounds which don't bear any immediate resemblance to their origins. Still, it's tempting to ask what happened to the digital wah-wah.
Parameter values for each of these effects can be programmed per Variation on the MK8O, as can tremolo, phaser and chorus on/off settings. Additionally, dedicated front-panel buttons for tremolo, phaser and chorus on/off allow you to switch each effect in and out at will, while the four front-panel slider controllers can be used to adjust effect parameter values in real-time. How do 15 parameters fit on four sliders? Through preset assignability. Pressing one of the Trem/Phsr, Chorus or EQ buttons assigns the relevant effect(s) to the sliders: the actual parameters in each case are labelled beneath the sliders for ready reference. In this way the only effect parameters not available on the sliders are phaser feedback, chorus mode and mid EQ bandwidth.
This sort of immediacy and spontaneity is what the new Rhodes is all about, and conceptually it helps to make the effects an integral and an interactive part of the sounds. Of course, it would be nice if you could decide for yourself which parameters were assigned to the sliders, and if you could edit the sound parameters in the same way. Well, Roland obviously agree, because they've included a User function which allows you to do both of these things. A different User configuration of four parameters, drawing on the sound and effect parameters (including phaser feedback and mid EQ bandwidth) and auto bend depth and time, can be programmed for each Variation. Whenever you press the dedicated front-panel User button, the currently-programmed User configuration of parameters is automatically assigned to the four sliders in place of the preset effect-parameter assignments.
You can also assign a parameter to the control or expression pedal, again per Variation, with a choice of punch, body, brightness, EQ mid frequency, mod depth, auto bend on/off, tremolo on/off, phaser on/off or chorus on/off.
The MK80 allows you to choose one of eight velocity response curves per Variation, two of which are inverse curves, so the harder you hit the keys, the softer the sound. You can also specify the note range over which the Rhodes responds by defining upper and lower note-limits for each Variation (pressing the Int Range button below the LCD window allows you to switch in the full 88-note range at any time). But how can features like note ranges and inverse velocity curves be useful? Stay tuned.
Which brings us nicely (or maybe not) to the subject of tuning. Nowadays an increasing number of synths and samplers allow you to specify your own tunings in the digital realm, safe in the knowledge that once you've created a tuning it can't possibly slip. Manual tuning adjustments could be made to the original Rhodes, and many of the top musicians of the day had the company tune their Rhodes pianos to a "stretched tuning" - Miles Davis was the first to request it. This is traditionally how acoustic pianos are tuned: as the name implies, bass notes are progressively flattened in pitch and treble notes sharpened, the resultant harmonic beating when combinations of notes are played being more interesting to the ear. Trouble was, creating the tuning on the Rhodes could take anything up to 20 minutes, plus of course it was subject to natural slippage and therefore wasn't engraved in stone (or silicon chip). In contrast, at the press of a button on the new all-digital Rhodes MK80 you can choose one of three preset stretched tunings, selectable per Variation. This applies to all eight source sounds, including, logically enough, the two acoustic pianos. In fact, the tuning curves are deeper for the acoustic pianos (though still subtle in effect), and a stretched tuning is always present on them - on the other sounds, you can effectively switch out stretched tuning by selecting tuning number one.
Other parameters programmable per Variation are bender depth (0-12 semitones), modulation rate and depth, and several parameters governing autobend (attack pitchbend): on/off, depth (+/-1 octave maximum), time (maximum four seconds), key follow and velocity responsiveness.
ROLAND HAVE OF, course, brought the new Rhodes into the MIDI age. The familiar complement of MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets are to be found on the rear panel, while MIDI transmit functions programmable per Variation are channel (1-16), patch number (1-128), velocity curve and note-transmit zone. Being able to program a different channel per Variation means that you can layer different MIDI instruments with different onboard sounds, while the patchnumber function allows a new external sound to be called up each time a new Variation is selected. But you don't have to tie channel and patch changes in with Variation changes; by holding down the Tx Ch or Prog Chg buttons and pressing the appropriate number buttons you can change channel or send a patch-change at any time.
Roland have quite sensibly allowed you to select separate velocity curves for internal and external sounds, drawing on the same eight predefined curves (as two of these are inverse curves, you can set up velocity crossfades between internal and external sounds, with either taking the, er, soft option).
Similarly you can specify separate internal and MIDI note zones, which means you can have an upper/lower split or a split/layer texture of internal and MIDI'd sounds, with the external texture, of course, being decided by the slaved instrument(s). However, I would've liked to see a bit more flexibility in the MIDI zoning, with, say, two MIDI zones which could transmit on separate MIDI channels. If the Rhodes' four front-panel sliders (which can be programmed to transmit MIDI controller data such as MIDI volume) could transmit on different MIDI channels, then you could also balance the volume levels of two different MIDI'd sounds (say, bass and strings) and whatever sound you've selected on the Rhodes. As it is, they can't and you can't, and nor can you readily preset internal/MIDI volume balance from the Rhodes, as there's no provision for storing a MIDI volume value per Variation.
Now, Roland can wave their banner of performer-friendliness to justify whatever omissions they've made, but friendliness isn't only a matter of simplicity of approach, it's also about providing features which can be of practical benefit to the performer. The Rhodes also has a number of global MIDI parameters. On the transmission front you can specify patch change, control change and sustain pedal on/off (in the latter case, you could sustain the Rhodes sound but not a MIDI'd sound), while for MIDI reception you can specify patch change, SysEx, pitchbend, control change and All Notes Off on/off. Additionally you can select a MIDI receive channel (1-16) or omni receive, transpose internal and MIDI notes over a wide +/- range in semitone steps, set MIDI Local on or off (if off, you can play MIDI'd sounds while the Rhodes itself is silent), select decimal or Rhodes button patch-number display format, and activate a MIDI SysEx bulk-dump of the MK8O's data to an external storage device.
The MIDI Out button positioned below the LCD window allows you to go to the other extreme and switch out MIDI note transmission altogether (it's a pity you can't control Local on/off as spontaneously as this). As with channel-changing, the MK8O avoids the danger of stuck notes by only activating and deactivating these functions once all notes and the sustain pedal have been released.
Finally, each of the four front-panel sliders and the supplied control pedal or optional expression pedal can be assigned to transmit MIDI controller data in addition to or instead of their onboard functions; as touched on earlier, you could, for instance, dynamically control the volume level of a slaved MIDI instrument in this way.
FIRST UP, THE MK8O provides the best original Rhodes sound this side of the original Rhodes. Roland have got the sound, the envelope and the volume balance across the keyboard right. Sit down and play the MK8O (and it really is an instrument which is meant to be played) and you know you're dealing with a classic. The sound and effect parameters allow you to alter the basic sound in much the same way as musicians used to do with effects pedals. Including a contemporary electric piano sound too was a very sensible move on Roland's part; now that modern ears are accustomed to the modern sound, will the old sound actually find favour again? I hope so. I could have wished for better offerings on the acoustic piano front, while a Hohner D6 clavinet sound (another '70s classic) wouldn't have gone amiss. But it's really the electric pianos which are the stars of this particular show.
As to which of the two versions, MK60 and MK8O, will sell best, I'll be most interested to see. I'd be inclined to to go for the MK8O with its greater sound possibilities, its programmability and overall greater sophistication. But then the 60's more compact, lighter form and emphasis on simplicity might find favour in a lot of quarters.
Clearly Roland's priority has been to adhere to the operational simplicity and directness of the original Rhodes as much as-possible, while taking advantage of the possibilities offered by digital technology. As a result they've formulated a performer-friendly philosophy: ready access to performance functions (more buttons, less button-pushing), a limited set of parameters with functions which fulfill musically useful requirements rather than conform to the dictates of a synthesis system, and a readiness to offset simplicity against sophistication.
In fact, the company's purchase of the rights to the Rhodes marque is part of a broader strategy involving the setting up of a Rhodes marketing division. The Rhodes name will be on not only the MK60 and the MK8O but also further instruments, all of which will conform to the underlying Rhodes philosophy of performer-friendliness. The first of these will be the Model 660 synth, which should be available around the end of this year. According to Roland the 660 will use ReSynthesised PCM sound generation as introduced on the U20 earlier in the year, but presumably presented in a very different way from the U20 so as to conform to the Rhodes philosophy. Personally I'd like to see Rhodes pursue the ASA route which has made the MK pianos such a success - there are many other old instruments just waiting to be modelled in the same way. But for now, full marks go to Roland for bringing the classic Rhodes electric piano back from the dead with such obvious care and attention to detail. It's official: reincarnation exists.
Prices MK80, £1799; MK60, £1299; both prices include VAT.