Eamonn Percival looks at string machines past and present
Rock has come a long way, going through many changes since the days of AC30's, Watkins Copicats and blue suede shoes. In the early formative period of rock music, a group's basic requirements were a guitar, a drum kit, a bass and any old piano that was around. With a few exceptions, the pianist at that time literally had only to thump three or four chords, interspersed with the odd glissando, and it was usually a help if he could play with his feet as well! Over the years, the role of the keyboardsman has developed into what is now again a fine art. It started in the 'sixties, with the emergence of the electric piano, followed quickly by the wide use of electric organs.
Groups like the Zombies and the Dave Clark Five popularised the Hohner Pianet and the Vox Continental during the British Beat Boom, and by the mid-'sixties, Hammond organs were being widely used by groups and bands alike. Keyboard players were no longer stuck at the side of the stage behind the ivories. Rod Argent had his hands full, with a Pianet on top of his Hammond, while Keith Emerson was leaping across his, ripping the back off, banging the reverb springs with a drumstick and plunging daggers into the keyboard! Showmanship had come to the fore with what had until then been considered a rather bulky and stationary instrument. It was easy enough for Pete Townshend to throw a Stratocaster across the stage, but a Hammond organ? Emerson proved otherwise.
By the end of the 'sixties, two revolutionary new keyboard instruments had been introduced — the Moog synthesizer and the Mellotron. With the synthesizer, it was possible to obtain sounds and effects which were previously impossible to get on a single keyboard. The Switched On Bach album by Walter Carlos first brought the Moog synthesizer to the musician's notice. It was an album of Bach pieces performed on a Moog, recorded by laying down various parts and overdubbing them. This led a number of other musicians to realise the possibilities of using a Moog in the context of rock. The Mellotron was a completely different kettle of fish, in that the sounds produced were from tapes, rather than a series of oscillators. For each note on the keyboard, there's a tape loop of the note being played, by a violin or a cello, for instance, and these tape frames are interchangeable. In other words, the sound is authentic as opposed to simulated.
A recent innovation is the introduction of what are generally referred to as "string machines". These are electronic keyboard instruments, designed to simulate the various strings in an orchestra.
We know a synthesizer can already do this, but because of the complexity of the electronics in a synthesizer, it is only possible to play one note at a time on most models, i.e. it's a monophonic instrument, although there are polyphonic models in the pipeline. On the string machines, you can play as many notes as you choose at the same time. The sounds on a Mellotron are more realistic because they are tapes, and the instrument is polyphonic, but the main disadvantage is that the tape loop lasts eight seconds before replay, so you can't hold a chord or note indefinitely.
String machines are rapidly becoming more popular with groups nowadays because of their portability and flexibility. Rick Wakeman can almost afford to do concerts with large orchestras, but a struggling new band can hardly afford to eat, let alone go on the road with twenty or thirty violins and cellos. It is now possible for the smaller band to reproduce a fairly convincing orchestra-like sound with a string machine — something that was virtually unthinkable ten years ago.
The Galanti Instastring has a built-in phase module and violin, cello, trumpet and tuba voices, and controls are provided for attack, decay, volume and balance. It also includes pitch control, and the price is around £300.
The Elka Rhapsody features a 61-note keyboard which can be divided into two: 25 keys for accompaniment, and 36 for the melody. Violincello, strings, piano and clavichord drawbar registers are available for each of the two sections, and a decay control allows different lengths of sustain on all four voices.
The Solina is a higher-priced keyboard, retailing at about £550, and has voices for viola, violin, trumpet and horn, and cello and contra bass on the lower notes. There's also volume, bass volume, a control for different lengths of sustain and a crescendo effect.
The Roland RS-101 features both string and brass sections. There are three tone tablets — a brass ensemble and two string ensembles of different octaves — with independent bass and treble control. Other facilities include tone slider controls for brass and strings, an overall vibrato control, slow attack and volume balance controls for bass and treble, and a pitch control. Decay can be controlled and adjusted by the sustain controls for bass and treble respectively.
The Hohner Hi-String has a 48 note keyboard and features cello and string registers, both of which have variable independant sustain. Both registers also have an independent volume control, and there is a foot swell pedal for added dynamics, and a fine tuning adjustment control.
The Crumar Stringman is a very attractive instrument featuring a 61 note keyboard, with 16, 8 and 4 foot tones. The string section boasts 4 foot violin and 8 foot cello, while the bass section has a 16 foot contrabass on the lowest seventeen keys. This instrument can be played using normal vibrato by means of the vibrato and vibrato delay controls, or with the chorus automatic phasing effect, giving a complete string section timbre. In either mode, the timbre of the footages selected can be tailor made by means of the three sliding controls — mellow, medium and bright — and the variable sustain length slider. It also has separate bass volume and master volume controls. It's a very versatile instrument.
Some fine examples of string machines on record can be heard on albums like Fire by the Ohio Players, Camel's Snow Goose, Herbie Hancock's Thrust album and Sun Goddess by Ramsey Lewis.
There will always be a place for boogie-woogie piano in rock, but just as surely, there will definitely be a place for string machines.
Feature by Eamonn Percival
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