Synths For Sale
A buyers guide for the second hand market.
Nigel Bellis scours the second hand shops of the nation to sort out the best buys in the second hand synth market.
The most frustrating aspect about being a keyboard player without doubt is the cost of new equipment. A guitarist needn't spend more than £500 for a good quality guitar, amp and cab, but the poor, impoverished synth buyer finds that most professional sounding polyphonics start in price at around £600 for say a Korg Poly 800 and up to £19,000-plus for the rich-man's Fairlight.
However it is possible to purchase a flexible and fairly comprehensive synth-based music system for about £500 - if you're willing to take advantage of second-hand buys, many of these "elderly" keyboards — i.e. more than two years old — are still useful machines with a role to play in the creation of music.
The only way to find a keyboard to suit your own personal requirements these days is with a hands-on demonstration, otherwise you can easily be misled and swallowed up in the world of hard-sell advertising. There is nothing worse than unpacking your new keyboard at home and finding that it won't do what you imagined it could, or perhaps that on tape it produces a lot of hiss — although unfortunately you can hardly walk into a music shop with your own cassette recorder to test for this. Or can you?
Before investing you have to have a good idea of the type of material you intend to perform with it, whether it is to be used purely for home recording or for "live" work as well (as stereo outputs might be an important consideration for the former) and decide if you intend to work alone or with other musicians because this could mean that rhythm machines and bass effects would prove a necessity rather than an option. Remember also - particularly when it comes to second-hand equipment - to check compatibility - for instance, you will have a hard time getting your S-triggering Korg synth to work with that nice Roland sequencer. Another vital piece of information to remember is that whatever you buy, whether second-hand or not, the machine will not hold its value, and can drop in price by hundreds of pounds in some cases.
The main advantage of mono synths is that they encourage the user to develop sounds to suit his or her own specifications. With the easy to operate, touch-button more expensive poly's it is all too easy to accept the in-built factory sounds. On many of these models adjusting these pre-set sounds cannot be done in a "live" situation and any changes go on out of sight inside the console.
But with mono's you hear and see the effects of changing parameters - good training for later, taking full advantage of the multi-oscillator/sound wave facilities offered on polyphonic keyboards.
A) Bass Effects.
The best bass sounds I have managed to create on an inexpensive mono surprisingly were produced on Yamaha CS10. This three octave keyboard can be found in many music shops (usually tucked away as almost unsellable through fashion trends) for around £100. It offers a range of footages — from a deep 64' to an ear-piercing 2', saw and square output waveforms, and with sin and saw waveforms on the LFO, while white noise can be added at the turn of a dial, and there are the usual ADSR facilities on the VCF and VCA. The portamento and pitch-bend sliders are also very useable, while on the back panel can be found trigger in/out, Ext in (for strange voice/guitar conditioning) and the now outdated key volt facilities.
The beauty of this synth is that almost whatever dial you adjust the sound remains controlled, with the output level remaining fairly constant.
The more advanced Moog Prodigy on the other hand needs to be warmed up before tuning can begin, and the output level dips and rises considerably with even the smallest patch alteration. A great machine for recording but difficult to use live.
The CS10 also allows you to create an effective "standard" bass sound by having the LFO speed set at around 40 per cent, and by fine tuning the cut-off frequency and resonance knobs. For a percussive bass effect white noise can be added, while the hold facility allows you to create eerie droning effects.
Roland Bass Line. Allows 64 patterns, with a bass line of up to 256 measures. Well designed and thought-out, I feel more controls for sound alteration could have been included, though, for a relatively small outlay, you are getting both a dedicated bass synth, and a sequencer.
Critics of the mono say that it is unusable in a "live" situation because of the time required to adjust sound settings. However by photostating a blank patch chart and then ringing the dials and sliders to be altered for each song the problem need not apply.
Assuming that you have a rhythm and bass unit I can now tackle the most difficult topic, of what to use as your "mother" instrument.
Casio helped to spearhead the age of ultracheap synthesisers and offer keyboards from the minute VL1 through to the 5 octave, 8 note CT7000 poly which features 20 preset sounds, 12 auto rhythms, built-in multitrack recording, bass, chords and three stereo effect functions.
If you want to buy an inexpensive new keyboard then Casio is probably the firm to give you a good bargain. Their sounds are improving all the time (ie Casio's digital CZ101), the auto accompaniment on their larger models are effective and not too machine like, most have built in speakers to save you humping a cab and amp around, and even the solo voices are impressive.
I tried out a second-hand CT202 which offered 5 octaves with 8 note poly, 49 pre-sets (four can be stored at a time), sustain and three step vibrato control — plus a built in single speaker. What also caught my attention with this keyboard was the wide range of pre-sets, all of an acceptable standard. Funky clavs, brass, celeste and the Japanese Taisho Koto were realistic.
I spotted a Korg Mono/Poly 4VCO synth at the A1 music store in Manchester reduced from £700 to £399. For the mono enthusiast you couldn't find a better machine than this for the price I saw it on offer for. The brochure says it is designed "for stunning lead synthesiser sounds as well as polyphonic playing," and I wouldn't disagree.
The keyboard can be operated in unison for fat, rich effects; in 4 note poly; or unison/share which automatically switches between unison and poly modes.
As far as piano's are concerned, you can pick up a second hand model for £100 upwards, but you tend to pay more for the models with the most accurate tone. How much you pay also depends on the number of octaves on offer, whether a harpsichord is included, if they are touch sensitive, and to some extent on the chassis design — if it looks quite expensive then it could well be just that.
I've used a Roland EP30 piano/harpsichord for many years, which I acquired in the mid 70's for £300 second-hand — although you could probably pick one up for a third of the price now. There are two piano tones on this machine (mushy for background sounds and "natural"), an octave of bass available (with the volume adjustable), and vibrato with speed control and a volume knob.
Touch sensitivity, which can be switched in or out, has also proved a definite plus, and reliability has never been a problem. In fact the only time it has needed repair has been when the odd note spring has become worn. The keyboard is highly portable, and has a built-on flightcase (flight cases for new synths cost £40 upwards!)
Although the tones are not as rich as say the bulkier and more expensive Fender Rhodes (around £400 second-hand), the sounds are quite acceptable and I have used it many times for recording.
String Machines: I recently invested in a second-hand Hohner model, which although very heavy (incorporating the older style technology) offers a split keyboard; ensemble, separate sliders for piano, harpsichord, cello and violins (with sustain sliders for the latter two); and useful separate outputs for the bass, piano/harpsichord. It came once again with its own built-on flight case, but also including its own stand, sustain and hold-switches, volume pedal and accessory flight case — which is something of a rarity these days — for only £195.
Also highly commended are the Logan String Melody II, with its split keyboard facility and very realistic string effects, and the lightweight Roland SH09, which has stereo outputs, organ, and strings with 8', 4', 2' and 1' facilities.
Virtually any of the mono's we've already discussed for basslines are capable of producing good leadlines, but one particular machine to look out for is Roland's SH101 - it offers an optional modulation hand-grip, for over-the-shoulder use and a built-in sequencer - great for posing during solos, but not sufficient in itself for the buyer in search of a full system under £500.
So many are being introduced these days that it is hard to keep track of them. In North Wales where I live many musicians rely on the inexpensive Sound Master drum machine for their live work (around £70 new). The sounds aren't a patch on many professional drum machines, but are a vast improvement on the old, bulky "knocker-boxes."
This machine, which will fit into a large jacket pocket, runs off either mains adaptor or batteries (which seem to go on for ever!). It offers 16 memories — four in 6/8 time) and fill-ins on the 4, 8, or 16th bars. The four sounds you can tap-in are bass drum, snare, hi-hat and cymbal, while you can also mix two drum patterns (playing one after another) and it can be started by a footswitch.
The two main disadvantages are no clock or trigger outputs for linking to other devices when you can afford them, and the bass drum could do with a separate volume control, as it gives too high a signal for recording unless you are using a limiter.
Nevertheless a useful, inexpensive drum machine which is quite acceptable for demos and semi-pro work.
I spotted a new Kay Memory Rhythm Machine selling for only £54 on my travels, but never got around to actually testing it. It looks from a design viewpoint the same as the Sound Master, but also had a useful sequencer output. Another machine worth investigating is the Yamaha MR10 which was on offer for £79. Extras include Hi and Low toms, tuning and pads to be hit with the fingers or light sticks. The MR10 has good quality voices and can be "played-over" by using the pads. Another useful inclusion are separate volumes for the bass drum and cymbal but a big drawback is its lack of programmability. The 'work horse' for many musicians is the Boss Dr. Rhythm, the original for the Korg and similar machines, and available at knock-down prices since the introduction of its successor, the Dr 110 Graphic. Of course the successful TR606's unfashionable lack of MIDI is likely to make it a popular item in the new future - worth the extra if you can afford.
I picked up an ageing — but well restored — Watkins Copy Cat echo for £25 a few months ago, which was one of the best buys I've ever made. The three echoes available can all be adjusted for their volume and sustain, and can boost solos and bass riffs dramatically. Echo is also useful for enhancing wind/rain/engine/white noise effects, and works well with strings, brass and woodwind sounds.
A useful tool for home recording is the Compressor Limiter, available in kit form (check advertisements) for only a few pounds, requiring only limited electrical knowledge to assemble.
Noise Gates are another worthwhile buy for recording, and again can be found in kit-form. However they need careful alignment, as they can also take away too much treble response.
Phasers and Flangers are ideal for piano and strings, available in kit-form or second hand from around £20 but it's best to consult a friendly musician with such devices as some are better than others.
I've used Electro Harmonix flangers for the last six years (they have needed slight, inexpensive attention from time to time because of unwanted noise when peaking) which give clear, crisp colouring, and have the advantage of being mains powered without an adaptor accessory being required. Other cheap, popular models include Boss and Korg, MXR, and Aria.
Sustain and Hold pedals can also be picked up for around £5 in most music shops.
Don't be misled by the expensive mixers advertised in magazines for use with PA's and in proper studios.
For home recording the smallest six channel system will do. I use a £35 second-hand JVC MI E60 six channel stereo mic mixer (yes a mic mixer!) which has two pan controls for the centre channels, both jack and phono inputs, and 4 phono outputs allowing you to hook up your two tape machines. A choice of three input levels allows good control of level, assisted by sliders and a master volume control. The only disappointment is the two reverbs which are virtually unusable as they have a nasty, artificial tone. But a good investment as a second-hand bargain, although I've never seen one since.
After failing to find a single shop where secondhand keyboards are a speciality I was going to ask you, the reader, if any can be found. But a trip to Leeds revealed not only Surplus (15 Boar Road), but also Contact, 27 Lower Briggate St). At Surplus, I discovered a wide range of synths of all shapes and sizes at knock-down prices. At the cheaper end was a Hohner EK61 "Globetrotter" for £85, or a Prodigy at £95, through to a Hohner string machine (£195), Teisco 110 (£295) to the bulky but well-designed Arp Quadra at £695. Prospective buyers aren't encouraged to test the machines on the premises (as nothing was wired for sound when I visited) but they are given a one month guarantee against defect.
Around the corner at Contact in Briggate Street (who have recently opened a larger store) I spotted a Sequential Pro One synth for £250, a Farfisa Pro at £85, and a second-hand SH101 for only £175. Many of the larger music shops I visited sold second-hand keyboards but for higher prices and had fewer in stock. Naturally too the main sales emphasis was on convincing buyers to go for the new machines, but most areas will yield a couple of good music shops, with a reasonable second-hand stock. Check the music press ads, and phone around the details.
I recently asked Roland UK for their advice on what to buy second-hand and how the keyboard is going to develop over the next few years. As they are one of the "big two" when it comes to synths, their answers may prove of some benefit when you are deciding what to buy:-
Which Roland synthesisers would you consider a popular second-hand investment?
A: "The SH2000 (for organ top or add on units); the SH3A as a pre-set synth; Juno 6 and Juno 60. Except for the SH2000 these models have basically the same sounds, but obviously new technology means that the sounds of each instrument have vastly improved. For example the sounds of the SH3A are very different from those of the Juno 6, which was produced 5 years after the SH3A. The Juno 60 sounds are very highly regarded for the quality of its oscillators which give a very deep and real sound."
Are there any plans to update old machines, for instance to make them MIDI compatible?
A: "No, with the exception of units manufactured over the last year or so, which can be adapted using add-on systems such as the OP8M interface unit."
Is there a danger that the consumer may be frightened of buying, because synths can become outdated so quickly?
A: "Manufacturers are always faced with the prospect of our consumer waiting for the next thing to come out, but this does not just apply to musical instruments. We feel sure that products using the MIDI system will alleviate most of the consumers doubts about what and when to buy. For example the consumer can now buy the Roland mother keyboard, but it is only a keyboard and the consumer adds his MIDI compatible units to the mother keyboard. Therefore, you now have an add-on situation rather than a trade-in one, which is how it has been in the past."
Recent moves on the home micro front (Datel, Microsound etc), however, indicated that even this last bastion of 'professional' walletage may yet fall - together with MIDI consigning scores of CV Gate synths to early retirement, there has never been a better time for the budget buyer.