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The Great Divide

It's a sad fact that keyboard players have always had to pay more for the privilege than their guitar or drum playing associates. Tim Goodyer asks what can technology do to redress the imbalance?

EVER SINCE ELECTRONIC keyboards established themselves as a legitimate part of the instrumental lineup in popular music, they have presented their players with a different set of problems from those facing their fellow musicians. Where a guitarist could begin his or her career on a cheap "copy" version of an instrument they might once aspire to own, the keyboard player has always lacked the cheap option - where, for example, was the "Junior" (as in Les Paul Junior) version of the Fender Rhodes or the 'Japanese copy" of the Mellotron when they were needed? And where a drummer might opt for a kit with less robust hardware or cheaper wood shells to get himself - or herself - playing, there was no comparable version of the mighty Hammond C3. It's a sad, and sore, point that keyboard players have always had to find the money as well as the talent to succeed in their chosen career.

Let's look at a few facts: around 20 years ago the above instruments would each have cost you in the region of a grand to buy. At the same time, a genuine Fender Stratocaster would have cost about 250 quid. As recently as ten years ago many of the polyphonic instruments of the day - Oberheim OBXa, Roland Jupiter 8 and so on - would have set you back three grand or more. Today, a serious semi-pro guitarist could spend a similar sum on a complete rig, and feel pretty comfortable with it.

Let's take that a stage further. Three thousand pounds out of a gigging guitarist's pocket would cover a couple of guitars - a nice Paul Reed Smith and a Fender Strat, for example - a combo of the calibre of a Mesa Boogie and a decent multi-effects processor. To equip a keyboard player to a similar standard you have to be talking about a couple of synths and a sampler: for the sake of argument, let's say a Roland D50, Korg M1 and Akai S950. I make the cost of that over four grand already - and that's before we've covered any signal processors or amplification.

In order to explain this situation we have to look at the construction of the instruments involved. Guitars and drums are primarily mechanical devices and it's possible to build them to different standards with corresponding savings in materials and manpower. Electronic gadgetry, however, necessarily involves considerable research and elaborate manufacturing techniques. And it is these aspects of the instruments we are paying so heavily for.

There was a time, in the heyday of subtractive (analogue) synthesisers, when most of the components of even the most sophisticated synths were freely available to anyone wishing to build one. Although there are a few notable cases of musicians having done just this, the requisite knowledge was as scarce as it was precious. In these days of complex digital systems, the heart of a synthesiser is invariably a custom integrated circuit that cannot be obtained by you or I outside the instrument for which it was designed. In short, you can't hope to build a synth on the cheap.

But for the first time in the synthesiser's history, now, and only now, can its players go out and buy a professional instrument for a similar amount to that of other instrumentalists. This is possibly the greatest benefit of the microprocessor revolution: hi-tech musicians are finally escaping the financial handicap they've previously had to endure.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Oct 1990

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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