Virtually every synth and keyboard made has passed through the hands of Keyboard Hire's Alexander Skeaping at some point in time, so we sent David Etheridge along to tap his thoughts on the subject of buying secondhand keyboards.
Look through the classified ads in any of the weekly music papers, and you will find bargains galore, all in keyboard instruments that were state of the art only a few years ago. Are they still relevant today? To find out, David Etheridge went to talk to Alexander Skeaping, head of Keyboard Hire.
Keyboard Hire offer a comprehensive range of both new and vintage instruments, and have experience of all generations of synthesizers, pianos and replay keyboards (in fact, they still have a Mellotron in their hire range which is regularly used). Alexander had some interesting viewpoints to air on modern keyboard developments, but began first by discussing secondhand instruments.
"Basically, there are two points to make about buying secondhand, and they're conflicting in their impact. Firstly, and obviously, anything that's not made any more you've got to buy secondhand, and there are a few classics like Minimoogs - not made any more, but still one of the great keyboards - where the secondhand price is, in fact, beginning to climb."
"To draw the analogy with the classic car field, people who bought Austin Healeys or MG TFs a few years ago, have made an absolute fortune. Who would have thought that cars you and I admired as new when we were kids would be thought of as historic cars fetching ten or twelve thousand? We thought of historic cars as 1920s or '30s models, but now '60s cars are collectors items, and it's the same with musical instruments."
"There's going to come a moment when something which is a good basic design, becomes rare, especially if it's a classic instrument, like the Minimoog, and it's gone out of production. The number left available that are working is obviously going to grow less and less each year, and those that are still around are going to get more and more bashed up and damaged. So, if you've got a good one that's in good working condition and also in good physical condition, and you keep it that way, then you must be sitting on an appreciating asset."
"That's one side of the coin. The argument against that is that we are now in a market where you can progressively do more and more for less and less, in the sense that yesterday's technology was expensive and difficult to make. Take the Yamaha CS80: it's an incredible machine, but the whole thing was totally analogue, and when you opened it up inside it looked like a telephone exchange - staggering quantities of components and a great deal of power consumption. It got very hot, and was correspondingly unreliable. They had to match up the oscillators because the ones in the middle got hotter than the ones on the outside, and therefore to try to keep them in tune you needed oscillators which could cope with the different temperatures in which they had to work."
"Clearly, everything that's in a CS80 can now be put onto one large EPROM, and maybe it hasn't quite got the quality, but all the functions can be compressed into one chip, and the price has fallen from today's equivalent of £5-6,000 to maybe £50-60 in terms of the actual cost of a small run of chips to do that particular thing."
"Anyone who buys a 1953 Hammond C3 organ now has got a collector's item, and if it's looked after, it will certainly appreciate in value. Sure, you can produce the microchip equivalent of the C3, and sell it quite cheaply as the CX3, but to a discerning ear there is a difference and that difference is something that people pay a premium for as time goes by."
"There's no way that anyone will ever put Hammonds back into production. In those days, labour was cheap and technology was expensive, but it was relatively primitive technology with a lot of wiring where everything was done electro-mechanically, either with a motor or a solenoid - nothing solid state at all. It may have been the stone age for technology, but it worked, and so to an increasing extent, good surviving examples of those sorts of instruments must command a premium.
I wouldn't be surprised in thirty years' time to see auctions at Sotheby's of rare musical instruments of the 50s, 60s and 70s - it's got to happen."
"In a way, you might well find that, because of the rapid downward movement of new product prices, you could buy something more capable new, cheaper than you could buy the equivalent thing secondhand. So there's a contradictory movement there - if you want the latest features at the cheapest price, then you'd better stay away from the secondhand market. Don't forget that the guy who bought, say, a Prophet 5 for £2,500-3,000 might feel really narked at selling it for only £5-600 today; and yet, for maybe £300 he can buy a Casio, or another bit of Japanese technology, which will do more than that Prophet will ever do, but he may feel there's something missing."
"As we've advanced from synths that were non-programmable, in the sense that you had to get every sound up individually, and if you wanted to get that sound back again, you had to reset the machine so that all the controls were in the same position; we've now even moved beyond the position where on the Prophet 5 you have 120 programs all available at the touch of a button, but that also points out the danger that with all of those patches available, who is going to bother to go and create their own?"
"When the first Polymoog came out around 1977, you had eight preset programs, plus one you could actually programme yourself - it was a miracle, and the beginning of a new era, but the machine now looks incredibly primitive, and you would have to be a really dedicated collector to want to get a Polymoog. Maybe one day they'll be worth a fortune, but put that beside a Prophet 5, which came out only a couple of years later, and for versatility and ease of use, nobody in their right mind would choose the Polymoog over the Prophet 5!"
"Regarding the Prophet, the average musician hasn't explored the capabilities of them even now. They've been superseded because more is available cheaper than was available then, but nevertheless they were wonderful when they came out, firstly with 40 and then 120 programs. As a result, you got to the stage where people would use the Prophet's excellent factory-created sounds as they found appropriate, and when more interesting patches became available, they would get rid of the Prophet, and buy a Jupiter 8 or an Oberheim, or whatever it might be. Rather like buying a car, and when it ran out of it's first tank of petrol, going and buying another one."
"Because most people weren't very skilled or experienced in programming, or creating their own sounds, I'd say that 90-95% of Prophet 5 users never got around to exploring what the machine could do and, as a consequence, there's still an enormous lot of mileage left in a machine like the Prophet, the Oberheim OBX or the OB-8, which, if you are really keen, if you really understand your machine, you can get amazing sounds out of."
"Exploring yesterday's technology - it's almost like a bottle of milk - some people skim the cream off the top, chuck the rest away, and go onto a bigger and better bottle of milk. An awful lot gets lost on the way."
"Amongst the best of the analogue synths, a classic case is one that didn't sell very well but is certainly a very highly thought of machine by its supporters (see 'Bronski Beat' feature), and that's the Memorymoog. If you buy one now, you wouldn't pay over £1,000, and you can get it updated and retrofitted for MIDI. And there's no doubt about it, you'll get sounds out of a Memorymoog that you'll never get out of a DX7."
"Of course, the reverse is also true; they are different musical tastes, and the keen musician would be well-advised to consider both. The whole DX range using FM synthesis is incredibly clever, but someone who wants to be able to create the widest range of sounds would be unwise to plump for only FM or Analogue synths."
"The DX range is a totally computer driven, totally digital system, so in fact there is none of the cosy familiarity to the older generation like me, of knobs and sliders that you've got to know.
With my first experience of synths, I came to them from a purely classical music background of pianos and harpsichords, so it was a surprise when, with a synth, the first thing you did was switch it on and discover that you couldn't get a sound out of it!"
"One of the things that helped me was a book that came free, at least for a while, with every ARP Odyssey. At Keyboard Hire, in those days, the Odyssey was one of the 'hot' machines. I read that book through and learnt what things like ADSR were all about, and how low and high pass filters work. By reading the book, understanding it in theory, and then experimenting with it in practice, you could see what everything on the synth did and how it sounded. So it got to the stage where you could create a sound from scratch by setting all the parameters, waveshape, frequency and so on, from left to right."
"At the end of the day, you had a sound that you could modify in an analogue fashion by turning a knob and listening to the effect, comparing it with what you had before, and comparing it with the sound you had in your mind. Programming as such was a case of clued-up trial and error, and you could see the effect of what you were doing in a pretty straightforward manner."
"Now, the funny thing is that, although a whole generation of people grew up with this type of programming, where you constantly referred back to your 'how to do it' book, it's very quickly changed to the seductive alternative of switching on, pushing a few buttons and getting some numbers up which give you different preset sounds. Then you approximate by editing, and say 'Well, that's close enough, we'll use that'; and after a while it gets so that you think in numbers - 'Oh, program 25 is rather a good one' - and you stop trying to go any further."
"What's strange to me is how quickly this happened because, with the Prophet 5 (even in its earliest format) you only had to push an edit button and you could change all the functions. The remarkable thing about the Prophet was how close to a Minimoog it was in terms of the user's approach: the basic design was copied from a sort of programmable, polyphonic Minimoog. The way it was laid out was designed to be instantly accessible to anyone who'd grown up using a Minimoog. The Rev2 update - or was it the Rev3? - came out with a 'continuous edit' mode, where the moment you changed a parameter the control became active. Then if you made a bog of it in trying to programme your sound, you could just re-press that button to select the factory patch and go back to the original sound instantly."
"So you could experiment all you liked, and there was no danger of losing sounds. And yet, a surprisingly small number of people actually got into programming the thing. Most of the users treated it like a sort of super-sophisticated electronic organ, with a load of different stops you could pull out. So, now, imagine how much worse it's got with the DX7 where it's not at all straightforward to programme."
"There's a growing gap between the capability of the technology, and the capability of the keyboard operator. We tend to accept the premise that the instruments are designed by humans, so there must be humans in the world somewhere who can understand and comprehend and use and develop the full capabilities of these machines. But, for the average user, it's getting rather to the stage where he's got a formula one car for his wife to do the shopping. In terms of performance, these machines are getting more and more powerful. So there's this growing disparity between what the boffins are designing at one end, and what the average user is capable of comprehending at the other. It's worrying."
"There's a worrying 'me too-ism' also in the sampling business at present which is becoming a potentially dangerous dead-end where everyone is using a finite number of sounds that they've all pinched from each other - it's a bit incestuous. Also, it's a bit of a closed circle because, basically, everything that's sampled comes from existing reality and not from imagination. Therefore, it's arguable that we would do better developing our imagination to create something new, rather than just manipulating existing reality."
"Okay, it's amazing what you can do to develop and manipulate an existing idea, and I suppose it's also arguable that by taking an existing sound and manipulating it enough you are, in effect, creating something new - taking something known, and working on it until it becomes so changed that it's unrecognisable. In fact, when it comes to sampling, it's fair to say that when you think how far technology has advanced in the years since 1975, say, the development of creative sounds has not kept pace with that move. We, as users, haven't progressed that much."
"In 1975, when I started in rock keyboards, the machine that everybody wanted was the Solina String Ensemble, which is now a fairly old-hat bit of rubbish from the Seventies. It made a sound which to me, as a classically-trained musician, had scarcely a passing resemblance to anything to do with strings, but it was a vague enough imitation that you could say was a bit better than the Elka Rhapsody. So, being the least bad of the things that were around at the time, it was suddenly fashionable. When I began to hear it on records, I realised that, sympathetically used in the background (and not too prominently), it could in fact do a passingly good job of simulating a string ensemble. If it were sensitively used and not over-used, then, yes, it had a place. But that's a real jump from the Mellotron that came out in its original form in 1963, with all its electro-mechanical technology and prerecorded tapes which by today's standards is extremely primitive."
"Not everything from the Sixties is valuable - just because something's survived from the Sixties doesn't mean that you're going to be able to sell it for a fortune. It's still going to be selective. The interesting thing will be to look at the instruments that the top-line musicians are now selling off and getting rid of because they think they've got something better - and asking yourself which one is going to be tomorrow's classic."
"Buying secondhand today, you really have to ask yourself if you need MIDI. The best of both worlds has always been everyone's goal and I would have thought that a foot in both camps is never a bad thing. If you're looking for a secondhand synth and particularly like the idea of buying a Prophet 5 say, then make sure that you buy one that can be upgraded to MIDI easily, which means buying the Series 3 version, because it's a lot cheaper, and you can upgrade for about £100. That gives you the best of both worlds, because you've got yesterday's classic hybrid, digitally-controlled analogue polysynth, but you can still connect it up to today's MIDI network."
"If you have MIDI and you know how to use it, you should be able to achieve the same result with fewer recorded tracks than if you don't have MIDI. It's a straightforward trade-off."
"So, to conclude - basically, if you can have the best of both worlds, why ever not? Also, you've got to consider the deal factor - you're crazy to say 'I must have this instrument and only this one'. Look at what's available, and if something comes up that's close to what you had in mind and is incredibly cheap, in good condition and it's capable of being interfaced or upgraded, then why not go for it? At the back of the mind of the gambler is the feeling that the instrument could become a classic in a few years time and it might be worth something. It's always nice to own something that is worth more every year rather than less. So the buyer has got to ask himself- 'Where is tomorrow's classic? ' - and the answer is, it's probably something that's just going out of production. I wish I knew what, because I'd be collecting it myself, instead of which my firm is probably selling it off right now for peanuts!" With those words, I can expect a small army of impoverished musicians to descend upon Keyboard Hire's premises, all looking for secondhand bargains. What is certain, though, is that there is quite obviously much potential still left untapped in the great analogue synths of yesterday.
Thanks go to Alexander and all at Keyboard Hire (Contact Details), particularly Godfrey who set up the instruments for the photos.
Feature by David Etheridge
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