You Always Fondly Remember Your First...
by Ben | 20th Feb 2017
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the local carnival had just finished crawling through the high street, littering the ground with confetti. It was 1985, and I was twelve.
The previous Christmas, on a whim, my dad had bought me a Casio VL-Tone (Review...), and it turned out to be a present that really captured my imagination, and started me both on learning how to play all those pop synth riffs, and being able to synthesize my own sounds, which was the VL1's best feature (along with the "one-key play" sequencer mode - why doesn't Logic do this?)
I would be asking my parents for a bigger, more capable keyboard for the coming Christmas, as it was clearly something I was going to continue to do - and I'd already picked out what I wanted from Dixons (and, as was usually the way, my best friend would also copy me and choose to get the same one), and was pretty excited, and would go and play on the display model after school in the run up to Christmas.
So, there I was, wandering into WH Smith's, and looking for a magazine with stuff about keyboards. I didn't know much about the keyboard world, and what I really wanted was a review of the keyboard I wanted to get next.
I don't remember whether there were other keyboard/synth mags on the shelf that day, but what I did see, and bought, was "What Keyboard" - mostly because it had a round-up of portable keyboards, which included a Yamaha keyboard that was a cut-down version of the one I wanted - not ideal, but close enough.
So this was the mag I chose, and when I was dragged a few hours later to a Saturday evening barbecue with family friends (yawn!), I grabbed some food, sat in the car, and read my mag about synths.
I read about the Yamaha DX21 (and also the industry standard DX7), with it's sleek, modern 80s look, and this FM digital synthesis, and how "clean" and "clinical" it was supposed to sound.
"Modulators" and "carriers" and "algorithms" - I had no idea the audible result of these things, but it sounded fascinating! And apparently the "MIDI Spec" of the DX21 was better than that of the DX7. MIDI was some kind of interface you could use to connect up compatible synths, drum machines and sequencers to make them all play together. Cool!
I learned about the EMS Synthi AKS, the suitcase synth. It's weird little touch-keyboard, and it's matrix pin modulation section, all packaged neatly into an executive briefcase!
I also read about the VCS3 Putney, and first came across the terms "oscillator", "filter", and about how popular they were in the nun community. Apparently.
I learned the term "analog" in relation to synthesis, and how it was very different to the DX21, which instead had a proper keyboard and memories, but no knobs.
Speaking of drum machines - the Roland TR707 was shown in a few adverts, which looked pretty cool, but none of them had a price listed. I thought I'd really like a drum machine - the rhythm unit on my little Casio only had preset patterns, which was very limiting when copying my favourite records.
The only other "drum machine" I knew of at that time was the Yamaha MR10, which they sold in Argos for about £70.
I figured the Roland one couldn't be more than £150 or so, not nearly as expensive as these pro synths. (I later found out that they were retailing at £465, which seemed *crazy* to me - and rather disappointing, as I knew it would stay well out of reach for now!)
The Chase Bit 99 also looked pretty cool (this was an analog synth, a bit like the EMS, but looked more like the DX21). I'd later learn someone older than me at school had a Chase Bit 1, the first version, which I thought was very cool.
Not many people at school had synths - another older kid in a band had a Moog Rogue, but that was about it - though the music department did have a couple of Yamaha CS01's, (both versions) which I would borrow and play with after school - which is how I learned what a filter does, and what "ADSR" meant, among other things.
I wasn't really that interested in the other pianos, or organs featured in the magazine - not cool at all.
However, at least the portable keyboard roundup did result in the synth derivative I was interested in coming top, which was reassuring and good to hear. Clearly my taste was refined, even at this early age!
(I'll have more on my second keyboard at a later date...)
There was an interview with Marillion's keyboard player, Mark Kelly which I really enjoyed, especially as I really liked the "Misplaced Childhood" album a friend had introduced to me that year.
More names to stick in my brain, as he talked of "Jupiter 8's", and "Emulators", "PPG's" and "Mellotrons". I didn't know what they were, but they sounded amazing! Sequential Pro 1, OSCar, and Minimoog's were also mentioned, along with the CZ-101 - also a Casio synth. Interesting...
And then there was a competition to win an Akai AX80 - well that looked awesome, a full, pro synth, great displays - I totally dreamed of winning that synth, and entered with the high hopes of the naive young.
I didn't win it, of course. Whoever did - you broke my heart!
(If that lucky winner is reading this, write to me and tell me about your experience, I'd love to hear from you!)
I still have this issue of course (along with the Casio VL-Tone), and while it's not in great shape (along with the Casio VL-Tone), and is a missing a competition entry form (which was sadly on the back of the Marillion interview), it's really a significant milestone that started me into the journey of the professional area of synths and hi-tech instruments.
I don't recall what my next magazine was - I have just the cover of an International Musician from March '86, which may well have been it - but it clearly didn't leave as lasting an impression as this one.
If you have any more issues of What Keyboard, or it's organ-themed earlier issues ("Home Organist"), it would be great if you could donate them for archiving.
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