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Electric Pianos

A subjective look (what else?) at some of the electric and electronic pianos currently on the market, by Dave Crombie.

Electric pianos made their first serious appearance during the late 1920s. From 1913 through to the early Twenties the acoustic piano industry suffered a dramatic fall in sales brought about by the advent of the phonograph and radio, and at that time it was felt that the piano industry needed a rather large shot in the arm. At first various attempts were made to modify the acoustic piano. One instrument, the Crea-Tone, made something of a name for itself, and could be said to be a stepping-stone between the acoustic and electric piano. The Crea-Tone used electrical feedback circuits fitted to a piano to produce infinitely sustained notes. Later, in the early Thirties, came the Miessner Electronic Piano. This used an electrostatic pickup on each note of an adapted piano: when the string was hit the capacitance between the string and pickup varied producing an oscillating voltage. Different positionings of the pickups along the strings produced various tonal variations. Miessner's designs were to be incorporated by various manufacturers for years to come.

During World War II a certain Harold Rhodes was busy building a portable and cheap keyboard instrument using spare parts from disabled aircraft. He had joined the Army Air Corps and had been asked to teach hospital patients to play the piano to boost their morale. He built a small instrument (2½ octaves) with strips of aluminium rod as tone bars hit by bare wooden keys. Eventually, hundreds of these instruments were built and distributed throughout the forces. From this basic design the keyboard was lengthened, pickups added and various improvements made until the instrument is as we know it — the Fender Rhodes. Harold Rhodes is still improving and refining his designs today.

This is an extremely brief history of the electric piano, but for the remainder of this article I intend to look at a few of the more popular electric and electronic pianos available today. Firstly though, what is the difference between an electric and an electronic piano? Well, strictly, an electronic piano uses electronic oscillators as the basic tone generating source. These tones are then passed through individual envelope shapers which are activated by the keys on the keyboard, and then filtered to get a piano sound. The electric piano, however, relies on a tuned element that has been made to vibrate by a hammer, or whatever, activated by depressing a note on a keyboard. The vibrations induced are then transduced into an electrical signal which can be filtered and amplified. The tuned element is normally either a metal rod, a string or a strip of metal.

We'll start off by looking at a couple of electric pianos, the Wurlitzer and the Fender Rhodes. These two instruments are by far the most popular electric pianos around today and most keyboard players, even if they do not own one, have come across either one or the other. I shall therefore not spend too much time on these instruments.

Fender Rhodes

The Fender Rhodes of today comes in four basic models: the 73 Stage, the 73 Suitcase, the 88 Stage, and the 88 Suitcase. The number 73 or 88 refers to the number of notes encompassed by the keyboard. The Suitcase model stands on an amplifier/speaker case and has its own built-in pre-amp, whereas the Stage model has just the instrument on legs and requires an external amp and speaker. As mentioned earlier the Fender Rhodes uses an oscillating metal rod (or tine) as the basic sound source. This is cut to length for rough tuning and is exactly tuned by means of a spring that is slid along the tine. When a key is pressed a cam action causes a hammer to strike the tine and at the same time lift the damper from the tine. The tine's oscillations are picked up by a coil and fed out to the amplification/tone stages.

The Rhodes has a characteristic sound of its own and is especially suited to jazz. The keyboard action of a Rhodes gives rise to a great deal of debate: it can be adjusted to give a light, heavy, soft, or hard action, or even, if you prefer, a 'spongy' action. However, as they say, one man's meat is another man's poison, and it can be easy to criticise someone else's piano just because you do not like the action. Having said that, though, there is an inherent amount of key bounce in the Rhodes that cannot be adjusted and, hence, fast repeated playing of one note is almost impossible. The tone of the Rhodes piano can also be adjusted by changing the position at which the hammer strikes the tine and the positioning of the pickup. I shall be devoting a great deal more time on adjustments and modifications that can be made to a Fender Rhodes in a later article.

Wurlitzer EP200

The Wurlitzer EP 200 electric piano has, like the Fender, a very recognisable sound and seems to have found its way more into rock than jazz. The major difference between the Wurlitzer and the Rhodes is that the former uses metal strips, known as reeds, as the sound source. These tend to give a much fuller sound than the tines of the Rhodes, although they do have their disadvantages. The useful span of the Wurlitzer is less than the Rhodes, the Wurlitzer having a 64 note keyboard. The Wurlitzer is also a more difficult instrument to tune, requiring an adjustment to the amount of solder at the end of each reed; this can take quite a long time. The EP 200 has two small speakers and an amplifier built in, which is quite adequate for home use but an external amp and speakers would obviously be required for live work. There is also a headphone monitor jack provided to keep the neighbours happy. The Wurlitzer keyboard has very pleasing action and the touch sensitivity is responsive in just the right way (for me, anyway). Neither of these instruments, however, sound the same as an acoustic piano — both have their individual characteristics and have come, over the years, to be the standard to which others can be compared.

Moving on to the electronic piano side, I'll look at two instruments: the Yamaha CP30, and the RMI Electra-piano. Most electronic pianos, because they have no mechanical sound source to give them their characteristic tonal qualities, normally aim to try to copy the sound of an acoustic piano.

Yamaha CP30

The CP30 has nearly all the constituents to get the piano sound, but, like all other electronic pianos, can't quite get there. This is not really surprising because, even with touch sensitivity, an electronic piano will never have the 'feel' of an acoustic piano. The CP30 has managed to fill a gap in the market for a versatile full-sounding electronic piano, and the key to its versatile sound is the two identical, yet independent, channels that are activated by each note. Each channel of the CP30 has three preset piano switches, a harpsichord switch, a pitch control, a decay control and a tremelo switch. There is a balance control to balance between the two channels and master volume, tone, and tremolo speed and depth controls. The advantages of the two channels are numerous: they can be very slightly detuned to give a much fuller 'free phase' sound. This helps to get closer to an acoustic piano sound since for each note played on a piano more than one string is hit. If the amount of detuning is increased a 'honky tonk' sound is produced; if one channel has a short decay with a sharp tone setting, eg harpsichord, and the other a longer piano tone, then by careful balancing between the two channels a very realistic clavinet emulation can be obtained. As you can see this is an extremely versatile instrument — you can even put the instrument through a stereo amp having one channel to the left and the other to the right.

The CP30 is housed in a slimline case, the lid of which splits into two to form the legs. The casework is very good and the wood finish to the top of the instrument is nicely styled: a good piece of furniture. However, I did have one or two complaints about the instrument. Firstly, there is quite a high noise output which is noticeable when the instrument is 'idling'. The touch sensitivity seems to me to be too fierce; also the black notes seem to be louder than the white for the same touch playing. It is a pity about these faults as otherwise the instrument is most enjoyable to play and to hear.

RMI Electra-piano

Finally, for this month anyway, we come to the RMI Electra-piano. This electronic piano has a 68 note F-C keyboard that is not touch sensitive. The instrument does not have any 'free phase' or similar facility either, just two sliders (bass and volume), seven switches, and a combined footpedal and footswitch unit. But it does give out an extremely nice sound. The switches consist of piano, piano pp, harpsichord, harpsichord pp, lute, organ mode and accentor. The first four switches speak for themselves (pp being quieter); lute gives a more percussive, yet rounder sound. Organ mode allows the instrument to sustain like an organ, and accentor puts a percussive attack on each note, though it is the same for all notes up to middle B and from then on, an octave higher, but still all the same sound. I honestly don't know why! Anyway, by playing around with various combinations of switches and bass tone control, very pleasing piano-type sounds can be produced. However, the instrument is quite expensive for what it does.

These are just four electric/electronic pianos currently available. There are many others, though in this price range these are my personal favourites. As I have already said, these pianos will not give imitations of acoustic pianos. They are, however, musical instruments, and when played well give good results. If you ever come across a so-called 'musical purist' who has a fit at the mere mention of the words electric or electronic, quote a certain Dr Moog at them: 'All musical instruments, except the human voice, are highly contrived technological artifices. They are differentiated not by their degree of "naturalness", but by the technological period in which they were developed. The stringed instruments were perfected when woodworking was a flourishing technology. Piano designers utilized the process of a fully industrialized society. And the electronic music medium is being developed now, at a time when electronic technology is dominant and the golden age of manufacturing appears to be yielding to what people call the post-industrial age.'

Fender Rhodes Stage 73 £876.50/$975
Suitcase 73 £1344.83/$1400
Stage 88 £1050.81/$1200
Suitcase 88 £1520.50/$1600
Wurlitzer EP200 £634/$800
Yamaha CP30 £884.26/$1425
RMI Electra-piano £750/$1195

Dave Crombie is resident electronic design engineer at Rod Argent's professional keyboard store in central London.

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