Fender Stage 73 Mk V
The Fender Rhodes is re-born. Jim Betteridge gets down to some serious Jazz Funking
What keyboard player hasn't heard of the Fender Rhodes? To describe it as an imitation piano is to completely miss the point; it's become a unique instrument in its own right, and probably almost as much effort has gone into copying its sound electronically as has gone into replicating the standard acoustic piano.
For years it's been the Rock/Pop electric piano, but has its reign come to an end? Is it time it moved over to make way for bit splicing, high speed digital quantisation and, more specifically, frequency modulation? What I am asking is whether Yamaha's PF-15 FM electronic piano is going to see it off into the shadows of cumbersome antiquity, or is the new Rhodes still so unique an instrument as to finally defy accurate imitation? Is it only the plebs who can't tell the copy from the real thing?
The new, Mk V Rhodes Stage Piano continues to present a sober but sleek matt black appearance, though the nature of its structure has changed considerably. Gone are the heavy timber casing and the built-in stand to be replaced by a lightweight, high-impact plastic shell and a separate heavy-duty stand which comes as an optional extra.
The top of the piano is now flatter and wider than before and although at first the material seems rather flimsy, its actual strength and general resilience is apparently more than equal to the rigours of an on-the-road existence. Thus it can still offer its support, in time-honoured style, to a variety of other keyboards, and even has moulded into it, across its width, shallow recesses into which the feet of these other instruments can securely slot for stability. These same recesses might also form effective gulley, making it possible to inadvertently empty a can of beer over the Rhodes with relative immunity. I'm not suggesting you try it, of course. The main benefit of this new casing and the loss of the stand is a 35% reduction in weight, although at 100lbs, it's still anything but light.
Once again the Rhodes has stayed clear of any techno-flash pretentions, and sports its usual two controls — one for tone, the other for volume, plus a single mono 1/4" jack output socket.
Bearing in mind that this 'imitation piano' has established itself as an instrument in its own right, no-one would want to effect any fundamental change to its unique and famous sound; it would be like changing the basic sound of an acoustic piano — it just wouldn't be a piano anymore. On the other hand, even the most ardent admirer would not be lost in finding certain shortcomings, and by way of improvement, there have been some important and very noticeable changes made in its tone generation system.
Just like its predecessors, the MkV has a mechanical hammer and damper action not unlike that of a real piano. Depressing a key causes a rubber tipped wooden hammer to pivot upwards to strike what is referred to in the trade as a tine, which, in essence, is one half of a kind of modified tuning fork that is the basic of the Rhodes tone bar generating system. The tine is basically a metal rod, secured at one end which, when struck, vibrates at a frequency (pitch) determined by its effective length. I say length because, although higher notes are physically shorter, there is also a coiled damper mounted on the tine which can be moved up and down it to alter the length that is free to vibrate, thereby altering its resonant frequency and hence its pitch. It's basically the same principle as moving your finger up and down the string of a violin.
The middle octaves have always been the best sounding of the register, with the bass often disappearing into a muddy rumble and the top fading out into a toneless ping, especially when played hard. Though the basic principle remains unaltered, the clarity and definition of the lower notes has been greatly improved by the implementation of a new harmonic tone bar design. At the other half of the modified tuning fork construction, each tine has a metal bar attached to it that vibrates in sympathy to bring out the desired, enriching overtones of the fundamental note. Similarly, a patented new method of mounting the relevant tone bars has meant that the high notes are now much more rounded and full with a longer sustain. These changes may not sound too dramatic, but they do clear up a couple of the classic Rhodes failings.
Now that everyone's bringing out a touch sensitive keyboard, the Rhodes has somewhat lost what was once a very important advantage over alternative electronic pianos. However, the new model has an improved dynamic range which works well with the upgraded tone generating system to give a notably wider response. Also, even though most 'serious' keyboards now claim touch sensitivity of some description, in practise many of them are horribly unresponsive to play, and simply create a lack of evenness in technique as levels jump about all over the place owing to poor resolution and an unnatural characteristic.
Not to encourage any over-confidence, however, it has to be said that some are very good indeed, and Rhodes have very wisely lengthened their hammer stroke from its original 1-5/8" to 2" thereby increasing the power with which the hammer can strike. With the old models, this would probably have been wasted, because apart from in the middle register, the notes would have fallen away well before the application of full punch, but with the new system the response is definitely slightly improved. It is arguable that you can't beat a natural, acoustic response, and as you put more weight into the keys, not only does the note get comfortably louder but, of equal importance, the density of overtones generated is commensurately increased, giving that classic 'over-bright', almost distorted tone that is such an integral part of the Rhodes sound.
These are significant improvements which undoubtedly make the Rhodes a better instrument, but are they enough to put it above the PF15 on the shopping list? The market has changed quite dramatically over the last few years, as have the expectations of professional and semi-pro musicians. The physical size and weight of instruments have been greatly reduced whilst facilities have expanded with equal significance.
New digital technology and integrated circuitry have seriously increased reliability and tuning stability. The coiled dampers clinging to the tines are bound to be sensitive to mechanical jolts and vibration plus changes in temperature and humidity, and thus are going to be far more subject to tuning discrepancies as compared to a digital circuit with no mechanical moving parts.
The modern player now expects to be able to carry most of his instruments without assistance and to more or less switch on and play without concern. Not many people are up to lumping 100lbs about on their own. Ostensibly, then, the PF15 presents a strong case (figuratively speaking): it costs and weighs less than the Rhodes, it has an 88-note, wooden weighted-action keyboard with a very nice, piano-like action; it will rarely, if ever, go out of tune, every instrument sounds reliably the same, it can be transposed into any key at the flick of a lever, has built-in speakers for practise, a stereo output with built-in chorus and produces an excellent Rhodes-like sound in addition to nine other useful presets.
But is this the philistine's view? Are we missing the crux of the matter here? A Rhodes-like sound is not the same as the sound of a real Rhodes — especially a new Rhodes, and it has to be a matter of personal choice as to whether the differences are sufficient to outweigh the disadvantages of the genuine article?
Well, I started with a barrage of rhetorical questions, and so shall I end. The Rhodes has had an incredibly good innings to date, and is still a very nice instrument to play. I have a feeling that, even though there are plenty of arguments against it, there were still be a hard core of Jazz and Rock players out there who may sneer at sequencers and look bemused at the mention of MIDI, but who still accept no imitation. For some people you just can't beat the real thing.
Review by Jim Betteridge
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