Rhodes Model 760
A keyboard for the gigging pianist? David Mellor tinkles an ivory or two.
Why is that brand names have such a power to capture the imagination? How can driving an MG badged car give you a thrill when you know full well that the real MG company was killed off years ago? Why will sensible people willingly pay a premium price for a particular compact camera bearing the Leica name when it's really a Minolta underneath? Answers to these questions may be hard to find, but it's beyond question that the Rhodes brand name holds more than a little nostalgia for many musicians. When Harold Rhodes invented his electric piano and persuaded the Fender company to manufacture it, he created something that would take the musical world by storm.
There was a time when you could hardly turn on the radio and not hear a Rhodes tinkling away amongst the electric guitars and percussion in the band. But the original Rhodes piano has now gone the way of the tone wheel Hammond organ, a true classic of its time but no longer in the mainstream of music making. However, if the original instrument has gone, there is still a valuable concept that deserves to be kept alive — that of a simple no-nonsense keyboard that a good player can exploit in a wide variety of ways, and pre-eminently suitable for gigging where studio-orientated keyboards offer an inappropriate combination of features.
The new electronics based Rhodes keyboard embodies this concept, although die-hards will say that it doesn't have 'quite' the same sound, and you might well expect the new Rhodes Model 760 to be a gigging keyboard. In fact, soundwise it is, and I'll explain why shortly. But first, for those of you who have yet to experience the pleasure of taking your keyboard on the road, a few words to put my feelings on gigging keyboards into perspective...
The original Rhodes piano was a marvel of miniaturisation, at least in comparison to a conventional piano. It still had full size keys and a hammer action, but instead of strings it had metal bars called tines, after the tines of a fork. These tines didn't make much of a noise by themselves, but they could be amplified in exactly the same way as an electric guitar.
The Rhodes Stage piano, which was perhaps more appropriate to live work than the Suitcase version, came in two sizes: 73 and 88 notes. 88 notes is the full complement for a concert grand, but it made the instrument too big for most cars to accommodate. It was also impossible for one person to set the thing up without risk of injury — to either the piano or the player. I used to take a 73-note Rhodes out on gigs, and it was quite big enough, I assure you. I did later buy an 88-note Rhodes, but strictly for home use only.
Polyphonic synths, when they came out, seemed like the long-awaited answer to the weight and size problems of Rhodes Pianos, but they didn't provide the right combination of sounds for bread-and-butter dance band work, where you have to be able to cover the full history of popular music from the foxtrot onwards. The Rhodes 760 is the first keyboard I have tried that I would say can replace the electric piano or organ in an all-purpose dance band. It's not the most appropriate instrument for a band wanting to play only contemporary music, but there are plenty of other keyboards available for that purpose. The best way to get a flavour of what the Rhodes 760 is about is to listen to the demo sequence, which consists of two brilliantly arranged tunes in the style to which the instrument is most suited. The first is an up-tempo jazzy number with a terrific quickstep section, and the second is a soft MOR-ish rock piece.
Synths these days often have two sets of controls, in the form of performance parameters and editing parameters. Performance parameters are those that you could reasonably be expected to adjust while you are under the spotlight in front of 500 or more people. Editing parameters are those which you would prefer to play around with in the privacy of your own home. Something that annoys me about many pieces of musical and recording equipment is that there never seems to be anyone at the factory whose job it is to say, "Can't you make it simpler to operate?". After all, the simpler the equipment is, the more efficiently you will be able to work. Let's look at how this relates to the Rhodes 760 by starting at the controls which are easiest to use live.
After the keyboard and the pitch bend/modulation lever, the most important performance-related controls are the program select buttons. The Rhodes' buttons are pleasantly responsive to the finger and it would be possible to find the program you want even in a dead black out between numbers. We are becoming used to having a large number of programs on most modern synths, but Roland limit us to 24 here, in three banks of eight. I'd say that this is quite enough for gigging use although a few keyboard wizards might disagree.
"What I particularly like about the 760 is the way the sounds are organised. With the superabundance of sounds available to samplists and synthesists these days, organisation is a necessity if one is not to get lost in a quagmire of meaningless voice names."
On the left hand side of the keyboard is a volume slider, and also a Brilliance control which would be very handy on stage. Brilliance is a filter which operates directly on the output of the keyboard, and its parameters have been well chosen to create 'smoothness' rather than 'dullness' at the bottom of the scale, and 'brightness' rather than 'harshness' at the top.
To be honest, I wouldn't want to operate anything else on this keyboard live, and I would have liked these controls differentiated by positioning, size or colour from the more editing-orientated controls. Other controls which may find application in performance include chorus and reverb buttons — the effects can be switched on or off live, or incorporated as part of the individual programs. The Harmony, Chase and Arpeggio buttons are most relevant to the home organist market, so I won't bother mentioning them further here. One important performance button that hasn't worked out very well is that labelled Key Transpose. On my ancient (at current rates of technological progress) Roland Alpha Juno 2, transposition is easily performed by pressing one button, then a key on the keyboard. Here, the transposition setting is part of each program, to be activated with the Key Transpose button. So, when you know the tune in E and the depping saxophonist can only manage it in E flat, you have to edit the transposition parameter, then come out of editing mode and finally press the Key Transpose button. "Can't you make it simpler to operate?", one might be tempted to ask.
The Rhodes 760 sounds uncannily like a ROM sample player, essentially because its guts are based on the U20 RS-PCM keyboard. What I particularly like about the 760 is the way the sounds are organised. With the superabundance of sounds available to samplists and synthesists these days, organisation is a necessity if one is not to get lost in a quagmire of meaningless voice names.
Tones are the building blocks of Programs, and above the Program Select buttons are 18 Tone Select buttons which access different groups of sounds: Acoustic Piano; Electric Piano; Acoustic Guitar; Electric Guitar; Strings; Choir; Brass; Trumpet/Trombone; Electric Organ; Mallets; Digital Sounds; Synth Wave; Slap Bass; Bass; Winds; Drums; Card 1; Card 2.
This is a very neat bit of sorting, and Roland have indeed made things as simple as they could possibly be in this respect. Within each category are a number of variations on a theme. For instance, the Acoustic Piano has 10 very usable sounds - not 10 completely different sets of multisamples, but a very good range nonetheless. The other set of sounds of most interest to the gigging keyboard player are the organ sounds. In a band with guitars and drums, piano and organ sounds are just so 'usable' that they are probably 10 times as important as any of the others. There are 11 different organ sounds, including two distorted rock organs, which range from good to very good in my estimation.
Simple editing of Programs on the 760 consists of taking existing sounds (Tones) and layering them together. Layers can be up to three deep, and there are two independent sets covering the upper and lower sections of the keyboard (the split point is programmable). The procedure for doing this is quite simple: each layer is called a Part, and just a few button pushes can activate any or all of the three Parts for the upper and lower keyboard ranges. The next step is to select a type of instrument for each Part from the 18 Tone Select buttons, then click the Variation button as many times as it takes until you get to the sound you want. This is easy enough once you get used to it, but once again the layout of the instrument could have been tidied to integrate all the controls concerning this level of editing. Many users, I imagine, might not want to concern themselves with any editing more complex than this, and it would have been better to have differentiated clearly between performance, simple editing, and 'expert' editing controls.
"I can see quite a few one-man bands setting up shop with just this instrument, a sequencer and a PA system. I'm almost tempted to go back to the clubs myself!"
There isn't really a great deal to edit on this instrument and what there is is mainly concerned with getting the best out of the sounds and matching them to your playing style, without making any drastic changes. Editing is done by selecting a Program then a Part - so you might think you are editing a Part. In fact, you're editing the parameters of a Tone (Acoustic Piano 1, Electric Organ 2 or whatever), so that if you have used the sound you are currently modifying in another Program, you will find that your changes have been carried over there too. This is obviously a case where the presentation isn't as clear as it should be, but you'll just have to get used to it. The parameters that can be edited are as follows: Pitch (Coarse and Fine); Bender Range; Aftertouch Bend; Vibrato Rate; Vibrato Depth Modulation Level; Vibrato Depth; Aftertouch Vibrato Depth; Level Velocity Sensitivity; Aftertouch Sensitivity; Envelope (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release).
You may have noticed that there is no filter to play with, which is a pity. The only control you have over tone is the Brilliance slider, which isn't programmable. Filter enthusiasts might moan about this, but I feel that the level of provision is in keeping with the character of the instrument. If you want to synthesize, Roland might say, buy one of their synths rather than a Rhodes performance keyboard.
The chorus and reverb effects can also be edited. The Reverb Type parameters offer three rooms, two halls, one gated reverb and two delays. You can adjust the reverb time, the level of the effect and the amount of delay feedback for multiple echoes. Once again, you don't have a vast amount of control, but what you have is effective. Chorus editing is even simpler because you only have control over Rate, Depth and Level.
Of course, the Rhodes 760 has MIDI functions, and these go beyond what you might expect from a performance keyboard, unless you have it in mind that you might use a sequencer to do some of the performing for you! The 760 is 6-part multi-timbral, because each Part can be assigned a MIDI channel, although unfortunately there is only a single stereo output. The instrument is 30-note polyphonic. An interesting point about MIDI implementation is that there are two ways to use MIDI Program Change messages. The first is to select Programs 1 to 24 as you would from the front panel. The other is to select any of the 128 different instrument sounds within Parts. I didn't find this at all easy to figure out using my 'button pusher's intuition' and needed a good read of the manual to get to grips with it, but it's there and it works. I can see quite a few one-man bands setting up shop with just this instrument, a sequencer and a PA system. I'm almost tempted to go back to the clubs myself!
I am definitely impressed by the keyboard on this instrument, which is of course velocity and aftertouch sensitive. The essential points are that the keys don't bounce, (which can make notes retrigger accidentally), and you can get a decent aftertouch response from them. So, the keyboard is good, but the 760 is lacking in some important areas if it is meant to be a performance keyboard. Firstly, there are no handles. Can't we have just one please? Secondly, there is no provision for a music stand. I know that the usual effort at a music stand on most synths is absolutely useless, but with the Rhodes tradition of providing a clear surface for your dots or lyric sheet, I thought they might have worked something out here.
In many ways, this instrument certainly has what it takes to be a gigging instrument. It has some great sounds which have that undefinable element of usability, and the Rhodes 760 isn't actually let down by any of the negative factors I have mentioned, because the positive features still add up to something rather good. Roland have put some strong features into this instrument, and the future for performance orientated keyboards could be very bright.
Model 760 £1199.
Model 660 £999.
Rhodes. (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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