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Total Recall - Coachbuilt classic

Article from The Mix, June 1995

From 'House of the Rising Sun', to Pato Banton's 'Baby Come Back', via early Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, and The Doors' 'Light My Fire', the Vox Continental has been the ultimate combo organ.

It's not always been appreciated, though. They used to call it cheesey; David Petersen, in The Vox Story, talks about its 'characteristic wheedling tone', and he's a fan! It proved to be one of the easiest of sounds to imitate, by everything from the Polymoog onwards: A sure-fire recipe for redundancy. But sit down behind a real Continental, with its key-click and extraneous noises, abrupt vibrato and noisy drawbars, and you feel real. Its gangster-reversed keys (like wearing a white tie with a black shirt), and if you're lucky, the best stand ever made for any keyboard — two chrome Zs, attached to the sides of the organ, and braced with two chrome cross-struts at the back — are quintessential 60s style. And the way the keyboard bounces a little, if you put a lot into those staccato chords... Pardon me while I dab away a tear.

This is a great instrument, and don't let anyone tell you different. It started life in the very early 60s, as a single-manual, 49-key organ, with four drawbars to the left of the keyboard. If you're too young to remember them, and haven't seen them on the few less ancient instruments that use them, like Roland's VK1000, drawbars are a sort of simple predecessor of additive synthesis. Each drawbar controls one pitch or harmonic (or sometimes a set of harmonics, as in the Continental's case), and the further you pull it out, the louder that element of the sound is.

The Continental originally had wooden keys, and a classic visual design — the reversed colour keys, the chrome stand, and usually orangey-red and black leather cloth. A very few were made in blue, but eventually a much duller grey/black took over. (A bit like the SH101, really). It also had big problems with tuning, particularly when there was any heavy-duty lighting nearby — i.e. practically all the time, in a professional environment. But because it was highly portable, and sounded great when things were going right, it sold well.

Later, single-manual Continentals had an improved sound-generation system — still using divide-down technology, but less susceptible to going out of tune — but they also started having plastic keys, which were nowhere near as nice to play. Then, round about 1966, came the Continental II, with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones an early user. It had two 49-note keyboards, variable sustain (or rather release) on the bass octave, and a much wider variety of drawbars — six on the lower manual, and seven on the upper. In 1968, percussion was added — the trademark of the B-3/C-3 Hammonds — where an element of the note comes in sharply on the attack, but then dies away at one of two selectable rates.

More models followed. The Continental II became the Continental Super II, and then the Super Continental, without much else seeming to change externally. Primitive ICs started to make their appearance in the tone generator circuitry; as many, if not more Continentals were now being made (appropriately, considering the name) in Italy — and a few in America. With a further reduction of parts in the tone generators, and an increase in ICs, the Continental 300 and 301 appeared.

The 300 was very similar to the Super Continental, with the addition of a little spring reverb, and some presets — Vox, Mood, Club, Church, and Jazz — as well as the drawbars. It still had a very nice chrome stand, but not in the classic Z shape.

Some, if not all of the 300 models were made in England; but my guess is that the 301 was mainly made in Italy. It's not a classic Continental, really. For a start, it doesn't have the reversed colour keys; and (travesty!) it actually has a tacky woodgrain finish, and speakers. It's a console organ, with built-in bass pedals and swell pedal, and Vox were hedging their bets by calling it the Home Club Continental. But inside, it's very similar to the 300, so it still makes a pretty good sound. It's also splittable, with two sensibly recessed handles on the speaker section, so it is a lot easier to move than most console organs. The presets seem very similar to the 300, but aren't named. They could have called one Home.

One design fault with the twin-manual Continentals (shared by all except the 301), is that if you have any of the drawbars pulled out to the maximum, they stick out over the top of the sharps and flats. You have to adapt your playing style to this, if you want to avoid occasionally banging into a drawbar at a vital point in an impassioned solo.

At least one other model is known to have existed — a really bizarre thing called the Continental Baroque, or V305. The lower manual, according to Barry Carson in Vintage Synthesizers, is like a normal Continental with an extra octave, but the upper manual plays Thomas organ sustain-type voicings, like harpsichord and celeste (Thomas handled distribution of Vox in America, and also made some Continentals). There are several variations in the key-colour and other elements of the design, as well. Very rare on this side of the pond.

Other Vox Continental add-ons included the 13-note bass pedals (definitely in orangey-red, but probably in other colours, especially grey/black), and a rotary speaker called the Gyrotone or Gyro vox. Barry Carson says that some Continental console organs had a rotating speaker built-in. Mine doesn't, but there's definitely room in the cabinet for one.

The Vox firm had originally been owned and built up by Tom Jennings. After he had parted company with the firm in the late 60s, he went back into the manufacturing business, and put out a two-manual organ that should really count as a Continental. The design of the case construction is different; the drawbars are from a different manufacturer, and not graduated like the proper ones. And, sadly, only the bottom thirteen keys of the lower manual are reversed. But it's obviously a Continental, and the best-ever-specified one, too — eight drawbars for the upper manual (and four for the lower); tremolo as well as vibrato; three presets, and two switchable speeds on the vibrato or tremolo. It sounds good, as well. My guess is that there were a maximum of about two hundred made — and maybe a lot less. Quite a collector's item, like the V305, or the early wooden-key single-manuals.

If you want to find an ordinary Continental, it shouldn't be difficult. Many thousand were made, especially of the twin-manual version. If you're looking for a mint example, though, that's a different matter. Continentals were very much gigging instruments, and so the majority of examples are going to be well-battered. Another problem to watch out for is that a great number of them will have fallen into total disuse, and been dumped somewhere — possibly a damp store-room, or garage, or basement. The damp is likely to have affected the key contacts (of which there are hundreds), and tarnished the chrome of the drawbar metal — and quite likely rusted the steel underneath the chrome, as well.

You'll also be lucky to find a stand in good nick, if it's not been lost altogether. And the optional volume pedals also seemed to walk. For a standard twin-manual Super II, you could pay literally anything between £20 and £500, depending on the condition, the amount of genuine accessories included (like the stand), and whether the seller knows what a classic they're disposing of. For the rarer items, again, a lot depends on condition and completeness; but a pristine wooden-key early Continental must be starting to get very expensive indeed.

Other rarities like the Baroque and the Jennings version may also be expensive, although they may tend to be more commonly in good condition — the Baroque doesn't seem so certain to have been gigged to death, and the Jennings missed out on ten years of potential battering, by not coming on the scene until nearly 1970. (If you see a single-manual Continental, by the way, it doesn't mean that it's definitely an early model. They were re-launched in 1972, alongside the Continental 300. That, in turn, means that there should be some good-condition single-manuals and 300s around.)

But if you just want the sounds and the character, and aren't bothered by the niceties of condition, then a beaten-up but working machine shouldn't be too expensive — probably £100 to £200. And you may even find the odd one more cheaply still, in free ads, at a car-boot sale or in the back room of a small music shop. Is it worth it? Yes. It takes up a lot of room, but there's nothing else around that does quite what a Continental does.

A few other users: Dave Clark Five, Johnny Fingers, John Lennon at Shea Stadium, Annie Lennox (reputedly the very same one that John Lennon used at Shea), Mock Turtles, Steve Nieve, Stereolab and Strawberry Alarm Clock.

More information: Vintage Synthesizers, ed. Mark Vail. Pub. Miller Freeman, USA. ISBN 0-87930-275-5.

The Vox Story, David Petersen and Dick Denney. Pub. The Bold Strummer, distributed in the UK by Korg UK Ltd, (Contact Details)

A-Z of Analogue - in THE MIX, 1994-95!

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Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Jun 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman


Vintage Instruments

Gear in this article:

Organ > Vox > Continental

Feature by Peter Forrest

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