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Exclusive Review: Dübreq Stylophone S2

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Well, it’s taken quite a while, but it’s finally here. This is the first British-built Stylophone since original production ceased in the mid-1970s (the highly popular S1 is made in China), and the first-ever Dübreq instrument aimed at serious musicians. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the S2, its specification and its launch at the 2013 Winter NAMM show in California. There has also been a lively dialogue between various parties, the overall gist of which is “That’s a lot of money for a Stylophone!” vs “That’s a lot of hand-made British analogue synth for not much money!”.

Let’s get two things straight to start with.

1. This is NOT, repeat NOT a souped-up or stage-hardened version of any previous Stylophone. The only thing that this instrument has in common with previous Stylophones is the playing technique. Oh, and if you want you can even play it without a stylus!

2. This is NOT, repeat NOT a Moog-style synth with traditional architecture, ADSR envelopes and performance controls. If that’s what you are looking for, there are various other synths available that will float your boat. But don’t knock the S2 for being different.

A history lesson

Perhaps the closest thing to the S2’s architecture was a strange late-70s British monosynth called the Wasp, made by a company called Electric Dream Plant or EDP. Like the S2 it had two oscillators, a simple AR (attack/release) envelope, a very flexible filter section and a versatile low frequency oscillator. Like the S2, the Wasp also rejected the conventional piano-style keyboard, in this case largely to make the instrument more affordable. The Wasp had a 2-octave yellow and black membrane keyboard and a flimsy black plastic case. It also had a rich and powerful sound, even if the keyboard was a bit tricky to play. In 1978 when it was launched, it cost £200, equivalent to about £930 today.


The EDP Wasp (1978) - the S2’s spiritual ancestor?

Now let’s look at the Stylophone S2. It has a three-octave C-C printed-circuit keyboard, with the traditional Stylophone key layout (the sharp keys are grouped together in pairs and threes with no space between them). The keys themselves are considerably larger than those of earlier Stylophones, and this, along with some crafty electronics, means that if you want, you can play the keyboard with your finger rather than the solid-metal cordless stylus. The case is made entirely from metal. To put the price in perspective, the list price of £300 would have been the equivalent of about £65 in 1978, a third the price of a Wasp.

A tough case

The case is unlike anything which has ever borne the name “Stylophone”. It is a piece of pure hi-tech design. The case itself is made from two matt-black powder-coated aluminium extrusions, fitted together to form a rectangular-section box about 30 cm long, 12 cm wide and 2.5 cm high. Each end is capped with a 5mm thick solid anodised aluminium panel which has had various recesses milled out of it. The case is held together with Allen-headed bolts, giving it a business-like and tough appearance.

The top surface of the box has various holes punched in it; the keyboard occupies about a third of the depth of the case and finishes about 1 cm from each end of the case. Above the left of the keyboard is a large circular hole through which protrudes an anodised brushed aluminium disc with a stylised “S2” logo milled into it. The gap between the disc and the edge of the hole acts as a port for the built-in speaker, but it is also the main display for the synth’s operating system, thanks to a ring of eight blue LEDs concealed under the edge of the hole, which reflect off the disc’s concave sides.

Set the controls

To either side of the circular hole is a curved column of six touch-pads, each with an imbedded red LED. The left column has a group of four pads, a gap and then a further pair of pads. The layout on the right is reversed. Intentionally or not, the whole thing is reminiscent of the Ministry of Sound logo… The other controls on the top of the instrument are a horizontal row of rotary knobs. These are quite small, and made from black plastic with a white cap and pointer. Above each knob is printed a curved wedge (two in some cases) of vertical lines to show the direction of the knob’s effect, and below each is a symbol describing the knob’s function. Finally there is a small circular hole near the upper right end of the instrument, marked with a white arc. This is simply a handy holder for the stylus. That’s it, apart from the classic Stylophone logo, screen-printed, along with all the other markings, in white.

The ins and outs

The left-hand end cap has five sockets; one 6.3mm (¼”) in the middle flanked by two pairs of 3/5mm (⅛”) sockets. From left to right they are headphone, external input, line out, trigger in and control voltage in. Yes – you can actually control this thing with an external sequencer or keyboard, or process external signals with it!

The right-hand end cap has four buttons and a socket for an external power supply (not included). From left to right the buttons are: volume up and volume down (white), self-tune (black) and power (red).

The volume buttons only affect the built-in speaker and the headphone output but not the line out. Shame, because when you’re playing through a powerful amp on stage you may want to turn up or down. I recommend the use of an in-line (guitar) volume pedal.

The manufacturers call the self-tune feature “auto-tune”, but it’s not auto-tune as in T-Pain. It’s a clever routine that makes sure that the oscillators are tuned to the correct pitch at each octave, and it’s probably worth running it every half hour or so. These are real transistor oscillators, and their pitch will drift. Press and release the self-tune button and the synth will play a series of eight notes. Twice. That’s 8 octaves of C’s for each oscillator. As it tunes each C, the blue ring of LEDs rotates, clockwise if it’s flat, anti-clockwise if it’s sharp. This is the coarse-tuning routine, and takes a few seconds. Once you have done this, you can fine-tune the oscillators by pressing the black button for about three seconds and then releasing it. This will complete the tuning process. I advise you to run the fine-tune routine once well before you are due to play, once just before you need to use it and then as required. This will allow the oscillators to stabilise (they are sensitive to temperature). It is probably best not to plug into an amp while tuning, although if you ensure that the low pass filter is on and the filter cutoff frequency is set to zero beforehand, it effectively mutes the self-tuning process.

Open the pod bay door

The underside of the S2 has two inset sliding panels, or rather, two compartments sharing a panel. The wider one is, as expected, the battery compartment, with space for four AA batteries, held snugly in a pair of plastic holders. Opening the battery compartment (neatly secured with a magnet – a classy touch) simultaneously opens a narrow compartment alongside, revealing a plastic block with a recess in which lies the stylus. This couldn’t be more different from the Biro-inspired stylus of yore. It’s a beautifully-machined solid aluminium pencil, with a conical brass nib apparently seamlessly attached. And no cable either.

The overall impression of the S2 is simultaneously retro, contemporary and futuristic. It has an air of retro stealth to it; of James Bond gadgets, Gerry Anderson props and the dashboards of classic British sports cars, but it also looks like something from TRON Legacy, especially with all the red and blue LEDs flashing and spinning. It looks and feels high-quality.

One minor quirk is that you are advised to touch the metal case while playing to ensure reliable triggering. This only applies when the S2 is not plugged into an amp or recording device, so you will probably be holding it anyway in those situations, but it is worth remembering.

If you are not familiar with the concepts involved in subtractive synthesis, I suggest you do a bit of reading on the subject and then come back to this review, as I don’t have the time or space to explain what an LFO or a VCF are or do.

Your pad or mine?

The touch-pads, their red LEDs and the ring of blue LEDs around the speaker port are the key to using the S2 effectively. Most of the touch-pads offer several options, which are stepped through sequentially on each touch of the pad. For example, the top left-hand pad gives a choice of square or saw-tooth waveform, with or without sub-ocillators one or two octaves below (or both) for Oscillator I, offering a total of eight options. Each option is indicated by a single blue LED, and the first option (square wave with no sub-oscillators) also illuminates a red LED on the pad. This gives you something of a visual reference point, as the blue LED ring reverts to indicating the LFO speed when not displaying parameters.

An identical choice of waveforms for Oscillator II is selected from the next touch-pad down.

The third left-hand pad offers three flavours of ring modulation or none, and the fourth turns oscillator II hard-sync on or off. This can help ensure that Oscillator II is fixed at a set interval to Oscillator I without causing chorus effects or beating.

The final pair of pads on the left are octave shift up or down, covering a total of five octaves, and with a red LED marking the highest and lowest settings. With the sub-oscillators selected, the lowest setting can produce powerful sub-bass frequencies. On the highest setting, the top octave of the keyboard doesn’t play a correctly tuned chromatic scale.

The right-hand pads start with a pair that independently turn the two filters on and off. That’s right – there is a low-pass and a high-pass VCF, sharing the same controls and settings. When both are on they form a powerful band-pass filter, and with both off, you have what the manufacturers call a “weak notch” filter, which still responds to the filter controls.

The next pad down assigns the detune control to one of the two VCOs, allowing them to be offset by as much as several semitones. Pressing it toggles between Oscillator I and Oscillator II, and pressing it twice sets both oscillators to approximately unison, irrespective of the detune control’s position.

Below this are three pads which are related to the LFO (confusingly referred to as “oscillator III”). The first LFO pad assigns the LFO to control both oscillators, Oscillator I only and/or the VCA.

The second LFO pad determines whether the LFO is free-running or if it retriggers on each new note, and if so, at what point in its waveform. This is important, as it allows the LFO to be used as an envelope generator, opening the door to filter sweeps, repeat percussion and other effects.

The last touch-pad cycles through the eight available waveforms. They are:

1. Sine

2. Triangle

3. Sawtooth (rising)

4. Sawtooth (falling)

5. Square (50%)

6. Square/Pulse (adjustable)

7. Sample & Hold (quantised noise)

8. Staircase (8-step quantised triangle)

That’s it. Everything else is down to the ten rotary knobs and playing technique.

With knobs on

The knobs are all single-function, unlike some recent synths. There are no hidden or dual functions – the changes you make will affect the sound in a fairly predictable way, as long as you remember how your touch-pads are set. From left to right they are:

1. Oscillator detune. This works in conjunction with the Oscillator Detune pad, and allows the selected VCO to be detuned by about plus or minus a seventh.

2. Oscillator mix.
This determines the volume balance between Oscillators I and II.

3. Square-wave pulse width. If either oscillator is set to square wave, this adjusts the mark-space ratio of the waveform to give a variety of reedy to hollow tones. This control also adjusts the LFO pulse width when waveform 6 is selected. If sub-oscillators are being used, it may be necessary to increase the setting of this control.

4. LFO (Oscillator III) speed.
During normal play (when parameters are not being selected), the speed of the LFO is indicated by the rotation of the ring of blue LEDs.

5. LFO depth. This controls the amount of modulation sent to the Oscillators and/or VCA, depending on the setting of the fourth right-hand touch-pad.

6. Attack time. This only affects the VCA, and only applies when the stylus (or a finger) first touches the keyboard – notes within a slide will not retrigger the envelope, although each note in a slide WILL retrigger the LFO if a retrigger mode has been selected.

7.Release time. This again only affects the VCA, and only applies when the stylus (or finger) has physically left the keyboard. A fast attack and medium to long release time can produce percussive effects by tapping the stylus rather than holding it down.

8. LFO filter modulation. This controls the amount of LFO signal applied to the filter(s). This control interacts with the cutoff frequency control.

9. Filter resonance (Q), This controls the intensity or resonance of the filter(s). The filters of the S2 cannot be made to oscillate.

10. Cutoff frequency. This controls the cutoff or bandpass frequency of the filter(s).

So what can it do, what can’t it do, and what does it sound like? Well, there is a British food product called Marmite (a yeast-derived savoury spread), and common wisdom has it that you either love or hate the taste of it. I suspect that the S2 may divide the public in a similar way.

What it can do

The Stylophone S2 is capable of producing deep, earth-shaking bass sounds. With practice and patience, it can do fair imitations of string, woodwind and brass instruments, as well as producing odd bleeps, bloops, dissonant noises and strange sci-fi sound effects. It can even sound – get this – like a classic Stylophone, with the added bonus of a filter to take the harsh edge off the sound, and of course a 3-octave keyboard.

What it can’t do

The S2 has no performance controls. That’s right – no pitch-bend facility at all, and just the LFO depth control to add modulation. There is no facility for keyboard glide or portamento. The closest you will get is the classic Stylophone slide, although the LFO retrigger function does make it a more expressive playing technique than you might imagine. One other missing facility is a noise generator – the LFO has a Sample & Hold waveform which can produce noise-like effects at high rates, but it is still a modulation rather than an audio source, So the sounds that are difficult-to-impossible to get from the S2 are swoops, screaming pitch-bent lead lines, unpitched percussion and hissy, swooshy noise effects. Also, bear in mind that if you are using the LFO as a filter envelope, you won’t have a source for vibrato or any other kind of modulation.

But as I said, this isn’t intended to be a budget Moog. If that’s what you want, look elsewhere. If you are the sort of musician who embraces the unusual or the eccentric, you are likely to love the Stylophone S2, with all its quirks and limitations, simply because it is a synth that dares to be different. Dubreq was never likely to put a real keyboard on this, and once you have made the fairly radical decision to adopt an unusual playing technique, you might as well see how else a traditional design could be changed.

What I would like to see in the Stylophone S3…

Using the LFO as a filter envelope is a useful trick, but it puts restrictions on playing technique - hold a note down for too long and the filter sweep will start again. A simple addition to the retrigger modes could allow the LFO to play half a cycle and then stop.

One serious issue is visibility. On a darkened stage (or even in some normal lighting conditions) the keyboard can look like a featureless expanse of metal - the dividing lines between the keys are often difficult to see. I have actually made a simple modification to my S2, consisting of adding a strip of white 12v LEDs under the keyboard, connected across the external power socket. The keyboard comes to life in a blaze of glowing green outlines. It does leave an unlit rectangle where the battery holders are located and will of course render the S2’s warranty void, but it is a consideration if you want to play it with any degree of accuracy anywhere other than in a brightly lit studio.

It would be nice to see some sort of portamento (even just a selection of preset rates or speeds), an LFO trigger and possibly a pitch-bend device.

The volume control does not affect the line output. Dübreq really needs to reconsider this - the last professional instrument I saw with no volume control was a Hohner Pianet T in 1980.

Conclusion

The Dübreq Stylophone S2 is definitely a classic (if unconventional) British synth, and for a very reasonable price. Yes, £300 IS a lot of money for a Stylophone. But this isn’t a fun toy to leave around the house and play “Jingle Bells” on. It’s a real, hand-made analogue synth designed for serious stage and studio use, and for the most part it lives up to its promise. Sonically, it is very capable and powerful, and the initially quirky user interface is really quite easy to learn - this little synth is fun and exciting both to program and to play. I hope that Dübreq address some of the issues mentioned above. This instrument is not a competitor with the likes of the reissued Korg MS-20 or the Arturia MiniBrute - it’s an alternative, and in my opinion a worthy one.

Dübreq Stylophone S2

Price: £300 (US$450)

Quality: *****+
Versatility: ***
Ease of use: ***
Value for money: ****
Fun: *****

Alternatives:

Dübreq’s own Stylophone S1 has been in production for six years now and is still selling steadily for about £15 (US$22). It offers a one-and-a-half octave keyboard, three sounds/octave settings and a volume control in a retro-style plastic case, if a Stylophone is all you need.

Korg’s Volca Keys is positioned between the same firm’s tiny Monotrons and the reissued MS-20 Mini and would appear to be the S2’s closest competitor, offering three VCOs, portamento, three-voice polyphony, ADSR envelope, MIDI input and a sequencer for a lower price. This might be a good choice if the S2 is just too quirky for you. It lacks the S2’s sonic depth and build quality, and might not be sturdy enough for gigging.

The Arturia MiniBrute seems to be a popular choice for those after an affordable analogue synth of conventional design. It only has a single oscillator though.

Contact: www.stylophone2.com

Steve Hayes R.I.P. - Speakeasy Founder and CEO dies aged 59

Friday, October 5th, 2012

The Vintage KeyBlog has some sad news to report. From the Speakeasy Vintage Music website:

“Steven W. Hayes,59, entered into rest on Thursday morning at York Hospital. He was the husband of Doreen (Mummert) Hayes for 29 years.

He was born January 26, 1953 in Shirley, Mass.

Graduated from William Penn High School in 1971.

Steven was the CEO of Speakeasy Vintage Music. He was also a former member of Devers Lions Club of York and a member of the John Link Jazz Trio and The Andy Angel Band.

A viewing will be 2-3 p.m. Sunday at the John W. Keffer Funeral Home and Crematory, Inc. 2114 W. Market St. with a celebration of life service to follow at 3 p.m. with a family friend Mr. Don Mitchell officiating. Burial will be at the conveyance of the family.

Including his wife Doreen, he is also survived by a daughter Nicole Hayes of Lancaster a step son Chad Snyder of Dover and 3 nieces : Alexi Hayes, Jackie Donagher and April Murtorff, and many friends. Steve was preceded in death by a brother Daniel P. Hayes.

In lieu of flowers memorial contributions can be made to your favorite charity.”

Steve was well known to many vintage keyboard enthusiasts as the creator of accessories that helped keep vintage electric pianos and organs on stage into the new Millennium, including preamps, portable Leslie cabs and dedicated amplification systems. He was also a gifted musician, and a genuine friend to many in the on-line vintage keyboard community. He will be missed. We hope to keep you informed regarding the future of Speakeasy Vintage Music.

Review: Clavia Nord Electro 3 73

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Well, I’m now the proud owner of a 73-key Clavia Nord Electro 3. And I guess it’s time for a review.

nord2

What is the Nord Electro 3?

About ten years ago, Clavia, a small Swedish company best known for electronic drums and analogue synths introduced a new type of instrument; a “virtual electromechanical” keyboard. The Nord Electro featured a modelled Hammond organ, using a novel system of pushbuttons and LED ladders to simulate drawbars, plus high-quality samples of Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Yamaha CP-80 electric pianos, and a Clavinet emulation which allowed all the tone settings of the original. The intention was that the Electro could replace a number of vintage keyboards on stage or in a studio. To this end, no synthesiser sounds were included and there were no acoustic instrument sounds apart from a grand piano of questionable appeal.

Despite these apparent limitations, the Nord Electro (soon upgraded to the Electro 2, with a software update available for the earlier model) became the industry standard as a stand-in for vintage keyboards, and the little red instrument rapidly became a common sight on stages world-wide.

But Clavia continued to develop other products, and when they launched the top-of-the-range Nord Stage in 2005, including the ability to download new piano sounds plus an organ section which had Vox and Farfisa models as well as Hammond, it was clear that the Electro was due for a revamp.

1… 2… 3!

The Nord Electro 3 has inherited both the spirit of the earlier models and some of the improvements of its big sibling. Like the Electro 2, the emphasis is still on vintage keyboard sounds, and it still only allows one sound to be used at a time. No split keyboards (apart from upper and lower organ voices) and no layers. If you want those, you’ll have to pay more than 50% extra and get the Nord Stage 2. On the other hand, you now have three classic (and very different) organ models to choose from, plus access to some of the most authentic electric piano sounds currently available. Also inherited from the Nord Stage is a Sample Bank. That’s right – you can now download impressive multi-samples from the Clavia website (including a huge range of Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds) or even create your own sounds on your home computer and put them on the Electro 3. Two DVD-ROMS of pianos and samples are included along with interface software for Mac or PC and sample-editing software.

Out of the box

At 9.1 kg (20 lb, 1oz) the Electro is reasonably light. The first thing you notice (apart from its distinctive red finish) is the sheer build quality. The end-blocks and keyboard cheeks are solid hardwood, stained bright red and given a thick, glossy coat of varnish. The case itself is made from sheet steel, painted black below and red on top, with the control panel printed in black, grey and white. To the right of the panel is a list of hidden functions including system, MIDI and sound options. Along the left rear edge are labels corresponding to the connections on the back.

There are only two types of control on the front of the Electro 3. The first is a rubber-coated knob operating a pot (rather than an encoder). There are ten of these, and they have a smooth action with a fair amount of resistance. The second type of control is a small rectangular plastic push-button with a dimpled top. These buttons are variously coloured black or grey, with a single red one dedicated to storing settings. Most of the buttons are set horizontally but a few important ones are vertical to make them easy to locate. These buttons, like all the hardware, feel positive, heavy-duty and well made.

There is a plethora of LEDs, mostly red, set into the instrument’s control panel and fitted flush with the surface. These include a 3- and a 2-digit readout for identifying presets and sound variants, tiny round and triangular LEDs used as status indicators, a single green one to denote slow rotary speed and 9 “ladders” of 8 rectangular LEDs which show drawbar and tab settings for the various organ models. The control panel is a masterpiece of ergonomics and restraint.

panel
The control panel

The keybed is a slightly unusual one, unless you are familiar with Hammond organs or their imitators. The white keys have a “waterfall” profile, with a small radius between the playing surface and the vertical key front, and no protruding lip as found on most pianos. The black keys have a smoothly curved top. The overall key length is slightly shorter than on a piano, but the width is normal. This gives quite a firm but responsive feel to the keys, and I couldn’t work out why it felt familiar until I realised that my Hohner Pianet T, sadly stolen back in 1988, had a very similar key design and feel.

One thing which might seem strange is the lack of pitch-bend and modulation controls. The simple fact is that the majority of the instruments which the Electro emulates don’t feature pitch-bend or modulation as part of their playing technique, although I would argue that Mellotrons have a limited but often used pitch-bend facility and that tremolo or panning intensity could have been implemented as a modulation wheel, but Clavia have evidently decided that these features are not required. Oh, and the Electro doesn’t recognise pitch-bend or modulation data via MIDI either. Just thought I’d mention it.

The mains connector is, surprisingly, not the usual 3-pin IEC but a 2-pin “figure-8” usually associated with electric shavers or portable stereos. These are fairly easy to find, but don’t rely on being able to borrow one from a fellow band member. Better get a spare… The rear panel features 6.3mm (1/4”) sockets for stereo headphones, left/mono and right line out, sustain, rotor and control pedals, MIDI In and Out, USB (for sound management rather than MIDI) and a rather unnecessary 3.5mm (1/8”) “Monitor In” whose signal is routed solely to the headphone socket. Lastly, there is a large oblong pushbutton to turn the instrument on. Press it and the display shows the OS version for a few seconds, and then you are ready to play.

Back to basics

It’s probably best to think of the Electro 3 in terms of whatever you are using it for. You want a Hammond? You’ve got nine virtual drawbars, each operated by a pair of buttons, one for up, the other for down. Each pair of drawbuttons has a ladder of 8 LEDs which light up to show the drawbar setting. Some have criticised the Electro and its kin for not using real drawbars, but I find the buttons easy to use, and of course they jump to position instantly and are easily visible on a dark stage!

organ
The Organ control panel

Most functions are controlled by a single button, often in conjunction with a “Shift” button. In the case of the Hammond emulation, these include the three standard variations of Chorus and Vibrato, and percussion. Of course there is a rotary speaker simulator, complete with adjustable overdrive, and a button controlling the speed. Although there is only one set of virtual drawbars, they can be used to control either of two settings; either as instantly available presets, as a split keyboard or with the lower sound controlled by a second keyboard via MIDI.

Vox pop

There is also a model of a Vox Continental combo organ. In this case, seven drawbars adjust footages (the model is based on a dual-keyboard Super Continental) while the last two (displaying a single LED rather than a bar) control the amount of the Foundation (near-sine) and Reed (triangle) waveforms at the selected footages. Vibrato for the Vox is preset; either on or off, and there is no percussion available.

Italian cheese

Lastly on the organ front is a simulation of a Farfisa Compact Duo. The Farfisa used tab-stops for a variety of voices at selected footages, and on the Electro 3 this has been implemented by using the drawbar buttons as on and off switches for each stop, with a bar of either the top or bottom four LEDs showing its status. A very neat trick. Vibrato has four settings, fast and slow in each of two depths. Farfisa purists might be disappointed that there is no Tone Booster facility; however it is difficult to see how this could be implemented.

It’s piano time

Now you press the Piano button, and the LED ladders turn off. You can now select from six “Types” of instrument; “E Piano”, “Wurl”, “Clav/Hps”, “Samp Lib”, “Grand” and “Upright”. That’s right – “E Piano” means “Fender Rhodes”, and out of the box there are four very different ones, from a raunchy Mk I Suitcase to a ridiculously glassy and pingy Dyno. Some might like it, but I used the sound management software to delete it and replace it with a nice late-60s Sparkle-top.

piano
The Piano control panel

By contrast, there is only one “Wurl”, but it’s a very realistic one, and you can EQ it, use amp modelling and add effects to get anything from Richard Carpenter to Ray Charles. I could play it for hours (OK – I have played it for hours), and as a Wurly enthusiast I should point out that once you’ve played a real one, it takes something really special to live up to it.

The Clavinet offers pickup selection and tone filters just like a real D6, although purists might miss the damper slider – there just isn’t one. After cycling through all four pickup settings, you suddenly (incongruously) hit a harpsichord. A real, acoustic one, and so authentic you can practically smell the ancient wood, felt and leather.

Switch to “Samp Lib” (Sample Library) and you get the good, the bad and the plain unnecessary. Mellotron and Chamberlin strings, flutes, brass and choirs; yes please. Wheezy pump organs; not so sure. “Jump” and “Final Countdown” synths; no thanks. But it’s all a matter of taste – some poodle-haired moron will love those sounds, and they can easily be deleted and replaced with more Mellotron. Or an RMI Electra-Piano. You even have the option of adding velocity sensitivity, slow attack and one of three release times to any sample.

Piano. Ah yes. One of the main criticisms of the earlier Nord Electros was that the acoustic piano was not only an afterthought, but it sounded like one, a bit embarrassing on a keyboard that costs more than many dedicated stage pianos. Well, under “Grand”, we now have two impressive grand pianos, one big and mellow, the other more focussed and lean, plus a Yamaha CP-80 electric grand which, while not really my kind of thing, is very authentic and playable.

Just one “Upright”, but it’s a very nice one – very Beatles-ish. And of course you can download others if you like.

Cue FX…

There is an optional three-band equaliser with fixed bass and treble bands, plus controls for mid-range frequency and gain. I found this useful to add some extra “honk” to the Wurlitzer sound.

fx
The Effects control panel

Below the EQ are four sets of digital effects that can be used simultaneously in combination with any sound. The first offers tremolo, stereo panning, ring modulation, auto-wah or pedal wah. There is a knob for speed, but tremolo and pan depth are restricted to three preset levels. If an expression pedal is attached, it controls ring-mod depth or pedal wah. Next is phasing, flanging or chorus, again with a speed knob, and three preset levels for each effect. Amp simulation is next, offering “small speaker”, “JC” (Japanese solid-state amp popular with Fender Rhodes players), “Twin” (American valve amp popular with Fender Rhodes players), “Rotary” (mostly for use with organ sounds) and a handy compressor. A knob adjusts drive/distortion/compression. Lastly, there is a digital reverb unit offering “Room”, “Stage soft”, “Stage”, “Hall soft” and “Hall”, with a knob to control direct/reverb balance.

All the way to the bank

You can store up to 128 user presets in banks called A and B. There is no way to “jump” between numbered presets; you can choose to scroll through all the A’s or B’s or to scroll through all the presets in the form 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B etc. For any numbered preset, however, there is the facility to switch instantly between banks A and B, so you could have, say, a Wurlitzer as 1A and a specific Hammond setting as 1B. And don’t forget that an organ preset actually consists of two separate settings, available as whole-keyboard sounds or as a split.

prog
The Program control panel

So you can have four organ sounds (each pair sharing the same organ model and effect settings), two organ sounds (both using the same model) and a piano/sample sound, or two piano/sample sounds for each preset number. That’s a bit of a bargain, and it can hugely reduce the amount of scrolling required. When you store a preset, it stores everything (apart from “System”, MIDI and “Sound” parameters), including features which are switched off. So your Wurly sound can have tremolo switched off as default, and when you switch it on it’ll appear at the correct speed and depth. Features not stored as part of a preset include “transpose”. But then again you probably wouldn’t expect the Nord to even have a transpose function. I mean – where’s the transposer on a Hammond?

In use

The user interface is initially quirky (this is from the country that gave us Saab cars, Gravadlax and IKEA, don’t forget), but pretty intuitive once you get used to it. If you’re expecting hi-res, full-colour touchscreens you’re in for a shock – a 3-digit LED readout is the nearest that the Electro offers. That kind of thing was last seen back in the 1980s, but it works, it’s easy to understand and, above all it encourages you to save presets in places that make sense to you.

The Shift button cuts down on the number of buttons required – it either activates alternative functions, accesses “hidden” features (permanently listed on the front panel) or reverses the order of buttons that select sequentially. One button which can’t be reversed is the Piano Type selector, but to go from any type to the previous one takes a maximum of five key presses. Fortunately the preset selector is allowed the luxury of dedicated buttons for up and down.

The virtual drawbars have been often singled out for criticism since they first appeared on the original Nord Electro, but they have stood the test of time and, let’s face it, they work fine for building organ sounds. It may not be quite as easy to tweak them into a “smile”, “frown” or ramp as real drawbars, but they are quick and easy to adjust, and if you overshoot, just press the opposite button to correct it. If you really feel you need drawbars, various third-party add-ons exist, including at least one designed specifically for Nord keyboards.

Verdict:

Well, if you like vintage keyboards, this thing has it all, albeit at a price. As long as you are happy with the concept of having a warehouse full of organs, electric pianos, Clavinets and Mellotrons in perfect playable condition but only being able to plug in and play one at a time, this is the best you can get. The sounds, if not flawless, are the best currently available in a single keyboard, and they give a strong flavour of playing the real instruments. For the first time I understood why a Vox Continental makes you play in a particular (and very non-Hammond-like) way. The Wurlitzer sound gives my playing an authority that I experienced when I was using a real 200 and which it lacked while I was using the (surprisingly good) Wurlitzer sound from a Casio WK-3000. It’s not just me – after a recent gig using the Nord, the keyboardist from the support band complimented me on my authentic Wurlitzer sound. I’ve never really got on with Clavinets, but having the wah-pedal facility available made me want to play 70’s funk all day. And so on. This is a completely addictive instrument and I would recommend it to anyone who can afford it.

Clavia Nord Electro 3 73

Price: approx. £1400 (US$2200)

Quality: *****
Versatility: *****
Ease of use: ****
Value for money: *****
Fun: *****

Alternatives:

Clavia Nord:

There is a 61-key version of the Nord Electro 3 available for a bit less money, and since it has octave-shift (plus or minus one or two octaves) available, it may not be as much of a limitation as you might imagine. Going upscale, Clavia make an Electro HP version with a hammer-action 73-note keyboard (E-E rather than F-F) and four performance presets for instant selection. This might be an option if you don’t feel that the organ-style keyboard suits your style of playing.

Far more expensive are the Nord Stage 2 models, with 88- or 76-note hammer-action keyboards and the Stage 2 Compact, with the same keyboard as the 73-key Electro 3. These not only allow piano and organ sounds to be used simultaneously in splits or layers but have a full-featured polysynth section as well. Oh, and they have a pitch-bend lever and a modulation wheel too.

Other manufacturers:
The other current contenders are Hammond-Suzuki’s 61-key SK-1, with Hammond, Vox and Farfisa models controlled by real drawbars, plus a wide range of other sounds including vintage electric pianos, and Korg’s SV-1, available with 88 or 73 keys and featuring a wide range of electric pianos, but only preset, non-editable organ sounds.

Review: Dübreq Stylophone S1

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

Hi, and welcome to my first Vintage Keyboard Review!

So what IS a Stylophone?

Sometimes you have to start small and see where it takes you. Well, vintage keyboards don’t come much smaller than the Dübreq Stylophone, a marvel of primitive electronics and creative marketing that first appeared in 1968. Invented by an Englishman, Brian Jarvis, it was a simple monophonic organ whose keyboard consisted of just over one and a half octaves of small printed-circuit pads which were played using the metal tip of a ballpoint-like stylus connected to the instrument by a thin wire. The whole thing, including a small loudspeaker, mono earphone socket and 9v battery fitted neatly into a plastic case measuring about 4″ by 6″ (10 by 15cm) with a tuning knob on the back. Three models were produced in treble, tenor and bass ranges so in theory a group of Stylophonists could play in harmony. In reality this rarely happened, but the Stylophone became an overnight success, due in no small part to the enthusiastic promotion of the instrument by Rolf Harris, an eccentric and hugely popular Australian entertainer and musician whose photo appeared on the packaging. The Stylophone was given a further boost among musicians by David Bowie, who used the bass version on his early hit “Space Oddity”. Its space-age, buzzy sound suited the song perfectly, and the Stylophone took its place as an icon of the 1970s until production ceased in 1975.

In 2007, Brian Jarvis’ son Ben relaunched the Stylophone as the “S1″. So, what has changed in 32 years, and what can this instrument offer in the 21st century?

Back in the 1970s, the Stylophone may have primarily a toy, but it was an expensive one, costing 8 pounds 18 shillings and sixpence, the equivalent of about £100 (more than $150) today! The reissue costs nearly one-tenth of that, so it’s cheap enough to buy on a whim.

stylophones

Out with the old…

The appearance of the S1 has been deliberately kept “retro”, so as to appeal to those who remember the original, but it’s not just a simple reproduction. The new version has subtly rounded corners and edges instead of the sharp edges of the original, and some of the labelling has changed too. The on/off switch is now labelled “POWER” rather than the ambiguous (and somewhat overstated) “ORGAN”, and the “black” notes are now labelled as decimals rather than fractions! This makes tablature easier to produce… Playing technique is identical - you press the stylus firmly against the desired keyboard pad, and typically slide from one pad to another, briefly sounding any intermediate ones on the way. The resultant “fretted organ” sound is part of the Stylophone’s character, although you can of course also play staccato by “poking” selected pads. There is still a Vibrato switch,and this adds a nice preset wobble reminiscent of a Vox Continental to the sound.

…and in with the new!

So what else is new? Well, purists may be disappointed to hear that the sound is less - how shall I put it? - organic than the original. Dübreq have done a very good job of sampling an original Stylophone (a treble version) and tweaking it, but it’s just a bit harsher and less mellow than the transistorised original, due in part to the cheaper loudspeaker. Ah well. But here’s the good bit: you now have a choice of three subtly different sounds pitched over three octaves, all from one instrument. From the lowest upwards they are called Bass, Synth and Traditional, and are selected by a slide switch on the front of the case. It is (just about) possible to change sounds while playing, and the sounds are similar enough to be able to fake quite an impressive keyboard range, but it’s a shame that Dübreq didn’t give the keyboard a few extra notes at each end. The tuning control underneath allows detuning by several semitones sharp or flat, and can be used for off-the-wall effects, but isn’t really controllable enough for melodic pitch-bending.

Other 21st-century additions include an edge-operated volume knob (most originals lacked a volume control), a stereo rather than mono output socket, compatible with Walkman-style earphones but requiring considerable ingenuity to connect to a mono amplifier without shorting out, and a rather grandly titled “MP3″ facility, which is simply a stereo input for an external signal. Being digital means that it is less power-thirsty too, running for weeks or months on three AA cells instead of a hefty 9v PP3.

Summary

How can anyone resist this cute little instrument? It’s pocket-sized, it has a proper chromatic range, it runs on batteries and it costs less than any other electronic instrument on the market. You can play it at picnics or on concert stages, play Christmas carols or hip-hop bass-lines (check out Brett Domino on YouTube if you don’t believe me!), annoy your parents or embarrass your children! I use mine alongside a drawbar organ and an electric piano in a 9-piece ska band. Meanwhile, here is a recording I did using the Stylophone alongside a ukulele and a double-bass. Enjoy.

“Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”

Quality: ***
Versatility: **
Ease of use: *****
Value for money: ****
Fun: *****