Archive for September, 2011

Farewell then, New Combo Organ Project…

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

In 2004 I started an on-line think-tank called the New Combo Organ Project. The idea was to discuss the possibility of producing a modern version of a Vox- or Farfisa-style combo organ. At the time, all available organs aimed at gigging musicians were limited to reproducing the sound of a Hammond-type organ, and it seemed that musicians who preferred the quirkier sounds of 1960s transistor organs were being ignored.

The people who joined me included musicians, manufacturing technologists, electronics and computer experts and vintage keyboard collectors. There were discussions of what type of tone generation to use, MIDI implementation and so forth. I even produced a 3D visualisation of a possible MIDI module which I named the ComBox.

Of course, it never happened. You can’t buy a ComBox, and you never will be able to. But I realised that seven years on, you CAN buy a new combo organ, functionally equivalent to a Vox or Farfisa, and that perhaps our work was done. Only not by us. So I sent what may be a final message to the New Combo Organ Project:

“I don’t mean to sound defeatist, but it’s been more than seven years since the New Combo Organ Project started, and nobody has yet built a prototype oscillator/divider board, never mind a whole organ.

Or have they? I never thought it would happen like this, but the world of vintage keyboards has changed a lot in seven years. The New Combo Organ exists! Seven years ago, the term “combo organ” meant two very different things, depending on whether you were a fan or an instrument manufacturer. Companies like Roland and Korg applied the term to instruments which could only produce Hammond-type sounds, rather than the Vox and Farfisa sounds that Combonauts were seeking. There was clearly a gulf of misunderstanding between the two groups, with even a whiff of resentment towards these manufacturers who used the name “combo organ” but couldn’t be bothered to make an instrument that would satisfy real combo enthusiasts.

And now we find ourselves in another decade, and real combo organs are being made again, not by experimenters tinkering in kitchens and basements but by major brands such as Hammond-Suzuki and Clavia! Yes - the Hammond SK-1 and SK-2, as well as Clavia’s Nord Electro 3, Nord Stage and C1/C2 organs have fully functional models of Vox and Farfisa combo organs alongside tonewheel simulations. These are not samples or tweaked versions of the tonewheel models - they use the instrument’s drawbars or drawbuttons to control the correct waveforms and footages as if they were Vox drawbars or Farfisa tabs.

You can buy a Hammond SK1 or a Nord Electro or C2 and use it as a Vox or a Farfisa. You can combine the correct voices to produce the sounds of the ‘60s, ‘70s or tomorrow.

The New Combo Organ is here, and we should celebrate the fact. Maybe we don’t NEED a New Combo Organ Project any more.“

Simon Beck

Why are there no electric keyboards in ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Electric and electronic keyboard instruments were first invented at the turn of the 20th century – Thaddeus Cahill’s mighty Telharmonium was probably the first, and by the early 1930s dozens of inventors in America and Europe were putting together organs, pianos and keyboard instruments which could not as easily be categorised. The Ondes Martenot and Trautonium captured the imagination of avant-garde composers, while the Hammond organ and the same company’s Novachord synthesiser soon became mainstays of the entertainment, recording and broadcasting industries.

Around 1950, various strands of American popular music began to blend, mutate and evolve. A mixture of electric blues, country, jazz and boogie-woogie became rock ‘n’ roll, and rapidly became the music of choice for young people across the nation. The instrumentation of this new sound comprised electric guitars, drums, upright bass (soon supplanted by Leo Fender’s electric bass guitar), saxophone and piano. And the strange thing is that the piano wasn’t replaced in rock music for another ten years.

It’s not as if the instruments didn’t exist – Wurlitzer’s electric piano first appeared on the market in 1954, just in time for rock ‘n’ rollers to adopt it. It was portable, easy to amplify and had a funky, futuristic sound. And yet nobody used it until Ray Charles in 1959. Listen to classic rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop or rockabilly records and you will hear nothing but acoustic piano and the occasional celesta. Similarly, Hammond organs (which had been around since 1935) didn’t really crop up in rock music until the late 1950s with Lord Rockingham’s XI, Johnny and the Hurricanes and Dave Cortez.

So why did the early rock ‘n’ rollers stick to the acoustic piano? It could be argued that once they had found a winning formula, there was no need to change it – the bass guitar made a practical difference, but not one that the record-buying public were likely to notice. The image of electric keyboard instruments may have been another factor – Hammond organs and Novachords were used in mainstream pop music and even on Nashville country recordings, but they were seen as being a bit staid and “square”, whereas an old upright piano had a certain “street” image harking back to saloons and honky-tonks.

It took the 1960s to give rock music the keyboards it deserved – brightly-coloured transistor organs with reverse-coloured keys and chrome stands; electric pianos that looked like sleek Scandinavian furniture or like heavy-duty guitar amplifiers, and later on, massive synthesisers that resembled the flight-deck of a spaceship. But that’s another story.