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.
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.
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.
Ease of use: *****
Value for money: ****