Review: MOTU Electric Keys 1.0 (Bonus)

The Electric Keys collection re-creates 50 vintage keyboard instruments. Some (like the Fender Rhodes and Hammond B-3) are well-known classics, while others (like the Vox and Farfisa combo organs and the Hohner Pianet electric piano—all popular fixtures of the British invasion) could be considered kitschy or exotic.
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ELECTRO OBSCURO

The Electric Keys collection re-creates 50 vintage keyboard instruments. Some (like the Fender Rhodes and Hammond B-3) are well-known classics, while others (like the Vox and Farfisa combo organs and the Hohner Pianet electric piano—all popular fixtures of the British invasion) could be considered kitschy or exotic. Still others are downright obscure. Fortunately, a Google search offers a virtual worldwide field guide to many of these rare and nearly extinct species of electrokeyboard—complete with photos and videos.

During the course of this review, I did quite a bit of online research on the more obscure instruments in this collection—some that I hadn''t seen or heard in years, and others that were completely unknown even to a vintage-keyboard enthusiast like me. Here''s a look at just a few of these instruments, along with some Internet links where you can find more information.

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Figure A

HOHNER PLANET

After the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer, the next most popular electric piano is probably the Hohner Pianet. (I''ve had occasion, in my storied career, not only to lay hands on a Pianet, but also to open it up to see how it works.) Based on metal reeds that are plucked by sticky pads, it has less sustain than the Rhodes or the Wurly and a more hollow metallic tone, similar to an African thumb piano. I used the Electric Keys Pianet to create the Latin-flavored sound example in Web Clip A.

The Pianet can be heard on a number of ''60s hits, such as “She''s Not There” by The Zombies, “Summer in the City” by The Lovin'' Spoonful, and “I Am the Walrus” by The Beatles. Over the years, Hohner released several versions of the Pianet, including a Clavinet/Pianet duo. The Electric Keys samples appear to be from a Pianet model M, which had a wooden case and built-in speakers, reflected in the skin used by MOTU (humorously presented with a torn speaker grill; see Fig. A). You can find a model M at youtube.com/watch?v=RTDlNI87xy8, and for more on the instrument, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pianet. Electric Keys also has some even rarer electromechanical pianos, such as the Hohner Electra Piano and the Weltmeister Claviset.

COMBO MEAL

Electric Keys serves up a hearty helping of combo organs, including the well-known Vox and Farfisa and the not-so-known, ultragroovy Philips Philicorda. I had never heard of this cheesy little combo gem from Holland but was inspired by one of the Electric Keys Philicorda presets (1960 8+2 Vib Rev) to improvise a musical example (see Web Clip B).

The Philicorda has 49 keys, switches for various harmonic settings, vibrato, and a built‑in spring reverb. The 1960 model sampled for Electric Keys is apparently tube based, but later models are solid state. According to information at combo-organ.com/Philips/index.htm, one model was even available from J. C. Penny, and was called the Penncrest. You can find some pictures of the Philicorda at home.wtal.de/h1/phili.htm and see a couple of great videos at youtube.com/watch?v=w2b_VJ_NfA0 and youtube.com/watch?v=VRIND7WyHEM.

Another Electric Keys combo organ that caught my fancy bears the name ElkOrgan in the presets. Because of trademark considerations, Electric Keys presets must use generic names that only hint at the original instrument, but ElkOrgan is ostensibly based on some vintage organ made by the Italian company Elka (it is unclear which model exactly).

As I stepped through two of the presets and created the example in Web Clip C, I was at first in a kind of David Lynch–soundtrack mood. Then, with another preset, I was ready to break out my go-go boots.

STRING ME A MELODY

The String Machine bank covers nearly a dozen different instruments, including the Hohner/Logan String Melody—one of the better-sounding, if less-famous, analog string synths of the ''70s. It features 49 keys split into two regions, each with its own Attack and Decay envelope sliders. To the left are two sets of red and blue sliders labeled Cello, Viola, and Violin (all three are actually the same sound, but with each one up an octave in pitch), which are for mixing layers. The lower section can also have an analog bass sound, invoked by two yellow sliders labeled Perc and Bass, which together approximate a fairly decent upright-bass timbre. A later MK II model has a few push buttons for presets with names such as Orch., Acc., and Organ. See retrosound.de/The_Logan_String_Melody_2.htm for some great pictures and videos showing off the String Melody in action.

Electric Keys offers the following String Melody presets: Cello, Viola, Violin, Bass, Perc, Perc+Bass, and Orch. When used with available split, layering, envelope, and effects options, it''s possible to emulate a fair degree of the expressive range of the original instrument. And of course all this can be combined with all the other library instruments and effects to create entirely new sounds.

The examples given here just begin to scratch the surface of Electric Keys'' depth. This virtual instrument has dusted off many rare and exotic electric keyboard instruments and brought them back to life.