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Collecting Keys: The Value of Vintage Instruments

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Excerpt from the book Classic Keys: Keyboard sounds that launched rock music. Authors Alan S. Lenhoff and David E. Robertson

As the saying goes, if you have more than three of something, you are a collector—or, heaven forbid, a hoarder. Why would anyone want a room full of second-hand keyboards? Why would anyone want the hassles of keeping them working or the hardship of getting them to and from gigs? Well, the simple answer is the sound. But for many collectors there’s a lot more.

The fundamental attraction of vintage keyboards is the authenticity and character of the sound. Have you ever tried to play a violin sound on your modern digital keyboard, or a piano patch from a MIDI-enabled guitar? The sound is recognizable, but it’s not right. There are aspects of the sound that work, but there are plenty that don’t—and can’t—because the playing method is wrong. Holding down a key is not the same as a bow moving back and forth across a string. Playing a key that simply closes a switch is not the same as providing the force to propel a piano hammer into a tensioned steel string. Nor does the sample being triggered by the keyboard or guitar contain all the variations and quirks of the original instrument, and it often lacks the mechanical or electrical interactions that occurred between notes in the original.

Contemporary digital keyboards, with their huge libraries of instrument sounds, have reached a stage of development in which their emulation of all manner of instruments is remarkable. Used in a band, or included in the mix of a recording, the illusion of the real instrument is more than sufficient for most purposes. Even where the sound has obvious shortcomings, it can still be a useful sound for many. The Mellotron’s tape-recorded approximations of instrument sounds produced a unique sonic flavor that created its own place in recorded music. Similarly, digital emulations, with their shortcomings, produce recognizable sounds that have become identified with an era or genre of music.

It’s ironic that electro-mechanical keyboards, developed to mimic the acoustic piano, should now be presenting equivalent challenges to keyboard instrument makers trying to emulate their nuances in digital-age equipment. In the more than thirty-five years since the demise of most electro-mechanical keyboards, the effort put into sampling and mimicking the instruments shown in this book has become a large industry in itself: It is a clear acknowledgment of the value attributed to the sounds of the originals and the desire to include them in contemporary composition. 

Most people, and even most musicians, don’t have a need for the original instruments, and keyboard makers and providers of samples and patches will continue to evolve their emulations until almost no audible aspect of the original is missing. But they still won’t play like the original or give the same playing satisfaction. For many musicians, the inspiration comes through the physical connection with the past, by interacting with the genuine equipment of the era. The desire for this historic connection is not new. Ensembles performing period music often go to great lengths to acquire aged violins and obsolete stringed instruments, horns, harpsichords, and other gear that will bestow authenticity on their performance.

With keyboards, the keys themselves are an obvious feature that affects playing experience (and sound). We’ve included many photos of the different key shapes, lengths, construction, and return mechanisms. The feel of a compact, escapement-style piano mechanism with wooden keys rocking over a wooden pivot rest (Wurlitzer 200A) is completely different from the light springy action of plastics-molded keys mounted on a metal pivot blade and returned to rest by a spring (Clavinet D6). Contemporary digital keyboards try to mimic either the feel of a real acoustic piano action or the spring-loaded keys of an electrically switched organ. You choose a keyboard based on your playing preference for piano-like or organ-like feel, and based on price: mechanisms that emulate the feel of a real piano are generally heavier, more complex, and more expensive than electronic organ-like actions. The result of this choice is that many keyboard patches will then be played with the wrong key type—for example a grand piano patch played on springy organ-style keys without the resistance and weight of a grand piano action.

But it goes further than this. The way in which the original instrument struck, plucked, held, or switched the note, and the point in the stroke of the key where that occurred, all impact the playing style and resulting sound. The challenges for instrument developers making digital emulations are obvious. So, apart from the authentic sound, the playing experience is a significant drawcard, especially for those who were too young to play them when they were new. That playing experience provides an emotional connection to the iconic music of the era. For example, experiencing the sluggish wooden action of an early UK-built Vox Continental is a big part of feeling an affinity for the music of The Animals.

The interdependency of keyboard mechanics, playing style, and musical composition is well documented and extends back to the earliest cumbersome levers that operated the first organs. Playing techniques, such as rapid note repetitions and arpeggiation on harpsichords, were developed to compensate for the lack of sustain and the unvarying note-volume. An even touch and precise timing were imperative where there was little reverberation to mask inaccuracy, and delicate detailed music was written to give voice to these properties. The harpsichord-like voice of the RMI Electra-piano and the evenness of note volume produced by the lack of touch-sensitivity produced a similar response in the music of bands such as Genesis.

Professional musicians often comment that their music develops, and is taken in new directions, when they add a new instrument to their collection. The character of that instrument, its voice, and the sort of sounds it makes, can ignite a new round of musical invention for the player. At the very least, vintage keyboard collectors find themselves drawn to the music associated with that keyboard, expanding their repertoire and playing skills as their keyboard collection grows. It doesn’t matter that these keyboards were new some decades ago. If they’re new to you now, they’ll have the same effect on your musical development as they would have had for a buyer when they were first produced. 

For many lovers of vintage keyboards, playing them is only one part of the attraction. Vintage keyboard hobbyists fall into a number of camps, and professional performing musicians are the smallest group. At the moment, a significant group is made up of people re-visiting their teen years as amateur musicians and lovers of popular music of the 1960s and ’70s. These Baby Boomers enjoy recreating the music of their formative years, and the ability to gather the instruments that were, for many, unaffordable in their youth. It’s a mix of nostalgia and an homage to a remarkable period of exploration and expansion in popular music. For many in this group, owning a few instruments and playing them in the condition in which they find them is sufficient.

Vintage Instruments

Although it’s getting rarer, it is still possible for a keyboard collector to come across an instrument that has been sitting in a shop storeroom or someone’s closet since the ’60s or ’70s. There will be a continuing flurry of these finds as the Baby Boomers move to retirement homes or their children clear out attics and basements. The thrill of finding a fifty-year-old instrument in new, or near new, condition is a high point for a collector. Such a find does not guarantee that the instrument will be immediately playable or sound as it would when new. The aging of electronic components, seals, bushings, plastics parts, and other perishables means that even well-preserved examples are likely to need special care to bring them to life. For example, some components, such as the tantalum capacitors used in Italian organs of the early ’80s and the urethane foam in the plucking pads of Hohner Pianets, will have decayed even though they were never used, or not used for decades.

Some hobbyists take the collecting aspect considerably further and end up with what are effectively small (or not so small) private museums. Among them is the Eboardmuseum in Austria, one of the world’s largest collections of electronic keyboard instruments, founded by Gert Prix, a mathematics and music teacher, and a musician. While some private collections are accessible only over the Internet, the Eboardmuseum invites visitors to play, test, photograph, and sample instruments. Private collections have always been an important part of cultural preservation, filling in gaps that public collections don’t have the resources to conserve, and protecting examples of artefacts from casual destruction during the years when they are considered to be obsolete junk. Private collections are like time machines, transporting keyboards into a future where the need for their preservation may seem more imperative. Online auctions have played a positive part in this preservation. It is much easier to find the next person to care for an artefact than it used to be.

These people are perhaps the most committed collectors, and their interest may far exceed buying the keyboard itself. For some, it is important to own all the original accessories. Many vintage keyboards have unique legs or stands that often became lost in the intervening decades. They may also have pedals, music stands, covers, and transport cases which were easily misplaced, or deliberately discarded by the original owner for being uncool or unnecessary (the fate of many music stands) for a working musician. Finding all these bits can become a lengthy quest and a way of extending the hobby and increasing its complexity and satisfaction. A further extension is hunting down the manuals, schematics, advertising materials, and marketing items, such as demonstration records. A patient collector may wait years for a particular item to show up or, more proactively, to convince a seller to part with just the bit they want. Service manuals can be particularly important to a vintage keys collector. Without them it is much more difficult to carry out electronic repairs or get an electronics technician to assist with troubleshooting. Fortunately, the various forums and online vintage keys businesses make many of the schematics and manuals for the more common instruments available free or at a modest cost.

There is a limit to what most private collections choose to preserve. Most will favor the better-known and more popular instruments, leaving the majority of keyboards to disappear with time. Sentimental collectors find this sad, but the reality that private (and public) collections have faced in the last 250 years of the industrial age is that manufacturing production output is simply too prolific to keep pace with. Some preservation of some representative keyboards has to be sufficient.

Vintage Instruments #2

Another keyboard hobby group is made up of keen restorers and refurbishers of vintage gear. While they may enjoy playing the result of their restoration work, a significant part of their pleasure is in the process of restoration: bringing an aged instrument back to playable condition, or even original condition. Vintage stage keyboards from the ’60s and ’70s are excellent candidates for this activity. Many use materials and construction techniques that are suitable for home workshop restoration and in many models, the electronics from the early transistor era can be repaired with parts available from hobby electronics stores and through online auction sites and shops. As electronics development progressed through the 1970s, keyboard instruments started to include early integrated circuits (ICs) and the range of features and electronic complexity increased. These instruments are not as easy to work on, and require considerably greater electronics knowledge to track down faults and perform repairs. Fortunately, there are niche businesses in many larger cities in the United States, Europe, Australia, and other countries that specialize in the repair of vintage instruments. And even electronics repairers who support the contemporary music industry can often find ways to resolve vintage electronics problems, even though original replacement parts may not be available. 

To restore, or conserve an instrument as found, is a contentious dilemma for keyboard collectors—just as it is for professional curators of public collections. Historic objects arrive in public collections, often with many repairs and alterations made in their own era, or in the intervening years. Some of these repairs and alterations tell their own story. An example of this is the conversion of many harpsichords and clavichords to pianos in the 1700s when the pianoforte was the must-have new thing. These historically relevant modifications are usually left in place. But the professional curator is frequently more constrained than the private collector, and may be obliged to leave an instrument in an unplayable state, rather than damage its historical integrity.

The final collecting group is made up of young aspiring musicians, often looking for a point of difference for their bands, either as a reference to a particular music genre, a rejection of the mainstream musical direction, or perhaps just a memorable stage prop for their act. There’s no doubt that the size and style of many vintage instruments can deliver a noticeable contrast to most contemporary keyboards. This collecting group is rarely in a position to afford the more sought-after instruments, or pay for complex repairs and refurbishment, and part of the attraction can be the shabby disdain of slick modern electronics. (However, many quickly learn to keep some slick modern back-up gear in the car—just in case.)

Some musicians opt to straddle both worlds, and hide a contemporary keyboard inside a vintage shell. Some go to the trouble of loading this digital keyboard with samples from their own vintage instruments. You can do-it-yourself with an actual vintage keyboard case, or buy a replica shell from a few businesses that cater to this trend. This can be a realistic way of insuring that your irreplaceable original is not subjected to the rigors of gigging in its old age.

Published with permission from North Texas Press; ©2019 by Alan S. Lenoff and David E. Robertson. For more information on the book Classic Keys, visit http://www.classickeysbook.com or https://untpress.unt.edu/node/3859. To order your own copy, visit https://www.amazon.com/dp/1574417762.

You can read Synth and Software’s review of Classic Keys HERE.

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