Mark Jenkins with a blast-from-the-past keyboard that looks very much to the future
A few months back, just before the new Oberheim synth appeared, we featured a retrospective on the Viscount Oberheim OB12 – one of several instruments created long ago in a joint venture with the Italian design company. But while that joint venture didn’t last, Viscount carried on, maintaining a name largely in up-market digital church organs.
The company has always had some more rock’n’roll products, so I was pleased to hear from the UK outlet with an offer to have a look at their recently released Legend ’70s Compact.
This is something quite striking – a “classic keyboards” imitator like the Nord Stage and Korg SV2, but with cunning design features and a modular approach to the sounds it can create. Yes, the Legend is modularised, almost like a Eurorack system – but don’t try to plug any of your Eurorack modules into it.
The Legend ’70s comes in two sizes, with 76 or 88 keys, or 88 wood keys, accommodating three or four expansion modules respectively. A base keyboard has a reasonable range of sounds, while the available add-on modules at the moment are Electric Piano, Sound Collection, Acoustic Piano, Clavinet, Virtual Analog Synth, and External Controller.
Move and swap modules as you wish – just unscrew a holding strip and the module is connected by an easily removed Eurorack-like multi-cable (again, NOT Eurorack – though looking similar). This is easy to do, as pictured – even a screwdriver is supplied with each module.
While these modules when in position are rakishly sloped backward, the top of the instrument itself is dead flat, begging the addition of another synthesizer or a laptop and a mixer – or your tip jar, business cards, and CDs for sale.
This is a great advantage over the classic Fender Rhodes design featuring a curved top. In other respects the instrument does look rather Rhodes-like, so the temptation to stack something on top of it may be irresistible.
This becomes easier if you don’t use the supplied music rest. Also supplied with the Legend is a power cable (no fiddly external power supply here) and a sustain pedal.
The rear panel has sockets for more foot switches programmable to various functions. It also has MIDI In and Out, USB, and a memory stick socket for dumping patches and uploading new firmware, multiple audio outputs, plus Audio In for channeling other instruments. A headphone socket is on the front.
Choose your modules. All Legend models come with a Main module installed. This controls volume, 3-band EQ, two Effects including highly variable reverb, flanging, tremolo, phaser, and so on (with tap Tempo, modulation speed control, etc.).
There’s an overall memory setup for which there’s a small and bright OLED display. This section also offers Transpose, and a Song Mode that will allow you to arrange and save your patches in sets.
Usually you’ll also find the Electric Piano and Sound Collection modules pre-fitted, but check exactly what you’re buying and how much it may cost you to swap blanking panels for additional modules.
The Electric Piano module is great, featuring Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and Yamaha Electric Grand imitations, with all the tremolo and other effects options you may need. How these sounds are created is anyone’s guess; the Viscount designs include both digital physical modelling and sound sampling technology.
The Sound Collection module runs from a Categories selector like many Korg instruments. Brass, Choir, String, Keys, Organ, and other categories can be chosen and used split or layered with other sounds if required.
There are some synth pad sounds too, and on the whole the module acts like you have a General MIDI set to hand, but with higher quality sounds than usual.
Many players will want to know specifically what the organ sounds are like. They’re excellent, with convincing percussion, Leslie, and other effects (change rotor speed with footswitches). However, the keyboard is heavy and not a waterfall design, so it’s better at piano action than for some organ techniques.
More modules. The Clavinet module is equally good with many tone controls, selections of virtual “pickup,” split/layer and access to the two effects sections, with the only oddity being that the pitch bend wheel doesn’t affect it. Those who’ve played a Castlebar or Whammyclav may be disappointed…
Although the Legend has some built-in piano sounds, the A. Piano module is superior. It offers multiple instruments, again split and layering, and fast access to dynamics level and tone.
In fact, a lot of the Legend design is about fast access. Compared to some workstation synths where simple adjustments to effects level or other parameters can be several menu layers deep, the Legend has a front panel knob for almost everything you want to change quickly.
The External module doesn’t offer anything that isn’t available with a little setting up. But if you’re routing other instruments through the Legend very regularly and want to control their volume per patch and so on, it may be an option you want.
Finally, the Synth 8 module is a dual-oscillator virtual analog synth. This has some great sounds with heavy basses, thick string pads, and much more. There are even sounds harking back to Viscount’s relations with Oberheim.
With seven rows of parameter options assignable to each of four control rotaries, it’s pretty quick to get at filter cutoff (which is not audibly steppy) and resonance, attack/decay, Poly and Unison modes, and arpeggiator options. There’s also a step sequencer built in.
The 128 factory sounds have a good stab at stabs (as you’d expect), strings, Minimoog-like lead synths, smooth pads, and everything else you’d wish for from a basic analog polysynth. But you can stretch that a little too. Within a minute or two I was creating big, metallic PPG-like clangs, ring modulated special effects sounds, and much more.
Depending on what sort of music you’re making, you may want this module rather than the Clavinet or the External module. At £134.00 in the UK, the Synth-8 module gives you a good indication of what it will cost to get the additional modules you want in your Viscount setup, while in the future others may appear.
While many parameters of these modules can be edited and saved away, Viscount does offer a software package running on Mac or PC for deep diving into the instrument parameters.
The price to pay. Obviously the price you have to pay for this style of design, including the piano action keys, includes weight and size. Even the Compact version looks like a Rhodes and can only just be picked up by one person.
If you flightcase it, it will be extremely heavy. A soft bag, padded and with wheels, would just about do the trick, but it would have to be among the largest sizes available. Viscount dealers may be able to offer the actual models of soft bag offered by the company.
Store prices seem very reasonable compared to competing models offered by Korg, Nord, Yamaha, and others. At £1,579 in the UK, the Compact is around the same price as the Korg SV2S-73 and cheaper than Yamaha’s CP73 – which you could never stack anything on top of due to its flat control panel design.
Some detailed price and weight statistics are below, but there’s no substitute for hearing an instrument in action, and Viscount offers a great video demo here.
If you haven’t heard Viscount instruments recently, you owe it to yourself to check these out – with many years of experience, the company knows what it’s doing, and you may find its striking designs offering just what you need on stage or in the studio.
Prices and weights:
Legend ’70s Artist W (88 wood keys, 19.5kg, 42.9lbs)
£2,055 (UK) $3,560 (Kraft Music, USA)
Legend ’70s Artist (88 keys, 18.8kg, 41.4lbs)
£1,666 (UK) $3,399 (Kraft Music, USA)
Legend Compact (73 keys, 16.2kg, 35.7lbs)
£1,499-1,579 (UK) $2,640 (Kraft Music, USA)