We all love vintage keyboards right? Softsynths are cheap and convenient, can sound tremendous but are curiously soulless. It’s very difficult to fall in love with them; maybe it’s because software is just another way to use our computers, that same machine we use to pay our gas bills. What every musician secretly wants is to walk into their studio, see a piece of hardware in the corner and think ‘yeah, that’s sexy and that’s mine!’.
But getting your hands on a classic analogue keyboard (that actually works) can be frighteningly difficult and terrifyingly expensive. In 2012, a Roland SH101 in good condition will cost you around £600; if you have your sights set higher (and a forgiving credit card) you may be considering a Jupiter 8. At a cost of £5000.
Maybe there’s another way. There were a whole raft of superb electronic instruments released in the mid 80s-early 90s that have been overlooked ever since. Here’s a quick guide to some of the best. And as a bonus they’re also relatively easy to find on eBay. All suggested prices are for examples in very good to perfect condition.
Widely derided as a toy synthesizer from a japanese manufacturer largely associated with calculators and watches, the CZ101 was actually a versatile musical instrument capable of making superb digital sounds with a peculiar analogue-sounding twist. Many describe it as having much in common with Yamaha’s DX range of FM synths but that’s not entirely fair. The phase distortion synthesis employed across the entire CZ range sounds more like a slightly cold analogue synthesis than its push button interface would suggest. Even the lowly CZ101, the bottom of Casio’s range has two digital oscillators per voice you can detune for a convincing thickening effect.
Great for: Organs, bells and bass. Has a unique sound unavailable elsewhere
Cons: Phase Distortion synthesis might take a little while to understand
Pay no more than £100
Classic Record: Erasure ‘Who needs love like that’ (almost every synth sound is a Casio CZ101)
Another synth that looks like a toy but sounds tremendous. The DX100 was Yamaha’s lowliest FM synthesiser and it shows; there’s no velocity or aftertouch from the keyboard, a single mono output and a huge power supply sticking out the back. But it’s actually the cheapness of the unit that gives it the USP: the convertors on this instrument are grungy and noisy and sound like nothing else! Put together a bouncy bass sound and you’ll get all the bottom end weight you’d expect from an FM synth plus crushing digital artifacts too. Ok, so this grunge isn’t what you’d expect to hear from a modern synth but it’s useful and distinctive. The DX100 is not one of the celebrated FM synths but with its rubberized push buttons, it’s actually quite tactile in use. Unfortunately you’ll still have to get your head around FM synthesis to achieve the most out of this beast but that’s nowhere near as difficult as many commentators would have you believe.
Great for: Grungy FM sounds, powerful hollow bass sounds
Cons: You have to learn FM synthesis and the required power supply is enormous by modern standards.
Pay no more than £120
Classic Record: Dubstar ‘Stars’ (plays bass line and mine lead synth sound)
Also worth considering is…
Although nowhere near as easy to program as the DX100 and as a rack mounted synth has no keyboard, the TX81Z sounds glorious. The grunginess of the DX100 is gone, replaced with an accurate silkiness and a variety of differing waveforms you can use within the FM synthesis. If you’re looking for a killer reason to splash some cash, it’s the famous ‘Lately Bass’ preset which is found on hundreds of house smash hits from the late 80s and early 90s.
Great for: Everything FM. Worth the money for the ‘Lately Bass’ preset alone
Cons: Rackmounted FM synth so tedious to edit
Pay no more than £100
Classic Record: Orbital ‘Chime’ (plays the main bass line)
Now we’re talking. The JX8P, together with its bigger sister the JX10P were Roland’s last attempts at analogue synthesis before releasing the more famous and celebrated ‘D’ series of synths (the Roland D50 is a classic in its own right). There are no knobs for twiddling, all the editing is achieved through an LED display and a single edit slider. But, once again, this shouldn’t be considered a major drawback for those of us used to moving a mouse pointer around the screen. The JX8P is actually very easy to program, and once you’ve spent a short period with it, you’ll find a world of analogue gorgeousness poring out. Its string sounds are peerless, bass sounds bust through a mix in a way software synths never do and it doesn’t stop there. Due to the fully mature architecture beyond the LEDs, you can coax all manner of pianos, bells and analogue bloops out of the JX8P. Plus, there is a physical programming interface available (PG800) that makes editing extremely simple.
Great for: That classic 80s analogue Roland sound. Nothing beats it for string sounds
Cons: No knobs for editing might put off many
Pay no more than £350
Classic Record: 808 State ‘Pacific State’ (main pad sound)
Vector synthesis, ring any bells? This apparently obscure style of sound making is actually a process that’s used in many of today’s softsynths mixing a selection of sound sources using envelope generators or other periodic modulators. Korg released this beast of a synth in 1991 and was hugely successful. In fact, many of its presets are still in use for nature programs and other such documentaries. If that’s put you off completely, there are other reasons to investigate this synth. Firstly, nothing sounds quite like it. It’s completely digital and relies on replaying samples from ROM for its sound sources. It has a filter but no resonance which is a bit of a disappointment. Still, if you want huge sounding strings, or just like the idea of pressing down one key and hearing a world of sequenced samples slipping out of an antique keyboard, the Wavestation could be for you. The SR is a rack version of the Wavestation but is a pain/close to impossible to edit. There are also EX and A/D versions that include an analogue input stage for mixing in your own external sounds. Amazing! Despite its almost impenetrable architecture all feature a huge amount of excellent and unique presets so are definitely worth investigating.
Great for: Pads and evolving sounds
Cons: Difficult to edit and not great at much else
Pay no more than £300 for a Wavestation or EX and £150 for a Wavestation SR or A/D
Classic Record: The X Files theme (almost everything!). And the ‘bong’ sound heard whenever you boot up an Apple Mac was played on one!
Words by Steve Hillier. Steve is a writer and record producer and with more than a dozen hits under his belt. An Apple Logic genius, when he isn’t producing and performing, Steve can often be found teaching the music business and songwriting courses at Point Blank.