Rhodes Mark 7

January 24, 2010
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One word: Finally! Rhodes is making and selling brand new versions of the electric piano that changed music forever. How does the new Rhodes stack up to vintage units? What’s been changed inside, and is this for better or worse? And with many of today’s digital keyboards doing excellent Rhodes emulations, can the Mark 7 compete? We know you’ve been asking these questions — so have we. To get answers, we put the Mark 7 through its paces. I took a Standard model to several gigs and recording sessions, and execu-ed Stephen Fortner tested Active and MIDI versions at Keyboard and Rhodes headquarters.

Click here for our archive of making-of videos from our Summer 2009 Rhodes factory visit.

Click here for new videos of Rhodes Artist Day featuring John Novello, David Benoit, Milcho Leviev, and John Beasley, plus a "How to Voice Your Rhodes" tutorial.

0210 Rhodes MAINHANDS-ON

Click image at left for larger annotated version.

1. A durable fiberglass shell replaces the old tolex-covered plywood, and is flat enough to park a large synth on.

2. Hinges are very sturdy and hold the top firmly open for servicing.

3. Wooden structural parts are either rock maple or Baltic birch, depending on the part. No particle board allowed!

4. Did the new Rhodes company get the recipe for the tines right? We say yes — and then some.

5. Move any pickup closer to or farther from its tine, affecting the note’s volume, by loosening this screw.

6. Adjust this screw to brighten or deaden a note’s tone by changing the on-axis relation of tine to pickup.

7. Keys are faux ivory over real wood and have a great texture.

8. Three-band EQ and stereo panning tremolo are on Active models.

9. Stereo tremolo on Active model comes through headphone jack as well as the 1/4" and balanced XLR outs.

10. Active model’s effects send takes passive mono signal right off the harp, then returns it to the preamp.

 

 

PROS

Brings back and improves on the electro-mechanical guts of the vintage Rhodes. Superior action and timbral response to velocity. Even Standard model puts out hotter, clearer sound than its vintage counterparts, and Active preamp ups the sound-sculpting. Polyphonic aftertouch on MIDI model.

CONS

Though it’s lighter than a vintage Rhodes, moving it to gigs is still a commitment. A real instrument with this many moving parts is inevitably pricier than a modern digital synth or stage piano.

INFO

 


73 keys
88 keys
 Standard$2,999 $3,799
 Active$3,799
$4,599
 Active with MIDI
$4,599
$5,499
 Speaker Platform
$1,999
$2,199

 All prices are approx. street, rhodespiano.com

 

NEED TO KNOW

Is it a real Rhodes? Yes. The Mark 7 is based on the vintage Mark V and is a genuine electro-mechanical piano, built from scratch.

So all the parts are new? Yes. Everything. We’ve been to the factory and held the components in our hands.

Feel compared to vintage Rhodes: A bit crisper than the crispest, most responsive Mark II or Mark V you’ve ever played. None of the spongy feel of the Mark I.

Sound compared to vintage Rhodes: Out of the box, it’s on the bright, tine-forward side, but you can voice it to the darker timbre of Stage Mark II models.

Will Rhodes make parts for my vintage piano? Yes and no. Some new parts such as hammers don’t fit the Mark I or II, but tines and pickups do, and will be available soon.

Is it worth the bucks? Rhodes emulations are better than ever. . . . So are grand piano emulations, but you’d get a Steinway if you could, right? The Mark 7 is far more attainable and portable — and way better than any sample or plug-in.

The first question everyone asks is: Is it real? Not only is it real, but it’s received an upgrade and a facelift, bringing its reliability, consistency, and look into the 21st century. Like its predecessors and unlike any digital emulation, sound is created by wooden keys moving hammers that hit tines. Each tine (except for the bottom seven notes on 88-key models) sticks out from its own “generator,” a metal tonebar that adds body to the tone — think of tine and tonebar as forming a lopsided tuning fork. The tines face individual pickups that relay their vibrations through either a passive 1/4" output or a built-in active stereo preamp, depending on the model.

MODELS

The Mark 7 comes in Standard, Active, and Active-with-MIDI models. Like an old Stage, the Standard is passive — you get a 1/4" mono output, a volume knob, and a bass “boost” that, like on vintage models, actually rolls off the bass from 100Hz down. The impedance of the Standard’s output is more like an electric guitar than the line-level output on a synth, so you’ll get the best results by running it into an guitar or “instrument” input on your amp or audio interface.

In vintage terms, the Active is like the Suitcase. It includes a preamp with EQ and auto-panning tremolo, and got plenty loud in our tests. Through a Mackie mixer and Genelec studio monitors, it outdid every stock Suitcase we tried for clarity and clean volume before unwanted breakup.

An effects send puts out a passive signal from the harp, assuming (logically) that you’ll run through stompboxes that expect to see guitar-like signal. Unlike vintage Suitcases, the stereo speaker platform isn’t included; it’s an add-on that works with Standard and Active models. We cover the MIDI model in its own section later in this review.

Powered stereo speaker platforms (an option for all models) build in the sustain pedal like vintage Suitcase amps did. Stereo inputs have enough gain for Standard or Active models, sizes fit flush under 88, 73, and (soon) 61-key units, and wheels on either side rotate locking hooks into the underside of the piano. Our Active/platform combo at Keyboard central had more than enough loud, clean volume to drown out our officemates from Guitar Player magazine!

CONSTRUCTION

Most of us are used to our vintage pianos looking, well, vintage, with innards of varying condition and a mix of original and replacement parts. How refreshing to lift the top and see shining tonebars and tines, pristine wood, and a factory-fresh evenness to everything! Contrary to some nasty rumors, none of the parts are leftovers; they’re all newly made, with a consistency that, in our opinion, surpasses the vintage models. This is not a hastily cobbled together instrument, but a solid workhorse built to play and last.

The heart of the Rhodes sound is the tine. For many years, Rhodes enthusiasts either had private and dwindling stashes, or missing notes. Breaking a tine felt like losing a tooth, and often, players held back on their dynamics to avoid this.

The new Rhodes company is understandably tight-lipped about their tine-making process, but insists that no aftermarket tine was ever made correctly. While we haven’t tested this claim scientifically, we can report that these new tines not only sound great, but seem to have less wobble than even the originals, especially in the lower register. We played the Mark 7 hard, digging in to the keys when the music called for it, and not a single tine overshot its mark or produced a dud note. Dynamics are helped by the hammer throw being longer than on a Mark I or II, but a bit shorter than the Mark V, which was incredibly responsive at the cost of a propensity for breaking tines if you went too crazy on it.

IN USE

I bought my first Rhodes as a teenager and now own seven. Since 1996, I’ve fronted the funk band Rudy on real Rhodes, Clavinet, and Minimoog, recording two studio albums and playing hundreds of gigs. For recording the third Rudy album, I ran a Mark 7 Standard through a Fender Tone-Master head and custom Groovedog 15" speaker cabinet. Switching amps makes a difference in the sound, of course, but the importance of voicing the Rhodes itself (see “Voicing” below) cannot be understated.

I also played my well-maintained Mark II Suitcase through the same amp head and cabinet. The Mark II had a noticeably lower output than the Mark 7 Standard and seemed mushy by comparison, though that could have been due in part to its voicing. The Mark 7 played more brightly, with more clarity in the low end. We cranked up the Tone-Master, added delay and phaser pedals, and got deeply funky. The Mark 7 held up beautifully and as I got used to the feel, the music came easy.

After the studio sessions, we had two live shows and though I had one of my older 73s in tow, we decided to use the Mark 7 with my Tone-Master rig. From phaser-pedal, baby-making ballads to sweaty gutbucket funk, I never once wanted for sound. Plus, it was great to be playing a new instrument. The consistency of the sound, coupled with not having any tine issues or uneven pickups, made the gig easy.

In the end, the Mark 7 held up to all the recording and gigging with flying colors. It surpassed all expectations of reliability, tone, responsiveness, and playing enjoyment. It jams!

VOICING

Out of the box, the Mark 7 sounded even, crisp and tines-forward. It was lovely, but for the Rudy sessions, I wanted a more “brown” sound — less bell and more of the body of the tone bars — so I set about voicing the piano. You’d likely have to do this with any older Rhodes as well; your preferred tone might come right out of the box, but it might not. Voicing is based on two factors: the distance from the tine’s tip to its pickup, and the angle of the tine relative to the pickup. We show you exactly how to do this in video number 10 from this playlist.

Voicing the Mark 7 felt much like voicing a vintage model, minus the musty smell and loose parts! To access the tines, you remove a screw from underneath either end cheek. The entire top then flips up on sturdy, plated hinges. Once in, I was able to dial in my sound and get to recording. During the sessions, I found myself lifting the lid and tweaking certain notes fairly often and wound up leaving the lid unscrewed for accessibility. This was for recording; live, I barely tweaked it at all. Future models would be well served by easier access to the guts on the fly — perhaps thumb-able wingnuts instead of screws to hold the lid on, or a separate flip-up panel on top.

MIDI

0210 Rhodes MIDI ControlsThe Active MIDI Mark 7 adds pitch and modulation wheels on the left, and a separate control area on the right (click photo at left). It uses optical sensors, and in our tests with a Muse Receptor, Waldorf Blofeld, and MacBook Pro running MainStage, the note and velocity response was excellent. The vaunted polyphonic aftertouch works well on synths that receive it — we brightened up the filter or added vibrato on some notes while leaving others unaffected. Especially cool is that the Rhodes’ sustain pedal also triggers MIDI sustain, and can even send continuous data for half-pedaling. You get USB for connecting to a computer, and though there’s a MIDI input (as well as out and thru ports), the Rhodes itself is mechanical, so don’t expect to play it from a sequencer.

Four zones can overlap (or not) for splits and layers, and the only clunky thing is that you have to use the data knob to set key ranges — you can’t simply strike low and high keys on the keyboard. Nor can you sync the Rhodes tremolo to MIDI tempo, though this is on the table for a future upgrade. But we nitpick. Playing your other sounds, especially grand pianos such as Synthogy Ivory, from the Mark 7’s wooden keys is as luxurious an experience as we’ve come across.

CONCLUSIONS

In the studio and onstage, the new Rhodes pianos held up beautifully, and for real-world gigging and recording, didn’t make us miss our vintage models at all. Really, the only fair new/vintage comparison would be to a full restoration from a top tech shop, as the Mark 7 blows away anything less. By analogy, compare a ’65 Mustang in car-show condition to a 2010 Mustang GT — while the classic has street cred that will never be outdone, the new model has plenty of muscle but a bit more finesse, its style is updated but recognizably retro, and you feel better about driving it every day. Add the purchase price of a used Rhodes to the parts and labor it needs, and in many cases, you’ll come out ahead by going new. Also, a Mark 7 is lighter than a vintage model of the same size. That said, some people do have the resources and the desire to make a tricked-out classic their “everyday car,” and the world is big enough for the hot rod experts that serve them and the new Rhodes assembly line alike. Dig?

As for electric piano plug-ins, sample libraries, or synth patches, we can only say that as much as we’ve praised many of them, the tone and finger-to-music connection of the real thing is a whole different world. Our final verdict: The Rhodes is back, better than ever, and a major accomplishment that deserves our Key Buy award.

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