40 Years of Game-Changing Keyboards - KeyboardMag

40 Years of Game-Changing Keyboards

22 keyboards that shook up our sounds
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If you’ve read Keyboard for any length of time, you probably still read it like you and I did when we first discovered it. We resolved to put it on our music stand and tackle all the musical concepts and notation examples before the next issue arrived . . . and then sat back and went straight for the gear coverage. Keyboard always has and always will explain the latest developments in electronic instruments, but—as our reprints of inaugural columns by Chick Corea and Bob Moog established right at the beginning—always in the context of serving the music.

Therefore, we present 22 keyboards that stand out for elevating musicians’ expectations about how the technology of the day could aid their creativity and take their work in new directions. For space reasons, we’ve limited ourselves to keyboards that make their own sounds, ignoring many important developments in areas such as drum machines, MIDI controllers, and software.

We also wanted to focus on gear that’s been around since we have, this being a 40th anniversary issue and all. So we’ve omitted some obvious staples that significantly predated us, such as the Hammond B-3 organ, the Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, and early modular synths. With lists like this and anything less than Vogue’s page count, worthy contenders will inevitably be left off, which is why it’s fortunate that thanks to our online forum and social media, this article can be the beginning of a conversation, not the end.

Now, on to the gear!

R.A. MOOG, INC. MINIMOOG

1970: Enter the first truly modern, gig-friendly synth. You could dial in a musical sound immediately without patch cables, and it was small enough to sit atop your Rhodes or B-3 at the gig and in your front passenger seat on the way there. It also established the signal path that most synths follow to this day in one form or another: oscillators mixed into a filter, with envelope generators (“contours” on the Minimoog) modulating the amp and filter cutoff. Yes, it launched five years before we did, but we’ll make an exception here. Fun fact: Our October 2010 issue was devoted to its 40th anniversary.

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OBERHEIM SEM SYNTHS

1975: The transformation of synth-produced music from 1975 to 1979—Joe Zawinul, Lyle Mays, Gary Wright, Herbie Hancock, and many others— benefitted hugely from the 2-Voice, 4-Voice, and 8-Voice, which integrated multiple Oberheim SEMs and gave the player not just polyphony, but an independently adjustable synth engine for each note. This affected the transition from synths used mainly as solo instruments to synths that could sound like orchestra sections. And it didn’t hurt that the sound was unsurpassed— with the possible exception of the Yamaha CS-80.

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SEQUENTIAL CIRCUITS PROPHET-5

1977: The Prophet was the first self-contained, commercially available synth to offer both polyphony and patch memory. With five voices, a player could play full one-handed chords, or left-hand bass with enough notes up top to be truly musical. Forty memory slots (later expanded to 120) let players change sounds immediately without turning knobs—a boon for live performance in a band. It didn’t do splits or layers (the behemoth Prophet-10 solved that with a second manual), which brings us to . . .

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FAIRLIGHT CMI

1979: Made all the way through 1992 in steadily improving iterations, the Fairlight’s milestone was that it was the first commercially available keyboard instrument to make use of now-ubiquitous PCM sampling. This let musicians play acoustic instrument sounds with an unprecedented level of realism, as the sounds were in fact digital recordings of the real thing. (There was conceptual precedent in the form of the tape-based Mellotron.) The Fairlight remained a very high-end machine throughout its life, with full-spec systems stretching into six figures. The “Page R” mode added multi-track sequencing—making the Fairlight the first bona fide keyboard workstation as well.

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KORG CX-3

1980: The sound of the Hammond B-3 organ through a Leslie rotary speaker is so challenging to duplicate that we still have product shootouts about it. Though not the first “clonewheel organ,” Korg’s original CX-3 (and its dual-manual sibling the BX-3) was the most refined for its time and ubiquitous in professional multi-keyboard rigs. The Leslie simulation was weak, but it was a lot more practical to carry just a real Leslie than a B-3 and a Leslie.

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ROLAND JUPITER-8

1981: Now one of the most sought-after vintage polysynths on the used market, the Jupiter-8’s big “first” was that you could play different sounds with your left and right hands, or layer two sounds together such as a bell and a pad. The addition of a highpass filter contributed to its signature sound, as did the arpeggiator. Fun fact: Throughout most of the ’80s, split/layer capability remained the purview of pro synths around the $5,000 price point.

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PPG WAVE

1981: Setting the template for the “wavetable” synthesis that the Korg Wavestation would bring to the masses in 1990, the PPG wowed us with the possibilities of digital synthesis. It could take a list (or table) of single-cycle digital waveforms, each of which could have a very different harmonic profile than the last, and step through them rhythmically. This resulted in sparkling, evolving, moving sounds you couldn’t get simply by applying modulation in a simple subtractive context. Along with the Fairlight, it was a favorite of Thomas Dolby.

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AFFORDABLE ANALOG POLYSYNTHS

1981 – 1984: Especially in early-’80s dollars, a Prophet-5, Oberheim OB-Xa, or Roland Jupiter- 8 just wasn’t going to happen for most keyboardists in local bands. The industry saw an opportunity, and responded with machines at roughly the $2,000 level such as the Korg Polysix (shown) and Roland Juno series. Typical corners cut: One oscillator instead of two (the Sequential Prophet-600, which is in this category, had two), six voices instead of eight, no splits or layers, and in some cases DCOs instead of VCOs (e.g., Korg Poly-61). All these machines let players add a real synthesizer to their rig, get the sounds that were popular, and get gigs.

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E-MU EMULATOR

1981: Though 1984’s Emulator II was far more ubiquitous (and a better instrument), it’s the first version that gets the nod here. Why? Because it brought digital sampling to the “affordable” level of $8,000. Many professional touring keyboardists, universities, and studios that could never approach a Fairlight could buy an Emulator.

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MIDI

1983: At NAMM 1983, a Sequential Prophet-600 and Roland Jupiter-6 were set up on a keyboard stand, and minds blew wide when playing notes on one synth triggered notes on the other. Such was the debut of the digital language by which any electronic instrument communicates with any other. Co-developed by Dave Smith and Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, it was also a business milestone, representing an unprecedented (and as yet unrepeated) level of cooperation between competitors. Now, we take it for granted as the foundation of all we do. ’Nuff said.

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YAMAHA DX7

1983: One of the biggest game-changers of all time and the second best-selling synth ever next to the Korg M1, the DX7 applied principles of frequency modulation (FM) developed by Professor John Chowning of Stanford University. FM let a savvy programmer build complex harmonic spectra that were impossible to achieve using subtractive analog synthesis. The musical benefits? Far more articulate electric pianos, mallets, and horns, to name a few. Yamaha made many DX series synths, both upmarket and down, but the DX7’s combination of power and $1,995 list price hit the sweet spot: With this and an affordable analog poly on your stand, you could cover more sonic ground than with a single synths from the $5,000 pro stratosphere. In fact, editor Stephen Fortner’s first gig rig consisted of a DX7 and Korg Poly-800.

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KURZWEIL K250

1984: The legend goes that Stevie Wonder owned a Kurzweil Reading Machine, which scanned books placed on its copier-like surface and read them aloud. He suggested the idea of making a musical instrument to Ray Kurzweil, and sometime later the K250, a 12-bit sampling workstation with musically useful synth-like functions and sophisticated editing, was born. The legend is true. Notably, the K250 was celebrated for its piano sound, with marketing demos featuring blind listening tests of a K250 and grand piano in the same hall.

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ENSONIQ MIRAGE

1984: Continuing the arc of digital sampling becoming ever more affordable, the Mirage stored samples on 3.5" floppy disks and loaded just one sample set at a time into its 8-bit, 32kHz, decidedly lo-fi playback engine. It had only eight voices of polyphony. But when for $1,699, you could play recognizable pianos and marcato strings, not to mention give the Max Headroom stutter treatment to James Brown saying “Hah,” everybody wanted one, and retail salespeople began to wonder whether transferring to the drum department would really be all that bad.

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NEW ENGLAND DIGITAL SYNCLAVIER

1984: Though the first Synclavier was developed as early as 1977 and the model II in 1980, it was the third generation, featuring the ebony-paneled, weighted VPK keyboard, that firmly established the Synclav as the most desirable unattainable keyboard in the world. Integrating features like true additive synthesis, sampling, FM, multi-track sequencing sheet music editing and printing, re-synthesis, detailed waveform editing, and even hard-disk audio recording, prices for well-appointed systems could make a Fairlight look downright economical. It was billed as the “complete tapeless recording studio,” which was accurate. Even today, some composers keep their aging systems running and insist the Synclavier has a sound nothing else does.

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CASIO CZ-101

1985: The CZ series represented Casio’s take on digital sound-sculpting, employing a method they called “Phase Distortion.” This was similar to FM, but with additional options for modulator waveforms and other functionality that in many cases made it easier to program musical sounds more quickly. The CZ’s synthesis method was employed in higher-end instruments—the CZ-3000 and CZ-5000—that got Casio taken seriously as a maker of truly professional synthesizers.

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ROLAND D-50

1987: If the DX7 was the must-have synth of the early to mid-’80s, the D-50 dominated the latter third of the decade and remains a part of some touring rigs to this day. Its “Linear Arithmetic” engine raised affordable digital synthesis to a new level of musicality—and it was also the first Roland synth to use PCM samples, which were employed as the attack transients. Musicians also loved its familiar subtractive features such as lowpass filters, which the DX synths lacked. Signature patches include the oft-imitated “Fantasia” and “Digital Native Dance.”

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KORG M1

1988: Here it is: The best-selling synth of all time. Combining extremely realistic-for-the-time multisamples in just about every acoustic and electric instrument category with a powerful 8-track sequencer meant two things: It was a crushingly good live gigging machine, and you could finish a complete composition on it in the studio. The dawn of the mass-market workstation was upon us, and the bar for what a single keyboard should do was raised. All-in-one workstations’ popularity may be waning now, but because of what the M1 started, that took over 25 years.

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HAMMOND XB-2

1991: After Korg’s 1980 CX-3, this is the first single-manual drawbar organ to really capture the hearts and minds of pro and semi-pro gigging keyboardists alike. It was extremely portable, really nailed the scream of the B-3, and wouldn’t really be upstaged until Roland came out with the VK-7 in 1997. Again, the Leslie simulation wasn’t great by today’s standards, but many players got a lot of mileage out of it by pairing it with a “portable” Leslie or rotating Pro-3 treble horn from Motion Sound.

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NORD LEAD

1995: Today, real analog synths are back to an extent that we don’t talk much about virtual analog ones as much as we used to, this wasn’t the case. But with ten years of FM and PCM-based instruments behind us, and most of these having a series of buttons and a single data knob or slider on their panels, musicians started to reminisce about classic analog sounds and being able to quickly grab a filter or an envelope during live performance. Almost no one outside of boutiques such as Studio Electronics was making new analog synths in 1995, so for a knob-tweaking, pulse-width-modulating experience, the Lead filled the need.

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YAMAHA MOTIF SERIES

2003: With workstations being a known quantity since the Korg M1, Yamaha saw an opportunity to evolve the concept: Your sounds lived in one place, your multis in another, your samples in another (if your machine did sampling), your arpeggiator in yet another, and your multi-track sequencer in another still. What if you could make moving music between these realms seamless, for a much better workflow? The Motif succeeded in this effort to such an extent that it re-wrote the rules for workstations, became standard issue for most tours and backline rental companies, and is now in its fourth generation: the Flash memory-equipped Motif XF (shown).

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CASIO PRIVIA SERIES

2003: Why the Privia, and not an earlier digital stage piano? Because for the past 20 years, a player wanting true piano sound onstage was faced with the truth: “Portability. Sound quality. Price. Pick two.” When it debuted, the Privia line very aggressively said, “You can have all three.” And it’s still going strong.

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KORG OASYS

2005: Though discontinued and bettered in nearly every way by the Kronos, the OASYS makes our list because it was the first attempt by a major keyboard company to make a high-end, no-holds-barred, do-everything system that we described as “the Aston Martin DB9 of keyboard workstations” in our original review. One could just as easily call it a modern Synclavier, as it incorporated different synthesis engines and had multitrack hard disk audio recording on board.

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