Rhodes restoration specialists Vintage Vibe have turned their expertise to manufacturing. So how does their creation compare to the classics?
For keyboard players of a certain age (88-note workstations are starting to feel a bit heavy, but you're not quite ready for your Lifetime Achievement award), the name Dougie's Music stirs long-cherished memories of an Aladdin's Cave of musical wondrousness. I discovered the shop in 1987 when, while driving through Northwich, I spotted an ARP2600 in its window. After a squeal of brakes and a parking manoeuvre that required evasive action from the cars following me, I entered, only to discover various vintage pianos, Clavinets, a CS80, an ARP Quadra, an OBX, and a cornucopia of other synthesizers and gear. This proved to be the start of an all-too-brief relationship with Dougie's, from which I eventually acquired the ARP2600, the Quadra, the OBX and a Moog Source. Sadly, the shop closed in the early '90s, and although Dougie McKendrick resurfaced a short while later in Nottingham, distributing the Moog Etherwave and selling some interesting second-hand keyboards, his Second Gear company was short-lived. In 2008, he resurfaced for a second time with Klassic Keys, from whom I bought an ultra-rare RMI DK20 in 2011. I mention all of this not just as a trip down memory lane, but to explain why, when Dougie says that he has uncovered something interesting, I take note — hence my interest when contacted me to say that Klassic Keys were considering importing and distributing the new Vintage Vibe range of pianos
Vintage Vibe are now based in New Jersey (pronounced 'Noo Joy-zee' by the natives), but first appeared in 1997 as a Manhattan-based keyboard rental company. Unfortunately, making money from the rental side of the business proved difficult, whereas servicing and repairing instruments — in particular, electro-mechanical pianos — seemed to provide a steadier income. And so it was that, while Vintage Vibe worked late into the night repairing large, heavy Rhodes pianos, the idea of building a lighter electro-mechanical piano was born.
Early on, they decided that the new instrument's sound generation method should be based on that of a Rhodes piano, with the hammers of a modified Rhodes keyboard mechanism striking tines (cylindrical prongs) rather than reeds (flat prongs). Likewise, the internal harp was based on the Rhodes design, although this was redesigned a number of times to reduce its weight. Other improvements were also conceived, designed, rejected, re-designed and finally incorporated, and a prototype slowly started to take shape.
They then looked for companies to manufacture the components. Some decisions were probably straightforward, such as re-employing the companies that had made the tines and pickups for the original Rhodes pianos. However, obtaining some of the larger components was not as straightforward as Vintage Vibe might have hoped. For example, they rejected two companies before they found a third able to manufacture the non-standard keys to the standard required. Even more surprising, they were unable to find an American company to manufacture the piano's keybed (which is shallower and lighter than that of a Rhodes) and had to turn to China for this.
Nonetheless, the problems were overcome, and Vintage Vibe launched their new pianos at the NAMM show in 2011, sporting (optional) sparkly fibreglass lids and beautiful, chromium-plated mechanisms. The company described them as "the world's first NEW electro-mechanical pianos in 30 years!” and "the finest hand-built electric pianos in the world”. Truth or hyperbole? Let's find out.
To compare the VV64 to its predecessors and inspirations, I decided to set it up next to my Rhodes MkI Stage 88 and my Wurlitzer EP200. This meant moving all three pianos to the same location, which led to my first important observation. Since it's of comparable size and weight to the Wurli, I was able to carry the VV64 down (and then up) two flights of steps, in order to make neighbours of the three instruments. In contrast, I prefer not to move the Rhodes horizontally without the aid of a strapping roadie.
Having placed the three alongside each other, I then compared the VV64 to the EP200. Despite their obvious external similarities, the two have no more in common — whether in terms of feel or sound — than an original Rhodes and an EP200, so there was no point in pursuing this further.
Turning to the Rhodes, I noted that, while the passive VV pianos (see the 'Which VV?' box) offer the same volume and bass roll-off controls as my 88, the review model was the active version, so before comparing the two instruments, I turned off the VV's tremolo and matched their volumes and EQ as best I could. Having done so, I soon found that each note played on the VV64 was 'tighter' and better defined than on my Rhodes, which has a paradoxically woollier but 'barkier' character, depending upon how hard I hit the keys. It occurred to me that some of the difference may have been due to the fact that the Rhodes is passive so, with rare cunning, I patched its output through the input of the VV's (undocumented) effects loop, allowing me to compare the two mechanisms through the same electronics. The results were gorgeous but made the differences even clearer, most obviously in the middle octave, where the VV64's overtones were far more evident than those of the Rhodes, which now appeared even darker than before.
Lest we become carried away, let's now put this all of this into context. Rhodes pianos can differ greatly from one another, not least because you can change the nature of the sound considerably by adjusting the distance from the pickups to the tines, as well as by altering the angles between them. Indeed, Vintage Vibe have made this even easier on the VV pianos than it was on the Rhodes, by changing the shape of the pickups to allow easier left/right adjustment. Consequently, it would be wrong to treat my Rhodes 88 or this VV64 as archetypical. Being a coward, I wasn't going to adjust the two pianos to match each other (I think Dougie would have gone all William Wallace on me if I had tried), but it's interesting to speculate whether — had I done so — aficionados would have been able to tell the difference between them. I suspect that, played through a clean sound system, they would. But played through a Fender Twin, a Leslie, or a suitable selection of 1970s stomp boxes, amps and cabs, I think that it would be a brave person who would state categorically which was which.
When Dougie delivered the review unit, it took him moments to set it up, but about an hour to adjust the individual dampers to obtain a consistent response across the whole keyboard. I suspect that the need to do so was a consequence of leaving the piano in the back of his car for 24 hours and then transporting it to me on one of the coldest days of the year, but this is nonetheless relevant if you intend to gig with it. Happily, once adjusted and allowed to acclimatise naturally to room temperature, the dampers worked perfectly, so all was well. Nonetheless, this also revealed the one aspect of the VV64 in which I feel that Vintage Vibe's quest for lightness and transportability has been less than beneficial. The sustain pedal on my Rhodes is a heavy metal lump that plants itself to the floor and stays there. The pedal supplied with the VV64 is much lighter, and I would certainly reach for the gaffer tape before every gig, just in case it decided to wander off into the audience.
Having set everything up to my satisfaction, I then spent many happy days playing both pianos. As you might expect, the mechanical clatter of the 40-year-old Rhodes mechanism was much more noticeable than that of the VV64, and the action was looser and heavier, requiring a slightly different playing technique — favouring the VV64, in my opinion, especially on rapid passages. The Rhodes keyboard also proved to be less consistent from bottom to top, although it was slightly less likely to create a silent note when played softly.
At this point, I had to ask myself which I preferred. I'm a pianist at heart, so wide keyboards are 'in my bones', but within the 64-key range of the VV64 I liked the fact that its sound was cleaner and that each note was better defined than my Rhodes'. To be fair, there might be times when I would return to the original for its browner, smokier sound but, ultimately, the clarity and more consistent action of the VV piano, as well as its shape, size and weight, won me over. Sure, I would choose a VV73 rather than a VV64, but given the choice between an ageing, slightly uneven, passive Stage 73 and a brand-new, active VV73, I would — price tag notwithstanding — snap up the new model in a hemi-demi-semi-quaver.
I would love to say that digital recreations of Rhodes pianos have now reached the point where there is no appreciable difference between the originals and the emulations, and, indeed, I find that the e-piano sounds generated by, say, a Korg Kronos X will often sit perfectly well in a pop or rock track. But when you move across the musical divide to jazz and other styles where the piano is more exposed, the differences in response and expression become more noticeable; if not to the listener, then certainly to the player. (Of course, there's a generation for whom the purity of digital emulations is the norm, so the vagaries of a real electro-mechanical piano may not be to their taste, but that's another issue entirely.)
Whether that difference is worth a few thousand poundsdollars is a question that you will have to answer for yourself. VV pianos are not cheap. Each instrument is hand-built and, from my observations of the interior of this one, each is a labour of love. But I have to admit that the review model is as good as any Rhodes I have ever played, including those that I played when they were brand-spanking new. (Yes, I'm that old!) What's more, I have no reason to believe that — with love and care — the VV64 that I've reviewed here need be any less enduring than the Stage 88 against which I've compared it. On that basis, you could argue that it's going to cost you around £100$100 per year and, if you're a serious Rhodes player, that may be reason enough to try one. Alternatively, if you're the latest starlet churned out by the TV pop machine, how can you resist being seen behind a pink sparkly piano? .
The obvious alternative to a set of pianos built by enthusiasts inspired by the original Rhodes pianos is another set of pianos built by enthusiasts inspired by the original Rhodes pianos. Based on the Rhodes Mark V, the Rhodes Mark 7 (launched in 2007 by the company established after Harold Rhodes regained his name from Roland) came in 73-key and 88-key variants, with Stage and Suitcase versions of each. And, like the VV pianos, the range offered passive, active, and MIDI options plus a choice of cosmetic finishes. Opinions seemed divided about the Mark 7, but this all became moot when the company folded a couple of years ago. In 2013, it seems that your (non-digital) choice lies between a vintage Rhodes and a VV piano.
There are numerous models in the VV Piano range, with 44-, 64- and 73- key versions, passive and active electronics, a MIDI option, and numerous cosmetic finishes. The least expensive is the passive, non-sparkly, 44-key model that retails for around £2400$3785 including legs, pedal, VAT and delivery. To my astonishment, this is currently the most popular model, perhaps because of the price, and perhaps because it weighs just 16kg. At the other end of the scale, a sparkly 73-key model with active electronics, MIDI and all its other bits and bobs will set you back closer to £5500$7370. At around £3600$5200, the VV64 shown here is perhaps the best compromise, especially since the chaps at Vintage Vibe have gone on record to say that it seems to have the edge on the other two with respect to output level and tone.
Despite the excellence of the VV pianos, there's one deficiency that the chaps at Vintage Vibe should address as soon as possible. Unlike original Rhodes pianos, the VVs have no protective tops, and the company doesn't manufacture flight cases for them. Given the value of the instruments, and the delicacy of their expensive, sparkly covers, this is a significant oversight.
And, while I'm on the subject of those covers, the VV pianos – like the Wurlitzer EP200 on which they're modelled, and like Rhodes Mark 1 pianos – have curved tops rather than flat ones. Come on, Vintage Vibe… you know it was almost impossible to sit your Minimoog or Solina safely and solidly on a Mark 1, so a flat top, even if only as an option, would have been a really good idea.
If you can't afford a VV piano but would still like to avail yourself of its sounds, Vintage Vibe offer a sample library containing numerous variations of the basic sound: bright EQ, mellow EQ, stereo tremolo, mono tremolo, overdriven, and so on. It's available for $79 from the company's web site.