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The Rise And Fall Of Rocky Mount Instruments (Retro) Gordon Reid

Published in SOS December 2001
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Reviews : Keyboard

The keyboard instruments created by American manufacturer RMI may be deeply obscure now, but without them, '70s progressive rock could have a very different sonic signature.


Gordon Reid

If you're old enough, cast your mind back to the early '70s. (If you're not, feel free to have a laugh while I do so. I don't care. You see, when it comes to vintage synthesizers, I was there the first time round.)

At that time there were two types of instrument called 'electric pianos', neither of which sounded remotely like pianos. The first group should more properly be called electro-mechanical pianos because, like electric guitars, they combined a physical sound generation system with some form of electrical pickup. This group included the various models of Fender Rhodes, the Wurlitzer EP200, and the Hohner Electrapiano. There were also oddities such as the Hohner Pianets and the Clavinets, the latter more closely related to harpsichords than to pianos.

The second family was the 'electronic pianos', instruments that had no physical sound generation system, and whose key contacts did no more than initiate the action of circuitry to generate the sound. Most of these were ghastly. Do you remember Crumar Roadrunners, Roadracers and Roadys? How about the Galanti and Gem Instapianos, or the Sound City Jo'annas? Did I say ghastly? The truth is that they were worse than ghastly, with dull, lifeless sounds lacking feel or dynamics. Indeed, most lacked even the most rudimentary touch sensitivity, so they went 'plunk' no matter how you played them.

Clearly, if you were an aspiring musician, or even a fabulously wealthy one playing to packed stadia, there were only a couple of choices for your electric piano. You bought either a Fender Rhodes or a Wurlitzer EP200. Both of these incorporated real key mechanisms, real vibrating wotsits, real dynamics and real feel. Simple.

So why did Genesis, Yes, Deep Purple, Elton John, Rick Wakeman, and a host of other bands and keyboard players, choose an electronic piano with no touch sensitivity that went 'plunk' no matter how you played it? To find out, we need to travel back to an era when England could beat Germany at football. No, not last month... I'm talking about 1966.

RMI: The Early Days

Rocky Mount Instruments Inc... Now there's a name. I don't know what it suggests to you, but I picture a mountaineering equipment shop, or maybe the purveyor of some sort of arcane and unsavoury surgical implem

ents. What this name most definitely does not suggest to me is music, more specifically the music of my misspent youth. Yet, without Rocky Mount Instruments Inc., there would be no Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, no Yessongs, no Spectral Mornings, and no quintessentially odd British bands such as Gentle Giant, Gryphon and Greenslade. Well... probably there would, but they would have been very different animals.

In 1966, or thereabouts, Rocky Mount Instruments was established as a division of the Allen Organ Company, a massive concern that was later to become a pioneer in the use of digital sound generation in electric organs. However, whereas the Allen Organ Co. resided in Pennsylvania, its subsidiary occupied a rented warehouse in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

RMI's first keyboard was a four-octave affair called the Explorer, a garish-looking instrument with a green speckled underside and a blue speckled upper body. The Explorer's sound was generated using a dedicated oscillator for each key, and this architecture was later to become the standard for most of RMI's instruments. However, the Explorer's real claim to fame lay in its 'Flying Hammers'. These were weighted steel springs that, when you played a key, vibrated against an electrical contact, turning the oscillator on and off to produce what have been described as "mandolin and banjo effects". To be honest, I've never seen, let alone played, one of these, so I would welcome the chance.

Within a year, RMI relocated to larger premises, abandoning their warehouse in favour of a real manufacturing plant. The 'Band Organ' was the first instrument to emerge from the new premises. Manufactured between 1966 and 1968, this was a three-octave electrical imitation of a calliope, and was sold in both kit and assembled versions.

Next came The Lark. This was a horrible little organ painted black and orange, with tiger stripes on the side. Oh yes, and it used just six oscillators -- rather than 12 -- to span the octave. Again, I've never played one, so it's possible that the records of its existence are a practical joke played on us by a nutter who wanted to see how seriously we would take such a ludicrous idea. If it's true, the Lark operated on the principle that, if you were playing a 'C', you would never want to play a 'C#' simultaneously, so only one oscillator was needed for each pair of notes. This architecture may have worked in the 16th century, when you could be excommunicated if you played 'C' and 'F#' simultaneously (honestly!), but I think that it had outlived its usefulness by The Summer Of Love.

It was around this time that RMI introduced the first of its more famous keyboards: the Rock-Si-Chord, or 'Rocksichord' electric harpsichord. There were two primary versions of this, one with a single set of 8' oscillators (the '100' series), the other with 8' and 4' oscillators (the '200' series).

The original Model 100 offered just two voices, String and Lute, which you could select individually or as a pair. The more expensive 100A had five: Harpsi, Cembalo, Lute, Guitar A, and Guitar B. Moving up the range, the more powerful and slightly larger Model 200 offered the same two voices as the 100, but added an Accenter, which increased the decay rate of the 4' oscillators, thus making the sound more percussive. Then there were the 200A and the 200B. These were altogether more powerful beasts, offering more voices: Lute 8', Lute 4', Elect. Guitar A 8', Elect. Guitar A 4', Elect. Guitar B 8', Elect. Guitar B 4', Cembalo 8', Cembalo 4', Harpsi 8', Harpsi 4', and Tamboura 4', plus the Accenter. Given that you could combine voices and mix the 8' and 4' ranks using individual volume pedals, these provided a huge range of percussive instrument sounds.

The RMI Calliopes were developed around 1968 or early 1969. The first was a four-octave electronic keyboard with a built-in amplifier and speakers -- but the second was far more interesting. This too was electronic, but used no fewer than 19 speakers directed through metal pipes tuned to the appropriate pitches to offer "the authentic feel of a real calliope." I wonder how it really sounded?

The Birth Of The Electra-piano

If you've never heard of the instruments described so far, I'm not surprised; we have been travelling far beyond the land of enthusiasts, deep into the realms of the obsessive collector. But now we're going to turn to a series of instruments that were, for a short while, to make RMI a mainstream manufacturer in the rock and pop worlds. These were collectively known as the RMI Electra-piano and Harpsichord.

There are differing accounts of the first appearance of the Electra-piano. Most date its introduction to 1967, although I have seen reports suggesting that it was the replacement for the Rocksichord 200B, which RMI discontinued in late 1968.

The first model was the 300A, a five-octave keyboard housed in a plywood chassis that, like other early RMIs, was covered in two-tone vinyl. The 300A introduced what was to become the standard Electrapiano voicing of Piano, Piano PP, Harpsi, Harpsi PP, and Lute. (The addition of 'PP' to the name followed the conventions of piano notation, and indicated a quieter version of the voice.) Again, a single oscillator per note generated the basic sounds, and the inevitable inconsistencies between these did much to enhance the character of the sound.

The characteristics of each voice were defined by different filter and envelope settings. Also, in addition to the voices themselves, there were two extra effects: the 'Accenter' and 'Organ Mode'. This Accenter was a strange affair which, when selected, produced a dull transient that sounded like nothing so much as a bongo at the beginni

ng of each note. There was a high bong on and above middle C, and a lower bong below it. But perhaps the most interesting innovation found on the 300A was its Organ Mode. This, instead of emulating the articulation characteristics of an electric organ (instant attack, constant sustain, and instant release) offered what was, at the time, a unique mode of articulation. Pressing a note caused the selected voices to speak immediately. Then, unlike conventional organs, the sound entered a long decay curve. If the key was released, the note was also released, unless you depressed the sustain pedal, in which case the Electra-piano entered its piano-style release.

The 300A was soon replaced by the 300B, which further refined what was rapidly becoming the classic RMI sound. Physically almost indistinguishable from its predecessor (the vinyl covering changed from two-tone to black all over) it was actually a huge improvement. Firstly, RMI had extended the decay of the Organ Mode, and this was later to become the defining characteristic of the Electra-pianos. Secondly, they had improved the filters and envelope generators that defined the piano voice.

Of course, by modern standards, the voices only just fell into their named categories. The Piano was subdued, and sounded more like steel drums. Likewise, the Lute sounded nothing like a lute, though it was warm and mellow, and an excellent voice in its own right. Perhaps the voice that bore the closest relationship to its name was the Harpsichord, which was appropriately bright and jangly. However, given that you could select any of the voices simultaneously, a large number of subtle variations were available.

By 1972, there were three RMIs based on the 300B. They were all good instruments, but they were replaced in 1972 by what was to become the greatest RMI of them all: the 368 Electra-piano and Harpsichord.

  Genesis' Tony Banks On The Electra-piano 368  
  Back in 1993, I talked to Tony Banks of Genesis about his RMI. He told me: "I am, at heart, a pianist, and I was always trying to get close to the sound of a real piano. Unfortunately I found that, on stage at least, sticking microphones inside grand pianos was quite unsatisfactory. I tried a number of solutions, and for a while settled on a Hohner Pianet-N. It was this that the RMI replaced. The sound of the RMI was quite good for its day. It offered a lot of variety for such a simple machine, and had a particular quality that I enjoyed. I especially liked the Organ Mode, which is thick, but still has a bit of an edge.

"I would treat the RMI's sound to get the effect I wanted from it. This was before the days of modern synthesizers, so keyboard players had to squeeze the most out of every instrument. I often modified my early keyboards, and the RMI ended up with a Fender Blender fuzz box built in. I was able to control the amount of signal fed to the fuzz box, so I could create anything from a clean piano to a heavily driven sound. This was then passed through an MXR Phaser, and on through a Leslie cabinet. The Leslie was later replaced by a Boss Chorus unit, which was much more controllable and still gave a passable imitation of the Leslie sound I wanted.

"The major drawback of the RMI was its total lack of touch sensitivity. I found this very restricting, especially since any bum-notes are played at full volume, no matter how lightly you brush against them. The other limitation was the width of the keyboard itself -- 68 notes, as opposed to the 88 on a real piano. I remember one incident at Drury Lane when I was playing the introduction to 'Firth of Fifth.' Because of the RMI's 68-note limitation I had to transpose one part of the introduction down an octave to fit it in. Well, there I was, everything was going really well, and I just got carried away. I forgot that I wasn't sitting at a piano, and ran out of notes. I stopped. Peter, Mike and Steve just looked at me in amazement."

I asked Tony why he stopped using the RMI. "The Yamaha CP70 totally superseded the RMI's piano modes. For the first time I could take a grand piano on stage and get the sound I wanted. For a while I still used the RMI Organ Mode, but the launch of the Polymoog synthesizer made even that redundant."

At the time, Tony concluded the interview with the statement "I've still got the 368 in a cupboard somewhere, so its day may yet come again." However, I understand that Genesis have recently sold the majority of their old equipment, so it's now unlikely that that day will ever come. Shame.

 

The One That Caught On

The 368 utilised the same sound-generation circuitry as the 300B, but offered 68 notes, extending the bass end of the keyboard by more than half an octave. It also featured a bass boost control, which proved to be extremely useful for thickening and thinning voices during performance. There was a Volume fader on the panel, too, something that had been missing from previous models. These may sound like subtle improvements, but for some reason they made the 368 one of the most playable, articulate keyboards ever built.

Don't take my word for it: the roll of honour for the 300 and 368 is a veritable 'who's who?' of the upper echelons of the 1970s rock and pop business. I've already mentioned some of the bands and keyboard players who used

them, and to these you can add the Edgar Winter Band, Steve Hackett, Man, Blood Sweat & Tears, Ray Manzarek, and even Sly & The Family Stone. But simply to list some of the more famous users tells you nothing about how important the RMIs were -- particularly for those players involved in progressive rock.

Between 1972 and 1974, prog-rock was the dominant musical form for serious rock musicians. Whether the venue was a tiny student-union hall or a heaving rock festival attended by 30,000 mud-soaked hippies, prog was the hip-hop, trip-hop, dance and trance of its day, all rolled into one. And up there, on stage, you were almost as likely to find an Electra-piano as you were to find a Hammond, a Mellotron, or even a Minimoog. As a result, a remarkable amount of the 1970s art-rock and pop scene depended to some extent upon RMI.

If I had to pick the single most memorable aspect of the 368, it would have to be that remarkable organ mode. When I first heard albums such as Selling England By The Pound, and in particular The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (Genesis, 1973 and 1974 respectively) I was captivated by the organ on many of the tracks. I knew that Tony Banks was using a small Hammond but, try as I might, I couldn't get close to the delicate, phasey timbres he was producing. It wasn't until I saw him perform with a keyboard rig comprising just a Hammond, Mellotron, ARP Pro-Soloist, and an RMI that I realised that the sounds in question were emanating from his piano! This was many years before MIDI and there was no question of him playing one keyboard from another, so I had solved the mystery. The keyboard I craved was an RMI Electra-piano. There was one man who did indeed play an RMI from another keyboard. This was Jon Lord of Deep Purple, who had the guts of an Electra-piano installed inside his Hammond C3 organ. Once you recognise the sound of the RMI, you can hear it on any number of classic Deep Purple tracks that feature it predominantly. How about the heavily distorted keyboards that dominate 'Highway Star', 'Space Trucking' and 'Woman From Tokyo'? Yes, that's all Electrapiano. Small wonder that fans thought that Lord had a unique way of playing and voicing his Hammond!

After my epiphany at the Genesis gig, it took me many years to find an RMI for sale. I can't even remember how I found out that Rupert Greenall, keyboard player with The Fixx, was selling his. Nevertheless, I clearly recall driving to North London in a rusting pile of junk to buy it from him for £150 -- a small fortune for me in those days.

  Finding The Electra-piano Sound  
  I was very fortunate to find my RMI in 1982. In 2001 it would be almost a miracle if you found one for sale in the UK. The 368 is one of those keyboards that, once possessed, is rarely released. Fortunately, Electra-piano samples can be extremely convincing. All the voices loop well in both piano and organ modes and, because there are no onboard effects, you can play the pure samples through appropriate effects to give a sound almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Indeed, if you're really desperate for a 368 fix, you need look no further than the 'Keyboards Of The '60s and '70s' expansion board for Roland's JV-series instruments. This contains a superb rendition (or two) of the Electra-piano, programmed by none other than Sound On Sound contributor Nick Magnus. As keyboard player for Steve Hackett, Nick was responsible for no small number of classic late-'70s prog tracks drenched in Electra-piano, so he was the ideal man to recreate the character of the original.

 
Fortunately, Greenall had just bought a PPG which, in 1982, was a truly wondrous thing. Consequently, he had told all his old keyboards to pack their bags and go. His loss, my gain.

Having driven the RMI back to the old coach house that I shared with the rest of the band, I set it up in our rehearsal room, only to find that it was tuned inconsistently, and about half a semitone flat. Fortunately, tuning the oscillators was not difficult -- simply a matter of adjusting 68 trimmers on the main board!

It didn't occur to me at the time, but I later realised that the hour spent with a screwdriver would also have allowed me to create many alternative tuning temperaments. Since all other electronic keyboards from the late '60s and early '70s used the octave-dividing technology most commonly found in electric organs, this almost certainly made the Rock-Si-Chords and Electrapianos the first freely tunable, polyphonic, electronic keyboards.

The next model in the Electrapiano dynasty was the 468, another domestic model, this time based on the 368. Then, in 1974, RMI replaced the 368 with the 368X. Ostensibly the same instrument, you can recognise this by its hard plastic case. But if the change to the 368X was nothing to get excited about, its excruciatingly rare sibling, the 368D, was. This unit was also referred to as the 68D (I have no idea which name is accurate), and I suspect that the 'D' referred to 'dynamics'. This is because the 368D was the only velocity-sensitive model in the series. If you have one, I want it!

The World's First Commercial Digital Synth?

Now it's time for a short quiz. What was the world's first commercial digital synthesizer? The DX7? Wrong by almost a decade. How about the Synclavier, or the original Fairlight CMI? Still years away from the truth -- which is that this particular honour goes to RMI...

In 1974, they released something called the Harmonic Synthesizer. Although at first sight it looked like any other RMI piano or organ, the Harmonic Synthesizer was, in fact, the world's first analogue/digital hybrid monosynth, offering two independent 'Digital Harmonic Generators', with sliders for each of the harmonics comprising the waveform. You could even pan the Generators left and right for some remarkable stereo effects. And, if you didn't want to create your own waveforms, there were presets that you could select and/or mix with the slider-defined waves. Add the multi-mode analogue filters, amplifiers, and their associated modifiers, and the Harmonic Synthesizer was indeed a remarkable achievement. And later that same year, RMI announced the Keyboard Computer, a hybrid, programmable, portable polysynth that cost less than $5000 and was no larger than its electronic pianos.

Not impressed? Then consider this. In 1974 (ie. the same year), Yamaha released the world's first programmable analogue polysynth. Called the GX1, this instrument had a keyboard console that alone weighed more than 300Kg, each of its manuals offered eight-note polyphony, and it cost approximately £40,000. Now let's return to the Keyboard Computer, a 12-note polyphonic digital polysynth with splits, layering, real-time parameter control, and rudimentary memories. You should be impressed.

The first of the Keyboard Computers was the KCI, a five-octave instrument resembling an Electrapiano 300B that had been attacked by a swarm of push buttons. It offered three sound 'channels', two selected from the preset voices and one providing noise. There were 29 preset voices, but you could 'insert' up to four more on pre-programmed punch cards which were fed into the 'card reader.' (Punch cards were a computer data storage mechanism still used in the mid-'70s, with each card holding a few bytes in the form of holes punched through the card at appropriate points.) I remember some players claiming that they had great fun punching miscellaneous holes in blank cards, feeding them in, and waiting for noises to emerge...

The second and final model of Keyboard Computer was the KCII. Many commentators have reported that this arrived in 1977, but sources within the Allen Organ Company state that the year was in fact 1975. The KCII was very similar to the KCI, but resided inside the plastic case of the contemporary 368X Electrapiano. In many ways, the KCII was an improvement over the KCI, and it had a much better range of preset sounds. However, it sported a garish arrangement of oversized white, green, red and black rocker switches which rather compromised its looks.

Strangely, RMI didn't seem to know what to do with the KCII. The advertising of the day told you that it was not a piano, not an organ, and not a synthesizer, but failed to tell you what it actually was! Given that, two

years before the arrival of affordable five- and eight-voice analogue polysynths, it was a 12-voice digital polysynth, this demonstrated amazing incompetence.

With bright, sparkling presets dubbed Piano, Bell, Clav, Guitar and Harpsichord, the KCII's Electrapiano and Rock-Si-Chord heritage was clear. Nevertheless, it was not limited to percussive sounds, and there were excellent Strings, Horn and Flute presets, plus a handful of superb organs. Alternatively, if you wanted to head off into uncharted sonic waters, you could load a selection of the factory voices provided on punch cards, layering these on top of the built-in presets. Oh yes, and you could control envelopes, pitch, chorus and vibrato, all in real time, using the huge pedalboard that sat beneath the instrument itself.

Seven years before the arrival of the PPG, and eight years before the first DX7, the KCII was generating the digital sounds that would define the 1980s. Consequently, it was much loved by the handful of keyboard luminaries who

  The 600 Series  
  Just as the 200- series Rock-Si-Chords were double-voiced versions of the basic 100-series, the Electra-pianos had big brothers with dual 8' and 4' oscillator banks. These had individual voicing circuits, and even offered individual outputs -- with independent volume controls -- for the two banks.

The first of these was the 600A Electra-piano and Rock-Si-Chord, a five-octave instrument with Piano, Harpsi, Lute, Electric Guitar A and B, and Block voices, each in 8' and 4' variations. Additional controls included the Organ mode (independent for each footage) plus the Accenter, and a detune for the 4' rank.

In 1971, the 600A was replaced by the 600B, offering individual sustain pedals for the two footages, and improved voicing. Next came the 668, with the 368's additional keys and bass boost. In 1974, the 668X appeared, sporting the 368X's new plastic case.

If you own any of these, I want it. Badly!

 
knew what to do with it. The most famous of these was Jean-Michel Jarre, but the KCII I knew best was the one played by Robert John Godfrey of The Enid, who used it to replace the cathedral organ sounds previously generated by a Logan String Melody 2. Unfortunately, RMI's poor marketing ensured that the world knew little of the Keyboard Computers, and the few people who encountered them seemed not to know what to do with them. It was therefore inevitable that they would be commercial failures, and so they proved to be.

However, we should not forget the KCI and KCII. They generated digital waveforms and modified them using a conventional palette of filters, amplifiers, and modulators. In other words, they were the first 'sample + synthesis' keyboards, and are therefore the progenitors of all today's ubiquitous sample + synthesis workstations. In other words, the true ancestors of your beloved Roland XP80, Yamaha EX5, Korg Triton or Kurzweil K2500 were commercial failures manufactured by a defunct company you've never heard of!

Given the Keyboard Computers' lack of commercial success, it's perhaps no surprise that RMI made just one more instrument before folding. This was the DK20, a piano/organ designed to be the successor to the 368X. And a very fine instrument it was, too, allowing you to control the decay time, the curve, and the final release characteristics of its sounds. It also incorporated a voice mixer, 'modifiers' (which, I suspect, were filters) and a phaser. This was powerful stuff. Unfortunately, the DK20 appeared in 1979, during the era dominated by the Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX. Nobody was interested in an insensitive electronic piano, no matter how good it was. So, in 1982, the parent company pulled the plug, and that was the last the world saw of Rocky Mount Instruments.

History Will Judge

If I was given an hour's notice that my studio was going to burn down or flood, I would have to decide which keyboards to save. And high on my list, supplanting many more obviously desirable instruments, you would find my Electrapiano. It's not a question of value -- it only cost me £150, and I doubt I could sell it for much more. It's not a question of usefulness -- most of my musical life now revolves around Trinities, XP80s, and other modern workhorses. It's not a question of provenance -- although, prior to its stint in The Fixx, my 368 was owned by Richard Harvey of Gryphon, featuring on their latter albums, including the superb Raindance. It's not even a question of emotional attachment -- I have many instruments that I'm more fond of.

Yet the RMI has a certain magic that overrides all of these considerations. Yes, it's just an electronic piano with no touch sensitivity, that goes 'plunk' no matter how you play it. But it's the sound, you see...

Thanks to David Kean of The Audities Foundation (www.audities.org/) for the use of photos of the RMI Explorer and Keyboard Computer II.

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