Photos: Richard Ecclestone
Synthesizer aficionados spend inordinate amounts of time arguing about which is the greatest monophonic synthesizer of all time. The Minimoog? A restored ARP 2500? Something obscure like an original Serge or a Synton? Of course, nobody can agree about what constitutes 'great'. It might mean the most powerful, the most flexible, the simplest, the most expensive, the cheapest that does the job, or the one that best matches the décor in your studio. The argument has run for 30 years or more, and it shows no sign of abating. So here's a twist: what's the worst monosynth of all time? I can name a handful that have had their detractors — much-maligned instruments such as the Teisco S100P, the Jen SX2000, and anything made from a Maplin kit — but I have another candidate for the worst monosynth ever. It has a two-octave keyboard, a single waveform (a rather ill-formed square wave generated by using logic chips as clocks), no filters, and no envelope generators. I've known better-specified toy organs to hang their heads in shame, yet the object of this month's retro is not derided. On the contrary, it's respected, and on the rare occasions that one becomes available, it commands prices that make a mockery of its meagre capabilities. Ladies and gentlemen, it's the Davolisint.
The Davolisint was made by an Italian company, Davoli Krundaal Musical SRL, established by Athos Davoli. Little-known in the keyboard and pro-audio community, the company were moderately prolific manufacturers of amplifier 'heads' and speaker cabinets in the 1960s and 1970s, also building microphones, guitar pickups and both acoustic and electric guitars under the Krundaal, Wandré and Gherson trade names. Later, the company would build a range of electronic organs trademarked 'Davoli Krundaal', as well as 'Phonodoppler' rotary speaker cabinets, and manufacture (or maybe rebadge) drum kits. They still exist today as a music store in Parma, selling a wide range of other manufacturers' products as well as the latest incarnations of their range of amplifiers. In addition to all of these, Davoli produced — or perhaps just prototyped — at least seven keyboards and synth-related products. The Davolisint, released in 1972, was the first.
To appreciate the Davolisint fully, you have to understand that 1972 was the year before the synthesizer industry really took off. The Minimoog, EMS VCS3 and the ARP 2600 were already available and the ARP Odyssey was just about to appear, but the first of the more affordable Rolands, Yamahas and Korgs were only to be unveiled a year later, as were the glut of '70s string synths and electronic pianos. In this immature market, every new synthesizer was an object of wonder and respect. Indeed, if Crumar's fabled Compacsynth never appeared in commercial form, the Davolisint was not only the first Davoli synth, but the first Italian synthesizer, and possibly the first from mainland Europe, predating the more famous Crumars, Siels, Ekos and Jens by many years, so it's little wonder that it created a degree of interest that seems quite implausible today. The other thing to appreciate is that, in 1972, manufacturers were still experimenting with both the form and function of electronic keyboard instruments, balancing costs, flexibility and simplicity in innovative ways that were largely abandoned just a couple of years later. This means that the Davolisint had very little in common with the synths that preceded it, or those that were soon to follow.
At its heart lay two oscillators called VCO1 and VCO2. However, you couldn't select waveforms for these, sync them, apply pitch envelopes, nor make any of the other sound-shaping decisions that you might expect. That's because they didn't offer different waveforms, or sync, pitch envelopes, or any of the other sound-shaping capabilities that you might expect. What you could do, however, was determine the combination of footages that comprised the waveform generated by both oscillators. The seven large selectors to the left of the control panel were marked 32, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1 and 1/2, and these were a dead giveaway; the core of the Davolisint was a monophonic top-octave divide-down sound generator, a bit like a monophonic transistor organ. Of course, there was quite a lot you could do by combining seven octaves of square waves produced at equal amplitudes, but the human ear is not easily fooled. Despite the complexity of the resulting waveforms, you could hear that the initial tone was just a blend of square(-ish) waves of different pitches.
So, what could you do to spice up the sound of the oscillators? In the middle of the panel, there were six sliders. These determined the pitches of VCO1 and VCO2, the vibrato speed for each, and the depth of vibrato for each. But that was it! That's because, after undergoing modulation, the outputs from the oscillators passed to the mixer. Oh, sorry, there wasn't one: the oscillators were either 'on' or 'off', as determined by two of the switches to the right of the panel. OK, the signal passed to the filter... except that, as I've already mentioned, there wasn't one. Well, what about being shaped by an audio VCA? No, there was no envelope generator and no VCA. Every note had a 'square' on/off shape, just like an organ.
In fact, there were only six more controls. Five of these lay in the cluster of rocker switches to the right of the panel. VIB1 and VIB2 switched the vibrato on and off for VCO1 and VCO2 respectively, while T1 and T2 switched on a fixed amount of portamento. (T1 was a bit, T2 was more, and T1+T2 was quite a lot, giving a characteristic 1970s slew from one note to another.) Finally, the 'C' switch did what it said on the tin: it made the Davolisint play the lowest 'C' on its keyboard. Honestly!
The final control was the lollipop stick that protruded through a slot cut in the far left of the panel. Named 'Extend', this was an upward pitch-bend which, when released, took a couple of seconds to drift back to standard pitch. However, as with everything else on the Davolisint, the pitch-bend was far from conventional. When used on the highest note on the keyboard, it bent the pitch upward by an octave or thereabouts. When used on the lowest note (the bottom white 'C') the bend range was closer to 15 semitones.
Now, what about the grey/black keys to the left of the two playable octaves? You might have hoped that you could somehow use these as a third octave. You couldn't. The playing range of the Davolisint was a pitiful two octaves. Alternatively, you might have hoped that these provided some extra control or sophistication. They didn't. In fact, they were selector switches that duplicated the other controls, with the seven grey notes activating the seven octaves, and the five black notes duplicating the VIB1, VIB2, T1, T2 and C switches. Finally, around the back, a mysterious five-pin socket accepted a proprietary controller pedal of some sort. But that, crazy as it might seem, was all that the Davolisint could offer.
One of a handful of players who famously used the Davolisint, Dave Sinclair is perhaps best known for his remarkable keyboard work on early Caravan albums such as 1971's In The Land Of Grey And Pink. Dave left Caravan in July 1971 to play with Matching Mole and Hatfield And The North, during which time (in my opinion) the quality of the band's output — both live in and in the studio — dropped markedly. Fortunately, he rejoined in 1973, and I'll let him pick up the story from there.
"After I rejoined Caravan, I was surprised when, at the studio where we were recording the next Caravan album, For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night, I was presented with a brand new Davolisint direct from the manufacturer — in the hope, I guess, that I would help to pave the way for global Davoli domination. At first, it seemed like a rather small, inept, whiney little thing, but in the end it opened up new musical doors for me, because I hadn't really gotten on with the early ARP and Moog synthesizers. In particular, I remember using it to provide a big bass sound that I incorporated with my Hammond Organ chords, giving a Phantom Of The Opera-type sound!
"I decided to use the Davolisint on 'Backwards' and 'The Dog The Dog He's At It Again'. I don't remember hearing any negative comments from the other band members, and I guess that if it had sounded crap, they would have let me know pretty quickly. But, in retrospect, I wish I had used rather less of it on that album, and used more of the organ.
"Later in 1973, Caravan recorded a live album with an orchestra at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and this was called Caravan And The New Symphonia. Although I had the Davoli there, it was only used on one number because the sonic competition was too great; there was just so much going on at the time. On a later live album [Caravan Live At The Fairfield Halls, 1974] I again used the Davoli on a couple of numbers, including a section of our finale, 'For Richard', in which swapping solos between the synth and guitar seemed to demonstrate it at its best.
"In retrospect, I think that the Davoli was an under-rated instrument. It was small and handy for moving around, had just enough keys for soloing, had some interesting features, and had a neat solo sound in itself. Of course, if I were to try one now I would be acutely aware of its limitations, but that's a bit unfair because it was a pioneering instrument, and one of the forerunners of the very sophisticated machines that everyone uses today. I wish I knew what happened to mine, but it was swallowed up in the Caravan vacuum. I hope that it passed on to another young, undernourished, aspiring musician."
If you played the Davolisint with your right hand alone, you were not going to get very much from it. The sound ranged from a buzz to a rasp, with no filtering or shaping, and just vibrato to animate things. In fact, it was little different from playing a Vox Continental monophonically. The only things that gave it any sort of 'synth' quality were portamento and the ability to detune the two oscillators to produce a fatter sound, or to tune them at intervals such as a third or fifth. Or, of course, to detune them and apply portamento. Or detune them, apply portamento, and then add different speeds and depths of vibrato to each oscillator. Hmm... despite its limitations, it wasn't much like an organ at all, was it?
But let's now add your left hand into the equation. If you set up a basic sound using the control panel switches, you could use the bottom octave to articulate it in ways that would be impossible using a conventional VCO/VCF/VCA architecture. For example, let's imagine that you were playing with just the 16' octave selected, and no vibrato or portamento. If you then played, for example, a Cmaj7 chord in the bottom octave (the C, E, G and B keys) you added the 32', 8', 2' and 1/2' pitches to the sound, which changed its very essence by making it both deeper and brighter. This technique was great if you were playing accompaniment lines and wanted to make certain phrases stand out, or even stand proud as solo lines before dropping back into the mix again.
Alternatively, you could have no footages selected on the control panel, so silence reigned until you pressed a left-hand control key. Now, you could determine the octave of what you were playing by selecting the appropriate key with your left hand while soloing with your right. With a little practice, you could make the two-octave keyboard feel eight octaves wide by perfecting the technique of stepping up and down the grey keys as your needs dictated.
Now, what about the black keys in the controller octave? Using the C# and A# to add vibrato independently to VCO1 and VCO2 is not — as far as I can recall — a facility found on the performance panels of any other monosynth of the era. Likewise, being able to dial in three rates of portamento by playing D#, F# or both, is perhaps unique to the Davolisint.
So, all you needed was to perfect the technique of playing the white notes to add octaves to the sound, and the black notes to add animation. If you managed this, the Davolisint sprang to life, not as a replacement for a Minimoog or an ARP Odyssey, but as a viable alternative, an instrument in its own right. If you thought of it as an instrument in the same class as a Clavioline or Jennings Univox, you were on the right track, and that's no insult.
Oh yes, and the Davolisint had one final thing going for it: its price. At a little over £200, it cost a fraction of the price of a Minimoog or Odyssey, so it's not surprising that some players were willing to live with its limitations. What's perhaps surprising in retrospect is that so few were sold, rather than that so many were.
The same year that Dave Sinclair lost his Davolisint (see the 'Caravan Capers' box), another well-known player started to use one. He was Morgan Fisher, the keyboard player in Mott The Hoople. "Before I bought my Davolisint I had used a VCS3 with a DK2 keyboard in my band, Morgan, which was quite progressive," he explains. "But when I joined Mott The Hoople, I didn't think that the VCS3 suited them, and although I used it on my first recording with them, 'Roll Away The Stone', I didn't use it much on other Mott recordings, and never live with them because it was too unstable.
"So, in 1974, I bought my Davolisint. It appealed to me because I like unusual gear, and because I was never very thrilled by the oscillator/filter/envelope combination that was prevalent on most synths. It was built like a tank, and it had a powerful and unusual sound. The chaps in Mott laughed at first, but were impressed with what I could wring out of it.
"I used the Davolisint throughout my time with Mott The Hoople and its later incarnation, Mott. You can hear it on 'Rest In Peace' on the Mott The Hoople Live album, where it sounds huge, playing the melody in the instrumental section. I also played it on the live version of 'Sucker', where I used it to emulate Bowie's sax playing, and on my 'Paper Bags' instrumental project [Mott: The Gooseberry Sessions, Angel Air SJPCD054] where it imitated 1960s Farfisa and Clavioline lead lines."
I asked Morgan how he integrated the Davolisint in his keyboard rig. "If a piano is toast, and a Hammond is a fried egg, the Davolisint is the ketchup. It sat on top of the Hammond on my left, with the grand piano in front of me. This meant that I could play it while playing organ or piano, and I often used it to emulate saxophone parts or even guitar lines (with plenty of whammy action from the delightfully named Extend lever!). I usually ran it through a Leslie, which really brought out its organ character. On its own, it sounded a bit cheesy, which might have been all right had it been polyphonic, so I'd also use a tape or analogue delay to make it sound more interesting. Oh, and a standard volume pedal to add expression. But that's all.
"I stopped using the Davolisint when I bought a Korg PE2000 Polyphonic Ensemble. This was great for fat brass chords and good for strings and church organ as well. If I remember correctly, I could even used its tuning knob for pitch-bends (similar to the Extend on the Davolisint) — which was fine as long as I managed to return it back to the correct position! Then, in 1980, I sold most of my gear and took a few years away from the music business, and that was the last I saw of my Davolisint."
Finally, I asked Morgan whether he would buy another Davolisint, if only for nostalgia's sake. "Certainly, if it was in good condition and the price was right... and especially if it was the ultra-rare Davolisint B which I believe had more features. Having said that, I know nothing about the 'B' other than it's mentioned in Peter Forrest's A-Z Of Analogue Synthesizers. I would want to play it through a Leslie for sure, or a good tube Leslie simulator. In retrospect, I relate the Davolisint to the cars I owned while playing in Mott: I liked it in the way that I liked my Morris Minor, but not in the way I that liked my Bentley S3. If I owned a Davolisint now, I would still like it the same way. It is simple, functional and very original. It doesn't claim to do everything, but what it does, it does like no other keyboard."
Despite the plaudits of a few well-known keyboardists, among them Dave Sinclair and Morgan Fisher (see boxes), there have been few sightings of Davolisints in professional circles. Kayak were fans, with both keyboard player Tom Scherpenzeel and drummer Pim Koopman credited with playing one on their 1973 album See See The Sun. Another obscure appearance was on Zuckerzeit, and possibly Cluster and/or Cluster II, by the German electro/ambient/industrial band Cluster, formed in part by former Tangerine Dream members in the early '70s. Then there was the forgotten Italian prog-rock of Semiramis' Dedicato a Frazz, and more recently, the Moog Cookbook (Brian Kehew and Roger Manning) used one alongside other vintage synths such as a Steiner Parker Synthacon and a Synergy.
Given its lack of commercial success, it's perhaps surprising that the company persevered with the frighteningly obscure Davolisint 'B' (also called the Davolisint Mod75), which was apparently an improved model. I have never seen one of these and few references exist, but I have seen a picture that suggests that these facilities were nothing more than individual levels for the two oscillators. If you know better, pray tell. I would love to know.
After the Davolisints, Davoli announced a further handful of hi-tech products. Two, named the Foxx and the Sintacord (1975) are unknown today. Then there was the Taunos, a digitally controlled, multitimbral analogue synth that was shown at some music fairs in 1979 but never appeared in commercial form, and the Drum Synth Effect (1985), a flightcased drum synth with six pads and six-channel voice generation. There also appears to have been a Davoli electric piano, an 88-note electromechanical instrument shaped like a baby grand, with hammers like a Rhodes piano. Tangerine Dream are rumoured to have used one, but I have no way to be certain of this. But that was all, and it's possible that the Davolisint was the only Davoli synthesizer to reach full production, or to be exported beyond the shores of Italy. Over the course of a dozen years, the company produced nothing that approached commercial success, and after 1985, it disappeared from view.
So how should we view the Davolisint in 2006? It's not a synthesizer in the traditional sense; it's a two-octave monophonic organ with portamento and a couple of vibrato oscillators. On the other hand, it was the first Italian synth, so deserves some sort of place in history. But ultimately, it was a musical instrument with a rather unique sound of its own. If you liked it, you played it. If you didn't, you looked elsewhere. Semplice!