The reborn Rhodes piano is a stunning showcase for British manufacturing.
Initially invented to assist in therapy for injured Air Force servicemen towards the end of the war, Harold Rhodes’ electric piano proved an enduring success. By the 1970s it was providing the soundtrack to an era, and went through numerous design variants or Marks before losing out to digital competition in the 1980s. Its unique soulful and expressive properties were eventually rediscovered by a new generation of musicians, to the point where a new Mark 7 was briefly introduced back in 2007. As the Rhodes renaissance gathers momentum a new Mark 8 (stylised MK8) aims to future‑proof Harold’s legacy. We were invited to the factory in Leeds, UK to test the new Rhodes and meet the team behind it.
Designed by Axel Hartmann, the MK8 case looks fantastic: part minimalist industrial, part mid‑century modern. Axel has chosen to evolve the classic Rhodes look, so the MK8 features the traditional wedge‑shaped, Tolexed wooden case, extruded aluminium name rail and ABS lid, though the build quality is far higher than the original. Closer inspection reveals many detailed enhancements to design functionality: a cutout in the base to make space for the folding integrated stand, a removable rear logo for adjustment to the sustain pedal mechanism, and corner protectors recessed into the case. The cheek blocks, while molded in the same black plastic as the originals, have been widened, with the front left side featuring a headphone output and volume control.
Though the lid is still manufactured from vacuum‑moulded ABS plastic, it’s a vast step up from the original in quality terms, and will be available in multiple colours. The rear of the lid is reinforced with a metal rail which ensures stability for keyboard stacking. On our visit, lids in multiple colours already filled the factory storeroom including one in smoke grey translucent plexiglass featuring back‑rail LEDs!
The name rail features a ridged, brushed‑aluminium finish similar to the original Mark 1 Rhodes, though it rises higher and folds in over the front of the lid. A small updated Rhodes logo sits in the centre, while the faceplate for the electronics occupies most of the left‑hand side. All connector sockets have been moved from the name rail to a plate recessed into the right‑hand side of the case, so no more problems with drooping cables interfering with your funky bass lines!
During our visit we were able to see an un‑Tolexed wooden case, manufactured in Sheffield from poplar plywood and super light at 6lbs. A slotted aluminium baseplate sits above the stand cutout, and the back of the case is cut down slightly to accommodate the lid’s reinforcing rail. The finished base is offered in black Tolex as standard, though other colours of Tolex, as well as solid walnut, will be available as options. Overall the MK8 weighs in at 75lbs, a significant reduction over all of the original Rhodes models. At launch, it’s available only in a 73‑note version, though the company are considering other variants for the future.
The Rhodes team were extremely generous and open throughout our visit, allowing us to examine each component of the MK8 in detail alongside different iterations of prototypes of some parts. We were also able to get under the hood of the two prototype MK8s set up for us to test. I was even passed a screwdriver and invited to try out my own voicing!
The MK8 features active electronics designed by Cyril Lance, formerly of Moog Music, and they are by a long way the most impressive onboard electronics I’ve ever seen on any electric piano. Cyril prototyped the effects on his purple Rhodes, which formerly belonged to Bernie Worrell, so every parameter is calibrated to be a perfect fit for the Rhodes sound.
Sound‑shaping options begin with an EQ that has a parametric mid frequency, and the option to control this either using an assignable footpedal or the onboard envelope follower, for wah and auto‑wah‑type effects respectively. Next to the envelope level control is a Drive knob for adding extra crunch to the sound.
To the right of the EQ is a set of tremolo controls, but this is not just an ordinary tremolo: it’s more like the old Dyno Tri Stereo tremolo on steroids. In fact there are four available waveforms: square, triangle, sine and an upwards ramp which gives a striking fade‑in effect. The waveforms can be assigned to both volume and envelope level, and the stereo outputs produce a series of wonderful panning effects, building on the concept of the original Rhodes Super Satellite speakers. But my favourite aspect of the electronics is the tremolo speed control, which at around 11 o’clock on the dial moves into audio‑rate modulation. As a previous user of a Moogerfooger Ring Mod pedal on a Rhodes, I sensed a similar destructive power in this effect, and the frequency range on offer is quite similar, with the waveform options generating subtle timbral changes. Speed is set using the inner part of a dual‑concentric dial; the outer part is a mixer, which ranges from a little background breakup to making the piano levitate three feet off the ground. Combined with the envelope follower, EQ and drive control, the tone‑sculpting possibilities are enormous: the MK8 becomes a super‑fat, fully polyphonic analogue synth controlled by the tine envelopes. Everything the old Rhodes EK10 should have been, in fact. On a gig with a MK8 my main worry would be having the self‑control to use a pure Rhodes sound when this modulation potential is so easily accessible!
Underpinning the analogue name‑rail effects is a layer of digital control. Encoder values and effects thresholds are determined by firmware, as is standard in many modern analogue synths, and this can be updated using the USB port on the right‑hand side. This gives scope for enhanced and expanded functionality with each new release. Another effects module containing an all‑analogue compressor, chorus, delay and phaser for the right‑hand side of the name rail is available as an option. Phaser and chorus rate can be varied with control input 1, either separately or simultaneously, and delay time and delay feedback will be variable through control input 2.
The last production model of the original Rhodes, the Mark 5, introduced a longer keystick which allowed hammer throw to be increased for greater dynamic response compared with previous models. This design is carried over into the MK8, and implemented to a much higher standard. The keybed is one of the few elements of the MK8 manufactured outside the UK: it comes from Kluge Klaviaturen in Germany, who make keybeds for Steinway acoustic pianos. So in the MK8 we get the same premium Bavarian spruce and anti‑slip keycaps as would be found in a Steinway!
The main problem with the Mark 5 design was that the extra power produced by the longer keystick proved to be too much for pivot pins on hammers in heavy traffic areas of the keyboard. There is a tendency for these pins to crack, resulting in the hammer not aligning correctly, and in some cases missing the tine altogether. This problem was solved in the Mark 7, which also adapted the Mark 5 keyboard, by increasing the diameter of the pivot pin, and the MK8 carries this solution over. Apart from being black in colour, the hammers look identical to those from the Mark 7 and are likewise from a similar high‑impact ABS, self‑lubricating to cope with the friction that occurs between hammer cam and key pedestal in a Rhodes. The hammer combs in the MK8 are also based on those in the Mark 7, with an enlarged hole to accommodate the larger pivots on the hammer.
Hammer tip material and hardness are important variables in Rhodes voicing. Rhodes pianos from 1970 onwards used neoprene hammer tips, which are more durable than the acoustic piano‑style teardrop hammers and square felt tips found in earlier Rhodes, but nevertheless still exhibit wear if played regularly. Neoprene is still the main choice for reissue hammer‑tip manufacturers today, though square felt tips as well as sets of teardrop hammers can be purchased from Vintage Vibe for anyone wishing to get closer to a 1960s tone. The MK8 uses a custom‑made patented polymer for greater control of Shore hardnesses and enhanced wear resistance, with the tips set at uniform height across the keyboard in four zones of hardness.
The damping system is an often‑overlooked, but critical element of the Rhodes sound. The damper arms have to be stiff enough to damp the tines, but as they are actuated by a bridle strap connected directly to the hammer, must be flexible enough not to impart excessive weight to the action. To adjust damper response, the tension of a Rhodes damper arm is altered by raising or lowering the arm with the bridle strap removed. It is crucial that the damper arm material is capable of maintaining ‘tension memory’ once adjusted. One of the most unfortunate failures of the Mark 7 was that the damper arms were fabricated from a grade of aluminium without this property, making slack damping impossible to correct. (Having both worked on Mark 7s in the past, Dan Goldman and I agreed that even though they had some issues, the keybed was actually pretty good. Once set up with new damper arms and all bad tines replaced, a Mark 7 is capable of playing really well.)
The Mark 5 is again the template here; it improved on previous Rhodes damper arm designs by incorporating a lateral bend down the length of each arm to increase tension and stability at the felt without overly loading the hammer. This gives more stopping power and less chance of the damper interfering with the tine on a hard strike leading to ‘spud’ notes (the term used at Fender R&D for a thunking, dead sound). The damper arms are manufactured from aerospace aluminium in octave modules and, as in earlier models, are made in three sizes for bass, mid and treble. For maximum stopping power the arms have been made slightly thicker, with the bend extending as far as possible down the arm.
Choosing damper felts for the MK8 took a lot of experimentation — Dan showed us a photo of a test instrument with about 15 different types of damper felt installed. The felt that made it onto the production MK8 is soft enough not to cause a return noise on damping, as well as being woven to maintain its shape.
The core of Rhodes sound production is the tine. In order for the sound of the Rhodes to remain authentic, and each note to have consistent attack and long sustain, the design and manufacturing process is critical. From the early ’70s, Rhodes tines were made using rotary swaging, a process where a steel rod is fed into a machine which hammers around its circumference. This has the effect of reducing the diameter as well as changing the grain, so that the metal is greatly strengthened. The tines are left with a taper of uniform length, in order to add more strength to the rod and guarantee a consistent strike point.
One of the most impressive parts of the MK8 project is the use of modern methods to produce a tine with the same sonic properties, but with greater durability, consistency and efficiency of manufacture. Yorkshire has a long and distinguished history of highly skilled steelworking, and Dan managed to find a firm just down the road in Leeds who were prepared to take on the project. Microscopic analysis of original tines from every generation of Rhodes production was undertaken in order to see what special characteristic imparted the classic Rhodes sound.
There is a great deal of mystique in the Rhodes community surrounding which tines have the warmest sound or greatest ‘bark’, so I asked Dan if any year of tine manufacture stood out as having a particularly unique quality. The answer is that all generations of swaged tine are broadly similar, though there are big variations in strength and metallurgy of the wire and block, as well as in taper dimensions and the fit of the tine to the block. From the analysis it was obvious that the traditional manufacturing method was not a precision process and that great improvements in the general assembly tolerances and machining accuracy were possible using CNC technology. The treatment process could be carefully controlled to ensure the new tines remained durable whilst retaining the correct amount of flexibility. In fact the process is so precise that it enables the tines to be manufactured in sets of 73, pre‑cut to length for each note in the piano. Gone is the excess labour of feeding each tine into the swaging machine, stamping into the block, cutting to length, and quality testing. The result is a beautifully machined tine that sounds fantastic.
The immense note sustain that gave the Rhodes such an advantage over its competitors is obtained by connecting the tine to a tonebar tuned to similar pitch, in order to create an unequal tuning fork. Dan has stuck closely to the design of the original Rhodes tonebars, though the connecting bolts are much heavier duty than the originals and now have a metric thread. Another vital aspect of the tone generator on a Rhodes is how it is mounted. In order to maintain sustain, each tone generator assembly is mounted individually on the harp on springs, secured with two screws against neoprene grommets. Dan has opted to clone the grommets from the Mark 5, which were designed for cup washers held by a countersunk screw, rather than those from earlier Rhodes which used flat washers and a pan‑head screw.
Rhodes pianos use a separate magnetic pickup for each tine. Those made for the MK8 are broadly similar to their ancestors, but Dan and his team have made some significant improvements. As Rhodes pianos age, the point where the pickup wire is soldered to the pin becomes vulnerable to corrosion. The MK8 pickups use a new process for strengthening the wire terminations, and the pin is moulded directly into the pickup, making it far more rigid than previous versions.
Rhodes pickups can be difficult to adjust precisely, due to a tendency to slip backwards or forwards as the pickup screw is tightened. In the MK8, a plastic anti‑slip washer has been added to overcome this, which in my trial pickup adjustment was very effective. The metal pickup head, while maintaining a similar angle to the originals, now has a flat edge with much sharper angles than previously. The head is now held in place more firmly with lugs molded into the bobbin.
The original Rhodes sustain pedal mechanism is a simple design. An adjustable rod pushes up a dowel to tilt the damper rail, which then rotates and pulls the dampers away from the tines. But for anyone who uses a Rhodes regularly on gigs, this system can be troublesome. As the adjustment to set pedal response has to be made every time the piano is set up, it is quite easy to push the rod in too little, leaving barely any pedal response at all, or too much, resulting in hanging notes across the keyboard. Also, the pedal has a habit of skating around the floor unless it is physically stuck down. An experienced Rhodes player will have perfected the manoeuvre of grabbing the sustain pedal mid‑song with both feet and pulling it back to where it was placed at the start of the gig!
So, the MK8 sustain pedal is another aspect that has undergone a complete redesign, with Axel Hartmann again handling the cosmetics and James Cope Design in Halifax the mechanics. An adjustable metal pivot is placed at the back of the case underneath the damper rail. The sustain pedal is then connected, Wurlitzer electric‑piano style, to pull down at the other side of the pivot using a cable rather than a rod. Though the pivot arm in our test Rhodes was still a 3D‑printed prototype, the system was already working much better than the original rod system. A nice touch is the removable rear logo which enables access to adjust the pedal mechanism without disassembling the piano. The pedals are painted to match the lid of the piano, and they feature a rubber foot mat which folds back over the pedal for transport, neatly clipping to the ‘R’ logo on the pedal body.