Every dog, so the saying goes, has its day. It's also true for keyboards. We all know apocryphal stories of Mellotrons that ended up in skips and ARP Odysseys advertised as 'free to a good home' in the 1980s, but look what they're now worth to a new generation of players. Yet who would have imagined that the ever-so-humble Philicorda would one day be worth more than a big fat zero or that, having been rediscovered by the likes of the Coral in the 2000s, it would later be used on albums by Adele and Ellie Goulding? Given this resurgence of interest (or, more accurately, 'surgance' of interest), it can be no surprise that it has now been sampled extensively, most recently for the first in the Sonas line of Kontakt 5 instruments by Samplephonics.
From the photos on the company's web site, the samples were recorded using a Philicorda GM751 or GM752 played though what they describe as a "vintage recording chain”, although no details regarding this are supplied. This turned into a huge job when Samplephonics realised that they couldn't sample the stops individually and then layer them in Kontakt to create registrations because analogue drift while recording would result in a phasing effect quite unlike the original instrument. So they decided to sample every note of every possible registration.
Fortunately for them, the single-manual Philicordas are simple instruments, with five stops called Vox I through to Vox V, three octaves (8', 4' and 2') that can be activated in any combination, a 6Hz vibrato, and a generous 15” three-spring reverb that's surprisingly clean and howl-free. The only other facility is a keyboard split at the second 'E' which plays either a sound almost identical to the 4' footage of Vox I, or a selection of major, minor and dominant-7th chords below the split point to accompany whatever voicing you choose to play above it. You'll find all of these controls modelled on the first of six pages within the Sonas instrument, with an additional tremolo to complement the original's vibrato, plus a rate control that acts upon both.
The other five pages control an extensive subtractive synthesizer architecture. The output from the Philicorda page (in essence, the oscillator) passes to the filter page, which reveals three options (LP, BP, HP) with resonance, drive and key tracking. The envelope page then offers independent, polyphonic ADSR contours for the amp, pitch and filter, and there are three monophonic LFOs (again, one each for the amp, pitch and filter) each with independent rate that you can sync individually to MIDI if required, waveform, fade-in time and amount. Next comes the velocity page. This allows you to draw your own response or adjust the factory response from a concave (quasi-exponential) to convex (quasi-logarithmic) curve. Unfortunately, velocity is routed only to the output level, not the filter cut-off frequency, so I would exhort Samplephonics to consider updating this. Finally, there are two additional effects: a basic chorus and a simple Leslie. The controls for these are minimal (speed/depth/mix and speed/distance/mix respectively) but they are nonetheless effective.
Comparing the sounds of the GM751 (or GM752) samples with my electronically very different but functionally identical Philicorda GM754 revealed that Vox I is a tad brighter on the sampled version but can be made to sound all but identical using the LP filter. In contrast, Vox II is a tad duller than on the original, while Vox III, Vox IV and Vox V have additional harmonics that give them a rather pleasing 'edge'. There were numerous revisions to the voice boards and other electronics in the original Philicordas, so these differences are to be expected, and they do nothing to detract from the essential Philicorda-iness of the Sonas version.
I then experimented with the synth controls. Having started out in the days when you took a cheapo Galanti or Elka organ and passed its output through tape echoes, early chorus effects, fuzz boxes and Leslies to see what you could wring out of it, the Sonas Philicorda gave me the same buzz (by which I mean excitement, not a nasty 50Hz mains loop) as before. For example, I selected Vox/Chord setting #2 to play gentle chords in the bass and brighter 'lead' sounds in the treble register, applied a slow attack and slow release reminiscent of a string synth, closed the LP filter, added a little resonance and overdrive to accentuate some of the harmonics, applied a mild LFO to the pitch, added a slow chorus, passed the result through the Leslie effect and wound up the reverb… and it was 1974 all over again! Further experimentation demonstrated that it offers a surprisingly varied palette of sounds. Inevitably, pads and small pipe-organ emulations pour forth, but I was startled to find that the promised "driving basses and leads” could also be obtained with minimal effort, and shaping the notes using the contours allowed me to create numerous electronic pianos and other percussive sounds. I even stumbled upon a realistic emulation of an RMI Electrapiano, which was a shock!
My time with the Sonas Philicorda was not entirely glitch-free, but I seem to have caused that myself by launching it initially in Kontakt Free Player rather than in a full version of Kontakt 5.3.x, so please don't make the same mistake. Also, one claim made by Samplephonics is wrong; the promised self-oscillation of the filter doesn't occur. But let me summarise my feelings for the instrument as follows...
When I liberated my GM754 from storage, I heard something rattling around inside. On opening it, I found that two of the six transducer magnet pins in the spring reverb had sheared, which required disassembly, a fiddly repair and then reassembly before I could start this review. Significant faults are not uncommon with Philicordas, so something that's nicely sampled, can be controlled via MIDI, and which provides all of their sounds (and much more) with none of the accompanying hassle has to be very tempting. Gordon Reid