Vintage Vibe’s Rhodes recreation just keeps getting better.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, you had just one choice of manufacturer if you wanted the sound of a Rhodes piano. Rhodes. Other electro‑mechanical pianos existed in the form of the Wurlitzer EP200, rarities such as the Hohner Electra‑Piano, the Weltmeister Claviset, and even various Pianets if you didn’t mind the lack of a sustain pedal, but only a Rhodes sounded like a Rhodes, and it ruled. Then Yamaha launched the DX7, Kurzweil released the K250, and these, plus the numerous digital pianos that appeared soon after, propelled the bulky, heavy and sometimes troublesome Rhodes toward the fringes of popular music. But some players’ love for it never waned and in 2007, more than 20 years after the demise of the Mark V, the Rhodes Mark 7 appeared. (I wonder what happened to the Mark 6?) If you never saw or heard one of these, I’m not surprised; it came and went without leaving a ripple on the surface of the music industry. But its spiritual successor, the Rhodes Mark 8, has now entered production, guaranteeing that the Rhodes name lives on, albeit outside of the mainstream that it dominated 50 years ago.
Meanwhile, former rental company and repair shop Vintage Vibe also released a range of 44‑, 64‑ and 73‑note Rhodes‑inspired pianos. I reviewed the 64‑note sparkle‑top version for Sound On Sound in April 2013 and was impressed. Curvy and sexy like a Wurlitzer EP200 on the outside but with the soul of a Rhodes on the inside, it was beautifully built, its keyboard was more even than that of my vintage Rhodes, and it sounded superb. Since then, Vintage Vibe have deleted the 44‑note model while introducing two improvements to both the 64‑ and 73‑note models: new hammer tips distributed across multiple zones to create an even better response, and an updated preamp with a revised EQ and tremolo circuit. But today, there’s a much more significant update called Variable Voice Control, and it’s this that makes it worth revisiting the Vintage Vibe piano in 2023.
To appreciate Variable Voice Control, you have to understand how the Rhodes mechanism and the sound it produces can be adjusted to suit the player. You’ve probably noticed that some Rhodes pianos have a warm, rounded sound, while others of the same model and age can sound much brighter with more ‘bark’. This isn’t an accident, it’s a consequence of the spatial relationships between the piano’s tines and pickups; if you’re willing to attack these with a selection of screwdrivers and spanners, you can revoice it by adjusting the height of each tine and its associated tone bar. It’s not really a job for an untrained amateur because obtaining consistency across the width of the keyboard can be tricky, but it can be done. Unfortunately, this operation also changes the ‘feel’ of the piano slightly because the distance travelled by the hammer to strike each tine is affected, as is each tine’s relationship with the damping mechanism. In the late 1970s, a company named Dyno‑My‑Piano simplified the revoicing procedure by devising a mechanism that shifted the whole harp assembly in relation to the pickups but, now that I’ve seen what Vintage Vibe have invented, I’m gobsmacked that no‑one previously thought of it because it’s clearly a better solution. It works like this...
The controller for the Variable Voice Control mechanism is nothing more than a slider mounted next to the preamp panel. Behind the scenes, this moves a physical ramp that adjusts the height of a short metal rod. This rod then pushes against a bar that adjusts the angle of the frame on which all the pickups are mounted. When the slider is pushed fully to the left, all the pickups are rotated so that their poles are at their lowest position, somewhat distant from the tines, and this generates a warm and rounded tone. As you push the slider to the right, the pickups are angled upward so that the poles move closer to the tines, increasing the brightness and ‘cut’ of the sound. This mechanism has two very significant advantages over manual adjustment. The first is that you can revoice the whole instrument in a fraction of a second — even while playing! The second is that, because the pickup assembly is being rotated and the height of the tines is unaffected, the action is unchanged. It’s simple, brilliant and bloody obvious once someone else has thought of it.
To test this, I accessed the sockets on the underside of the instrument to hook up the Vintage Vibe Deluxe 73 production prototype supplied for this review. (Despite necessitating a bit of grovelling, this is a much more sensible arrangement than that of vintage Rhodeses because these have their outputs immediately behind the keyboard, requiring the use of a right‑angled quarter‑inch plug and some tape to ensure that the cable doesn’t become entangled in your left‑hand pinkie.) Having done so, I discovered that something was amiss. Everything worked as expected, except that the Variable Voice Control appeared to do nothing. After a few moments trying to work out what I was doing wrong, I decided that the right approach was to blame the instrument, find a suitable screwdriver, and open the thing up. It took just moments to remove the lid, and this revealed the problem; the rod that moves up and down was no longer underneath the bar that rotates the pickup frame, but had somehow become displaced and was wedged beside it. I have no idea how this could have happened — the force needed to do this would have been considerable. Nonetheless, it took just seconds to fix, whereupon everything worked as it should. I reported this to FX Rentals — who kindly supplied the review instrument — and later discussed it with the chaps at Vintage Vibe who told me that they have now modified the production units to prevent this from happening.
Having removed the lid, I also took the opportunity to inspect the piano mechanism. This revealed that the new model is as much a work of art today as it was in 2013. I then tested the action and was pleased to find that the keyboard was level, responsive and clatter‑free. However, it’s still likely to be hard work for players who have never experienced the joys of muscle development through playing a Rhodes. But if there’s one area in which the Vintage Vibe piano falls a little short, it’s that of the sustain pedal, which is a push‑rod design (like a Rhodes) rather than the more sensible cable design (like an EP200) that allows you a degree of flexibility to position the pedal to taste. Furthermore, the pedal itself is much lighter than that of an original Rhodes and, on a polished floor, it’s inclined to go walkabout. To avoid problems, keep a roll of gaffa tape to hand or do your best Grateful Dead impersonation and refuse to perform on anything less than an expensive Persian rug.
Next, I checked the revised preamp. This was reassuringly quiet, but I’m not sure that the EQ is entirely to my taste because even moderate bass boost can make the piano sound a tad woolly. Had it been up to me, I would have lowered the shelving frequency a little. I also have slight misgivings about the stereo (panning) tremolo, which is generated by a square‑wave modulator so that the sound jumps from side to side rather than sliding from one extreme to the other. If one is being a Rhodes purist, this is as it should be, but I feel that a triangle wave would have produced a more musical effect.
From the outset, I liked the Vintage Vibe’s lower and mid ranges very much, but a few notes toward the upper end of the keyboard were significantly louder and more aggressive than the rest, jumping out and biting me on the ears. Since I still had the lid off, I adjusted the pickup positions of the offending notes, sliding them back a millimetre or two until each sat comfortably alongside the rest. I then checked that the Variable Voice Control was unaffected by my dabbling, which it was. Then I played again. Ah... that was much nicer.
Now we need to consider another issue with Rhodes pianos; if you play chords in the upper octaves of an equal tempered 73 or 88 you obtain a harsh, discordant initial tone. This doesn’t last very long because the high‑frequency components generated by an original Rhodes decay quickly, but the Vintage Vibe is designed to have a wider frequency response and a longer decay, so the effect is more pronounced. Indeed, it seemed even more pronounced than I had expected, so I grabbed a tuner and inspected each of the notes in the top octave‑and‑a‑half. Several were a few cents out of tune, so I tweaked them and the discord was reduced. To be honest, I would have loved to have taken the time to fine‑tune the whole instrument, perhaps even stretching it a little to sweeten the sound. But I doubt that FX Rentals would have thanked me, so I left well alone.
Once I had finished tweaking, it was time to stop analysing and just enjoy the instrument. Expletive deleted, it’s nice! After a while, I found that my favourite setup was with the Variable Voice Control almost fully to the right and the treble EQ almost fully anticlockwise, much like a guitarist selecting the bridge pickup and turning down the treble. Adding a little tremolo then completed the sound and, in my view, the results would have graced any recording. But if I wanted a darker, smokier tone, all I had to do was whip the slider to the left, saving hours of revoicing. Happily, Variable Voice Control is also available as an upgrade for earlier 64‑note and 73‑note Vintage Vibe pianos, which I imagine will be of interest to many existing owners.
Inevitably, there are a few shortcomings. For example, the Vintage Vibe’s unbraced Wurlitzer‑style legs mean that’s it a little less steady than a Rhodes, so a bit of over‑energetic pounding can cause it to wobble under your fingers. Secondly, the top is domed, so it’s not suitable (for both aesthetic and geometric reasons) for use as a platform for other keyboards. Furthermore, it comes without a hard lid, so you’ll need a flightcase unless it’s going to sit in your studio (or living room) for its entire life. It’s also worth noting that there’s no 88‑note version, although this doesn’t bother me as much as it did 10 years ago; I suspect that the 73 is wide enough for most players, especially since the very highest and very lowest notes on an 88 can be strange beasties at the best of times.
While it may not sound or feel identical to your favourite Rhodes, I think that there’s a good chance that you’ll prefer it.
The Vintage Vibe piano is a beautiful instrument to look at, to play, and to hear. Sure, the e‑piano emulations in modern workstations and modelled soft synths can be amazing, and I find that they can sit in a track as naturally as the original instruments. But there are some players for whom the experience contributes to the performance, and there’s no doubt that sitting behind a Vintage Vibe 73 is quite different from sitting behind a workstation or a MIDI controller hooked up to your laptop. It’s also quite different from sitting behind a clattery old Rhodes. So, while it may not sound or feel identical to your favourite Rhodes, I think that there’s a good chance that you’ll prefer it. It’s not hard to understand why. In no particular order... its build quality is superb, it’s lighter than the original, its action is more consistent, its active electronics are quiet, its sound is excellent, and the Variable Voice Control is a stroke of genius.
On the other hand, Vintage Vibe pianos are far from cheap and, at two to three times the cost of a restored Rhodes, even the smaller models will be beyond the reach of most players. But I don’t think that anyone with the means will be disappointed. What’s more, I suspect that the Vintage Vibe sitting beside me will last just as long as the 50‑year‑old beast alongside it. I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to view an electro‑mechanical piano as an heirloom, but this one comes close.
- It looks gorgeous.
- It sounds gorgeous.
- The action is first class.
- Variable Voice Control is a brilliant innovation.
- It will outlast me, and possibly you too.
- All in all, it’s a better e‑piano.
- The high‑frequency response and extended sustain can accentuate the natural dissonances of a Rhodes.
- The domed lid makes it unsuitable as a platform for other keyboards.
- A heavier, cable‑style sustain pedal would be an improvement.
- It can wobble a little if you get energetic when playing it.
- It’s expensive.
It’s far from cheap but, having had the opportunity to play a Vintage Vibe Deluxe 73 with Variable Voice Control, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be fully satisfied with a vintage Rhodes again.
Deluxe 73 $8799, Vintage Voice Control $1399. Prices include VAT.
Deluxe 73 $8799, Vintage Voice Control $1399.