It’s The Feel. Or is it the smell?

Eight hundred years ago, a keyboard was a series of pegs or bars used to control a pipe organ, with each key opening a valve to admit air to a particular group of pipes. It started to take its modern shape in tandem with the development of musical notation. Both had become standards that we would recognise today by the middle of the Renaissance Era, around 1500. With the invention of escapement mechanisms, keys were united with strings, and the first spinets, clavichords and harpsichords appeared. The keyboard as a control interface continued to evolve as the instruments that it served proliferated and matured.

Early keyboard instruments were limited in ways that today’s instruments are not. Only a small class of them could be controlled by changing the speed at which a player’s fingers hit the keys, and these devices provided insufficient power to perform to a concert audience. Louder instruments required a mechanical plectrum to pluck the string from a fixed height, so that any manner of keypress resulted in the same sound.

To alter the tone and character of music, concert instruments started to resemble organ consoles, possessing two or more manuals and a large number of drawbars and stops. Octave doubling, Venetian swell, and auxiliary strings were variously employed to provide some dynamic versatility, but it was not until the invention of the fortepiano around 1720 that a keyboard instrument could combine the subtlety of finger-controlled dynamic range with the power of a concert instrument. Early pianos feel and play like development prototypes: they are quiet, feel insubstantial, and fall out of tune if somebody closes a door too quickly. Fortunately, the Industrial Revolution accelerated their development, mutating the fortepiano into a pianoforte by replacing the wooden frame with steel so that strings could be longer, tighter, louder, and maintain better tuning. This provided the strength and stability to withstand the additional tension of two or more octaves, and allowed second and third strings to be fixed to the higher notes to balance them with the power of the lower ones. The newer bass strings were overstrung with the others to make the resulting instrument more compact, and the grand piano took its distinctive, curvy shape. Pedals were added: one to lift the dampers, and one to soften the treble by shifting the hammers so that they could not contact the third strings. For keyboard musicians, however, an equally significant improvement was the invention of the double escapement in the 1830s.

Whereas keyboards had formerly required each key to be released to its starting position to sound again, double escapement allows a player to retreat the key of a sounded note by a few millimetres, and then strike again to repeat it. It permits a greater palette of playing styles, and accommodates figurations that are both quiet and fast. Certain elements of compositions, such as the note or chord tremolandi that are favoured by some modern composers, would be physically impossible without it. The double escapement is fiendishly complicated: it relies on a moving assembly poetically called the wippen. This couples the key to its hammer via a number of levers, moving linkages, and adjustable screws. It is sufficiently complex, and setting it up is such an art, that it would probably not have been invented or popularised had Victorian engineers had access to electronics. They didn’t, and their legacy is the brilliant and complicated key mechanism that accounts for much of the cost and labour of a modern concert piano.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Our forebears composed for many types of keyboard instrument, and so do we. The electronic era has bestowed upon us electroacoustic instruments such as the Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos. These were designed, in the spirit of the clavichord, to be portable pianos. Because the electronics did some of the work, the hammers and dampers could be smaller, which made the escapements simpler and lighter. One such instrument, the Hohner Clavinet, is little more than an amplified clavichord, reminding us that innovation can be as retrospective as it is progressive. Add to this other classic electronic instruments with no finger-controlled dynamics – the Hammond organ, the Mellotron, and a plethora of classic analogue synthesisers – and it is clear that keyboard players can now choose from an incredible legacy of beautiful, but very different, instruments.

Today, our customers want the sound of these instruments without the liability of ownership. None of these instruments is simple to tune or maintain, and their scarcity, fragility and complexity makes them expensive. Part of Novation’s business is manufacturing MIDI controllers that allow an inexpensive key mechanism to be joined to synthesisers or samplers to reproduce these sounds. Our slogan, It’s The Feel, is also our mission, and it pays no small tribute to five hundred years of progress.

Selling MIDI controllers with such a statement is bold. We run the risk of being compared against not just the responsiveness of a vintage instrument, but its gestalt. A Rhodes piano isn’t just a sound, and its escapement isn’t just a feel. The joy of a Rhodes is just as much in the semiotics of its faded, off-white keys, the weight and rattle of each note as it’s deployed, and the way that the whole keyboard buzzes under the fingers as it is played. It’s the smell of dust and old solder flux, and the black fabric, rounded thermoplastic, and kitsch chrome detailing of a vintage instrument. And, of course, it’s just as much the smoke-filled photographs of jazz and rock legends of the Sixties and Seventies teasing immortal melodies from its keys. In all their flaws, instruments like the Rhodes are evocative and compelling because they are culture, and they are history. Many musicians refuse to play a sampled facsimile, no matter how indistinguishable it is from the original once their track is laid down, because if the performer doesn’t feel the same, the performance won’t be the same.

So, when we make electronic controllers, we find ourselves perched on the shoulders of giants, but sometimes wishing that they’d let us down for a few minutes so that we can take a walk and see the sights ourselves. Meanwhile, we contrive to stage re-enactments of the playing experience of a few favourite keyboards, and to elicit as much cultural meaning from them as possible. The Feel will never be the real thing, but our customer is buying a MIDI controller, rather than trawling classified adverts to become the custodian of an heirloom. What we provide must be an amalgam of everything they need to do, with a cost of ownership that they can afford and an ease of use and portability that mechanical instruments cannot touch. We remember that our art is forever shifting. Our mission is to make the most versatile and playable keyboard we can, and to discard those frustrations of real instruments that performers often forget.

Having set this stage, my next posting will discuss the design of MIDI controller keyboards, the choices we make about them, and what we can do to make them better.


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