Vintage Vibes with Native Instruments

Fact: I once owned eight keyboard instruments (before I moved to Berlin!)

My favorite? A 40+ year-old tan top Wurlitzer Electronic Piano A200, refurbished by Vintage Vibe, those NJ-based Wurly and Rhodes repairers extraordinaire who are also famous for their fabulous bespoke instruments (so see them at NAMM this week).

Macro shot of the A200
Awwww, yeaahhh….

Prior to playing my first real Wurlitzer A200 while working with Jim Ebert (also the instrument’s owner) on an album with Crooked Crow at Cue Studio‘s Red Room, I had only ever played digital representations of electronic pianos on keyboards or VSTs in my studio.  (This track, Wurlitzer in Moonlight, was written about ten years ago using a now-ancient version of Lounge Lizard.)  The difference in the “real” one was startling: I could feel a very subtle but definite buzz beneath my fingers when the power was on, and without power, you could still hear its lovely dark music-box bell tones clunking beneath the plastic case.  In other words, it was a REAL and LIVING instrument at all times, not just a lifeless slap of dead plastic, cheap buttons and lights, and sterile keys.  When I recorded one of my own tracks on it some time later, I knew I had to have one for myself and Vintage Vibe offered a high-quality refurbished instrument at a competitive price.

Falling in love with the Wurly.

Soon after I purchased my own Wurly, I noticed an immediate change and improvement in my songwriting; deeper creativity in my improvisations and idea-chasing.  As most instrumentalists have probably found, the difference in sound or feel from one instrument to another can affect or enhance a performance and forever alter the way a new or fermenting song develops under the influence of a unique new sound.

More specifically, the very organic and analog nature of the Wurlitzer’s unaltered, hand-fitted tines leads me to compelling new voicings and dissonances that wouldn’t occur to me at the piano or on a keyboard.  I also find it unique in terms of its post-attack decay time.  The long, pure sustained notes ring out evenly and decay very slowly without requiring a harsh initial attack.  This, along with a very precise and delicate action, gives me a great depth of feeling and color for soft or moderate-velocity playing and intricate inner voices.  It’s probably what I imagine a velocity-sensitive organ might feel like.  I grew up playing (and still play) a lot of Bach, and the Wurly responds well to precise finger-pedaling (and this compensates for its only drawback: the sustain pedal is not as forgiving or precise as one on an acoustic piano).

Laura and the Wurlitzer
At home in my dining room / performance hall… Photo by Ian Weddell.

Composing with the Wurly.

The first song I wrote at my Wurly is “All Things I Wish You Are Love” (based on a poem by my late, great Uncle Frank Burns, who would have been 70 yesterday).  The full version, which I’m excited to release soon, was recorded primarily at Innovation Station with Mike Tony Echols on bass, Mike Smirnoff on drums, and Dave Mallen on shaker and tambourine.  (The two Mikes play throughout the rest of my EP, still being recorded and mixed at Innovation Station.  Along with everyone else who was kind enough to play for me, they are awesome musicians.  Hire them today and they will deliver the goods!)

Here’s an example of a chord I “found” thanks to the Wurly.  I’ve also been a big Stax records fan for awhile, and the intro and signature progression to “Respect Yourself” features a lovely pattern on a b minor seventh descending from an A natural to a G# (briefly turning it into a b minor sixth).  Whether that was top of my mind at the time or not, I was finding my way through a solo before the second chorus and a similar, more strident and stacked version of that chord came into my fingers and it sounded SO COOL the way it just doesn’t on other instruments.  I remembered Respect Yourself, of course, and really built the solo around to lead up to it, highlighting it as my little tribute to The Staple Singers and the way they featured keyboards.  The particular effect of vibrato on the dissonance combined with all the organic goodness of the resonating tines just sounded great.  Here’s the chord that you hear briefly in the song.  (I guess it’s kind of an inverted B13 sus?)

b minor seven eleven chord

How does a real Wurly A200 sound compared to a virtual reproduction?

So, once I had it all down, I started to build a demo at home before going to the studio.  I recorded the Wurly in my house with an instrument out running through an M-Audio FastTrack Pro into Nuendo.

Note: The final recording has plenty of post-processing, but what you’re hearing here is an MP3 from the pure unaltered WAV.

This is little sequence of Wurly-only excerpts of the song’s intro, the 2nd verse, that little chord I like from one of my solos, and an overdub higher-register part in the bridge — again, recorded pure with a little vibrato on-board but otherwise no post reverb or anything else.

Sample 1: All Things I Wish You Are Love excerpts: Vintage Vibe Wurly (VVW)

Now compare the above Wurly sequence to the same sections played with Native Instruments Elektrik Piano 1.5 > Authentic Instruments > A200 > Pure.  Vibrato rate and volume was comparable to the Wurly.  Release noise was moderate.

Sample 2: All Things I Wish You Are Love excerpts: MIDI Native Instruments EP 1.5 (NIW)

First, some caveats: 1. My Elektrik Piano 1.5, still offering a very reasonable reproduction of the A200 and other vintage instruments, is three or so years old.   As always, even higher-quality samples are available now from the excellent folks at NI, such as the Scarbee Keys series.  2. I performed this through my studio MIDI controller, a Yamaha MO-8 with weighted keys.  I love the action on it for my acoustic piano, but it can be a little randomly oversensitive, throwing an occasional high-velocity value from time to time.  3.  I didn’t practice these sequences prior to recording today the way I did with the live Wurly version.  4.  Polar vortex #2 brought single digit temps to my “Southern” state of Virginia.  My hands are freezing!

Here’s what I noticed in both listening and playing.

1. The Vintage Vibe Wurly (VVW) has what I consider to be a more even action and a more predictable and precise range of velocity response when I play a note than the Native Instruments Wurly (NIW).  This may be more of an issue for the MO-8, but nevertheless I had a very difficult time reliably reproducing G4 (G above middle C) in particular at the exact tone I wanted on the NIW.  80% of the time, it sounded too loud and bleed-y, not mellow.  G4 stood out as a weird note.

2. In the higher register (at the end of the sequence), the VVW has a warm, pitch-accurate, bell-like tone.  The NIW didn’t sound as gentle and dreamy at all, but again seems to return to a more bleed-y, reedy sound.   It’s not a sound that compels me to play the introduction to Dancing in the Moonlight the way I frequently do with genuine enjoyment on the VVW.  Overall, the threshold between bell-like music box sounds and full-on Misty Mountain Hop feel is a little too binary.  (For the record — pun intended — I love the screamy sound of a distorted, amped Wurly, and more exciting experiments with some real tube amps will be shared eventually, but I do need to be able to control it, especially in a sunnier or laid back funk / jazz / soul setting.)

3.  The decay time felt shorter on the NIW and this definitely affected the way I performed.  I had a harder time gauging when I should release some notes.  It always feels natural on the VVW.   My VVW has Vintage Vibe’s own improved amplifier and vibrato — that probably does have an impact on how long a tine vibrates and resonates after being struck.   This is probably the hardest thing to explain and qualify.

Should you get an A200 of your own?

That’s the $2,500-to-$6,000 question, which is probably the range you should consider for a good quality instrument.  Wurlitzers have tines that I believe to be fairly sensitive and which require tuning with drops of solder.  One of the reasons I sought out Vintage Vibe is that they do a thorough refurbishment of A200s, including cleaning, tuning, replacing, or improving everything that moves and makes noise, including adding that new vibrato and amp with custom toggles for the vibrato speed (yes, it was worth it), plus adding a line out and a headphone jack among other things.  I knew I’d plan to record with mine, so I wanted a clean and on-pitch instrument.  Shipping it from New Jersey (or from wherever else you find one) can add to that cost.

This article isn’t meant to tell you how to buy one, but I would like to strongly encourage you to go out and find a vintage A200 of your own to love, especially if you are primarily a keyboardist and keyboard-based composer interested in the unusual and vintage sounds that the A200 brings to bear.  I prefer the pianistic action of the A200 (the tines behave like the strings of a piano) more than the bell-block Fender Rhodes, but the Rhodes obviously has a unique and beautiful sound in the right hands, too.  I do believe that something more mechanical and real is always exciting and more intimate, somehow, not just for the reasons I’ve tried to articulate.  There’s something about a hand-crafted instrument — you form a two-way relationship of creativity, purpose, memory.  (Would any violinist hand over their Strad for an electric replacement for more than novelty or avant garde performances?)

Meanwhile, if you’re traveling, short on funds or room, or less of a key-based performer, the VSTs from NI and other manufacturers are damn close to the real thing, and that’s much better than nothing.  After all, who but a rare few can really tell?

Native Instruments Electronic Piano 1.5
Native Instruments Electronic Piano 1.5 in Nuendo 4’s MDI

Vintage Vibe will be at booth 5410, Hall B, at Winter NAMM 2014 this week.  Say hello!  Native Instruments, in its 15th year, is not on the exhibitor list this year.

*Full list and timeframe acquired where otherwise embarrassing (italics = acoustic instruments).

  • Wurlitzer A200
  • Nord Stage Piano EX-76
  • Korg SV-1 73
  • Yamaha SY-22
  • Yamaha MO-8
  • Yamaha DiscClavier upright 
  • Yamaha PSR-400 (high school)
  • Yamaha X2500 (elementary school)

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