Alert: this is NOT nostalgia Tech Tip, no matter how often we say, “Remember when…!” This is a reminder that keyboard players, past and present, can enhance the sonic variety of their boards, vintage or modern, through the use of the myriad of stomp boxes. originally designed for guitars. You can make yourself instantly more valuable to your band or to any recording session by offering more sounds to contribute to the mix.
Guitar effects have been keyboard players’ “secret weapon” for years. A few examples:
In the 1970s the “Big 3” effects heard on most classic Fender Rhodes pianos were the MXR Phase 90 phase shifter, a tape echo unit like the Roland Space Echo and the Crybaby Wah. For phase shifting, think of Billy Joel’s “I Love You Just The Way You Are” (sorry, lounge veterans). Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking track “Chameleon” moved from Clavinet to heavily echoed Rhodes in its middle section. And perhaps the ultimate Clavinet/wah pedal combination was heard on Stevie Wonder’s mega-hit “Higher Ground.” Tube preamps were also used to warm up the Rhodes, giving it that 70’s Steely Dan clean-tone (Tine) sound.
Led Zeppelin used the Rhodes more than many listeners realize. John Paul Jones created the swirling “underwater” sound of “No Quarter” in concert, by feed ing the Rhodes through a Maestro PS-1A phase shifter. Incidentally, this phaser was developed by Tom Oberheim, who later produced the famous Oberheim synthesizers.
Wurlitzer electric pianos also ruled in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. How many of us (at the time) recognized the haunting opening chords of the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” as a heavily processed Wurlitzer? On Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” Roger Hodgson took the Wurly output into a DI and then split it through a Boss chorus pedal to give it a half-straight and half-modulated chorus sound.
Keep in mind that Rhodes’ and Wurlitzer’s passive electronics are not much different from an electric guitar. Almost any guitar effects can also be used on a these pianos, so long as the piano’s signal goes through a preamp at the beginning of the effects chain.
As synthesizers took over the keyboard world, stomp boxes remained essential tools for fattening signals and providing interest. Although groups like Yes and EL&P tended to focus on the power of the synths themselves, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream made heavy use of (often custom-designed) guitar-oriented signal processors. And in the funk world, George Clinton of P-Funk ran a variety of synths through his Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron envelope filter for constantly swirling modulation.
Synths evolved through the 1980s and 1990s, and many manufacturers developed sophisticated internal effects units that complemented their sound programming powers. Some impressive workstations from Korg, Kurzweil, Roland and Yamaha featured digital effects processing that rivaled what was found in dedicated studio boxes.
But still, guitar boxes rocked the keyboard world! Look under the Chemical Brothers’ heap of live-show synths and controllers and you’ll find loads of vintage guitar processors, including Electro Harmonix’ Bass Microsynth, Guitar Micro-Synthesizer, Electric Mistress, Tone Bender and Space Drum; an Ibanez analog delay, Schaller tremolo, a Morley wah and more.
There are some technological hurdles when connecting modern keyboards to vintage guitar effects boxes. Most synthesizers have Line-Level audio outputs that can overload a typical effects box, designed for the lower level signals and the higher output impedances of guitar, which usually needs to receive a Hi-Z guitar input. One hardware solution is to use a re-amplifier, which converts line-level input to Hi-Z instrument output without adding noise. Unfortunately, these boxes cost from $250 – $500, making them as expensive as the effects box you want to connect! Sweetwater Tech Support recommends a more affordable workaround: use mic attenuators between your keyboard out and the stomp box in. For example, the ProCo MAX20 provides 20 dB of attenuation, which should eliminate any overload. You need a couple of adapters to convert its XLR connectors into 1/4″ for the effects box.
So whether your keyboard rig is onstage or in the studio, you can realize a world of sonic possibilities you may never had thought about by simply plugging in to a piece of guitar technology, old or new. Give it a try!