Saturday, August 8, 2020

The New, New, New Sound Stylophone for 2020!

Since the release of the original Stylophone back around 1968, the instrument's engineering has gone through a few iterations. 

The first edition had individual electronic components -- most notably a transistor-based oscillator circuit and an individual resistor for each key. A later variation replaced the individual resistors with a pair of resistor blocks that apparently had multiple values built-in. It required fewer parts and less effort to assemble, but the basic timbre remained the same -- sort of a brassy/buzzy sound halfway between a trumpet and a saxophone that likely annoyed parents around the world during the later hours of Christmas day.

In the mid-70s, Dubreq reduced the circuit board's component count even further. The "New Sound" model featured a 555 timer chip that took over the sound generation duties from the previous transistor oscillator.  This new design resulted in a slighty more mellow timbre (a bit more reedy than the original), shifted up an octave. The "New Sound" model also featured a much-needed volume control.

When the Stylophone was revived in the early 2000s (and eventually nicknamed the S1), the redesigned instrument's internal workings shrunk again, with a small, digital chip doing all the heavy lifting. It featured a three-way switch that allowed the selection of three slightly different timbres: a standard tone that approximated the sound of the original instrument, a bass tone that seemed to just EQ out most of the treble but was not actually any lower in fundamental pitch, and third tone that was shifted up an octave and seemed to roll off some of the low end.

Now in 2020, there's a new, new, new sound for the Stylophone that features a "Back to Analog" sound generation scheme. Dubreq sent me a pre-production unit to try out for myself.

The new 2020 Stylophone

It looks mostly the same as the previous, digital S1 model. The mp3 player input jack is gone (which I almost never used anyway) and a micro USB power jack has been added. That's a welcome and convenient enhancement, although not entirely necessary.  It will help me cut down on the cost of replacing batteries, of course. And the instrument can now be powered by almost any cell phone charger, including those portable power banks.

The other changes are on the inside. I am not going to take my instrument apart to see what's new, so I will just take Dubreq's word that the circuitry has been redesigned with an analog oscillator. The sound is much less harsh than any previous version. Like the "New Sound" version, I would describe it as a bit more reedy than the original or the S1. (I've already been playing along with Kenny G videos on YouTube.) But there's no mistake that it has the vintage Stylophone pedigree.

I noticed that the speaker volume isn't as loud as the S1, and the volume control has less range. In fact, the volume can't be turned completely down to silence. I don't know if this is by design, or if it is a quirk of my particular unit, or if it is a glitch that will be fixed in the final production version. I don't think it's a deal breaker, though.


The three-way switch now has a different function than the digital S1. There is only one timbre, but the pitch range can be shifted up or down by a full octave at a time. It effectively provides a 44-note range, which is equivalent to half of a piano or the full keyboard of the legendary Stylophone 350S!

When I compared the usable pitch range of this new 2020 edition Stylophone to some of my older instruments, I found that the low octave of the 2020 model is not as low as the rare bass Stylophone from the early days, which could play down to an A1 pitch. And the high octave of the new 2020 edition is actually an octave higher than the vintage treble model. Here's a little comparison chart I made. (I left out the sharps and flats to keep the chart a reasonable width.) Click on it for a bigger view.

Stylophone pitch ranges

Of course, all of these instruments can be transposed a little higher or lower than these ranges, but the pitches would no longer correspond to the conventional keyboard layout.

As I mentioned, I have a pre-production unit. A limited number may still available for purchase. Dubreq discounted the price because the keyboards don't have the nickel plating normally applied to production model instruments.  As such, they are more prone to show scratches from the manufacturing process or from normal use. If you want to wait for the final product, they should be available in all the usual places very soon.

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