Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Russian band features the Stylophone 350s

I just found out about an interesting Russian rock band called Gromyka. They use a vintage Stylophone 350s as their main keyboard instrument. Cool, huh?!

In the YouTube video below, the Stylophone player is using the second stylus to engage the 350s reiterate function, which is sort of an extreme tremolo or strumming/percussion effect. If you use the regular stylus in your left hand and the reiterate stylus in your right hand, as the guy in the video is doing, you can play two pitches simultaneously, with the lower pitch constant and the higher pitch reiterating.

Similar reiterate effects were found on some 1960s and 1970s electric organs, such as the Hammond E-100 series tone wheel organs.

The 350s is somewhat rare but used instruments can still be picked up on eBay for around $200 to $300. It requires two of an obsolete type of 9 volt battery, but it can be modified to use other types of batteries fairly easily. It is a blast to play and has some nice features that were intended to make it appeal to serious musicians. My 350s is my favorite Stylophone to play when jamming with other musicians. I will share some photos in a future post.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Stylophone S1 in recent movie release Baby Driver

Did you catch a cameo by the Stylophone S1 in last summer's action movie release Baby Driver? Check it out right here. (Warning: it contains some dialog that some people may find offensive or insensitive.)

A full version of the tune appears on the soundtrack album: Baby Driver (Music from the Motion Picture) [Explicit]

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Super Pops song books for Stylophone & 350s

In the mid 1970s, EMI Music Publishing issued a two-volume set of music books for Dubreq Ltd. called Super Pops for the Rolf Harris Stylophone & 350s. The exact publishing date is a bit of a puzzle.  Both books have a 1974 copyright on the first page, but individual songs have copyright notices as late as 1975 in Book 1 and 1976 in Book 2. I picked up copies of them on eBay from a seller in the UK a few years ago. The two books feature a combined total of 23 contemporary pop, standard and traditional songs made popular by recording artists like Neil Diamond, Pilot, Jimmy Osmond, Terry Jacks, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Mathis.  Although celebrity spokesperson Rolf Harris* is on both covers, his own music doesn't appear in either volume.

Each song gets a "fake book" style arrangement with standard notation for the melody on a treble staff, plus lyrics and chord names. Standard Stylophone note numbers appear along the top of the staff and 350s note numbers appear below the lyrics. The numbers correspond to labels along the keyboards of many Stylophones. The idea is to make the music more accessible to people who don't know how to read standard music notation.  It's sort of the musical equivalent of paint-by-numbers.

 In the numbering system, the white keys are whole numbers such as 1, 2, 3, and the black keys are labeled with compound numbers 1½, 3½, 4½, etc. While most Stylophone models have these numbers along the keyboard, some of the earlier models are labeled with the musical letter names A, B, C, D, E, F, G along the lower edge of what would be the white keys on a piano. The keys that correspond to a piano's black keys have two labels along the top edge, such as A#•B♭, because each of these keys can have either name depending on the key signature of the music being played. A thin, black plastic overlay  with note numbers (shown on a bass Stylophone in the photos below) could be placed over the letter names.

 Frankly, as someone who knows how to read music notation, I find this alternative numbering system rather cumbersome to use and awfully difficult to follow on the sheet music pages. You can't really read the numbers in the music book and on the keyboard at the same time. And Stylophones are quite difficult to play accurately without carefully watching where you place the tip of the stylus. For people who do need these labels, I suppose they are a nice feature. Personally, I think the letter names make more sense than the number labels. A beginning musician would be wise to learn these letter note names before moving on to another instrument such as a piano or organ, but the numbers - and especially the compound numbers - don't really transfer directly to any other instrument. 

On the early models, the letters or numbers were imprinted on a thin but sturdy white plastic panel that surrounded the keyboard and switches. The digital S1 re-released instruments that came out decades later substituted the plastic labels with adhesive-backed, glossy paper stickers.  Unfortunately, the adhesive could dry and make the sticker loosen, and cleaning the metal keyboard surface with any sort of a liquid cleaning chemical could ruin the sticker. I've ruined a couple of them myself.

In case you're wondering, here are the songs featured in the two Super Pops song books. It's quite an eclectic repertoire. My personal favorite is Telstar, which goes well with the original Stylophone timbre with the vibrato switch engaged. I've linked some of the songs to their corresponding YouTube videos, usually giving preference to UK performers in cases where songs were hits by more than one artist.

  1. Delilah
  2. Help Me Make It Through The Night
  3. Seasons In The Sun
  4. Amazing Grace
  5. The Entertainer
  6. Bye Bye Baby
  7. Reason To Believe
  8. Good Love Can Never Die
  9. Sweet Gingerbread Man
  10. January
  11. The Most Beautiful Girl
  12. Long Haired Lover From Liverpool
  13. Magic
  14. Meet Me On The Corner
  15. Sweet Caroline
  16. Winter World Of Love
  1. Feelings
  2. If
  3. The Way We Were
  4. I Only Have Eyes For You
  5. Put Your Hand In The Hand
  6. Born Free
  7. In The Summertime
  8. Big Spender
  9. How Soon
  10. Song Sung Blue
  11. Congratulations
  12. There's A Kind Of Hush
  13. Little Green Apples
  14. Telstar
  15. Whispering Grass
  16. Combine Harvester (Brand New Key)
  17. Are You Lonesome Tonight?

*Please note: Some packaging photos in the Stylophone Museum may include images of former Stylophone celebrity spokesman Rolf Harris.  Mr. Harris, as you may know, was involved in a criminal scandal a few years ago and has completed a prison sentence. The inclusion of his image in this blog is for historical purposes regarding the Stylophone in popular culture and does not constitute and endorsement of Mr. Harris by the owner of this blog. Mr. Harris does not endorse this blog either.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Stylophone goes metal!

Just for fun, here's a goofy little recording I made a few years ago with a Stylophone S1 and a guitar multi-effects pedal. It features bits of two Black Sabbath tunes. Rock on!

The accompanying video is from the classic silent horror movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It seemed appropriate.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Stylophone Gen X-1 Portable Analog Synthesizer

The newest addition to the Stylophone Museum is the Gen X-1, a fun little analog synthesizer that sells for about $70 USD.
The Gen X-1 is true to its heritage, retaining much of the quirky, awkward charm of the standard model Stylophones.  It can be played with a wired stylus, has the distinctive 1960s visual design of the original, and can make similar (some would say irritating) electronic organ sounds if you tweak the knobs just so.  But the Gen X-1 does a lot more. With 16 knobs and switches to dial in pitches and timbres, it can produce a surprisingly wide range of analog bloops, bleeps and more conventional musical tones. It is especially good at producing Moog-like analog bass and sustained lead synth patches, sci-fi sound effects like sirens, flying saucers, and noisy outerspace drones. The built-in speaker isn't very loud or hi-fi, so plug in a pair of headphones or an external amplifier to get the full effect.

With the built-in ribbon controller, the Gen X-1 can be played a bit like a theremin, a trombone or a fretless string instrument. The ribbon allows for playing the pitches between the standard notes of western scales. It's especially useful for more experimental, sci-fi style patches that sweep smoothly from high to low frequencies, or vice versa. A wiggle of the fingertip will generate some subtle vibrato, too.

Another cool feature is the analog delay circuit. It can be tweaked to simulate the release stage that the included envelope generator doesn't have. (It only has attack and decay.) Or the feedback level can be cranked up to generate cascades of interesting noises.

I find the tuning knob on the bottom of the instrument to be particularly useful.  Rather than allow only fine-tuning of the instrument's pitch (to match A440 or to be in tune with other instruments, for example), this knob can shift the keyboard up or down the full frequency range of the oscillator.

One funky and probably unintended feature of the Gen X-1 is that the instrument will function as a very weak microphone.  If you hook up the headphone output to an amp or recording device and really crank up the amplification, you can tap on or slap the plastic cabinet and hear the corresponding sound at the output.  It can even be manipulated by the delay circuit to produce some weird, noisy, percussion feedback.

Is the Gen X-1 perfect?  No.  It's still basically a toy, although this model is bigger and seems to have a more sturdy build than the classic models or the S1 reboot. The metal keys can be a bit frustrating. Accidentally resting the stylus between notes will produce an unintended pitch in a higher octave. The stylus wire seems as restrictive as ever.  And, as with all Stylophones, it can be a challenge to play the right notes unless you constantly keep your eyes on the keyboard and tip of the stylus. But at about $70, the Gen X-1 really is a great value with a ton of musical potential. Its feature set and playability far exceed its nearest competitor, the Korg Monotron pocket synthesizer range.

I like the Gen X-1 so much that I have three of them: one to play now, one as a backup, and one as a backup to my backup!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Welcome to the Stylophone Museum!

vintage wood look dubreq Stylophone

The Stylophone Museum showcases photos of my extensive collection of dubreq Stylophone musical instruments. I will add new photos every week or two, whenever I have a little spare time and something interesting to share.

This first photo features a vintage model with a simulated wood grill and the three distinctive rectangular gaps on the keyboard. This particular model does not have the volume control that was added to later versions. I will feature more photos of this instrument in a future post.

The Stylophone Museum will eventually showcase vintage and modern instruments including the standard models, percussion instruments, the rare 350s and the modern S2 and Gen X-1 synthesizers, vintage external speakers, play-along records, sheet music, and product packaging.

This museum is here for you to explore on your own. I hope you enjoy your visit. Please come back often to see what's new.