The "OSC Toy-box" articles look at some of the instruments and equipment I use when making my music. My ethos regards equipment is always to avoid getting the latest product, or whatever is fashionable at any given time. Instead, aim to get something that's more of a long term investment and/or a little bit quirky and unusual. Learn this equipment like the back of your hand and really exploit its every potential.
Whatever you do, don't break the bank or get in to debt. You can make very cool music that's distinctive and uniquely your own sound without spending a fortune on the latest hardware or software. As you read these articles, please remember, this collection of instruments and equipment has been amassed over the course of 15+ years, and wherever possible, I've avoided paying full retail prices, instead opting for second hand, ex-demo, or in some cases even rescuing from the trash!
Fatar Studiologic 880 - 88 key, weighted piano action
I trained in piano in my youth and have always considered it my primary instrument. I feel able to achieve things on piano that I can’t on any other instrument; it’s a matter of 20+ years of experience with weighted key action and physical feedback from the instrument.
I had been wanting to utilising more natural and expressive piano playing in my upcoming work, but sadly I don’t have room at home for an acoustic piano. I thought a weighted keyboard action would be a step in the right direction and after browsing eBay for weighted controller keyboards in my locality for about a month, I found a Studiologic 880 for just £40 (approx. $51 US at the time of writing this article).
This particular keyboard played nicely and had lots of life left in the action. It was cheap due to cosmetic scuffs and faulty pitch and modulation wheels. On getting it home, I realised the cosmetic scuffs were actually the result of the paint going through some sort of chemical reaction that was slowly returning it to a liquid state. It was sticky to touch and left black paint marks on your hands. I couldn’t have that; it would have been a nightmare with the cat, who likes to climb up on my keyboards.
Here's a photo of the paint as a sticky, tar-like substance. Most bizarre! I'd never seen anything like it before.
I dismantled it, removed all of the electronics and keyboard mechanism and with a wallpaper scraper and power-sander stripped it back to bare metal. Using some dust sheets I made a makeshift painting tent on the patio, gave it two coats of rattle-can primer and three coats of rattle-can neon pink (topped it off with two coats of clear-coat to prevent future wear).
It’s a slightly scruffy paint job, but at a glance it looks great and the colour really pops, adding some nice liveliness to the home studio (the camera makes it look more red than it really is, it is very striking to the naked eye).
There’s a world of research about how the appearance of something alters your experience of it (when the experience isn’t intrinsically a visually based experience). For example, tea drunk from a red mug is supposed to taste better than tea drunk from a blue mug (or so they said on the BBC documentary I watched about visual perception). This is purely our brain playing tricks on us, but it really works in the case of this keyboard.
Having a bright pink electric piano in the studio has had a genuinely positive impact on how I feel when I play it. I feel as though it makes me play better. Whether I actually play better is somewhat irrelevant. If I’m feeling better about myself when I play it, chances are I’m going to be more creative and/or perform parts with more feeling and soul.
Including sandpaper, dust sheets and paint it probably cost somewhere in the region of £60. That's £60 to have something that looks pretty and makes me feel inspired to improve my playing, which translates to new music making; a win-win situation.
I use it to help me get the most out of piano and acoustic instrument sounds on my Roland JV-1080 and Jupiter-50, as well as the electric piano sounds on the Nord Electro 2. It also improves control of velocity sensitive pads which is very useful with the Yamaha DX21. When dismantling it, I found a quality assurance sticker on the inside dating its assembly to 1995. This means, the keyboard is almost 25 years old! It's a testament to Fatar as to how well the action has aged; it still feels very expressive and responsive.
A couple of negative points are when sanding it down I had to sand off the button diagrams, so should I ever want to do fancy MIDI stuff with it I will need to read up how to in the manual. Also, the potentiometers on the pitch and modulation wheel are tired and misfire randomly. I tried some switch cleaner, but they really need replacing. Rather than put any more time and money into the keyboard, and knowing I'm not going to need to use the wheels (as I do my lead-synth playing on the Jupiter and/or can always manually draw MIDI commands in Logic) I just disconnected them.
The main thing with this MIDI controller is the action feels as good as new, and I’m making the most of it!