Classic Rhodes Effects
The piano's clean tone is what you hear on many essential Fender Rhodes recordings, but definitely not all of them. Like an electric guitar, the Rhodes sounds even better with the right amp and effects. The Suitcase Vibrato was the original Rhodes effect, built into all versions of the Suitcase piano (as well as Stage models with the Super Satellite & Janus I systems). The idea behind the Vibrato was to simulate a rotating speaker, although the actual sound was quite different. The first version of the Vibrato was in mono, a tremolo effect that varied the amplitude of the piano's output in a square-wave pattern. When the Suitcase amps went stereo in 1969, this pattern was translated into a panning effect. Front-panel controls were provided for Speed and Intensity.
With the release of the first Stage models in 1969, the player's choice of amplifier also began to shape the piano's sound. The Fender Twin Reverb was and continues to be the recommended amp for use with the Rhodes (see the Models section for more details). In terms of effects, tube overdrive became a normal part of the piano's tone, with tremolo and spring reverb being available as well.
One of the most popular outboard effects for the Rhodes was the Wah-Wah Pedal. This foot pedal had an extreme impact on the Rhodes sound, virtually eliminating its bell-tone and emphasizing the midrange frequencies. The characteristic sound of this pedal came from its rocking foot control, which swept the center frequency of a bandpass filter to create the impression of a person saying "wow". The wah effect is commonly featured on early jazz fusion recordings by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, usually producing a static EQ from being left in the "always on" state. You also hear this effect combined with the Fuzz Pedal in recordings from the early 70's, adding warm distortion to the sound for an even more funkified "fuzz wah" experience.
Later in the 1970's and into the 80's, the phase shifter was regarded as a natural choice for adding body to the Rhodes tone. This sound was often heard on slower songs and ballads, the most well-known examples being Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are and Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years. The Electro-Harmonix Small Stone and the MXR Phase 90 were the two popular phaser choices during this era. The Phase 90 was an orange "stomp box" with an on/off switch and a single knob for controlling the effect's speed, while the Small Stone included an additional "color" switch for manipulating the overall frequency response.
The BOSS CE-1 Chorus Ensemble produced similar results, but with a wider palette of options. The biggest advantage of the CE-1 was its stereo output, a major improvement over the mono-only phasers available at the time. On top of the chorus effect, the box could switch over to a pitch-shifting vibrato. This is the same effect circuit found in the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus, another 2 x 12" guitar amp popular among Rhodes players.
An honorable mention goes to the Ring Modulator, the cacophonous effect used to mutilate Jan Hammer's Rhodes playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. With this effect, piano's signal is used to modulate a fixed-frequency oscillator in a way that outputs the difference of their harmonics, creating a sound similar to a pitched percussion instrument.
Rob Coops of the Netherlands provides us with a variety of recordings demonstrating many of these effects in different configurations:
The audio examples here show how a customized Fender Rhodes can sound when it is directly recorded, recorded with an amp, or directly recorded with analog effects. Note that if you are using cheap consumer speakers, you may experience distortion in the high soloing notes of the following samples. This distortion is not part of the original sample. I used B&W speakers to monitor.
The piano used in the recordings was customized by me in July 2005 for a 72-year-old jazz musician who bought it 25 years ago in Amsterdam and did not use the instrument much (i.e. it was in pretty good shape). It is a 73-key piano with the older type of action: half-wooden/half-plastic hammers with neoprene hammer tips, a bit more work to get up to standard than later types (from 1975 on).
In my opinion almost any Rhodes can sound professional, as long as you use a good preamp/EQ, exchange the parts that are bad and, ideally, let an experienced Rhodes tech optimize the action and sound for you, to really get the most out of the instrument.
The MP3's were made an hour before the piano was picked up by the client, in a very casual way. I liked the piano and wanted to have some private recordings as a reference, but I thought, why not share it with you guys also, to get you enthusiastic and informed....
Example 1. We took the signal directly from the harp (for best clarity) and fed it into a preamp/EQ. The signal was recorded via a Delta 1010 soundcard (24 bits, 96 khz) into Wavelab. I edited the sample with Waves plugins: I used the R-Comp, the Paragraphic EQ, the Trueverb, and the stereo panner by Wavelab. These plugins were used just to correct. I used a little bit of everything, most obvious the reverb.
I personally like a vintage "Herbie" sound, but if you listen on good speakers it will sound bright enough. This sound is available to any studio with a soundcard, a preamp, and a customized Rhodes. (Try this with a Motif?...I will buy them for $200.- a piece.)
Listen: Sunlightglasses (MP3, 1.3 MB)
Example 2a. Same signal path as Example 1. This sample shows how fat a well-customized midrange can sound.
Listen: Dry Midrange (MP3, 230K)
Example 2b. I resampled Example 2a through a BOSS CE-1, with intensity set to 0. This broadens the sound without the chorus (detuning) itself being too obvious. Chorus creates phase-shifting: as a result the stereo image is a bit off-center. Listen to this sample on a pair of good speakers to experience the difference with 2a. Pedals like these create extra noise, but I prefer them over computer-generated phasers and choruses. It usually sounds better.
Listen: BOSS CE-1 (MP3, 230K)
Example 2c. This sample was resampled through a Small Stone phaser (coloration knob downwards). Phasing creates large volume sweeps, so this sample has been compressed more than the previous ones. The subtle stereo-sweeping is the Waves Metaflanger: the Small Stone itself is a mono pedal.
Listen: Small Stone (MP3, 233K)
Example 2d. A good but pricier alternative to the Small Stone and MXR: the Univibe. I like the irregular movement and tone of this effect. But I am also a Hendrix fan...Jimi used this pedal on "Machine Gun" with an Octavia, a Fuzzface and a few stacks of Marshall's. The Univibe is mono also. I think I set the depth somewhere before the middle position for this sample. You can control the intensity of this effect, unlike the Small Stone and MXR.
Listen: Univibe (MP3, 243K)
Example 3. The high notes of this piano were placed relatively close to the pickups, but they still sound OK. It is generally not a good idea to place tines too close to the pickups, to the point where you get pickup-generated overdrive. I like to use an amp to get that kind of tone.
Listen: Dry High Notes (MP3, 287K)
Example 4. The same piano is now connected to an original Suitcase Preamp. It is a Suitcase box from 1975 with the concentric knobs on the front panel. We recorded it with only one Electro-Voice RE-20 dynamic microphone and a Tube-Tech MP1A microphone preamplifier. Good, professional gear. We forgot to switch off the preamp's tremolo effect, so you are hearing a sort of compressed Vibrato that is swept from left to right with the Wavelab stereo panner. Read my lips: this sample has been heavily EQ-ed, with a lot of high-frequency boost.
The natural sound of this box is very dark, but there are several speaker upgrades available to get more clarity (Speakeasy & Vintage Vibe). The nice thing about this box is the little edge of overdrive it adds to the sound of the recording, but it is a bit harder to EQ it right. By the way, the Tube-Tech mic preamp is completely clean and does not add any overdrive.
Listen: Suitcase Box (MP3, 1.0 MB)
Example 5a. The piano is still connected to the Suitcase preamp, but is now amplified by a Fender Twin Reverb (silverface with master volume). I filtered away the highest frequencies with the EQ plugin (they always irritate me). In retrospect we should have given it more overdrive, but if you listen carefully to the beginning of this sample you hear the kind of overdrive you get from the Twin on your high frequencies. But once again, in reality these high frequencies can be experienced as a bit too mean and piercing. The problem with guitar amplifiers is that the EQ-ing on those amps is not designed for a Rhodes but for a guitar. They often have peaks at 3 or 4 khz that can be too piercing for a Rhodes. But amps can make a sound come more alive, and it is challenging to rework an amp-recorded Rhodes in your studio.
There are many different amps on the market, valve, transistor, or both. Transistor amps can overdrive also, so it does not necessarily need to have tubes. Check them out and judge and decide for yourself. For a classic reference, listen to Herbie Hancock's Headhunters for a nicely overdriven Rhodes. Realize that any Rhodes that you hear on a CD has been processed to optimize dynamics and tone.
Listen: Fender Twin Reverb (MP3, 336K)
Example 5b. I EQ-ed this sample to give the mid more warmth and exaggerate the "glitching" effect of the dampers. Compare this with Example 2a: this is the kind of funky-grungy sound you get on your midrange from a Twin Reverb.
Listen: Fender Twin Reverb (MP3, 328K)
Example 6. Who says a Rhodes can't be psychedelic? Hmmmm??? Sounds like hidden Sunlightglasses to me....
Listen: Monolith (MP3, 484K)
Example 7. We greet Ray up in the sky, who immortalized the Rhodes in that soulful and funny movie. I still want a Rhodes with the pink fluffy cloth on it. Quando, quando???
Listen: Ray (MP3, 177K)
Example 8a. This is a 1979 Rhodes that I customized for a jazz player in September 2005. These later Rhodes Mark I models have the same basic characteristics as a Mark II with wooden keys. Some people prefer the early 70's Mark I, but these later models sound great also, when you treat them right. A customized Rhodes can effectively produce a "wall of sound" and project the energy you put into it. Clean signal path, same as Example 2a. The idea for this sample popped up at the vegetable department.
Listen: Supermarket Romance (MP3, 1.0 MB)
Example 8b. Same piano as the previous example. A well-customized Rhodes provides a wide range of sounds to the player. Most of the samples presented here were played pretty hard. This one is played with a subtle touch, yet all notes respond....
Listen: Nu-Soul Butterfly (MP3, 705K)
Rob Coops has contributed amongst others to great live recordings of
Angie Stone and the Dave Douglas Quintet (Uri Caine). Rob wishes to thank James Garfield and Major Key for feedback and support, and their successful effort to keep the Rhodes alive and kickin'. Respect to Steve Woodyard, stay balanced, in-tune and healthy. Greetings to all dedicated techs with big ears. Stay tuned for future samples of wildly overdriven amps. Have fun.