Over the years I have slowly curated a collection of vintage and classic keyboards and synthesizers. In April 2020 I am embarking on a pet project that I've had sitting on the shelf for a while - I'm setting myself the challenge of composing and recording regular projects featuring a single instrument from the collection.
The brief is to record each composition using ONLY that instrument (where possible). The primary purpose of the exercise is not so much the composition - I'm not going to try and write symphonic masterpieces - but to showcase the sounds, and explore the character, quirks and limits of each instrument. If an instrument lends itself to EDM or techno, that's probably the direction I'll take it... maybe. I'm going in with no preconceived ideas so I'm really interested to see what comes out!
(As always, scroll to the bottom if you want to skip the blog and go straight to the music)
I’ve put together more keyboard rigs over the years than I can remember. A new one for every project. Sometimes it’s horses for courses, sometimes I just like trying new stuff in the never ending search for keyboard nirvana.
But for the last 10 years or so, there has been one surprising instrument that has been my constant companion and has found it’s way into almost every live setup I’ve built - the Suzuki Omnichord.
Launched in 1981, the Omnichord was aimed squarely at the home market. Like the autoharp of old (upon which the Omnichord is loosely based), and the home organs so popular in the late 70s with their one-finger play, automatic drums, bass and chord accompaniment, this unassuming device was touted as a musical instrument for non-musicians. With a simple layout of chord buttons (presented in the familiar accordion/“circle-of-fifths” arrangement), cheesy rhythm presets, and the magical “strum plate”, the Omnichord was popular with both untrained home entertainers and professional musicians (although I can imagine a certain amount of derision amongst more haughty performers). It would be some time before it’s peculiar quirkiness found it’s way into the hearts and studios of music producers, songwriters and experimental musicians who could see the creative potential beyond it’s plastic toy-like exterior and unpretentious origins.
And so in time, a cult following ensued. Bowie and Eno were notable early users. It’s reverb-drenched amorphous textures would occasionally edge their way into the corners of popular music. Canadian musician/super-producer Daniel Lanois became enamoured of the instrument during the late 80s/early 90s - it features prominently in this live performance of The Maker (the original studio version is much more subtle in it’s use). He also employs it to beautiful effect in the Sling Blade soundtrack.
Suzuki sold a lot of Omnichords, so although they have become quite sought after, they’re not super rare - yet. Early Omnichords would have undoubtedly been discarded in their thousands toward the end of the 80s, with many more simply perishing through heavy use - the lightweight case and fragile electronics were definitely not built for longevity or professional use.
The first time I really became aware of the Omnichord was upon seeing Neil Finn at the State Theatre, Melbourne, in June 1998. Finn and band were touring in support of his debut solo album Try Whistling This - I’m not sure if I had even noticed it’s subtle use on this brilliant album, and from the cheap seats I could barely make out the Omnichord's mysteriously curvaceous form set to one side of the keyboard rig. But I was mesmerised by the unexpected flourishes of the keyboard player caressing the strum plate - a series of smooth, gliding swipes magically summoning these nebulous shimmers out of nowhere and back again. I’m getting goosebumps recalling the moment.
The Omnichord finds its way into almost every keyboard rig I put together.
Obviously I needed to seek out the source of this bewitching sound. I hit Ebay (US - I couldn’t find one locally) and eventually managed to hunt down a nice clean example. I really wanted the rarer brown version as played by Lanois but had to settle for the standard cream colour. On it’s arrival I was instantly smitten and it has been with me ever since.
Out of the box, the Omnichord sounds - to many listeners - unremarkable. It is indeed somewhat bland - perhaps even dull - and definitely rather cheesy in it’s raw state. But these perceived shortcomings are all part of the Omnichord's charm - its beautiful, raw simplicity comes to life with a pinch (or indeed lashings) of reverb, delay and whatever modulation effects you care to throw at it. Oh and when you start running it through a guitar amp, with a touch of distortion - game on.
My instrument is the original model released in 1981, the OM-27 (so named for it’s ability to play 27 different chords… so, umm, not quite omnichordal then). To be pedantic, mine is actually the later version of the original OM27 (look, just go here for the revision history). Subsequent versions added more chords and variations, which are reflected in the model names (OM-36, OM-84 etc). Later versions gained more features (including MIDI) but lost much of their charm when old-school analogue gave way to new-fangled digital as the Omnichord morphed into the Q-Chord. I've played the Omnichord live a LOT, but I’ve rarely recorded it. It tends to be noisy, crackly and somewhat sterile sounding when plugged directly in to a preamp or DI (it’s better with a guitar amp) - manipulating the tones into some sort of euphonic composition that uses no other instrumentation has taken some work. Whilst it’s a trivial matter to hold some chords and strum some arpeggios, I wanted to really see what I could get out of this guy. I’ve often used the drums live (usually with lots of syncopated delay) and as cheesy as they are, the tones are there if you look for them. I’ve also developed some idiosyncratic playing techniques that I wanted to incorporate, you can hear a bit of that in the solo.
In many ways the simple piece I have produced is an exercise in how NOT to use the Omnichord - it's value lies mainly in it's ability to hide itself in the dark corners of a song, emerging occasionally to add subtle textures and highlights. It is a coquettish instrument that shies away from the limelight - creating a piece in which the Omnichord is front, centre, and everywhere is more exercise than art. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy STRUMPETUOUS - again, every sound you hear originates from the Omnichord.