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Joan May's Synthophobia

Kooper / Vivino / Richards / Smith / Tench

I was delighted to read the following just the other day, writes synthophobe Joan May:

  • The Devolution of Keyboards '98 by Al Kooper, in EQ Magazine August 1998

    ... One night, about five years ago my own musical director, Jimmy Vivino said to me: 'I hate it when you don't play a B3. It's such a high for me to play guitar with you playing B3 behind me. These synths cheapen your sound and provide flaccid support for the rest of us in the band.' Jeeez. I felt so bad, I stopped buying CDs and magazines for a month so I could afford to rent a Hammond on our next gig. And I haven't looked back since ...

    ... There's not enough space in this column for me to sing the praises of a well-kept-up Hammond B3 with two growling Leslie speakers on '11'. Nowadays, I make the club-owners rent all that for me. Hell, I'm 54, I've earned it. I've humped enough gear in my life. Thank God those Brits invented a higher strain of roadies. [Interesting turn of phrase, eh? hmm jm]. It helps.'

  • Coincidentally, as so sadly befell Matthew Fisher, Kooper (in effect) had his Hammond organ stolen from him when he was forced out of Blood Sweat and Tears in the late 60s. In an interview in Keyboard Magazine, he said that there was an initial agreement among the band members that whoever left the band could take his instrument with him. But when Al was ousted via a hostile take-over, he wasn't allowed to do that, and so he does not own a Hammond to this day again, as with Matthew, to the detriment of his musical compositions since then, in my opinion. [Full story here]

  • A Hammond organ can play a bassy, subtle pad like no other instrument. It can scream a super high C better than Maynard Ferguson used to on Gabriel's trumpet. No organ sample has duplicated either of these wonderful traits for me. When organs are sampled, they always screw up the velocities. As you play higher on the upper keyboard of a B3, it gets louder for some inexplicable reason. No one samples it like that in fact, the reverse is true. As you play higher on the best organ samples to date, the sound just gets weenie. No screaming, full-throated high C's on any sample I ever heard. No jazzy pads that sound like the 3rd and 4th drawbars pulled out on the lower keyboard of a real B3 either ...
  • I sure wish Jimmy Vivino had been around during the Kooperfone era! <g>

    What interested me the most about the above is that Kooper apparently didn't notice how bad his synths sounded until Jimmy pointed it out to him. This supports my hypothesis that it's possible for a musician even a very accomplished one to be so focused on other aspects of his music that he doesn't notice the problems with the timbre of his instrument until they're called to his attention. (My Synth Rule #3 below).

    Kooper's comments give me hope that Matthew and Gary can be influenced to see the light about this someday too. Unfortunately, accomplished musicians tend not to take musical advice from fans, preferring to do so from fellow musicians whom they respect. But if they think we fans are incapable of good musical ears, why do they try so hard to create high quality music to sell to us? <g>

    Here's the rest of my collection of opinions about those dreaded devices:

    My Three Rules about Synths as posted on AOL:

    And From my post on the BtP Message Forum #2: Still There'll Be More [btw how's about some more postings there, folks? So far, that Forum is confirming Gary's observation that PH's online fans are 'just the same 15 people over and over again.' There are at the very least 178 fans who visit the WebSite, probably many more who haven't signed up here, so shouldn't there be as many posts in that Forum?]:

  • PH should recognize that their best music is Ageless and Timeless, and that any attempts to fit in with trends are doomed to fail, both commercially and artistically. I think the replacement of Hammond with Synth in 1977 contributed to the sad demise of the band at that time, as the computerized production and the synths on The Prodigal Stranger detracted from success in the 90's.

    '... See, the synthesizer worries me. Nobody should have ever let 'em out. It should be in the back room for guys to write arrangements and songs on ... and never make a record with. They sound so plastic and inarticulate and superficial no dynamics, no air, no breath. It's an imitation of an instrument.' Keith Richards, Musician Magazine, November 1997

    I don't think synths are even good for writing. Composers derive Inspiration from the timbre of their instruments, and when using a cheesy sounding instrument, they're at risk for composing cheesy sounding music.

  • [This was painfully evident in the musical (if you could call it that) opening of Mike Ober's interview with Matthew Fisher]

    And Finally as posted elsewhere at BtP - another delight From Keyboard Magazine, May, 1995: interview with Benmont Tench organist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers:

  • On organists:
    'I listened to Jimmy Smith a little when I was a kid. I admire the guy enormously, but I don't want to sound like him. Fortunately, as we all know, it's impossible for anybody but Jimmy Smith to really sound like Jimmy Smith. I never liked the showboat guys who called attention to themselves, who turned the Leslie on and waved their hands up in the air. I liked [Procol Harum's] Matthew Fisher, Booker T. and Al Kooper. I loved Mal Evans holding one note down on You Won't See Me from Rubber Soul. The fanciest organ player I listen to is probably Garth Hudson. Besides, I'm fairly incompetent. I can't play that fast. And if I could, Tom would just say, 'Shut up.''

    On alternatives to the Hammond:
    'Did you see Jimmy Smith's interview in Downbeat? He said something to the effect of, 'When I hear a synthesizer it makes me want to throw up.' I think he was talking largely in reference to the fake Hammonds. Some people make them sound good. I can't. When I tried playing one, I thought it sounded like I had an organ patch up on a DX7, which drives me crazy. I probably hear them on some records and think it's a Hammond. But when I play one, it doesn't feel like a people instrument to me. The drawbars don't feel right. Where's the damn wheel for changing the chorus stuff? Nothing's where it should be. And the touch of the keyboard is all wrong. I really kind of hate it. For God's sake, make a real Hammond! Make it with the original parts. You can't improve it.'

    and later ...
    ' ... the only sampler I like is Whitman's [laughs] ....'

  • Bizarre graphic rejoinder here A page of Hammond organ links

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