Analogue Marvels: The Home Organ

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 9 March 2018 |

Yamaha home organ
Above: an image of the very beautiful Yamaha E45 - an ultimate home organ from the analogue era.

In 1980, what would it have cost to equip yourself with an analogue synth, string machine, analogue beatbox, bass generator, sequencer, amp and speaker?… Music technology was incredibly expensive back then, so if I told you all of that could be had, brand new, for less than £500, you’d be quick to laugh… Unless you remember owning an analogue home organ...

By the end of the 1970s, the “home organ” product title was underselling the talents of the instrument to a shocking degree. Indeed, the word “instrument” in itself underplays the reality, as the home organ was edging towards what would later be dubbed a “workstation”. This imposing and weighty monster may have looked like an organ, but beneath the lounge-flavoured veneer there was a fully-fledged music creation system, with a fantastically simple and intuitive human interface.

The built-in beatbox alone could often stand up as a valid piece of kit. Add to that a bass generator, chordal rhythm pulses and an arpeggiator – all lockable into tempo-variable sequences, triggered and driven from single-finger taps on the lower keyboard manual – and you had a truly addictive source of full instrumental backings. Then you could overlay your “organ” sounds, which were effectively basic analogue waveform stack-ups, minus the user-filtering or envelope control. You’d invariably find a “strings” sound in there alongside the more ‘organy’ tibias, and there may also be special presets such as piano or harpsichord, which rivalled simple, but not exactly cheap, analogue standalones. You didn’t even have to buy an amplification system.

EXAMPLE



Above: 'Get Off The Internet' gives an insight into the lively sound of a sub-£800 A-series Yamaha Electone.

POLYPHONY AND MULTITIMBRALITY


Two words that encapsulated the struggle of ‘serious’ music technology in the analogue and early digital periods. Polyphony: simultaneous notes. Multitimbrality: simultaneous sounds. But how serious was ‘serious’ music technology when even in the sub-£1,000 price range the humble home organ had been so unfettered by polyphony and multitimbrality that the terms never warranted mention? When you picked up a home organ brochure, it told you what the instrument did. No excuses. No: “Well you only have six voices of polyphony, so please bear in mind that any sequence with seven simultaneous notes will not fully reproduce”. Just: “Here’s what it does. Enjoy”.

In fact, the polyphony and multitimbrality of the home organ could be incredible when you considered what was going on with all the functions engaged. Two organ keyboards (or manuals, in organ-speak) live for polyphonic work. That’s seen off a typical 1980 analogue polysynth already, but each poly keyboard was in itself multitimbral, offering a mix of numerous instrument sounds. Now consider the polyphonic drum machine, able to stack simultaneous percussion sounds. A polyphonic chord pulser. A monophonic bass generator. A monophonic arpeggiator. Remember, this lot will run simultaneously, without any sense that the user is in trouble. That is an awesome level of multitasking capability. I’m not saying the organs didn’t sweat under the bonnet juggling their resources, but the user didn’t have to think about that.

Yamaha Home Organ
Above: a Yamaha C35N. Relatively compact, but packed with features, and housing a dedicated rotary speaker channel.

EDUCATIONAL FOCUS


Home organs were intended to inspire learning through fun. Even complete beginners could get a listenable composition out of a home organ, with the auto-features doing almost all of the work. But as each player progressed as a musician, individual auto features could be disabled. For example, upon learning to play left hand chords, the player could disable the one-finger chord function. The auto accompaniment would still run, but with the player now dictating the character of the chords with manual shapes, rather than the organ taking full charge.

This regime of allowing the user to have fun straight away, before slowly diversifying, was genuinely motivational. For many people, it was a much more effective means of getting things off the ground than traditional methods.

LIMITATIONS


Of course, there were limits to the home organ’s scope – the most noticeable of which was a lack of user-programmability. You got the sounds you got, and short of perhaps adding a tail of sustain, you couldn’t alter them. On affordable organs, drum patterns were factory-preset only, although on early ’80s Yamahas (including sub-£1,000s) the presets could be combined, permitting a much wider range of beats than the blurb suggested. Higher end Yamahas had user-programmable sequencers.

Also, the focus was on sounds and options that would complement an organ, so whilst these were technically analogue synths, you were never going to get them to impersonate a Minimoog or a Prophet.

Modern musicians had gripes regarding the drum patterns too. A lot of the beats would be ballroom-influenced. Bossanova, samba, rhumba, waltz, etc. You did get rock, jazz swing… and early ’80s Yamahas had 4-on-the-floor ‘Disco’, which would basically serve as a house beat when speeded up. But the pop-orientated selections were often limited alongside the more trad stuff.

TONE PRODUCTION SYSTEM


Home organs created their electronic sound through a combination of subtractive analogue synthesis and additive user control. Yamaha referred to their incarnation as PASS – Pulse Analogue Synthesis System. Complex analogue waveforms were pre-filtered and enveloped (the subtractive element), then the user would fuse a range of these pre-filtered waveforms to build rich combinations (the additive bit).

The electronic signal would then be sent to an onboard amplifier – solid state and commonly around 30 watts on sub-£1,000 instruments. After amplification, the signal went to a built-in speaker system, housed in the organ’s belly and directing its output towards the player’s legs. Home organs benefitted greatly from having at least one tweeter incorporated into the speaker enclosure, as good high-end fidelity made an enormous difference to the user’s perception of instrument quality. Heading up the price range, overall amp power would typically increase, and the speaker system may become considerably more complex. For example, from their C-series upward, Yamaha used channel-splitting, and sent some components of the output through the main speaker system, whilst sending other selected components through a ‘tremolo’ channel, which drove a rotary speaker system. All of this was built into the organ. No add-on cabs necessary unless you wanted more volume or spread.

The home organ’s sound-stacking arrangement differed from that of classic stage (Vox Continental) or church-derived (Hammond C3) organs. The latter would fundamentally combine varying pitches of the same waveform. But home organs fundamentally combined different waveforms, some of which would be of the same pitch. So whereas on a Hammond C3 you might fuse sine waves of four different pitches, on a home organ you might fuse a flute waveform with a string waveform, a horn waveform and an oboe waveform. There were alternative pitches on home organs – generally more options as you moved up the price range – so it was possible to implement Hammond-style pitch-stacking to a degree. However, home organs tended to stick to full octave pitch variations, and not include in-between intervals like a Hammond C3.


Above: On the left, my Bontempi B370 in 1981, and on the right, the Yamaha A55N - a model I acquired in December 1982.

RELIABILITY AND DURABILITY


As with most products, the reliability and durability of home organs depended on brand and retail price. Pay less than £500 circa 1980 (£2,000-ish in 2018 money), and your organ may not tolerate much abuse. This equipment, it should be remembered, was intended to spend its life in a warm room, being occasionally teased by the restrained fingertips of relatively mature respectables for whom James Last was probably a bit on the raucous side. Specials keyboardist Jerry Dammers notably toured with a Yamaha Electone (more of which in a moment), and I can personally vouch for the robustness of Electones, but not every home organ was built to withstand that kind of punishment.

As a kid I gave my Bontempi B370 the kind of bashing a stage organ would get, occasionally taking it out to school or other remote sites, and it had just about had it in less than two years. It encountered a couple of ciphers (continually sounding notes that wouldn’t release), a dead note, a button failure, and circuit-related annoyances that heavily (albeit intermittently) compromised components of the sound. It’s worth noting, however, that there wouldn’t have been much margin for profit at the extreme budget end of the spectrum. Delivering a complete musical system in a piece of furniture cost money. To pare down the price, some corners would inevitably have to be cut.

IN ENTERTAINMENT CULTURE


At the height of their popularity, home organs were used to soundtrack very low budget movies, and were an obvious choice at the time, when libraries of free online music just didn’t exist. With their auto-accompaniment features and built in beatboxes, the home organs could be used by musicians with very little training or experience – even complete non-musicians for certain applications. Almost all of the organs could feed an electronic analogue output directly to a recording device, maintaining high fidelity, and the resultant recording would be free to use forever. No session fees, no royalities, no recording studio. Before the digital age, the economy of that was tremendous. A highly cost-effective solution for a movie setup on a very low budget.

Of course, there are no prizes for guessing the specialist genre of most super-low budget 1970s film production houses. Yes, the home organ found a niche in porn, and could be heard bossanova-coating every lad’s favourite bedroom scene.

Home organs appeared occasionally in pop music. One very notable instance from the peak of the home organ’s reign was Jerry Dammers’ 1980 switch to Yamaha Electones with ska/rock band The Specials. One of Dammers’ Electones looked like a Yamaha B75N. This instrument appeared on the Top of the Pops Ghost Town mime originally screened on 23/7/81, where the TV camera showed the dashboard layout in close-up. The dashboard was certainly identical to that of the B75N, but if the organ was that model, some of the lower panelling and speaker enclosure had been removed. On the actual Ghost Town recording, incidentally, Dammers primarily used a Hammond. The 1980 album More Specials heavily featured an Electone, including its built-in auto-accompaniment – to significant controversy, even among the band it seems. This was probably a different model though – I suspect it was the full-bodied Yamaha Dammers would use live on stage. That was not a B75N, but I haven’t been able to see its dashboard well enough to confirm the model.

Perhaps given their noted use in porn and low budget cimena, as well as the annoyances they could create in the hands of next-door neighbours, home organs became targets for comedy. Especially once alternative comedy took hold in the early 1980s, home organs were soundly mocked in the UK. Alexei Sayle famously did a stand-up sketch poking fun at neighbours with home organs (which was incorporated into a Young Ones episode). And subsequently, the set for the sitcom Bottom was adorned with a home organ, which was a working instrument and saw use in the series.


Above: If you use VST, the above virtual organs and more are still available for free via the Virtual Organs for Download page.

FATE


In 1982, before digital gear hit the streets and portable ‘home keyboards’ took off, the home organ still had a strong market and was a familiar sight in music shop windows or big department stores. But by 1987, home keyboards and digital technology had pushed the home organ into virtual oblivion, leaving a much narrower market.

Digital equipment did not directly replace the home organ’s role (not until the organs themselves entered the MIDI era, anyway), but because digital equipment was far more widely saleable, so many of the shops or departments selling home organs re-stocked with digital gear – heavily diminishing the home organ’s presence on the high street. That reduction in visibility and availability would inevitably hit home organ sales.

Meanwhile, the new ‘home keyboard’ design provided a potted essence of home organ features in a portable plastic case. Home keyboards were not in the same sonic league as home organs, but they were vastly cheaper, and covered enough of the same bases to serve as an alternative. Home keyboards had analogue tone engines until it became more cost effective to use digital technology, but they did not take sound distribution seriously in the way home organs did. The home organ was built as a self-sufficient means of filling a room with quality sound. The home keyboard definitely wasn’t.

Going into the 1990s, MIDI-fitted digital home organs by the likes of Technics, Yamaha, Orla, etc, continued to compete for a limited market, but whilst these modern-age instruments were undeniably nice, they never captured the charm, or the zeitgeist, of their analogue predecessors.

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.