Tuesday, 13 December 2011

1982 Yamaha A55 Electone Home Organ

What did people do before they had computers? Well, thirty years ago, quite a few of them bought home organs. In this piece I’m going to look at one of the most viable propositions for the typical home organ customer of the early 1980s. Priced within the reach of many households, and boasting high quality, plus a raft of exciting features, the Yamaha A55 sold very well and was manufactured in some considerable quantity. Built-in drum machine, lots of auto-play routines, tight-sounding static speaker, pedal board - it was an attractive offering from a reputable manufacturer. But has it stood the test of time?...

For a more general breakdown of the home organ concept, please see my piece on the Bontempti B370. As regards the A55 specifically, I should stress that there were numerous variants of this organ. The details I’m giving relate to a model bought in central Birmingham (UK), in late 1982.

There were two manuals, each comprising just 37 notes, with keys feeling a bit limp and squishy. The main organ tones were set via a range of three-position tone-levers. Actually, whilst the tone-levers had three position notches, they could in fact be set in between the click-stops for more precise volume changes. The upper manual tone-levers offered Flutes in three separate ‘footages’: 16’, 8’ and 4’. This was as near as the organ got to the Hammond system of stacking sine waves. The other upper manual tone-levers were labelled Trombone 16’, Clarinet 16’, Oboe 8’ and String 8’. All of these tones could be combined as the player wished.

Two additional Combination levers gave preset voicings made up of the aforementioned contributories. The Combo levers were only single-position on/off switches, and they disabled all other sound on the upper manual. All the tone-lever tones on the upper manual could be treated with Sustain, which had a flexible release time. With Sustain set as short as it would go, you got what was almost like a fake reverb effect. I actually liked that better than real reverb.

The Nash is Planet Botch's own virtual version of a home organ from this period. It's purely an organ without the auto accompaniments, but the sounds are very convincing and it's freeware. You can get it via The Nash VSTi Download Page.

The Yamaha A55 had four special preset tabs (upper manual only), for Piano, Guitar, Harpsichord and Vibraphone. The Piano was really just a heavily-filtered and woolly-sounding pulse wave, though my Mum seemed to like it. The Guitar sounded like the Piano preset with less filtering. The Harpsichord was very bright and quite usable, although not greatly reminiscent of a real harpsichord. And the Vibraphone sounded like a vibraphone – but as a goldfish would hear it from the inside of his bowl – sort of. As upper manual sounds, all of these presets could be treated with Sustain, but in their case the release time could not be adjusted. None of the special presets had any touch sensitivity, and they could not be combined, either among themselves or with any other tones from the upper manual.

On the lower manual there were tone-levers for Flute, Horn and Cello, which, like the main upper manual voices, could be combined with each other.

The Vibrato, adjustable via another three-click tone-lever, affected every sound on the keyboard except for the drums. There was also a Delay setting for the Vibrato, allowing the player to introduce the effect a short time after the key was struck, rather than immediately.

The bass tone (lower manual only) came in two footages (16’ and 8’). These were pretty close to, if not strictly, pure sine waves. At a studio session I did in February 1985, the band was without a bassist so I used the A55’s bass on the recording. The engineer/producer, used to dealing with the twang of real strings, complained: “There’s just nothing to work with” – meaning there were no high frequencies to boost or cut. A decade later he’d probably have been eulogising the organ for producing a great jungle bass sound. That’s what it was like really – deep, booming jungle bass. Bass could be assigned to the pedal board, or the lower manual.

The twelve preset drumbeats could be mixed as well as used individually, but, aside from the factory-set variation function which added a fill to the pattern, no editing was possible. The actual patterns were: March, Waltz, Swing, Slow Rock, Jazz Rock, Disco, Tango, Bossanova, Rhumba, Mambo, Samba and 16 Beat. Disco was my favourite. It was a four-on-the-floor stomp with offbeat hi-hat, which could be speeded up to give an early version of the almost obligatory electro dance beats of the ‘90s and beyond – albeit in a less aggressive form than would leap out of a TR-909. The A55’s drum section alone was worth having if you dabbled in home recording during the early ‘eighties. Given the price of drum machines back then, and their typical standard of realism, the A55’s built-in beat box was a valuable and important feature.

Linked with the beat box, were two other functions: 1) the Arpeggiator, and 2) the ABC Fun Blocks. Analogue synth fans should not get too excited about this particular instance of the ‘A’-word. The A55’s Arpeggiator was pretty innocuous, adding mild-mannered broken chords in keeping with the notes being held down on the lower manual. The arpeggio patterns were limited to just four options, with the only editable parameter, apart from volume, being the amount of sustain. The ‘ABC’ in ABC Fun Blocks stood for Auto Bass Chord. Self-explanatory really. The preset bass patterns – all inextricably linked to specific drum beats – were probably okay for pensioners’ gatherings, but really weren’t greatly suited to the contemporary pop music of the day. The chords – percussive pulses which sounded quite nice – could be added with voicings of Piano, or Guitar, or both. Again, the Piano and Guitar voicings were not realistic, and were essentially just re-enveloped renditions of the Horn and Cello tones on the lower manual. The Piano used the Horn wave, and the Guitar used the Cello.

Just to clarify, all of the ABC and Arpeggiator functions were controlled purely from the lower manual, and the drums, bass, chords and arpeggios were fully variable for volume so you could have as many or as few of the components sounding as you wished, as well as mixing them to taste.

There was no perc, or attack, as Yamaha called it. And on our A55, there was no Rhythmic Wah, which I know was a feature on other A55 models.

Asking prices for these do seem to vary wildly, depending on how optimistic the seller is feeling. I’ve seen one advertised for as much as £350, which in my view really stretches optimism into King Canute territory. True, A55s did have an RRP of around £799 in late 1982, but they’re so out of fashion these days that I can’t really think of a demographic who’d be specifically in the market for one. In their day, these were primarily aimed at non-musicians who basically had nothing better to do than learn a musical instrument. Today, with computer-based pastimes and apps taking up vast quantities of people’s time, that fear of not having anything to do, which was a reality thirty years ago, simply doesn’t exist anymore. Indeed, the fear now is the opposite – not having enough time to fit everything in. And even if there was still scope for people to take on an extra commitment, would anyone choose learning to play the organ on a thirty-year-old instrument? I doubt it. Accordingly, most A55s seem to be priced between £50 and £100, and many don’t reach their reserves even then. The A55 today would probably most likely be sold as a nostalgia purchase, to someone who once owned one, got rid of it, and would like a replacement.

I separated the keyboard from the speaker of what was, by 1985, my A55 (it had previously been a family instrument, though I overwhelmingly played it the most), and I sold the consequent ‘combo organ’ in 1986 to help raise the cash for a Yamaha DX7 synth. Towards the end of the 1990s I did start to consider getting another A55 for nostalgia’s sake. Then I saw one in a local charity shop in 2002, went through a few days of deliberation, but in the end decided I didn’t have room for it and probably wouldn’t use it after a day or two of revisiting old times anyway. It does seem a shame that what was obviously a well-made instrument, fully justifying its original asking price in terms of hardware and technology, has become virtually worthless. But that’s the rule of trends and fashions. I’m sure if Lady GaGa started playing one they’d suddenly start changing hands for four figure sums… Or would Lady GaGa’s career just hit the buffers?… I think we can all pretty safely assume we’ll never find out.

Posted by: Bob Leggitt