1980 Bontempi B370 Dual Manual Organ

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 29 November 2011 |

The Bontempi B370 was part of a trend which established itself in the ‘70s and systematically died out through the first half of the 1980s. The home organ trend. The basic concept was for a keyboard instrument which could serve as a piece of furniture in the home (integrating attractively into a lounge) and accommodate anyone with musical pretensions – from complete beginners to advanced performers. Changing preferences, probably coupled with financial constraints in the early ‘80s, morphed the home organ into what by the middle of the decade became the home keyboard. This was a relatively small, plastic instrument which essentially followed the ‘self-educational’ theme of the home organ, but was much cheaper, more tacky and ‘toy-like’ in its sound, if still in keeping with what the bulk of the home organ market sought, in a musical sense.

During the home organ era, some of the big department stores would dedicate a floor, or at least part of a floor, to musical instruments, with home organs usually taking up the lion’s share of the space. Indeed, there were plenty of high street shops specialising in home organs in the 1970s and early 1980s. Once upon a time, these instruments were big business. Please excuse the quality of the photo below, by the way. I took it on 13th October 1981, when I was a school kid. Even the wonders of digital imaging can't fully remove the evidence of that...

Bontempi had always sat at the budget end of the organ market, and the B370 was clearly an attempt to price competitors out of this area of the picture. Due to its physical composition and the necessity to include a competent speaker, plus some fairly complex electronics, there was only so far you could pare down the price of a product of this type. The regular retail price for a B370 in 1980 was around £499, from which retailers could subtract discounts. For lower end models from more respected manufacturers such as Yamaha, the customer would expect to pay a good £200 to £250 on top of that. £250 or more was a big saving in 1980, and that did make the B370 a serious proposition for a lot of people – even taking into account Bontempi’s dire image (largely gained due to the number of ‘toy’ organs the manufacturer was known for making at the time, and the TV ads relating to them). People did laugh when the Bontempi brand was mentioned, but if you could get a significant discount on the RRP, that was perhaps a stigma worth enduring.

That said, though, these items were something the typical interested party would have to buy on hire purchase in 1980, and on that basis they often did maintain their full RRPs. I’d guess that the greater number of these did actually sell at the full £499.

So, what actually was a home organ? What did it comprise?… Well, during the era this one was made, the typical features common to most brands and ranges would include...

  • A spinet ‘furniture compatible’ design with built-in speaker. Standard models would be made of veneered chipboard or plywood. Very expensive models would be made from solid wood. 
  • A number of selectable and mixable ‘orchestral’ voices for the upper manual. 
  • A smaller number of selectable and mixable ‘orchestral’ voices for the lower manual. 
  • A built-in drum machine, with selectable and sometimes mixable preset patterns. 
  • An auto-rhythm accompaniment facility which could rhythmically pulse chords or notes held down on the lower keyboard in time with the selected drum beat(s). The volume of the ‘drums’ could normally be reduced to zero if desired, leaving the bass and chord rhythm pulses active, but without percussion. 
  • As a general rule, no drawbars. 

I’ve used inverted commas around the word ‘orchestral’, because these voices weren’t really meant to simulate actual orchestral instruments. Rather, they aimed to simulate a traditional organ’s impersonation of orchestral instruments, but many home organ voices struggled even to do that. Essentially the voices were basic, single-oscillator analogue synth patches. A sine wave for the flute, a filtered saw wave for the strings, etc. The facility to combine the orchestral voices did enable more complex tones to be built, but the individual voices themselves could not typically be edited by the user in any way.

Before I go further I should state that there were several variants of the B370, and not all will conform to the exact spec I’m about to detail.

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.

B370 SPEC

On the upper manual, this model offered two Flutes (pitched at 8’ and 4’), a Violin, an Oboe and a Clarinet. Accompanying the selector tabs for these voices was a tab for Vibrato, and two Sustain tabs – one for short decay, and one for long. The Vibrato affected everything, on both manuals (including auto accompaniment pulses), but it didn’t impact the drum sounds in any way. The tabs were effectively simple on/off switches, so the sound permutations were minimal in the extreme. The lack of a 16’ Flute pitch left the organ incapable of producing any real depth of tone. On the lower manual, voices were restricted to Diapason, Strings and Horn.

There was a fairly concise complement of ten preset drum patterns, including the expected latin and ballroom beats, plus Rock, Slow Rock, Swing, and Rhythm & Blues. The patterns weren’t mixable (and certainly not programmable) on this instrument, but they were adequate for most home organ players, given the general level of expectation in 1980. The actual sound of the drumbeats was strong and reassuring with a solid bass end. At least, it was when the organ was new. More on that later.

I liked the auto-accompaniment pulses on the B370. Abject tackiness was the norm on home organs, but here the patterns were at least pleasant to listen to and musically programmed. The organ could be set so that single notes from the lower keyboard would play as chords, and, if the auto accompaniment was engaged, integrate into the rhythm accordingly. The chords were major by default, but could be altered to minor, or major 7th, by pressing either of two buttons below the lower manual. By default, the bass played only if the auto rhythm was engaged, but Manual Bass could be selected by the player. This combined a deep bass sound (a sort of filtered square wave) with whatever 'orchestral' voices were set to sound on the lower manual. However, the bass tone did not extend all the way up the keyboard. From memory I think it was just the first two octaves.

VALUE FOR MONEY? 

Whilst the Bontempi B370 was significantly less expensive than its main rivals, it wasn’t particularly good value. Compared with the Yamaha A55 (which was targeted at the same section of customers), the Bontempi was undoubtedly inferior in every respect. The Yamaha sounded better, had a much wider range of tones, rhythms, tricks, etc, and was very obviously better made. So in reality, you weren’t saving money with a B370, because Bontempi were giving you less. Less quality, fewer sounds, and fewer tricks.

In fact, our B370 - bought by my Mum in the run up to Christmas 1980, didn’t last the course of its two-year HP agreement. By the autumn of 1982 the organ had developed intermittent problems. Sometimes the overall sound was distorted (on one occasion, lasting two or three days, very heavily). At other times the drums would sound like they were coming from a cheap, transistor radio with no bass and just a loose, flappy top end. It didn’t appear to be a problem with the speaker, because other sound components, such as the bass, would reproduce as they’d always done. At Christmas 1982, my Mum replaced the B370, trading it in against a new Yamaha. That was the last I saw of that Bontempi, and I've never run into another B370 'in person'.

I made numerous recordings with the B370. I value them highly because they were really my first foray into songwriting and recording. As I mentioned, I was still a school kid at the time, and the tracks are far too embarrassing to post as examples. They are, however, a great source of personal nostalgia, and whilst this instrument was a pretty poor job as home organs went, it did get me through the earliest stages of learning keyboards, and it did make the process fun.

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