It was pretty grim being an aspiring keyboard player before the mid ‘eighties. Whilst your guitar playing mates could get an electric guitar resembling their idol’s instrument in look and sound for under eighty quid (just about the upper end of attainable outlay for most teenagers at that time), the only thing you, the keyboardist, were gonna get for that kind of price was something like this…
That’s a Yamaha Porta Sound PS-1, and needless to say, unless your keyboard idol was the lead singer of Trio (who famously played a Casio VL Tone VL-1), the chances of him or her using a cheap-looking, cheap-sounding lump of plastic such as this were basically nil.
Analogue "toy" keyboards, with miniature keys, built-in speakers and unashamed plastic casings gained a presence in the market on the cusp of the '70s and '80s decades. Almost certainly inspired by the success of the Stylophone through the 1970s, but in no way a Stylophone rip-off, the Casio VL Tone had a very individual, some might say completely wacko, take on how to implement this cheap, ultra-portable concept. Programmable but monophonic, the Casio VL Tone was a basic and extremely limited portable synth/sequencer with a beatbox, and, bizarre as it sounds, a calculator. The Casio VL Tone was the first of this breed of instrument, originally appearing in mid 1979. And given that date of introduction, the incorporation of a calculator does actually make some sense. Digital calculators still had major appeal in the '70s, and it was only fairly recently that their prices had become easily affordable, so there was still some novelty value to be exploited. We laugh today, but the calc was probably a dealbreaker for some gift-buying parents in '79.
Meanwhile, Yamaha addressed a roughly similar budget area with a much more conventional polyphonic keyboard range called PortaSound. The Yamaha PortaSounds were basic, mega-portable organs (as opposed to synths), again with onboard beatboxes. They were non-programmable, so they differed very significantly from the Casio design. But all mini keyboards of the period did share a similar, kitsch and thoroughly non-professional sound set. All units' sounds were produced entirely by analogue means, although the kind of power and depth often envisaged when the word ‘analogue’ is mentioned today, was conspicuously absent.
The be clear on prices, the Casio VL Tone (VL-1) was a very cheap product costing $69.95, and normally found in the UK shops for around £50. That also went for its rebranded version the Realistic Concertmate 200, when it appeared in 1982 as an exclusive Tandy / Radio Shack stock item. The Yamaha PS-1 cost between £70 and £80 in the UK shops, with the PS-2 and PS-3 rising well into three digits. So the polyphonic Yamahas were really a tiered staircase to suit all pockets, with the Casio VL-1 sitting beneath them on the bottom rung of the price ladder. That wasn't, however, to say that the Casio also sat on the bottom rung of the usability ladder. That depended on needs and taste.
by subblicious, on Flickr.
The Casio VL Tone VL-1 was the bridge between Stylophone and 'home keyboard'. Image modified under terms of Creative Commons licence.
I bought a Yamaha PS-1 in the summer of 1982 with a financial gift I received when, as a school leaver, I got a place as an engineering trainee. Trio were still in the UK charts with Da Da Da at the time and the Casio VL Tone’s appearance on that record probably created some mitigation for me to purchase a cheap, plastic, mini keyboard. But it should be clear that there was still no musical credibility in using such devices. My PS-1 did get laughed at from time to time, even though I used it sparingly, through an amp.
But I did start to find over time that the PS-1 could forge connections with people who’d never before touched a musical instrument. There was an immediacy about these battery-loaded portable devices, and since they looked so cheap and inconsequential, visitors would assume it was fine to pick them up and start tinkering with them. In next to no time they’d have the built-in beatbox running at their desired tempo and would be tapping out a simple tune on the keys. I can even remember one of the made-up tunes a non-musician mate tapped out on my PS-1… in 1983! A throwaway, spontaneous idea that’s stuck in my mind for over three decades. Incidentally, he left the area in 1984 and I haven’t seen him since. I wonder if he still remembers what he played? Or if he even recalls the keyboard?
CLAIM TO FAME
Much as you may expect me to continue waxing about Trio and Da Da Da here, that record actually wasn’t the most significant claim to fame for the early ‘80s mini keyboards. These products were in fact the start of a transition which saw the home organ ousted from its prominent place on the high street, to be replaced by ‘home keyboards’, which essentially stuffed the salient features of a home organ into a much smaller, and importantly, much cheaper package.
Early mini keyboards like the Yamaha PS-1’s bigger brothers the PS-2 and PS-3, with their full auto-bass-chord accompaniment, set the template for the ‘home keyboard’. The PS-2 and PS-3 were introduced at a time when the home organ was still strong in the first-time player market, but over time people realised that these plastic minis essentially were home organs without the ‘furniture’ and bulk, and most importantly, without the price tag. That changed everything. The subsequent introduction of Yamaha's PC-100 (1982), which scaled up the micro-organs to full-sized key spec and added features, was the final step in establishing the 'home keyboard', and a dagger to the heart for instruments like the Bontempi B370. So the extent of Yamaha’s 1980s keyboard revolution was not confined to the DX7 and its FM stablemates. Yamaha dealt a crushing blow both to analogue synths and to the home organ.
by el cajon yacht club, on Flickr.
The Yamaha PortaSound PS-3 (pictured), along with its sibling the PS-2, was a pioneer 'home keyboard'. Image modified under terms of Creative Commons licence.
Whilst the simple, portable keyboards of the early ‘80s were limited in terms of features and sonically tacky, they have acquired additional charm with the passage of time. And progress in recording technology has allowed us to use them today in ways we never could have done thirty plus years ago. We can now easily sync, multitrack and EQ them up to create full sounding mixes, and it’s remarkable how attractive they can sound when used ‘professionally’ rather than in isolation through their tinny built-in speakers.
Before I conclude the post, I've added a track built around the sounds from some 1980s portable keyboards, including both the Casio VL Tone and the original Yamaha PortaSounds. It’s a bit tenuous, but the bass and a bit of the lead comes from another famous portable keyboard of the 1980s – the Yamaha DX100. The DX100 isn’t in the same category as the cheap, early ‘80s analogues I've focused on in this post. It was a proper, fully programmable FM synth which just happened to have mini keys and be portable. It was also digital, with MIDI, and it didn’t go on sale until 1986.
Some of the ideas I used included multitracking monophonic VL Tone lines in harmony to make them polyphonic, adding distortion to VL Tone sounds, chopping up and syncing the beats after recording them, re-EQing, and treating a lot of the different sounds with delays to make the mix a bit more credible. The drum beats are derived from the VL Tone's Rock 2, and the PS-1's Latin.
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The answer to the question raised in the title is that these cheapie relics can be kitsch cool if you think about how you’re going to use them, play to their strengths, and award them a lot of help and imagination in production. But they’re really the kind of equipment you can use for one novelty track, just for a wacky change. Trio’s use of the Casio VL Tone was exceptional, and whilst the instrument’s bleepy rhythm generator sounds like the centrepiece of Da Da Da, the track’s power comes from the use of real drums and electric guitar, and of course the genius of the structure and the unique, understated vocals, etc.
Equally, there will be many who consider these cheesy little plastic keyboards complete junk and will never understand why anyone would even pay the carriage on one, let alone the cost of the item. They're not rare, they're not particularly useful (unless you're crap at maths and have a VL-1), and they're most unlikely to wow your friends at a dinner party these days... But sometimes it's just nice to own something that's had major significance in music history, and whatever you might say about them, these unassuming devices were a lot more significant than meets the eye.