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5 Legendary Keyboards (and the Songs They Made Famous)

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[This post was originally published on August 4th, 2008]

These days, there's no distinguishing one keyboard from the next because all they really do is act as computer trigger devices. But in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the early 90s, keyboards and their manufacturers were known for signature sounds. Here are five of my favorites:

1. The Mellotron

Though not nearly as famous as the others on this little list, the Mellotron is perhaps the coolest keyboard ever invented. Like our modern-day keyboard controllers that trigger computer samples, the Mellotron was really nothing more than a sample trigger-er, too. But because it was invented in the early 60s, the samples were actual tape loops! By depressing a key, a keyboardist was putting a tape of, say, a choir, or a violin section into motion on that particular pitch. So each of the 35 keys had its own, distinct, 8-second tape loop ready to play in the belly of the keyboard. Mellotrons never really caught on, though, because they were a) always breaking down, and b) the tapes, just like cassette tapes, lost their edge over time. Imagine playing an 8-second cassette tape over and over in a loop for hours on end. Think about how quickly scratches and hiss would take over.

But it was and still is one of the most musical of all early keyboards. Its sound is unmistakable, heard here on the two very famous excerpts below.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles. (The opening flute quartet is classic Mellotron at its best.)



"Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues. (Those lush strings aren't real! Well, technically they are, but as sampled and played back on the Mellotron.)



Be sure to check out "And You and I" by Yes, as well as "The Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin for more great Mellotron.

2. The Hammond Organ

HammondB3.jpgOriginally intended for churches, the Hammond line of organs, invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934 and manufactured by his Hammond Organ Company, became very popular in the 60s and 70s with rock and blues bands, especially the Hammond B3, pictured here. Whether you know the Hammond or not, you definitely know its legendary sound. Check out the examples I've picked here and revel in that "a-ha moment."

"Amsterdam," by Coldplay "“ One of my favorite songs by Coldplay. Listen how the Hammond coming in under the piano just opens the whole song up and takes it to another level.



Ah, yes: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum. Can you imagine how different the song would feel if the chord progression and tune were plucked out on, say, a piano?



The Hammond completely defines this great Steve Winwood song, "Gimme Some Lovin":



3. The Minimoog

Minimoog.JPGA lot has been written about Bob Moog and his Moog Music empire. One cool fact, which often gets forgotten, is that the Minimoog is actually monophonic, which means it can only play one note at a time. You can't even play a simple C major chord on the Minimoog, let alone accompany yourself with the left hand plucking out a bass line on the lower part of the 44-key synth. It's also one of the first keyboards to feature the now ubiquitous modulation and pitch-bend wheels.

One of my favorite examples of the classic Minimoog is the following solo in Pink Floyd's song "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."



4. The Synclavier

synclavier.jpgAlong with the Fairlight synthesizer, the Synclavier, made by New England Digital in 1975, was one of the very first keyboards that allowed musicians to sample sounds and store them in on-board computers. In fact, if you're an old fart like me, you might remember Stevie Wonder showing off this very sampling ability on his Synclavier in an episode of The Cosby Show (the one where the kids get into a car accident with him).

One really amazing thing about the Synclavier, other than its ability to sample the human voice or anything within a microphone's range, was its amazingly high sticker price. Costing upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (much less than the price of my parent's 3-bedroom apartment in Center City Philadelphia purchased around the same time), some Synclaviers even fetched closer to half-a-million.

Other noteworthy facts about the Synclavier: It was created at Dartmouth College by the team of: Sydney Alonso, who developed the hardware designs, Cameron Jones, who developed the software, and Dartmouth faculty member and composer Jon Appleton, a musical advisor to the project.
Other than the Cosby episode, which I can't find on YouTube, if you'd like to hear the Synclavier in action, check out one of the most famous samples in music history below (the gong at the beginning of "Beat It," by Michael Jackson):



5. The Fender Rhodes

rhodes.jpgAll I have to say is: the theme song from Taxi, and you should instantly know the sound of the Fender Rhodes. Ubiquitous throughout the 70s and 80s in dozens of maudlin ballads (which we'll sample momentarily), the Rhodes is named for its inventor, Harold Rhodes, who was a piano teacher before joining the Army Air Corps during WWII. It was there that he was asked to provide musical therapy, bedside, for the wounded and wound up inventing a small keyboard using aluminum pipes from the wings of B-17 bombers.

The pipes created such a pleasing sound, and Rhodes' therapy sessions became so well-known, he received the Medal of Honor after the war. Soon he was manufacturing a larger version, and, over time, new, improved versions. Eventually, the Rhodes was bought out by Fender, which is why people forever call it the Fender Rhodes.

In addition to the below clips, the Rhodes can be heard up and down Chick Corea's Light as a Feather, Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as on most of Weather Report's albums and Herbie Hancock's, too. It was a jazz-fusion staple for a couple decades there.

"Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel



"Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" by Bob James



Ed note: The gorgeous Stevie Wonder keyboard pic (on the homepage) is by Al Satterwhite, via kalamu.

Check out past On Music posts here >>

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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