Technical Library

RESOURCES IV: About the digital harpsichord

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Allen Digital Harpsichord brochure from 1984 44K jpeg
ALLEN ORGAN COMPANY
Allen Digital Harpsichord brochure from 1984

About the digital harpsichord…

Fueled by the space age, the development of digital technology held great promise for accurate tonal reproduction of musical instruments in the 1970s and 80s. But has that dream been fulfilled? And is there more to successful electronic emulation of any acoustic instrument than just tone?

Allen Organs of Macungie Pennsylvania, in cooperation with Rockwell, ventured into digital harpsichords, and offered a “Two-Manual Grand” in the mid-1980s. It was quite clear from the tone portrayed on the demo cassette tape I had written away for at the time, that Allen had sampled a modern revival instrument rather than an historic harpsichord, and the strange harmonic structure of the buff stop (“Lute”) sounded almost like a xylophone. The written description was glowing, making a great to-do about “Tracker Touch” and “ebony-like naturals”:

Imagine a harpsichord that always stays in tune, requiring none of the constant tinkering and adjusting normally associated with the harpsichord. The Allen Digital Harpsichord can be left in cold rooms, then played, still in tune at any temperature. Even after transportation in vehicles, the Digital Harpsichord stays in tune. Imagine what you could do with such an instrument…

I don’t know how many of those Allen Digital Harpsichords were made, and I’ve never come across one in the flesh.

Roland C50 advertisement from 1990 34K jpeg
ROLAND (UK) LTD
Roland C-50 Classic Harpsichord
advertisement from 1990

The MIDI-compatible Roland instruments appeared a little later, and while these are no longer made, they are still encountered. First of all was the C-20 and C-50. Both had essentially the same innards, but with more powerful (25W instead of 2 x 8.5W) amplification and bigger speakers in the C50. The C-80 was released in 1998, and featured a click-action keyboard which was further refined by 2008 for the C-30.

There were fullpage ads appearing in Early Music with a very staged picture and glowing testimony by Consort of London harpsichordist Elizabeth Marcus.

The Roland C-30 had four “sound-sets”: French-type harpsichord, Flemish-type harpsichord, Fortepiano and Dynamic harpsichord, with four stop variations: 8⁠´I (back), 8⁠´II (front), 4⁠´ and Lute, along with two small pipe organ sounds. You could play from your choice of five temperaments (ET, Werckmeister, Kirnberger, Vallotti and Meantone) at A440/A415/A392, as well as use knobs to modify the reverb and tone.

I was frightfully polite—as one always is in Japan—when the Roland engineers proudly showed off their latest digital harpsichord offering one year at the Yamanashi Contest. They had managed to capture all the foibles of a real acoustic instrument which the best instrument makers try to reduce or eliminate.

Today, we have greater emphasis on software-based systems rather than stand-alone instruments. The organists fare well here with the global popularity of Hauptwerk software making available samples from numerous organs around the world, and specialist companies making a variety of consoles to suit. For me, Hauptwerk seems successful as one can consider the tone of an organ to be perhaps 20% instrument and 80% acoustic environment, harpsichord being the exact reverse. Hauptwerk have sampled a Willard Martin harpsichord from the University of Illinois which they offer for relatively low cost (USD45). I’m sure you can find other harpsichord sample sets of varying qualities offered by other companies, including some made from original instruments.

For interesting audio comparisons between digital and sampled harpsichords, see the page by Richard Kram on IMSLP.

One brave digital musician, David Bolton, has over five-hundred sadly very artificial sounding clips on his YouTube channel of mostly little-known composers.

Roland C-30 Classic Harpsichord 35K jpeg
ROLAND CORPORATION
Roland C-30 Classic Harpsichord

There are two problems clearly evident with the use of a faux harpsichord:

  • Firstly, it is notoriously difficult to expect a loudspeaker to accurately reproduce the complexity of living tone which comes from a real plucked string radiated by a wooden harpsichord soundboard.
  • Secondly, there is no feeling of finger control over the way the sound is produced. For a harpsichordist, this is paramount. A keyboard—whether made from plastic or wood—is the player’s connection with the instrument. Even a supposedly complex click-action electronic keyboard gives a poor emulation of real harpsichord touch, which obviously changes according to what registers are selected, from bass to treble, and—for a double-manual—which keyboard is being played on.
  • These inadequacies are obvious even with cursory listening through computer loudspeakers, and are compounded when very rigid unmusical midi-generated files are heard.

    The verdict…
    I have some colleagues in the United Kingdom and United States who enjoy having a digital instrument on hand—perhaps to hire for rehearsal convenience but certainly not for concerts! Such instruments are quite capable of providing anything from a background tinkle to an audio blast as well as being relatively easy to move around with no tuning or maintenance overhead. These imitations of a real instrument will obviously improve with technology, but have a long way to go before they can offer anything to a serious harpsichordist. Bottom line: There is nothing these presently limited instruments can teach you about playing harpsichord. Let’s check again in a few years.

    DIGITAL HARPSICHORD
    MERITS & DEMERITS

    • Low initial cost
    • Relatively easy to move
    • No tuning or maintenance
    • Instantly fine tune pitch level, transpose, or change temperament
    • Play through headphones, or as loud as desired
    • Electricity required
    • Short lifespan of electronics
    • Operate until failure
    • Rapid obsolescence
    • Audibly artificial timbre
    • No correlation between keyboard touch and tone produced

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