Archive for the ‘Instruments’ Category

My Clavinet Fetish

April 13, 2009

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Hohner Clavinet D6

Hohner Clavinet D6

I am obsessed with the Hohner Clavinet. Some might call it a fetish.

Ok, I might call it a fetish.

Yes, I have a clavinet fetish. If I can’t work one into a song, frankly, I’m just not trying hard enough, and in theory, I am not opposed to any song employing a Clavinet.

For the benefit of those uninitiated in the Cult of the Clav, I will explain.

The Clavinet is a keyboard instrument that is essentially an electric guitar in a box. When you press the keys, a rubber hammer strikes a set of strings that pass over a couple of pick-ups.

If a Jew’s Harp married a vibraslap, their genetically-enhanced offspring (with spliced-in piano and guitar genes) would sound something like a Clavinet.

Sample from Scarbee F.E.P. (Funky Electric Piano)

That signature biting sound can function as both percussion and melody. It is my favorite way to add some slight melodic undertones while contributing a nice and spicy percussive texture that can lift an otherwise bland song just above the level of mediocrity (speaking for my own music, of course). It’s great for weaving in and out of the pocket or even creating a pocket out of thin air.

A Clavinet can lend a certain mood to a song and because I soooooo love Tag Clouds, here’s a totally non-functional one with all of the adjectives I’d use to describe the clav in different musical contexts.

Mysterious Funky Spidery Menacing Dark Sarcastic
Taunting Arrogant Spastic Relaxed Taut Joking Whimsical

If you’ve listened to that broad-genre called classic rock, you’ve heard the clavinet. Some of my all-time favorites:

Stevie Wonder – Superstition

This is pretty much the platonic ideal of all clavinet songs, and the first thing my mind conjures when somebody says clavinet.

I have a pet theory that this song is really about OCD.

Very superstitious, wash your face and hands

Wash your face and hands and scrub ya butt, while you’re at it. I love you, Stevie, I do, but your junk is so filthy in that video I can’t believe you’re still walkin’ the streets. Don’t you know it ain’t legal to sling that kind of hash? The lowest notes sound like rasperries.

You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that Stevie’s classic clavinet line is comprised of 8 different tracks. Funkscribe dissects the multi-track masters in this fascinating video.

Bill Withers – Use Me

Dig that drummer’s grin @ 0:58. These guys are having fun.

The Band – Cripple Creek 

This is what happens when you plug a wah pedal into a clav.

Led Zeppelin – Trampled Under Foot

See also, Custard Pie.

Steely Dan – Kid Charlemagne

This song is directly responsible for my association of the clavinet with sarcasm.

The Commodores – Machine Gun

The clavinet was widely employed during the disco era.

Peter Tosh – Stepping Razor

And very popular in reggae, too.

Herbie Hancock – Spank A Lee

Really, have a listen to anything from his 70s Headhunters period. I’d recommend the excellent Thrust album.

Virtual Clavinets

Unfortunately, I’ve never laid hands on a real clavinet. If the opportunity arose, I’d probably consider buying one, though my skill with keyed instruments is not sufficient to justify putting a lot of effort (or cash) into the search.

No. It’s much easier for me to concentrate on finding a decent virtual representation of a clavinet. That means getting hold of the right VSTi, and there are a few good ones out there for folks like me.

My favorite is Native Instruments’ Elektrik Piano. This is a sample-based VSTi consisting of 4 different models of electric piano, one of which being the Hohner E7 Clavinet.

Native Instruments Elektrik Piano

Native Instruments Elektrik Piano

When I say that Elektrik Piano is sample-based, it means that individual notes were recorded – at differing attack and velocity levels – and stored as raw audio data. When you press a key on your MIDI controller, the sampling engine is triggered, playing back the audio sample for the corresponding note and velocity.

Like any other audio track, you could then run the output into other VSTs in your DAW. I like to put the E7 through another Native Instruments product, Guitar Rig 3, simulating the effect of a Leslie Rotating Speaker or using the Guitar Rig foot controller as a Wah pedal.

The upside of a sampled clavinet is that the resulting sound is, in actuality, the sound of a real clavinet (an E7 in this case). The downside is, well, you’re locked in to the sound of that real clavinet that was used as the basis for the samples and if you’re not liking that sound, there’s little you can do to improve things. Also, sampled instruments can take up multiple gigabytes of hard-drive space and may have a bloated, laggy feel if you don’t have the processing power to handle it.

If space or sonic flexibility are your concerns, you may be interested in playing a modeled clavinet.

A modeled VSTi uses a software model of the instrument to generate the sounds of that instrument being played in real-time. Unlike a sampled VSTi, it is not based on a series of pre-recorded audio files. Instead, the software acts as a full simulation of the physical characteristics of the instrument. The resultant sound is generated from scratch each time based on the characteristics of the input from your MIDI controller. You’ll also have access to many of the parameters of the simulation, so you can tweak the instrument to produce sounds more to your liking.

Die Funky Maschine ZD6

Die Funky Maschine ZD6

There are a few decent modeled clavinet VSTis out there. I’ve used Die Funky Maschine ZD6 and can speak to it’s high quality. The ZD6 is a simulation of a D6 Clav and it comes with some useful built-in effects like Wah, Overdrive, and Phaser. Some folks prefer Ticky Clav, and while I’m not a huge fan, its price can’t be beat (FREE).

The range of sounds you can get from a modeled instrument is more diverse, but to my ear, the sampled Elektrik Piano just sounds better. Often for the sake of speed and performance, I’ll record using the modeled VST, and then at mix-down, I’ll replace my clavinet track with the better-sounding sampled instrument.

My First Clavinet

I’m not very far into recording Transhuman Highway and though I haven’t tracked a clav yet, considering my irresistible attraction to and history with the instrument, I’d be surprised if it didn’t pop up on a couple of songs.

Digging through the archives, I found my first recorded use of a clavinet. I’m guessing I used a soundfont-based clavinet, but it was so long ago, I don’t remember specifics. The clav line starting @ 2:28 kind of reminds me of the one from Showdown by ELO, and the disco drums only reinforce the likelihood of that inspiration.

No Wonder by Jonathan Griggs (2000) [Download]

Time and again, I’ve returned to the clavinet, most often in a reggae context, just to add a bit of texture to the songs. These two songs, for instance, are very similar in their use of clavinet (NI’s Elektrik Piano). Disclaimer: These songs are unfinished and unmixed. Almost everything I pull from the archives will be in such an imperfect state.

Alt-0246 by Jonathan Griggs (2003) [Download]

Turing Test by Jonathan Griggs (2005) [Download]

Long live the clavinet!

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