The Four-Octave Keyboards
When we began work on the four-octave keyboards for John Eaton, we at once became aware of how pampered we had been by the Yamaha. Purchased from Pratt-Read in the late 1970s, these were no-frills, generic organ keyboards designed to be adapted by each manufacturer for its own use. (They were actually five-octave keyboards from which we removed the lowest octave to make room for a large touch plate used for making global changes in sound, sort of like a pitch-bend wheel on a synthesizer, but operating in the same manner as a touch-sensitive keytop sensor.) In contrast to the precision and uniformity of the Yamaha, however, the Pratt-Read keyboards were a mess. Warpage of the keys and misalignment of the keyframe pins made even removal and replacement of the keys difficult. Whereas throughout most of the project I took my directions from Moog, here he made it clear that I was on my own — he could be of no help to me. I really felt put to the test. Miraculously, after several hours of furious pin bending and key sanding, I was able to create four fully functioning keyboards, but it had been like taming a team of wild horses. On my side was the fact that, among the four keyboards, there were four octaves of unused keys that could be scavenged for replacements. Unlike piano keys, organ keys are straight, so any natural key in good condition could serve as a replacement for any other natural of the same note name, and sharps were completely interchangeable.
Closeup of hand-shaped keytops made from circuit boards, on four-octave MTS keyboard.
Photo Credit: William LaVista
Completed four-octave MTS keyboard in its walnut cabinet. Photo Credit: William LaVista
Once the keyboards were functioning, I proceeded to perform much the same operations on them as I had on the Yamaha, but with some differences. Since I could easily remove the plastic keytops without removing the fronts, I did so (actually, these keys didn’t have fronts per se, but rather beveled undersides). I also removed the plastic sharp tops and replaced them with ones of a better size and shape for our purposes. Then I glued the sensor keytops directly to the wooden keys of the naturals or to the plastic sharps in the usual fashion, with ribbon cables attached, and filed and shaped the nearly 200 of them to match the shape of the surfaces on which they were mounted. Since these keyboards did not need to resemble pianos, the naturals were left the black color of the resistive paint rather than being painted white. The vertical-position sensors and circuit boards were installed in much the same manner as on the Yamaha.
Four-octave MTS keyboard with cabinet uncovered. Photo Credit: William LaVista
Moog had already built attractive walnut cabinets to house the four-octave keyboards, leaving room for the circuitry at the rear. Therefore no major surgery was necessary other than to cut off the keys a few inches behind the balance point, the rear of the keys serving no purpose. The ribbon cables were arched over the balance point to the scanning circuitry at the back, leaving the key bushings available for servicing should that ever be necessary.
Closeup of spring-loaded key-return system for four-octave MTS keyboard.
Since there was no action, as on a piano, to hold down what little there was of the rear of the keys and, therefore, to hold up the front, it was necessary to devise a spring-loaded mechanism. The springs had to be strong because they would be acting on an extremely short key-lever arm, but they also had to be very small to fit in the space between the key ends and the circuitry. After a few tries, Moog found some short, stiff springs that fit the bill, and I attached them to the keys with screw eyes. The springs were actually a little too strong, but some experimentation taught me just how much I had to deform them to get them about right. Thereafter, just turning the screw eyes provided the fine adjustment. Frankly, this spring system didn’t seem particularly elegant to me, but it did the job reasonably well.
Photo Credit: William LaVista
I balanced the spring-loaded keys with standard piano technician’s gram weights to a weight of about 64 grams, rather than the usual 50 or so grams found on a piano with the dampers disengaged. When balanced to 50 grams, these MTS keys felt terribly insubstantial, probably due to the extremely low inertia caused by the absence of a hammer action. A weight of 64 grams was similar to that of some other electronic keyboards I measured, and to that of piano keys with the dampers engaged. Since we had no idea just how these keyboards were going to be used, our principal aim was to make the touch uniform from note to note, and reasonably consistent with the touch a player of electronic keyboards would expect.
Because the spring-loaded keys exerted considerable upward pressure at the front, we used a key-stop rail to prevent the keys from jumping off their pins and to adjust the key height. Wooden rails turned out to not be strong enough to avoid bowing in the middle, so Moog turned up some lengths of heavy iron bar that, though clearly overkill, served nicely. We mounted each bar on threaded rod so that it could be adjusted, and padded it with felt where the keys would rest. Fine adjustments to the key height were made by affixing punchings (thin paper or cardboard spacers) to the keys where they contacted the felt. The key dip was regulated to be about the same as that of a piano.