Combo Electric Harpsichord
Another rare treat: the Baldwin Solid Body Harpsichord for Reason!
A rare and exclusive curio from the world of retro keyboards, we present our version of a design classic, the Baldwin Solid Body Harpsichord, also known as the Electric, or Combo, Harpsichord.
Designed in 1950’s America by Caleb Warner and Eric Herz, it found its niche when manufacture transferred to Baldwin in the early 1960s.
Its most notable use was George Martin playing it on The Beatles song “Because” (Abbey Road, 1969), but other references to specific song usage have been hard to come by: The Beach Boys toured with it (the same one which was reported as having recently been used by Daft Punk), but I’m unclear as to whether it featured on any of their studio recordings. Don Randi used one a lot. It certainly will have cropped up on a number of pop tracks of that extraordinarily rich late 60’s era (it likely appears on a least one recording by The Monkees, for example), as harpsichords were rather in vogue at that time, but my guess is generally it was layered or fairly deep in the mixes and thus more easily mistaken for a baroque harpsichord, hence the lack of better information as equipment lists got lost to time and memory.
Sonically, it doesn’t quite sound like a standard harpsichord. The easiest way to describe it is as a guitar played like a harpsichord. Thus when the key is depressed, its string is plucked, and the two magnetic pickups turn the string vibration into the electrical signal that makes the tone.
The mid pickup (the Blue voices) provides a deeper, duller tone, somewhat equivalent to a neck pickup on a guitar, while the top pickup (the Red voices) creates a bright tone similar to playing a bridge pickup on a guitar, and is marginally more in keeping with a harpsichord. For the Combo Harpsichord I’ve extended its capabilities somewhat by duplicating the first pair of pickups as the Light Blue and Light Red voices, which can be selected from 8′ or, more usefully, as a 4′, for quick octave doubling; additionally, pickups can be offset with a short delay to create a double-strike effect (just 2-3ms works best, but you can delay up to 360ms for various flam lengths).
So while it does not possess the lightness of tonality one might expect of a typical baroque harpsichord, the electric aspect gives it a rich funkiness and grit that allows it to be more upfront. Thus I wouldn’t suggest this is in any way a replacement for a regular harpsichord, to the point where if you try to use it for baroque music in any kind of public fora, your classical music professor would probably spit their own kidneys out.
Appreciating then that this isn’t the most versatile of instruments, for anyone producing music in the indie, pop, funk, or reggae genres, this fun little beauty will certainly add an interesting alternative, if occasional, texture. Use it solo, or try layering the Red/Top pickup tone with another instrument for some extra bite!
Every note of both pickups of the Combo Electric Harpsichord was directly sampled at 24/96. It was a vintage machine, there is some AC hum towards the end of the sustain as the note level fades; however, in practice harpsichord playing — even as an electric harpsichord — tends to favour a playing style that doesn’t contain long notes.
- Blue (Mid) pickup bass C0-C3 and treble C#3-C6, independently switchable left, off, or right channel
- Red (Top) pickups bass C0-C3 and treble C#3-C6, independently switchable left, off, or right channel
- Light Blue and Light Red doubler with selectable 4′ option for octave doubling.
- All four voices have independent Level, Tuning Screw, and Delay. Use Delay to create a “double-hit/flam” type effect, and the Tuning Screw to create chorus/unison/honky-tonk effects.
- Pedal switch enables expression pedal control for that voice
- DAMP reduces the sustain and tone similar to using a damp pedal.
- VEL provides note velocity
- REL allows you to adjust the level of Release Resonance
- HPF sets a low pass filter to cut off any unwanted low frequencies
- CHANNELS: force L and R stereo channels to mono
- SPRING: long spring reverb
- ROOM: short room reverb
- VOLUME: master output volume
- AMP: five Types plus “None”, with adjustable Drive. [Note only “None” and “Transistor” options allow stereo output]
- TONE: Adjust Bass and Treble EQ
- TREM: Apply Tremolo Speed and Intensity
- CABINET: Select from 8 cabinet types or “No Cabinet”
- Separate audio outputs can be enabled for each voice on the rear panel.
We begin with two lovely demos using exclusively the Combo Electric Harpsichord from sutijavasara, followed by a more traditional pop track where I used the Electric Harpsichord for the bridge solo in stereo (skip to 1’40), doubled with a JPS Harmonic Synthesizer in the centre, then the coda solo (from 3’15) is the Electric Harpsichord alone. Then a little Electric Harpsichord-only improv I knocked together, with a bit of Minipops, and the playlist culminating with some baroque MIDI for your classic music professor to enjoy, or at least for you to enjoy the expression on their faces!