—"The greatest experience of all was when Stevie Wonder played our piano at Madison Square Garden!"
Vintage Vibe has been repairing and restoring classic Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and Clavinet keyboards since the 1990s. In 2008, the company’s founder, Chris Carroll, along with master technician, Fred DiLeone, embarked on a quest to build their own electro-mechanical keyboard in the style of the Rhodes, infusing it with improved performance, reduced weight, and customizable, sleek new looks. This is the inside story of their adventure of creating a unique new analog instrument—an instrument embraced by some of the greatest musicians of our generation—the Vintage Vibe Electric Piano.
Chris Carroll with Fred DiLeone on right
When did the idea occur to you both that you could build a new, modern, electric tine piano a la the famous Rhodes? Repairing and restoring them for many years certainly allowed you to know the instruments inside and out...
Chris Carroll: A combination of ideas was the impetus for the Vintage Vibe piano. I had been amassing a catalog of aftermarket parts for the vintage Rhodes renaissance that was starting to bloom. Fred DiLeone, on the other hand, had already started chopping Rhodes pianos and making smaller versions like his custom 32-note suitcase model. We would work in the shop together by day, and by night drink Coronas while working late and talking about everything having to do with electric pianos.
During our conversations, we got into the idea of modifying Rhodes to make them lighter and smaller. In the shop we were always lifting these behemoth pianos around, up and down, it was a killer on the back. We knew there had to be a better way and we soon found it. Since I had amassed a stock of so many parts and Fred had some pretty solid ideas about shedding weight, the more we talked about it, the less we laughed at the thought. We then started saying things like, “What if...”
Fred DiLeone: All of my original weight-shedding ideas were applied to Rhodes pianos. Having been a fan of the 1/10 scale off-road race car scene of the early 1990's, I'd see inside pictures of the IFMAR Champion's modified RC10. In detail, the magazines of the day would point out where the weight of the car was reduced, and in some cases, the drivers were so successful at reducing weight that they would have to add lead tape to weigh the thing back down to fall within race regulations. Going back to full scale, I believe Mazda may have coined the phrase "Gram Strategy"
We began to see all of the various areas of a vintage Rhodes piano that could be lightened by a reduction in size, change in material, or outright elimination. The original idea in my mind at the time was to modify vintage instruments. Chris began to throw around the idea of building an entirely NEW piano. I originally thought it was a bit optimistic, but soon realized that was the path to go down!
Building and assembling the first Vintage Vibe Pianos
Tell us about what was happening at Vintage Vibe at the time in 2008 and how that tied into designing the Vintage Vibe Electric Piano.
CC: At the time of conception, we were doing restoration work for Steely Dan. Fred and I spent a lot of overtime working at the shop on Donald Fagen’s three suitcase pianos. We did one piano at a time for Donald, while we awaited his feedback. We articulated each of his pianos to the best of our ability. Donald really loved the work and told us so. He had us restore all three of his 88-note Rhodes suitcase pianos. This was a great learning experience for us because we put our best work (at the time) forth, along with the ideas and thoughts we had developed together to restore these pianos. It was in these days and nights that we first started talking about the idea of a new piano.
FD: Another thing we were doing at the time was zoning in on the craft of restoring and building through addressing inherent problems that are associated with the Rhodes design. An example of how this came about is that we began shooting videos of finished restorations to put online.
Sometimes an anomalous note would become apparent in a video, so we’d go back into the instrument for a quick fix, and have to re-shoot the video. This constant monitoring of our own work provided us with instant feedback. We started to hear things others did not. We started demanding more from ourselves while learning to go deep and understand reasons for many previously unexplained questions.
Installing our Miracle Mod Action Kit for Steely Dans Fender Rhodes Suitcase
CC: All in all, it was a very optimistic time for us. The economy was in full swing and we also had the excess energy you have when you’re younger.
Did you have almost all of the parts to build the first Vintage Vibe Electric Piano? What did you have to invent and figure out beyond those parts to create a completed prototype?
CC: We had a lot of parts already made and in-stock, but we knew we would have to utilize existing Fender Rhodes parts to complete the prototype. Ironically, we thought the rest would be easy to make, we would come to find out that we had a steep slope to climb before succeeding. The original tine secret recipe was a very deceptive puzzle. It took many years and much more money than I care to admit to crack the code fully. Another example was the structural integrity of not using a big plywood box to house the piano. This was super-important if we wanted to shed the bulk of the weight and achieve our goal.
One of the harder challenges we faced was our damper rail since our piano was so light that when you engaged the sustain pedal, the whole piano tended to lift. We finally figured out the physics of it and now our piano has an ultra-light touch response far surpassing the original Rhodes.
Finally, designing the lid without the use of computer software or engineering tools was difficult. We literally used old lids and cut them down and glued them together to mock up ideas. We then used light cardboard and cut shapes that would represent detail lines and forms so we could visualize the look. Fred’s idea for the “V scoop” came from his VW bug. We eventually found a company that would produce a mold for us from hand sketched mechanical drawings. In the end, they failed to deliver and we had to find another company to successfully manufacture the lids you now see on our pianos.
Also, our original idea was to be as small and lightweight as possible. In order to achieve this, the outside shell was to simply and gracefully drape over the inside mechanicals as closely and formfitting as possible. The design for the lid was inspired by the 200 series Wurlitzer pianos. Honestly, it would have ended up looking like a 200 anyway, considering the criteria I just described. Looking back, nothing was ever easy and still isn't, but nothing has ever been so rewarding either.
FD: The lid allowed for some styling cues to accentuate the appearance of the piano without adding too much overall dimension. For example, completely straight vertical lines can make an instrument look like a box. To angle those lines will soften the look, but you have to clear the harp and other inner workings, so you have to add to the overall footprint of the instrument to accommodate those lines.
We wanted to go as small as possible, so the Wurlitzer 200 lid represented styling without going overboard in dimension. I wanted our piano to be recognizable as its own entity from afar—that’s where the “VW Beetle bonnet” scoop motif came in, though tweaked it to represent a “V” for obvious reasons—Vintage Vibe!
What’s the back-story on the “tine making machine” that Vintage Vibe now utilizes to produce tines exactly like the original Fender Rhodes tines? Are there techniques that you copied or developed to reproduce the tines for your Vintage Vibe Piano?
FD: It’s an original Torrington Swaging Machine used to produce original “Torrington Tines.” Someone on the Internet so aptly put it by saying something along the lines of “Just because you have Michelangelo’s chisels doesn’t mean you can carve David.” The same sentiment most certainly applies here. It’s really not so much about the machine.
CC: There is a strict recipe to follow with a huge number of variables. If any single variable is off, so is your tine. Vintage Vibe tines are all about technique and secrets…. The recipe took us over five years to develop properly.
Vintage Vibe's current tine making process
How did you two meet?
CC: I was a keyboard repair technician at a company called EARS in NYC in the 90’s. I ran the department and really cut my teeth on vintage keyboard repair. My mentor was Jeff Blenkinsopp who was a really smart, experienced tech who designed the electronics for Pink Floyds Wall. We actually developed the first aftermarket Wurlitzer stereo amplifier together, but that’s another story. Fred and I met when he would come into EARS to bring his own Wurlitzer in for repair. He was good at Rhodes repair but hadn’t started repairing Wurlitzer pianos at this point. Ironically, he is now the best pre-200 Wurlitzer tech in the world.
FD: I remember back in the 90’s —it was before 9/11—when I brought a Wurlitzer 200A and a 200B into EARS for repairs. Chris saw the reed-bar of the 200B that I had damaged by breaking off a reed screw and he asked me, “Did you do this?!” I answered, “No, of course not!”
At another point I met Chris in his van (he was moonlighting Vintage Vibe at the time) and I bought a Clavinet C in pieces from him. The whole thing went down like a clandestine drug deal. The rest is history as they say.
Chris Carroll pictured with his son, Max, and the original Vintage Vibe Van!
Fred, you’re a gigging keyboard player. How did that experience tie-in to the design of the Vintage Vibe Piano? Did you have specific ideas from having played so many other keyboards—and especially vintage Rhodes? Things you wanted different, fixed, done in an alternate way? “If I had made the Rhodes, I would have….”
FD: I would gig exclusively on Rhodes. The weight and size was the biggest issue for me from the beginning. I wanted something lighter. As I became more familiar with the instrument’s action and dynamic potential, proper setup to unlock this potential became an ongoing obsession, both in vintage restorations as well as the Vintage Vibe Piano.
How did you reduce the weight of the Vintage Vibe Piano so much and yet still have a serious-feeling and solid instrument?
FD: The trick was removing as much weight as possible without affecting structural integrity within reason. The idea was to create something light enough to carry that could hold up under normal circumstances. It is a musical instrument after all, so don’t drop it down a flight of stairs!
CC: For instance, originally we bore 2.5-inch round holes all along the action rail, this relieved weight while still keeping structural integrity. We removed the need for a heavy key bed frame and removed the large plywood box concept. We also removed the steel harp frame, we used aluminum instead of steel and our damper rail is half the size and weight of a Fender Rhodes yet is worlds lighter to the touch. We cut away everything that was not needed, like how engineers design airplane frames. Our pianos are rock solid and engineered for lightweight strength, this same principle goes for our Vibanet. We have developed many more weight reducing ideas as well as ways to shrink our piano in size. The future of electro-mechanical pianos is getting smaller and lighter.
A fully assembled harp for a Vintage Vibe Piano
Tell us some stories of the trials and tribulations in designing and building the first prototype Vintage Vibe Pianos. How many prototypes were there? Was there one prototype that you just said “Ah ha!”?
FD: The biggest hurdles were the sustain mechanism, the chassis, the lid, and the tine recipe. The first prototypes were built from Rhodes parts that I had collected throughout the years. We assembled the initial prototype on a flat board standing in for the chassis. Once a chassis design was finalized (shout out to Adam Kaniper!) the original prototype (serial #001) was reassembled on that. Serial #001 then became my gigging axe, still in service at the time of this writing.
CC: It took quite a number of tries before we found a chassis recipe. We tried many different wood options for the base. What kept happening was the chassis would start to sag or boat after awhile. This is instantly noticeable as your piano will start smiling at you because it’s sagging in the middle! We made several prototype pianos, Fred has #1 and #2, I personally was not attached to the idea of owning them at the time, hopefully, they will be in a keyboard museum one day. The first real piano that was first offered to the public to see and play was a 64-key model with the serial number of #002. This was not the actual second piano, but it was the first prototype the public got to play.
In fact, going to NAMM in 2011 was our official launch of the piano. I still have this piano in the shop and it too was also made of some original Rhodes parts. We held a powerful vision in our heads of how awesome our pianos were and would eventually become. We were and still are fueled by the dream. We have spent the last eight years trying to turn others on to the Vintage Vibe magic and beauty. One-by-one people of all walks are starting to gather into the Vintage Vibe light. The current list of users is a Who’s Who of music giants.
An awkward story, NAMM 2011 ended up being a bit uncomfortable for us, as our NAMM booth was literally right next door to the Rhodes Corporation who was showing their new MK7 piano. The president of RMC must have seen pictures of our pianos online and assumed we were making a Wurlitzer type piano. Much to his dismay, he found out we were making tine-based pianos, he was not happy, to say the least. Our pianos ended up being a smash hit at the show and a side by side comparison proved that they, in fact, sounded and played better than the MK7.
Vintage Vibe Piano #002 being played at NAMM 2011.
What was that moment like to have someone outside the process, an artist who plays professionally all the time, make music on your first Vintage Vibe Piano right there in front of you as you watched and listened?
FD: One of our earliest artists who chose the Vintage Vibe piano is Chris Norton of Dweezil Zappa’s band. To get his feedback after playing our piano, and us hearing it on such a large stage as part of such a large ensemble is something I will never forget.
Chris Norton with Fred DiLeone on right
CC: The greatest experience of all was in 2014 when Stevie Wonder ordered a piano and invited us to come to Madison Square Garden for the show. This was a life-changing experience. This is where it all culminated, the reality of our achievements. This experience I will never forget. Stevie Wonder is still a Vintage Vibe family member to this day. He loves our piano and the Vibanet, in fact, you won't see him without his Vibanet these days.
Stevie Wonder performing Sir Duke & I Wish at Madison Square Garden in 2014.
Chick Corea is another great example of an amazing artist that was willing to work with us. Chick invited us down to a studio in NYC so he could demo our pianos. We brought him two pianos to listen to. After a long musical session, and much discussion, he gave us his preferences as to what he would like. We then set off to build him his piano. A month later we sent Chick a new piano. He really liked it, but there was something missing for Chick. So we had another meeting, listened to his critiques and decided to take his piano back and work on it. We spent a couple weeks tinkering where Fred came up with what is now known as the “Chick mod.” This mod has since become the new standard that we do to all of our newer Vintage Vibe pianos. It is the articulation of a highly regulated action, this, along with selective tine choices and low escapement, is the new standard on Vintage Vibe pianos. Thank you, Chick!
Chick Corea performing at Blue Note in NYC with his Vintage Vibe Electric Piano
What was the evolution of the speaker cabinet for the VV Piano suitcase model?
FD: We realized there was a desire for a self-contained amplification system. Also, the look of a console-style piano is much more formal than that of a piano on a keyboard stand or legs. We also knew we wanted our cabinet to be more audible to the player, which is where the angled speaker baffle came in.
CC: The angling up of the speakers in a field monitoring position is an improvement and contribution we felt needed to be made. Rhodes suitcase speakers are pointing directly at your knees. This did not make sense to us so we angled them up toward your head and made an everlasting improvement to an old design.
The Vintage Vibe Stereo Console. Inside and Out.
Access to electronics on the inside was also a concern for us, as getting to the power supply is always an issue for repair techs. We solved this problem by centrally locating the power supply on the inside. In the end, we also shrank the size and weight of the cabinet to accommodate travel.
Can you talk about some of the customizations that is available for the Vintage Vibe Piano, like the Walnut chassis? What else is offered and how did those options evolve?
FD: We have been for many years now, a custom shop. The same mentality carried over to our own pianos as customers requested various color combinations, wood grained chassis, etc.
CC: We have developed many mods like stereo reverb in our stereo console cabinets, walnut wood-grained chassis, custom pickup wiring, custom passive controls with buffered output, custom preamps. We revolutionized the Clavinet by developing a new polymer dampening system. We’ve done so many mods and custom shop ideas it’s hard to begin to describe them all. One of the latest is a monophonic synthesizer touch strip we added to our new prototype pianos. Vintage Vibe has always been about innovation. When you stop innovating you begin to die.
A Vintage Vibe 73 Note Electric Piano fitted with a Black Sparkle Lid, a Walnut chassis, MIDI & a custom Stereo Console.
Explain the MIDI OUT option for the Vintage Vibe Electric Piano, and how you came to offer that as a custom expansion?
CC: We are an electric piano company. That is where our strength and roots are. Honestly, Fred and I are not MIDI guys at all. We don’t use MIDI or desire it in our personal lives or pianos. With that being said, many customers want MIDI, and for them, we offer a retrofit kit called the “MIDI9” distributed by QRS. This kit can be installed into our pianos at an extra cost of $1,800 (at the time of this writing). The idea of developing new software and hardware for MIDI is out of our wheelhouse.
Artists have mentioned that when they “dig into the Vintage Vibe piano” it really sounds “like a Wurlitzer” - and they love that. Did you make any conscious design planning for the Vintage Vibe Piano to allow players to get that sound?
FD: Not many people have ever played a Rhodes that has been optimally set up.
CC: When we set up or build a Vintage Vibe piano we articulate everything, each note gets special attention, not just from the tuning and voicing perspective, but also from the ground up, from action regulation to tine choice. Vintage Vibe pianos utilize a firmer hammer tip than you’ll find in most Rhodes pianos. This offers our pianos a more defined articulation, a more precise attack. I feel all of this, along with its familiar 200 looks, offers the perception of the piano having its own voice. Rightly so, as this makes up the difference between a Vintage Vibe piano compared to an old Rhodes. People often hear with their eyes first.
FD: I’ve also noticed people comparing our “active” piano to a passive Rhodes, commenting on how the Rhodes is so much mellower. Signal chain can have much more of a profound effect on tone than many people give it credit for.
Also, many Rhodes pianos are not set up to take full advantage of the instrument’s dynamic potential. A Vintage Vibe piano is set up to be capable of bark and bite, but it can be just as mellow if you run it passively, roll off the highs, play with a light touch, etc.
What keyboards are in your collection, Fred?
FD: Other Keyboards? Not many. The Rhodes Pre-Piano, Fiesta Red Piano Bass, 2x ’68 Rhodes Silver Sparkle pianos, ’71 Rhodes Stage, ’74 Rhodes Stage, ’80 Rhodes 54, Suitcase 32 and Suitcase 61 (another precursor of the Vintage Vibe), Vintage Vibe #1 and #2, Vintage Vibe Bass Piano Prototype, Wurlitzer 110, 111, 112, 120, 200A, 106P, and MLM, Hohner Clavinet 1 and C, Cembalet N, Vox Continental, Farfisa Combo Compact, Ace Tone Top 5, Rheem KeeBass, Hammond X2, L112, ARP String Ensemble, Korg Univox K1 and K2, Korg Poly Ensemble, Roland Juno 60, U220, Yamaha PSR6 (my first!) SY35 (my second!) Reface YC, Kawai Upright (and Upright Toy) Piano, and a Chickering Quarter Grand.
A photo of Fred's Rhodes collection.
One of the highest compliments that I have heard about the Vintage Vibe Piano is that depending on who’s playing it, the piano sounds like them. That really is the key to being a deep instrument, like a guitar or violin sounds the way it does because of the player. It seems that the touch and response of the Vintage Vibe Piano can be adjusted for the owner, and this gives even more individuality to the sounds and music that comes out of it. How was this designed into the Vintage Vibe Piano?
FD: I have heard the same said of the Rhodes Piano. When it comes to complimenting our piano’s tone, I feel gratitude to Harold Rhodes, and the team of engineers that originally developed this sound. What we are trying to do is take the potential of a real tine piano into the 21st century and beyond—building upon what was already in existence.
CC: Each and every aspect of the Vintage Vibe piano like a Rhodes can be adjusted for feel and tweaked for tonal variations, whether it be at the factory or ultimately by the customer, that is the beauty of our instrument. We have developed over the last eight years, a standard or criteria to which all Vintage Vibe pianos are held to. Based on feedback from customers and the desire for improvement our developments have been substantial. We build each piano to our specifications but, if a customer has special requests we can work with the expectations.
How did you meet Eric Persing at Spectrasonics, and what was the evolution of creating the Vintage Vibe samples for their Keyscape software?
CC: Eric Persing has been a Vintage Vibe customer for years. I sold him a custom Blue-sparkle Rhodes and a custom Brown Wurlitzer 140B many moons ago, which he loves. Greg Phillinganes and George Duke did some recordings with Eric on those pianos. I would have loved to been in that room!
Later on, Eric became a big fan of Vintage Vibe Electric Pianos and he commissioned us to build him a Bass piano in Champagne-sparkle, all three keyboards including a 64 and 73 were sampled and are part of the amazing Keyscape software.
About four years ago I started messing with the idea of sampling our pianos. I had met a guy at NAMM who had a small following with his brand of samples that featured electric pianos. I started talking to him about the idea, but I soon found that not everyone you meet at NAMM has the same work ethic as you. After I realized that this situation was not what I wanted, it occurred to me that Eric at Spectrasonics makes the finest samples in the world and hey! I already know him!
So I called Eric up and as Kismet would have it, he was already involved in a top-secret Spectrasonics project that would be a perfect fit for this idea—Keyscape. I told him about my thoughts and he immediately loved it. He had so many great ideas and really helped us along with so much. We were off and working together, I was sworn to secrecy for years. Man, I was busting!
Eric was like a mentor to me when it came to MIDI and samples. He has always been so super helpful and kind. What Eric and his team at Spectrasonics have done is nothing short of revolutionary.
Take our Electric Piano and Vibanet (Clavinet) samples, for instance. Eric and his team truly nailed the characteristics and nuances of our instruments. I cannot stress this enough. He took years on our pianos to do this right. Most companies would have sampled our piano in a day or two. He is an artist and a gentleman. We are honored to work with and know him.
Cory Henry demoing the Vibanet preset within Keyscape
An interesting thing is that at the time of sending pianos out to Eric to begin sampling, we were having serious tine problems. I was not happy at all with the pianos, but we had a deadline to meet. Eric and his team brought out the special magic of those pianos. Listening to their work I cannot tell that there were questionable tines in those pianos. That’s saying something!
You’ve been handcrafting Vintage Vibe pianos for eight years now, how has the evolution of the piano in terms of its playability and sound been affected?
CC: The piano has evolved in many ways just as Rhodes evolved. In the end, the tone is basically the same, although Fred and I can hear subtle nuances from the beginning of building our own pianos to now. We have upgraded a number of parts in the piano throughout the years like pickups, action rails, hammers, tines, pre-amps, and also the way we set up the action. We have come to the point now where we are building the best pianos we have ever made. Through better parts, knowledge, and experience, our pianos today are highly inspirational musical instruments, works of art, if I may. When we see our older pianos come in, we often upgrade them to our new standards. Fred has developed some great new methods for production, and I continue to hold our new pianos to the highest standard of excellence. Our reputation is all we have.
From the Archives
Fred's in-depth analysis on a Vintage Vibe Piano with Passive Electronics
Fred covering 'Black Friday' by Steely Dan using an assortment of Vintage Vibe Electric Pianos