During the 80s, money was always tight. Acquiring musical gear was achieved one of three ways: hand-me downs, home made amps or effects that my dad built, or – occasionally – a budget piece of gear.
Radio programs like Hearts of Space and Echoes inspired me to explore sound as texture, and Power 99 FM out of Philly instilled an interest in beats and other sounds that were becoming popular in dance music, 80s new wave, and proto-rap. There were a lot of artists making interesting sounds, and though I was very far removed from the culture of rap, the sounds and production still reached me via radio. Only looking back now do I see how those early influences led me to my present interests and abilities.
In 1987 I convinced my parents that I just had to have a keyboard (or at least whatever was passing for one in my price range). Names like Korg, Roland and even Yamaha were out of the question. If you couldn’t buy it in the electronics department of a retail store, or Radio Shack, then it wasn’t happening. We landed on a Casio Casiotone MT-520 on sale at Hills Dept Store in Hazleton. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was enough that we couldn’t buy it outright and had to put it on “layaway”. I still have the stock slip taped to the original box. Today’s click-and-buy culture may not understand what layaway is, so I probably should explain…
Layaway is an alternative to buying something outright. If you don’t have the money, but the item is available or on sale, you can make a small downpayment to reserve the item for the sale price. You then make payments until it is paid off. Usually there is a surcharge or stocking fee if you don’t pick it up. My family used layaway often while I was growing up, even for necessities, because often the money just wasn’t there. Any purchase over $100 was likely made via layaway, particularly if it wasn’t a necessity. This method of shopping is foreign to many people today, but I believe the practice still exists in many “big box” stores.
As you can imagine, bringing the Casio home that first day was a big deal. It’s hard to remember, but I think it was a birthday present because it holds that much nostalgia, and explains why I never sold it. One give-away that this is not a “pro instrument” is the mid-sized keys. Since I never had piano lessons, that wasn’t a big deal. But it did contribute to some bad habits and poor playing form and pretty much ruined any chance of learning “proper” keyboarding skills down the road.
The MT-520 did not have MIDI capability, so you were stuck with playing parts by hand (imagine that!) or using the small temporary memory. The other thing that makes this unit less desirable to “real” keyboardists is the built-in speakers, which are a sure sign it is meant for kids or dabbling. However, these limitations are not enough for me to call the MT-520 a toy, even after growing up and using a Korg Triton. It’s better to look at this as a unique tool, and indeed some in the electro community cherish these devices. In fact, I believe U2 used the drum module on at least one song.
What it lacked in pro specs, it made up for in fun and inspiration. The “Super Drums”, though cheesy by today’s standards, were one of the best things about the MT-520. Among other later creations, this keyboard is largely responsible for my first original instrumental, “The Rains Shall Fall”, which involved an arpeggiated chord sequence. Originally written on guitar, the piece expanded into several directions as soon as I got the Casio. The temporary memory allowed me to record the arpeggio and the onboard drums kept everything moving along. This was a revelation at the time. I could now see my musical ideas take shape. While I’ve recorded the piece in many different ways since then (non of which have been released yet), nothing seems to compare to that first sonic palette, limitations and all. Recently, I’ve begun performing the song live at electro events and in Second Life on much more modern gear. It’s a tribute to the power of one simple device to inspire so much creativity.
In an ironic twist, small keyboards with mid-sized keys, like the AKAI LPK25 would come back in style in professional circles as desk space became a concern for laptop and computer-based musicians. Composition software and sampling may be more advanced now, but the controllers are based on the same technology seen in the MT-520 and similar keyboards of the same period. These are particularly popular with the DJ and electronic music crowds who do not always care about “proper” playing position or form, and are more interested in the sounds produced from the sampler.
Since 1987, economics have changed. I do not need to use layaway. I have access to more sounds (free and purchased) than I could possibly use in one lifetime. Programs like Propellerhead’s Reason are mind-boggling in their depth and breadth, right out of the box. There are so many tonal options that it is easy to get bogged down. So seeing the MT-520, taking this little walk down memory lane, and hearing stuff I did with it so long ago provides some perspective. It isn’t the gear that matters. It is the material, and the artist behind it.