It’s the return of fun Kpopalypse technical learny posts that you all love! In this episode of “I likey likey dis and I dislikey dislikey dat”, we’re going to find out all about the Fender Rhodes!
If you’ve been a regular reader of Kpopalypse roundup, you’ll know that a song featuring a Fender Rhodes is released about every week in k-pop lately, and that these almost universally receive negative write-ups. But what exactly is a Fender Rhodes, and more importantly, why is its inclusion in a k-pop song synonymous with super-low song quality? Read on to find out more!
In the 1940s a US soldier and music teacher called Harold Rhodes took a break from assisting with the war effort by boring foreigners to death with dull music theory books to create a miniature electronic piano that bedridden soldiers could use. Here’s what it looked like.
Portable electronic keyboards were unheard of at the time, so this was a pretty amazing invention. Even if you had German shrapnel in your dick, you could operate one of these from your hospital bed and learn how to play the piano.
Here’s the man himself showing you what lives on the inside of his creation:
While a piano on the outside, the Rhodes piano was essentially an electrified xylophone on the inside – notes were produced by hammers striking metal, and the resulting sound of the bar vibration was then amplified with electromagnets.
Rhodes teamed up with Fender to make the Fender Rhodes pianos, but the early iterations of the Rhodes piano weren’t very popular. This was because Leo Fender thought that the higher notes of the Rhodes piano sounded like fucking ass cancer, and so he only approved “piano bass” models of the invention that had the lower notes only. Then the Fender company was bought out by CBS in 1965, and CBS were just like “fuck it, whatever man” and let Rhodes make full-scale fancy-ass piano versions in different configurations with up to 88 keys.
So that’s what it looks like… but what does it sound like? Just listen to almost any fucking wimpy pussy ballad k-pop comeback at all in the last few months and you’ll find the Fender Rhodes keyboard sound front and center. It’s the main sound driving this little snippet of a new Lovelyz song, for instance.
Lovelyz also used it in “Shooting Star”, where you can hear it in the intro:
Of course they’re not the only ones. The Fender Rhodes is often used as “filler” sonic material in the weaker end of k-pop, noodling around in the back of shitty R&B ballads, like this song here, and hundreds of other generic songs that sound exactly like this one:
So what is it that makes the Fender Rhodes so suited to this type of absolute fucking shit? Well, as you can hear, the Fender Rhodes piano has a very mellow sound like a xylophone but with very little dynamic range. “Dynamic range” refers to volume difference – notes of the Fender Rhodes tend to always come out at around the same volume.
Here’s the internal action of the Fender Rhodes keys, which will (hopefully) demonstrate why this is the case:
Pressing a key (3-4) on the Rhodes causes the hammer tip (14) to strike the tine (13 – a small metal rod) which vibrates the tone bar (11 – the large xylophone-style bar), producing the sound. The tine and tone bar are two separate parts connected by a mounting screw (10), so the hammer isn’t directly striking on the actual part that makes the sound, but the tine which is a secondary part attached to the bar. This softens the vibration – you can hit the tine pretty hard but only a small amount of vibration will transfer to the tone bar. Compare this to a traditional piano action:
On a piano, striking the key (1) causes the hammer tip (32) to directly hit the string (41), which resonates and produces the sound. Because the hammer is directly striking the part that vibrates and generates the sound, there’s a lot more control over the resulting volume. The piano’s full original name was “pianoforte” which translates to “soft/loud”, as it was this characteristic which set it apart from other keyboard instruments when the piano was invented. As a result of this dynamic flexibility, the piano can be used to make very pleasant music, or very harsh music. On the other hand, the Fender Rhodes because of its lack of dynamic range cannot actually be used to make music that isn’t “smooth” (i.e boring) in some way. It is quite literally boredom in a box. Even the Rhodes’ main rival in the marketplace at the time, the Wurlitzer electric piano, had a better fucking sound than the Rhodes because the Wurlitzer’s mini-piano-style action meant that when you hit the keys hard you would at least get some crunchy distortion out of it.
Not so with the Fender Rhodes. The only interesting thing about the Rhodes sound is that most versions of the keyboard have a stereo tremolo effect which makes the notes sound like they are fading in and out and moving from side to side in stereo. This tremolo sound (deliberately mislabeled “vibrato” on the actual instrument because Fender are stupid) proved popular and became a characteristic part of the “Rhodes sound”, but it’s still a very soft kind of sound which makes the Fender Rhodes tone even more wispy and nothingy than usual, as it’s quite literally fading in and out of existence. You can hear this sound in full effect on all the video examples above.
So that’s why the Fender Rhodes sounds like shit, but it doesn’t answer the real question – why does k-pop keep fucking using it?
It’s a mystery, nobody truly knows the answer. Here are some possibilities which may be true or false, pick your favourite.
THE VOCALFAG THEOREM
It’s probably related to that other disgusting cancer in k-pop – excessive vocal showing-off to please the sickening and misguided technique-obsessed fetishes of pop music listeners with scholarly pretensions. The smooth, inoffensive, bland-as-wallpaper sound of the Rhodes is so backgroundy in nature that audio engineers don’t even have to be any good at mixing to make sure that it doesn’t sonically intrude on those oh-so-important vocal lines that everyone masturbates themselves to death over.
KOREA IS BORING
Korean society is more conservative and dull so they prefer softer sounds that don’t threaten their desire for tidy homes, working long hours for little pay and keeping their heart rate at a nice low steady pace. The minimal dynamics of the Fender Rhodes allow Koreans to navigate through the drudgery of existence seamlessly without undue stress, worry or excitement.
The same weird fetish that drives people to buy vinyl in 2016 even though they don’t own anything to play the vinyl on is also driving studio engineers to collect weird arcane instruments and shit up stupid Korean ballads with their suckitude.
HIVE-MIND FUN TIMEZ
After many years of no Fender Rhodes in k-pop someone in Korea had a surprise hit with a Fender Rhodes shitball. Now we’re stuck with the fucking sound as every two-bit producer in Korea tries to imitate that producer’s success, not realising that it was the uniqueness of the sound that helped that song become a hit and with everyone now doing the same thing a repeat performance is impossible.
THE CONTAINER POSTULATION
A shipping container full of Rhodes keyboards lost at sea for decades suddenly washed up on the shores of South Korea around a year ago. Poverty-stricken street-urchins raided the container and on-sold the vintage keyboards to studios across the country. Seems legit as even though a Fender Rhodes is quite pricey these days seemingly everyone in Korea from the most well-known to the most nugu gets to record something with a Rhodes on it eventually.
Who knows the real reason, feel free to come up with more potential reasons in the comments below! In the meantime, now you know all about the Fender Rhodes and why it sucks! Have fun avoiding this sound in k-pop for the future!
Oh and credit to www.fenderrhodes.com for some of the images. Those sad, sad people. Why not pay their site a visit and feel appropriately sorry for them?