Pedal Keyboards: A nearly complete roster
With the arrival of inexpensive semiconductors in the 1970s, stand-alone bass pedal units appeared under at least six different names. I've had my hands and feet on four of these units, and my eyes and ears on a fifth.
Please note that all of the self-contained bass pedals mentioned here are long out of production. No, I don't know where you can find any of them; for some suggestions, please see the FAQ page. If you need a pedal keyboard that is currently being manufactured, please skip down to the MIDI pedal keyboards section.
Best known are the Moog Taurus units, which came in several different flavors. I've tried a one-octave unit (13 notes, C to booming C), with synth and all controls contained in the floor unit, and I saw an 18-note (octave plus a fourth) unit having its controls on a tower, which stood about two feet high. From a lively discussion on Usenet a while back, I learned that the one-octave model is the Taurus I, and the control-tower version is the Taurus II. Though long discontinued, the interest in these units doubtless stems partly from the current obsession with vintage analog synthesizers, and partly because the Canadian band Rush used Taurus bass pedals prominently on stage.
While the Moog units offered some flexibility in sound sculpturing, the same can't be said for a trio of one-octave bass pedal units marketed under the Crumar, Univox, and BassMate names. As I recall (it's been years, folks), all of these units offer a choice of 16' or 8' pitch or both, a release-rate control (which lets you set how quickly the sound dies after a pedal is released), and a volume control. That's it-- just basic bass.
The MTI Auto-Orchestra was a much more complex device, including a drum machine and an accompaniment generator, in addition to the bass sound. Strictly speaking, it wasn't self-contained-- besides a cabinet containing the sound generators, the system included either a pedal or manual keyboard, and a control pedal. (I saw a local duo use one with a manual keyboard, but Shawn Phillips used a pedal keyboard with his at a remarkable concert I attended in about 1984.)
The control pedal was basically a volume pedal, controlling the output level of the accompaniment synth, upon which were mounted four switches. The accompaniment synth would spit out a three-note chord, in your choice of reasonably organlike, recognizably pianolike, or somewhat stringlike timbres. The four switches, activated by the sides of the heel or toe, would give the player (perpetrator?) a choice of major, minor, dominant seventh, or diminished chord flavors.
In addition, the Auto-Orchestra offered automated walking bass-- hit the root of a chord, and it would spit out a quarter-note arpeggio, with the chord again determined by the footswitch selected.
There was at least one bass pedal unit which used no synthesizer technology at all. IronMan Mike Curtis found one in the early 1970s:
I learned of the existence of bass pedals, and bought my first set, made by Creager. It was mechanical. It had reeds and a magnetic pickup. It went from C60 Hz to C120 Hz, whatever that is in feet. Nothing else - just notes that rang more when you held the pedal down and damped off when released.
I have also read allusions to a Kruger pedal keyboard (possibly spelled Krüger or Krueger); could this have been the same unit? Another reader wrote that he "played for years on a set of bass pedals with the word Rhodes on them." Rhodes and Fender/Rhodes keyboards all used tines and magnetic pickups-- could all of these have been the same device, under different brands?
I personally opted for a MIDI pedal keyboard, but John Stone White was gigging with a BassMate as recently as 1994, and one of these units may be just what you're looking for to fill a void in your act, your psyche, or your life.
If you have further information about any of these units, especially corrections, please email me.
Current MIDI pedal keyboards: Music Industries is the United States distributor for the Fatar Studiologic MP-113, a one-octave, velocity-sensitive unit, and the Studiologic MP-117, which has a 17-note keyboard but is otherwise identical. The MP-113 replaces the Fatar MP-1, a one-octave unit which transmits note data at fixed velocity.
Roland continues to offer the PK-5, a velocity-sensitive, one-octave unit. Roland's Web site also shows a PK-25 Pedalboard and mentions a PK-7 pedal bass, both described as intended for use with the VK-77 Combo Organ; however, the Web site does not indicate whether either is suitable for use without a VK-77.
Hammond Suzuki offers the Hammond XPK-100 Midi Pedalboard, a one-octave, fixed velocity unit. A thoughtful feature of this unit is a pair of MIDI input jacks and built-in MIDI merge, allowing two manual keyboards or other MIDI controllers to share one or more tone generators with the pedal keyboard. (Many thanks to Doug Sewell for the heads-up!)
In an incredible stroke of blind luck, I found an Elka DMP-18 second-hand in a pawn shop. As the nomenclature may suggest, this unit has 18 pedals, covering an octave and a fourth. The key switch system used in this unit is not only velocity-sensitive, but self-cleaning! It offers a hold function, octave transposition, and (limited) program change capability, but all these functions are inconvenient to access, and I've never been able to get the program change to work on my unit. Even so, if you can find a DMP-18, grab it! The velocity sensitivity can (with practice) really liven up a bass part. The extra five notes are even nicer. And you can always change programs from the sound module.
Elka also offered a 13-note pedal keyboard, without velocity sensitivity.
"It has just one button, for setting octave and MIDI channel, according to which black (octave) and white (midi channel) key you hit after hitting the button," says IronMan Mike Curtis, who uses one.
Korg advertised a PK-13 MIDI pedal keyboard and, later, a PK-130 back in the '80s. I saw magazine ads, and even found promotional literature in music stores, but I never saw either unit. I suspect, from the photos I saw, that the PK-13 offered simply note-on and note-off; the PK-130 maybe offered program change and one or two other functions.
This list may not be complete, but these are all the MIDI pedal keyboards I know about. If you know more than I do about any of these units, or about other keyboards I didn't mention 'cause I don't know about 'em, please email me.
MIDI pedal keyboards allow playing more than bass; the page on Using Pedal Keyboards describes some of the possibilities, and the Sounds page has examples you can hear. Also, the page about my setup includes a description and wiring diagram.
If you really want to pinch pennies and are handy with tools, you could do what a friend of mine did: Make your own pedal keyboard. Electronically, if you don't need velocity sensitivity, keys are just normally-open, momentary-closed switches... Mechanically, keys are just hinges...
My friend had a Korg Super Session, a pioneering combination drum machine and auto-accompaniment generator, which had a one-octave membrane keyboard. Initially, he built a mechanical pedal keyboard, using coat hanger wires to transfer the pedal action to the membrane keyboard. (I swear I am not making this up...). This proved so tricky to keep adjusted that he bought some switches and a chunk of 36-conductor ribbon cable (he only needed about 15 conductors, but 36 was what he found cheap), and wired the switches on the pedalboard to the key contacts in the Super Session. Not at all glamorous-- but it worked!
The same idea could be applied to any inexpensive Yamaha or Casio home keyboard... If the unit has auto-accompaniment, you could have a poorfolks' Auto-Orchestra, but hopefully you'd have better taste than to use it that way. And if the keyboard has MIDI out...
Another homebrewing possibility would involve a lot more effort-- not only in construction, but in the roadie work after it's built:
Build an acoustic bass pedal keyboard.
Farfetched? There's precedent: Jesse "Lone Cat" Fuller built his own six-string pedal bass years before the invention of the transistor. Read about Fuller and the "fotdella" at the Arhoolie Records site; read much more, and see a tantalizingly vague monochrome photo of Fuller playing the fotdella-- along with 12-string guitar, harmonica, and hi-hat cymbals-- at the Roots of the Grateful Dead site.
Eric Royer's Guitar Machine Band pushes the homebrew foot-operated instrument envelope farther than I've seen elsewhere, incorporating both acoustic guitar and electric bass.