When you’re on a quest to create music and have fun, you’re not always hung up on having the fanciest equipment before getting started. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun to just play around with something that seems like it’s more designed for beginners and/or hobbyists, and feels like a toy.
To some people, kitsch is cool, and these kinds of less expensive but really-fun-to-play instruments, which seem to be directed at a younger crowd (but adults can enjoy them too) are perpetually making a comeback in indie music circles and beyond. Even industry giants like Beck has been known to rock a mini keyboard from time to time, and employ actual “junk” instruments into his set. And there are thousands of musicians like him who see the appeal of these charming “toy” instruments.
Toy keyboards – the kind with miniature keys and built-in speakers that are made of plastic – are a popular purchase these days by people who are into unique-sounding analog music gear and aren’t brainwashed into thinking that music has to be made with thousand dollar equipment.
PortaSound ’80’s Entry Level Mini Keyboards for Beginner Players
Enter PortaSound keyboards, a line of entry-level, budget-priced, and rather quirky mini-keyboards that was released by Yamaha in the 1980’s, when synth bands were all the rage and music in general had a certain weirdness to it that allowed for all kinds of sonic experimentation. PortaSound keyboards had that vibe about them – part toy, part musical instrument.
These PortaSound portable keyboards / organs (not synths), which came equipped with drum machines and hundreds of different “voices”, were easy to toss in the back of the station wagon so that you could practice piano while you were at the cottage, under threat of corporal punishment from dad, who “paid for those damn music lessons!”
Depending on the model, you either got something fairly large and complex, that almost could mimic a real piano in some ways, or you got a puny little foot-and-a-half long keyboard with lots of funny sound effects and drum machine loops that played back things like the samba. Here’s one of the larger models – the PSS-480 “Music Station”
If you were a kid and you thought you were going to go join your friend’s rock band with one of these, unless you could hook it up to an amp somehow, you were pretty much out of luck. PortaSound keyboards were marketed at the time as fairly wholesome practice tools for learning piano, not instruments that would let you join a rock band. That is, despite the fact that many of them were loaded up with cheesy and hilarious sounds that would distract a kid from practicing Beethoven. Here’s an ad from 1983 from Yamaha for the PortaSound keyboard.
When a kid received a PortaSound keyboard as a gift, it’s impossible to say how they’d use it. Of course, it depended on the kid. Would it be used to practice for music lessons (as dad demanded), would it be used to have fun and create songs (like some more creative kids might enjoy), or would you inevitably swing it at your sibling’s head, catching them with a glancing blow that would have them in the hospital for a mild concussion?
Back in the ’80’s, you simply never knew what would happen, although I’m pretty sure a lot of parents and grandparents hoped that by buying their kid a PortaSound keyboard, they might have the next Rachmaninoff on their hands. Instead, they probably heard a lot more stuff like this playing incessantly from the rec room.
Yamaha PortaSound PSS-170 Toy Mini Keyboard Review
The PortaSound PSS-170 is but one of many of these Yamaha keyboards designed more for kids than anyone else…or so it would seem.
Kid or no kid drooling on this thing, it has lots of features that make it much more than a simple toy, and even something that even adults with high IQ’s can have fun with. That is, unless their sense of fun has been slowly crushed out of them by their overlords and corporate bureaucracy.
When you look at the PSS-170 up close, you realize it’s not really a “silly” instrument – more simply designed and utilitarian. The main switches on the left hand side include the power switch, master volume, accompaniment volume, and auto accompaniment switch, allowing you to toggle between single finger, auto bass chord, auto chord, and auto bass. There’s a lot of functionality packed into this little section alone, and it’s not something that a regular kid is going to look at and make sense of right away. You need to be a musician to get this stuff. There’s also the speaker, from which pumps the analogue beats and music you produce with the keyboard.
Keys and Drum Beats
Here in this image you can see the different beats you can play, as well as the “fill in” switch, which is for drum fills, the synchro start button, the start/stop button, and the tempo up and down buttons in green. The keys have the note names above them, which is great for beginners. It also does basically look like a piano, except the keys aren’t weighted and they’re not as big. I like how this thing is set up, and I think Yamaha did a great job designing this thing. Kids or not, it won’t take long before you get the hang of where everything is.
When you think about it, the PSS-170 really does give you a lot to play with. It even has a “Portamento” button for crying out loud, which means to slide. This thing is definitely worth having, even if you’re not a kid.
In the above pic, you can see why this thing emphasizes that it is indeed a “voice bank”, because someone took the time to jam a whole helluva lotta different keyboard “voice” effects into this tiny beast.
Here’s the last close up pic I have for the PSS-170, which is of the voice selector area, which has digits 0 to 9, allowing you to select from the voices above and pick your sound. This is always a highlight of using this keyboard, which is scrolling through the sounds. Just this act alone is, I think, worth the cost of the keyboard, because it stimulates my ADD brain and I just spend 30 minutes trying to find the right sound. It’s just fun.
Headphones / Aux Out / DC In
The back of this thing is easy enough to understand. You can plug in headphones, or go aux out into some other device, and hence open up a world of possibilities for using this keyboard with amps, effects, and going direct into your computer. That one little hole is pretty special. Then there’s the other hole, which allows you to plug a power adapter in, so you can get this thing to turn on. Otherwise, you’re stuck using batteries.
Watch this video, showing Fauxtown’s own Chad Casarin AKA Personal Helicopter using the Yamaha PortaSound Voice Bank PSS-170 Keyboard. He takes it around with him to gigs and uses it frequently in very creative ways. Check out what he has to say about it!
Here’s a song that Chad plays with the PSS-170 under his pseudonym, Telson Delmer, called “evening for penguins”…