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Gearhead: Baldwin’s Fun Machine, and Others

A view of the future from 1974 and products for tomorrow

Baldwin Fun Machine
A 1974-vintage Fun Machine, complete with original manual (on the music stand) and “Fun Bass” control

The world has seen quite a few peculiar electronic keyboard instruments over the years, especially from the era before digital technology. Some, like the Mellotron, Optigan, and Chamberlin, have achieved cult status and are coveted by musicians and collectors. Others still haven’t had their day yet. The Baldwin Fun Machine is one of the latter group, but that doesn’t make it any less cool—and if you ever see one, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

The Baldwin Piano Company had already been an esteemed instrument manufacturer for nearly a century when it introduced the Fun Machine in 1974. Indeed, for a time it was the largest maker of keyboard instruments in the United States. During the early 1940s, the first Baldwin electronic organ was developed, using 37 vacuum tubes; finally released to the public just after World War II, it became such a huge success that president Lucien Wulsin II decided to rename his business the Baldwin Piano & Organ Company. With the shift from tubes to transistors in the ’50s and ’60s, organ circuitry became more compact and complex, which paved the way for an instrument like the Fun Machine.

Designed for amateur use, the Fun Machine was something of a hybrid. Many of its features were similar to those of typical home organs. It emulated the sounds of various keyboard and orchestral instruments, and unlike the Mellotron, Optigan, or Chamberlin, it didn’t require special tapes or discs to be used. Pressing any single key on the small separate left-hand keyboard would automatically generate a full chord whose root note was the key you were pressing. An onboard beat box played a variety of accompaniment rhythms, including “foxtrot” and “soul rock.”

Where the Fun Machine differed from most home organs was that it offered extra control over its sounds through frequency filters, much like the hottest keyboard instruments of the day: synthesizers. This meant that, in addition to sounding like a trumpet or harpsichord, you could make great squelches, whooshes, and bleeps. And the eerie blue-ish lights behind the keyboard added to the space-age appeal.

Soon Baldwin took the Fun Machine name and applied it to several of its other single-manual and console home organ models, referring specifically to the onboard accompaniment system they all shared. Those organs are nifty too, but the original Fun Machine has a special character of its own. Yes, some of the tones it produces really belong nowhere other than a ’70s cocktail lounge. But others would sound right at home on a modern electronic dance music track.

Check out five noteworthy new products below.

Open Book

Open Book
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Touted as coming “direct from the composers’ lead sheets,” the Sher Music Co. Jazz Songbook Series consists (as of now) of 10 digital-only books, each featuring 20 particularly notable pieces by a distinguished jazz composer. In addition to the Kenny Barron edition seen here, there are volumes devoted to the work of Horace Silver, Carla Bley, Tom Harrell, Kenny Werner, Alan Pasqua, Ralph Towner, Steve Swallow, Oscar Hernandez, and Wayne Wallace. $18 each | shermusic.com

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.