Rocky Mount Instruments
by Tom Emerick, Allen Organ Company
As I sit down and attempt to put into words the history of a company and its products, my memory drifts back to a simpler, but exciting period of time in the design and development of commercial electronic musical portable keyboards. I have always considered myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be involved in the design, sales, and service of the RMI products throughout its history.
This history is being compiled for the sole purpose of passing information on to future generations, and any other use is denied. The dates of the different products are as close as I remember, or as I can verify through brochures or discussing with individuals whose memory is clearer than mine.
At this time, I wish to acknowledge the fact that although there were many people involved in the RMI project, the credit must go to Mr. Jerome Markowitz (now deceased), who was the founder and owner of the Allen Organ Company. Without his vision, inventiveness, and leadership, the project would never have been.
To start, RMI stands for Rocky Mount Instruments, Inc., which was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Allen Organ Company. The manufacturing operations were located in Rocky Mount, North Carolina; design and sales were handled at the Allentown Organ Company, located in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Although the majority of production was done at the Carolina facility, there were instruments produced at the Macungie plant.
The RMI company goal was to provide a high quality product geared to the professional, at a cost affordable to many weekend musicians. In my opinion, the tonal quality and reliability of the RMI product line far surpassed any other product line in its day. The list of professional customers speaks for itself.
The company opened manufacturing operations in 1966 in a rented warehouse, with a new 66,000 sq. ft. plant dedicated in 1967. Although the manufacturing of products under the RMI name ceased in the mid-1980s, the company continued in operation producing organs and organ assemblies for Allen until 1999 when the facility was sold.
Now that I have given you a brief background of the company, I can get into the different names and models of the instruments themselves, since that is where the legacy lies anyway.
The RMI Explorer
The explorer was the first model to be manufactured under the RMI name. The original prototypes were produced in a low profile wood case with a walnut finish. These prototypes units were produced under the Allen name. The production run was housed in a plywood case, designed in the style that would become typical of most RMI products, for years to come. The case was finished with a speckled paint, the bottom in green and the upper in blue and had chrome-folding legs. Although the brochure states the instrument was produced with a vinyl material, I do not remember it being ever manufactured that way, nor I cannot verify that it was.
The tone generation system consisted of circuitry patented by the Allen Organ Company. It used an individualized transistor oscillator circuit for each of its forty-nine note keys. This was the basic design for most of the analog RMI keyboard products produced in the future. The most unique feature of this instrument is the patented Flying Hammers. This consisted of a piece of spring steel with a lead weight attached. There was one of these assemblies per note. When a key was depressed, the hammer would vibrate against a contact, turning the oscillator on and off. Depending on how hard the note was hit, the decay characteristics for each note were different. This feature produced an excellent mandolin and banjo effect.
The prototypes were manufactured in 1966, and the production units were produced in 1967 and 1968. The retail cost of the instrument was $845.
The Band Organ
The Band Organ was introduced in June of 1966, and has the distinction of being the first musical instrument to be manufactured at the RMI plant in North Carolina. It was available in kit form or factory built.
The instrument consisted of a 37-note keyboard, 19 electronic oscillators and had the authentic sound of a calliope. Its purpose was to add life to a party, or add the sound of the calliope to a band. It was intended to be fun to play, and it was very successful.
As stated above, the instrument was available in kit form or factory built. In kit form the instrument could be purchased with or with out the undecorated plywood cabinet. The kit without the cabinet sold for $180, the kit with a put together cabinet sold for $225. The unit, completely factory assembled, and decorated sold for $395.
The instrument was manufactured from 1966 into 1968.
There were two models of the Lark produced: the 37-note, and the 49-note. The 37-note model was introduced in early 1967, and the 49-note model introduced in late 1967. Both models were produced in a plywood case, some painted all black, while the majority where produced painted black on the lower part and orange on the top. The case of the instrument differed from the other RMI models in that it had a low profile design. The case was only about six inches thick and had black folding legs. The 49-note model had an additional octave of bass notes. A later 49-note model was manufactured using the standard RMI case design, and was painted black on the bottom and orange on the top. The sides of this later model had a tiger stripe design in orange and black.
These instruments were designed using the shared oscillator principle. This meant that two notes were using the same oscillator, for example C1 and C#1 used the same oscillator circuit, with C1 having priority over C#1.
The retail cost of the 37-note model was $289, while the 49-note retail cost was $389 for the earlier version and $425 for the later version. Both models were produced in 1967 and 1968.
There were two completely different instruments to bear the RMI Calliope name. Both were limited production items, and both appeared on the market in the same time frame, 1969.
- The first one, called a Model B, consisted of 49 notes and was built in the standard RMI wood case. It was painted red, with a gold colored front panel. The unit came with its own built in amplification system.
The retail price of the instrument was $595
- The second instrument to carry the name consisted of a 37-note keyboard with its own built-in amplification system. The unique feature of this instrument was that the 19 individual speakers were voiced into individual tuned metal pipes, giving the feeling and sound of a real calliope.
The retail cost of the unit was $795.
The Harmonic Synthesizer
In 1974 RMI introduced it's first, and only synthesizer. Although it was housed in the familiar RMI case, it was a totally different design than any previous instrument. To my knowledge, it was the first digital designed synthesizer available on the consumer market. The instrument was probably years ahead in design, and not understood, except by the professional musician.
The instrument was monophonic, with two independent digital harmonic generators. Each generator's waveform could be modified independently, effectively like having two synthesizers by depressing one key. The unit had AM and FM control, and voltage controlled filters. Its own expression pedal controlled each audio output.
The instrument listed for $2995, and was manufactured through 1976.
The Keyboard Computer
Introduced in 1974, the Keyboard Computer was the world's first digitized portable musical keyboard instrument. The advanced technology used in the Allen Organs was incorporated into a portable case, with it's own unique voicing. There were two model manufactured in this series of instruments, which were geared towards the professional musician. Two of the most unique features of both these instruments were the card reader and the transposer, each being discussed below.
The KC-1: This model was introduced in 1974 and was available with or without lighted push button voicing stops. The instrument had three audio channels, each output level adjusted by its own expression pedal. Channels one and two were controlled by the voices on the stop panel, while channel three was a special white noise effect The instrument had a 61 note keyboard and was housed in a plywood case covered in black vinyl, similar to the model 300B.
The transposer allowed the user to electronically shift the keyboard a musical fifth up, or a musical seventh down. This feature could be accomplished by using the pitch bender pedal. The card reader feature allowed the user to add four additional musical voices to the instruments twenty-nine fixed voices. This was accomplished by inserting pre programmed tonal cards, available from the factory. This model was discontinued in 1975, when the KC-2 was introduced. The list price of the instrument was $4495.
- The KC-2: The KC-2 was introduced in 1975 and ended its production run in 1982. Electronically it was similar to the KC-1, but was made to be more user friendly. The third channel was eliminated, and presets were added to make real time voicing changes easier. Organ style rocker tabs replaced the push buttons for voicing, and the unit was housed in the familiar hard shell case. The list price of the instrument was $4750.
The DK-20 was the last musical instrument designed and marketed under the RMI name. It was introduced in June of 1979, and was manufactured through July of 1982. It was designed to replace the RMI Electra piano, using the latest digital technology available. It was housed in the familiar RMI case, and consisted of 68 keys, volume pedal, sostenuto toe stud, and sustain pedal. Control of decay curves, timing, and release characteristics were features of the instrument, along with mixers, phasers, and modifiers. The retail cost of the unit was $2295.
The Rock-Si-Chord models were introduced in 1967. The two basic models were the model 100 and model 200. The main difference was that the model 100 had a single set of individual ton generators (one tone generator for each of its 49 notes) tuned at an eight foot pitch, while the model 200 had two sets of individual tone generators, one tuned at an 8-foot pitch and one tuned at a 4-foot pitch. All the models were designed as percussive instruments, which means that the tone will decay after the key is depressed. There is no organ stop on these instruments. All models were painted blue. All models were designed to be used with an external amplification system.
The Electra Piano models are by far the most recognized instruments of the RMI line. The first models were introduced in the fall of 1967, and the last models ended production in 1980, as the new digital DK-20 model ramped up production. I will attempt to list the different models with their features in a chronological sequence. There will be some overlapping, as models did not change on a calendar basis.
The Model 300 series
Named the Electra Piano and Harpsichord, there were five models produced in this series, with the models having most features in common. All featured a single keyboard with an individual tone generator for each note, a single expression pedal to control volume, and a sustain pedal switch to activate the sustain. The stop board voicing, shown below, was basically the same; any difference will be noted.