Phil Leader Interview TechnicsKN7000.com

A Session With: Phil Leader

An icon in the Technics instruments 'universe', central to the development of the keyboards you know and love. Phil is the consummate professional, a fantastic organist with a huge following amongst Technics aficionados worldwide and an all-around great guy who has musical insight that we can all learn from!

Hi Phil, it's great to meet you at long last, having been a fan since my teens! I saw you at many Technics Roadshows in my younger days along with Tony Pegler, Andrew Smith and Keith Evans... working with those guys must have been fun! With Technics I know that you formed, and still maintain, strong ties to Japan too. Do you keep in touch with 'the old gang' from the Technics days?

Hi Mike, it’s my pleasure to meet you, thanks so much for tracking me down and for your kind interest. I’m not sure I’m worthy! As you say, my wife Yoko and I go to Japan often, sometimes on business but of course often to visit our family. We have kept close contact with many friends there who were our Technics coworkers, and have little reunions from time to time, including one last January. There were so many talented people who because of the nature of a Japanese company were moved into other divisions, so we often have social visits from them when they are travelling in Europe on business in their latter roles.

We’re still also in touch with Tony Pegler, who is now head of music at a Grammar School, Andy Smith who is a copyist preparing charts for orchestras recording movie scores, and Keith Evans who just retired last year having finished his Panasonic Career as Managing Director of Panasonic UK.

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Phil with his father Alec Leader, during an
organ club performance around 1979

As a young boy I was a fan of Mantovani and Glenn Miller. I wanted to be a bandleader and that's what motivated me to play the organ (I couldn't afford a bigband!).

Of course, our musical tastes broaden as we get older but what were your early influences?

My earliest influence was my Dad, who was a well known organist in his day, having started out at the tail end of the Theatre Organ era. Through my Dad I met many of the great UK organists of the day, including many of the Theatre Organ heyday, who were still around in my youth.

I always idolized three organists in particular though, my Dad of course, and Brian Sharp and Bryan Rodwell.

Outside of the organ world I have always loved Jazz, and saw Oscar Peterson play many times. I have been very lucky to have worked with some great Jazz pianists too, and of those Bill Sharpe, Don Grusin and Laurie Holloway have been the source of great inspiration, and to my joy great friendship.

My love of all things orchestral has deepened over the years. Yoko and I go to the Royal Albert Hall in London at least once a month to hear the RPO, and as often as possible to hear the amazing John Wilson Orchestra, almost anywhere!

Aside from the lighter and Filmic stuff, I have a great love of Delius, which I guess ties in with my love of Jazz.

 

 

Alec Leader Organist

Alec Leader, Organist, on SoundCloud

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Phil Leader Organist

Phil on Hammond SK2, with 'Revelator'

I know you enjoy playing live and the most recent evidence I've seen is photos of you playing with Andy Brush in 2011 (on a KN7000 I might add). Do you get out on stage much these days?

I seldom get asked to play, probably with good reason! Although you’re right that I love to when I get the chance. One of the pictures with Andy Brush was on New Year’s Eve 2006, and I actually had to ask to do the gig! Yoko’s parents were spending Christmas and New Year with us, and as my Father In Law loves Jazz I wanted the chance to treat them to a New Year’s Eve dinner and play some jazz for him. I play the KN7000 with MIDI bass pedals, so with a sax player the result is a bit like a jazz quartet.

As a hobby I accompany three great singers, performing mainly standards, but a mix of more contemporary songs too. There are a few clips on YouTube I think with Austin James. Austin has an amazing bass baritone voice, and performed with English National Opera.

Austin’s daughters, Sophie Austin and Esther Richards are wonderful singers too. We just play little gigs to raise money for various charities. It’s quite a different skill to accompany, and I find that very challenging and rewarding. But apart from the musical fun, they and their partners and families are really like family to Yoko and me.

I also play a lot at home, I’m sure all your members would agree it’s a great hobby, and one where there is always something new to discover, and something new to learn.

Phil Leader on piano with Austin James

Phil Leader on piano with Austin James

We Technics owners have 'got over' the closure of Technics EMID division, most of us have appreciated a break from buying new instruments every few years as it has given us a chance to actually learn more about the great features we already have! Do you still have a Technics instrument? Many of our members own another brand as well as Technics (though some Members have as many as nine Technics instruments!). What instruments have you enjoyed playing recently?

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Phil at the console of the ex Astoria
Southend Compton Organ

I still have a KN7000, with which I will never part! I also have a Technics P50 piano, but sadly it has sounded its last….. I have many instruments which are sent to me for product development, but of instruments actually belonging to me I have a Hammond SK2 with Roland PK7 bass pedals. I also use that setup with a third manual added as a master controller for Hauptwerk Virtual Organ, running on a MacBook Pro, and using the Paramount 320 Virtual Wurlitzer Organ. I have a kind of cobbling together of Mac Keyboard and an Akai APC Mini Controller to work as stop keys. Like most ‘makeshift’ virtual organs it looks a bit like the ‘Frankenstein’ of instruments, but it works well! I owned a Hammond A100 and Leslie 147 for many years, but forgive the SK2 its slight inadequacies as I can carry it under my arm!

My pride and joy is my Steinway K upright piano. It was willed to me by my best friend, and in tribute to him we had it completely overhauled. It’s a joy to play, and I’ve discovered a whole new harmonic experience through having a fine acoustic piano.

And of instruments I’ve enjoyed playing recently, top of my list is a dear friend’s Compton Theatre Organ, which was originally installed in the Astoria Southend in the thirties, and in the last about 40 years has been in a beautiful music room near our home in Cambridgeshire. I hire the organ once a month and enjoy playing it very much.

Of modern instruments, I’m a big fan of the proliferation of ‘reborn’ analogue classics such as Korg’s ARP Odyssey, and the many Moog products, and of course Roland’s reincarnations of its classic synths. And I must mention Dave Smith, whose products are truly amazing, but not quite as amazing as Dave Smith himself. Whenever I see him at NAMM or Frankfurt Messe I stare at him like a stalker… Yoko usually apologies for me and assures him I’m not armed.

Of products that compare to the KN7000 concept then Yamaha’s Tyros5 is fabulous. I always love to hear Martin Harris playing that instrument, he is truly the master of it, and in so many musical styles.

The range and quality of instruments available today is astonishing, I very much enjoyed hearing the Casio demonstration at Frankfurt Messe this year with Kristian Terzic playing.

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Phil watching the phenomenal Brian Sharp at the Technics sx-A1 organ, with Kanae Fukuhara (Technics player)

We're all fascinated with the samples you have at All Right Music. When you listen to them you can literally hear that the instrument is the one inside your keyboard! I imagine that these fantastic recordings have been put to great use over the years can you tell us something about that? And do you have any upcoming projects using these?

After the Technics brand was terminated, Yoko and I had need of a Piano Sample to supply to a new client. We enquired with our old friends at Panasonic about what would happen to the Technics recording library, and whether we could license a piano recording. They kindly suggested that we license the whole lot.

Actually it sounds simple, but it involved archiving the data first of all, transferring it from different digital tape formats into Pro Tools. That alone took around a year to complete. Since then we’ve sub-licensed a lot of data, and it’s great to hear the sounds in new incarnations, often I’d have to say better than I’ve heard them before, as the amount of wave rom available now is much bigger than in the Technics days.

Yoko and I are also lucky to be one of a few companies selling download packs for Yamaha Tyros products through Yamaha Music Interactive. We have our first pack on there now, which is a Wersi Helios ‘tribute’, but not data from the Technics library. It’s under our brand name ‘Otonosekai’ However, we’re planning some future packs using sessions from the library.

Otonosekai Website

 Otonosekai 'Euro Organ Artist' on YamahaMusicSoft (with demos)

 

I'm not sure whether the licensing would allow it because I think it relates to hardware instruments but would it even be theoretically possible to use these samples to create new Virtual Instruments?

It is possible of course, but many virtual instruments feature a lot of articulations, and are very labour intensive to create music with…. so our library wouldn’t really compete in that market. However, for hardware products the sounds are perfect.

All Right Music Website

 

I really enjoy your articles written for the Techplus magazines (I'm working on a reboot of the Techplus magazine archive along with Strawberry Music). What I particularly like is that you have cleverly written them to suit many Technics models. Actually, you go beyond that and they are interesting pieces about combining sounds and achieving realistic arrangements using any keyboard. You obviously have a very broad musical talent that developed pre-Technics, what path led you to the magical doors of EMID?

I’m very happy to see some of the old articles having a new lease of life on your site! And all credit to you and Neil Blake for resurrecting what was a fine publication by Technote. Well…. my musical background is pretty underwhelming. I started to play at 13, and taught myself by watching my Dad…. I used to go with him to his gigs, and stand a watch…. People often asked my Dad ‘is your boy OK?’…. I’m sure my Dad answered ‘I don’t think so, no….’ Ha!!! Actually I failed O Level music, which I probably shouldn’t shout too loudly about. But I guess I had a passion for playing, and I practiced like mad in my teens, starting on a Lowrey HR98 which my Dad had on loan.

As a kid I got interested in sales, as Dad was a demonstrator for various organ companies, Lowrey, Thomas, Hammond and so on. So at 14 I got my first Saturday job selling organs at a store in Romford. Then at 15 I started to demonstrate around the country at weekends for Logan electronics, and a great guy called John Edgar. At the same time I was also playing an old Lowrey TLO, 2 nights a week in a pub, as well as doing O and then A Levels… and obviously failing one in particular.

When I came to leave school after A Levels, I offered my services to Logan full time. John Edgar said to me that to be on the trade side of the business I should spend some time in retail first. I thought ‘rubbish!’ and in a kind of teenage strop I got a job at Barclays Bank thinking ‘stuff the music trade’. I did that for a year, turning out to be the worst bank clerk ever, although not for the person to whom I accidentally gave ten grand!

So I started to think I should look at the music trade again, and called up a local music shop called Ware Music. They offered me a job, I left the bank just ahead of the boot, and through that lucky event I met in my then new boss, Tony Hookway, who turned into the best friend I could imagine. Tony ultimately left me my beautiful Steinway, and some wonderful memories. He also taught me everything I know about musical instrument retailing.

After about four years, a certain Tony Smith, later the founder of Technote and Tech Plus, was leaving his position as an Area Manager and Demonstrator for Technics. The Technics Area Manager for my shop, a lovely gentleman named Alan Duckett, recommended me as Tony’s replacement, for the Area Manager part of Tony’s job anyway.

So my start at Technics was actually as an Area Sales Manager, aged 22. I was extremely lucky, extremely green and extremely bad! About one month later Technics employed Tony Pegler to take over Tony Smith’s demonstrator role. It’s easy to tell what a remarkable guy Tony Smith is from the fact that it took two people to replace him! Tony is a dear friend to this day, and still a great player.

Just two years later, I went to Japan with my then boss Steve Wilson, as his product advisor on a merchandising meeting. I caught the factory management’s eye somehow, and they created a new ‘Musician Team’ with me and their existing consultant Hermund Tronvik as its founder members. It went on to include Rocco Ferrante, Lutz Deterra, Chris Halon and Bob Messier, amongst some others.

PHIL_LEADER_MESSE_FRANKFURT.jpgAs you know, my son Alex is off to University shortly to embark on a career in Sound Design. Do you have any tips for a young man (or woman) starting a career in music today?

Well…. as you can tell, I had a kind of ‘accidental’ introduction to product development. And back in the 80s the technology didn’t really exist, and certainly the product features didn’t. We had to develop skills following the evolution of the technology, and we were often inventing the technology, and of course the features using it.

Needless to say, if I tried to get into this business now as the same 22 year old today that I was in 1983, I’m sure I’d get laughed out the door. Alex is doing absolutely the right thing by qualifying, and I’m sure he will have a great career. But if I had to think of one thing to do, it would be to go to trade fairs and have a broad vision of what’s going on in this world, and meet the people steering the business in person. It’s pretty tough to get into the NAMM show as you have to be a member of NAMM, and of course a costly trip to LA. But Frankfurt Messe is very open and accessible.

As a Design Manager I have a great interest in product design and ergonomics. I think that the KN2000 and KN3000 in particular are true design classics and some of the Digital Ensembles are phenomenal. You must have had an incredible team working on the instruments. Were you involved in the physical aspects of the design of the keyboards? And the operating systems?

There were great engineers at Technics, so great I married one of them! :-) You’re right Mike, there were software engineers who saw code in the air…. a true art. And great designers in all of the areas.

I worked very much from the user’s perspective, on panel layout and feature design. I’ve never been a designer or engineer, but my Japanese Boss Kenji Matsumoto described me as an ‘ideas man’, which is really the role I fulfilled. 

When Technics put the large graphic LCD display on the KN2000 it really changed the market. It was designed by very brilliant, technically minded engineers. But due to the way a brilliant engineering mind works, they saw a big screen as the benefit, not what was ‘in’ the screen. Of course in a chicken and egg sense the device is the egg…. but the application of it is definitely the chicken!

At one of the many development meetings for KN2000 they gave me a thick A4 pad showing what all of the screens of the KN2000 did, and how they would look. I took it to my hotel, and stayed up the whole night studying it. It looked incredible, but like something out of a science fiction movie… so complex and so difficult to navigate, and definitely pure engineering! What the product could do was amazing for that time, but getting at it would be a nightmare experience for the customer.

The next morning I went into the meeting and said we had to re design every screen. The engineers said ‘Don’t worry! It will be OK!’. It took me really four days of negotiating to persuade them… which culminated in me bashing my fist on a table…. and shouting “NO!!!!”. Probably the most un-Japanese thing you can do… At the moment I did that, I thought ‘oops, that could be a career ender’. To my surprise and relief the engineers calmly said ‘OK then’.

We literally got a white (Pana) board and I drew a new version of every screen, and they took scans.

From that experience with later products there was a much more structured approach to the process, and the user interface improved a lot step by step. And, most flatteringly, other companies just adopted it as a ‘defacto’ standard, the origins of which endure to this day.

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Phil with Mike Ueno, former Technics Engineer. (I worked on UI and Chord Recognition for Technics Pianist Mode with Mike. Pianist Mode was my idea, but working with Mike really developed the chord recognition in a musically logical way. Mike is a fine musician being concert master of an orchestra, and was also Technics’ representative on the Japan MIDI association).

As for my opinion now, I think there must be a better way than the one we forged out nearly 25 years ago. Technology has raced ahead apace, which I love. What hasn’t, in my opinion certainly in musical instruments, is ease of use. I think often the products are designed forgetting that they should be accessible to any kind of player. A creative process, whether simple or complex needs as few hurdles as possible. And in this case ‘hurdles’ are ‘button pushes’. I play some ‘pro’ products which have the ‘unforgivable button’ which does nothing when you press it…. it only does something after pressing a sequence of other buttons….. Tough to imagine where the creative ideas go while you’re finding the sequence of buttons.

So, I’m ever hopeful that somebody will come up with a good ‘next step’ from the Technics system. I don’t have regrets in my life, but one slight sadness for me is that I’m not involved in the real ground breaking product development now, I just providing content as MIDI or Sound data. I so enjoyed that process and especially finding when the product went to market that the most important person, the customer, found it easy, or at least easier, to use. I always thought pretty much every brand sounded good. The thing separating them was how easy it is to make music. I remember well my friend and musician team colleague Rocco Ferrante saying to me ‘a beginner has enough trouble stringing together “On Top Of Old Smokey”, and we expect them to do this?’ I forget the feature he was talking about, but his comment is apposite in so many cases.

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Phil with Dave Smith (of Dave Smith instruments, formerly Sequential Circuits, and co inventor of MIDI with Ikutaro Kakehashi)

Technics-knsdexplorer-software.jpg

Many Technics owners are of an older generation. We even have some Members that are well over 100 (so those of you Members who say you are old at 77 are mere chicks in comparison) and our membership is truly worldwide, embracing over 170 countries. I believe that music is essential to our health and wellbeing and that playing music is even more beneficial than listening to it. What are your thoughts about the influence of music in your life, aside from 'earning a living' as a musician?

It’s so great to know that so many people are still enjoying their Technics instruments, and their other brands of course. I can’t imagine my life without music, even if I had not earned my living from it I would still play, I’m sure. The older I get the more I love to hear music performed live, and I find that an inspiration to play for my own enjoyment. I’d have to say that the most joy I get is from playing my Steinway. I have my dear friend Tony Hookway to thank for showing me the way with that.

I certainly never got ‘Piano’ as a kid learning to play the organ. As I mentioned earlier I knew many of the great organ players through my Dad. When I was about 14, and at the Organ Trade fair at the Connaught Rooms in London, I bumped into, almost literally, Harold Smart, once billed as the greatest exponent of the electronic organ in the world. He was a friend of Dad’s from way back. Harold asked me if I was learning to play, and I said I was. He said ‘are you learning to play piano?’ I said I wasn’t, I thought the organ was ‘it’. Harold replied ‘you must have piano’. I really thought it was a joke. Turns out he was right of course. Actually all of the great organists were great pianists, Reginald Dixon told me he preferred to play the piano….

But if there is one disadvantage with programming musical data, it’s that at the end of a long day you really don’t want to hear any sound of any description! So it’s a matter of balance I guess.

Phil Leader KN7000

Phil on KN7000 with Andy Brush and Paul Joyce

We also have many younger members who are new to the instruments because they are now affordable on the second-hand market. The KN instruments have a huge following amongst young people in Indonesia in particular and they are being imported there in droves.

These days everyone is 'into' virtual instruments and we're even seeing them used live to great effect. But isn't there something special about switching your keyboard on and playing in an instant?

What do you think would encourage younger readers to experience the immediacy of hardware instruments? And do you think that hardware instruments will continue to have a place in moderm music?

I travelled a lot in South East Asia, so I know a lot about the passion for Technics there. And the great dedication to playing, to technique and to study. I really admire it, and there are a lot of truly virtuosic players. Regarding hardware instruments, your choice of the word ‘immediacy’ is apposite. Also there is a dedicated connection between the keyboard and the tone generator. In the case of software instruments, it’s usually a controller keyboard and a computer.

The playing ‘connection’ is not always a match made in heaven. But for a great hardware product, the keyboard’s touch curve is adapted to the sound parameters. It’s really a ‘complete’ instrument. I always think it’s kind of a whole ‘animal’ in its own right.

I know if I gig then I’d be very nervous to use a master keyboard and a computer…. where most hardware instruments are pretty failsafe live…. touch wood! Ha!!

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Phil and Tom Oberheim (of Oberheim synthesiser fame)

Technics has recently launched some amazing reference audio equipment. Have you heard them? Mobile phones, home theatre systems and all kinds of audio streaming surround us these days. Alex and I are avid fans of Super Audio CD, surround sound and lossless audio but also love our eBay-acquired B&O analogue kit & vinyl! Do you have any insights as to where personal music technologies might be heading?

Yoko and I were in Japan for New Year this year and went to Grand Front Osaka, which is part of Osaka Railway Station, and has a huge Panasonic Showroom. We saw the new Technics Audio products there, and were so happy to see the brand reborn with such a bespoke product. Sadly for us we didn’t have time to hear the demonstration…. but it’s gratifying that at least Technics Audio exists as it should.

I find the whole Analogue / Digital debate fascinating. I make my living from Digital Audio, but I have an open mind! When I listen to real Analogue recordings compared to Digital, there IS something better, warmer, kinder about the Analogue. There is something about slightly overdriving an Analogue recording… its gradual process of saturation compared to the ‘not clipped to clipped’ kind of ‘sudden boundary’ with Digital.

A critical point is the production chain, by which I mean from the studio right to the speakers in your living room. On the one hand you could have a mic which has a frequency range of 20Hz to 30KHz, but if your speakers at home can only reproduce 40Hz to 18KHz….. not to mention the mic preamps, etc etc….

One first hand experience of this for me was actually comparing Digital with Digital. It was at a Technics Seminar in Rhodes in about 1999 or so. They were demonstrating DVD audio. Not, the audio of a DVD movie, but DVD Audio which has a sampling frequency of 192KHz, which means a Nyquist frequency of 96KHz, compared to 22.05KHz with CD, which means DVD Audio has a maximum audio frequency is 96KHz.

Of course we humans can’t hear that, but one theory is that the higher frequencies modulate the lower ones, well there are a lot of theories.

At the demo they played a CD of a song, and then the DVD Audio of the same song. It sounded like somebody took the cotton wool out of your ears… the music breathed in DVD Audio like it never did with the CD version.

But… the recording was made with every link in the signal chain having a wide frequency response, and the amplifier and speakers we were listening to cost about a hundred grand.

At that time they thought DVD Audio would be the game changer. Actually the proliferation of MP3 and the image of it as something ‘good’ was what really happened, and the ‘lossy’ formats certainly benefited from one true fact, which is that the human ear is very forgiving, and fills in a lot of gaps. I’m very happy to read about lossless formats, and glad to know you and Alex are interested in that! Certainly young talents like Al will have a great future in that area I’m sure.

I’m not sure about the resulting online distribution of music, and its revenue stream. It seems very focused on the platforms and not on the artists and composers. But… that is another story!

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Don Grusin, Phil Leader, Bill Sharpe

I don't think anything about Phil Leader is 'typical' but what's an average day for Phil and what is on the horizon?

Well… as a self employed couple, each day is different, or at least blocks of days are, as our work is usually project based. Mostly I work at home, and so my journey to work is across the landing. Sometimes we attend, arrange and produce sampling sessions, which of course involves some travel. And on occasions we get invited to work at companies’ premises.

One thing is common for me on each day, and that’s that I love to get up early! So usually my day starts at 05.00am.

We've been trying to estimate how many Technics instruments are out there 'in the wild'. It's an impossible task! Can you remember any interesting statistics such as how many instruments were sold?

The only thing I know for sure is that it went past 500,000 as I was at the ceremony to commemorate it. But that was quite a long time before the termination of the brand. So I guess it headed up towards 1,000,000.

That’s quite a small number compared to Yamaha and Casio I’m sure, but a lot when you consider Technics was mainly at the top end of the market. How many survive today I have no idea!

And finally...

When developing the keyboards, were any real clangers of prototypes made? And did Technics have a prototype for a follow-on keyboard?

There were clangers for sure…. And some features which were like a cure for which there was no disease. I came up with some of them, and one in particular that I conceived, I couldn’t even explain.

But the termination of the Technics Musical Instruments brand was done in a very structured and controlled way, giving all involved including me a very soft landing. I am ever grateful for that, and for everything I learned there, and especially for the enduring friendships. And very happy to make new friendships with kind people like you Mike, I really appreciate your kind interest.

PHIL_LEADER.jpg

Follow The Leader!

Phil, thank you for taking some time out with us, our Members will be so pleased to hear from you! We wish you and Yoko the very best in all that you do!

It’s really my pleasure. I’m sure you and Alex, and all of you Members are far more accomplished and rounded than I!! It’s really my privilege to answer your questions. And I’ll be passing on to our friends who were formerly Technics Engineers the wonderful news that their instruments are still enjoyed by so many kind people.

An Audio Interview with Phil Leader in the NAMM Library

Orchestrate: Strings with Phil Leader

 

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Technics Tones

Technics Tones

Basis of Sound Editing: Chapter & Verse. What Are Tones? They are the basic sound sample that your keyboard uses to create the fantastic selection of SOUNDS we have all come to expect from our Technics musical instruments. They are used in the keyboards, organs, digital ensembles and the PX pianos. Tones are the building blocks of Sounds.
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Comments:

cheryl what a great read with phil leader. I really enjoyed it THANKS! Cheryl from illinois
Posted on June 15, 2015 at 11:11 PM
danielc Wow, I've never met Phil but worked with some of the names mentioned like Kanae and Hiroaki in sales & marketing when I was a dealer selling exclusively, Technics products. I also met Lutz Detera and Don Grusin on a couple of visits to the Frankfurt Musikmesse. It took me a while to get over the closure of the Technics brand.
Posted on June 20, 2015 at 11:22 AM
paulyp39 Great to hear from Phil again. He was one of my musical idols as I was growing up. My Father bought our 1st organ (Yamaha A55N) from Phil, when he was at Ware music, and later a Technics G7 from his Father Alec.
Posted on August 23, 2015 at 11:39 AM
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