The VL-Tone cost about £30 and you could get one from Dixons or WHSmith. It was followed by the lovely VL-10 (finished in a thinner, metal case) and the VL-5 which was capable of polyphony and even came with a barcode reader for inputting music from a special music book (see pictures below for the VL-5 and VL-10).
VL-Tone was a mini synth, sequencer and calculator rolled into one. It had five preset sounds: Piano, Fantasy, Violin, Flute, Guitar and an interesting ADSR function. This came into play by inputting a number into the calculator, hitting memory, then switching back to the play mode. Off the top of my head I seem to remember that 61079130 was an English Horn, and not only did 58008 sound interesting, but it also spelled the word ‘Boobs’ if you turned the device upside down.
Sounds were filtered square waves and variable pulsewidth. You could never really imagine a thirty quid plastic keyboard having very realistic sounds. But you know something? It didn’t. The 2.5 octave plastic keyboard was a bit fiddly, the five sliders crackled like an open fire after a few years’ because dust got into the pots, the LCD was unreadable when you put new batteries into the thing (four AA batteries, incidentally), and the demo music was so nauseating you wanted to eat your own ears every time someone hit that little yellow button.
The VL-Tone had ten preset rhythms too, which could only be modified in the shape of a tempo slider. The rhythms were: March, Waltz, 4-Beat, Swing, Rock 1, Rock 2, Bossanova, Samba, Rhumba and Beguine. You could record up to 100 notes in memory, and then play the song back and adjust the note timing with the aid of the ‘One Key Play’ buttons. Simple editing was also available so you could remove bum notes. The VL-Tone had three octave settings too, which were Low, Medium and High.
The VL-Tone came in a long, colourful box, which the manufacturers had thoughtfully crammed a large music book into, a diarrhoea-coloured sleeve that fitted so tightly around the device you were worried that keys or sliders would ping off, and some batteries.
My very able assistant has just found out the dimensions & weight of the VL-Tone:
Size: 30mm H x 300mm W x 75mm D (1-1/8″ H x 11-3/4″ W x 3″ D)
The Human League used one on the track ‘Get Carter’ for their ‘Dare’ album. Most famously, of course, Trio used the ‘Piano’ and ‘Rock 1’ presets for their Number One single ‘Da da da.’ The VL-1 was used extensively by British bubblegum-pop duo Mogul, and it’s also been used by Assembly and The Fall.
*UPDATE – 26 November 2010*
FOUND THIS! You thought the VL-10 was rare. How about the Casio PT-7 then, with it’s detachable keyboard and full polyphony. I want this NOW!
*UPDATE 11 May 2011*
Just come across this great little VL-10 Video. What I never realised until this very day was the fact the VL-1o only had three preset tones, and from the video it sounds like they’re identical!