Vale: Danny Federici

David Holloway
6 May, 2008
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You probably don’t recognise the name Danny Federici and chances are you won’t know he was the keyboard player with Bruce Springsteen well before the E-Street Band existed. If you do know of him, it means you’re a fairly devoted Bruce Springsteen fan like me. Federici died on the 17th of April at the age of 58, from melanoma.

It’s a bit like the Beatles’ George Harrison dying — he wasn’t the most well known member of the band but he was pivotal. Aside from his work with Springsteen, Federici released a couple of jazz albums and was an accomplished accordionist. I don’t even know if Federici used a Mac. Extensive Google searching over the past week failed to show much beyond an admission by Federici of using the 1990s application Studio Vision in some of his solo work. Studio Vision was initially developed on Mac so chances are he had one somewhere in his arsenal.

Whether he used a Mac or not, his career exemplifies the challenge facing computer-based music creation: the endless appeal of classic instruments.

The Hammond B3 organ is considered one if the seminal rock keyboards of all time. There are literally thousands of well-known albums that feature the B3. Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Doors and The Eagles are five of the more obvious examples. I always took a disdainful view of the obsession with retro keyboards like that, confident the newer physical modelling synths could deliver superior sounds.

I realised how wrong I was when I had the opportunity to play a Hammond B3 to help out some friends recording an album in a Sydney recording studio — it remains some of the most memorable hours of my musical life. It finally made me respect the power of a classic instrument and understand why nearly all the current music technology vendors offer virtual instruments modelled on keyboards like the B3, Rhodes piano and various analogue synthesisers. They create sounds that everyone feels safe with and are guaranteed to sound good.

The virtual versions will never be quite the same as the original but they are very close. AMW’s roundup of Digital Audio Workstations in the 06.2008 print edition was further proof in the pudding. Aside from Ableton Live, all the applications had essentially the same interfaces with a healthy dose of retro virtual instruments thrown in. Is it a bad thing? Five years ago I would have said a firm yes. Now I’m not so sure.

I see it as a natural selection issue — the best survives and survives strongly. Musicians like Danny Federici give those great instruments their voice, just like Macs are doing for the virtual versions now. In both cases it hasn’t meant conservatism; great instruments continue to drive new music, something "Phantom Dan" Federici was creating right up until the end.

Most of us will never have a Hammond B3 in our home but there’s nothing stopping us firing up one on our Mac to get a taste of what music is all about.

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