Switches in Music: Prince and the Switch Revolution

While standing in line at the record store on Record Store Day waiting to buy Prince’s “Gold Experience,” I wondered if Prince was mostly responsible for the growing use of switches in music.

Minneapolis was put on the music map by Prince, making First Avenue a famous venue. Now that venue no longer sits on First Avenue. Two weeks ago, on what would have been Prince’s 64th birthday, a commemorative street sign was unveiled at the corner of First Avenue and Seventh Street. It reads “Prince Rogers Nelson Way.” This just a week after a 100-foot mural of Prince was unveiled on the southwest corner of First Avenue and Eighth Street.

Prince obviously left his mark on Minneapolis and music, or perhaps multiple marks, but one of those marks was the use of switches in music. Prince played all 27 instruments featured in his debut album “For You” and sang all vocals. But it’s unlikely that any musician before him played more instruments with switches. On “For You,” Prince played Minimoog and Polymoog synthesizers, an ARP String Ensemble synthesizer, ARP Pro Soloist synthesizer, an Oberheim four-voice synthesizer, and an electric piano, all of which feature many switches.

The 100 Series toggle switch from E-switch is often used as a power switch on electric pianos and guitar controllers. Operating at temperatures ranging from -30 to 85°C and featuring an epoxy seal at the base of the terminal, the 100 Series toggle switch can stand the heat and is splash-proof. It’s perfect for performances indoors or outdoors and dripping sweat won’t affect its ability to function.

Prince would go on to incorporate the drum machine into his music, which might be the most successful musical switch instrument ever. Prince found Roger Linn’s LM-1 Drum Computer to be fully capable of replacing drums on his albums, and many bands followed suit. Def Leppard’s “Pyromania” was entirely recorded using a Linn drum machine after drummer Rick Allen lost an arm in a car crash. Allen played cymbals on the record, but the machine (and super-producer Mutt Lange) helped the band produce its biggest and best record while Rick learned to play drums one-handed for the eventual tour, which he ended up doing better than anyone could have imagined.

Linn LM-1 Drum Computer

The LM-1 features many pushbuttons resembling the ULP and LP11 Series of switches from E-switch. These illuminated switches are often found on mixing boards and music mixers. The ULP Series pushbutton switch has a long life expectancy of 200,000 electrical cycles and a million mechanical cycles. It operates in temperatures ranging from -40 to 85°C.

Guitar pedals were also used liberally by Prince. His guitar rig featured 10 devices with 14 foot switches by my count. These days guitar pedals allow two- and three-piece bands to sound as big as the musicians’ hands and feet can move. I saw this firsthand when Jawbreaker, a three-piece punk band, played The Armory in Minneapolis recently. Frontman and lead guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach played guitar in an inspired fashion Prince would have appreciated. I was so inspired that I started playing guitar soon after. But it was how Schwarzenbach played the pedals, the switches, that was most responsible for that inspiring sound.

Many of those switches resemble the FS5700 Series pushbutton foot switch from E-switch. Guitar effect pedals are the most common application for the FS5700 Series. With actuation force options ranging from 1,700 to 3,000 grams, it can handle the foot stomps that tend to occur during live performances. It also has a long life expectancy of 30,000 cycles.

The question of whether Prince was mostly responsible for the growing use of switches in music is unanswerable. A valid argument can, of course, be made on behalf of Pink Floyd, whom I believe to be the single greatest band of all time. They popularized the use of guitar effects and synthesizers long before Prince, but it was Prince who showed the music world that rock band sound could be achieved by a solo artist thanks to switches.

Now, acts like Billie Eilish explode onto the scene with songs produced by her brother, Finneas O’Connell, using affordable gear and stock sound libraries included with music production software. The song that put them on the map, “Ocean Eyes,” was produced using only “Logic stock sounds” that were tweaked and layered. If that’s the case, the only instrument in the song is Eilish’s voice, unless we consider the computer to be an instrument. And why wouldn’t we? O’Connell had to learn to play the Logic Pro computer program just like he had to learn to play guitar and piano, and it took just as much practice.

Is Prince mostly responsible for this switch revolution in music? Could be. He might not have intended for the computer to become a musical instrument, but I think Prince would appreciate this ingenuity despite its minimalism. Prince played musical switches better than anyone, but now the computer is all those switches combined. As a result, more people are inspired to make music and can afford to do so. If Prince is mostly responsible for that, I think he’d take it.  

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