MECHANICAL KEYBOARD SOUNDS
Recordings of bespoke mechanical keyboards.
Catalogue number JBH084LP
This was not my idea. My neighbour, Stuart from Bad Guys (famed for their track “Prostitutes (Are making Love In My garden)”) asked me how easy it was to make a record. Possibly a crowd-funded one. I asked what his plan was and he told me about mechanical keyboards, then sent me a link.
As soon as I clicked, watched and listened I was hooked. And I really don’t know why. It was a video of someone typing in close up. The keyboard looked beautiful. The amplified noise was unusual to say the least, certainly as close to “whisper porn” (or ASMR – Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) as I’d heard that day. It made hairs on my body do odd things. I felt some kind of peculiar, possibly glandular, reaction. I spoke again with Stu. He filled me in on “the mechanical keyboard scene” – and his notes follow these. To cut a long conversation short, there are makers of bespoke modern mechanical keyboards, that have a retro, super modern or sci-fi futuristic look and feel. Each one of these customized set-ups has an almost infinite number of modifications available, including different keys (with size, font, colour and material options), the keys have different spring options, and they can also be lubricated, using the same lubricants they use in Formula 1 racing. The results are extraordinary, luxurious, fetishistic and fascinating. I wanted to know more. And so did my 13 year old. There was a big “mechanical keyboard meet up” event in London that sold out in minutes so we couldn’t go. The on-line activity was looking busy to say the least. I decided that I wanted to help Stu with his project.
Now, over the years I’ve issued some peculiar recordings. It’s what I do. I issued a whole album of train buffet car announcements, a double LPs of amateur space opera, I’ve pressed music made by kids, by artists and by puppets. All sorts. So an album of mechanical keyboard sounds was a no brainer. I suggested to Stu that he helped me put the album together for Trunk. This would save him a lot of stress, time and I could also guarantee the LP would actually get made. It’s easy to think about making an LP, another to actually produce a finished article. And I know just how busy Stu is all of the time. Stu agreed so he put me in touch with the master of mechanical keyboard manufacturing – Tae Ha Kim. Trading under the name of Taeha Types, Tae (aka Nathan) is based in Southern California. He’s on a personal quest to make the most luxurious keyboard he possibly can, and makes incredible custom keyboards for a long list of clients. Within this rapidly growing scene he is very much the master maker, and now has a significant following via Instagram and YouTube. Just type in Taeha Types…
We agreed terms, and over the next few weeks Taeha Types put together these 13 custom mechanical keyboard recordings (13 for digital, just 12 on the LP). They represent a broad cross section of the scene, with both retro and modern set ups.
For myself and Stu, it’s a thrill to be able to issue such an important album into a world that has not yet worked out how joyous this most ubiquitous sound can be.
Thanks for listening
Jonny Trunk 2019
AN INTRODUCTION TO “THE SCENE” – BY FUTURECRIME
You know those keyboards you use everyday? The ones you probably never give a second thought to? The plastic Dell or HP ones that cost a tenner? Or even the Mac ones with the thin white buttons? Well, they're rubbish and boring. Yes they can put letters on a screen, but they’re not exactly fun to use are they? And they sound like crap. They’re the keyboard equivalent of an 80s Lada. Wouldn’t you prefer to drive a Ferrari, or a Tesla? The mechanical keyboard scene has a lot in common with the car enthusiast world. The penchant for custom anodised parts, the particulars of the lubricants, the spring weights, the sound of the mechanisms. Getting into and customising every possible detail. The split between vintage classic, flashy modern and hacked together weirdness. And of course the public (online) parading of the finished products. In fact some of the OG customs are named after Porsche and Ferrari models. There was always a niche group of computer users who recognised the superiority of some older keyboard models, before cheaply made rubbish became the norm, but it was in South Korea a little over a decade ago that some talented and evidently quite affluent trailblazers decided to desolder the switches they loved from those vintage 80’s keyboards, and design and manufacture new PCBs and milled aluminium cases to put them in. The granddaddy of them all is the DK Saver, followed soon after by the legendary OTD (On The Desk) series of keyboards, the ones named after sports cars. These keyboard kits were made in very small numbers and sold to mates and online acquaintances. Since then, the hobby has grown and spread worldwide. In the West there are three main forums for enthusiasts: Deskthority, which is more focused on the vintage, purist side of things and hosts an invaluable keyboard wiki resource. The somewhat impenetrable-at-first-glance Geekhack, which is generally more high end custom focused and is the best place to get info on group buys (the means by which to get the majority of custom kits). And the mechanical keyboards subreddit - r/mechanicalkeyboards - which has the highest traffic and the bulk of casual fans. Then there’s an endless array of Discord servers and Slack channels where people chat about this stuff all day long. Just keyboard talk. There’s a lot of comraderie, and a lot of controversy. It’s wild.
Now, if you’re going to get into mechanical keyboards the likelihood is at some point you’re going to end up building one yourself, or at least customising a stock one. It’s not that hard, it requires entry level soldering skill and that’s about it. And there’s not that many parts that need to be gathered, but there’s a lot of variation in those parts, a lot of decisions to make. A custom keyboard is almost always built like this: You take your switches, one for each key on your keyboard, and you push them through a plate - which holds them in place – and into a PCB. You solder them to the PCB, then you put the whole lot into a case which holds the plate firm and you screw it all together. Then you take your keycaps - the plastic buttons with legends on them - and put them on the switches. And that’s it, apart from plugging it in and programming it to do whatever you want. So how about the variations?
The switches are where you’re going to get into the nitty gritty of your keyboard feel. The vast majority of customs are compatible with Cherry MX switches and their clones, with some keyboards offering Alps switch compatibility via a different plate and PCB. Cherry and Alps are brands, but switch types, regardless of brand, can be broadly split into three categories: Linear, Tactile and Clicky. Tactile switches have a bump you can feel when you press down on them, linear don’t, and clicky make an audible click and generally speaking they’re also going to have a tactile bump sensation to go along with it. Alps switches, for many connoisseurs, offer the best tactile and clicky experiences, while a great set of vintage Cherry black switches is often held to be the best a linear can get (particularly the ultra-rare Nixdorf variety that can be heard on this record). There’s a lot of debate in this area, and the huge growth of the hobby in recent years has seen an influx of new Cherry clone switches which many fans feel are superior to the old vintage ones. They’re generally far easier and cheaper to get hold of as well. Some would list Topre switches as the peak of tactility, whereas some would even deny their inclusion in the debate because they utilise a rubber dome in their mechanism. Like I said, a lot of controversy.
So once you’ve picked your switch type, you’re going to want to open it up, painstakingly lubricate the moving parts with your choice of highly specialised lubricant (don’t overlube you’ll make it unusable), maybe swap out the springs for a more preferable weight or force curve option and maybe even swap the stem (the bit that moves up and down and holds the keycap). This is called ‘tuning’ your switches. Like an engine. Or a musical instrument (see, these things do belong on a record).
Once you’ve got your switches prepped you’re ready to put them in a nice plate that brings out the feel you’re after and makes them sing. When I discovered mechanical keyboards a few years ago it was all about brass plates, after aluminium and steel had been the main materials for some time. We’ve since seen more polycarbonate plates and now fr4 and POM plates are gaining in popularity. People want to try all the materials, in full plate, half plate, no plate(!), in different thicknesses, in all different combinations, mounted in all different ways, with all different switch types, spring weights, lubricant mixtures, case materials and form factors, and with different keycap profiles and materials. There’s an endless amount of combinations to experiment with in the search for that perfect sound and feel.
The keyboards on this record are a mixture of classic old models from the 80s and 90s, which are generally just cleaned up and retain all their original parts, and very modern high-end custom boards from some of the best designers around, with carefully tuned switches, built to spec. They are all either owned by or have been built by Nathan Kim, who has risen to prominence in the community via his twitch.tv channel, where people tune in to watch him build keyboards while soft jazz plays in the background. He’s the perfect person to provide the recordings for this record and I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do. Especially those Nixies in the 910 RE on brass. They sound mint.
Stuart London (aka futurecrime) 2019
MECHANICAL KEYBOARD TRACKLIST
1. Apple M0110A (1986-1990)
Plastic case, Mitsumi (Malaysia) switches, Steel Plate, PBT keycaps
2. Apple M0116 (1987-1990)
Plastic case, SKCM Orange Alps switches, Steel Plate, PBT keycaps
3. Chicony KB5160AT (approx 1986)
Plastic case,SKCM Blue Alps switches, Steel Plate, PBT keycaps
4. Mekanisk Fjell - Built for Apex Legends professional player NRG Dizzy 2019
Aluminium case, Holy Panda switches, lubricated, Brass plate, GMK ABS keycaps
5. HHKB (Happy Hacking Keyboard) Pro 2 (2006-present)
Plastic case,Topre 55g switches, lubricated and silenced, Plastic plate, PBT keycaps
6. IBM 5140 (1986)
From convertible PC, SKCM Brown Alps switches
7. IBM Model F XT (1981-1994) – NOT ON LP, JUST DIGITAL Plastic case, Buckling spring switches, Steel plate, PBT keycaps
1. IBM P70 (1990)
Plastic case, Alps Plate Spring switches, Steel plate, PBT keycaps
2. Kyuu (2019)
Aluminium case, Lubed Gateron Ink switches, brass plate, GMK ABS keycaps
3. Keycult No.1/65 - Built for Rainbow Six Seige professional player G2 Pengu! 2019
Aluminium case, Lubed Cherry MX Brown Switches, Aluminium plate, GMK ABS keycaps
4. TGR 910 RE – (2016)
A keyboard made out of polycarbonate. Brass plate, lubed Nixdorf Cherry MX Black switches, GMK ABS Keycaps
5. TGR Alice (2018)
Aluminium Case, Carbon fiber plate, lubed Vintage Cherry MX Black switches, GMK ABS Keycaps
6. Zambumon Verne (2019)
Aluminium Case, Lubed Gateron Inks, Brass plate, GMK ABS Keycaps