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VOX
Continental
The Continental

Amongst professional electronic organs, this is one of few true classics.

The Vox Continental started life in the early 1960s. Probably the first organ created specifically for professional stage use. Certainly the first in this country & undoubtedly the best.

Dedicated to the classic instruments designed and built by the Jennings Organ Company. Later becoming Jennings Musical Industries (JMI). For a long time they were World class leaders in professional musical equipment.

In the early '60s, working for Tom Jennings' company, I built 'Mark 1' Continentals, later moving on to Service.
No-one has more experience servicing these models, or genuine AC30s etc.

This was a time when Britain led the World in music, both popular and classical. Likewise in engineering and many other fields of endeavour. It is now part of our country's faded past glory. Disastrously short-sighted policies of successive Governments have seen to that.

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Designed & built by the Jennings' Organ Company. Builders of valve church organs & the VOX range of guitar amplifiers.

Continental When I started with the company these organs were built one at a time. In the same area as the valve multi-manual church console models, this space also doubled for servicing.

My early experience in mass production was put to use. A storage area was cleared & set up for batch production. This enabled us to build them faster, but not up to Henry Ford's rate.

This photo, from before the production line was set up, shows an early stage of assembly. A colleague with a case during drilling and fitting. 2 covered console organs are also visible.

The market was increasing rapidly, many famous names used the Continental. Britain does not have many success stories in the field of electronic musical instruments. This is one of the few, a brilliant design, exceptionally well executed. Including reverse key colours & striking Z shaped legs.

The original models have reliable germanium transistor circuitry, a coil-capacitor master oscillator & a chain of discrete binary dividers. One such set-up for each note family. This arrangement soon became the standard, adapted & successively cheapened by others.

On these early machines each 'generator' is built into a metal chassis. Twelve of these mounted in a rack & coupled by 11 pin plugs. The 4 octave keyboard is wooden & good quality. The contact assembly is adapted from the valve ogans. Including removal of the conductive polymer bussbar cover, intended for a slow noise-free attack.

This gave a sharp attack, with a distinct click. Six drawbars are used for tone setting, obviously inspired by the Hammond organ. Four with ivory knobs for 16', 8', 4' & Mixture. Two maroon ones are marked with sine & sawtooth wave symbols. These give a soft flute like tone & a sharp reed tone to the white drawbar settings.

The four tone harmonic mixture, together with the reed timbre, enables this instrument to cut through a mix. Even a screaming, distorted guitar can't drown it out. Definitely the ultimate group organ. Only the Farfisa Compact comes close (also germanium).

The drawbar assembly uses printed circuit switches standing vertically. This adds over two inches to the height of the trademark orange top. During production I re-designed a vertically inverted form of this assembly, cutting a hole to drop it through the key-frame.

This worked well, allowed a sleek low top & looked good. However, after building a few, it became obvious that the extra work was slowing production. It was reluctantly decided to revert to the standard 'high top'. So these early slimline versions are rare, effectively a limited edition.

First Slim Line.

Continental This picture is one for the archives. It is the first slimline top VOX Continental, hand built by Ron Lebar in 1963.

Camera was a Kodak Retinette, lens 'wide open' at f2.8 using 'available light'. Film was Ilford 800 ASA "pushed".

Taken, developed & printed by Ron Lebar.

The organ is shown, with its distinctive wooden music rest, before packing for sale. Crepe paper protective wrapping on legs & stays can be clearly seen.

It was the only one built with the distinctive curved top, all before it were what is now known as 'square or high top'. With the high rectangular lid housing the upward facing printed circuit switches of the drawbar assembly. Nothing else was in that lid, which is why I made this version.

The other few early slim-lines had a sloped angular form, easier to make than the curve. This still slowed production, so the style reverted back to high top for the remainder of that run. All sub-assemblies were produced in batches by sub-contractors & many were in stock.

So the dates quoted for models in 'Combo Organ Heaven' (an excellent site), may in some cases be the date when batches of parts were made, not when the organs were finished. Parts were made in quantity & may have remained in stock for a year or so. A similar discrepancy occurs with other classic instruments. During my time building them, we never date stamped the finished instrument. No-one thought they would become classics.

Location is the Jennings' Organ Company factory at West Hill, Dartford. This occupied part of a building, the larger frontage being a petrol filling station. Next door was a field, with a large shed housing a Vox sub-contractor, later being used by the Service Department. To the right of that was a small row of semi derelict shops. One of these, a former fishmongers, was used for organ parts storage, upstairs housing the Design & Research Department.

Detail on the early machines: The carrying strap is brown leather, blackened with shoe dye & polish. We had no black leather straps in 1963. The swell pedal supplied was a Fender cord driven type, using an 'insulation displacement' brass jack plug. The Fender name was carefully cut from the rubber mat & replaced with a VOX logo. A lot of cheating went on in those days. Switches are left-right curved black rockers with a separate round pilot neon.

On the publicity shots of the factory, the larger filling station was replaced by a mirrored copy of the VOX reception frontage. To make the little place look like a much bigger stand-alone building.

To resolve arguments over the name. Before I joined, the company name had been changed to Jennings' Musical Industries. Everyone there still called it Jennings' Organ Company & this was still on factory paperwork. It was also on the early model's name plates, up to & including the plastic keyed Continental II.

Later, the metal chassis generators were replaced by bare printed circuits, firstly angled, with direct edge connectors. Later still the boards became smaller, enabling them to be placed in line, with pin type edge connectors. These changes cut production costs & time. The pin connector resulted in a tendency to intermittent connections.

The contact assembly was by then a purpose made unit, no longer an adaptation, with round silver plated busbars instead of flat nickel plated. My inverted drawbar (slimline) modification was adopted at the sub-contract stage & became standard.

When the first dual manual model was introduced, the almost indestructible wooden keyboard was replaced by an Italian all plastic type (SKA). Due to the unique reversed colours, the fragile keys are not available as spares.

Later still an even more draconian design change was implemented, with the models 300 & 300H. The highly reliable germanium master oscillators became silicon & the divider chains were replaced by integrated circuits. These are non-standard parts, used only in the music industry. Less reliable & more expensive than standard computer logic types. They also have deliberately different pin connections & are no longer available.

VOX Continental 300H, tuning, service & restoration

300H.

This is a 300H, the first production model with preset keys & integrated circuits. An early one with round can dividers, which have proved unobtainable. Requiring a modification to each generator to use standard parts.

It also has left hand bass on the lower manual, switched from the pedals. This appears to be an after-thought, contacts are stuck to the manual frame underside, with double sided adhesive tape and tend to fall off.

Percussion was introduced at this time, continued on subsequent models, always sounds distorted. The reliable switched drawbars are replaced by cheaper & less desirable slider potentiometers.

Models after this were made in Italy, these use the standard keyboard for Italian organs of the period. Steel shafted keys, with thin, fragile plastic shells glued on. They often fall off or break. With, of course, the slide-pot drawbars.

Continental II etc.
VOX Continental Duos, tuning, service & restoration These two dual manual Continentals arrived at our Mercia workshop for service. Both need a lot of T.L.C. The left one is a Continental II, germanium all discrete circuitry, switched drawbars, no percussion. British built, like the original, but the keyboard is the "Kimber Allen" Italian SKA type, all plastic keys. It has a Jennings Organ Company name plate.

The other is an EME Italian built model 300, unfortunately minus its name plate. Steel shafted plastic shell keys, slide-pot drawbars and integrated circuit dividers. Not much resemblance to the English models, apart from the general case shape.
VOX Continental II, tuning, service & restoration

The Continental II above, with its case lid off.

A credit to Derek Underdown, its designer, now it has been serviced. I wonder, did he suspect it would still be in use, over forty years later?
VOX model 300, tuning, service & restoration

On the left is the EME Continental 300's interior, showing the 'rats nest' style layout. to the left of its generator boards is the open power supply, with exposed mains connections.

Italian manufacturers obviously saw no point in the, typically English, neatly laced cable-forms of the original model.

They also saw no point in the safety aspect of a mains power supply enclosed in an earthed metal case.

Servicing.

For continued performance / survival of these classics it is essential that any servicing required is entrusted only to skilled, knowledgable people who really know the models. Serious, expensive & often terminal damge can be caused by bad workmanship. The following shows what can happen to someone's pride & joy in the wrong hands.

Vandalised generator Good generator
The left picture shows part of a tone generator, vandalised by a so called 'service technician'. The one on the right escaped his attentions. The many components crudely clipped out are clearly shown. Apart from this damage, caused to 2 generators, a drawbar switch was damaged & some manual wiring chopped out. All internal trim controls were deliberately mis-adjusted to their extremes.

Fortunately, although circuit information has never been readily available, I know the model well. This example is a first variant, angled tone generators & my slim line drawbar modification. Almost original, apart from a few earlier repairs.

Repaired C generator

The C generator after repair using available modern components.

More details on this repair, soon.

Vox 300 generator awaiting new IC Continental 300H generator with faulty round can divider IC removed. Ready for replacement.
Vox 300 generator with new IC Same generator, fitted with socketed currently available DIL divider and interface components.


Later models.

An organ called the Jaguar was introduced. This looks like a proper Vox in some ways. The general case shape & orange top. Black naturals & white sharps. The bottom octave, doubling as left hand bass, has conventional colours. No drawbars, just a set of tabs on the left panel. These act more like basic tone controls, as on many other models without the VOX label, & bass is poor.

No individual footages, although 16, 8 & 4 are marked above the tabs. The whole thing is a sham, not really a Vox, not much of a jaguar, not even a kitten. A buzzing timbre, like many cheap Italian organs of the period, which is exactly what it is. It has discrete germanium transistor circuitry, but so did most others around then.

Jaguar

Keys are the steel shafted type, with flimsy glued shell caps. Single bent wire contacts make (or don't) on conductive plastic bussbars. Despite these comments we will still fix them, as with this battered example.

If you want a bit of that Vox magic, on a budget, this is not the way.

Further late models will be featured, if & as they become available for photographing. Most are now very rare, but usually not classic. We may also add the later Jennings models, if they become available.

Univox.
Univox

The Univox is a small valve monophonic organ, with a 3 octave accordian size keyboard. Designed for the same market as the Selmer Clavioline and Hammond Solovox.

It is not a copy of either of these instruments but a unique design by Les Hills, a Jennings Organ Company engineer. Intended to fit under a piano front and provide an electronic voice for the pianist.

On this J10 "Concert" model, 4 octave ranges & two sub-octave dividers are provided. Equipped with Vibrato, percussion and repeating percussion. Speed of the latter is controlled by the 3 vibrato rate tabs.

Its claim to fame in the pop music field is probably the record 'Telstar' by The Tornados. The single voice electronic sound ideally suits that tune, no-one has successfully emulated it on any other instrument.

Below are some photos of parts of this superb classic, during overhaul, the cursor will show titles.

Univox amplifier rear Univox keyboard rear Univox key up Univox key down Univox keyboard Univox name plate Univox lid Univox electronics
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VOX. Edited 5-9-2013. Ron Lebar, Author.