A Fair Showing
This year's British Music Fair left the confines of Olympia in favour of a stadium atmosphere. Simon Trask goes walkabout at Wembley.
This year's British Music Fair was held out of town at Wembley, a fact which didn't seem to deter the punters. And as usual there was plenty to see, hear and touch.
YESTERDAY'S MUSICIAN, TODAY'S musician, tomorrow's musician. All were, no doubt, at the British Music Fair. The BMF has benefited tremendously from the instrument industry's decision several years back to have both trade and public days. This year's Fair was held at the Wembley Conference Centre, lasted for six days (three trade, three public), and was spread over almost three times as much space as last year's show at Olympia.
I wonder how many of the thousands of people who came to witness Michael Jackson's Wembley Stadium extravaganza realised that just a few hundred yards away was all the musical equipment which made Jackson's show possible? And how many would care?
Under one roof were all the instruments - keyboards, guitars, basses, drum kits, drum machines and bouzoukis - that you could possibly want. Fortunately we're not looking at all of them.
But what better place to start than with a pleasant surprise in the form of British company Cheetah's new 1U-high 19" MS6 multitimbral synth expander (£299.95). The significance of the MS6 shouldn't be overlooked. We're talking a British-designed and British-built synthesiser, and when was the last time you came across one of those? What's more, the MS is competitively priced and well endowed (as the actress said to the bishop).
Comparisons are bound to be made with Oberheim's Matrix 1000 synth expander: the MS uses digital oscillators and analogue filters (the latter are the Curtis chips made famous by Sequential), its sounds fall into the same sonic area as Oberheim's Matrix synthesis (although it doesn't have the latter's matrix modulation possibilities), it's six-voice polyphonic and it holds a lot of sounds (320 in ROM and 96 in RAM).
Aside from being some £150 cheaper than the 1000, the MS scores in two major areas: it's six-part multitimbral (with 64 RAM performance memories for storing multi combinations together with six-way keyboard splits and layers) and programmable from the front panel.
The MS sports two DCOs, one four-pole (24 dB/octave) analogue filter and two envelope generators per voice, while an LFO section offers one LFO per voice. The expander can operate in poly, unison and multi modes - and features MIDI overflow mode, allowing two units to be linked together for 12-voice polyphony at £600.
Initial impressions are that the MS6 is capable of producing a good variety of analogue-style sounds. However, the onboard sounds weren't finalised, and to be honest I can't see Cheetah equalling the consistent quality of the 1000's sounds, because they haven't got a worldwide network of users to draw on - but you can always program your own sounds. All in all, the MS6 is one to watch out for.
Meanwhile, Cheetah are supporting their MD8 drum machine (£149.95) with six new voice-kits: electro, metalwork, percussion, heavy, classic and kicks 'n snares. You can also mix 'n match sounds from different kits. Each kit, which comes on cassette, offers 10 sounds for £9.99, giving rise to the marketing phrase "pound-a-sound". Who else is offering so much at so little cost?
As if all this excitement wasn't enough, you can expect to see a budget dedicated sequencer, the MQ8 (£199.95), before too long, while towards the end of the year the company are planning to release an even cheaper multitimbral synth module, the MS800 (£199.95), which is apparently intended as a digital complement to the MS6. The sequencer offers eight tracks, 16 songs, 256 patterns and an 8000-event capacity (with battery-backed memory), together with some rather unusual performance functions such as MIDI chord, echo, embellish and arpeggio. One thing's for sure: Cheetah aren't standing still.
Yamaha's new budget recording package, the MT100 four-tracker/R100 reverb (£389 and £199 respectively), makes a very attractive starter package, but also introduces an interesting new problem. As the astute ones among you will have realised, MT100 also happens to be the name of a budget Roland sequencer, while Kawai's first drum machine was christened R100 by its proud parents. What happened to originality, chaps?
Yamaha also introduced the DMP11 (£1499), a rack-mount DMP7 which economises on the built-in effects and EQ (two effects and two-band parametric EQ) and forgoes cartridge storage but adds pitch-change capability, controller labelling and provides 96 memory locations. Steinberg are currently modifying their DMP desktop mixing package to be compatible with the 11.
Also being debuted was the QX5FD sequencer (£599), essentially a QX5 with a built-in 3.5" floppy disk drive. Inevitably the size is larger and the cost is greater, but there are also one or two extra features such as track labelling. However, the QX5FD will be up against some serious competition from Kawai's debut sequencer, the Q80 (see below).
Yamaha had been promising a new synthesiser in the run-up to the show, and what they delivered were the YS100 and YS200 four-operator FM synths (£699 and £789 respectively). Yamaha's stated purpose with these is to expand the synth market by attracting home recordists, other instrumentalists and "portable keyboard" players. Is this why they've given the YSs such an "eye-catching" appearance?
Both synths (the YS200 has an onboard eight-track sequencer) come with 100 preset sounds and 100 user-programmable memories. In addition you can access a further 100 sounds with plug-in cards, and load in sounds from other four-operator FM synths via MIDI SysEx dumps. Yamaha have come up with a well-programmed collection of presets which show FM at its best. The range of sounds is broad, and the character ranges from sharp and metallic to soft and warm.
Both synths have touch-sensitive keyboards, are eight-part multi-timbral, and feature 10 onboard digital effects (including reverb). But their raison d'etre is a greatly simplified programming system (still using familiar digital access methods, though) which won't give you all the flexibility of the full-blown FM system but will, no doubt, offer enough for many users. Presumably it will also be possible for more adventurous souls to edit sounds with computer-based editor/librarian software such as Dr T's Four-Op Deluxe or Soundbits' 4X4.
It doesn't take much to realise that Yamaha are actually competing with themselves, more specifically with their DX11 synth. But whether musicians go for the more sophisticated 11 or the easy-access YS, Yamaha at least will be sitting pretty. I guess they call it "consumer choice".
But how many more guises can Yamaha make FM available in? Okay, simplifying the programming system is one option, but much more interesting would be a return to the old-school knobs-and-sliders approach to programming. A significant part of the problem which many people have with FM on the DXs is the "digital access fatigue" of programming the system. I reckon multi-parameter access in the old-school style could revitalise the parts of FM that other programming systems can't reach. How about it, Yamaha?
Casio were highlighting their flagship VZ1 synthesiser and its VZ10M rack-mount counterpart (£1299 and £899 respectively), the DH100 digital horn (£99) and the PG380 MIDI guitar (£1299). You'll find reviews elsewhere in this issue.
As usual the Casio band (aka the Q Stars) were in attendance, playing every hour on the hour throughout the show. Always a pleasure to listen to, these guys are short on the equipment lectures and long on good music-making. They're no mere show band, either - three of the members have been making music together for 15 years. All in all, the Casio stand with its rooftop bar and sunny sounds was an oasis amidst the clamour and bustle of Hall Four.
Akai were debuting their latest master keyboard, the MX76 (£1299), essentially an upgraded version of the company's MX73 controller. The 76 has a 76-note weighted dynamic keyboard, four keyboard zones, five velocity response curves, a generous 8X40-character LCD, remote control of MIDI sequencers (tempo/start/stop), four assignable footswitches, four assignable sliders and four assignable switches. In addition the 76 has 64 internal memories, card storage and two independent MIDI Outs. However, the company have decided to hold back on their other proposed master keyboard, the MWS76, which is essentially an MX76 with an ASQ10 99-track sequencer onboard. Now that would have been interesting (not to mention expensive).
Also new from Akai was the ME35T Drum-to-MIDI Converter (£259), which provides eight trigger-in jacks, MIDI In, Out and Thru, and MIDI merge (allowing another ME35T or other MIDI controller to be routed through the unit). Trigger threshold, capture time, gate time, recovery time, dynamic velocity curve, MIDI channel and MIDI note number can all be specified for each pad/input.
Unfortunately, Akai's new eight-voice, 16-bit XE8 Drum Expander (£499), which is intended to pair with the ME35T, didn't make it to the show. But with 15 internal sounds, the ability to access 20 more sounds at a time via plug-in ROM card, and eight individual outs, the XE8 should be worth watching out for.
You'll find a review of Roland's Pad80 Octapad II elsewhere in this issue. Meanwhile, other new Roland high-tech products were the A50 master keyboard (£1395), the T110 sample replay module (£599) and A880 8:8 MIDI patcher (£225).
The T110 is, to quote the brochure, "designed specifically for the user who tends to rely on available sound libraries rather than sampling, to design personalised sounds". In other words, it's a sample replay unit only. But instead of allowing you to load in disks from Roland's existing sample libraries, the T110 takes up to four ROM cards in its front panel. This eliminates disk loading times, but it's not clear yet just how many sounds each card will hold and how much they will cost.
The T110 also comes with the equivalent of four S550 disks-worth of samples onboard in ROM, providing 99 preset sounds. Apparently these are shortened and re-looped versions of S50 samples, but they don't appear to have suffered unduly in the process.
The T110 has 31-voice polyphony, is six-part multi-timbral and has six multi-outputs as well as L(mono)/R (stereo) outs. Digital chorus and tremolo are built in. All in all, the T110 will probably be a big hit.
The A50 master keyboard's 76-note keyboard is sensitive to attack velocity and both channel and polyphonic aftertouch, with programmable response curves so you can tailor the keyboard to your touch. There are four overlappable zones, each with its own MIDI channel, MIDI patch number, performance controller assignments and velocity and aftertouch curves.
In addition there are two MIDI Ins (mergeable), four MIDI Outs and a MIDI Thru, 64 memories and 12 assignable performance controllers. Both the A50 and T110 should be available in September.
The R8 Human Rhythm Composer, a 16-bit drum machine, didn't make it to the show. From 48 sounds you'll be able to create 16 parameter-treated variations, while optional waveforms on ROM will allow up to 80 percussion sounds to be accessed. The R8 will have eight separate outs, 100 pattern memories, and a 2600-note capacity. The most interesting aspect is the Human Feel function, which seems to run along the lines of programming parameters such as velocity response, decay, pitch and nuance (?) for individual sounds. One to look out for.
Kawai's new Q80 dedicated MIDI sequencer (£595) could be serious competition for Yamaha's QX5FD and even Roland's MC500.
The Q80 (which wasn't fully operational at the Fair) has 32 tracks (each of which stores data on a single MIDI channel), a 26,000-note memory, an additional tempo track and capacity for ten songs. Real- and step-time recording are available (96ppqn resolution). Up to 16 tracks can be recorded onto at once, and each track can loop independently.
Kawai's sequencer also employs a Motif function, allowing up to 100 motifs to be recorded, or extracted from existing tracks by cut-and-paste methods, for each song. These motifs can then be utilised at any position within a track (for a repeating bassline or drum part).
The Q80 uses "active" quantising, whereby you can specify a window within which notes won't be corrected - the idea being to give a more human feel to quantisation by leaving in subtle errors in timing.
Kawai's sequencer has an onboard 3.5" DSDD disk drive. Twelve songs and 150,000 notes can be stored per disk. In addition the sequencer can be used as a SysEx data filer for those instruments which can initiate data dumps from their front panel. Synchronisation can be internal, tape or MIDI (including song pointers). The one blot on its copybook appears to be that its two MIDI Outs aren't separately addressable.
Kawai were also debuting a 19" rack-mount version of the K1 dubbed the K1R (£TBA), which won't be available 'til around October, and the MAV8 4:8 MIDI matrix box (£99), a hardware device with front-panel sliders for selecting routing options. UK software company Soundbits were to be found on the Kawai stand demo-ing their K1 editor/librarian for the ST.
Korg were highlighting the M1 (£1499), of course. It looks as if the first PCM data card for the M1 (MSC01) will offer strings, saxophone, marimba, low violin, piano, harp, chorus and spring (?) samples - unfortunately this wasn't in evidence at the show.
Also absent was the S1 sampling drum machine/sequencer (£1499), which won't be available until September or October. However, the Q1 sequencer (£999) was at least present in pre-Beta-test (read "not stitched together") state. The Q1's spec (remember the Q1 is the sequencer portion of the S1) certainly looks interesting. Expect to see production Q1s arriving late August.
Tascam's MTS1000 MIDIizer (£1499) is ideal for anyone wanting to lock together two tape machines and synchronise MIDI sequencers to tape. The unit is plug-in compatible with Tascam's 238 eight-track multitrack cassette recorder and their new MSR16 16-track reel-to-reel machine, while an optional conversion unit allows interfacing to other Tascam recorders and other popular controllable VTRs and ATRs.
All SMPTE frame rates are supported and, as well as usual MIDI sync data, the MIDIizer can output MIDI timecode. One interesting consequence of having tape lock, autolocate and MIDI sync in one box is that tape autolocate and auto-record points can be referenced to bar/beat values.
Tempo data, which can be recorded into eight memories, can be entered by tapping a key, step-write programming, or by reading a click-track. What the MIDIizer can't do is read a MIDI sync signal and work out tempo information from that (as SRC's new AT SMPTE/MIDI synchroniser can), but as the MIDIizer wasn't finalised at the time of the show, you never know...
Over in the Hilton Hotel, adjacent to the Conference Centre, Evenlode Soundworks were demonstrating their range of products, including the long-awaited Passac guitar-to-MIDI control system (£998), an impressive-looking K1 Editor (£99) for the ST from Steinberg (apparently written within a new custom operating system), and Turbosynth (£235, reviewed elsehere in this issue).
The Australian-designed Passac Sentient Six (great name) integrates a drop-in bridge system (MPX1) into a Kahler bridge assembly which can be retrofitted to your favourite guitar, with a stereo cable outputting both audio and MIDI data running between guitar and control-box. The result? You'd hardly believe you had a MIDI controller in your hands - and your precious guitar isn't affected in the least.
The Sentient has been a long time in development, but on the evidence of a quick play, the results are impressive. For a pitch-to-MIDI system there appears to be negligible delay. What's more, the sensitivity of the system can be fine-tuned to individual playing style.
The SSC1 Controller includes an onboard four-track, 1000-event sequencer (upgradable to 12,000 events), MIDI delay and arpeggiation features, and individual string transposition and MIDI patch-select - all parameters stored in 100 onboard patches.
The battle of the MIDI guitars is hotting up, and Passac might just have hit the right approach for guitarists who'd rather not abandon their own guitar but also don't want the delay problems usually found with pitch-to-MIDI systems.
Digidesign's Turbosynth, developed out of their Softsynth program, allows you to drag a wide range of internal sound creation and processing modules onto the main screen and connect them up using software "patch cords" - effectively creating your own programming algorithms. In addition to using additive, FM and waveshaping synthesis modules you can import samples from an extensive range of samplers and even extract individual waveforms from sampled sounds for use in Turbosynth's wavetables. Samples can be treated with filtering, digital delay, envelope shaping and spectral inversion modules, and mixed with synthesised sounds. Your sounds can then be output to the same range of samplers.
Turbosynth points to the future of sound creation: a variety of synthesis, sampling and sound-processing modules modelled in software and able to be patched together in any way - all within the digital domain. Like anything else, you'll need to learn how to get the best out of such a system. Mac owners can start here.
ST users can console themselves with the availability of Digidesign's Universal Sound Designer on the ST (£315). USD allows you to import a sample from a broad range of samplers (eight- and 16-bit), edit it if you wish, and then send it back out to any sampler. Generic sample transfer programs such as USD, which include input/output modules for individual samplers as well as the MIDI Sample Dump Standard, are becoming increasingly popular - because the SDS hasn't proved to be the standard it was intended to be (ask Casio FZ1 owners). Incidentally, Drumware and Dr Ts offer similar programs.
MCM Distribution will be importing KTI Keyboard Technologies' GZ1000 88-note MIDI master keyboard (£2595 including VAT) from America. The GZ (manufactured in the States by well-known acoustic piano manufacturers Baldwin) represents a significant advance in electronic keyboard technology, in that its 88 wooden keys each have a hammer action with individual user-adjustable weights. Additionally there's a global mechanical-action adjustment wheel for "coarse" adjustment of the keyboard from light to heavy. Keyboard velocity and aftertouch (channel and poly) scales can be programmed.
Built into the GZ is a 1 Mb DSDD 3.5" floppy disk drive for storing performance setups and SysEx data. The rear panel includes two mergeable MIDI Ins, eight MIDI Out/Thrus, three MIDI assignable footswitch inputs and four MIDI assignable footpedals. Cheap it isn't, impressive it should be.
The Apple Mac is about to benefit from two significant developments, both imported by MCM: Southworth Audio's "Max Audio" range of digital sampling cards for the Apple Mac II, and Coda's "Finale" scoring software (£795).
Southworth's sampling cards (which can be stacked together for multitrack recording) apparently use proprietary sigma-delta dual A/D converters operating at 24 million samples per second, with a 120dB S/N ratio, 20-bit precision and sampling rates of 44.1, 48, 96 and 192kHz. Additional cards provide SMPTE read/write, digital audio transfer in AES/EBU format (for, among other things, DAT editing and CD mastering), reverb and other effects processing, pitch tracking and pitch shifting and additive synthesis.
"Finale" will more likely prove to be a curtain-raiser. The program will accept input on multiple MIDI channels, with real-time onscreen display of notes on different staves. A particularly significant feature of "Finale" is that it will follow any speeding up or slowing down in your performance.
Music can be played back over 32 MIDI channels, with screen scrolling of the score. The program supports a total of 128 staves, while for print-out purposes scores can be enlarged/reduced from 10% to 800%. Additionally, Standard MIDI Files are supported for compatibility with other Mac MIDI software.
Dr Ts add to their software range for the Atari ST with the Phantom SMPTE Synchroniser, Tunesmith theme generator, Samplemaker sample editor/creator, K1 Editor and S900 Editor/K5 and Prophet VS Converter (the latter converting sample extracts into wavetables by means of additive synthesis for transfer to the K5 and VS).
Phantom (£TBA) is a combined software and hardware package for the ST which allows SMPTE (all frame rates), song-pointer-encoded FSK and standard sync pulses to be written and read. The hardware, which plugs into the STs serial port, has sync in, sync out, MIDI In and two MIDI Out ports, while the software (which runs within the ST) allows MIDI channels to be directed to the STs Out or the Phantom's two Outs, effectively giving 32 MIDI channels.
Samplemaker (£199) is a generic sample editor which allows samples to be "swapped" in the digital domain between the S900, Emax, EPS, FZ1, Mirage and Prophet 2000 and any sampler which supports the Sample Dump Standard. Sample creation is taken care of by a 60-operator FM, AM and additive synthesis module, with user-definable synthesis algorithms, nine LFOs and nine waveshaping tables. Potentially a very powerful program, in the same territory as Digidesign's Turbosynth and Universal Sound Designer.
MCM are also distributing a new range of editor/librarian software, initially running on the ST, from British company Pandora Technologies. Modestly christened "Power Tools", the range so far consists of programs for the DX7, D50, D110, K1 and M1 (£79.95 each). The programs have been designed to run as desktop accessories for GEM-based sequencers such as Pro24, with the ability to edit on the fly while a sequence is running in the background. An interesting feature of the Korg M1 Editor is its ability to translate between M1 sequences (which are transferred via MIDI as SysEx files) and Standard MIDI File format.
Over on the Syndromic stand, a new program from Hybrid Arts was being debuted. "Ludwig" is an algorithmic composition tool which offers real-time control over a number of musical parameters, enabling sequences to be modified as they play. The program allows varying degrees of randomness to be programmed, so that specific adjustments can be made or completely random sequences generated.
The program organises sequences into eight parallel tracks. Unlike sequencer tracks, these contain lists of instructions for generating MIDI data, rather than the data itself. However, the data generated can be stored in a Keep buffer for playback within Hybrid's EZ Track Plus and MIDItrack sequencers, courtesy of their Hybriswitch program. The release date and price of "Ludwig" are yet to be decided.
Hybriswitch is Hybrid Arts' response to the demand for multi-program environments. The software allows up to 16 programs to be held simultaneously in the ST's memory, with a RAM-disk feature for onboard file storage and transfer between programs. An unusual development is forthcoming Hybriswitch compatibility for Word Perfect word-processing software.
The trend towards having multiple programs co-resident in memory means that a 1040ST is no longer proving to be adequate. If you want a sequencer, a scorewriter, several editors and an algorithmic composer in memory at the same time, and still have enough memory left for recording your music, a 4Mb ST is starting to look like the one to go for. Trouble is, the four-Megs are still rather expensive (though there's a rumour they'll be coming down in price soon), while musicians wanting to upgrade from a 520 or 1040 are not going to find it easy in the current climate of chip shortages.
In America they have two trade-only shows: Winter NAMM and Summer NAMM. That's probably one too many for some global manufacturers, as Roland, Korg, Akai, Ensoniq and E-mu among others pulled out of the Summer show. But the annual British Music Fair with its combination of trade and public days gives good value for money to trade and punters alike. Long may it last.
All prices quoted include VAT