Since the release of their diminutive yet ground-breaking CZ-101 synth, Casio have been steadily improving the facilities of their Phase Distortion keyboards with each subsequent CZ product. The culmination of those efforts is now manifest in their best-ever synthesizer, the CZ-1, a truly professional performance instrument. Chris Jenkins says 'welcome'.
They say that even Michelangelo produced doodles before creating his finished masterpieces. In the same way, Casio's previous achievements in the synthesizer field may now come to look minor in the light of the ground-breaking CZ-1, the newly-born big brother to the CZ-101. Chris Jenkins checks it out.
Probably the most spectacular story in the history of musical instruments, Casio's success is based on innovation and mass marketing. Now, after the toe in the water that was the CZ-101, the CZ-1 represents a serious and well-planned assault on the pro keyboard market. Judging by the abilities of the CZ-1, this flagship synth should be a tremendous success in the tradition of the VL-1, CT-201, and CZ-101.
The CZ-1 employs the tried-and-tested Phase Distortion (PD) sound creation system pioneered by the portable CZ-101 and upheld in the CZ-1000 series and the preset CZ-230S. Like Yamaha's FM system, it is capable of creating top-class digital sounds, but is in my view slightly better than FM at producing full-bodied, sweeping string sounds. However, where the previous PD synths made compromises - the CZ-101's mini keyboard, the lack of velocity response on the Thousand series etc - the CZ-1 offers a complete range of professional facilities including a full-size velocity and aftertouch responsive keyboard, fully programmable memories, cartridge memory, performance controls, good sound editing features and full MIDI implementation.
The CZ-1's five octave C-C keyboard has a fairly light action, and although it's not weighted it shouldn't present any performance problems for even the most demanding player. The velocity and aftertouch response this keyboard allows are the most obvious advantages of the CZ-1.
Unlike the portable CZ-101, the CZ-1's voice memories are fully programmable. There are 64 internal memories arranged in eight banks of eight, and a cartridge facility which gives another 64 sounds.
Voice facilities are very much the same as those of the CZ-101, with the addition of velocity and aftertouch parameters. Each of the eight voices features twin DCOs (digitally controlled oscillators), twin DCWs (waveshapers which act like analogue filters) and twin DCAs (amplifiers). The combined result is a powerful synthesis system which is easier to understand than Yamaha's FM, and which also makes it easier to create traditional 'analogue' effects such as filter sweeps and falling pitches - difficult things to rustle up quickly on Yamaha's FM synths.
Sounds are edited using the now almost universal digital access system; a parameter is selected by pressing the appropriate button (and if necessary the correct 'page' of working memory), then the value displayed is incremented or decremented using two data entry keys. As these are held down, the rate of change speeds up; but it can still take some time to alter a value from 0 to 99, and it would have been nice to have seen a Yamaha-style data entry slider on the CZ-1.
The editing information is displayed on a 32-character backlit LCD in the centre of the synth's main panel. The display is only totally clear when viewed straight on, and in the absence of contrast or brightness adjustments I would maintain that no synth manufacturer apart from Ensoniq has yet cracked the problem of producing clearly visible data displays.
The overall styling of the CZ-1 may not be as smart as that of many modern synths, with a bizarre mixture of blue, green, red and grey controls, legends illustrating the command pages, waveforms, modulation shapes and envelopes, recesses for the buttons and a chunky grey metal case. However, you can't complain that there's anything missing.
On the rear panel, from right to left, you'll find the headphone output, stereo line outputs, footpedal volume and sustain sockets (all conventional jack types), MIDI In, Out and Thru, memory protect on/off switch, the cartridge slot, power socket and mains switch.
On the main panel, the CZ-1 controls are logically divided into seven groups. 'Total Control' includes MIDI, modulation, portamento, and glide on/off switches; along with horizontal sliders for master volume and stereo chorus. The 'Mode' section includes normal, tone mix, key split and mono selectors, plus the Operation Memory button which recalls keyboard splits and layer patches.
The 'Programmer' section contains the two rows of eight voice select switches, the cartridge selector and the Exchange button, which allows you to quickly swap voice memory positions. This simple facility makes it much easier to build up performance sets without having to erase any memories. Good thinking!
Next section is 'Data Entry', which features the LCD window, up/down/left/right cursor controls, page select buttons and envelope function controls.
Moving right along, the next section up is 'Data Save/Load' which allows you to send voice information directly to another CZ-1 via MIDI, or to a cartridge for a more permanent means of voice storage. Then comes 'Effect', which allows you to edit glide, portamento, and bend ranges, modulation range and aftertouch range.
To digress for a moment, the 'Effect' section is central to the CZ-1's performance, and deserves to be studied in more depth. Portamento is the familiar slide between notes, at a speed variable from 0-99. Glide is more unusual, consisting of a rise or fall to the pitch played, with the amount of change variable over 24 semitones at a speed of 0 to 99 - very useful for emulating brass sounds and human voices. Bend range, which controls the effect of the pitch-bend wheel, has a choice of 12 semitone settings. Lastly, Mod Wheel/Aftertouch sets the effect of the wheel, from 0-99, the aftertouch amplitude from 0 to 15, and aftertouch modulation from 0-99.
Each DCO and DCW can be made to respond differently to the velocity and aftertouch information. The overall sound, then, can be modulated in several ways: by the mod wheel, by key velocity controlling either pitch, amplitude or 'filter' (DCW), by aftertouch affecting pitch or amplitude, and so on. The overall result is to place a huge range of expressive effects at the disposal of the player. The CZ-1 is Casio's first expressive synth, and can adapt to whatever playing style you require.
The final control section is 'Parameter', which contains the DCO, DCW and DCA selectors, and such parameters as detune, octave, modulation type, line select and voice name. Each voice can have a name of up to fifteen characters, which are entered using the multifunction Programmer keys. Apart from A-Z, you also have 0-9, point, slash and hyphen at your disposal. In order to access all these facilities, the LCD display is arranged in pages which are illustrated above the Programmer section. Using the paging buttons, you can access the MIDI operating system to enter mono (multi-timbral) mode, and thereby play eight different monophonic instrument sounds simultaneously under external MIDI control - from a sequencer perhaps. Each voice must be set to a different MIDI channel when used in this manner, and volumes can be adjusted independently.
The CZ-1 is the first Casio synth to include the all-important split/tone-mix memories for live work. Unlike the CZ-101/1000, which features tone-mix alone, and the CZ-3000/5000, which add a keysplit function but not keysplit memories, the CZ-1 has 64 operation memories which can hold either tone-mix (layered) sounds, or keyboard splits. The split point can be set anywhere but is not programmable for each individual performance pair.
Several other controls are designed to make the CZ-1 ideal for performance; in particular MIDI Off, which simply cuts off any MIDI operation (to silence a slave keyboard, for instance). And of course there is the sprung pitch-bend wheel to the left of the keyboard, and the unsprung modulation wheel beside it.
One slight drawback of the CZ-1 is its built-in stereo chorus. It can be programmed on/off for each sound, though the level has to be set using the slider. The problem stems from the sheer amount of noise it generates when in action. Hopefully this will be rectified on the next production machines.
The CZ-1 is clearly intended to be a performance synth, and any sensible keyboard player having tried it would quickly overcome any lingering prejudices about the Casio name and consider adding one to his set-up. Ideally, Casio would doubtless like you to look at the AZ-1 portable controller at the same time. One of the best-designed posing keyboards yet, it is designed to make use of all the CZ-1 's performance abilities, so you needn't be trapped behind the CZ-1 on stage to get the best from it.
Of course, the CZ-1 must be judged largely by its sounds and inevitably the main comparisons must be drawn with Yamaha's FM synths. Where FM allows complex frequency modulation effects to be built up from simple sine waves using the operator/algorithm system, Casio's PD system begins with eight complex waveforms. The options may be fewer but the increased ease of use is tremendous. Similarly, Casio's digital control of waveshapes produces filter effects which only a master of FM synthesis could squeeze out of a Yamaha. The overall sound may not be as punchy, but there's still a lot of power and many of the advantages of analogue synthesis.
Most of the factory-supplied sounds on the CZ-1 can easily be improved with a little parameter twiddling; good news as far as I'm concerned, since it means that users are far less likely to rely on the presets. There are several snappy bass sounds, some thick strings (although nothing with the typical Yamaha 'bowing' effect), some very undistinguished pianos, an excellent funky clav, a good selection of vibes, glocks, marimbas and other percussive sounds, a realistic acoustic guitar, some exotic effects like a twangy sitar, plus the usual jet/motorbike/storm sounds, and some really fat brass noises. On the review model, Casio demonstrator Richard Young had also added some analogue-type synth sweeps and howling fuzz guitar patches, which demonstrate the abilities of the machine much better than many of the presets.
Using the keyboard split or layering facility, with judicious use of the stereo chorus, the CZ-1 can sound quite astounding. Fat bass twangs on the right hand and swooshing strings on the left, or punchy brass coupled with swirling organ, can combine to make the CZ-1 sound as good as any other synth in its price range. The multi-timbral operation over MIDI makes the CZ-1 ideal for the demo arranger with a MIDI sequencer, but as with the other PD synths the CZ-1's lack of separate outputs for each voice remains a distinct drawback.
The real challenger to the CZ-1 is the Ensoniq ESQ-1 digital synth, which for only a few hundred pounds more offers the revolutionary sampled waveshape synthesis, three oscillators per voice, a better weighted keyboard, and a powerful built-in sequencer featuring true multi-timbral operation. Any keyboard player with around £1000 to spend will most certainly need to see both instruments in the flesh before making a choice.
As for the CZ-1, it's tempting to go overboard with praise for such a powerful instrument at such an attractive price (£999). The velocity and aftertouch response work like a dream, the keysplit, layering and operation memories are a boon, the multi-timbral functions are a useful bonus and the overall sound is excellent. Any quibbles about the styling are pretty minor.
It may have been a little long in coming - five years since the launch of the CT-201 — but if Casio would excuse the presumption. I'd like to welcome them to the ranks of topflight musical instrument manufacturers.
Review by Chris Jenkins