Casio AZ1 Remote Keyboard
The Phase Distortion people breathe new life into the remote strap-on MIDI controller. Simon Trask wonders if up front keyboard-playing will catch on this time.
JUST AS NOT every guitarist is an extrovert, not every keyboard player wants to hide behind a stack of machines all the time. Cue the remote keyboard controller, of the sling-it-round-your-neck variety.
Like master keyboards (which you don't sling around your neck unless you're looking for a hernia), the strap-on kind don't make any sounds themselves. What they allow you to do is join your guitarist and singer stage-front and pose with the best of 'em. All you need is a MIDI cable stretching from controller back to keyboards and voice units - there's no need for any audio cable.
The latest sling-round-your-neck offering comes from Casio, and a stylish beast it is, too. As befits a strap-on instrument, the AZ1 has been designed as much along guitar lines as a keyboard controller can be. It's slightly heavier than the average guitar, but it shouldn't cause you any back strain. And crucially, it's a balanced instrument to carry around.
The AZ1's 41-note keyboard, which can transmit both attack velocity and channel aftertouch information, has a light action which suits the fact that your fingers don't so much fall on the keys as travel parallel to them. You can alter the range of the keyboard up or down an octave, so the total keyboard span is just over five octaves. The AZ1 turns off any existing notes whenever you change octave, so there's no danger of notes being left hanging; it also "retransmits" existing notes at the new pitch.
On the neck are a dedicated pitch-bend wheel, two assignable wheels, portamento and sustain buttons, two assignable switches and a Solo button, while there's an assignable slider on the main body of the instrument. All these controllers fall easily to the left hand, and a three-digit LED window displays values. When powered up (either with six AA batteries or an external 9V power supply), the AZ1 automatically sends out various MIDI messages including Omni Off/Poly, Sustain Off, pitch-bend centre value, the last-set program number and the current settings of the assignable continuous controllers.
The effectiveness of the AZ1's controllers depends on which controls are implemented on your slaved instruments. For example, if none of your instruments can respond to the MIDI main volume control, there's not a lot you can do about it.
Initialised definable settings (which can be recalled at any time) are modulation for wheel 1, master volume for wheel 2, portamento time for the slider, modulation on/off for key 1 and glide on/off for key 2. The Solo on/off button changes the AZ1 over to monophonic performance, and sends out an Omni On/Mono instruction on the relevant channel(s) - so that something like a DX7 can be put into its mono performance mode. The portamento and sustain effects are on as long as the buttons are held down - which is no problem as you can only use one hand to play anyway.
As an alternative, the AZ1's definable controllers can be used to send System Exclusive messages. These are intended for Casio's CZ series of synths, where they can be used to control such features as tone mix, key transpose, mod wheel depth and amplitude aftertouch range.
So you're at the front of the stage, AZ1 hanging from your neck, MIDI cable snaking back to your stack of gear. Chances are you'll want to (a) use more than one sound, and (b) use more than one instrument.
The former is taken care of by front-panel buttons which allow you to select any of the total 128 program numbers allowed for by MIDI. This is done in a bank/sound format which allows selection to be carried out quickly and minimises the number of buttons required.
The second option is catered for by giving the AZ1 three MIDI transmit modes: A, B and A+B. A and B modes can each be given a separate MIDI transmit channel (1-16), while A+B acts as a sort of dual mode by transmitting on both channels at the same time. Sensibly, the AZ1 doesn't allow you to change transmit mode - and consequently MIDI channels- while any notes are being held down or are still sustaining.
In A and B modes the AZ1 can transmit a maximum of eight notes simultaneously, while in A+B mode, up to eight notes can be transmitted on each of the two channels (so you retain eight-note polyphony).
You could use A and B as a means of switching quickly from one instrument to another, or you could use A (or B) and A+B as a means of playing one instrument and then suddenly layering another on top. MIDI controller codes are sent on whichever channel(s) you've selected - so you can't, for example, route controllers to one of two instruments in A+B mode.
But the AZ1 is a well-designed, flexible and ergonomically efficient controller. If you're looking for a chance to step out into the limelight in style, Casio's offering could be just what you need.
Price £349 including VAT
Preview by Simon Trask
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!