Piano Sound Module
On the face of it, this low-cost sound module looks like it could be a useful addition to the MIDI synthesist's armoury. Tony Crowle checks its suitability.
At one time, if a keyboard player wanted several different sounds he had to have several different keyboards. On stage, some players were surrounded by banks of instruments perched precariously on stands. In the studio, a great deal of time and space was devoted to setting up the right keyboard. With the introduction of MIDI, it became possible to separate the means of articulation (the keys) from the means of sound production (the electronics), so that the player could have a single mother keyboard connected to several expanders, which provided various different sounds. Then it became clear that we could dispense with the keyboard entirely, and use MIDI expanders with various MIDI-equipped guitars, drums, horns, and sequencers.
Recently the expanders have become more versatile, and MIDI performance controls have become more common, so that a single expander may offer a wide range of basic sounds (pianos, organs, strings, brass, woodwind, percussion, and so on) as well as a wide range of instantly available variations of these sounds through built-in effects units. It is in the context of these developments that we need to evaluate new products such as the Casio CSM10P piano module.
The Casio CSM10P is a small (322 x 236 x 60mm) sound module which can be driven from any MIDI source, such as a MIDI keyboard or a sequencer. It uses 12-bit digital sampling to generate five keyboard instrument timbres, all of which are 16-note polyphonic: Piano, Harpsichord, Vibraphone, Electric Piano, and Pipe Organ. The Piano, Vibraphone and Electric Piano timbres have touch response - they respond to MIDI Note-On velocity information from a touch-sensitive MIDI keyboard, for example), while the Pipe Organ and Harpsichord timbres realistically ignore it.
Timbre selection is done by pressing one of five buttons on the front of the module. Another button selects the continuous playing of four demonstration tunes. An on/off switch with LED and a volume slider complete the front panel. On the rear panel are MIDI In and Thru sockets (no Out), a DC 9V power supply input, and a single Line Out jack socket, together with miniature switches to enable MIDI channel selection (1-16 or Omni) and a rotary control for tuning. Underneath the unit is a battery compartment which takes six AA cells.
The module worked well when played from a keyboard, from a Casio Horn, and when driven by my Trackman sequencer. The rear panel MIDI channel selection switches functioned correctly. As claimed, the CSM10P handles 16 notes simultaneously. If more than 16 notes are sent to the CSM10P at once, it resorts to a 'last note priority' strategy, whereby the 17th note received actually silences the first note. Unfortunately, the module does not respond to MIDI Program Change messages, so that any timbre changes that are required in the middle of a sequenced song have to be accomplished by button-pushing. The module also does not respond to pitch bend or any other MIDI performance data, apart from Note-On velocity.
Though Casio call the timbres "breathtakingly realistic" in the brochure, to my ears they sound like what one would expect from 12-bit samples: good, but not that good.
One feature that impaired the module's performance for me was the single Line Out. These days we expect to be able to apply different effects treatments to different musical parts, which requires the provision of several assignable audio outputs. At the very least, a stereo pair should have been made available which would have made it possible to convey spatial information, so that the low notes (say) could be heard to be coming from the left side and the high notes from the right.
The four built-in demonstration tunes are Chopin Etudes, which are beautifully executed; I especially liked them when played on the Vibraphone. One extra feature, not described by Casio, is that you can play along with the demonstration pieces and so improve Chopin's 'Revolutionary Etude' by adding a few parts that the maestro did not think of!
Though the module's tuning range is said to be A4=442Hz (+/—30 cents), my meter indicated that it was more nearly A4=440 (+/-40 cents), which is an improvement, being a wider range of adjustment around a better centre value.
I found it difficult to understand the logic underlying this product. The sparse MIDI implementation only provides for response to Note-On and Note-Off messages, which is surely too primitive for users of sophisticated sequencers who don't want to be hopping around pushing buttons when they wish to change from a piano sound to an electric piano sound. The selection of timbres seems too narrow by current standards, which demand a variety of classic electric pianos and at least several electric organs, not merely one of each.
The non-standard case betrays the home keyboard origins of the CSM10P, which would look at home in someone's lounge. The built-in demonstration tunes are a good idea - they can be helpful when setting up amplifiers and effects units in the studio or before a gig. It is a good thing to have battery power if the unit retains user data, but what is the point of having battery power on a module that does not have a volatile memory? Is it to make it usable with a battery-powered keyboard and a battery-powered amplifier?
Being a mono-timbral/single output unit, the only reason I can see for including 16-note polyphony is to avert possible note-stealing problems, which can occur on 8-note polyphonic modules when a sustain pedal is employed. If you want to simulate four vibraphone players then this module will do it, but it's not easy to think of sensible recording, gigging or even home entertainment applications for which this module would be the right choice. The CSM10P is inexpensive (£199) and offers five reasonable sounds, but from the hi-tech musician's viewpoint I think the money could be spent more wisely.
£199 inc VAT.
Casio Electronics (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Tony Crowle
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