Casio CZ230S Keyboard
What the ghetto blaster is to hi-fi, the CZ230S is to synthesisers. Annabel Scott takes a spin in Casio's streetwise preset synth.
Casio's new mini-keyboard is certainly different. It falls between several stools, and doesn't seem to be aimed at any particular market - though creating new markets has been something of a Casio speciality in the past. As part of the CZ range, it could either sell a million and put Phase Distortion synthesis into the homes of a whole new generation of synth players, or it could fall flat on its face.
First, it has a go at being a portable fun machine, with four octaves of mini keys, battery or mains transformer power, a built-in speaker and a guitar-strap fixing with a rear-edge sprung pitch-bender for portable playing.
It also has a go at being a MIDI expander, with In/Out/Thru ports, a MIDI Off switch, an Internal/External Clock switch to sync the drum section, and 100 preset synth sounds. But it doesn't seem to be capable of multi-timbral playing via MIDI, and that's the feature which makes the CZ101 so attractive as a cheap voice expander.
The PCM drum machine section is partially programmable, and a pair of output jacks allow you to treat the drum and synth sections separately.
The PD synth sounds begin with 30 orchestral effects - brass ensembles, strings and symphonic ensembles, organs, choirs and so on - which are mostly quite impressive, and which include both thick sounds and some thinner effects for variation.
Twenty wind instrument sounds include trumpets, whistles, and a harmonica, as well as a sitar sound that makes use of the complex Casio envelope - holding a note down makes it bend up and back, even though the keyboard isn't touch-sensitive.
There are ten piano, clav and harpsichord sounds which aren't, on the whole, terribly clever. These are followed by 20 percussive/string sounds including some fine vibes, bells and marimbas and several acoustic guitar effects. Fashionably, the ten percussion sounds include three Simmons effects.
Sound effects occupy the remainder of the preset voice memories, with an extremely realistic typhoon, a motorbike starting, explosions, jets, and a wonderful record scratch impersonation.
The PD sounds can be tuned from the front panel, and you can also program levels for Portamento Speed, Bend Depth (0-12 semitones) and Transpose (five semitones down, six up).
The drum machine section has 20 preset patterns, plus ten programmable memories. Start/Stop and Synchro Start are available, and an Intro/Fill button introduces some well-composed variations into each pattern.
The drum sounds are excellent: a thumpy bass, a good sharp snare, slightly hissy toms, reasonable ride and hi-hat cymbals, and decent percussion sounds such as cowbell - though the clap is surprisingly poor.
When you want to program a new 16- or 12-beat pattern, the keys of the keyboard are marked up to represent each beat: simply program each instrument by tapping the keys on which you want it to occur. A metronome LED flashes red and green while you're programming.
It's possible to call up any four PD sounds for use in the rhythm section. These voices are stolen from the keyboard, so if you're playing over the top of rhythms which use PD sounds, you have to take care to avoid glitches produced by a shortage of voices. The synth tom and metallic sounds from the PD section add a lot to the drum machine, and it's also possible to use some of the 'conventional' synth sounds, though notes can only be entered at Middle C.
If you switch to Song Memory mode, you can use the Start/Stop and Intro controls to chain up to 200 patterns (preset or user-programmed) into a Song. PCM and PD rhythm section sounds can be mixed individually while playing, too.
Does the 230S spread its capabilities too thinly? Possibly. As a fun instrument, it's limited by its lack of auto-accompaniment and its high-ish price. As a posing lead synth, it suffers from being nonprogrammable. As an expander, it's handicapped by the lack of multi-timbral playing, though many of its polyphonic sounds are rich and could be useful in many applications, serious and otherwise. As a 'pro' drum machine, it suffers from not having individual outputs.
Cleverly designed, trendy, and fine-sounding, the CZ230S isn't the convincing argument for all-in-one packaging it should have been. As one musician remarked: 'It's got lots of good points, but they don't really add up to anything.' Quite.
Price £345 including VAT
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Review by Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott
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