Where Roland and Yamaha tried to create the state-of-the-art wind controller, Casio have gone for accessibility. Andy Blake blows the latest development in the latest line of MIDI controllers.
As the number of MIDI wind controllers on the market increases, so does their variety and price range; enter the DH100, at under a ton.
A WEEK OR so ago I was standing outside a music shop in the Tottenham Court Road. In pride of place was a new arrival, a curious item looking like a truncated alto sax, with silver keys and silver-finished plastic bodywork. A couple of passers by joined me in window shopping. "Looks interesting", said one. "Can't be any good, it only costs £100", replied the other. They were talking about the Casio Digital Horn.
Maybe they were right, and this latest wind synthesiser is a toy, or at best an educational tool aimed at junior school children. But the presence of a MIDI Out port indicates that the instrument has synth-controlling and sequencing possibilities. I already know one professional composer who is thinking of using a DH100 to provide expressive control of his synth setup. A wind synth controller both easier to use and significantly cheaper than the current Yamaha and Akai instruments would certainly have a niche of its own. Does the Digital Horn live up to this promised versatility, or does it fall between two stools?
IN GENERAL APPEARANCE the DH100 is something like a saxophone, but small: about 19" long, curved and tapered towards the top of the neck and the mouthpiece, a black plastic moulding which clips onto the top. The bottom end is wider and curved, with a 5" deep and 4" wide "horn" which contains a built-in 2.75" loudspeaker. Eight nickel-plated sprung keys on the front of the instrument control pitch (using either recorder fingering or a one-handed system of Casio's own); a further key for the crook of the left hand first finger switches on portamento at a set rate.
The back of the horn has an octave key for the left thumb, a rest for the right thumb and a hook for the sling supplied with the instrument. Also, at the back, a single screw opens a panel to take five AA size batteries (a complete set of which is also supplied). The left side has the power on/off switch with a red LED; this has an automatic cutout after two minutes without use, which should help prolong battery life. There is a jack for a 7.5V power supply; a mini-jack audio out, also suitable for headphones; and MIDI Out. On the right we have a volume control, a breath on/off switch (whose use we will discuss later) and two push-push buttons for the crook of the right first finger. The first of these transposes in semitone steps over a two-octave range and the other changes the six preset Tones which are built in. Importantly, there is a spit-clearing hole at the bottom of the horn: you can breathe into it in the confident expectation that it won't breathe back at you - excellent basic design.
FIRST OFF, A couple of grumbles. Not all the basic design is excellent. The hook at the back is too high for the sling to work effectively; the thumb hook is well-placed, but the DH100 doesn't balance well and is, although light, difficult to hold. And the keys, while they work well enough, feel too flimsy for anything like hard work.
There are two basic performance modes. Switch power on and Breath to Off, and the instrument becomes a keyboard. Put your hands on the keys and they will sound, at fixed volume: take them off and silence reigns. This mode is useful for getting to know either of the fingering systems, or the presets, and will probably increase the DH100's educational value; it will also demonstrate the preset sounds at their worst. These, especially in this mode (and most especially through the built-in speaker), make the DH sound like the cheapest of home keyboards. The sounds themselves, presets entitled 'Sax', 'Trumpet', 'Synth-reed', 'Oboe', 'Clarinet' and 'Flute', are passable, if in no sense realistic. Unfortunately, in each case they are joined after a second or so by a vibrato of consummate cheapness. The LFO responsible for this is inaccessible and unprogrammable, as are all the presets. However, when you set the Breath mode to On, you can add your own intensity effects, both tremolo and vibrato, and the Horn responds readily and pleasantly to these. It also responds to changing breath pressure by very large changes in volume. Soft and hard-tongued attacks are well differentiated. All these aspects of breath control make the basic sound veer towards the acceptable, especially if the internal speaker is bypassed - using the line out cuts it out. Despite the limitations of its preset sounds, the DH100 offers an immediate demonstration of the possibilities of wind synthesis.
Two octaves are available with the use of the octave key, and by using the transposition button you can change the basic compass to any point within four octaves. This potential range, though it's more than a conventional wind player would expect, is limited when compared with the EWI/EVI and WX7. The transposition key also, of course, offers the ability to cheat the fingering demands of the more remote keys. Given that the basic fingering is that of the recorder, which involves a lot of cross-fingering at the best of times, the transposition button will probably come in more than handy. Then there's Casio's one-handed fingering system. I didn't manage to learn this with any great success, partly because the owner's manual didn't arrive with the review model (Casio's experts, when rung, were all on holiday). Three other aspects of performance should be mentioned: the portamento key is easy to use and effective within the limits of its set rate. The G# key can be used as a universal trill key, giving a semitone up on any other key. And I found after a couple of hours' practice that it is possible to circular-breathe on the DH100; a useful technique here, easier than on a conventional wind instrument.
THE CONCLUSIONS IN this section were reached without the benefit of the owner's manual, so I'm not sure of the claimed MIDI specification. A pity: where the DH100 offers the most exciting potential is in its provision of MIDI output, even if at first its MIDI implementation seems fairly basic. All is done via channel one. Key (pitch) on/off, velocity, patch change (1 to 6!), and portamento control are sent accurately. Tracking is excellent and without noticeable delay, and the ability to bypass the preset sounds comes as a great relief. DH MIDI data played into an Atari sequencer was replayed accurately. One problem which occurred a couple of times during the (brief) review period was a failure to transmit note off messages. This could always be cured temporarily by the usual note-sticking expedient: switching the DH100 off for a few seconds. There wasn't time to have a look at another DH; it may well be that this is not a generic problem. Intending purchasers should check it out for themselves.
The greatest boon of this or any other wind controller should be its ability to send velocity, volume and modulation information. Being able to "breathe" these adds greatly to the expressive capabilities of synthesised and sampled sounds. A few hours spent fiddling with various other MIDI instruments confirmed the DH's ability to send velocity information; no sign of changes in volume to match the internal system's own wide dynamic range could be produced, so it doesn't send MIDI volume in any regular form, and probably doesn't send it at all. It is unfortunate that modulation information is not sent: or perhaps that should read fortunate, since the delayed vibrato makes a welcome disappearance when you play through MIDI. This may be regrettable, but the lack of volume information is damaging. A better MIDI specification for any future version, please Casio.
WELL, WHAT DO you expect for £100, as my fellow window-shopper would say? Despite the welcome there has to be for such an entry-level instrument to have MIDI in any form, the plea must be repeated in conclusion. Most people learn the recorder at school, so most people will find the DH100 easy to play. It's educational application is obvious: learn the recorder, then play the DH and learn about the basics of MIDI control while playing an instrument which offers far more expressive capabilities than the cheaper portable keyboards. Schools ought to buy them by the thousand. I have shown the DH to half-a-dozen children aged from five to 11; their reaction in each case was that they wanted to own one. It is made by a company whose success has been based on such devices: Casio have for years provided a frighteningly large range of basic and educational keyboards, including a portable sampler, while their MIDI guitars are reputed to be as good as many far more expensive efforts. Most Casio products sit in an educational and semi-professional market sector, and don't compete directly with stage and studio gear produced by such as Roland and Akai. But the revamping of PD in the VZ synthesisers, and the introduction of the FZ samplers, indicate that their aim is also to provide good value but professional instruments. The DH100 as it stands is not a professional or even semi-professional instrument (though Vince Clarke uses one on stage and I'm sure people will follow); its flimsiness of construction and the limitations of its unprogrammable preset sounds are all too obvious. But the potential is there: if they can package all this for £100, they should be able to do better: take the speaker out, drop the preset sounds altogether or at least make the LFO breath responsive, and improve the MIDI specification, for substantially less than £500. Then the gospel of wind synthesis will spread far indeed.
Price £129 including VAT
Review by Andy Blake
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