Casio Digital Sampling Rhythm Composer RZ-1
An invention to make Bob Henrit's digital 'jogging' watch obsolete
In the past I have invested reasonably heavily with Casio for watches, memopads and calculators, but up 'till now the company hasn't actually contributed greatly to my life as a professional drummer — that is unless you count my digital 'jogging' watch which can be persuaded to work as a metronome and never fails to wake up in time for the gig. All this, however, has changed because Casio have introduced a drum machine.
It's called the RZ-1 and definitely ain't no ordinary rhythm box; it has the facility to sample sounds directly into RAM, and to use those sounds within the patterns you create. Until now, this was a facility found only on Emulator's SP12 drum machine, which cost just a little bit more (a matter of a couple of grand, I think... so we are already talking seriously interesting machine here.
Up to four sampled sounds can be stored in the machine at one time, in which case you have 0.2 seconds available for each (long enough for a conga or cowbell, for instance); these can be doubled up to provide two samples of 0.4 seconds, or one long sample of 0.8 seconds, for that great timbale... All sampling is performed at a very respectable 20kHz bandwidth, giving you good enough quality to compete with the 12 on-board PCM-sampled voices: three toms, bass, snare, rim, hi hat open, hi hat closed, claps, cowbell, ride, and crash. Acceptable rather than startling, they do the job.
Both on-board and user voices are accessed from two rows of large rectangular buttons ranged along the bottom of the unit's front panel — on-board sounds are indicated by black buttons, user-sampled by grey. All samples will remain in memory even with the power off, and can be dumped to tape for more permanent storage, enabling a library of sounds to be built up. The RZ-1 will be supplied complete with a sound-cassette of around 90 instruments and effects to be going on with, and the company are also looking into the possibility of providing further voices in digital, data-cassette form. These would have the advantage of inputting the sound direct into memory, with none of the inherent degradation of signal associated with analog to digital conversion.
To the left of the voice buttons are yellow Start/Stop and Continue buttons (a lá Yamaha machines) and purple Accent and Mute buttons. The center section of the machine is dominated by a blue-screen 16-character LCD display window (again, very Yamaha-like) which, in conjunction with the various smaller buttons grouped around it, actually lets you communicate with the machine.
Key to the whole process are the two white buttons at the extreme left of this section. Pressing either Song or Pattern puts you in the relevant mode, and your choice is confirmed by the lighting of the associated green LED. A simple graphic flowchart shows you which of two possible actions a range of five dual-function controls are now performing, and stepping through these in order will access Edit, Delete, Insert, Chain and Reset/Copy functions in Song mode, or Record, Delete, Auto-compensate (Quantize, variable from 1/2 note to 1/96ths, Beat (Time signature), and Reset/Copy in Pattern mode. Fairly standard options, but a broader range than you might expect to find on such a cheap machine and with a commendably flexible 'Auto-Compensate'.
Immediately below the LCD window are the buttons controlling tape dump and load of rhythm/sample information, and tempo up/down buttons (variable from 40 to 250 BPM). Next to this, are the two buttons governing MIDI: the RZ can send or receive on any Channel, and its MIDI clock sets to internal or external. No other clock options, I'm afraid — owners of Roland (24ppqn) or Korg (48ppqn) standard equipment will have to fork out for a converter, or forget it. Ah well, that's progress.
Outgoing MIDI note/number information matches the standard found on (surprise, surprise) Yamaha drum machines, making the triggering of external MIDI samplers, keyboards and so on from the onboard drum patterns a cinch — though the specific voice/note number designations are fixed, not programmable as they are on some more upmarket machines.
The purple Sampling button beneath the MIDI control section initiates sampling; press it, and select the memory(s) you want to record in by pressing the relevant sample voice buttons. Set the incoming level with the Sample Level Fader (and associated LED) at the top right of the machine. When sampling is complete, the LCD window tells you so. Easy. To hear the result, just press the sample voice button.
The input can handle mike or line inputs, and will sample the first sound it detects, which is fine for single sound, or 'real' sampling. To make a trickier 'Edit' sample of a sound surrounded by others (a snare beat in the middle of a phrase, for example) simply press and hold the sample button until the right moment comes up. As you let go, the RZ begins recording... Not as elegant as post-sample editing, but, with practice, just as effective, and cheaper.
My own feeling is that the RZ is really meant for 'live' sampling of percussion instruments, but my kids did their best to prove me wrong by sampling four chords from a piano so they could get some pretty exciting Afro/Latin/Funk rhythm effects! After all, with sampling, the only limit is your imagination.
Next to the sample button on the right of the machine is another dual-function set of controls; a keypad doubling both as Auto-Correct and as a rather user-friendly step-time programmer. And yes it can handle triplets.
The Yes/No buttons below the keypad are the heart of the edit process, allowing you to skip through Patterns and Songs, with the current location reading out from the LCD window. A typical slice of editing might begin with the window reading: Song 03, Bar 01, Pattern 24 — all fairly straightforward. Pressing the Yes/Advance button takes us to Bar 02, at which point we can key in the number of the next pattern we want to occur. And so on... The RZ will store a total of 99 patterns combinable into up to 20 songs (depending on their complexity), which is pretty good. As the memory nears capacity, the LCD window will tell you, giving you the opportunity to dump your composition — quite a rapid process.
At the top of the front panel we find 10 voice faders: you don't need to be a mathematician to work out that 16 into 10 doesn't go — and they don't — the sample voices and some of the logical instrument combinations — open hi-hat/closed hi-hat, for example — double up. Still, this degree of on-board sound mixing, and separate outs, is yet another area where the RZ will score over some of its competition — and that's without even taking the sampling into account!
The back edge of the machine has the usual collection of jack socket outputs for individual voices (10 in all), left and right stereo output sockets, two mini pots to adjust the tones of the samples (quite substantially), foot switch input (for start/stop), Dump to tape as well as MIDI Out, In and Thru. There's also a very important headphone socket, that switched Mike/Line input and a socket for the ubiquitous Europlug. Otherwise there's an On/Off rocker switch and that's yer lot!
I don't believe I've ever had so much fun with a drum machine. Everybody wanted to sample their voices saying stupid words so that they could be activated within the 'songs' we'd already chained together earlier. (It must be appreciated that if you swap the samples around, say from voice to piano, they will be auto-triggered at the same position as before by the impulse generated in the programme.) I didn't actually have a manual when playing with this machine, but it didn't stop me from operating the RZ-1 very successfully, in both pattern and song mode. The LCD window makes things very clear, and once you become used to it Casio's machine should be idiot-proof.
I haven't seen them yet, but I know that Casio have some external 'kit' pads available which will turn RZ-I into an actual drum set. This should really make it a tool to conjure with.
I don't think it's any mistake that the RZ resembles the Yamaha range of drum machines in so many different areas — layout, programming techniques, MIDI protocols — but this can only be a good thing. Many people will come to this machine with a feeling of familiarity, and where it departs from Yamaha's model, it improves upon it. I think the RZ-1 is the most exciting piece of affordable ancilliary drummer's equipment I've seen.
Review by Bob Henrit
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