Mark Jenkins visits the Casio factory to preview the first realistically priced 16-bit professional sampler to hit the market.
It's taken a while for Casio to come up with a sampling keyboard which anyone could justifiably call 'professional', having concentrated their efforts thus far on the bottom end of the market. We all knew it was only a matter of time though, from the launch of their tiny £99 SZ-1 sampler, before they headed up-market and rumours have been circulating for a while that the massive Cosmo synthesizer system supplied by Casio to Isao Tomita included a sampling section. In fact, pictures of a professional sampler, the ZZ-1, were published a year ago, but its rackmounting format and busy control panel layout seem to bear little resemblance to what has finally emerged - the FZ-1.
Eschewing for the moment the rack format, Casio have gone for a sleek-looking keyboard sampler which physically resembles the newly restyled Ensoniq DSK. There's just one major difference - the large, square LCD display of the Casio is unique, and gives the machine several advantages over its immediate opposition.
Let's begin with a look at the general layout of the FZ-1. It is 8-note polyphonic with a five-octave, sprung plastic keyboard which is both velocity and aftertouch sensitive. This is reasonably pleasant to play and could qualify the FZ-1, just as well as (say) the Yamaha DX7 or the Korg DW8000, for the role of a mother keyboard.
To the left of the keyboard are the pitch bend (sprung) and modulation wheels. Luckily, Casio have decided to be sensible here and provide perfectly standard professional-quality wheels, as used on their CZ-1 synth.
The disk drive slot is well located above the pitch bend and modulation wheels and there's a headphone socket in front of them - one up on Ensoniq, who don't usually supply such 'luxuries'. All the rear panel sockets are labelled on the back edge of the front panel as well as the rear, which is handy if you're groping around the back of the synth to make a connection.
You might have noticed the use of the word 'synth' just a moment ago. This is quite justified, since you'll be glad to hear that the FZ-1 has onboard synthesizer features that equal or surpass those of the Ensoniq Mirage, Prophet 2000 or Emax. All these are accessed using a 12-key numeric pad, four large blue cursor buttons (up, down, left, right), a data entry slider and a sprinkling of other buttons, most marked with LED status indicators.
On the rear panel of the FZ-1 you'll find a whole host of goodies, of which the most important are probably the multiple output jacks. If you're using a sampler for percussion purposes (and more and more people are now dumping their drum machines in favour of samplers linked up to sequencer packages), then multiple voice outputs (the FZ-1 has eight) are essential. The Akai S700 has them if you can get hold of the necessary 13-pin DIN lead; the Prophet 2000/2002 can have them fitted as options (the new 2002 Plus has them as standard); the Emax has them, the Ensoniq and Korg DSS-1 don't, and the Akai S900 has them for around the same price as the FZ-1. So the FZ-1 isn't alone in offering this option, but it would have fallen a long way behind if it didn't.
Let's skip along the rear panel of the FZ-1 making our connections. There's a single Mix jack output next to the multiple outs, and after them are the Mic and Line inputs for the sampling function. There's a footpedal socket marked 'Foot VR', and this can be programmed to control volume, tone or modulation. Next to it are the MIDI In/Out/Thru sockets and a footswitch socket for various sampling and sustain functions.
There's an External Port used to connect two FZ-1's together in parallel or an FZ-1 and a personal computer(!). This is similar to a computer's Centronics port and is described as "allowing high-speed data transmission and expanding FZ-1 data compatibility and memory expansion capabilities". Perhaps this means that a hard disk option will connect here (?), since there's already a memory expansion slot fitted - it's covered by a metal plate when you receive your FZ-1, but if you get hold of an MB-10 RAM board, it simply slots in sideways and doubles the memory capacity of the instrument.
HIGH DENSITY DISKS
Let's load a couple of sounds into the FZ-1 and see what happens...
First, the good news - Japan has released about 30 factory disks for the machine already, and Casio UK have enlisted the help of record producer Steve Levine and others to put together another 25. Now the (not so) bad news - the FZ-1 does not use standard 3.5" SSDD disks. It takes a new 3.5" 2HD variety - Double-Sided, High Density. You can't use SSDD or DSDD disks with the FZ-1, and High Density 3.5" disks aren't all that common yet, although Casio will be making blank disks available through their dealer network. Our advice would be to find a stockist of 2HD disks somewhere and order about 100!!
To load a disk you simply push it into the drive, hit 'Play' on the top panel of the machine if necessary, and use the Down cursor button to move to the bottom option, 'Load Exec'. You then push the 'Enter' button above the cursor keys, and the FZ-1 politely asks if you're 'Sure?'. Pushing the 'Yes' button next to the keypad to acknowledge will begin the sample loading process.
A whole new disk takes about 30 seconds to load, but this time is reduced if the disk is not full. What can you fit on a disk? Well, that depends on the length and quality of the samples you're using. Most of the current factory disks feature four or five sounds, but on the 'Pianos' disk you'll only find three plus some variations. All the sounds on a disk load into memory and are instantly accessible using the keypad. A routine for formatting blank disks is built in, as you would expect.
Once a disk has loaded, the machine is ready to play, and the sheer quality of its 16-bit sampling system is ready to shine through. Sounds on the FZ-1 are stunningly lifelike, from the wooden key clunk on the grand piano sample to the tiny finger squeaks on the acoustic guitars. The top end is bright and clear, and there's not the slightest sign of distortion, heavy-handed filtering or aliasing noise. However, the initial sample library is pretty conservative - let's take a look at a few of the available samples...
Two disks are supplied with the FZ-1 sampler: 'Pianos' features three instruments, of which the first is very smooth and mellow, the second is a little brighter, and the third is perhaps more representative of an upright than a grand piano. But none of them, to my mind, really have much sparkle, and there's too much key clunk in the top octave of the first piano sound for my liking.
The second disk includes 'Classical' and 'Acoustic Guitars' (excellent, if you play them convincingly), 'Vibes' (very bright and sparkly) and 'Wood Bass' (plenty of deep, resonant sound), with the final option being a 'Vibes-Bass' split.
The 'Jazz Piano' disk is based on an upright, and doesn't include a Honky Tonk option, although you could create one yourself using the FZ-1's Detune page. The other disks provided with the 'Jazz Piano' disk are 'Jazz Guitar', 'Slap Bass/Wood Bass', 'Vibraphone' and 'Acoustic Guitar'. Disks are supplied in packs of five for the not too unreasonable price of £69.95.
Other five-packs include:
Brass Ensemble, Harpsichord, Classical Guitar, Marimba, Cello-Violin
Orchestra, Flute, Trumpet-Trombone, Oboe, Clarinet
Electric Piano, Backing Guitar, Brass Ensemble II, String Ensemble, Chorus
Electric Organ, Electric Guitar, Electric Bass, Clavi, Drums
Apart from the 'Flute', which for some reason is particularly poor, most of these sampled sounds are very pleasing. The 'Drums' are set up for multi-channel MIDI use and most of the string, wind and metallic sounds are very convincing. There aren't as many whacky variations here as you'd find on the Ensoniq Mirage, but it's easy enough to programme your own.
Let's suppose that you want to modify a piano sound. The FZ-1's square LCD displays all the information you'll need on various screen 'pages' which are called up with the cursor keys. The LCD is also capable of displaying graphs, and these are used to show sample waveforms and synth envelopes. This method competes rather well with the Roland S-50's option of allowing you to plug a TV monitor directly into the synth for graphic editing - there's less information on each page and consequently more of them, but at least the editing facility is built-in (and backlit!). The only problem is that the viewing angle is pretty critical and there's no contrast or angle adjustment facility, so you'll just have to stand where the FZ-1 wants you to stand while you're editing it.
Hitting 'Modify', above the cursor keys, gives you the following options:
'Source Select' refers to the fact that the FZ-1 has several methods of sound creation-sampling, sample merging and reversing, cross-mixing, and wave synthesis included. Selecting 'Voice Edit' from the main menu leads you to a new page of functions (which takes about half a second to come up) which looks like this:
'Create Voice' is the most interesting of these options - it leads us to another page offering Truncate facilities, DCA and DCF Envelopes, Looping, LFO settings. Velocity Sensitivity ratings, and Tuning facilities.
As you can see, the hierarchical organisation of the menus can become fairly complex and can be up to five sub-menus deep. It's easy enough to find your way back to the top level - you can use the cursor keys, the 'Call/Set Menu' key (which remembers your place in an editing session), or even the 'Escape' button - but a flowchart diagram to stick on the empty right-hand side of the front panel would be handy for when you want to find your way to a particularly obscure function.
As mentioned, the 'Create Voice' sub-menu includes a section for setting the DCF and, yes, that does mean that the Casio does in fact feature an honest-to-goodness low pass filter. It's a digital filter, though, with quantisation readily apparent as you change its value with the slider, but you can alter its cut-off frequency and resonance, control it from the eight-stage envelope (same as on the CZ synths), and make its value dependent on keyboard position. So, one obvious modification for our 'Piano' sample would be to close the filter down a little (ie. lower its cut-off frequency), increase its resonance and apply a little twangy envelope shaping - all these new values being entered using the data entry slider. And we can even see the shape of the envelope on the LCD as we create it, simply by hitting 'Display' while in Envelope mode - or of the sample, simply by hitting 'Display' while in the normal Play mode.
Although a couple of standard synthesizer facilities (such as portamento) are missing, those who have coveted the Ensoniq Mirage, Prophet 2000 or Emax samplers will be glad to hear that the FZ-1 is capable of delivering all sorts of twangy, sweeping, de-tuned synth effects. Returning to the Source Select page and choosing 'Wave Synth', lets you call up any one of a selection of preset synthesized waveforms (Random, Saw Pulse, Double Sine, Pulse, Square, and Sawtooth - not yet present on the pre-production model we reviewed), or build up a waveform yourself by individually specifying the amplitude levels of up to 48 sine wave harmonics. For the record, I have never succeeded in creating anything more than weedy-sounding organ noises using such a system - whether on an alphaSyntauri, OSCar, or Kawai K3 - but there must be something in it!
The FZ-1 also offers a superb 'Hand Drawing' option where new voices (or existing ones) can be created (or modified) by 'drawing' a waveform shape on the LCD using the cursors and Value slider, and with 'Cut Sample' you can take a section of an existing sound and use it as the basis for further sine synthesis. 'Mix Write' lets you merge samples or sine sounds, or a combination, and during this process you can balance the audio levels of the two sounds and delay one against the other, if desired. 'Cross-Mix Write' lets you fade one sample into another with programmable fade time, and for all these functions there are clear graphic displays on the LCD which show you exactly what you're doing - tremendous!
What about the sampling process on the FZ-1 ? There are no real surprises here - the bottom part of the LCD display acts as a VU level meter when you input a sound, and both manual triggering and auto-triggering of sample record, with programmable threshold, are available. What may be surprising is the sample time available, as follows:
|Sample Rate ||FZ-1 ||Plus RAM board |
|36kHz ||14.56s ||29.12s |
|18kHz ||29.12s ||58.25s |
|9kHz ||58.25s ||116.50s |
What this boils down to is that you could practically use the FZ-1 as a digital recorder for jingles, let alone as a sampler. Those eager enough to want double the sample time will have to fork out an extra £249 for the optional RAM board.
Default parameters are provided to facilitate quick and easy sampling of your own sounds, but if you want to change any setting it's straightforward enough: just press one key to set the original sample point, another for the high end of the playback range, and a third for the low end. A range of three octaves above and below the original sample point is the FZ-1's playback limit, and the total memory capacity is 1 Megabyte (ie. 1,000K) without the optional RAM board and 2 Megabytes with it. Sample time can be accurately set in 10 millisecond increments, and once you've sampled a sound it can be reversed or otherwise edited.
Most of the factory samples omit parameters for aftertouch control, but it's easy enough to programme these in. You can increase volume, open the filter or add modulation using aftertouch and some of these functions are possible using the optional footpedal as well.
Where can you put your finished samples? The FZ-1 features 64 internal voice areas for storing sampled or synthesized sounds, and these can be freely assigned to eight different keyboard set-ups, or 'Banks' as they are called, so a single Bank could contain up to 64 sounds if desired (that's one for every note of the keyboard, and three spare!). Key Split and Velocity Split data is included in the Bank information, so if you load up a multi-split sound it's immediately ready for use.
Each voice can be assigned to a different audio output if desired, and can also be assigned to a different MIDI channel. If you want to save time, it's possible to load just voices or parameters rather than the entire contents of a disk.
To save memory space it is also possible to Truncate sounds, and the FZ-1 will detect start and end portions of the sound in which nothing's happening and automatically discard them. Slip back to the Main Menu and select 'Opt. Software' and you'll get... nothing! But sometime in the near future there should be additional disk-loading software routines which will offer the FZ-1 added synthesis and editing capabilities.
In some areas the FZ-1 is pretty complicated, if extremely comprehensive. For instance, the eight-stage envelopes with definable Sustain and End points used for the DCF and DCA may be familiar from the CZ synths, but on the FZ-1 it's possible to insert a Loop into any stage, so you may have up to eight loops in one sample! We tried making a quick loop from an acoustic guitar sound and it worked extremely well - the Coarse Edit function takes you somewhere near where you want to go. Fine Edit minimises glitches, and Extra Fine will even slip between the 256 sampling levels to give the ultimate finished product.
As far as memory and MIDI assignment goes, this can be as simple or as complex as you like. You can assign a MIDI channel to an 'Area', which just happens to have a particular voice already assigned to it, or you can assign MIDI channels directly to voices, or you can just operate the whole instrument from one basic MIDI channel. If you do use the Area method, however, you should be aware of the fact that velocity splits are available (the classic one being between 'thumbed' and 'popped' Bass Guitar samples), so different MIDI velocity values can let you get at two alternative sounds for the price of just one MIDI channel. Any Voice or Area can be sent to any combination of audio outputs, so if you want a touch of human chorus mixed in with your strings, as well as independently, that is easily achieved using the 'Create Bank' page.
In fact, most tasks on the FZ-1 seem to be quite straightforward when you know what you want, simply because all the display functions are written in simple, plain English. There's not a spot of hexadecimal code in sight, and the graphic displays on the LCD - for everything from filter envelopes to sine wave harmonic levels - is absolutely invaluable.
Of course, the bottom line is how good the instrument sounds, and on the strength of a handful of Japanese samples and a couple of hours investigation of the Voice Edit and Wave Synthesis facilities, this would seem to be pretty impressive.
The FZ-1 is something of a 'do-everything' machine: it offers high quality single keyboard samples, complex multi-splits, versatile performance options, flexible synthesizer treatments, and even start-from-scratch synthesis for the more experimental.
There are very few annoying factors - whether the lack of alternative tunings (as on the Yamaha DX7 MkII) or portamento will bother anyone is a moot point, but the use of High Density 3.5" disks could be a slight problem, at least until they become commercially more widely available.
On the pre-production review model we noticed that the Volume slider took a fraction of a second to respond, so it's obviously digitally controlled; this could prove slightly annoying under performance conditions, but may well have been attended to on the production models.
When the FZ-1 becomes available around the time of the British Music Fair (late July), there's sure to be a huge rush to get hold of them, especially considering its suggested selling price of £1899 (inc VAT). It's tempting to suppose that an even cheaper keyboardless version may soon be coming along too. Ironically enough, releasing a sampler without a keyboard would show Casio's commitment to the professional equipment user in a way that their CZ synths never have done, despite their massive sales.
For the technically minded, the fact that the FZ-1 is a true 16-bit linear sampler (and the first in this price range) may be the deciding factor. However, some of the 12-bit machines currently available, such as the Korg DSS-1 and Emax, manage pretty stunning performance without those extra four bits, and different methods of signal compansion and filtering tend to blur the distinction between different bit rates.
However, the bottom line is this -if you have ever had the slightest doubt about Casio as a manufacturer of professional instruments, the FZ-1 should be the one to change your mind. If it doesn't, there will be plenty of people ahead of you in the queue to buy one, and they'll be making some rather wonderful noises - and counting their change - while you're still saving up for that 'professional' sampling keyboard.
Casio FZ-1: £1899 inc VAT.
More information from Casio UK, (Contact Details).
Thanks to Dave Clancey at Casio for demo facilities.