This is it. A 16-bit sampling keyboard for the price of a 12-bit one, with digital synthesis tacked on as a bonus. Jim Burgess gives his verdict in our exclusive review.
Low-cost 16-bit sampling has finally arrived, and it bears the name Casio. How does it compare with what's available in the 12-bit arena, and how are pro musicians likely to react to it?
IF DESIGNING INSTRUMENTS for the music-as-fun market has taught Casio anything, it is that for playing a modern, £100 keyboard to be truly fun, it must be incredibly straightforward. You've got to make the sophisticated technology work for the user, without it actually appearing sophisticated.
Now, you know as well as I do that many pro musicians have even less patience with new technology than home users do. Which set me wondering if Casio had succeeded in transferring their user-friendliness know-how from the amateur field to the professional one.
When the review FZ1 arrived, I proceeded to give it the acid test - to see how far I could go with it without having to look at the manual. It's so logically laid out, I was able to use most of its features straight away. No fuss. No apprehension. No nervous panel-searching.
And while I'll admit that this approach certainly won't please everyone (there are still plenty of techno-freaks who like their machines to present a labyrinth of possibilities to be explored over a period of months, if not years), it is a valid way of judging how accessibly an instrument's designers have packaged their technology.
In the case of the FZ1, this packaging uses a hierarchical format to get around the various menus of options available. Mac computer users will recognise a strong similarity to Apple's HFS (Hierarchical File System), first introduced on the Mac Plus. Four cursor controls (up, down, left, right), a data slider, a numeric keypad with up/down increment keys, an Escape key and an Enter key provide the basic means with which to zip around from menu to menu.
The FZ1 has two major modes of operation: Play mode and Modify mode.
Play mode, as the name suggests, is designed for performance. The single menu it provides permits selection of individual Banks (called Presets on most other samplers) or individual Voices (samples), and also offers a command for loading new disks within the Play mode. Also associated with the Play mode is a Master Tune menu, and a handy Key Transpose function that lets you instantly transpose the entire instrument a half-octave up or down - without affecting the key assignments of individual sounds.
But Modify mode, to borrow from travel-brochure phraseology, is where the action is. Sampling, synthesis, editing, preset building ... you name it, the FZ1 has a menu for it.
This is where the simplicity of Casio's hierarchical menu system really shines. Literally dozens of different menus and functions are buried in various levels of hierarchy - yet getting from one to the other is quickly and easily done.
Essentially, there are six sub-modes within Modify mode. Each has its own set of Function menus, and each of these has several Parameter/Operations menus - and many of these have a variety of Settings menus within themselves. Count 'em - that's four levels of hierarchy.
Yet it's not nearly as complicated as it sounds. You use the up/down cursor controls to choose the sub-menu you want to access. Hit the Enter key, and you're inside that parameter. The Escape key gets you back to where you were.
THE FZ1 IS an eight-voice instrument featuring 16-bit linear sampling at three selectable rates (36kHz, 18kHz and 9kHz). Fourteen-and-a-half seconds of sampling time is available at the highest sampling rate, and just over 58 seconds at the narrowest bandwidth. With the addition of the optional MB10 RAM board, the onboard sampling time can be increased to a whopping 29 seconds of 16-bit audio.
The available memory may be divided in any manner amongst a maximum of 64 Voices or sound sources. To avoid confusion, it is worth emphasising again that the FZ1 is an eight-voice instrument; that is, the maximum number of notes it an play at any instant is eight. What Casio (and the rest of this review) refer to as "Voices" is actually separate memory locations for sounds. Up to 64 sounds (Voices) can be held in RAM at once, though only eight notes (voices/channels) can sound at any instant, using any combination of the 64 sounds available. Got it?
In addition to the Voice number, up to 12 characters are available for you to name each sound, using the numeric keypad to access the letters of the alphabet. It could be worse; at least you don't have to use the data slider to scroll through the alphabet.
The sample time is specified in increments of 10 milliseconds, though the FZ1 always rounds off the specified time to the nearest multiple of 1024 samples (a number computers seem to like a lot). The data slider/keypad or the instrument's keyboard can be used to select the original pitch and the high and low notes for the sample you're about to make. Interestingly, the FZ1's five-octave keyboard specifies a range from C2 to C7, rather than the C1 to C6 that the rest of the world is used to from working with instruments like the DX7. Although I can't see any reason to be concerned about it, I was puzzled as to why Casio have chosen to specify such an unusual keyboard range.
You're ready to sample now. The LCD turns into a mini-VU meter with its own peak indicator to help you set the input level accurately - nothing new about that. You can enable the sampling function manually, or use auto-sampling for threshold triggering.
Hit the Display button and the sample you just made is displayed on the LCD for your inspection. Besides impressing your friends, you'll be able to use this feature to tell at a glance whether the sampling time you selected was sufficient, and whether the level was set properly.
Speaking of peaking, one difficulty I did encounter was that the small size of the VU meter on the LCD made it somewhat difficult to set the sampling level accurately. I found myself consistently overloading the analogue-to-digital converter, even when I had been careful to set the sampling level conservatively. It would be helpful if the FZ1 let you know when you overloaded its inputs, either by saying so, or better still, by displaying the number of sample points that actually peaked during recording.
By the way, samples on the FZ1 may be played back over a maximum range of three octaves above and three octaves below original pitch.
I WAS DELIGHTED to find a variety of powerful digital synthesis functions built into the FZ1. Not only are they an added bonus, so to speak, on what is essentially an instrument for recording external sounds; they are also a useful reminder that many samples benefit from being layered with synthesised sounds, and vice versa. There are four different ways of using synthesised waveforms on the FZ1, each with its own menus and functions.
As with the sampling operations, the instrument requires you to choose a Voice from within the 64 available, name it, and assign it to a range on the keyboard (if you don't want to do this yet, you can use the FZ1's default assignment).
NOW THAT YOU'VE made some sounds by either sampling or synthesising, the FZ1's editing facilities are ready to be put to use.
Start out by choosing the Voice you want to edit. You'll need to know either the number or name of the sound you want, because the FZ1 won't let you select a Voice for editing by playing it from the keyboard the way many other samplers will. This may not sound like a big deal, but it could make life difficult if you're using someone else's disk and you don't know which name they gave to each sound.
You can specify Truncation points by their sample addresses (coarse and fine controls again provided), but I can't imagine anyone doing it this way when you can use the FZ1's graphic display instead. Using the data slider, you can position the start and end truncate points anywhere within the sample. You can even zoom in on the display to line up truncate points precisely with zero crossings of the waveforms. When you're satisfied, you can delete the unused portion of the sound and reclaim the memory for more sounds.
Looping is accomplished in a similar manner, so it's really easy to get smooth-sounding loops quickly. And although there is no provision for backwards/forwards loops, there's a crossfade looping function built in to make it easier to remove annoying loop glitches.
Of particular interest is the FZ1's ability to specify up to eight different loops for each sample. Each so-called Loop Set can have a different size and location, and you can even specify how many times one loop is played before going on to the next.
For example, you might define the looping of a sample as follows: play through until the end of the sound and then loop back to the beginning (say, four times), play to the middle of the sample and loop over a small section of the middle (ten times), then go back to the beginning and loop continuously over the first quarter-second. And that, remember, uses only three of the available eight loop sets.
The advantages of this kind of looping are obvious. No longer do sounds have to bear the tell-tale cycling that makes any loop stick out like a sore thumb, because you can now set up totally non-cyclic loop patterns. In addition, complex rhythms can be set up using samples that are not continuous tones.
Casio's trademark eight-stage Envelope Generators are used for controlling both the loudness (DCA) and filter (DCF) parameters. Once again, use of the graphic display will be appreciated by those who don't want to deal with rates, levels and steps as numerical values. You can see the entire envelope shape at a glance, and hear the effect of any changes you make instantly.
You can also copy an envelope shape from the DCA to the DCF (or vice versa) to speed things up. This is especially handy if you want the same basic envelope for both filter and volume, but need to make a minor edit to the release time of one envelope or the other, for example.
The FZ1's LFO section doesn't pull any special surprises. You'll find six LFO waveforms, an LFO sync on/off option, and parameters for the rate and delay factor. The LFO can be assigned directly, in varying amounts, to the oscillators, DCA, and DCF in any combination.
Velocity may be assigned in either positive or negative values to the DCA Level, DCA Rate, DCF Level, DCF Rate and Filter Resonance (positive only).
Then there's Mix Write, a feature that lets you combine samples together - but with a twist. You can set the mix levels of each of the two samples, and detune them individually as well. Furthermore, you can delay the start of the second sample. That leaves the stage wide open for any combination of delay and chorusing effects.
Meanwhile, Cross Mix is a merge function that lets you blend one sound smoothly into another for a seamless splice. As with the Mix function, you can specify a level, detune and delay time for each sound. In addition, you can choose the length of the crossfade zone to determine how long it takes for the first sample to fade out while the other fades in.
Needless to say, Casio have also included a Reverse Play option for playing samples backwards. Will people ever tire of hearing the results of this? Probably not.
THE FZ1 PERMITS eight independent Banks (which, as I've already pointed out, are more commonly referred to as "presets" on most other sampling devices) to be specified in memory at any one time.
Each Bank may embrace up to 64 Voices, and each Voice is assigned to its own Area (similar to the "Keygroups" another well-known sampler uses). Each of the 64 possible Areas has a zone on the keyboard (Areas can overlap in any manner), velocity split parameters (more on these coming up), a specific MIDI receive channel (if desired), and routing to any combination of the FZ1's eight audio outputs/channels.
Creating a Bank is easy. Select an Area, assign one of the 64 Voices to that Area, then select the keyboard range of the Area (original, highest and lowest pitch) using either the data slider or by playing the notes from the keyboard. Each Area may be assigned a volume level to make it easy to balance the levels of the various sounds within a Bank.
Now for one of the FZ1's most impressive features: multiple velocity splits. Some of you may be familiar with the kind of velocity switch function found on most samplers. Well, Casio lave taken this concept several stages further by allowing you to specify a minimum and maximum velocity value for each Area to respond to, variable over the entire 1-127 range MIDI provides.
For example, if you specify "minimum 64/maximum 80", only notes with velocity values within that range will cause the Voice assigned to that Area to play.
The potential applications for this unique yet simple system are tremendous. Rather than simply toggling between two different sounds, you can set up multi-layered velocity splits. To construct an impressively accurate piano sound, start by sampling the same note at four different keystroke levels from soft to hard. Now assign each of the four sounds to four Areas (each with the same key assignments) and set up the velocity ranges accordingly (ie. Softest 1-32, Soft/Medium 33-64, Loud/Medium 65-96, Loudest 97-127). Now the correct sample will be triggered with the appropriate velocity.
Another application might be to have one sound assigned over the entire velocity range, while others assigned to the same notes are only played within certain velocity ranges. This way, the first sound remains constant while the second sound that it's mixed with changes depending on how hard you hit the keys.
Using a large MIDI system with a sequencer? Perhaps you'd like to access all of the FZ1's 64 Voices without "using up" more than one MIDI channel for the instrument. Simply set up eight different keyboard splits, each with eight Voices assigned to it. Set each of the eight Areas that overlap to respond only to a specific velocity range. Now use the editing options of your sequencer to confine each track within your desired velocity range. You do, of course, lose some dynamic range this way, but you can't have everything.
THE FZ1'S MIDI implementation is comprehensive and logical. At its simplest level, you can simply decide on a basic MIDI channel for both transmitting and receiving data. You can also enable or disable control and program changes.
If multi-timbral operation is more to your fancy, you'll be glad to know that the FZ1 makes no compromises there. Each Area (and therefore each sound) can be assigned to receive only on a specific MIDI channel. All controller changes will be recognised individually on the channels for which they're intended. Unlike conventional Mode 4 operation (where all voices respond monophonically), the FZ1's implementation makes it a true Multi-Mode instrument. At a stroke, the eight voices can allocate themselves dynamically to any combination of 64 sounds, provided you don't expect the machine to play any more than eight notes at any one moment in time.
The FZ1 also appears to have a complete MIDI System Exclusive implementation, including full sample dump capabilities. Unfortunately, I was unable to experiment with these functions in the time I had the keyboard for review.
Also contained within the Casio's Effect/MIDI sub-mode are the parameters which determine how the FZ1's various performance controllers are to behave. The range of the pitch-bend wheel, for example, can be defined in semitones. Additional controllers such as the modulation wheel, aftertouch and the Foot Variable Resistance pedal can be assigned to any combination of destinations in varying amounts. For example, each of these devices may be used to control the amount of LFO modulation on the oscillators, DCF or DCA. Similarly, they can be assigned directly to control the DCF or DCA levels.
The standard FZ1 has 1Mbyte of memory onboard, expandable to 2Mbyte with the optional MB10 RAM expander. Loading a full disk takes a leisurely 66 seconds, but who's counting? People who will want to use their FZ1 in demanding live applications, perhaps.
The data management capabilities of the FZ1 are comprehensive, though. Data may be routed to and from any of three sources: the disk drive, MIDI, or the 25-pin port on the back of the instrument. You can Load, Save, Merge, Verify or Erase the entire memory contents of the FZ1, or just certain types of data such as Banks, Voices or Effects.
Most of the data operations are self-explanatory, but Merge deserves special note: it loads new data into the available memory space of the FZ1 without erasing the existing contents of the onboard RAM.
The FZ1's extensive range of data handling options should mean users are spared a number of the tedious, time-wasting routines that have previously gone hand-in-hand with using a sampler. For example, if you take the time to set up a custom Bank for drums and percussion (complete with desired key assignments and MIDI setup), you'll be able to load that data to other disks and use it with other sounds. Perhaps you have a certain performance setup for the Effects controllers - load it into any new disk of sounds and they'll be customised to your own playing preferences. And, of course, you can quickly assemble a new disk from sound sources located on other disks by loading the Voices into RAM one at a time.
THIS REALLY IS a killer machine. It's hard to find serious fault with it, especially when you consider that it costs under two grand. It is logically designed and laid out, and does everything it sets out to do almost flawlessly. And even though I was warned the machine I had to review was a prototype, all its functions worked smoothly and I have yet to get it to crash.
The sound fidelity is wonderfully high - everything sounds crisp and punchy. This applies to almost any kind of sample you care to try, but I was most impressed with percussive samples. The portion of a percussion sound near the end of its decay is usually a trouble spot for samplers, because when the signal amplitude is low, resolution decreases and the result is usually noise. Not so with the FZ1: all the percussive sounds I sampled decayed into silence.
Many people will wish the display was a little larger. You do have to get the viewing angle just right to see it properly, and I didn't find any way to adjust it from the front panel as you can with most LCDs. Nonetheless, that little screen is going to make a lot of people happy.
There's a couple of ways in which the user-friendliness I mentioned at the start could be improved. I really think you should be able to select samples for editing by playing them from the keyboard, preferably without having to leave the menu you're in. And an option to select a number of samples at once for simultaneous editing would also speed things up.
These are minor criticisms, however. Every one of them could be corrected in software, and as with many other sampling machines of the current generation, such updating is a very real possibility. Casio have provided a blank menu called "optional software", and word is that a few third-party companies are already anxious to develop software for it.
The final verdict? Everybody should have one. Now.
Price £1899 including VAT
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Review by Jim Burgess
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