• Casio FZ20M Sampler
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Casio FZ20M Sampler

Casio have added a SCSI interface to their FZ10M, made the hard disk optional, and called it the FZ20M. Paul Ireson investigates this born-again sampler.


Casio have added a SCSI interface to their FZ10M, made the hard disk optional, and called it the FZ20M. Paul Ireson investigates this born-again sampler.


Whereas synthesizers tend to be chosen on the grounds of what sounds they can produce, most of us choose a sampler on the grounds of the quality of the reproduced sound, price, availability of voice libraries, ease of use, and so on: all features that somehow lack the, well, interest value of the sounds a synth can produce.

Casio's first offerings in the professional sampler field, the FZ1 sampling keyboard and its rack-mount sibling the FZ10M, were notable for the fact that they offered true 16-bit sampling at an unusually low price. Two years on and the design of the FZ10M has been updated with the release of the FZ20M, identical to its predecessor in all but one important respect: the FZ20M comes with the hardware necessary to communicate with SCSI (pronounced 'scuzzy') hard disks and other mass storage media like CD ROM, and consequently can access and organise sounds far more easily than before.

DOWN TO BASICS



The FZ20M rack-mount module offers 8-voice polyphony, up to 64 samples held in memory, floppy and optional hard disk storage of samples, and multitimbral operation. The 2 Megabytes of RAM allows up to 29.12 seconds of sampling at the maximum available sample rate of 36kHz (which translates realistically into a 16kHz audio bandwidth), or almost two minutes at the lowest sample rate of 9kHz. The front panel incorporates a 3.5" 2HD high density disk drive, and a large LCD display. Cursor buttons are located to the left of the display, a numeric keypad, Value and Sampling Level sliders are on the right, and several buttons for calling up different modes of operation are located immediately below it. Mic and line level input jacks, and a headphone socket are also to be found on the front panel. The rear panel features MIDI In/Out/Thru sockets, audio output jacks, and the all-important SCSI ports (one labelled 'Hard Disk', one labelled 'External'), which provide the physical means for connecting the FZ20M to hard disks.

The FZ20M's basic operating system software is stored in internal ROM (read-only memory), though extra facilities can be added in the form of optional software which must be loaded from floppy disk into a section of RAM set aside for the purpose. The two disks that are supplied as standard with the FZ20M contain several pieces of such optional software, including the hard disk operator, as well as a good grand piano sound and a demo tune.

I found that operating the FZ20M was a very logical process, though not always an easy one. All of the machine's functions are accessed through a hierarchical structure of modes, submodes and so on, and whilst this is conceptually very easy to follow, the required button-pushing is a little hard on the fingers. Two-handed operation was essential: left hand on the cursor buttons, right hand operating the +/- or Escape/Enter buttons, or working the Value slider.

SOUND ORGANISATION



The basic sound elements of the FZ20M are Voices, up to 64 of which can reside temporarily in internal memory, subject to RAM limits on sample time. Each Voice can either be sampled or created as a single waveform using the optional Wave Synth software. Each Voice has parameters that allow you to tune and loop it, apply filter and amplifier envelopes, and set a velocity sensitivity level.

In Play mode, you can select one of eight Banks to play - a Bank consists of 64 Areas, each of which plays a single Voice. You can set a MIDI receive channel and key and velocity ranges for each Area, and in this way Areas can be combined to produce multitimbral setups which respond on several channels simultaneously, or keyboard splits and velocity-switched instruments on a single channel, or any combination of the two that is possible within the boundaries of 64 Areas and 16 MIDI channels.

SAMPLING



This is what owning a sampler is all about, of course (you do intend to take your own samples, don't you?). As it happens, the FZ1/10M/20M has an extensive library of sounds available through the Casio Pro-Tech Club (address at end), but for those who do intend to capture their own sounds, read on...

With 2Mb of memory, a total sample time of 29.12 seconds is available at the maximum sample rate of 36kHz. You can also set the rate to 18kHz or 9kHz if you prefer to trade sample quality off against length. The sample duration can be set to anything up to the maximum allowed by the remaining RAM, in 10ms steps.

Both manual and automatic sample triggering is available. The sampling input level is set with the Sampling Level slider on the far right of the front panel. A level meter is provided on the Auto Sampling and Manual Sampling screens to help you set a good level (low enough to avoid clipping but high enough to ensure a good signal-to-noise ratio). One deficiency when sampling on the FZ20M is that it does not allow audio monitoring of the input signal, either through the headphones socket or any other outputs - this means that you may need to split your audio signal source in order to be sure of exactly what you're capturing.

WHAT ABOUT SOUND QUALITY?



I didn't have the opportunity to conduct a side-by-side listening test of the FZ20M against any comparable samplers, so it's impossible to make any absolute judgements about its sound quality. However, I can tell you that it sounds miles better than Sound On Sound's own Fairlight II, but then that's only an 8-bit machine. With a maximum sampling rate of 36kHz, the frequency response of the FZ20M should extend up to around 16kHz, and the sound is indeed fairly bright-though not sparkling. The definition of samples is good - they sound lively, although on delicate sounds the difference between sample and source was certainly detectable. The noise level on playback was low, though this is somewhat compromised by the FZ20M's unusually low output levels, which mean that more noise than usual is introduced at the mixer input stage.

These comments are inevitably very subjective, but the bottom line is that I'd be more than happy with the FZ20M as the main sampler in my studio - whether for drums, sampled instruments, effects or flying-in backing vocals, the sound quality is quite up to professional standards.

SOUND EDITING



The FZ20M's facilities for manipulating and editing sampled sounds include all of the important functions that you'd expect to find on a good sampler. Samples can be Truncated to remove unwanted portions and free RAM for further sounds, a process aided by the facility to display a visual representation of the sample on the LCD. Other operations for manipulating sample data in this bulk manner are: Reverse Write, Mix Write and Xfade Write, which allow sample data from one or two existing Voices to be combined together to create a new one.

Whilst these processes involve permanently rewriting sample data, further editing processes affect Voices through how the data is played back. Amplitude and filter envelopes can be applied, and loops with up to eight stages created. The idea behind these complex loops is that if more than one section of a sound is repeated on playback, it will have more life and movement in it. Whilst this may well be so, for the sake of simplicity I almost invariably used single loops only. As with Truncate, a visual waveform display can be used to help you find good loop points: whilst this is merely useful when truncating sounds, it is invaluable when looping, enabling matching sections of sound at either end of a loop to be easily located.

MONOPHONIC OUTPUTS



Sounds are output via a Mix output and/or eight monophonic outputs. Any multiple voice outputs are better than none at all, though it must be said that monophonic outputs are not as useful as polyphonic ones (found on Roland samplers), because most people want to separate and organise the audio outputs of their equipment by instrument (eg. sampled guitar, sampled brass, etc), not by individual notes.

Voices are assigned to the outputs by selecting on/off for each output within each Area. For each Area you therefore need one output for each note of polyphony required. Unless you are only using eight sounds that are all monophonic (eg. eight drum sounds), this means that several different sounds must share the same output, though not at the same time of course. With the FZ20M's ability to have 64 different samples in memory at once, this really does make external equalisation and processing of individual sounds downright difficult.

OPTIONAL SOFTWARE



The FZ20M comes supplied with two disks as standard. These contain a Studio Piano sample, and optional software to extend the capabilities of the operating system. The most important of these is the hard disk operator, which provides the software support for the two rear panel SCSI ports. Any SCSI hard disk can be connected to the FZ20M and driven with this software, including Apple hard drives and removable hard disks such as the PLI Infinity drive. The advantages that hard disks offer over floppy disk storage are simply those of speed and convenience of access, and the sheer amount of data that can be stored - an Apple HD80SC could store 80 Megabytes of sample data, and access it in a fraction of the time required to transfer the same amount to and from floppy disks. A full 2Mb of data can be transferred in eight seconds.

On the subject of disk drives, it is important to note that the FZ20M's built-in 3.5" disk drive accepts only high density (HD) floppy disks. Whilst these have the distinct advantage over (DD) double density disks (as used by most other samplers and computers) of storing twice as much data, they also cost around three times as much. You can save individual Voices, Banks or the entire contents of the FZ20M's memory to disk. Unfortunately, it is not then possible to load a single Voice from within a Bank on disk, or a Bank from within a full dump - data can only be loaded in the form in which it was saved.

Of the remaining software, the most interesting is the Wave Synth option. This effectively allows you to use the FZ20M as a synthesizer, through enabling the creation of digital waveforms in place of samples for Voices. Several preset waves (square, sawtooth etc) are available, and custom waves can be created by additive synthesis techniques, cutting a section from a sample, or drawing a wave by hand using the cursor keys and level slider. The waves produced in this way are entirely static, that is they cannot be crossfaded into one another within a Voice, but timbral movement can be introduced into the sound through the filter section of the FZ20M. The remaining items of optional software are Copy Disk, and Loop Optimise and Fade Optimise, which provide enhanced facilities for looping and crossfade editing of Voices.

VERDICT



There was a time when, in musical terms, Casio were notable principally for producing value-for-money products aimed solely at the home keyboard market. However, with the successful series of PD synths, and the FZ1 and FZ10M behind them, they have demonstrated that they can offer the same outstanding value for money on the instruments demanded by professional musicians.

The fact that the FZ20M differs so little from the FZ10M only serves as a reminder of just how good that unit was, and indeed still is: both machines offer superb sample quality, comprehensive editing facilities and a generous amount of RAM as standard. Unfortunately, the similarity between the two units also means that the FZ20M shares the FZ10M's shortcomings - monophonic separate outputs, and a (by present day standards) restrictive maximum polyphony of only eight notes.

The one respect in which they differ, however, is an important one: the SCSI capability enables the FZ20M to access more sounds, and access them far faster than is possible with floppy disks. With this addition, the FZ20M offers a powerful combination of sampling and sample management facilities for the price.

FURTHER INFORMATION

£1899 inc VAT.

Casio UK, (Contact Details).
Casio Pro-Tech Club, (Contact Details).

CASIO FZ20M SAMPLER

Sampling: 16-bit linear, 2Mb of RAM.
Sampling rates: 36kHz, 18kHz, 9kHz.
Max sampling time: 29.12 secs (at 36kHz).
Performance: 8-note polyphony, 64 Voices (samples) held in memory simultaneously, 8 Banks.
Connections: MIDI In/Out/Thru, Mic input (XLR and jack). Line input. Mix Output (jack and XLR), 8 monophonic outputs. External SCSI port. Hard Disk SCSI port, headphones socket.
Compatible hard disks: Apple HD20SC, 40SC, 80SC and any other SCSI drives.
Voice sources: Sampling, Wave Mix, Wave Crossfade, reverse Write, Wave Synth.
Voice editing: 8-stage DCA and DVF envelopes, filter with variable cutoff and resonance, 8-point loops, LFO modulation of pitch, amplitude and filter cutoff.
Optional software: HD operator, Wave Synth, Loop optimise, Fade optimise. Disk Copy.


Also featuring gear in this article

FZ Update
(MIC Feb 90)


Browse category: Sampler > Casio



Previous Article in this issue

Inside the Synclavier

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Anatek Pocket MIDI Accessories


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Aug 1989

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16-Bit Sampler

Review by Paul Ireson

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