Wonder at the miracle of microchip technology as we tinkle with the newest Casio mini synth.
Whether it was shock, holding the breath or drinking a glass of water upside down, Casio have been cured of their hiccups. After a stunning debut in the keyboard business, their product releases for last year faltered slightly. They were still good, but not up to the groundbreaking standard of heroes like the 49 voice 202 and the pocket sized VL1.
This year's crop of new gear is back to the high standards again, one in particular — the PT-30 — could well be among the best they've ever rushed along the production line. It follows the example of the VL1 by including a mini sequencer, but is a leap forward in ideas, programmability and friendliness.
First the similarities. Like its predecessors, the PT-30 has mini, monophonic keys (though slightly bigger and easier to use than the VL1) and a selection of sounds and drum patterns. It doesn't have the VL1's sound creation system where you could patch together different attack times, sustain values etc, by feeding an eight digit number into the built-in calculator. That's a shame. Always had fun with that, sticking in someone's phone number and finding it resembled two termites arguing in a half empty cup of Bovril.
The PT-30 offers piano, harpsichord, organ, violin, flute, horn, fantasy and mellow, the final one being not far off a high pitched set of vibes. They're all thin and precise in tone, what could only be described as digital watch music. Fortunately this Casio, like many others, has a jack output to feed to an external amp, and that helps. There are more drum patterns this time, including a couple of rock and disco solid beats, alongside the waltz, polkas, rhumbas etc.
First obvious addition is the set of black, white and grey buttons underneath the internal speaker at the far left of the panel. They're chord selectors, 12 of them laid out like a keyboard and eight more underneath choosing the chord shapes: diminished, sus 4, minor 6th, 6th, major 7th, minor 7th, minor and 7th, the final two on larger buttons because they're the most common options. These sound good with a rich church organy quality, ideal for filling out the background.
Gone is the calculator LCD screen of the VL1... aahhh... in its place is virtually a musical readout... oohhh! It displays the memories you've selected, the chord pitch, its shape, there's even a miniature keyboard mirroring the PT-30's own with dots that come on to indicate the keys you've pressed.
One of the Casio's handiest talents for beginners — especially guitarists etc who have ideas but no synth technique — is the one key play system. You feed in your melody note by note at any speed, then go back to the beginning and overdub the feel and timing by hitting this one button that spits out the notes in their proper recorded order. On the PT-30 you can do that not only with the melody line, but with the chords as well.
For the storage ability of this Casio has been far upgraded from earlier models. For a start there are eight memories, each one can hold a tune worth 63.5 steps. In simple terms a step is a change, moving from one note to another is one step, altering a chord requires extra information and is regarded by the memory as a step and a half.
Once the sequences are all in place the PT-30 can arrange them, say it could repeat memory one twice, then go to number three, then back to one, then number seven four times and so on, similar to the Roland method of changing drum patterns on their rhythm machines. The PT-30 can store one arrangement of up to 16 changes.
There's more. Having loaded in your melody line you could experiment with different chords until you hit upon a suitable backing. I would have said you're much more likely to stumble on an unusual accompaniment this way, than if you had to puzzle out what chord shapes you knew on a real keyboard.
But if you get stuck you can ask the machine to harmonise for you. Hit the auto switch and the electronics will analyse the tune you've fed in and play it back with a calculated accompaniment. You don't like one of those selected chords? Then slide up to it with the forward or backward edit buttons and press the change switch. That will make the PT-30 think again. In all it has four possible choices for every position. Not weird enough? Then simply edit in a chord of your own picked out from those in the bottom left-hand corner.
As a musician's scratch pad and an arranger's tool, it simply has no rivals in this price range, nor indeed in one many hundred pounds more. While I was testing this beastie I showed it to two guitarists, a singer, a synth man and a drummer. Within ten minutes they ALL wanted one and were close to reaching in the pockets for the acckers. It's almost irresistible.
Since the PT-30 is capable of storing complex compositions, Casio have wisely provided it with a cassette dump that can load songs onto tape and recall them at a later date. In true computer fashion, the dump even gives your songs a file number from 1 to 31 so it can search through a fully loaded cassette until it comes to the track required.
The necessary sockets are contained in a small compartment along the bottom, where you should also come across the battery housing and the fine tune control. There's a DC input if you've got a mains transformer handy — worthwhile because the PT-30 demands a lot of its batteries.
My only minor disappointment was that it's not easy to store a chord sequence then record a melody line on top, and that would have been useful. The reverse process is simpler to achieve. Course you can get round it by feeding in any collection of notes then editing them when ready, but it's messy.
Still that was for me one of the most attractive characteristics of the PT-30... that feeling that you're always discovering new things to do with it and ingenious ways of overcoming problems and creating fresh music. That's one of the definitions I use to distinguish a machine from a musical instrument. And the PT-30 qualifies as the latter.
R.R.P £79 inc VAT