Personal Music System
Casio's curious Rapman is already regarded as a toy by many a music cynic - but it's captivated pros like Manu Katche and Peter Gabriel. Tom Robinson reviews it - and buys it.
Dismissed by musos worldwide, the Casio VL1 found itself topping the charts in 1982. Could Casio's latest oddball, the Rapman, do the same in 1991?
"THE CASIO RAPMAN?" I hear you howl... "Why waste valuable pages devoted to the cutting edge of music technology to tell us about a toy? We want software specifications, synth librarians, synchronisers, samplers, sequencers, stereo studio sound systems - not cheap children's crap from Casio." Patience, patience...
As Brian Eno, that much misunderstood guru of low-tech, once pointed out: "in the studio you often see a keyboard player spend hours scrambling through the electrons searching for a new sound, when it's obvious what he's really looking for is a new idea".
Of course new technology is highly exciting and great to drool over - why else would we buy this magazine from month to month? But why do any of us need all this gear, really? Theoretically, to improve our music making in some way or other - will Studio Vision with a Mac IIfx and Proteus card improve our songwriting, our productivity or our chances of getting a record deal? I doubt it. What you and I, and Brian Eno (not to mention every record company on earth) need more than anything is, yes, new ideas.
Consider instead the Casio Rapman - one hundredth of the price and, believe me, several hundred times more fun. It doesn't sit and sneer at you - you don't have to plug it in, boot it up, interface it, struggle through the manual or upgrade your system software. It has batteries, a built-in speaker and mic, and screams "play me" as soon as you've got it out of the box.
In any creative field, fresh ideas emerge through play and spontaneity - if you've got even one first rate idea, a RAP1 would be well worth the money. In fact, you'd have to be a miserable po-faced bastard to resist jamming with it for hours. I took the review model with me to Real World studios last month and had difficulty prising it back off every musician who saw it. Manu Katche and his producer ordered four on the spot - even Peter Gabriel sat happily rapping and scratching away at the dinner table until Daniel Lanois came and dragged him back into the studio.
TO DESCRIBE OPERATING the Casio Rapman as child's play is overstating the difficulty. My son, aged one-and-a-quarter, got the hang of it in seconds: you slide the power switch from Off to Rap, hit a key - any key - and off you go, bashing the effect pads, scratching the turntable and shouting wild distorted nonsense through the microphone as you sway from side to side. Which rap pattern comes up depends on a glorious lucky dip - which note you happen to hit first - after which the keyboard reverts to playing all the tacky sirens, car alarms and instrumental hits you could want - even one or two reasonable musical sounds if you're feeling ambitious.
When a 15 month old child who's never seen a DJ or rapper in his/her life can do passable imitations of a chart-topping dance act, we traditional singer-songwriters are supposed to wring our hands in despair and ask what contemporary music is coming to. However, the same cry was heard when '50s teenagers first discovered electric guitars, and in my book the RAP1 beats the hell out of a tennis racquet and Bert Weedon's Play in a Day.
As for the technical stuff, I always hate those reviews which simply run through a recital of knobs and faders (or, these days, pages and parameters) and spend paragraphs describing the appearance of an instrument you can see perfectly well in the photograph. The really interesting questions (how does it sound? What can you do with it? Does it have a nasty power supply? Will it make me sound like Thomas Dolby? And so on) get skimped in favour of lists of specifications, most of which could just as easily be gleaned from the manufacturers' ads.
Still, I'd better mention that the Rapman features two basic modes: Play, in which it is a three-voice polyphonic keyboard, and Rap, in which you can play back one of 30 preset patterns, adding single-voice keyboard parts. Three sound pads and a small plastic turntable offer additional percussion and effects in either mode. The keyboard offers a choice of 25 tones - some synthetic, some sampled. Several are beefy and quite usable, the majority are weedy and naff - though agreeably daft in some cases.
The patterns themselves are two bars long - 14 being drums only and (this is the good bit) 16 including rudimentary bass and chord parts. Me, I wouldn't know a credible rap pattern if it bit my leg but I know what I like. Some of these little grooves could be made to work in any number of idioms, while one or two are genuinely inspiring. Obviously the rudimentary drum kit sounds pretty thin and nasty through the internal speaker, but hook the RAP1 up to a desk with some decent EQ and a pair of studio monitors and... it still sounds thin and nasty. What do you expect for 80-something quid?
"What did people do after lashing out thousands of quid on some new gleaming piece of gadgetry they barely understood? My guess is, wet themselves in terror."
DON'T BE SILLY: of course it hasn't got MIDI. But it has got a real stroke of genius: for your money Casio not only provide a plug-in microphone but, yes, a harmoniser. This has to be the cheapest on the market, and it's a brilliant addition. Anyone might feel a little awkward shouting "Yo Homeboys! Tell these motherf***ers what time it is" down a tiny plastic microphone in their parents' living room. But whack your voice up or down a major sixth into Darth Vader/Bart Simpson mode and all inhibitions fly out the window in a stream of spontaneous gabble.
My main disappointment was the turntable; it's a brilliant idea which has been disappointingly executed due to a ridiculously short scratch sample. Presumably this is to economise on chip memory. Luckily there's a longer and more workable scratch sound on one of the keyboard patches, while the turntable's alternative voice - a spacey vocoder sample - is a perfectly usable substitute. The other bad news is that the tempo change increments are completely out to lunch. Most patterns seem to default at around 107bpm - one step down gives you 100bpm, while one step up is 114bpm. So far, so approximate. But two steps up produces 126bpm, while two steps down results in 94bpm. Maybe I'm missing something here. Have those cunning Casio chaps programmed in every hip tempo known to rap and left out all the others? Improbable, somehow. In practice it didn't bother me - but you might not feel the same way.
This inflexibility plus the lack of MIDI would make it hard to use the RAP1 for any kind of serious work - perhaps the most compelling reason of all to buy one: tinpot trash instruments are such a boon to creativity and inspiration. Remember Trio's '82 chart-topper 'Da da da' with the original Casiotone VL1? Or how Roland's primitive and discontinued Bassline became the flavour of 1989. Or how Phil Collins sometimes chose an ancient CR78 in preference to his own drum kit? Or even, God forbid, the dreaded Stylophone on Bowie's 'Space Oddity'? The great thing about cheap instruments is that they don't intimidate you; we all have this spurious distinction in our heads between "work" and "messing around" while paradoxically - as Eno is fond of pointing out - messing around often produces our most interesting work.
Can you remember the first record to feature a Fairlight, a Prophet 5, a Linn drum machine, Yamaha CS80 or modular Moog system? Neither can I - probably because the blasted things were so expensive at the time only super-rich boffins and bored pop stars could afford them. And what did these people do after lashing out thousands of quid on some new gleaming piece of gadgetry they barely understood? My guess is, wet themselves in terror. They certainly didn't doodle with it in the back of a tour bus.
Encouragingly, it always seems to take several years before any low-end equipment filters through onto contemporary records. On this showing you and I have until at least 1993 to write and record the first Rapman-inspired hit single; after which everybody and their dog will follow suit - until it becomes terminally unhip again a couple of months later.
Of course the burning question in the wake of the M/A/R/R/S and KLF litigation will be who owns the copyright when a two-bar snatch of music from the Rapman's ROM finally does take the charts by storm. (My money's on patterns 20, 22 or 30.) Everyone at Casio UK was extremely cagey on this subject. On domestic instruments with demo sequences, they told me, Casio always negotiate an appropriate composer's rate with PRS for all titles featured - 'Hi-ho, Hi-ho', 'Someday My Prince Will Come' and so forth - and account scrupulously for every instrument sold. But are these two-bar drum patterns actually someone's copyright, I wondered. They weren't sure. How about the ones where there's a bassline and a couple of chords as well? They were even less sure.
It's a tricky one, this, for obvious reasons - the wrong reply could end up costing your bosses in Japan several hundred thousand pounds. Finally the official answer came back that all copyrights relating to the RAP1 are owned by the Casio Music Corporation, and that seemed to be that. My own guess is that if someone appeared on Top of the Pops with a song featuring the instrument prominently they'd be more likely to receive a massive sponsorship deal than a writ for breach of copyright.
IN CONCLUSION, YOU don't have to know, understand or even like rap music to derive huge enjoyment and (with luck) some fresh ideas from the Casio Rapman. If you hanker after cheap portable creativity and have waited too long for bug-free Yamaha QY10 machines to arrive in your local shop, I'm afraid you'll have to hanker a little longer, however. The Yamaha, if it ever arrives in quantity, promises not only the portability and hip patterns of the Rapman, but a wide range of musically useful features to interface with your existing equipment. If you have a limited budget and very little equipment so far, the QY10 - even at £249 - should prove far better value for money, if a great deal less fun. On the other hand, if you're already reasonably equipped and can afford to lash out 90-odd quid in search of a little wacky inspiration, I'd warmly recommend you to do so.
Price £89.99 including VAT.
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