It's hard not to feel incredibly jealous of a company like Casio; packing all that the VL-Tone does in one 64-pin chip is pretty remarkable by any standards of such VLSI technology, and doubtless the age of the techno-degradable, if not bio-degradable, keyboard is close at hand. The VL-Tone may also be a manifestation of the inscrutable Japanese sense of humour, in that it's taunting both the consumer as to what the future holds from Casio and their competitors to come up with something better.
One of the many interesting features provided by the VL-Tone is a numerical read-out of the pitches entered from the push-button keyboard. The display shows the last three notes entered with the last note pressed on the right. However, the numeric code doesn't follow the standard alphanumeric convention for designation of notes, though it's perfectly easy to understand, and I wonder how useful it is in practice. Playing the keyboard in real time demands super-agile fingers, as the inter-octave distance is only about half that of a normal keyboard, and digital flights of fancy aren't really practical or to be recommended unless you've got half-size hands.
The presets on offer give a reasonable variety of sounds that are fairly useable as they stand, though the quality tends to depend on the octave setting chosen. The five pre-programmed instruments are: Guitar (good in low register, but poor elsewhere). Flute (fairly rich in low and middle registers, but thin in high), Violin (rather unpleasant throughout all registers, but just about okay in low register), Fantasy (better in high than low register, but doesn't do anything for my fantasies), and, finally, Piano (the best of the lot as far as all three registers are concerned). All these presets in their various registers can be heard on the 3rd E&MM demonstration cassette, and the low piano is used to provide the top line in the Bach example.
The sixth position on the instrument select switch points to the feature that sets the VL-Tone apart from other regurgitating music machines. This option provides the user with the ability to program the chip to produce sounds with a prescribed envelope, vibrato and tremolo. Casio split the standard ADSR into five different parameters (see Figure 1), each of which can be assigned a value of 0 to 9. To perform this envelope shaping, you first have to catch your waveform, and Casio provide another nine varieties of this, ranging from those used in the presets to cor anglais and three falling under the description of "electro-sound". The list of programmable variables is completed by values for vibrato and tremolo, which gives you in toto:
a = waveform type
b = attack time
c = decay time
d = sustain level
e = sustain time
f = release time
g = vibrato speed
h = tremolo speed
By selecting the CAL function at the same time as 'ADSR', after pressing 'MC', the string of eight values can be entered from the keyboard and then stored, by pressing 'M+', in the same memory as that used for the VL-Tone's alter ego, the calculator, of which the less said the better. Switching back to 'PLAY' or 'REC' then allows you to use the newly programmed instrument. Some typical programmed examples might consist of the following values:
Cor anglais: 61079130
As Casio point out in their multilingual instruction booklet, there are an awful lot of combinations possible; they suggest a figure of 80 million, which is fine if you're a pedant, but optimistic in practice. Anyway, it all goes to make the VL-Tone less of a toy and more a real instrument. However, this impression of its capabilities doesn't extend to the auto-rhythm side. The usual quasi-percussive fodder is provided, with some quirky additions like "Beguine" probably designed to beguile you (sorry). The chiffs of digital noise are better than normal in producing hi-hat sounds, but the armoury is let down by some awful bongo sounds which are too high and too tuned to be comfortable.
As there's no attempt to produce any bass sounds, let alone a kick drum, the whole thing sounds rather tinny and lacking in substance. It's a great shame that Casio haven't extended the VL-Tone's programmability to the percussion side as well.
The VL-Tone also incorporates a 100-note sequencer that can be programmed and run in a variety of ways. After selecting 'REC', entry of a sequence can be effected either by real-time playing or by a one-note-at-a-time mode of entry. If the former method has been used, selecting 'PLAY' and pressing 'AUTO PLAY' will result in the sequence playing back as recorded. The tempo of playback can be adjusted from -9 to +9 and the instrumentation and octave select varied during playback. There's also a "one key play" feature that allows a sequence to be stepped through, note by note. Given the limitations imposed by the keyboard on virtuosity, it's actually more practical to enter notes step-wise and then rhythmically step through the sequence using the two "one key play" keys. Apart from a single run-through of a sequence, the VL-Tone can also be programmed, by pressing 'DEL' and then 'AUTO PLAY', to repeat the sequence four times. With the right ADSR programming, the VL-Tone would make a pretty reasonable general purpose sequencer but for the fact that the sequence stops after four plays; a big drawback, this.
The VL-Tone offers a tremendous amount for its low cost, although several of its limitations could have been put right in the design stage from a few chats with musicians. Certainly, it includes facilities that will no doubt be developed by Casio to make it the 'record a tune anywhere' instrument. Over 100,000 VL-Tones are being sold per month in Japan alone and in the UK, reports from Turnkey Ltd. and Tempus Ltd. show outstanding sales, in particular to younger musicians.
Review by David Ellis
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