If you're tired of sampled sounds and are searching for a source of non-imitative synthetic voices to balance your repertoire, these low-cost instruments could well deliver the goods. Martin Russ finds out.
Casio's plan for world domination seems to be working. For about as long as I can remember my wrist-watch has been a Casio (and replaced every few years in Argos sales!); my wife bought a miniature portable LCD colour TV for use at work, and that was a Casio; I bought a CT1000 (my first poly synth) years ago, and an MT31 mini-key synth after reading that you couldn't do anything to the master oscillator (and added octave switching, vibrato and some special effects just to prove that you could); my second volume pedal is a Casio VPE; the waterproof watch my wife uses for competitive swimming is a Casio; I use a Casio FX451 calculator at home and an FX601 programmable alphanumeric scientific calculator at work; I recently sent my brother a Casio travel alarm clock for his Christmas present... oh, and I use a MIDIfied Casio SK1 as my backup sampler!
OK, so I boobed and bought a CT1000 just before the CZ101 came out! Unfortunately, none of the above have ever gone wrong and so I have never had the excuse to swap for a CZ. But the demise of the CZ series (followed by the brief hiccup of the HZ models) has been brought up to date by the VZ series, comprising the VZ1, VZ10M, and the latest release - the VZ8M rack-mounting expander module. I always talk about Casio's PD (Phase Distortion) synthesis as being a variant of FM in my Yamaha articles, so what do I think of PD in its current form?
Interactive Phase Distortion (IPD) is Casio's latest 'professional' digital tone generation method - the older PD instruments suffered from high levels of quantisation noise due to low bit resolution, and the MT and CT models used a two-part 'vowel and consonant' synthesis method which was rather limited. IPD brings Casio right up to date with 16-bit digital-to-analogue conversion, 17kHz bandwidth audio output, and sophisticated multitimbral and overflow functions to make the most of available polyphony.
IPD uses eight 'modules' consisting of an oscillator and an amplifier, both with separate envelope generators - very similar to an operator in FM, except you only ever get up to six operators in FM. These modules can be connected together in parallel, or stacked on top of each other in pairs, or coupled via ring modulation. The upshot of all this is that the simple two module stacks are like two operator pairs in FM, the parallels are like parallel sets of operators, and the ring modulation and stacked pairs are very similar to stacks of three or four operators in terms of the complexity of the sounds they can produce; although they actually produce quite a few effects which are only now made possible with AFM on the Yamaha SY77!
The VZ8M is a 1U high, 19" rack-mounting unit in a flat black finish, with an anodised brushed aluminium front panel. From left to right across the panel are: a headphone socket; rotary Volume knob; Card slot; 2x16 character green backlit LCD display; 24 switches (some with LED indicators) in banks of 10, 6 and 4; and the power on/off switch.
The rear panel sports an IEC mains connector; MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets; and Left and Right audio outputs on ¼" mono jacks. A voltage selector is accessed from the underside of the unit. The main chassis is constructed from folded steel and is not as rugged as some 19" rack devices seen by this reviewer. The rack-mounting ears are detachable and not flush with the front panel, making it recessed by about 3mm relative to other rack units.
The interior of the VZ8M is neat and tidy, and almost as cramped as the front panel. Two PCBs virtually fill the inside of the case, the main one being 230 x 290mm in size. The smaller circuit board is used for the conventional linear power supply. The main PCB is single-sided with silk screened legends, and quite a few wire links. The solder flux removal on the review model was inadequate and the flux around the legs of the ICs could be a potential source of future humidity failure problems. A multiplexed Burr-Brown PCM54 16-bit DAC forms the basis of the output circuitry, with twin passive low-pass filters at 17kHz and a relay-based output delay circuit.
Two surface-mounted custom flat-pack chips are soldered to the solder side of the board, while the remainder of the components are through-hole mounted on the component side. A Toshiba TMP90C841 dominates the board, together with a 27C1001 EPROM containing the VZ Operating System: version 'M302'. 64K and 8K static RAM chips complete the major chip set, and the rest of the logic is a mixture of HC and LS TTL, with a few analogue operational amplifiers etc. In future years, replacing the battery for the user RAM will probably necessitate the removal of the main PCB, as the battery is soldered in place. The MIDI sockets are well protected against excessive insertion force with a piece of pressed steel - amongst the best implementations I have yet seen.
The front panel is a uniform black, as are the knobs and buttons - the only legends are in an off-white colour, and in a very small typeface. Front panel space has obviously been at a premium and the user interface suffers because of the small size of the buttons, their layout and their markings. The LCD contrast is fixed and proved difficult to read at some viewing angles. (However, potentiometer VR7, at the centre front of the main PCB, near the ribbon cable connector to the LCD, can be used to alter the viewing angle, although the range of acceptable viewing angles is still small compared to other instrument displays.)
Accessing all the sounds of the VZ involves two basic modes and two buttons: Normal (one sound) and Operation Memory ('Performance' seems like a better word to me!). The eight numbered and lettered selector buttons are used to call up eight sounds within the current bank. Another button, marked 'Bank', allows you to choose any other of the eight banks, again with the eight selector buttons, although pressing another selector then selects the number within that bank. After exploring the A1 to H8 memories in the Internal (user RAM) memory, pressing the 'Shift' button cycles through the two preset memories and the ROM or RAM cards (if inserted). This gives on-line access to 192 Normal sounds (with a further 128 ROM card or 64 RAM card sounds) or 64 (all user RAM) Operation Memory sounds.
Normal sounds or patches can be combined into multitimbral setups by using the VZ's Combination mode, which is really just a multi-patch editing buffer. The Multi Channel mode lets you create and assign areas for the sounds in the Combination. An Operation Memory is just a snapshot of the Normal sounds used in a Combination and arranged in Multi Channel mode. In addition there are three separate Performance modes, each designed to tailor the response of the unit to a specific type of MIDI controller: Keyboard mode is designed for polyphonic use; Guitar mode is designed for monophonic multi-channel use; whilst Wind mode is designed for MIDI wind controllers which use aftertouch messages to control volume.
Editing and controlling the operation of the VZ8M involves a page-based system, whereby the Page Up and Down buttons select the function page of interest, and the Cursor Left < and Right > buttons choose the appropriate parameter. Once selected, the increment and decrement buttons can (slowly) change the value; unfortunately, the values do not wrap around - which can waste valuable time going back from 99 or up from 0. Most other parameters and scrolling areas do wrap around, which makes this a highly frustrating oversight. Because the cursor keys effectively mean that pages extend sideways beyond the width of the LCD, finding a particular parameter can be quite difficult. It may not be visible when you enter the page, and sideways scrolling may be required. Even after lengthy editing sessions I was still unsure about the exact contents of many of the VZ8M's pages, primarily because the same page can have different contents depending upon the mode you are in!
Overall, the small number of buttons and the small LCD make editing the VZ8M from its front panel more difficult than it ought to be. A good computer-based editing package (VZ1 and VZ10M editors will work OK for almost all the parameters) might be an essential extra purchase for the serious programmer. For controlling the operation of the unit, the user interface is adequate, but only just - I found the bank selection and paged access system tedious and frustrating.
No synthesizer is complete these days without on-board digital effects, but the VZ8M is an exception. The 'Effects' parameters actually control rather mundane things like MIDI Channel, Portamento, Pitch Bend, Aftertouch, Mod Wheel, Assignable Controllers, Velocity Mapping, Pan and other 'system' type parameters, as well as Splits, Pitch Detuning, Vibrato, Tremolo, Crossfading and other Combination parameters. The 'Total Control' mode lets you edit global parameters like Transposition, Memory Protect, Card Formatting etc. Panning, vibrato and tremolo are hardly the sort of effects you would really expect to be found here, but they are almost all you get, I'm afraid.
The one unusual and very useful feature which belongs (but isn't) in the Effects section is the Envelope Delay, which has formed an important part of many of the best Kawai K1 and K4 sounds. Rhythmic plinky sounds accompanied by slushy pads are the classic 'new age' way to use delayed starts, but the Casio programmers seem reluctant to exploit them and I could only find a couple of sounds which used delayed envelopes at all.
The three MIDI performance modes show that Casio have put some thought into the potential uses of an expander like the VZ8M. This is reinforced by the flexible MIDI Overflow feature, which allows VZ8Ms (or other expanders) to be connected to provide up to 64-note polyphony.
The eight Velocity Mapping Tables allow the response of individual patches to be tailored to the intended use. Oddly, voice assignment is manual, not dynamic, and so you need to laboriously set the maximum polyphony required in Multi setups. The assignable MIDI Controller (covering MIDI Controller Numbers 12-31) can affect parameters in each module individually, which gives scope for some sophisticated control, including Panning.
The 116-page manual repeats itself in Spanish, but even this doesn't disguise the fact that the detailed descriptions of all the functions and parameters can be very daunting (especially for the novice), to say the least. Despite an overview of how IPD synthesis works and a 'theory of operation' section, the manual still didn't give me much of a feel for exactly how all the parameters fitted into the general scheme of things. 'Too deep, too quick' seems to spring to mind as a suitable description. Despite this, serious study should help to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together and enable effective exploitation of the synthesis power hidden within.
Despite the problems with the user interface and owner's manual, the VZ8M is a real powerhouse of a synthesizer, with up-to-the-minute digital quality and a sound which has echoes of both Analogue and FM. The VZ8M really does seem to have a sonic quality and character all of its own, which current 'sample+synth' instruments with their much simplified synthesizer sections simply cannot match. The limited polyphony is tempered by the overflow flexibility, although having to share a mere eight notes between sounds in a multitimbral setup does remind one of the good/bad old days of monophonic playing!
Commercial pressure affects the price of many instruments these days. I bought my Kawai K5 at a fraction of its original price, just because it was nearing the end of its selling life. At £499 the VZ8M offers reasonable value for money as an expander to an S+S instrument, so if you see a Casio VZ8M at below recommended price, then it just has to be a bargain not to be missed. I would buy one myself if I hadn't already spent all my money on a Yamaha SY77!
£499 inc VAT.
Casio Electronics Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Russ
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