Crumar Bit One
a poly to compare and contrast
THE PRESS launch was awash with monthly music mag editors. Even PC was espied, for a few minutes, doffing his hairpiece to the assembled hacks and disappointedly eyeing the proffered soft drinks before wandering off again. This burst of editorial camaraderie was due to the arrival of the first Bit One in Britain. The Bit One has caused a lot of talk in the trade because it appears to offer everything the average punter wants — six voices, two DCOs per voice, true touch sensitivity, a splittable keyboard and MIDI — all for £799! (currently under 'special offer' at £699). It'll also be available as a keyboardless, 19in rack mounting module for some 30% less (so we're told). OK, thinks I, this is more like it. I've been waiting for something like this for two years; if it does what they say it does, I'm in for at least one. The 'they' in this case are Crumar, manufacturers, and Chase Musicians, sole UK distributors.
The launch reverberated to buzz-word descriptions like 'digital & analogue', 'revolutionary', 'MIDI', 'should be £1400', 'multilayered sounds', 'independent voice programming soon', 'stereo split' and 'future updates included in the price' between short lectures by Latin boffins. I was hooked: I wanted to review it. Post lectures, I arranged to pick up one out of the first batch as soon as possible and looked forward to it eagerly. Curiously enough, neither the first nor second batch arrived. All that appeared was one for each of Chase's stores. I copped the London one for a weekend and plugged it in.
It's got all the standard stuff — 61-key, five-octave keyboard; each voice — two DCOs with sawtooth, triangle and pulse waveforms; two LFOs with sawtooth, triangle and pulse; VCF; VCA; noise generator. All this is much what you get with a Siel DK600, for around a grand, especially as the Siel has no sync or cross modulation between oscillators either. We expect such things on two oscillator synths these days and they're short sighted omissions — but (and remember this) a future Bit One update is promised that provides them. What it has got over the Siel et al is a much more versatile key velocity based touch sensitivity, and pretty good it is too. This sensitivity can be coupled to a surprising number of sound parameters — LFO rate, VCF attack and envelope, DCO pulse width and VCA attack and level — a little like a downmarket Oberheim Xpander. Other aces-up-the-sleeve are the three voices a side, anywhere on the keyboard split; double mode, which gives three voices, each backed by four oscillators and unison mode, where all six voices combine behind one note for full and punchy monophonic lines.
The Bit One comes in a squat, wedge-shaped, metal-clad case with aluminium end cheeks, all finished in a subdued matt black with white, blue and green graphics. Also between the end cheeks is one of the worst keyboards my inexpert fingers have stabbed at. It's not only poorly finished, with rough-edged plastic underneath, but is truly flimsy. I wouldn't hold out much hope of being able to bash away for very long before something gives. This spoils a lot of the delights of the sensitivity for me and penny pinching here won't endear Crumar to the player.
Round the back are, from left to right, two ¼in jack sockets — upper/mono and lower audio outs (giving a stereo split), the now familiar three 5-pin DIN MIDI sockets — in thru and out, ¼in jack trigger out, two potentiometers to adjust overall pitch and sensitivity of touch response, fsk load and save to tape in and out, a memory protect switch, ¼in release pedal socket and a headphone socket.
The front panel looks like a cross between a Korg Poly 61 and a JX3P. No real quibbles with this as lots of buttons, switches, sliders and LEDs add a massive amount to production costs and this method of programming, if unwieldy, is at least proven. All the controls are ranged on the left third of the panel with a graphic representation of voice parameters and an oversized logo filling the remainder. In the centre of the green-lined control section is a 0-9 numeric keypad — this gets the biggest battering during sound programming. It's used to dial up parameter addresses for display on one of the sets of twin LEDs. In normal (unsplit) mode, one of the 64 available patch memories can be called, and its number displayed on the lower prg LEDs by pressing the lower key and dialling a number. In split mode, different patches can be called and displayed on the upper and lower prg LEDs using the upper and lower keys, so either sound can be accessed for programming at a single key-stroke.
The blue legended address key gives access to the list of sound parameters which are printed, with their address numbers, to the right of the controls. Touch sensitivity parameters are outlined with a double square. Press address, dial up the number of the parameter to be changed, which is displayed by the address LEDs, and press ON + to increase the value setting and - OFF to decrease. If, after changing a parameter value, you want to check your edit against the original sound — press the compare button and the original sound is recalled for comparison. A second press of compare brings back the edited sound, but... at least on the review model, all the LEDs go off at the first press of compare — and won't return! So you can't take a look at the parameter values of the original sound. Also, when you return to your edited version, the display stays blank until you re-dial a parameter (as you were comparing, probably the address you were working on). Is this intentional? Hopefully, it's just a symptom of premature birth.
Sitting above compare is the park key. Park is very useful. It allows you to store a new or edited patch, temporarily, while you search through the patch memory for a suitable location to store it in. Below these are the split, unison and double select keys plus a tape key that shifts the functions of split and double to cassette load and save for storing patches.
Now we get to an even bigger moan. To the right of park are two small sliders — one labelled detune (between oscillators) the other noise. It's all very well giving these separate controls, but why? Dig a little deeper and it seems that you can't store a detune or noise parameter as part of a patch! So, if you change patches in the middle of an impassioned live solo and want to change the detune between oscillators and introduce some noise; well, you'll just have to use your third arm! Pointless. In addition there are the usual pitch bend and modulation wheels, in-line and inaccessible, at the left edge of the case. Next to these are a further two sliders giving separate lower and upper split volume control. All the controls and graphics have a vaguely 'cheap and nasty' feel about them.
It's got a good sound. A rather sturdy analogue sound (why do they call it digital? It's got digitally controlled oscillators like any other modern analogue synth) that compares well with its various low cost Roland/Korg/SCI/Siel rivals, despite the oscillator oddities. It really scores with the touch sensitivity, though. This makes a huge difference because of the vastly extended means of expression. Definitely the big selling point. The final, and biggest, complaint concerns the Bit One's implementation of MIDI. It's crazy. For a start it only responds in OMNI mode. This means that it listens on (and ties up) all 16 channels of MIDI; so, if you link up the Bit One and, say, two other synths to a MIDI computer/sequencer, data on channels assigned to the other two synths will also be interpreted by the Bit One — and it'll try to play everything. This shortchanging shouldn't be happening now MIDI's been around for over a year. Again, full implementation of all MIDI modes is offered as a free 'future update' (Hm). Much more serious is the fact that when connected to a MIDI-equipped synth or computer, the keyboard of the Bit One I was supplied with cut out and sent the LEDs wild after less than 20 MIDI events. In addition, the range of touch sensitivity set and played on the Bit One was cut down considerably when played via MIDI. This means that the MIDI spec for the touch sensitivity of the Bit One is different from that of my well-tested and updated DX7. It's highly unlikely that these faults are limited to the review machine as they suggest software bugs as opposed to hardware faults. I'll be interested to see how the first batch of Bit Ones respond — there was no suggestion that the review model was pre-production. Further exploration of Bit One MIDI seemed pointless so, frustrated, I left it at that.
Have you noticed that there's a vague feeling of unease surrounding this review? I have. The Bit One offers everything and, apart from the really good touch response, delivers little.
In addition to the rumoured updates that rectify many of the omissions outlined above, there's an array of future facilities that Crumar/Chase are bandying around, including individual voice programming a la Oberheim Xpander and 'second touch' key sensitivity. All these things will probably come to pass, but when? I wish manufacturers would get the product together before claiming they've reinvented the wheel.
CRUMAR bit one: £799
Review by Liz Coley
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