The CZ101 is the spearhead of Casio's first serious onslaught on the pro-synth market. We check out this contender for the DX's digital synthesis crown.
Casio's digital, portable, pricebusting synth the CZ101 could turn the synthesiser market upside down as the company forge further into the pro market. Chris Jenkins investigates.
No matter how quickly the prices of synthesisers and home recording equipment have dropped, it's fair to say that cost has always been a major barrier for the creative musician. The financial clout necessary to buy a Fairlight doesn't necessarily also bestow artistic brilliance, but if you can't afford a Polysynth no amount of phasing, flanging and echoing is going to make your Korg MS10 sound like Trevor Horn.
Casio's contribution to the electronic/home recording field has been immeasurable. The availability of cheap polyphonic keyboards like the CT201/2 and the CT1000P has arguably made what was previously a prohibitively expensive business easily affordable, while microprocessor-based gimmicks like the VL-1 have introduced thousands to the concepts of sound programmability, digital recording and sequencing.
Casio, though, seem always to have had an eye on the less creative/experimental side of the home keyboard market — the best-sellers have been models featuring around ten to twenty preset sounds, automatic rhythm units, auto-arpeggio, single-finger chords, and all the accompaniment features we tend to associate with the home organ market rather than the world of synthesisers.
This isn't to say that the Casio's were unusable for more creative applications than playing Spanish Eyes, especially with the judicious application of a soldering iron to various aspects of the vibrato, tuning/pitch bend and programming functions. Your author has himself produced some pretty good results using a VL-1, CT201, MT31 and so on.
The problem has always been that while the unique vowel/consonant voicing system used by the Casios can create some interesting effects, many of the voices sound similar and all sound thin in comparison with true oscillator-based synths. Many's the time I've cursed Casio for misusing their tremendous design and production capabilities, based on enormous worldwide revenues from calculator and computer sales, in producing home organs. But, no more. The first sign that Casio wanted to demolish the competition in the pro keyboard market was the CT6000, a full-size five octave device with MIDI, touch sensitivity and a new and impressive sound-producing system. It's an excellent product, but at £700 unlikely to open up new markets. Also, the auto-accompaniment sections and built-in speakers are still there, branding the CT6000 as a home keyboard, albeit an unusually powerful one.
The launch of the CZ-101, however, sees Casio making decisions which indicate that the state of the keyboard market will never be the same again. Just a run-down of the main features is enough to make the mouth water, and with a price-tag under £400 the CZ101 looks set to be a breakthrough instrument, like the MiniMoog which made synthesis practical, or the Fairlight which made it limitless.
The CZ-101 is a true MIDI Polysynth, using a sound generation system, "phase distortion", which bears some resemblence to Yamaha's FM, used in the DX7. The four-octave (49-note) miniature keyboard is perfectly playable to anyone but the most pedantic "pianist", and in fact allows very quick runs to be fingered easily. The size of the keyboard makes the CZ-101 eminently portable — it has strap studs and is powered by eight D-size batteries, plus three AA cells for memory protection. A mains adaptor can of course be used instead.
Starting from the left; the CZ-101 (why on earth couldn't they give it a decent name?) features a pitch bend wheel, cunningly designed so that it can be operated either with the machine strapped on to you, or lying flat. Unforgivably, the modulation control is a locking button, so that vibrato can be only On or Off. A little judicious hacking about should provide the possibility for owners to fit their own transient buttons, which will be a useful improvement.
The volume slider is below the bend wheel. Further along we find the vibrato switch and bend range button, along with the Portamento on/off and range switches. The CZ-101 is 8-note polyphonic with one oscillator per note, and sounds pretty good in that mode. It can also be switched into 4-note/2 oscillator mode, and that sounds even better. Portamento effects are excellent in either mode.
To continue, the memory selection buttons come next. There are eight buttons and four selectors, giving access to 16 preset sounds, 16 user-programmable, and sixteen cartridge sounds. Cartridges go into a slot on the side, though Casio can't yet say how much they will cost.
Next up is the poly/mono/key transpose section, then the data entry section. The waveforms used on the CZ-101 comprise sawtooth, square, pulse, double sine, saw pulse, and resonance 1, 2 and 3. The first five can be mixed in various combinations giving a total of 33 waveforms. The LCD panel in the centre of the the CZ shows all the programming parameters, which are altered by the Cursor and Value keys beneath it.
There are three envelope generators, for amplitude, wave and pitch, and keyboard followers for amplitude and wave. The implication of this is the CZ should be capable of whangy digital noises similar to the Wave 2 system, where the effect is achieved by altering the waveshape as the note decays. There's a detuning function which makes it easier to achieve warmth and depth on more conventional analogue-type settings, and ring modulation and white noise are available to supplement the oscillator waveshapes. Thus, not to put a too fine point on it, the CZ can go WHOOOSH! as well as KERRAAANNNGGG, achieving timpani effects as easily as it does electric guitars. One particularly amazing setting demonstrated at the press launch was a guitar sound which introduced "feedback" as the note was sustained — it could put Jimmy Page out of business.
The back of the CZ holds line, headphone and MIDI sockets, and Master Tune is on the top right of the keyboard — A = 442 +/- 50 cents. It's impossible to say at this stage what form the MIDI implementation takes, since the CZ hasn't been available long enough for full testing.
How can I summarize what can only be thought of as a gigantic breakthrough in the electronic music field? The CZ-101 offers digital synthesis at a price which most analogue synths can't match. It has MIDI and is portable, so it could be used as a stage synth or a studio module. It looks good, although Casio might have been well advised, if they have designs on the pro market, to go for a new product series name. Most importantly it's laughably cheap — the only conceivable reason for not buying one would be to wait for the next model.
Plans apparently include a four-octave full-size keyboard version, followed by a five-octave model. Speculation is that one or both of these will have touch-sensitivity, and an increase in the number of available memories would be a fair assumption. After that, only time will tell — obviously the competitors will have to move fast. Expect price cuts and Japanese businessmen plummeting from skyscrapers soon when they hear the ES&CM tape.
It's frightening to speculate on what Casio might do eventually — a polyphonic sound-sampling keyboard under £500? Digital drum machines or polyphonic sequencers at pocket-money prices? Now that Casio have made up their minds to conquer the market, there's just no limit.
Review by Chris Jenkins