Kawai Q80 Sequencer
Kawai's first ever dedicated MIDI sequencer may have to fight hard to make its mark in an already overcrowded market, but it has one major advantage over the competition - its price! Julian Colbeck reports.
Kawai's first ever dedicated MIDI sequencer may have to fight hard to make its mark in an already overcrowded market, but it has one major advantage over the competition - its price!
For years the pundits have been marking Kawai's card as a future hi-tech producer of distinction. As with that other Japanese giant, Technics, one always got the feeling that whenever the company chose to dive headlong into the field, the establishment of Yamaha, Roland and Korg - despite long years devoted to the production of instruments for the pro and semi-pro rock/pop musician - would have a real fight on their hands.
And so it has proved. From the high-powered R50 drum machine, through the critically acclaimed K5 synth, to the bestselling K1 and its modular offspring, Kawai's image has shifted from that of just another large Far Eastern piano and organ manufacturer to a dynamic force in the hi-tech keyboard industry in little over two years.
Dynamic in terms of product, at any rate: other aspects of business still require some attention; a case in point being the timing of product announcements. Although the Q80 was launched at the 1988 NAMM show, it has taken almost a year for it to start drifting into reviewers' hands. In such a time-scale, a software sequencer could easily have undergone two or three major revisions. The Q80, on the other hand, is still very much as previewed.
Still, the spec was impressive then, and it remains so today, since any potential disappointments have been more than offset by the subsequent announcement of its price. A dedicated 32-track sequencer with a host of eyecatching new features, such as 'human feel' quantisation and special pattern memories, for £595?
The Q80 is a stand-alone sequencer that occupies roughly the same space as an MC500, although it's marginally wider and thinner. It has a built-in 3.5" disk drive, small (16x2 character, backlit) display screen, free-flowing incremental wheel, the normal 'tape recorder' controls of Fwd, Rew, Reset, Rec, Stop and Play, and two separate matrices - one to access all the major control functions, the other for track assignment and quantise value setting. The overall effect is subdued and professional.
At the back are In, Out, and Thru MIDI ports, Tape Sync In/Out jacks, metronome and footswitch jacks, and a tiny socket for the 10 volt AC adaptor. Such a collection can only be described as adequate nowadays. Never mind fancy stuff like SMPTE reading/writing, a second MIDI Out would have been nice.
Although it has a disk drive, the Q80 is not a disk-based sequencer like the MC500. The operating system software is stored internally, it is not loaded from disk. In fact, you can happily record and store 26,000 notes worth of sequencing without having to worry about disks, something which came as a very pleasant shock when I discovered my first afternoon's work (having kissed it goodbye through being too lazy to format any disks and save it) still in situ the next morning. As for external storage - now in the category of bonus rather than necessity - each double-sided 3.5" disk can store 150,000 notes of sequencing within 112 songs. Equally impressive, the Q80 has set aside 64K of internal memory for storing System Exclusive data over some ten 16-track data files.
The Q80 offers both real-time and steptime recording over 32 actual, as opposed to via MIDI etc, tracks. A habit I find quite impossible to kick is that of launching straight into a new gadget without opening the manual. Sometimes it works out fine. With the Q80, I got nowhere. I got off to what I thought was a flying start, mind you, since on pressing Play - just for the hell of it - as soon as I fired up and connected the instrument, this sort of crazy swing concerto sprang back at me! Evidently the fashion for unerasable 'demo tunes' has now reached sequencers, and you'll find three such offerings here, entitled Swing, Mello and Spazz.
When it came to entering something myself, I found the process of real-time recording not exactly tortuous but fairly long-winded, and requiring certain actions that you can either spend three days trying to fathom out by a process of elimination, or two minutes learning from the manual [Isn't that what manuals are for? - Ed.].
First, you've got to get to grips with the top matrix, which comprises a 4x4 batch of LED indicated functions. The first column is headed Song, an innocent enough title for what turns out to be where all recording and playback activity takes place. (Seeing as the Song Position plays so vital a role, after a while I found it irritating to have to toggle the column's control button every second in order to return to it. A simple main page return button would save countless hours in time.) In Song mode, the screen will display Play Song *** (or rather SNG ***), a tempo rating (from 40 to 250 beats per minute), a song title (if written), and a time signature. Pressing the red Record button brings up new information in the display, namely a track number, a bar and beat number, and the word 'Real'. So now you just press Play and off you go?
Well, that's what I thought, and nothing happened. Two vital moves must be made first: although the screen displays (on default) Track 01, track 1 is not yet selected. To do this you must press the Track 1 button on the lower matrix - twice in fact - until it blinks. Now press Play and off you go? Yes, you'll hear a metronome countdown and everything will seem fab and great. Until you come to play it back that is, when, unless you've been particularly jammy with your MIDI channel setting, you'll hear... silence, again. The Q80 is nothing if not neat, and unless your MIDI channel settings are set track-to-input channel before recording, nothing will be recorded. You cannot, as you can on many sequencers, simply record away and worry about channel assignments afterwards.
Armed now with all the relevant knowledge needed to produce a line of sequencing, the Q80 goes on to perform logically and obviously; in other words. Play initiates recording/playback, Reset whizzes you back to the start, Forward and Reverse step you back and forth one beat at a time, and Stop halts the proceedings.
To record subsequent tracks, simply move the cursor to the track position, select Track 02, press Record, press the Track 2 button twice, until it blinks, and then press Play. Nothing gets recorded? Ah, but did you remember to change track 2's MIDI channel assignment (which defaults to channel 2) to match that of your keyboard controller/sound source? Thought not! Although it may seem quite a fiddle to have to dive in and out of the function controls, not only do you get used to it quickly but there are compensations ahoy, like Track Select/Deselect during playback, and being able to change start points quickly using the Forward and Reverse buttons.
Before we leave basic real-time recording on the Q80, a few general observations: no overdubbing is allowed. If you try, you'll just erase what was previously on the track. With 32 tracks on offer this isn't too hard to bear, and you can merge two tracks later if you like, though they'll both then be using the same MIDI channel. If a track ceases during a song, its LED will go out which is useful, since you can see at any time precisely which tracks are playing. The Q80 is not only capable of handling 32 voices, but also allows simultaneous multitrack recording of up to 16 tracks at a time (handy if you want to transfer a complete song from your software sequencer into the Q80 for live performance work).
If you're like me, the first two things that you'll want to do having recorded a few tracks is (a) repair a couple of them, and (b) quantise the rest. Lo and behold, next in line down column one of the top matrix is Punch In/Out. A simple-to-arrange control where you set your in and out times (to the nearest bar, not beat, unfortunately). It also features an automatic rehearsal feature activated by pressing Play only instead of Record. Alternatively, you can punch in and out using an optional footswitch. Very handy.
Quantisation on the Q80 is not so straightforward. I belong to the school of thought that thinks this about quantising: if I want something quantised, then I want it perfectly in time. If I want a 'human feel', then I won't use any quantisation. Yes, but how about correcting the odd slip-up, I hear you say? The cure for this is called practice.
Anyway, since that is what I think about quantisation, Kawai's offer of a zillion shuffle or swing-type factors, whereby you can set up a clock cycle based 'tolerance level' when quantising notes, leaves me somewhat cold. You, on the other hand, may be fascinated by such a concept, and will be perfectly happy to spend days (believe me) playing with it in order to perfect the technique. Unless, of course, you also happen to like the succession of stumbling, lop-eared timings which result from unwitting use of the feature.
Mercifully, simple quantisation, by which I mean basic quarter note/sixteenth note with triplets, etc, is also on hand, and is set using the lower control panel matrix. Timing values have been etched onto the front panel, for convenience, so it's impossible to get into a tangle here. A further quantisation facility is the ability to quantise a particular note number only (brilliantly useful for, say, nudging a snare drum a little ahead of the beat to give a track a little more impetus).
Quantisation is just one of a range of features to be found under the Bar Edit control. Additional functions to be found here include Delete, Insert, Erase, Mix, Transpose, Velocity Modify, Gate Time Modify, and Event Extract, all of which are track-based and self-explanatory. Not quite so self-explanatory, but nonetheless under the same heading, are Move, which is a most useful clock-based track shift (the Q80's maximum resolution is 96 clock pulses per quarter note); Note Split, which allows you to split a track into two separate ones - treble and bass, etc; Note Shift, which lets you change, say, all the 'D' notes in track 3 into 'D' sharps; and Make Motif, whose intriguing sounding (I trust) function will be dealt with in a moment. The final function in column one is Event Edit. This enables a track to be edited in terms of individual note number and clock pulse, and can have program change, pitch bend, pressure sensitivity, control and mode data inserted, altered, or removed.
Right, what's a Motif? A Motif is a collection of sequence data that has no track or MIDI ties; it can be up to 99 bars in length, and you can store 100 of them per song. In a way they're like patterns on a drum machine, free-floating entities that can be inserted into a track whenever needed, whereupon they'll be triggered by whichever MIDI channel is currently assigned to the track. Like tracks, Motifs have their own complete range of Bar Edit and Event Edit controls, and they can be culled from a section of a regular track, and/or copied, one from another. Motifs are automatically stored internally.
The third column of functions (Motif controls occupy the second) comprises Track Channel, where track-to-MIDI channel assignments are made (a doddle); Repeat Track; Tempo Track; and Open Motif.
One of the useful features the Q80 seems to have adopted from software sequencers is independent track looping. The procedure is quite quick and painless to implement, since the loop length is the track length, end of story. Each track can then be set to repeat, using Repeat Track, or not.
The Tempo Track, as you'd imagine, is an optional track used to govern global tempo changes (as on the MC500). Unless you want some tempo changes, it'll probably remain in the Off mode. If you do, you just spin the dial and enter new tempi at the desired bar numbers.
Open Motif is a cunning feature that allows you to customise a motif within a particular track. What it does, effectively, is turn what was once a motif into regular track data.
The fourth and final column of functions reads Monitor, System, Data Dump, and Disk. Monitor allows you, selectively, to monitor MIDI channels during recording. Under the System heading is a whole bagful of functions concerning Motif recording MIDI channel, Clock (internal/MIDI/tape), Metronome (timings and on/off during recording and/or playback), Data Filter (velocity, pressure, bend, control all, exclusive, control each), Echo (turning the MIDI Out into Out + Thru), Pedal Assignment, Step Time Record, and Memory Protect. Data Dump concerns the Q80's ability to store System Exclusive info - patches and patterns from synths and drum machines, etc - and Disk holds all the information needed to format, save and load.
As mentioned above, the Q80 can also record in step time. Depending upon the type of recording you have in mind, the process is either totally straightforward or, at worse, no worse than usual! For equal measure 'sequencer' type parts, basically you just keep banging away at your keyboard in any old time and the Q80 will machine gun it back at you 100% even. More elaborate parts - ones with different note durations, chords etc - must make use of the dedicated Chord, Note Delete, Tie and Rest buttons as well. A handy graph in the manual sets out the relationship between the step time and clock cycles. You also have control over gate time and velocity. If you want to get fancy (which, I confess, I most certainly didn't), you can assign various MIDI controllers like pitch wheel, etc, to various step-time recording duties, such as entering a note tie, or a rest. Neat.
In the main the Q80 is friendly, even if at times it is long-winded to use. The LCD screen is small, and so cannot display much information. And for some unknown reason, when you return to a parameter - the quantise information of a track perhaps - the screen will have returned to zero ratings even though quantisation remains active. What this means is that you cannot see the settings you've chosen. Irritatingly, this screen absent-mindedness is evident on most functions. However, the generosity (for a dedicated sequencer) with tracks, and the ease with and extent to which most data can be manipulated, does endear one to the Q80. I suspect that, in time, I could have become quite a fan if it were not for the fact that I own an MC500.
So who will this unit appeal to? Well, first and foremost, I suppose it will appeal to those who continue to resist the beguiling charms of a software sequencer - a dwindling bunch, unfortunately, even though I count myself amongst them. At two thirds the price of an MC500 MkII (and £75 below the MC300), the Q80 should find many a friend however. All the more, when you consider that it's Kawai's opening gambit into the world of professional sequencers. For price versus features, the Q80 really is one hell of a product.
£595 inc VAT.
Kawai UK Ltd, (Contact Details).