Frankfurt: Keyboards And Keyboard Samplers
He came, he saw, he sent in his copy. His name was Jim Betteridge
The fantastic has become somewhat commonplace in the world of synthesis. Almost everything you look at is pretty good, or it dies very quickly. Thus there were only very muted cries of wonder upon hearing the excellent Technics electronic grand piano or upon finding that Casio were showing a 9kHz bandwidth, polyphonic sampling keyboard for £89(!). The show wouldn't have been complete without the coining of a few new phrases, most of which were an insult to even the most credulous mind, but the world is probably better off for the existence of the PPG Realiser — an entirely new kind of musical instrument, again. In greatest evidence were relatively low-cost samplers and also a number of high quality electronic pianos. At last the pianist is being allowed to get a credible, and affordable word in edgeways.
Akai continue their forceful advance into professional recording equipment and keyboards with new products including the AX73 synth/keyboard controller. It's six-voice polyphonic (single VCO) with a six-octave velocity sensitive splittable keyboard (no after touch) and 100 preset memories. Editing is accomplished via the rather outmoded form of centralised digital access control using a numerical keypad and a table of numbered parameters to be looked up and then called up — a bit tedious. A final set of sounds was in the process of being written to augment the existing Japanese presets which, as usual were 'not quite in keeping with modern trends in the UK and US'. The new sounds promise to be vastly superior. An expander version is also available under the strangely illogical name of VX90. Prices: £699 and £499. The third and final keyboard product was the MX73 MIDI controller keyboard which is not unlike an AX73 minus the sound generating bits. Price: £499. A very interesting product from Akai was the 1U 19" rack mounting ME25S Programmable MIDI Keyboard Splitter which basically makes a splittable keyboard from a non-splittable one. It has 64 memories with four programmable split points. Just what every DX-7 owner always wanted and all for a mere £99: Clever. A second clever MIDI ancillary item is the ME30P Programmable MIDI Patch Bay which also goes for £99. This 1U unit stores 15 sets of MIDI IN/OUT configurations for immediate recall. It has four MIDI INs, eight MIDI OUTs and a check mode to ensure that all the outputs are connected correctly.
From the impressively cost-cutting stables of Bit comes a new and definitely interesting MIDI controller keyboard which should be in the shops for between £550 and £600 — or maybe even less. It has a six-octave weighted plastic keyboard with velocity and after touch sensitivity, where the after touch can be routed to pitch bend or modulation if the receiving keyboard isn't after touch sensitive. It has a three-way split with separate MIDI channels and a MIDI IN which allows non-standard MIDI data to be replaced with the right codes for whatever you're driving (extremely useful). Each of the 64 set-up memories can give a separate program change instruction to each of the 16 MIDI channels. It also has a built in 4000-note real or step-time four-track sequencer which can transmit each track on a different MIDI channel, and patch and/or sequencer data can be dumped to tape. At the price it offers an amazing array of excellent features.
Bohm are not well known for their state-of-the-art synthesisers, but if one can for a moment put aside one's prejudices, it has to be said that their MIDI Expander Dynamic is not at all bad. Based on Bohm's very own phase-modulation synthesis technique it responds to touch information and offers 98 factory sounds plus a further 98 programmable memories and can be addressed on three separate MIDI channels to produce three separate voices. It comes 12-note polyphonic as standard and can be expanded to 24-note. They also have the natural complement to an expander in the form of their 'MIDI-Key' controller keyboard: 61 keys, three-way split with separate MIDI channels, velocity and after touch, 128 program change memories and 16 set-up preset memories. UK prices were not known, but they don't look expensive especially as the keyboard also comes in kit form for almost half the price of the complete unit.
If you think tens of thousands of pounds is out of order for a sampling synth, you may find yourself warming to the new SK-1 from Casio. At £89 it uses 8-bit PCM to provide up to 1.4 secs sampling at 9.3kHz bandwidth via a mike or line input, with four-note polyphonic playback, thus rather putting Yamaha's VSS-100 in the shadows. On top of that it also offers a variety of 'fun keyboard' autoplay facilities. On the synth front they were showing the CZ-3000 which is more or less a CZ-5000 without the sequencer, and the CZ-230S, a 49-key, 8-note polyphonic preset (not programmable) synth with 100 preset PD sounds (as per the existing PD range), a built in PCM preset rhythm unit and small speaker for practising. Not bad for £345.
Elka had a couple of new MIDI synths on show in the form of the LX-900 and LX-600 plus an expander version of each, the EX-900 and EX-600. Little information was available but the 900 has 96 memories, 32 of which are programmable and a five octave, nine-note polyphonic velocity and after touch sensitive splittable keyboard. The 600 is not dissimilar though it is only six-note polyphonic. Prices will be very approximately £1200 and £900 respectively.
As many companies concentrate on a 'Samplers for the Masses' policy, Fairlight don't — they continue to look for the best with apparently little regard for the spons involved. The Series III is undoubtedly awesome featuring stereo 16-bit sampling up to 2.5 minutes in 14Mbyte of internal RAM (140Mb on hard disk); 16 voice channels, a 16 voice version of Page R, a massively powerful composer/sequencer/arranger package and MIDI/SMPTE compatibility. After all that you'll be pleased to know that it's a lot more user-friendly. A basic library of 100 sounds is included in the price of £57,500.
Greengate finally had a fully operational version of their DS-4 sampler/sequencer. Initially it's an eight-voice, eight channel system using 16-bit linear quantising with a choice of 12 or 24 seconds sampling time. The DS-4 does not replace the DS-3. It still uses the Apple IIe computer and no extra hardware is necessary to upgrade your 3 to a 4. Sync facilities include MIDI, SMPTE and the standard DS-3 sync. The DS-4 will be available around June and will cost £1500 and £1750 for the 12 and 24 second versions respectively. Details of a MIDI keyboard controller will be announced mid-1986.
Kawai's new K3 is a six-note velocity sensitive polyphonic synth that uses a table of 33 digital wave forms which have been 're-synthesised' from original real acoustic sounds such as piano, trumpet, electric bass etc. It also offers an additive synthesis facility whereby a sound can be created by the addition of up to 32 (from a choice of 128) harmonics to a fundamental. I have to say that the preset sounds I heard weren't all that impressive, but that doesn't mean the synth itself hasn't got potential in the hands of the right programmer. UK price as yet unknown.
Korg also had a high quality electronic piano, the SG-1, offering sample sounds: Piano I, Piano II, Electric Piano I and Electric Piano II. Features include velocity and after touch sensitivity, transpose, adjustable stereo chorus and a keyboard split whereby MIDI information is sent only from part of the keyboard. Never ones to waste technology, Korg were also showing their DSS-1 MIDI sampling synth. It's eight-note polyphonic, has a 61-note velocity sensitive keyboard, multisampling capabilities, built in digital delay and programmable equaliser, a 16 program internal memory, a 1 megabyte 3.5" disk and the sampled sounds can be edited via the synth's own VCFs, VCAs and EGs. Impressive stuff.
Kurzweil's version 3 software gives MIDI sync which also allows tape sync with SMPTE via the relevant interface. It also gives a 4kbyte extension to the existing 8k sequencer memory. $2500 US will get you the new improved Sound Block A which now uses 1 Mbyte chips as opposed to the old 250k ones, thus improving the piano sound and adding a harpsichord voice whilst generally providing more space on the board. This newly found space might usefully be taken up by the equally new Rock Block B — a set of chips to give you the following Rock-oriented sounds: 'Rhodes', Drums and Electric guitar, all of which are predictably very good. Incidentally, there never was a Rock Block A — confusing isn't it? The biggest news from Big K was regarding their new MIDI controller keyboard, entitled Midiboard. It's got a brand new 88-note keyboard with both velocity and after touch (the 250 only has velocity) where the after touch actually gives continuous individual control over each voice. Along list of features include 99 set-up presets with each set up involving two splits (three separate MIDI channels), individual detailed parameter instructions (42 of them) for eight instruments and a whole list of assignable controls including four buttons, two sliders, two performance wheels, two piano-type pedals and two continuous pedals.
Apart from some new operating system software for the Mirage providing mostly improved MIDI facilities, Ensoniq were showing their new ESQ1 digital synth. It's 8-note polyphonic with three oscillators (32 sampled and synthetic waveforms to choose from), three LFOs and four EGs per voice, powerful analogue filters, 40 internal memories — 80 more on cartridge and hard disk off-line storage. It also has a sophisticated built in eight-track sequencer with tape or 3½" disk data storage. It operates in all three main MIDI modes allowing each of the eight voices to be accessed individually. Price: £940. They too were in the sampled MIDI piano market with the 76-note velocity sensitive weighted keyboard going by the name of DSP1, or simply the Ensoniq Piano. It features 10 preset multi-sampled voices: three piano, two electric piano, two marimba, two bass sounds, vibes, percussive keyboard and Mallet Keyboard. It wasn't possible to get my hands on it but it sounded very promising from afar. Price: £940.
Every manufacturer and his/her drum roady has been claiming to offer something 'completely different' to the point where the very suggestion induces a feeling of intense queasiness. However, if any claim is worth the necessary dose of antacid it could be that coming from PPG with what they are calling their Realiser. It is a powerful 16-bit, 40kHz sampling rate sampler capable of storing up to 12 minutes mono, six minutes stereo, three minutes four-track information on its built in 85Mb hard disk. And, although it has no oscillators, filters or indeed any specifically dedicated sound processing hardware at all, it can generate and or process/effect virtually any kind of sound via its eight software controlled signal processors — the claim is that it can do anything from an old Moog to any digital FM sound. It consists of a 6U 19" rack processing unit and hard disk and the Realiser board which contains a 14" colour monitor.
This was a big show for Roland with a whole series of new upmarket keyboards to salivate over: The Super Jupiter JX-10 takes over as Roland's top of the range analogue synthesiser and has also been designed to work as a mother keyboard in a MIDI system. It has 12-note polyphony, dual oscillator and no less than 24 EGs: huge creative scope and big sounds. The 76-key weighted plastic keyboard is velocity and aftertouch sensitive and its programmable split effectively allows it to be used as two separate synths, with two MIDI channels. Patch data is storable in each of the 128 patch memories available using the plug-in RAM cartridge M-64C, making it ideal for Mother keyboard applications. 150 sounds can also be stored in the RAM. Alternatively, the RAM pack can be used to store up to 2600 events of the onboard real-time sequencer. As standard the JX-10 uses the new Alpha dial form of digital access editing control as found on the new Alpha Juno synths, or an optional PG-800 programmer, as used with the JX-8P, provides one-knob-per-function editing. RRP: £1900, available April.
Roland enter the sampling market with the introduction of their S50 keyboard and its little brother the S10 both featuring Roland's own LSI dedicated sampling chip. The 16-voice S50 has a maximum sampling frequency of 32kHz, using 12-bit linear quantisation, giving 17.2 seconds at 13kHz bandwidth. Data can be stored on a built in 3½" disk drive, but operating software is sensibly permanently stored on ROM. The S50 also contains a very powerful 16-note polyphonic synthesiser featuring 16 VCFs, 16 LFOs and 48EGs. The 61 note keyboard is velocity sensitive and can be operated in various sophisticated split, stack and dual modes. All visual display software is built in so that simply connecting a monitor directly to the S50 gives full display of functions.
The MIDI spec is also very sophisticated allowing use of four separate MIDI channels simultaneously. Four audio outputs allow the 16 voices to be distributed in various combinations to external systems — ie the S50 can be used as four independent synths. There is also a built in real time sequencer. The S10 is basically a lesser, eight-voice, four octave version of the S50 with a four second sampling time at 13kHz, etc, and no graphics software. Although impressively demonstrated at the show neither machine had complete software and thus a final judgement cannot be made. Prices: £3000 and £1000 respectively, available May.
In amongst the surge of high quality electronic pianos, Roland have coined a new term for their new form of digital resynthesis: SAS (Structured Adaptive Synthesis) has been designed specifically to provide accurate replication of percussive musical sounds such as the good old piano. The RD1000 MIDI electronic piano uses this system to produce eight voices: three acoustic pianos, two electric pianos, a harpsichord, clavichord and vibraphone. It has an 88-note, velocity sensitive, weighted action wooden keyboard and 56 performance/voice functions which can be stored on an optional plug-in M-16 RAM cartridge. The MKS-20 is basically a MIDI, 19" rack mounting modular version (no keyboard). Prices: £2500 (with stand) available May and £1200 available April, respectively.
An invaluable aid to communications is the new Roland programmable SBX-10 sync box/converter which will take in Click, MIDI, DIN-sync and Time Base signals and then simultaneously synchronise anything connected to its MIDI, DIN-Sync or Time Base outputs. It has a memory capacity of 1,024 quarter notes, should cost around £299 and is available even as you read this. It's going to be a good year for Roland.
In addition to the Prophet 2002 rack mountable expander version of the 2000 sampling keyboard. Sequential were showing their new Prophet VS which they claim to be the world's first vector synthesiser. It's a five-octave, eight voice instrument with each voice consisting of a combination of up to four waveforms chosen from a table of 128. It also features velocity and after touch sensitivity, programmable split or stack, a versatile sequencer which allows rests and polyphonic voicings and sophisticated MIDI capabilities plus a bi-timbric facility that allows it to be used as two separate four-voice synths. All this for £1895.
The Siel DK70 is redolent of the old Moog Liberator in that it is a complete self contained synth designed to be playable over the shoulder. With such applications in mind a 'neck' can be fitted to provide control of program change sustain and a good old pitch ribbon. It has a 49-note, eight-voice polyphonic static keyboard although it will receive velocity information via MIDI. Its 50 internal memory capacity can be expanded to 150 with optional RAM/ROM packs. Moving a little upmarket we find what Siel are calling the DK700 MIDI Master Synth: 61 velocity sensitive keys, six voice polyphonic (12 DCOs), 73 programmable memories — but more than any of these, it can control four separate MIDI synths independently, over four MIDI channels. If you already have enough MIDI keyboards and its just the Siel sound you want, perhaps you should look at the 19" rack mountable MIDI Expander 80 which offers eight-voice polyphony, 50 internal memories expandable to 100 with an optional RAM cartridge and a simple two-track real time sequencer. No UK prices were available.
Synthaxe were doing some extremely impressive demos and though there can no longer be any doubt as to the excellence of the product a starting price of over £5,000 may still be a little disturbing to most people with a complete system costing nearer £10,000.
Arguably the daddy of all the electronic sampled pianos came from Technics — or at least that was Technic's argument. In fact I was hard pushed to disagree with them, and certainly at £3500 the PX1 was the most expensive. Its 88 wooden keys are beautifully weighted, and might even be a little heavy if your fingers have grown flacid from too much plastic-keyed synth work. The six sounds are quite brilliant: two pianos, two electric pianos, harpsichord and clavi, and the touch sensitivity is a delight to behold. There's a simple real time 2700-note sequencer the capacity of which can be expanded with an optional SY-FD5 floppy disk drive. The MIDI spec allows the two sides of the splittable keyboard to be sent over different channels thereby making the PX-1 eligible as a central controller keyboard. The same basic sounds are to be found in the PX5, PX7 and PX9, which get increasingly less sophisticated as the prices decrease to around £899 for the PX9 which still has a very nicely weighted, touch sensitive keyboard. At this price I think it's unrivalled for a believable acoustic piano sound.
Last but not least, there was the Yamaha stand. And how. A sprawling mega-complex of a stand, with hundreds of products, thousands of people... but wait a minute. If you already read last month's news pages you know exactly what was there, don't you?
Unfortunately, space won't allow us to repeat it again, but suffice to say, there were plenty of goodies to be seen, which we'll be taking a closer look at over the coming months. So, until we meet again, mon cheri — sayonara.