The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at Frankfurt's Musical Fiesta
Five pages of glorious colour on the exhibition to end all exhibitions - the annual Frankfurt Musik Messe. Dan Goldstein comes hotfoot from Germany to report on the latest developments on the hi-tech music scene. And there are a lot of them.
Advance product information may have robbed this year's Musik Messe of some of its vitality, but there were still plenty of surprises in store for those that made their way through the enormous maze of exhibits.
Recent trends in popular music have brought about a decline in the number of all-electronic acts breaking into the public consciousness, but in spite of this, new technology is playing a bigger part than ever in shaping the way modern music is written, performed and produced. That the world's musical instrument manufacturers are well aware of this fact was illustrated by the prominence afforded to hi-tech gear at last month's Frankfurt Musik Messe, the annual gathering of MI developers, manufacturers, distributors and general hangers-on.
The Messe is big. A mighty exhibition complex covering a huge acreage not far from Frankfurt's centre that finds use as the setting for all manner of international events from fashion shows to toy fairs. Of its ten gargantuan halls, only two are ever taken up by the music fair, but that doesn't prevent the February show from being the most important of its kind anywhere in the world, bar none.
This year, we found the Germans had built a new Press Centre where the assembled hacks could drink, eat, relax and drink, but it was a goodly walk from the centre of Music Fair activity, and many journalists succumbed to the pleasures of Pils and bratwurst sausage, remaining in the Press Bar for the duration whilst occasionally venturing as far as the trayloads of press releases located conveniently in the reception area next-door.
For the rest of us, it was the usual story of trying to crawl round the show, trying to look as unflurried as possible while carrying a load of exhibitors' promotional material in one hand and copies of our own magazines in the other. Two days of just such endeavour proved exhausting in the extreme, but it was worth it.
Of all the companies that took space at this year's event, Yamaha probably occupied the most. Seeing as the Japanese conglomerate make everything from full-size grand pianos to MIDI interface units no bigger than a box of Milk Tray, they need every inch of it. UK Pressmen had already seen the company's new hi-tech offerings during a whistle-stop trip to Yamaha's Euro HQ in Hamburg a couple of weeks before, which is why E&MM were able to report on them last month, but one or two further snippets of information have come to light as a result of the Frankfurt showing.
First off, Yamaha's new DX5 FM polysynth (you remember, DX7 keyboard mechanics but DX1 electronics) looks like it's going to retail at rather less than the £5000 we were originally quoted: £3000 now seems a more likely figure, which is probably just as well, as it increases the model's competitiveness considerably. Mind you, there are plenty of other routes to FM happiness offered by the remainder of Yamaha's hi-tech product range. For only a little more than DX5 money, you could have a TX216 rack (basically, the electronics of two DX7s, but with the advantage that you can upgrade the system easily and economically by investing in a TF1 module - RRP, £449 - as and when finances allow), coupled with a KX88 master keyboard. It seemed at first as if the latter device would be similar in concept to Roland's MKB1000 mother keyboard, and indeed it is. But what makes the KX88 an altogether superior beast is that (a) it allows you to control parameters and overall levels (via MIDI) of connected instruments and (b) those instruments don't have to be from the Yamaha FM stable, since some clever software-writing has given the 88 the ability to decode MIDI System Exclusive data belonging to other machines in the MIDI macrocosm. What Yamaha have done to assist in the latter process is give the KX88 user-assignable parameter controls so that, for instance, you can manipulate the filter of a connected analogue synth with any of the 88's performance controllers, of which there are many. An undeniably sophisticated animal, then, though there will still be many musicians (mostly, I suspect, the less technically proficient), who will shudder at the thought of spending £1400 on a musical instrument that doesn't actually make any noise.
Once you've got all the sound-generating equipment you require (the TX816 is still the ultimate, at least as far as FM is concerned), you can then progress (?) to controlling it automatically with some sort of sequencing device, and Yamaha will be pleased to help you out in this area too, as they now offer both the height of dedicated MIDI sequencing versatility in the shape of the QX1 (about £2400), and a scaled-down version designed specifically with DX owners in mind and logically titled QX7. This is due to weigh in at a competitive £500 when it hits the shops in the very near future, and although it incorporates only two audio tracks (so that you're only ever recording/overdubbing on two adjacent channels), it's nonetheless capable of storing and distributing data on all 16 MIDI channels, so it can still act as the triggering force behind a complex MIDI system. Another newly-introduced goody, the TX7 voice expander, also looks decent value at £700, and if you put all three 7s (DX, TX and QX) together, you've got a mighty versatile synth system for a shade under £2500. No, I can't afford it either, but it's still a more realistic possibility than a lot of the gear being touted at the show.
If Yamaha are now the accepted leaders in the race to provide a complete range of hardware and software for the modern musician, their opponents are doing their darndest to make sure they don't get too far in front. Roland are continuing their policy of trying to appear to be in first spot by releasing as many new products as possible during each hi-tech model year. And like Yamaha, Roland UK decided they'd make sure nobody missed any of the new gear by laying on a special unveiling at a West London hotel a couple of days before the Musik Messe got underway. The JX8P polysynth (reviewed in E&MM February) was there in all its not inconsiderable sonic glory, as was the Synth Plus 60, basically the guts of a Juno 106 polysynth in a more domestically-acceptable casing and with built-in amplification and speakers. Nobody batted an eyelid, but ironically, one of Roland's other new home-orientated machines, the Piano Plus 100, could be of more interest to the pro user. Essentially, the 100 has four reasonable preset sounds and a similar built-in amp system, but it also has a 76-key dynamic keyboard along with MIDI in, Out and Thru sockets. In other words, it'd make a fine keyboard controller for a stack of MIDI voicing modules, particularly when you bear its expected RRP (a modest £625) in mind.
Of more immediate significance is Roland's apparent determination to corner the electronic percussion market. Their excellent TR707 digital drum machine has already been a runaway success only weeks after its release, and the company are now following it up with the 727, a machine identical in all respects except voicing, the newcomer's sounds being of the latin percussion (as opposed to the rock drum kit) variety. Sound quality of the 727 is as high as that of its stablemate, and the price is the same at £525 - the only problem is that deliveries of the latin wonder aren't expected to start until July, when the weather should be more conducive to carnivals and the like. As if that wasn't already enough, 1985 will also be the year of Roland's entry into the electronic drum market. Basis of their system is the DDR30 digital drum module, which contains six PCM drum voices with four variations of each, making a total of 24 preset drum sounds. These can be altered by implementing values of 13 user-adjustable parameters including pitch, attack, EQ and so on, and 32 memory locations are available onboard for the storing of voices resulting from such editing. The DDR is MIDI-compatible, too, so you can play its voices from a MIDI keyboard or control them from a similarly-equipped sequencer, but their true purpose in life is to serve as the voice generator for Roland's custom-designed drum pads, which come in two sizes. The system looks, feels and sounds as good as anybody's, but at around £2000 for a basic kit, anybody buying Roland's offering is going to have to be pretty convinced of the merits of PCM sampling to want to choose it in preference to the (cheaper) competition.
There were if anything even more electronic drum kits at this year's Musik Messe than there were a year before, and that's saying something. Among the most recent entrants into this particular musical fray are such unexpected names as RSF (the French company responsible for the Kobol and Polykobol synth systems), Pearl (the second acoustic drum company to become involved in electronics), Hohner (it certainly makes a change from Clavinets and mouth organs), Dr Bohm and Wersi. It was the last-mentioned company that had the biggest surprises up its sleeve. Because quite apart from their electronic drum system (unremarkable save that it boasts a built-in sequencer and the ugliest pad design you have ever seen), they also unveiled a programmable polysynth by the name of MK1. Unfortunately, technical details on the instrument have so far been difficult to get hold of, but we do know that it's a 16-note polyphonic device that features Wersi's own DMS digital voicing system, a five-octave touch- and velocity-sensitive keyboard and full MIDI compatibility. The MK1 also features an ingenious switching matrix that enables its sound modulation stages to be routed in different orders, and a 16-slider panel that lets you alter the amplitude of 16 harmonics within each sound's basic waveform. ROM cartridges housing some rather impressive factory voices are available as optional extras, as are RAM packs that let you save your own sonic creations. But the most impressive thing about the MK1 is its price - less than £700 in Germany if you do what Wersi encourage you to do and build it yourself. I hope it gets to the UK without much further ado, and that its manufacturers get to grips with the idea of giving the buying public sufficient technical data.
In fact, the lack of in-depth technical blurb for the information-hungry reporter was something we encountered all too often in the Messe's cacophonous exhibition halls. Whenever stand personnel found themselves up against a barrage of technical queries, the usual response was something along the lines of 'Listen, it looks good, it sounds good, and it's cheap. Just don't ask me what's going on inside.'
The Ensoniq stand was a case in point. News of the US company's Mirage sound-sampling keyboard had reached most parts of the globe before the Musik Messe opened its doors, but most of us were expecting to see one half-finished prototype keyboard with a black box underneath containing all the hardware that hadn't been fully worked out yet. How wrong we were. The Mirage is a fully-working, saleable product with a maximum sample time of eight seconds (at which the bandwidth is 4kHz), amplitude and filter envelopes through which any sample can be routed, an onboard sequencer that can store modulation and velocity data, a five-octave velocity-sensitive keyboard, full MIDI compatibility, and a 3.5" disk drive for storage of both voice and sequence data. But there was nobody on hand to shed any light on the subject of just how all this has been achieved at the mildly laughable Stateside price of $1700. Guess we'll just have to wait and see.
Affordable sound-sampling turned out to be another of this year's many musical themes. But whereas the Americans and the Europeans seem to take the view that a sampling facility should be incorporated as an integral feature of a keyboard instrument, the Japanese see it as something that can be added to the facilities of a conventional synthesiser in the form of an outboard unit. Both Korg and Akai had such external devices on show. Korg's offering, the SDD2000 digital delay, is capable of storing samples of up to 4.3-seconds in length, and allows those samples to be triggered from a footpedal or external trigger and pitch-controlled from a MIDI keyboard: you can step through the delay's 64 memories via MIDI too, so the machine is well thought-out, and should be a hot seller if the UK price prediction of £700 turns out jo be accurate.
Akai's S612 is more a custom-designed sampling machine than a DDL whose Hold facility has been used to provide a sampling option. It's capable of taking an analogue sound source of any kind (through a choice of mic and line inputs), converting it into a digital signal and outputting it in six-voice polyphony to any MIDI keyboard. Looping and overdub-bing facilities are also provided, and the only problem is that you need Akai's soon-to-be-released micro disk drive in order to store samples, though that's small hardship when you consider that the S612 is due to retail at just £1100 when it comes to this country in June: the Q-disk drive unit will be a further £329.
Let's stay on the subject of Akai for a moment. The company almost shook the synth world to its foundations when they launched their first range of electronic instruments just a year ago, but at the '85 Messe, they surpassed their previous achievement by introducing no fewer than 11 new music products. And they weren't all little black interface boxes, either. Aside from the sampler and disk drive already mentioned, the coming year should see the arrival of an upmarket version of the AX80 polysynth called the AX90, a MIDI mother keyboard that wouldn't be in the least bit interesting if it weren't for the fact that it's due to retail for roughly half the price of its competitors, a synth module offering all the AX90's voicing and programming possibilities, entitled VX90 and priced at around the £1100 mark, and perhaps most excitingly of all, a complete computer music system based on custom-designed hardware. Centrepiece of the system is the CPZ1000 music computer, a 19" rack-mounting unit that incorporates four sets of MIDI Ins and Outs and twin 3.5" disk drives on its front panel, but in order to use this in a musical fashion, you also need the RZ1000 Recorder Sync Operating Board (included in the CPZ selling price of £3300), which has both the hardware and software necessary to turn the system into a digital keyboard recorder. And that's not the end of the story, because there's also an option in the form of the EZ1000 Edit Operating Board, which allows comprehensive editing functions to be carried out and incidentally provides a QWERTY keyboard so that you can use the CPZ's computing power in conjunction with software that isn't necessarily of a musical nature. Again though, information on what precisely makes the Akai system tick was decidedly thin on the ground at Frankfurt, so we'll just have to wait until the gear hits these shores this summer before making any firm judgements on value for money.
Korg were also showing a music computer, though theirs is a little less technologically ambitious. A Z80-based machine that's been developed in conjunction with Epson, the MC4000 micro is already on sale in Japan, where it's accompanied by a micro disk drive, the MF1000. But most interesting of all is the specially-designed music synthesiser add-on, the MU5000. This 16-channel machine is capable of generating some mighty impressive sounds courtesy of the same Digital Waveform Generator System used in the DW6000 poly (see review elsewhere this issue), but Korg UK's problem is that all the currently-available Japanese software is of the Playalongamax home keyboard variety, and does scant justice to the synthesiser's potential. So whether Korg's British and European networks opt to bring in the whole system and write their own software, or whether they market only the MU5000 as a MIDI expander to be controlled from the DW6000 (which would be a shame) is something that probably won't be answered for some while yet.
Still on the subject of computers, the world's leading manufacturers of custom-designed computer music systems had one or two tricks up their sleeves rather than anything really earth-shattering. The Series III Fairlight won't now be available till later in the year, but the Australians were demonstrating an ingenious little device called the Voicetracker, which is capable of receiving analogue information from the human voice, converting it into digital data, and then outputting it through MIDI and CV connections so that it can be used to control virtually any synth you care to name. The machine even has a Video Out socket as well, so that you can see your voice's sonic characteristics in glorious colour graphics on a TV monitor. Most of the effects audible on Fairlight's stand were decidedly gimmicky, but there's no denying the fact that the Voicetracker's creative potential should be enormous.
There was plenty of activity over at E-mu Systems as well. Not content with resting on their laurels after the superlative achievement that was the Emulator II, the Californian company have now taken things to their logical conclusion by introducing the Drumulator II. The new machine adds programmable dynamics, tuning and level, MIDI and SMPTE connections, and above all, user-sampling to the list of facilities already provided by the existing E-mu rhythm machine. That sampling is undertaken with the help of a control panel identical in composition and layout to the same section on the Emulator II, and the machine will be upgradable to incorporate more sampling (up to 17 seconds' worth) and sequencing memory when it hits the UK in the summer.
Kurzweil and Linn have also put the finishing touches to user-sampling options, and demonstrated them with some aplomb during the show. Kurzweil's system uses software written for the Apple Macintosh micro, and provides the means for making their 250 digital keyboard a considerably more flexible instrument than it was previously. Conversely, Linn's sampling potential seems of almost incidental significance when you bear in mind that the 9000 drum machine and digital keyboard recorder to which it's being applied is already an extremely powerful creative tool. Well-endowed but surprisingly easy to use, the 9000 is now readily available after a production hiccup or two halted manufacture at the tail-end of 1984. We hope to publish a full appraisal of the unit in the near future.
Elsewhere in the upper echelons of the synth world, PPG nave brought out an updated Waveterm with the catchy title of Waveterm B. They've added a 16-bit processor to the unit, which in practical terms means greater sample time and quality, more sequencing space, and easier-to-use software. They've put a disk drive on the Processor Keyboard, too, so you can swap samples and sequences remotely during live or studio performance.
Further details on products from two possible newcomers to this end of the market are revealed elsewhere in this issue. The Advanced Sound Generator - latest development from the Oxford Synthesiser Company and subject of an exclusive preview - was re-titled 'The Black Box' as the Frankfurt extravaganza wound down to its inevitable close, but quite what it'll eventually surface as remains anybody's guess. It's a good unit, though, and if all the future software updates come to fruition, nobody will be able to ignore the Oxonians with any safety.
Computer Musician Consultant Editor David Ellis mentions German company Klangwerk in this month's Rumblings, and their Audio Operator sound-sampling keyboard was drawing plenty of attention during the course of the show. Aside from some rather questionable aesthetics (Star Trek control panels were never quite as ugly as this), and the fact that the built-in LCD doesn't look like it's going to be all that amenable to the idea of giving all the necessary information during the editing process, the Audio Operator looks to be a well-conceived and potentially strong contender in the race to provide a reasonably cost-effective computer music system.
Moving down to Earth a bit, there was plenty of hardware innovation to be seen from those synth manufacturers who, whilst they may not turn over quite the same quantity of product as the acknowledged Big Boys, nonetheless succeed in carving out a sizeable niche for themselves in today's electronic musical instrument market.
Take Sequential (they've now dropped the 'Circuits' bit in an attempt to improve their electro-credibility rating) as an example. In addition to the Max preset poly reviewed in E&MM January, the company were exhibiting two new bits of music hardware. It seems Max's percussive brother is to be called Tom, as that's the name Sequential have given their new digital drum machine. Tom has eight preset digital drum voices, but programmable tuning (a la the Drumtraks) and a plug-in cartridge system mean that Tom users will be more than adequately served in that respect. And along with considerable programming versatility, some more up-to-the-minute styling and, naturally, full MIDI compatibility, Tom also has a unique feature called 'Human Factor', that lets you program tiny variations in level and tuning into your patterns. At last, a drum machine that makes mistakes - and all for under £900.
Sequential were also showing an upmarket analogue polysynth called the MultiTrak. Multi-timbral in the SCI tradition, the new synth has a five-octave velocity-sensing keyboard, an onboard multitrack sequencer, and a built-in stereo chorus unit to add spice to what's already a fat, healthy sound output. At least somebody's still flying the voltage-controlled flag...
Sequential's near-neighbours Oberheim have been having something of a quiet time of late, because although their Xpander synth module is a highly versatile beast, its prohibitive purchase price has limited its market potential. The company's Frankfurt showing should change all that. First off, there's the XK MIDI master keyboard, a fully dynamic, weighted-key device that should be a real boon for Xpander owners wishing to take advantage of that machine's programming versatility in those areas. Then there's the Matrix 12 programmable polysynth, which is probably best described as the XK and the Xpander in combination, but whose purchase price represents a considerable saving over what Oberheim want for the modular set-up. And just to make sure nobody forgets that the company make drum machines too, they introduced a new version of the popular DX digital unit, along with an optional expander add-on called the DX Stretch, which sounds to me as though it could be mistaken for a new Elastoplast product, though clearly Oberheim themselves are perfectly happy with it.
Meanwhile, down in sunny Italy, things are also proceeding apace. Crumar had their Bit 01 MIDI expander on demo: six of those linked up to a Bit One poly really do sound impressive, and if UK importers Chase can keep the 01's selling price down to below the £400 mark, there'll be no shortage of takers. Mind you, the other Bit series products we were promised back in October - sequencer, sound-sampling drum machine, music computer - were nowhere to be seen, which was a pity. There's no word yet as to when these might become available, either, so I hope the R&D hitches aren't as far-reaching as some cynics might feel they have cause to suggest.
There's been no such foot-dragging over at Siel, however, as their tastefully hi-tech stand revealed. They've got a new budget MIDI polysynth called the DK80 (which incidentally sees the company succumbing to the economies of digital parameter selection on a synth for the first time), and an add-on expander module called, wait for it, the Expander 80. The interesting thing about the DK is that it's bi-timbric, ie. it does what Sequential's multi-timbral instruments do, only at a third of the power. What that means in practice is that you can split the machine's voices into two groups that can then be assigned to different halves of the dynamic keyboard (the split-point is programmable), recorded separately on the built-in two-channel sequencer, and assigned different MIDI channel numbers for improved communication to the outside world. As I've said, both the series 80 machines employ digital parameter selection, but to ease programming for synth players dissatisfied with what this system offers them, Siel's software division have come up with a couple of excellent editing programs (for Commodore 64 and Spectrum) that put all the parameters on-screen and allow all functions to be carried out using a joystick if you have one: no more menus' full of control options to memorise, in other words.
And that's not all Siel's programmers have been doing, either. If you're a Commodore owner and you're into MIDI, you'll soon be able to avail yourself of a digital delay package that does its job by applying a user-variable time delay between the MIDI transmit and receive signals, a MIDI database program that allows you to store voice patches from different synths under convenient family headings (a real boon for live work), and another package curiously titled 'Keyboard Multitracking', which lets you split the keyboards and vary the MIDI channel numbers of instruments that don't incorporate these facilities as part of their manufacturers' standard specification.
All in all, it would seem that the Italians are doing an excellent job in trying to prove they can produce both hardware and software to specs and prices that'll keep the Japanese on their toes. Which, when all is said and done, can only be good for the impecunious but nonetheless ambitious musician.
Don't write the nips off, though. The sleeping giant that is Casio may not have had all that much that was newsworthy on show at Frankfurt, but the company are making little secret of the fact that the CZ101 polysynth and its full-size keyboard variant, the CZ1000, are merely the tip of what will be a large and impressive pro music iceberg. Before 1985 is out, the company will be offering an upmarket (!) Phase Distortion poly called the CZ5000, featuring a full-size five-octave keyboard, 32 preset sounds with a similar number of memory locations for user programs, and built-in digital keyboard recorder. And if you can't manage that, Casio will be happy to supply you with a dedicated, MIDI-compatible digital sequencer by the name of SZ1, which is unremarkable in all respects except its price-under £300.
It now seems certain that the full Cosmo computer music system developed by the company for Tomita's Ars Electronica performance will never become available to the general public, but what's also certain is that the elements contained within it (music computer with sequencing and editing software, sound-sampling boards, disk drives, etc) will all be making their way into High Street music shops within a year or two. Watch out, world.
There was more, much more. Any number of interesting-looking products that may never see the light of a British day, like Kawai's new SX240 polysynth, Solton's rapidly-expanding MIDI system (it now includes polysynths, expanders, sequencers and drum machines -soon electronic drum kits, too), and a whole host of locally-brewed MIDI software packages that may not have presented anything truly revolutionary, but nevertheless had something to offer. Even more examples of that fascinating new phenomenon, the Small Black Box. Nothing whatsoever to do with OSC, this term refers to that apparently insignificant but actually rather useful MIDI-compatible unit that gives you four outputs where you previously had one/lets you change all your MIDI channel numbers/means you can control all your MIDI levels remotely. Korg have got one that provides the digital drum voices of their popular DDM series machines but leaves the controlling to an external MIDI device, thereby preventing unnecessary duplication of sequencing software; Akai have got a digital delay that introduces no signal degradation because it operates on the same MIDI principles as the Siel software package mentioned above; and Roland are about to introduce the world's first-ever MIDI-to-CV converter box, so now you can control your ageing analogue monosynth direct from a MIDI keyboard. You lucky so and so.
Show Report by Dan Goldstein
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