More Than A Fair Result
Lager bottle in hand, the Editor guides you through the gallery of new music technology on demonstration at last month's newly-public British Music Fair. Plus lots of photographs so that those who missed it can find out what the gear looks like.
August's British Music Fair not only gave our music industry a welcome shot in the arm. It also gave the nation's musicians a guaranteed annual public show for the foreseeable future.
It's too early to say, I know, but a week after Olympia 2 shed itself of synthesisers, computers, Portakabins full of organs, know-all musicians, know-nothing musicians, know-a-little-bit-but-only-started-reading-E&MM-last-month musicians, frustrated salespeople, overworked demonstrators, and drunken members of the music press, it seems likely the hall is going to be opening its doors to the same motley crew next year — and probably every year until everybody gets fed up and takes up gardening instead.
There were an awful lot of musicians at BMF '85: a total of 13,653, in fact, plus a further 5,102 trade visitors who turned up during the first three days of the show. They came from all parts of the country (and abroad), and they came in many different shapes and sizes: from the millionaire to the impecunious, from the expert to the novice, from the computer buff to the Iron Maiden fan. And they were all there for the same purpose: to try out the latest gear, see if it did what they'd been told it did, and judge whether or not it was worth taking out a second mortgage to buy. So the salespeople were frustrated because they knew that if they left the stand to which they belonged, they stood only an evens chance of getting back on it again within half-an-hour. The demonstrators were overworked because excessive demand meant they had to play the same four songs not 30 times in six days, but 50. And the members of the press were drunk because... well, because that's what members of the press go to these exhibitions for. They also attend them so that when they get back to the office, they can sit in front of their word processors and compile a comprehensive report on what was new at the show, so that all those that didn't attend (shame on you) can get the lowdown on the latest innovations.
In the event, all four of E&MM's staff members turned up at some stage or other, as did a goodly number of our regular contributors, so what follows isn't just What The Editor Saw. To be fair, though, it was The Editor who guessed the area to make a beeline for would be the Akai stand, a black, distinctly hi-tech affair wherein the prolific Mr Kokubo (a freelance composer who has an impressive list of credits in his native Japan) was directing the demo operations with as deft a hand as any musical instrument manufacturer could wish for. He was more than ably assisted by two young Oriental girls, Seiko Kobayashi and Naomi Maki, who played, adjusted, danced and smiled their way through a meticulously-prepared half-hour set that demonstrated Akai's latest product to remarkable effect. True, much of the sound was pre-recorded and replayed using a couple of Akai's MG1212 12-track cassette systems, but there was plenty of live action too, as more than a few hapless pressmen discovered. Between them, Seiko and Naomi used no fewer than a dozen S612 MIDI samplers, complete with matching MD280 disk drives. Even with this much in the way of sampling hardware, the two girls still had to do an awful lot of disk-swapping (something they carried out with great aplomb), though this was made a lot easier by the fact that the 280 has a built-in rack for housing the floppies of your choice. Neat and well laid-out, the machine uses the new Japanese Quick-disk standard, and at an RRP of £279, makes an indispensable partner for the S612 (£899).
The ladies had a few more tricks up their sleeve, though, in the shape of a pair of MX76 MIDI master keyboards (due to hit the UK in quantity before the year is out) and a similar number of VX90 MIDI voice modules (ditto), which provided most of the synth (ie. unsampled) noises. Both the keyboard and the module had been seen before at the Frankfurt show as long ago as February, but the same couldn't be said for the AX60 polysynth, a brand-new machine aimed slightly downmarket from the established AX80. The 60 has taken the place of the previously-seen AX90 (which, had it appeared, would have been upmarket from the 80) in the Akai scheme of things, and jolly decent it seems, too. For a six-voice, one-oscillator-per-voice job, the 60 was far from overshadowed sonically by its more expensive stablemates during the demos, though some of the credit for this must go to its comprehensive built-in digital delay and stereo chorus facilities. It also has an arpeggiator and a splittable keyboard, but you won't see the AX60 for a while yet, I'm afraid. The pair of BMF prototypes have now been shipped back to Japan, where they'll get a number of modifications including a fluorescent display of editable parameters similar to the one on the AX80. The stern-faced 'technical man' from Japan who gave me that information refused to comment on reports that his company were working on an upmarket sampling device (probably called S812), but he did confirm they were having problems with their dedicated music computer, the CPZ1000. Since it made its debut at the aforesaid Frankfurt shindig, the CPZ (together with matching RZ1000 and EZ1000 sequencing and editing add-ons) hasn't changed too much, so that although the hardware side of things is now pretty much finalised, Akai's software writers still have a job on their hands if they're to come up with a package facility-laden enough to justify the system's high price-tag. To be fair, though, that price-tag has undergone a drastic and welcome cut, from the previously-quoted £3299 to a now-probable £1999.
Next-door to Akai were Casio. Their demonstrator, Richard Young, had neither the charm nor the sex appeal of Akai's femmes fatales (Oh, I don't know... - Production Ed), but his conversation was a lot better, and his performances no less dedicated. The people at Casio had a carefree grin on their faces for much of the show's duration, but they've good reason to look happy. The company's relaunch into the professional side of the music biz has been wildly successful, with their CZ range of Phase Distortion polysynths - proving justifiably successful with dealers and punters alike. Now they're seeking to consolidate their position hy introducing a number of new machines, but only one of these, the SZ1 digital sequencer, was on dem at the BMF. The SZ1 looks unexceptional, but as this issue's review shows, beauty is more than skin deep and, seeing as the device has a quite ridiculous price-tag attached to it, it should prove yet another winner for the pocket calculator people. As for the rest of the new gear, mystery reigns. Even after well-nigh three bottles of Yugoslav Laski Riesling, bossman Martin Brady would say nothing about Casio's rumoured sub-£1000 sampling keyboard, sub-£500 sampling drum machine, or anything else that isn't already officially in existence. A lesser man would have given way to the pressures of the grapevine, but Brady gave way only to the grape in its liquid, high-in-alcohol form.
In fact, if there was a theme to this year's BMF, that theme was alcohol. Maybe it was the prospect of thousands of swarming, slobbering and swearing musos rushing onto the stands that did it, but even during the three trade days (and at £1.10 a pint), business at the Exhibitors' Club bar was brisk. Yamaha did the sensible thing and locked a whole load of booze in a small 'VIPs only' room at one comer of their vast stand. No sooner had we arrived on said stand, than computer expert Martin Tennant had whisked us through the door and sat us down with a sandwich in one hand and a can of Skol in the other. 'But what about the instruments?', we pleaded. 'What about the music? What about the technology?' Tennant was unmoved, but he did eventually take us through some new CX5M software that had arrived in the UK just two days before. The software included an impressive-looking MSX graphics package (for use with Yamaha's Music Macro software), some equally impressive educational programs (one of them reads music off a playcard system similar to the one employed in a couple of Yamaha's more domestically-oriented keyboards), and the now-finished RX Editor package, which we hope to be reviewing in next month's E&MM. You may remember that another new CX5 program, a four-track MIDI Recorder, was shown at the beginning of the year alongside the RX Editor, but whereas all the bugs have been ironed out of the latter, Yamaha seem to be having second thoughts about the former, which has yet to surface in production form. The company's apparent reluctance to release sequencing software that can be accessed using external MIDI instruments has led to at least one British software writer developing his own system. In this instance, it's an eight-track real- and step-time package that lets you use both external MIDI gear and the CX5's internal FM sounds to record with, and also allows you to dump finished songs to MSX disk (Yamaha were exhibiting a new disk drive at the BMF), something everyone had thought couldn't be done because the CX5's sound chip got in the way of some of the MSX Disk Operating System's address lines. The system isn't yet in production and doesn't yet have Yamaha's blessing, but if Martin Tennant is enthusiastic about something and it isn't lager, you can bet it's worth looking into. Just remember where you read it first...
Security at the BMF was on the whole pretty good, so imagine our surprise when, waltzing casually back onto the Yamaha stand near the show's end with the object of relieving them of an RX21 drum machine for review purposes, we were greeted by a red-faced Jerry Uwins, group gear manager extraordinaire. 'Er, the RX21 I was going to let you guys have for review has, er, just been nicked', said Uwins, pointing a trembling finger at a section of the stand where a mains lead and a pair of headphones dangled aimlessly from their polystyrene mounting. Like most of the other exhibitors, Yamaha had put the emphasis on 'hands-on' testing of equipment in order to give musicians something to get their teeth into without being disturbed. And somebody on that final Sunday afternoon had obviously found the RX21 too nice-sounding, too easily programmable and, most important, too easily portable for temptation to be resisted. Luckily, they found us another machine to take away and look at, but if someone offers you a cheap (all right, even cheaper) RX21 down the pub over the next few weeks, call Shaw Taylor immediately.
No such problems on the SIEL stand, due in part to the fact that what was to have been the company's star attraction, a new polysynth by the name of DK70, didn't arrive in time for the show. Thus, it was very much the tried and tested on the professional part of the Italians' display, but there was plenty of evidence that the company isn't afraid to introduce innovations to the domestic market. Latest of these is an ingenious hardware and software package that allows Commodore 64 users to escape the confines of the dreaded SID chip in one easy step. It's called the Sound Buggy, and provides rhythm, bass and melody voices that can be programmed from the computer using the accompanying software and stored for later use. It's even MIDI-compatible, and costs so little (£99) that even the least musical CBM64 user is going to have difficulty ignoring it for any length of time.
SIEL UK were also playing host to an excellent new drum system, also for Commodore machines, that deserves to take off in a big way. The Syntron Digidrum (for that is its name) uses a selection of remarkably accurate drum voices, generated entirely in software and updatable at any time simply through the acquisition of new disks containing new libraries of sounds. You can program these voices in step time or what SIEL call 'partial real time', dumping rhythm patterns to disk as soon as you've finished them. Again, watch this space for a review as soon as the software is in full production.
Plenty more software was in evidence on the Rosetti stand. Rosetti are an old industry stalwart who've recently taken the bold step of buying themselves out from their previous parent company, Thorn EMI. The result is a more attacking marketing strategy which should benefit the company's hi-tech lines, namely Jellinghaus MIDI software and IVL Technologies' Pitchrider. JMS have now perfected their Scorewriter program for the Commodore 64, and it's now possible to buy their 12-track Recording Studio, Sequence Chain and Scorewriter programs as one EPROM-based package, saving money (total cost is just £339) and reducing loading times to a fraction of what they would be if the system were on disk. The Scorewriter prints traditional music notation with consummate ease from whatever music you may have stored using the sequencing software, and you can specify a setting for a number of different parameters, such as how many staves you want the music arranged on. There's a lot more still to come from JMS, though, particularly on the hardware front, with digital percussion units, drum-to-MIDI converters and vast, control-laden DX7 programmers 'just around the corner'.
As for the Pitchrider, this is an ingenious pitch-to-MIDI converter that Rosetti have just started bringing in from the States. We heard it tracking a flute flawlessly, but as man-on-the-spot Doug Ellis pointed out, any instrument that produces more in the way of complex harmonics than the flute's simple sinewaves leaves the current system somewhat at a loss. Much less easily caught out is a newer, more elaborate version of Pitchrider designed to work with guitar signals, and this machine should be arriving on these shores as you read this. More details as and when we have them.
Rosetti also unveiled two new Gibson guitars (a Les Paul and an Explorer, to be exact) with Roland guitar synth pickups built in. Not to be outdone, however, Roland themselves were showing an entirely new guitar-based machine, the GR77B bass guitar synth. The transition to four strings has obviously meant changes to both the controller (the G77) and the synth sections as distinct from their six-string counterparts, and in the case of the synth, the change has meant a switch from JX3P to JX8P sound-generation. What this means is that Roland bassists currently have a rather more versatile synthesiser at their disposal than their guitar-playing colleagues. We predict Roland will have attended to this situation come Frankfurt '86.
Whatever they do, though, it's clear Roland are no longer content to base their musical instrument manufacture in the pro keyboard arena. Once the darlings of the budget synth industry, the company have now diversified their interests to encompass sound reinforcement gear, guitars, drums, home recording and domestic musical instruments. And, being a rather clever lot, they've ensured that no matter what they've released, it's had MIDI tacked onto the back. Which is why so many musicians of so many kinds were seen gawking respectfully at the home recording demos (featuring the SRV2000 reverb reviewed this issue), and the band presentations at which every instrument - polysynth, guitar synth, effects unit, drum machine, electronic drumkit - was electronically compatible with every other.
Clever they may be, but the Roland people were just as susceptible to the lure of drink as anyone else at the BMF, so that when beleaguered demonstrator Alan Townsend spluttered 'hangover' into a microphone with the object of storing it in the new Boss DSD2 sampling delay pedal, he meant every word of it.
As for the young fellows at Korg, they had every reason to be punch-drunk before the show had even started. Not only had their new SQD1 turned out to be even better than first reports had suggested (the vast memory and the built-in Quick-disk drive were one thing, but the under-£600 RRP was another), but the company also had a couple of prototype DW8000 polysynths on dem, too, at the more than capable hands of Paul Brookes. The 8000 has more of what the earlier DW6000 should have had, in the shape of a velocity-sensitive keyboard and an excellent, programmable digital delay line onboard. The preset sounds are better than they were on the 6000, too, but apparently they're not good enough for Korg UK, who've now sent the 8000s back whence they came, for reprogramming and the fitting of a better keyboard. That done, the 8000 will have more than a firm base from which to launch itself into the sub-£1000 polysynth battleground. Korg even have a matching rackmounting expander, the EX8000, on the stocks to be unleashed at about the same time as the DW8000. The EX's electronics are identical to those of the DW, right down to the digital delay, so now you can tie two synth patches in with two delay patches to make one, vast audible assault. The implications are mind-boggling...
I mentioned word processors at the start of this feature, and mine is now telling me I'm running out of wordspace. Result? This last bit is going to be necessarily brief. So, apologies are in order to the following for not getting anything like the coverage they deserved. To Simmons, whose SDS9 demonstrations were simply sensational, and did more to reduce the number of doubting Thomases in the 'drummers don't want modern technology' camp than anything else at the show. If you went along and saw them bashing wonderful synth solos out on a load of hexagonal pads, you'll know what I mean. To Pacifex (nee Syco), on whose stand many musicians spent long hours studying the wondrous Fairlight CVI (that's Computer Video Instrument, for those at the back who haven't been listening) in action in glorious - largely post-produced - colour on monitors placed strategically out of reach of the over-curious. Meanwhile, more sensible individuals took their place in the queues to play Ensoniq Mirage sampling keyboards, of which there were several scattered about the tasteful demonstration area. To all those that participated in the many concerts, lectures and related events that took place during the public days, and thereby provided relief for show-weary journalists as well as showing hordes of musicians what can be done if you take the trouble to learn how to manipulate technology successfully. Particularly praiseworthy are the efforts of Turnkey's Nick Williams, Dave Whittaker and Peter-John Vettese, whose PPG/Oberheim/Synclavier demos were even more splendid than that equipment line-up would suggest; and Yamaha's Micky Barker, John Etheridge, Dave Bristow and John Chowning, who between them got a lot of information across in about as accessible a way as I can think of - through the performance of good, inventively written and sensitively played music. Pure and simple.
Show Report by Dan Goldstein
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