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Professionals Just Wanna Have Fun

Musik Messe Frankfurt Report

Every year without fail, hi-tech instrument manufacturers congregate in the huge exhibition halls of frankfurt to show off their very latest creations. Paul Ireson brings you the edited highlights of this year's show.

Paul Ireson reports on the 1991 Frankfurt Musik Messe.

Visitors to the Roland stand, their largest ever in Frankfurt.

If this is March, it must be Frankfurt. The Frankfurt Musik Messe, whilst being the most important music fair on the European calendar, is somewhat overshadowed by the stateside NAMM show that immediately precedes it. So it was that Frankfurt '91 lacked the buzz that it might have had if the products seen for the first time here hadn't already had a public airing in California. A month, it seems, can be a long time in the world of hi-tech music.

Nevertheless, Roland managed to make quite an impression with at least three of their new products. The JD800, already reviewed in these pages, proved understandably popular, and staff of at least one rival company acknowledged that Roland have taken a significant step in improving the user interface of contemporary digital synths. Whether other companies will go down a similar path in future will probably depend entirely on the public's reaction to the JD800 (ie. how many they buy). Ikaturo Kakehashi, Roland's MD, explained that the design concept of the JD800 was to strike a balance between giving the musician control over as many aspects of sound as possible and making access to this control as easy and intuitive as possible.

Roland also announced the Sound Canvas, a sound module that conforms to the proposed General MIDI standard, a "special case" of the MIDI spec that should mean the end of incompatibility problems for home keyboard players. There have been worries about the implications of General MIDI for the semi-pro and pro MIDI markets — essentially that the standard would impose limits on more adventurous users — but they seem ill-founded now that more details are available. All Roland's new products — the JD800, JX1 (an excellent 24-note polyphonic entry-level synth), SBX1000 cueing box, Rhodes VK1000 organ — were demonstrated with characteristic flair and good humour. As Ahmin Bahtia said at the end of a quick tour of the SBX1000 and S750 (a cut-down S770), during which he created an entirely new, German, soundtrack for a Bugs Bunny cartoon, "We're professionals, but we like to have fun". Proof of this came at Roland's traditional Frankfurt dinner, where eating and drinking took second place to a prolonged and very enjoyable ping-pong ball fight.

More fun was to be found on the Yamaha stand, where the ridiculously compact QY10 — 8-track sequencer, 8-part multi-timbral 28-note polyphonic synth with bass/chord/drums backing — attracted a good deal of attention. Rumour has it that with version 2.0 software, the QY10 will also make tea and remember where you put all those biros you can never find. The RY30 drum machine also looked good, with impressive real-time control over timbral and envelope characteristics of its sounds. Yamaha's beat boxes have often tended to seem rather dull in comparison with their rivals, but the RY30 seems a much more exciting animal.

Yamaha also have two interesting new effects units in the FX900 and EMP100. The first squeezes two FX500s into a 1U unit to create a powerful true stereo processor (seven effects in series, in parallel, or a bit of each), whilst the second offers a good deal to the more budget-conscious muso. Features include 20kHz bandwidth, tap tempo footswitch, and pitch shift among its various effects. Also on show were the first products from Yamaha's digital division: the DMC1000 digital mixing console; DRU8 recorder unit; DMR8 mixer/recorder; ADX 2-channel and 8-channel A-to-D convertors; DA8X 8-channel D-to-A convertor. Last but not least is the YPDR601 compact disc recorder, intended for producing short runs of CDs (promos etc.). Around £13,000 to you and me.

Not content to let Roland steal too much keyboard limelight, Yamaha also previewed the SY99, a development of the SY77 — but don't expect to see it in the shops until much later this year. The '99 will feature 8 megabytes of 48kHz samples, and four new DSPs to improve the effects section. The keyboard will stretch to 76 notes, and there's a facility to dump user samples into the keyboard, either via the disk drive or via MIDI.

The same idea — allowing user samples to be imported into sample-based synths — has been implemented rather more fully by Peavey in their updated hi-tech product range. The DPM3 keyboard has now become the DPM3SE, which can accept up to 1 MB of samples transferred via SCSI or MIDI from the DPM SE rackmount 16-bit 44.1kHz sample input unit (256K of RAM, expandable to 16MB). You can also transfer samples from the DPM SE to the DPM SX sample player (1MB RAM, expandable to 32MB). Given the low prices of the two rack units, £299 and £529 respectively, and also of the readily-available SIMMs with which they can be expanded, Peavey are offering a remarkably affordable sampling system — the synthesis angle is a bonus.

Still more ways of getting your own sounds in at the first stage of synthesis were on offer from Korg and Oberheim. Korg's Wavestation A/D, a rack version of the Wavestation synthesizer keyboard, goes beyond merely putting the guts of the Wavestation in a different box — there are analogue inputs that allow you to bring in external sounds and treat them almost like any other wave, to be vectored, filtered, renoberated, discombobulated and generally messed about.

On a rather higher level (about £23,000 higher, in fact), Korg's Workstation offers eight tracks of hard disk recording and editing, with digital mixing, effects, and MIDI sequencing into the bargain. The processor central to the Workstation is apparently also used in the A1, Korg's new top-of-the-line effects unit: up to seven effects at once, combined however you like; true stereo operation; digital i/o; insert points; effects quality that's right up there with top studio units... if it doesn't have it, you don't want it. All this for £1,299. The A2, a replacement for the A3 featuring 97 effects chains and better audio quality, is a little more affordable at £799.

Ah yes, and Oberheim. The OBM is quite possibly the ultimate "knobs 'n' more knobs" analogue module, which includes both Oberheim and Moog style filter sections, and an analogue input facility with on-board pitch-to-MIDI conversion. Price? If you need to ask, forget it.

One of the surprises of the show, for me at least, were Oberheim's Drummer and Strummer modules, both impressively user-friendly, useful, interactive MIDI processors. The Strummer analyses simple keyboard chords and outputs "strummed" versions of the chord, as a guitarist would play it, and there's plenty of room for user control over the exact style of the guitar emulation. The Drummer is essentially a drum sequencer which can modify its dynamics in response to your playing, and do it in a surprisingly musical manner. It will also generate fills in the style of your current pattern. Both units will be just under £150.

Ensoniq's new keyboards were all developments of existing products, rather than anything radically new. The SQ1 Plus and SQ2 are both SQ1 derivatives. The former is an upgraded SQ1, with 180 sounds, 24-bit effects, a 16-track sequencer and a whole new megabyte of 16-bit piano samples, doubling the original SQ1's memory. Existing SQ1s can be upgraded. The SQ2 features the same guts as the SQ1 Plus, but in a larger case with a 76-note weighted keyboard. Given the high degree of musician-friendliness with which Ensoniq manage to imbue their products, this looks a good choice for the performing keyboardist. Also new is the SD1, their new flagship. It's essentially a Mk II version of the VFXSD, but the changes were considered major enough to warrant a new name. The synthesis section is identical to the SD, but the output circuitry is taken from the EPS16 Plus, giving improved audio quality. More importantly, there's now 3.5MB of waveform ROM, including new piano waves, and the whole thing comes in a re-styled case.

Continuing the Proteus/Proformance "EIII sounds in an affordable box" theme, Emu's 32-note polyphonic Procussion (impressively demoed by Billy Cobham) crams over 1000 editable 16-bit sounds into a compact 1U case (£679). Expect to see it in the shops soon; later this year there'll also be a rack module based on the EIII. 16-bit stereo sampling, 24-note mono or 16-note stereo polyphonic playback, 32MB of RAM, digital i/o, and an optional 200MB hard drive. Yow!

The Procussion will probably face stiff competition from the Alesis D4 however, which offers over 400 drum sounds, drawn largely from the company's HR16, HR16B and SR16 machines, for just £399. The unit also features six audio trigger inputs for drum pickups/mics. Alesis had plenty more to show off: the impressive 3630 stereo dynamics processor (£249, not £499 as we reported last month); the Quadraverb GT; and the ADAT 8-track digital tape recorder.

It will be interesting to see how Fostex and Tascam react to the ADAT (for those who need reminding, an 8-track digital tape recorder featuring 45 minutes recording per track on S-VHS cassettes, and a sub-£4,000 price tag); whatever similar affordable digital multi-tracks they have in R&D will probably be brought out that much sooner than they otherwise would have been, but Alesis look set to steal a lead in the exciting new market for personal digital multitracks.

The steadily increasing interest in analogue synths, most obvious through the marketing of MIDI'd MiniMoogs and so on, has apparently led some keyboard players to seek out Akai's sound modules for their EWI wind controllers. Trouble is, although the units are quite happy with basic MIDI note data, there's a lot of expressive potential going to waste, as keyboards don't generate the right controller data. The X335i headset breath controller (£99) will, however. The S1100EX (£1899) is a polyphonic expander for the S1100 — basically an S1100 with no front panel controls apart from volume. Destined to be a big hit with those who just can't go out on tour without at least six S1000s in the rack. Front panel emulations are available on both the Mac and Atari. Of more general interest is the ME80P 8-in/10-out programmable MIDI patchbay: with its £229 price tag, it offers excellent MIDI management value for money.

Ever since someone invented software updates, it's been getting harder and harder to keep track of just what's available in the DSP field, or at least what version it's currently on. The ART Multiverb is now the Multiverb Alpha (more interesting than just 'Multiverb III', I suppose, which is what it would otherwise have been called). The main changes include complete freedom to combine effects in whatever order you like (rather than having to choose between a set of algorithms) and the addition of a rotary data entry dial to the front panel. Digitech's DSP256 has now been upgraded to the DSP256XL (£399), with improved sound quality. Also on show was Digitech's new DSP 16 (£269), with 128 preset effects (16-bit stereo, 16kHz bandwidth), and a limited degree of programmability.

Zoom announced the 9030, a half-rack multi-effects unit due for later this year — 50 effects programs, six effects at once. No more details were available, but judging by Zoom's track record, it'll certainly be worth looking out for.

A software update to Montarbo's R16 digital effects unit, available on Atari disk, transforms the unit into a spectrum analyser, with one graphic (1/3 octave) and two FFT operating modes. The ST monitor is used as a display.

Some things, however, are beyond the power of a software update to fix, and Frankfurt's one-way road system is probably one of them. It seems to have been designed with the simple principle in mind that you will never be able to work out a logical route back to wherever it is you started a journey. One UK visitor's regular drive back to his hotel, via the best route he could find, involved an illegal turn followed by a short sprint the wrong way up a one-way street.

There was plenty around to catch the eye of anyone looking for a new mixer, perhaps most notably Soundtracs' Megas and Soundcraft's new Spirit desks, offering high quality in two very competitively priced mixer ranges. The Spirit Studio consoles look like ideal partners for the latest 8 and 16-track recorders, with an unusually high desirability quotient for something as mundane as a mixer. The absence of MIDI mutes seems to be the only thing one could criticise; a reasonable omission given the value for money in all other respects, but it will give some potential buyers reason to look elsewhere, at an Allen & Heath Spectrum perhaps...

Finally, Soundcraft's Sapphyre (sic) also looks good, offering big console performance in a small(ish) frame to the studio or pro musician with around £10,000 to blow. Soundcraft claim that the in-line desk's audio performance is up to that of top studio consoles, with specs exceeding those of digital mastering systems. The desk also features noise gates on every channel, and 20, 28, 36 or 44 channel operation.

Previous Article in this issue

Free The Spirit!

Next article in this issue

King For A Day

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - May 1991

Show Report by Paul Ireson

Previous article in this issue:

> Free The Spirit!

Next article in this issue:

> King For A Day

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