Atari ST Software
If you've been forced to treat your Casio VZ as a "preset" synth because of its programming system, VZ-ED could bring it back to life. Gordon Reid witnesses the VZ resurrection shuffle.
When a synth fails to captivate the imagination of musicians, can something as unexciting as a software editor rescue it from obscurity? Casio's VZ and Quinsoft's ED may have the answer.
MANY SYNTHS HAVE come and gone over the years. Some were destined to become classics, others to fade into obscurity. Three less fortunate instruments are the Casio VZ1 (keyboard), VZ10M (rackmount), and their less powerful brother, the VZ8M. Despite a positive MT review in September '88, the VZs died on the streets. In only two years the asking price for a VZ1 crashed from £1299 to about £350, while the VZ10M dived from £899 to little over £200. In the States, the VZ10M is now selling for $239 (£120) and the VZ8M for $189 (£95). Even in a fashion-orientated industry, prices slashed to that extreme are, well, extreme. In comparison, Korg's flagship M1 was launched at almost the same time as the VZ1 and priced around the £1500 mark. Today it sells for £1200.
Something must be seriously wrong with a series of synths for them to fail like the Casios did. Yet the VZ1 is, on the face of it, a useful synthesiser. It features a pleasant, velocity- and pressure-sensitive keyboard, 192 patches and 192 combinations on-line at any given time, extensive performance controls, and enormous editing possibilities. Even the sound, which is built up from "modules" to "voices" which then become "operation memories" (patches to you and me) is worth a second, or even a third, listen.
A great deal of the blame for the VZ's failure must be attached to their operating system. Trying to find someone who regularly edits their VZ is like searching for the Holy Grail. The VZ is crippled by the most infuriating and unusable firmware ever incorporated within a musical instrument. To make matters worse, its MIDI specification is awful. Consequently, there is a total lack of software for the VZs and, until very recently, a complete dearth of third-party voices. And, in these days of instant musical gratification, that's a formula for disaster.
If the VZs are such lame ducks, why bother writing about them? The answer lies in the sound of the VZ. If you take a very deep breath, ignore the factory presets, and dive deep into the system, you will discover a powerful, expressive, and unusual synthesiser. iPD is a unique method of synthesis; potentially more powerful than any LA synth (with perhaps the exception of the D50/D70), warmer than FM, and richer in texture than synths such as the Kawai or cheaper Ensoniqs. The problem with the VZs isn't the sound, or even the hardware - it's the onboard (firmware) editor. Enter UK software house Quinsoft with their VZ-ED Editor/Librarian. If you've got a VZ waiting to be carted off to the Oxfam shop, or even if you're in the market for a cheap expander, VZ-ED could be exactly what you've been waiting for.
QUINSOFT HAVE ALREADY found favour within these pages for their Yamaha 4-op librarians, and the initial impression given by VZ-ED is also positive. Many low-cost packages feel, and look, cheap, but this one does not. The hard plastic video-style case containing the floppy disk and manual should be proof against coffee spillages and other accidental damage. The manual itself is brief (16 pages) but well laid out, clear, and to the point. However, it's certainly not a tutorial on the use and programming of the VZ itself. While every effort has clearly been made to achieve simplicity and aid intuitive operation, (three pages of the manual are devoted to explaining something of the synth's programming quirks) it will still be necessary to understand something of the VZ's operation. Tough.
VZ-ED (which runs on any ST from the 520 upwards) can be used in two modes - full handshaking, and MIDI echo. Full handshaking requires two MIDI connections between the synth and the Atari (VZ Out to Atari In and vice-versa) whereas MIDI echo enables the VZ10M and VZ8M modules to be edited using one connection only (Atari Out to VZ In), while a second connection (controller keyboard Out to Atari In) is used to play the module. Clearly, MIDI echo does exactly what the name implies - sends all MIDI information received at the Atari's In port to the VZ module on the appropriate MIDI channel - but has the disadvantage that you're unable to dump sounds back from the VZ to the computer.
A single VZ voice contains ten modules (eight sound modules, a pitch envelope generator, and a rate-scaling section) plus various global parameters such as LFOs and tuning. Consequently, while each voice contains over 500 parameters, most of these are duplicates of each other. Because of this, it's possible to reduce the number of parameters needed on-screen at any given time to just those associated with the module being edited. This still amounts to 60 parameters at a time, but the whole editor can now be crammed into a single screen. The top of this screen contains the Global parameters - patch name, tuning, volume and so on. Below these are the Module parameters - waveforms, envelopes, detune - and, at the bottom, the module selectors/enables, plus the program control boxes - Load, Save, Get, Send, and Backup. One helpful feature is 'Get Backup' which will swap the edit buffer with a copy of the unedited voice. This enables you to edit a voice, compare it to the original, and return to the edited version for further tinkering if desired. It is, of course, a computer implementation of the compare/recall function. Apart from the above, there are two other areas defined on screen. The first of these, on the far left, is the parameter value slider, the action of which is duplicated using the Atari's "+" and cursor up/down keys. The other is the Extras button which takes you to a subsidiary page containing options for MIDI control, copying parameters between voices, initialising the editor, and printing out the librarian buffers.
VZ-ED has clearly been designed with the shortcomings of the computer mouse in mind because all its functions can be controlled from the keyboard. However, in common with some other editors, the mouse can be used to preview an edited sound. Click on the right-hand button and the current voice will sound. Move the mouse left or right and the pitch changes. Move it towards or away from yourself and the MIDI velocity changes. Finally, press the left-hand button, and 50% modulation is also applied.
"VZ-ED comes supplied with two banks of 64 VZ voices - these are possibly the only known examples of VZ libraries available on disk."
The VZ1 and VZ10M have large bit-mapped LCD screens capable of displaying graphic envelopes as well as module cross- and ring-modulation arrangements. Therefore it's surprising that the computer-based editor lacks these facilities. The manual explains that there is no room on screen for graphics, and that such graphics are often misleading and therefore undesirable. Nevertheless, many programmers and synthesists are hooked on graphic envelopes, and will feel uncomfortable returning to numerical editing. Since many Atari editors offer both methods, there's no reason why this one shouldn't. It would be relatively straightforward to hide the graphics behind the main editing page and call them up, module by module, as and when required.
Despite the above, VZ-ED is surprisingly simple and quick to use, and most of the barriers which prevent you from getting a decent sound out of your VZ disappear as soon as you start playing with the editor. Waveform selection, EGs, modulation - everything falls quickly and easily to hand, and modifying voices (or even building sounds from scratch) becomes quick, simple, and fun. Within a few minutes I was creating sounds that I wasn't aware that the VZ could produce at all. Unfortunately "live" editing is impossible because the VZs will only accept whole patches dumped over MIDI (500 parameters every time) and there's a significant delay while the editor sends, and the synth receives, all that data. Nevertheless, once you've used VZ-ED you'll never want to do without it.
Now the problems: the VZ patch structure is similar to that of an LA partial-based synth, and the voices (made up from four quasi-partials each comprised of two modules) are only the third stage in a five-stage patch creation process. Beyond the voices lie the Operation Memories (Casio's unwieldy name for patches which include more than one voice) and above this level lie the multitimbral setups. The OMs are undoubtedly where the real power of the VZ lies but, due to yet another deficiency in the VZ MIDI spec, VZ-ED cannot access or edit these. Consequently, the top two layers of editing are completely missing from the Quinsoft package, and you still have to build your performance patches using the front panel of the synth. Minus marks for Casio's R&D department.
IF YOU'RE NOT a programmer by nature, a patch librarian may be your only way of extending a VZ's use. It's common for an editor to include a librarian but, to its credit, the VZ-ED Librarian is perhaps one of the best laid out, and the simplest to operate yet. Clicking on the To Library box in the main editor screen takes you directly to the librarian, and presents you with areas for two banks of VZ voices (64 voices numbered A1-H8), Load, Save, Get, and Send controls for each, and two patch bank-select boxes. The final box on this screen is labelled To Editor and this, not surprisingly, returns you to the editor. Using the librarian is simplicity itself, and having two banks in memory (and on screen) at the same time enables you to compile new libraries without having to involve the VZ itself. For example, you can load an existing library into Bank A and drag the sounds you want from it into the desired locations in Bank B. Then load a second library into A, and drag the sounds you want from that one into the vacant areas in B, continuing in this fashion until you have compiled a completely new voice bank. Dragging the voices could not be simpler or more intuitive. Simply click on the patch name and drag the icon to a new location in the voice bank displays.
Load and Save perform exactly as expected - they load voice banks from disk, and save to disk when required but, in common with most operations associated with the VZ itself, the Get and Save operations are much more tedious than they should have to be. To perform a bulk dump on a VZ, you have to update three of its menus before requesting, or transmitting, the data. With admirable consideration, the program prompts you with onscreen advice until the operation is completed.
The Librarian also allows you to audition individual voices. Clicking on a voice name in the patch bank displays will send it to both the VZ-ED patch buffer and the VZ's internal edit buffer. The voice can then be played normally from your synth or master keyboard. Unfortunately, just like the editor, the librarian can't handle Operation Memories. Consequently, dumping a new bank of voices into the Casio's internal RAM yields some very un-musical results on the OM level because the voice allocation within the OMs remains unchanged. The effect is the same if you modify all the partials in a D50 without modifying the patches themselves. On the positive side, the librarian works (within its limitations) faultlessly. A checksum is performed after every Get and Send operation and, to both Casio and Quinsoft's credit, I never saw a bad transmission or bad reception warning.
"The VZ isn't a bad synth, just difficult to use without additional software - and VZ-ED makes programming as simple as it can be."
A DESK ACCESSORY called Loader is also included with VZ-ED. This contains the Load and Send algorithms and can be used alongside many sequencers as well as other Atari ST programs. However, because of the size of VZ voice dumps, it may impede sequencers running on limited memory. In addition, Quinsoft do not guarantee its operation when used in conjunction with non-standard operating systems such as those supplied by Steinberg and Dr T's. The Loader isn't copy protected, so you can copy it onto any other disks that you may be using.
VZ-ED is supplied with two banks of 64 VZ voices. Quinsoft and their distributor, Patchworks, each supply one bank, and these are possibly the only known examples of VZ libraries available on disk. It's always good to see libraries included with librarians because it gives your humble reviewer something with which to experiment but, more importantly, because the libraries are worth serious money, and do much to offset the price of the editor/librarian itself. Some of the VZ-ED voices are quite good, some (the manual states that "too many knock-em-dead sounds can spoil a perfectly good piece of music") are tedious, and one or two are really rather exciting.
IT'S THREE YEARS since the launch of the VZ series, and it's quite possible that we've seen the last of Casio's pro-orientated synthesisers. Was the VZ1 designed by robots intending it to be sold to computers, or was it a disaster that should never have been allowed to happen? Either way, Casio undermined the reputation they had built with the CZ101 and, perhaps, permanently removed themselves from the serious hi-tech arena. Yet the VZ is not a bad synthesiser, it's just that it's impossible to use without additional software. VZ-ED is a significant step in the right direction, and probably makes programming the VZ as simple as it can be. Most importantly, it makes you feel as if you have, at last, some measure of control over the instrument. Bearing in mind the operating system of the synth itself, Quinsoft deserve much credit for reducing the mountain of parameters and graphics to two such usable screens.
Should you rush out to buy VZ-ED? In the absence of any serious competition, and unless you've managed to come to terms with the synth as it is, the answer has to be "yes". In addition, a librarian is always worth owning if you're serious about a keyboard. Floppy disks are a lot cheaper than RAM cards, and a single ROM card can cost just as much as the VZ-ED editor, librarian, desk accessory, and free voice banks.
Finally, if you don't already own a VZ, should you now be thinking of buying one? The answer this time depends on the rest of your gear and your financial resources. Just remember, the VZ10M now represents excellent value at around £200, and you need to add only another £50 for the editor and librarian.
Price £49.95 including VAT
More From Patchworks, (Contact Details).
Review by Gordon Reid
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