Casio's first foray into the digital drum machine market, the RZ-1, offers all the usual rhythm features plus one extra - the facility to sample four of your own sounds. Mark Jenkins finds out if it matches his expectations.
The facilities offered by the new RZ-1 Sampling Rhythm Composer from Casio suggest that it will be a firm studio favourite in the months to come, and not only amongst the home recording fraternity, because the RZ-1, for all its budget price of less than £400, offers one attractive facility unavailable on any machine cheaper than the £4000 E-Mu SP-12: user-sampling. Mark Jenkins reports.
The RZ-1 is a pretty standard PCM-based drum machine, although with a generous number of features considering its price. PCM sampling is cheaper to implement than the EPROM-based sampling of the Linn, Drumtraks and Drumulator, but makes life more difficult if you want to alter the tuning of the sampled sounds by reading them out of memory at different speeds.
So, like the Roland TR707/727 and the Yamaha RX15 before it, the Casio has fixed tunings on all its drum sounds. The built-in sound selection is good though, there being 12 in all: Tom 1, Tom 2, Bass, Snare, Rimshot, Open Hi-Hat, Closed Hi-Hat, Claps, Cowbell, Ride Cymbal, Crash Cymbal, plus one to four user-samples which remain in memory even after the power is switched off.
Styled in a similar vein to the Yamaha RX machines, the Casio has 16 sound pads along its bottom edge which can be played in real-time. None of the pads are duplicated, so it's not so easy to play fast real-time fills however. The other pad-style controls are Start/Stop, Continue, Accent and Mute buttons, providing three volume levels which can be assigned to any sound on any beat.
There's a numeric keyboard for selecting Pattern and Song numbers and other data, five buttons with alternative functions in the Song and Pattern modes, and a handful of other controls covering Tape Load and Save for patterns and samples, a pair of Tempo up/down buttons, MIDI Channel and Clock mode select and Sample mode.
On the top edge of the panel are individual sliders to mix the drum volumes and these are parallelled by separate jack outputs on the back panel. When considering the quality of the individual sounds later (they're good, but by no means perfect), it's important to remember that the separate outputs mean that at least they can be treated with individual EQ and effects if desired, like the RX11, TR707/727 and EPROM-based machines but unlike the cheaper TR505, DDM110/220 and so on.
There's an overall output control slider and sample input level control in addition to the individual volume controls, but it's important to note that the following sounds share outputs and volume controls: Snare/Rim, Open/Closed Hi-Hat, Claps/Ride, Cowbell/Crash, Sample 1/2, Sample 3/4.
On the rear panel you'll find MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a multipin tape connector intended for an MSX-type recorder (don't worry - a suitable lead is provided), a footswitch start/stop jack socket, the sample input socket with mic/line switching, headphone output, pre-panned stereo/mono outputs, power on/off and tone controls for Sample 1/2 and Sample 3/4, to which we'll return later.
One advantage of the multiple output facility is that a jack inserted into any socket cuts that sound off from the mix output, so it isn't necessary to connect up all ten outputs individually if you want to, for instance, add reverb just to the snare. This standard of specification shows that Casio have thought long and hard about their first digital drum machine, although there are a couple of weak points which we'll outline later.
And the sounds themselves? Well, the bass drum is fairly thumpy, the toms suffer from a small amount of inherent sampling noise, the snare is reasonable, the cymbals have good tone and only suffer slightly from premature cut-off, the cowbell is good and the clap is ordinary. The user samples, as we'll see, are up to you!
For the newcomer to sound sampling, Casio supply a cassette of 91 sounds under the headings Basic, Latin and Electronic Percussion which you can take samples from. They offer nothing more imaginative though - no orchestral crashes or breaking bottles - but if you exceed the possibilities of their tape (it would benefit from a little gating while sampling by the way), you could always go for the Dolby B chrome sample tapes from Timbre, the Korg sampling cassette or something similar.
Sampling on the Casio is a very simple process to initiate. Hold down the Sample button and Sample 1 together, then feed a sound into the sample input to trigger the sampler. The display flashes SampleOK! and it can then be played back from the Sample 1 pad - no editing of the sound is possible.
Sample length is 0.2 seconds, and if you want to increase this you simply hold down Sample 1 and Sample 2 for a 0.4 second sample, or Sample 1 and Sample 4 for a 0.8 second sample (which is longer than it sounds!).
Playback quality is generally very good, with only a slight tendency to distort on high input levels or heavy harmonics. Some aliasing noise can be removed using the rear panel (lowpass filter) tone controls, although as with the other sounds, it's not possible to change the tuning of the samples so at least some of the attraction of the whole sampling process is lost.
The samples, once captured, are written into patterns in the same way as for the built-in sounds, and it must be said that the compositional procedure on the RZ-1 is mega-simple. In fact, I managed to work it out without opening the handbook, something which couldn't be said of many other drum machines on the market.
The RZ-1's storage capacity is 100 patterns and 20 songs of up to 99 patterns in length - a silly sort of figure and one which is easily exceeded in my experience. You can play up to eight sounds on any beat but you can't use the sounds from any pair of adjacent pads together - which excludes combinations of Tom 1 and 2, Tom 3 and Bass, Rim and Snare, Open and Closed Hi-Hat, Claps and Ride, Cowbell and Crash, Sample 1 and 2, or Sample 3 and 4.
Pattern mode and Song mode each have five major functions - Record, Delete, Auto-Compensate, Beat and Reset/Copy; and Edit, Delete, Insert, Chain and Reset/Copy respectively. Beats may be entered in real-time or step-time, and in Real-Time mode beats can be corrected to 1/2, 1/4, 1/6, 1/8, 1/12, 1/16, 1/24, 1/32, 1/48 or 1/96th notes.
There seem to be some limitations in mixing these resolutions - if, for instance, you enter a basic pattern in 1/8th notes you often get Pattern Full flashed upon the display if you then try to overdub 1/96th notes - but overall the system is quite versatile. A more important limitation is the fact that Play mode doesn't allow you to step from one pattern to the next without stopping the machine first, a problem shared by the Hammond DPM-48 and MXR drum machines which means you have to write a short song just to try out the effect of a fill on the end of a bar. Bad software!
More bad software concerning the Tempo controls prevents you from obtaining a reading of the tempo without altering at least one BPM; it is possible to have a readout of Memory Remaining though which is useful.
Creation of patterns and songs is very easy. If you erase a pattern and enter Record mode you can select the number of measures to be recorded, the time signature (by tapping two figures into the keypad in Beat mode) and the auto-correct value (by shifting the cursor along to the appropriate position, again in Beat mode).
While you're recording a pattern the LCD display (which is conveniently backlit) flashes through the beat numbers, and once you're happy with a set of patterns you simply hit Song to go into Song mode, then enter a series of patterns. You can make a song repeat endlessly by entering it twice in Chain mode, or string several songs together in the same mode. This will help you overcome the 99 pattern limitation of each song, but ideally the songs ought to have at least a 256-bar capacity in the first place.
If you want to use the RZ-1 as a live instrument you'll be glad to hear that the MIDI interfacing works fine; Casio are working on a pad-to-MIDI interface which will allow you to play the RZ-1's sounds from their attractive fibreglass pads, which are not yet available in the UK. Until that time you could use the Sycologic PSP (Percussion Signal Processor) or the new Simmons MTM (MIDI Trigger MIDI) to perform the same job, and Yamaha are working on a programmable pad-to-MIDI interface for their forthcoming PCM drum module.
Time for some general conclusions on the RZ-1. Firstly, whether or not the machine is to your personal taste, you'll undoubtedly be seeing a lot of it if you are working in any studio over the ensuing few months. The fact that samples can be saved to cassette also means that users will be building up large libraries of sounds, as well as sampling during sessions from live sources, albums and compact discs.
The machine's multiple outputs mean that they can usefully be processed to give a bigger sound, and the slight ordinariness of the built-in drum sounds means that such processing will almost certainly be used. Sampling quality is good for the money and, above all, the sampling process is rapid, easy and reliable.
There are a few disappointments inevitably: the inability to step from one pattern to another 'live' being the main one; the lack of tuning another, though this is typical of machines in this price range; and the size of the memory is acceptable if not exactly massive.
On the whole the RZ-1 is an incredibly convincing first foray into the world of digital drum machines for Casio and is bound to be a massive success. It's certainly going to give Roland and Yamaha a run for their money in the sub-£500 market, and the EPROM-based drum machines are also going to look a little silly if their replacement voice chips continue to sell for £35 to £75! Incidentally, the RZ-1 is built like a tank compared to some recent drum machine releases so life 'on the road' should prove no trouble either. One way or another, this machine seems determined to be around for a long time to come. A worthwhile investment.
The Casio RZ-1 Digital Sampling Rhythm Composer retails at £395 inc VAT.