Another way of programming.
Short of Timex building PA columns, there can't be too many musical surprises left among the digital watch fraternity. Seiko is the latest Japanese company to have taken a 90 degree turn from its path of timepiece creation in order to bang out a synthesiser.
Casio were the first, of course, and very successful with it, developing slowly from simple preset keyboards to mini synths with inbuilt sequencers. Rumour has it that their next step will be performance-oriented band instruments, but that's a story which has been around for the last year and not yet seen any factual backup.
The Seiko entry to the synth business is considerably more dramatic than Casio's early models. In fact it's considerably more dramatic than Casio's later productions as well.
They unveiled two keyboards, a sequencer and a programmer at this year's NAMM show in Chicago, and after a brief, intercontinental discussion, the British distribution rights were won by Rosetti who are now beginning to bring samples across to these shores.
Within the Seiko range is the simple five octave DS-101 with 12 preset voices and the DS-320 sequencer that records and overdubs notes and chords.
Pressure of space, shortage of time and, to be honest, concentration of interest lead One Two unerringly to the more enticing part of the deal — the DS-202 keyboard with eight voices and drum box, plus the DS-310 programmer.
Both the 310 and 320 are contained within oblong boxes half the length of the keyboard which hook into the rear of the DS-202 forming an extra tilted front panel. Everything in the range is finished in the same metallic grey plastic which was popular a year or so ago, but is fast putting the eyeballs to sleep.
They're tightened into place by two screws with knurled plastic tops (fingers will do, no screwdrivers needed), and are connected electronically through ribbon cables ending in multi-pin sockets. The 310 and 320 need two penlight batteries as memory backup, but they take their power from the DS-202 which in turn finds its way to the mains by an external power supply.
Somewhat dubious about this last item. The power supply is a very important 'extra' to accidentally leave at home, and it uses a less than common four pin DIN socket to plug into the side of the keyboard, next to the signal inputs and outputs.
Before we progress to the attachments, let's discuss the foundation — the DS-202. It's an eight note polyphonic, offering piano/organ/harpsichord/flute/strings/electric piano/jazz organ/vibraphone/clarinet and brass voices. There's an onboard amplifier with a speaker at each end of the front panel.
The controls are either on square plastic pushbuttons or sliders. The right hand end of the panel is taken up with the rhythm machine providing eight of the usual march, latin, slow rock selections.
In the centre is your friend and mine, the magic chord button that extracts major, minor, minor seventh, seventh or diminished chords from one or two fingers of the left hand. If God had meant us to use more, he would have made noses that pick themselves.
It's this area which gives away the Seiko's newness to the business. The drum box and chord selector are last year's technology — the former has neither the realism nor variety that JVC's keyboards have educated us to expect, and the latter is left way behind by the Korg's SAS20's rich supply of auto bass lines.
However, the chorus unit with its choice of two strengths is a worthwhile inclusion — something Casio still haven't done despite continual whinging in this column and others. Digital string and brass sounds — at least at this level of technology — are a painfully weedy experience without the help of a chorus unit to beef them up and smooth them out. The Seiko's performs well.
That word digital again; Lord how it tasks us. Never in the field behind the cowshed have so few letters bamboozled so many people with so much regularity.
In this case just think of the majority of the Seiko's electronics as one vast board meeting. Numbers get pushed around and plans for the sounds drawn up. What you hear is the final decision of the committee. Analogue synths, on the other hand, are more like a chain of command. The oscillators come up with something, it's passed to the envelope generator which adds its thoughts, then onto the filter which twists the sound yet again.
One is executive action resulting in brittle, glassy and clear cut sounds, the other is a process eventually arriving at warmer, distorted and looser tones. That ends today's Open University course on business practice.
The DS-310 lends a more graphic insight into what's going on beneath the keyboard's covers. The top right hand corner is taken up by a large, two section LCD display, thankfully equipped with a contrast control so that all-important lines and figures stand out in any lighting.
Essentially its sound creation is split into 16 harmonics, and the left hand side of the display demonstrates these in graphic form. A few controls allow you to set the levels of each of the harmonics at degrees between 0 and 15 but this doesn't work in the same way as the DX-7, reviewed at the front of the book. The Seiko is more like a drawbar organ mixing the harmonics together. They don't interreact to create highly complex waveforms as do the six operators in Yamaha's FM system.
If you pile in too many harmonics all at equal levels you'll probably end up with a mess, just as if you heaved on all the drawbars of the organ. Spacing the harmonics and varying their contribution produces the most distinct noises.
The DS-302 can store four programmed sounds, but there's more to it than that. Each memory is split into three sections — the attack voice, sustain voice and release voice, and each of those can be given its own harmonic patch.
The right of the LCD display is taken up by the envelope generator, again split into three. In a clever arrangement, Seiko lets you set the attack time of the attack voice (obviously), the attack time of the sustain voice, the release time of the sustain voice (hold on, nearly there), and the release time of the release voice. Practically, this means that different tonalities can climb or fade underneath each other, introducing movement and dynamics to the sound.
Each of those timings can be set in milliseconds by moving a 16 position slider to the desired value — 0.00/0.01/0.02... up to 10 seconds — and pressing the set button. The Seiko will then move automatically to the next section of the generator or you can press the step button and it will shift backwards to the previous division. There are four roughly predetermined envelope shapes inside the memory, that let you choose between evenly decaying sounds or memories with sharp attacks and equally snappy decays. A similar loading system works with the harmonics.
OK, the technology out of the way, how does it feel under the fingers and sound unto the ear'oles?
I found the Seiko slow to set up and slower to edit. None of the programming buttons react instantly. The 310 invariably hesitates for a split second before executing your commands, and when there's the potential of 48 harmonics to program that can pile up into a lengthy process. Still, for live performance, you'd use your memory to call up sounds designed in the relaxing privacy of your own home.
Analysing the sounds that the Seiko can produce is a more difficult matter. The harmonic construction and envelope generator are excellent ideas, but do they produce anything radically different, anything that hasn't already been investigated by Casio, JVC, Technics, Yamaha and the like?
In the area of 'odd' noises, yes, the Seiko does come out well. It's bold and innovative for spikey, metallic voices that twist in on themselves. The major advantage is that you can dictate the arrival and departure of these twists via the envelope generator, whereas the forementioned rivals only present presets conforming to their ideas.
But after that, the Seiko is surprisingly staid. The piano, organ and other voices in the keyboard presumably work on the same basis as the DS-310, but offer little in the way of extra realism, punch or power.
Again, this shows Seiko's freshness in the arena. They share a problem that a couple of other microchip-based firms have had when breaking into the music business for the first time. They have experience in design, clever application of technology and neat display of information, and can normally hit those aspects on the head first time. But you have to learn how to make a really good sound, and that's not always a function of how many bits, chips or clips happen to be rattling around inside the case.
On the practical side there are also a few mistakes. The stereo phono outputs are OK since a lot of people will be plugging into their hi-fi, but there's only a mono jack socket output. And why is there no way of turning off the integral speakers while using this outlet? Plugging into the headphone socket cuts out everything. A minor irritation, but one that places the Seiko a little further away from live band use.
But let's end on an uplifting note. Something the Seiko could do which I've very rarely spotted on opposing machines, is overlay two different voices... and that can mean placing two programmed sounds against each other while retaining the full eight-note polyphony.
You can either split the keyboard and decide on the top and bottom voices or push one of the sliders to the mix position and hear both at once across all 61 keys. A balance control evens up the two voices and you can switch in an extra monophonic bass voice on the bottom two octaves, should you wish. Just as well, really, since the Seiko's harmonic constructions are generally weak and woolly in the lower registers, and the mono bass helps tighten them up.
Doubled up, programme voices can result in some very complex noises. Like I said before, a grand idea but for the moment, Seiko haven't got the best out of it.
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Review by Paul Colbert
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