Gasp at the very latest instruments to hit the street plus sneak previews of tomorrow's guitars in Tony Bacon's deadline report from the Frankfurt trade fair.
Jetsetting hack Tony Bacon staggers off a jumbo with a report from Europe's major music fair.
Every year the musical instrument trade gathers in Frankfurt to create a huge marketplace for instruments and hardware, with manufacturers and distributors from all over the world either taking a stand or visiting the show — so enormous is the industry that it fills three massive aircraft-hangar-like exhibition halls (one using two floors) where you can see everything from a plectrum to a computer synth, a drumstick to a mixing console.
A simple route from exhibitor A to exhibitor B at the show becomes an impossibility, detours and hold-ups an inevitability. For example, on one such attempt to get from A to B I managed to learn that a company called Greeta has become the first to produce guitars in India (the factory is in Madras), thanks to imported Japanese guitar-making equipment. My comment to the Japanese source of such a startling piece of information was that this opened up plenty of scope for take-away hot pickups, but it seemed lost on him. Probably just as well.
It was pleasant to hear Steve Gadd and Ralph MacDonald, percussionists par excellence, along with Curt Cress, mesmerising the sweaty punters packed into Yamaha's demo room. To hear this heavenly racket wrought from acoustic instruments in the midst, both near and far, of so many digits and chips was a wonderful respite.
But Yamaha had plenty of other things to shout about, not least of which was their new digital DX series of synthesisers which is based on the FM (frequency modulation) system of synthesis developed for the Big GS1 and GS2 synths a few years ago. Yamaha are reaping the benefit of doubtless expensive R&D work with three new keyboards, the DX1, DX7 and DX9 — the DX1 still effectively a prototype.
But the DX7 will sell for around £1300, and is a touch-sensitive, programmable, 16-note poly with 32 internal memories backed up by cartridge storage, while the simplified DX9 will sell for nearer £900. The DX system is different from normal analogue synthesis, based on an additive process which combines FM signals, and is certainly impossible to grasp thoroughly from a short demo. But the quality of sounds I heard make it seem likely that Yamaha could well persuade a lot of keyboard players to come out to their new territory.
Yamaha's DXs impressed me most of all I heard and saw at Frankfurt this year, closely followed by the Kit II. That's not to say that being impressed at a trade show necessarily means the instruments will deliver the business in real life, but it's a smart money bet.
The Kit II's main module features eight pads in two rows — snare, bass drum, open and closed hi-hat, and four toms (or two toms and crash and ride cymbals). There's an on-board processor to program sequences, over which you can play if you want, and the II comes complete with an interface and software for the Sinclair ZX81 microcomputer, enabling more complex programming and storage. "You don't need to have any talent, whatsoever," claimed a chap from UK distributors Atlantex at the demo I witnessed. What you will need is about £600, and shortly thereafter you'll doubtless be tempted by a ZX81 and a monitor. Software for other micros such as the Apple will follow.
Other drum machines lurking nearby included the overdue Korg programmable, the KRP77, which seems to have been worth the wait, both in voice quality and useful extras like cassette program back-up and an exhaustive display system. Price will be £475. Yamaha showed their MR10, mixing 12 presets with fills from five finger pads (or either source individually) and going for about £90, or just under £100 with the optional KP10 pedal for bass drum.
Elsewhere in synthland, Korg's new Poly 61, which will retail at £995, is based to some extent on their Polysix (which remains in production), being a six-voice programmable, but now with 64 memories and two digital oscillators per voice plus, significantly, a new way of programming and editing patches by digital display for a given parameter (similar to that found on Moog's Source, but with up/down buttons rather than a rotary control). It all comes down to whether you want to get used to pressing buttons and watching displays rather than twiddling knobs arranged before you.
New synths aimed at those without tax-deduction programs for their micros were in evidence elsewhere too. Sequential Circuits had the new Prophet-600 up and working. In the SC booth, Brits Bob Styles and Robin Lumley demo'd the Californian keyboards: the 600 is a programmable six-voice which will sell for around £1500, and has 100 memories on-board, instantly editable on the panel in true Prophet fashion. There's a real-time polysequencer incorporated, poly portamento, and the inclusion of the new MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) socket for interconnecting digital synths and peripherals of the same standard without using a converter.
Roland are one of the few so far also to have used the MIDI system, which is on their new JX3P synth. This is a six-voice, 32-preset machine with a further 32 memories, expandable via the optional PG200 programmer to edit existing and add more memories. The JX3P will be £850, the programmer another £200. Roland also showed the MIDI-equipped Jupiter-6, essentially a £2000, six-voice, 48 memory, 32 patch/split preset version of the JP8 — this is evidently the year of the six fiend. The Roland MC202 appeared, the long-awaited two-channel Microcomposer, this with built-in sound generation and a price of £325. Roland rounded off the synth onslaught with three new modules for what remains the only widely available modular system, the 100M. These are the M165 portamento controller (£150), the M173 signal gate/jackfield (£125), and the M174 four-band parametric (£150).
Oberheim showed the OB8, an eight-voice programmable poly with 120 memories and cassette back-up, 12 patch/split presets, and a further 12 'doubled' memories. Casio continue to innovate and astound, with the two most interesting of their new bunch at opposite ends of the price scale. The PT30 has 18 rhythms, eight presets, various one-finger chords, a 508-event memory with cassette dump, transpose (and more) for 79 quid. Up at the sharp end is the 7000 61-key keyboard with seven-location stereo positioning and a fascinating memory-cum-recording system with two channels of melody and an additional chord channel, along with the expected presets and rhythms — this'll set you back a steeper £575.
Guitars at Frankfurt tended to continue their more recent metamorphoses, mainly changing shape and colour. For example, Westone introduced some new finishes to their successful range — including the gloss variety — while making a Strat-like through-the-body string retainer standard on several models. The Thunder II bass now has an extra pickup, a single bar to complement the existing split front unit, and a 22 rather than the previous 24 fret neck. Fellow Japs Aria had more in the outlandish shape department with the XX, ZZ and U series guitars and basses. The XXs are pretty sharp versions of the design generally referred to as Flying-V, and come with a thunderbolt flash across two of the finishes, the blue-black sunburst finish being a little more tasteful and flashless. The ZZ is Explorer-like in shape — or Thunderbird-like in the bass version, if you prefer — and the U is more curved and rounded.
All the new Arias feature something which seemed much in evidence on new guitar lines at Frankfurt — the tremolo arm. Peavey combined the two most fashionable elements (among manufacturers, at least) with their Razer, sort of half an Aria ZZ and half a back-to-front Flying-V. Still with me? Good. The Razer is available with optional tremolo arm, which Peavey call their 'Octave Plus' system. Other strange-shaped Peaveys include the Mystic (dare I say like an Aria U?) and the rather more sedate Horizon. There's also a new Peavey bass, the Foundation, with maple body, two single coils, a 'hum rejection' circuit, and Jazz Bass-like control set-up (a volume per pickup and an overall tone).
Yamaha are coming on strong in the guitar line, too, with a new top-of-the-tree electric, the SG3000, a beautiful looking instrument with loads of inlay and class, although the black/sparkle finish didn't quite seem right for an item selling at £799 — better was the wine red darkburst (I made that term up). Newly developed pickups feature a magnetic alloy which Yamaha have called Spinex, and they have enabled Yamaha, so they say, to include a lighter bridge set-up without the baseplate of the 2000. Further down the SG tree is the basic SG200 which cracks the under-£200 market for Yamaha — I saw a nice white-finished one with a bit of blue sparkle in the right light. There are a few additions to the SC range too (with 1983's fave tremolo arms), a couple of new BB basses at either end of the price scale, and the first low-priced fretless bass, for Yamaha, the BB400SF (£249).
Amps abounded, the British continuing to do well. Old hands Marshall scored with new bass combos and, wakey wakey, transistor keyboard amps. Pro-Amp had a very good-looking 15 watt practice combo, the Demon, in ordinary or reverb-equipped versions, the non reverb one going for around £70. Carlsbro had a ton of new stuff from tiny portable bass amps (Scorpions), new Hornets (lead, bass or keyboard), Cobra amps, cabs and combos, to a slightly smaller version of the excellent Stingray 150 watt bass combo—and more. Phew! Custom Sound could well be on to a winner with a tranny front-end, valve (KT77s) power section combo rated at 75 watts, the 725V. Just like Music Man? "No. Better," they said. Should have guessed. The real answer will cost you about £430.
So. No programmable guitar synth from Roland (yet). And I couldn't find the Drumulator anywhere, although I'm assured it was around somewhere. I'll just have to go for longer next year. Ah well — zwei Bier bitte, or words to that effect.