The Omnichord is one of the latest musical offerings to come from those masters of the microchip and the balance of payments deficit. This time, though, it's not Casio but Suzuki that are behind it. And whilst the Omnichord costs just about a ton (£99 in fact, inclusive of VAT, if obtained direct from the U.K. distributors), the particular Suzuki concerned has absolutely nothing to do with those manufacturers of 100 mph instant machismo.
Suzuki have sensibly elected to opt for a control format for their instrument that's utterly unique and a refreshing break from the well-trodden keyboard path so successfully exploited by Casio. This makes sense, because the Omnichord is unashamedly directed towards the nonmusical (but not unmusical) member of the public who may well be sent into paroxysms of despair at the sight of all those white and black keys on conventional synthesisers, organs and so on.
The Omnichord has three levels of activity embedded in its vaguely lyre-shaped body:
(1) A percussion generator offering any permutation or combination of rock, waltz, slow rock, latin, fox trot and swing rhythms, variable tempo and section volume.
(2) A chord generator providing 27 different major, minor and 7th chords (9 each), either as organ-like chords or walking bass, a release sustain option (called 'memory') and section volume.
(3) A 'sonic strings' section producing an arpeggio, or isolated notes, of .a chosen chord over a 4-octave span, as a result of triggering from touch strips. Triggering is achieved from fingertouch alone or by using a carbon-coated rubber pick. Sustain and section volume are also variable.
The quality of the percussion is surprisingly good. Suzuki have limited their attention to just bass drum, snare, hi-hat and wood block, so one doesn't have to suffer the usual uncomfortably metallic bongos or t-toms found in other instruments. Though some of the basic rhythms are hardly particularly inspiring (rock is probably the most effective), considerably more interest can be generated by combining various rhythms, but this is obviously something of a hit or miss affair! One minor criticism of this section of the instrument is the small amount of crackle that accompanies the percussive sounds. It's far from obtrusive, really, but a decent PA will obviously show up more than the internal speaker.
An important fact about the chord generation side of the Omnichord is that it's child's play to devise complex harmonic progressions. It's certainly possible to change chords much faster than on conventional keyboards or string instruments, though you're obviously limited to root positions, and this ability to make light of heavy chord work should encourage people to investigate the way in which harmonic changes can heighten the emotional flow of a tune.
The selected chords play in two ways: firstly, as organ-like chords; and secondly, as a walking bass accompaniment. The latter is by far the most interesting and the majority of rhythms give quite effective (and usable) patterns. A synchro-start button is provided so that the percussion generator only starts when a suitable chord button is pressed, and whether or not the chord sustains and rhythm continues until a subsequent chord button is pressed depends on the 'memory' button being down.
The third side of the instrument is the area that makes the final effect rather less mechanical than the foregoing might have led you to expect. This is what Suzuki call their 'synchro strings' and it's the feature that makes the Omnichord very much a technological update of the traditional autoharp. To the left of the speaker, there's a narrow strip of contacts that are capacitively triggered by the touch of a finger. Moving a digit upwards results in a 4-octave, ascending arpeggio for whatever chord has been selected. A downward strum obviously does the opposite. A carbon-coated pick can also be used to make contact with the strips, and this is particularly useful for picking out notes from the arpeggio. Each technique has its drawbacks. The finger technique works well with dry fingers but not when the fingers are covered with the sort of gubbins released from the sweat glands under the excitement of playing music. This obviously varies from one person to another, and, if you're cool, calm and collected in performance, then you should be fine! The pick is much more dependable, but the problem with the pick supplied with the Omnichord is that it deposits carbon on the fingers holding it — and on whatever those fingers touch after playing the instrument! Great if you're wearing white trousers... I ended up using a piece of conductive foam used for packing ICs — not so elegant as a pick but much cleaner.
The duration of the auto-harp strum can be varied to a considerable extent, from a pizzicato-type effect to a rich sustain, and, like the other sections, the volume is variable. Something I did notice was that the harp sound tended to be omnipresent (albeit at a very low level), and well as omnichord, when no strum was actually being executed. Like the percussive crackle, this isn't obtrusive unless one's just playing the harp section alone.
The quality of the Omnichord's sound belies its cost and certainly warrants external amplification. Unfortunately, inserting a jack into the output socket doesn't cut out the internal speaker, and this is something that should be changed to satisfy the more demanding user. The internal speaker is quite reasonable, but its position isn't ideal since it's under the flight path of the hand indulging in sonic stringing. Nit-picking apart, the Omnichord is a splendid instrument. It has obvious appeal for anybody with the remotest interest in music, and the richness of sound that's available from it must ensure a great deal of attention right across the musical board. The Omnichord is likely to be stocked by many music shops in the near future, but it can also be obtained direct from the distributors, Craftmaster (U.K.) Ltd., at (Contact Details).
Review by David Ellis
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