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Technics AX7

Bridging The Gap

Whilst Roland and Yamaha take LA and FM synthesis into the home, Technics make it even harder to differentiate between a home keyboard and a synthesizer with the release of the AX7. Paul Ireson checks it out.


Whilst Roland and Yamaha take LA and FM synthesis into the home, Technics make it even harder to differentiate between a home keyboard and a synthesizer with the release of the AX7. Paul Ireson checks it out.


Home keyboards and associated products have long had an unenviable reputation as 'musical furniture' but, recently, several products aimed squarely at this market have carved themselves a niche in the semi-pro or pro music markets, by offering excellent sounds at a very reasonable price. Examples that spring to mind are the Roland MT32, and Yamaha FB01 and EMT10 expander modules. The concept of a 'crossover' market, between the semi-pro and home keyboard areas, is one that several manufacturers now seem to be waking up to; witness Yamaha's YS100 and YS200 synthesizers, presenting FM synthesis in a package so user-friendly it might almost be considered 'cuddly', at least in comparison to the original DX7.

On the other side of the fence, the Technics AX7 is a product aiming to cross over the other way; a home keyboard for those who want some of the features and flexibility of full-blown synthesizers but are intimidated by their design and complexity. Consequently, the AX7 has all the usual attributes of a home keyboard - plenty of flashing lights, built-in speakers, auto-accompaniment and a music stand - but also features good MIDI implementation, and offers synthesis capabilities to allow the creation of new sounds to be used along with the usual range of preset instruments.

ACCESSIBLE FEATURES



Aesthetically, the AX7's front panel is pretty impressive - plenty of buttons, and enough LEDs to let you recreate scenes from 'Close Encounters' by simply turning the room lights off. The point of all the buttons is to ensure that as few as possible are multi-function, an important consideration for a machine that aims to make everything accessible. The 5-octave keyboard is velocity sensitive and unweighted, an action which I tend to prefer to weighted types. To the left of the keyboard are the pitch bend and modulation wheels (not always found on home keyboards), which are somewhat 'spongey' in feel.

The AX7 is a multitimbral keyboard, capable of producing several different instrument sounds at the same time. The different parts can be controlled entirely from the keyboard, or by a combination of keyboard and sequencer/auto-accompaniment, or by external MIDI control. The multitimbrality is, however, of the traditional home keyboard variety, splitting voices in fixed polyphony between Bass, Accomp, Poly and Solo parts (of which more later). A Drum part is also available. The auto-accompaniment ranges from simple preset drum patterns to user-programmed multi-part music, using the sequencer facilities. The onboard sequencer and auto-accompaniment may also be used to control external MIDI sound modules.

Sounds may be split or layered across the keyboard in a number of ways. A Poly (8-note polyphonic) or Solo (monophonic) sound may be assigned across the whole keyboard, or Poly and Solo voices layered. If the keyboard is split, the lower section may play either a monophonic Bass or polyphonic Poly sound. If Poly is selected, then the upper section of the keyboard may only play a Solo voice; if Bass is selected, the upper section may play Poly, Solo, or layered Poly and Solo voices.

32 preset and 32 user-programmable sounds are available for the Poly section of the keyboard, 16 of each for the Solo, and eight of each for the Bass. The 32 presets for Poly voices are of variable quality, mostly good, a few excellent, and one or two rather poor. All but four are imitations of 'real' instruments of some kind. Generally, where the sounds fall down is in their useful range - the otherwise wonderful vocal sound loses its character and appeal at both ends of the keyboard, although it's fine in the middle. Likewise, the acoustic piano sounds are very artificial and thin at the bottom octave or two of the keyboard. Also, some of the sounds lack bite and clarity in their attack portions. The Solo sounds are mostly duplicates or variations of the Poly sounds, though they generally seem a little better, with more character and body. The Bass voices cover acoustic, electric and synth bass, and sounded a little too 'honky' for my liking.

CREATE YOUR OWN SOUNDS



One of the AX7's main selling points is its synthesis capabilities, allowing the user to experiment with the creation of original sounds in a way not possible with the average home keyboard.

The sound generation technique employed on the AX series is called PCM-squared, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Roland's Linear Arithmetic synthesis and its various mutant offspring, in that it grafts a sampled attack sound on to a sampled and looped sustain sound. The basic waveforms available are 16 attack and 16 sustain (body) sources, with 10 variations of each. Still more variation in the basic sound is available, as each body source consists of high and low frequency components, and two different variations of the same basic body source may be used to provide these. The combination of attack and body sources may be further altered by changing the volume balance of the two sources, setting a basic envelope for the body source, applying a range of vibrato and tremolo options by way of modulation, and altering the harmonic interval - the pitch interval between the high and low frequency components of the body source.

The result of all this is that there is reasonable scope for creating new sounds on the AX7, though the possibilities for real experimentation are certainly limited. This is presumably intentional, as the less room for sonic manoeuvring there is, the less daunting is the process of synthesis, and the lower the chance of creating any truly awful sounds.

Chorus and sustain may be added to each of the instrument parts (except for the Bass, which has no chorus option), and all parts may be processed by the built-in digital reverb. Four reverb programs are available. Echo, Room, Hall 1 and Hall 2, and the effect can be turned off or set at three preset depths. Both the chorus and reverb are beautifully clean, adding no audible hiss to the sounds.

AUTO-ACCOMPANIMENT



The one feature that you expect to find above anything else on a home keyboard is auto-accompaniment, of course, and the AX7 is no exception. There are 20 preset and 12 programmable rhythms available, with several variations and fill-ins kept in reserve for the presets. Each rhythm consists of a drum pattern, monophonic bass and 3-note polyphonic chordal accompaniment, and is two bars in length. In time-honoured fashion, the bass and accompaniment may be shifted in key by playing the appropriate root note on the lower part of the split keyboard, and notes to the left of the root to determine whether the chord played is major, minor, major seventh or minor seventh.

The 36 sampled drum sounds available in the rhythm section are fairly decent, but not really of the quality expected of a keyboard in this price range these days, at least in the semi-pro market. The basic sounds are certainly good - two bass drums, acoustic, electronic and gated snares etc - but the tom and cymbal samples have a noticeable cut-off, and there are some odd choices of percussion sounds. I will need some convincing that six different cowbells are a good use of memory space, and the value of the breaking glass and two slap (hand on face, not bass) samples is a little lost on me.

Nevertheless, the ability to programme your own bass and chordal accompaniment, using any of the Bass and Poly sounds, and transpose the arrangement as it plays is a very useful one - techno-snobbery aside, it's easy to forget how good a compositional tool this kind of feature is. Home keyboards were once limited to only preset rhythms and accompaniment, with fairly tacky preset sounds, but it makes a world of difference being able to programme your own accompaniment using your own sounds.

REAL-TIME SEQUENCING



Going beyond simple accompaniment, the AX7's onboard sequencer allows longer pieces of music to be assembled, either by recording a sequence of transpositions of auto-accompaniment rhythms, or recording the bass and accompaniment parts in real time. Poly and Solo parts may also be recorded, the capacity of the sequencer being about 2000 notes for the Poly part. The operation of the sequencer is strictly tape-recorder style, allowing no editing of recorded parts apart from re-recording in real time. The basic nature of the sequencer, combined with its limited note capacity, makes it little more than a musical notepad - but still useful.

The rear panel's three MIDI sockets - In, Out and Thru, as if you hadn't already guessed - indicate that the AX7 may be able to operate as part of a MIDI system rather better than most other home keyboards, and indeed this is the case. Each sequencer track may be used to control internal voices, external MIDI modules or both. Similarly, the keyboard may be assigned to internal Poly or Solo voices, or used as a MIDI master keyboard to play expander modules whilst the sequencer plays internal voices or more expanders.

Working the other way around, slaved to an external MIDI sequencer, each of the AX7's parts - Bass, Accomp, Drums, Poly and Solo - may be assigned to different MIDI channels, enabling the AX7 to be used as a multitimbral expander. Unfortunately, in this role the AX7 is still limited to its standard polyphony and sound allocation, so the Bass part can only be monophonic and must use one of the Bass sounds. A little limiting, but at least MIDI control is possible, so that the AX7 will not become redundant as soon as anyone who chooses it as their first instrument becomes frustrated with the limitations of the onboard sequencer.

HOMELY APPEAL?



In the time that the AX7 spent in the SOS editorial offices, almost everyone who layed their hands on it (even our graphic designer!) managed to produce some kind of music. If we had an office cat, it could probably have worked out how to play a Bossanova version of 'Crockett's Theme' in no time. If that sounds a little negative, it shouldn't be taken as such - the point is that it is very easy to coax music out of the Technics AX7. For those who are looking for a new home keyboard, the AX7 seems to offer some very good features and can certainly produce a 'professional' sound, in that it has the ability to go beyond the usual sonic restrictions of preset sounds.

As such, it succeeds in presenting a more professional unit in the kind of package that will appeal to home keyboard users. However, given the inherent limitations of home keyboard designs, which tend to deliberately limit room for experimentation, and the AX7's poor value compared to, say, a Roland D20 or Ensoniq SQ80, that appeal is unlikely to extend to semi-pro users.

FURTHER INFORMATION

£1200 inc VAT.

Technics EMID, (Contact Details).



Previous Article in this issue

How to Set Up a Home Studio

Next article in this issue

Music Printing


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Dec 1988

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

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Keyboard > Technics > AX7

Review by Paul Ireson

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