The E&MM Personal Keyboard Guide
The art of packing high tech facilities into micro musical instruments is reaching a peak. We take a look at some of the latest innovations to emerge and a few that we can hope to see in 1984.
With Christmas just around the corner and scarcely a week going by without the introduction of some sort of personal keyboard product, E&MM takes an in-depth look at the state of the market and focuses attention on some of the more outstanding instruments.
Recent advances in modern technology have made an enormous impact on the way we spend our leisure time. You can't walk down a High Street these days without seeing video recorders, home computers, multi function watches and laser disc players of one sort of another.
One field that has benefitted greatly from these advances is that of domestic keyboards, indeed 'domestic' has now become something of a misnomer since quantum leaps in the miniaturisation of electronic circuits has led to many of today's instruments being taken out of the home and into just about any kind of environment you care to name. 'Portability' is a salesman's daydream no longer.
It was perhaps ironic (though possibly inevitable) that the first manufacturer to take the technological developments and give them a useful job to do in the context of keyboard was a company whose previous experience of designing and marketing musical instruments was virtually non-existent.
Casio Electronics, a Japanese industrial giant who had made the quartz digital watch and the pocket calculator accessible to millions the world over, brought a completely fresh approach to contemporary keyboard design with their first product, the CT-201.
This had as its basis thirty preset sounds (selected with the white notes of the keyboard) generated using digital approximations of conventional instruments' waveforms. While some of the sounds left a little to be desired, the overall standard was astonishingly high considering that the keyboard was eight-note polyphonic and that the 201 retailed at just the right side of £300.
That Casio brought a welcome breath of freshness to what was becoming a slightly stale budget-keyboard market cannot be doubted, though surprisingly, rival manufacturers were slow to take up the Casio challenge, feeling that the watchmakers had overreached themselves in trying to bridge the gap between the domestic and professional keyboard markets.
How wrong they were.
Within weeks of the 201's announcement, Casio's UK division were flooded with orders from musical instrument dealers throughout the country, and the model's smaller brother, the four-preset M10 with miniature keyboard and a sub-£70 price-tag, was soon in similar demand.
To some extent, Casio's lack of music experience was reflected in little design details (like the fact that the 201's output socket was a phono instead of a ¼" jack), but these deficiencies (if that's the right word) were quickly rectified with the introduction some months later of the 201's successor, the CT-202.
This featured 49 preset sounds and a considerably more 'professional' presentation, and all at a price no higher than the model it replaced. In retrospect, the 202 was something of a high-point in Casio's model development, as from that moment on, their products became more and more domestically orientated. This shift of emphasis was to some extent forced on Casio by commercial reality: the domestic market is considerably more lucrative then the 'group gear' sector, and in any case major competition - in the form of an entirely new range of keyboards from music experts Yamaha — was already concentrated on the home buyer.
Many mourn the fact that, with the possible exception of the CT-1000P, Casio have neglected the professional market to such a degree in recent months and years, but at the same time, the new generation of 'family' keyboards (both from Casio and their rivals) have far more to offer than a brief glance at a spec sheet would suggest.
For although it's probably true to say that many of today's personal keyboards can trace their ancestry directly back to the all-singing, all-dancing console organs which still dominate the upper end of the domestic keyboard market, several of them contain innovations that are unlikely to be seen on 'professional' equipment for some time to come, such as ROM packs, music printing, light-pen bar-coding, and programmable sequencers and arpeggiators of increasing complexity and versatility.
True, many of the instruments under discussion here are marketed primarily as 'easy-play' introductions to music performance for the non-technically minded, but many of their educational and compositional functions are of considerable use to the pro or semi-pro player (remember Depeche Mode playing 'Get The Balance Right' on a Casio PT for Jim'll Fix It?)
In addition, many of these personal keyboards have found their way onto recordings in their own right. Few are likely to forget Trio's VL-Tone-laden 'Da Da Da' in a hurry, while Kraftwerk's obsession with the melody-making capabilities of pocket calculators and the like is now well-documented on their Computer World album.
The sheer portability of many of these instruments has led to them being played almost anywhere at any time, their battery-operation being a considerable boon to musicians finding themselves stranded in hotel rooms needing an hour or two's warm-up before a concert.
It could be argued that some of the models described in the following pages have taken auto-play functions too far, limiting the creative freedom of the musicians at which they're partly aimed, but it's very much up to the individual purchaser just how large a degree of automation he requires.
So, armed with E&MM's guide, you should find a keyboard to suit your needs - and, of course, your pocket.
Perhaps better-known for their hi-fi and a comprehensive range of upmarket organs, Technics' first foray into the personal keyboard market was the SX-K200, an ingenious device capable of playing back pre-recorded ROM packs as accompaniment to the owner's manually-performed melodies. More excitingly, it also takes RAM packs, on which can be recorded your own arrangements and compositions of up to 50 bars each. Eight compositions can be stored on each pack, blank RAMs being readily available at around the £12 mark. Along with the usual auto-accompaniment features, the SX-K200 also has a rhythm machine whose sounds have been derived using Pulse Code Modulation techniques, resulting in an almost LinnDrum sound at a fraction of the price. A stripped-down version, missing a few of the larger model's effects but retaining most of the essentials is available under the label SX-K100. Underrated.
Casio's PT range falls somewhere between the VL-Tones and the MT series in both size and price. The PT-30 illustrated here is a monophonic instrument which features an LCD keyboard display to indicate which notes/chords are being played at any given moment. An optional accessory is the TA-1 interface which enables the contents of the keyboard's 508-step memory to be stored digitally on tape. Formation of one-finger chords and arpeggios is also provided for, and the instrument is something of an education in music theory as well as being a useful compositional tool. Well worth the extra £20 over the cost of its baby brother, the PT-20.
The first keyboard to feature a light-pen to 'read' bar-codes of musical score information was the Casio CT-701, but its full size put it beyond the reach of many potential buyers at just under £500, In response to this, the makers produced the MT-70, a miniature version with almost identical facilities but priced more competitively at under £200. Bar-coding was the first system developed whereby a musician could play along to a pre-recorded library of accompaniments, though it has now been joined by playcards and ROM packs. If you can put up with the diminutive keyboard (and it's not as small as some), the MT-70 is fine value.
JVC's smallish range is more home-orientated than many, and the KB500 is really quite a conventional keyboard. Thanks to a healthy stereo output, switchable sustain and an impressive ensemble circuit, the KB500's polyphonic sounds are considerably beefier than those of some of its rivals. There's also quite a comprehensive auto-accompaniment section, though unfortunately the price you pay for good-quality voices is the lack of any programmability outside the 'compucorder' chord sequencer. You pays yer money...
In a market where Japanese manufacturers dominate almost to the point of monopoly, Italian company Eko manage to remain competitive despite considerably higher production costs. The Eko Pony Synth is a bold attempt to fuse the standard personal keyboard functions with, as its name suggests, one or two facilities more normally found on monophonic synths. Both mono and poly voices are of good quality, in addition to which there's also the possibility of mixing two or more of the preset rhythms together, an unusual feature to say the least.
The Yamaha MP-1 is unique in the personal keyboard market in featuring an easy-to-use music printer which transcribes melody notes and chord symbols as you play them on the keyboard. The printer uses miniature bail-point pens whose water-based ink lasts for about 500 bars of music, after which they are quickly and easily replaced. Other facilities include ten preset polyphonic voices, ten (also preset) rhythms and auto bass and arpeggios. It may seem a little on the expensive side at an RRP of £535, but music-printing of this sort is something only a few other keyboards (costing thousands) can provide.
Casio's VL-Tone had a remarkable specification when it was introduced two and a half years ago: a monophonic synthesiser, built-in rhythm machine, real-time sequencer, transposable keyboard and a pocket calculator - all for under £40! As a result, the VL-1 became the Christmas present for many of this country's children in both '81 and '82, though it's unlikely to have the same impact this time around. A 'turbocharged' version (the VL-5) and a slimline model (VL-10) finished in matt silver to match Casio's executive calculators were announced last year, but the novelty of the VL concept has worn off to a large degree as its rather basic facilities have been superceded by later developments. More a toy than a musical instrument.
|Hohner Ltd, (Contact Details).|
|Panasonic-Technics, (Contact Details).|
|Kemble Yamaha Ltd, (Contact Details).|
|Casio Electronics Co Ltd, (Contact Details).|
|JVC (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).|
|SAS 20 Personal Keyboard||£599.00|
|Rose-Morris & Co Ltd, (Contact Details).|
|Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).|
|John Hornby Skewes & Co Ltd, (Contact Details).|
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