The Show Goes On
BMF Report '86
The Editor struggles through tech-laden stands, lively demos, liquid lunches and hordes of musicians to bring news of Britain's best-ever music show. If you missed it, you missed out.
The music industry may not be enjoying the biggest boom it's ever had, but huge crowds of enthusiastic musicians - and some stunning new innovations - at the British Music Fair point the way to a brighter future.
YOU MISSED THE BRITISH MUSIC FAIR? From where I was standing on the public days, I'd say you were one of the few. Bulging postbags, mountains of technical queries and a multitude of readers' demo tapes are enough to tell us that there are an awful lot of musicians in the UK (and beyond), and that some of them read E&MM. What they couldn't tell us is just how many of those musicians would make the trip — through some of Britain's least reliable summer weather — to Olympia in the first three days of August to see the British Music Fair.
This, as you probably know, was the second BMF in as many years that actually acknowledged the existence of musicians at all. Previously, the UK's only national musical instrument event had been a strictly trade-only affair, and suffered because of it. Last year, though, the public were allowed in for three days, and the BMF was a roaring success.
So this year, almost everybody who exhibited at the '85 Fair returned to Olympia — many of them with larger stand areas — while the sceptics who stayed away a year ago realised the error of their ways, and helped make BMF '86 a bigger show even before anybody had stepped through the front door.
The three trade days that preceded the punter invasion were tranquil and restrained — the calm before an almighty storm. Luckily, members of Her Majesty's Press are allowed free access to all the exhibitors' stands during the trade days, so E&MM people were able to get a glimpse of the new instruments on show before they were played, programmed, broken, and (in a few cases) stolen by the public.
Truth to tell, though, this year's British Music Fair didn't spring a very large number of surprises on the new gear front. Certainly, there were fewer new goodies around this year than there were in '85, which may have disappointed any musicians who were hoping for a repeat performance. This summer, the music industry drew its breath and paused for a respite before plunging in at the deep end again in time for the New Year, and the world's two most prestigious shows — Winter NAMM and Frankfurt.
For all that, there was still a fair amount of new gear around, and this time almost all of it represented genuine innovation, not just the expansion (and glossy repackaging) of existing ideas.
Twelve months ago, for instance, few would have given credence to the idea of an invasion of new synthesisers from companies not normally known for producing them. Yet BMF '86 showcased a number of just such machines — like the Kawai K3, Elka's pair of new polysynths, and the Ensoniq ESQ1.
The Ensoniq was reviewed in last month's E&MM by Paul Wiffen, so I won't bore you with a rundown of its seemingly endless array of features. However, this was the first time I'd played an ESQ1, and my feeling — backed up by the impressions of other show attendees I spoke to — is that the synth stands out in three important areas.
First, it sounds great. The synth has clearly received some careful factory programming, with the result that its preset sounds cover a huge range of textures — breathy woodwind, soft strings, silly noises, you name it — and cover it well. Most significantly, the ESQ1 succeeds in sounding like an analogue synth and a digital one at the same time, inducing more 'best of both worlds' mutterings from players than any other synth I know.
Second, the Ensoniq's 10-zone fluorescent display is among the most useful currently available. At any stage of using the machine, 10 'slices' of information (patch names, sequencer tracks, MIDI channels, whatever) appear in the window, and a network of 'soft' buttons allows you to select from these at will. It's a step towards the kind of menu-driven systems used by computer software, and it certainly makes the ESQ1 a very 'immediate' instrument to use.
Third, of course, is the fact that the ESQ1 costs only £1080. That's astonishingly cheap for a machine capable of acting as a programmer's sound library, a songwriter's tool, and a performer's MIDI system centrepiece. Among the people I spoke to, no other instrument at the show aroused so much comment.
IF THE ENSONIQ benefits from good factory sounds, the Kawai K3 hasn't been so fortunate. The new synth, which uses what its makers call 'Free Wave' technology, looks on paper to be as versatile in the sound department as the best of them — especially as one of its features lets you 'draw your own waveform'. Yet the demo machine I played sounded a bit hackneyed, perhaps because Kawai's programmers, anxious that their synth be identified as a 'professional' instrument, have been over-cautious and simply made the K3 sound like a lot of other synths, at least in its unedited form.
Expect big things from Kawai, though. They're a big company with years of experience making some of the most respected pianos in the business, and the K3 is by no means a one-off entry into the hi-tech field. The synth has a modular brother called the K3m, and there's a neat digital drum machine, the R100, which features 32 onboard sounds, velocity-sensitive pads, and programmable pitch and dynamics for each sound.
Kawai have had the technology to do all this for some while now, and the same is true of Elka. The Italian company's Synthex remains an unsung classic among programmable analogue polysynths, and the spirit of that machine has now been carried over to the EK22 and its digital counterpart, the EK44. Both machines are now in much more of a finished state than they were when we first saw them at Frankfurt back in February, but one factor has remained constant — they still sound impressive.
In fact, drawing a distinction between the two instruments is a mite tricky, partly because they both seem capable of sounding unlike other instruments that use similar methods of sound-generation (more 'best of both worlds' clichés), and partly because the Italians have chosen to use the same front-panel moulding for both machines, so they look very similar. Ultimately, though, my feeling is the EK44 should be able to produce sounds of greater clarity and complexity than its stablemate, hence the price difference between them: the EK44 will cost £1299 when it hits the shops, with the EK22 coming in at £999.
Again, look out for modular versions of both synths, along with some Elka digital drum machines, in the near future.
Just about the only other new synth at the show was the Casio CZ1. Essentially, this is yer average CZ machine with some neat additions that make it a more likely candidate for the position of Official Professional Musical Instrument than any previous Casio synth. Among the modifications are a keyboard sensitive to both velocity and aftertouch, a bigger memory with 64 patch locations and a further 64 slots for storing keyboard split/layer arrangements, and a host of smaller features like a backlit LCD, MIDI on/off switch and so on.
Elsewhere, the great electronic piano battle is proceeding apace, and is now divided into two price areas. The first, centering around the £1000 mark, has the Yamaha PF series, the Technics PX7 and PX9, and the new Ensoniq Piano as prime contenders. The Yamahas are already a known (and desirable) quantity, while the Technics range is exciting quite a number of people. The Ensoniq, sad to say, didn't really live up to expectations — though maybe that's because I played it just after the ESQ1. We shall see.
In the upmarket division, the Technics PX1 is establishing a fine name for itself, but faces stiff competition in the shape of the Korg SG1 and Roland RD1000. Both of the latter sound excellent. The Roland is reviewed elsewhere this issue so I won't dwell, but it's probably the machine that would get my vote if I had to choose one of them, if only because its programmable memory allows musicians to impose something of their own personality on the machine. The Korg, though, has the advantage that ROM cards of new sounds can be slotted in — a vast library of these is promised — and that a more thorough MIDI implementation may make it a better controller keyboard than the Roland.
Real attractions on the KORG stand, though, were the DSS1 sampling keyboard and DDD1 sampling drum machine. Korg call the DSS1 a Sampling Synthesiser, which is pretty accurate, seeing as it contains more than a DW8000 worth of voicing circuitry, a 'draw your own waveform' (getting fashionable, this) harmonic synthesis system, and two programmable DDLs, all of which can be mixed in with incoming sampled data.
The range of possibilities a machine like the DSS1 throws open don't really bear thinking about at a show like the BMF; everyone's too busy trying to get their hands on the bloody machine, and when they do, it's invariably a case of 'well, that parameter list looks nice and long, but this factory disk sounds terrible'.
To be fair to Korg, though, the early DSS1 factory disks make impressive listening, and contain whole families of related samples, along with basic synth sounds and plenty of space to put your own patches into. As I write this, a DSS1 has just taken up residence (permanent, we hope) in the E&MM office, so look out for a comprehensive review.
Other samplers on show included Roland's S10 and S50, with the latter hooked up to an RGB monitor via its clever built-in interface: on-screen waveform editing and keyboard splitting, without the need to learn how to use a computer.
Then there's the Akai X7000, a sampling keyboard born from the S700 module, which was to have been little brother to the S900 until Akai decided a keyboard-equipped instrument would be a better bet in the £1000 area.
Several different Akai 'X' samplers have been seen at different trade shows around the world, all of them prototypes, so it's not clear exactly which form the finished instrument(s) will take. Watch this space.
The other major sampling story unfolded outside the Music Fair proper. At a hotel up the road from Olympia, E-mu Systems were showing the new Emax to a crowd of interested dealers and inebriated press men. We previewed the machine in last month's E&MM, but in case you missed that, I'll just mention that Emax is a scaled-down (though not much) Emulator II that has a number of additional features, a smart if unorthodox exterior, and a crazily low price-tag of (roughly) £1995. E-mu are in the process of setting up a dealer network in the UK, and my feeling is they'll need quite a number of outlets — the idea of an Emulator II for under two grand is going to be massively attractive to massive numbers of people.
Further down the road, but still outside the show proper, the Sequential Studio 440 was making its world debut. The 440 was mentioned briefly in E&MM August, but while that news piece described the machine as 'a studio-standard digital drum machine that also acts as a sampler and MIDI digital recorder', what emerged in the metal was little more than a drum voice storage unit. Definitely a case of those ol' Unfinished Software Blues — though when it appears, the 440 should answer a lot of programmers' and studio engineers' prayers.
In the same hotel as Sequential were Rod Argent's Keyboards, flying the software flag by showing off programs for that prestigious (if overpriced) industry standard, the Apple Macintosh. Argent's are now importing software from three US houses — Digidesign, Opcode, and Mark of the Unicorn — and all three were shown to impressive effect during the BMF. If these incredibly flexible but so far little-used packages are to gain wider acceptance among musicians, they need enterprising dealers like Argent's to handle them.
Back inside Olympia (or Olympia 2, to be precise: the main bit was playing host to a 'come and see what Saudi Arabia looks like' freebie show), OSC were showing a plethora of new software packages from Steinberg Research (among them the Pro24 Atari sequencer reviewed elsewhere this issue), while Gateway Studios had the honour of being the only exhibitor at the show with a Fairlight Series III. It certainly attracted the crowds, which is good news for Gateway and, I reckon, for the industry as a whole.
Yamaha succeeded in occupying almost all of Level 2, plonking what they called The Yamaha Village in the middle of it, and giving everyone else an inferiority complex in the process.
I'll be quite honest with you and say that, interesting though some of Yamaha's new pro stuff (FB01 multi-timbral FM expander, QX5 sequencer) was, I was more taken with what I saw — and heard — over in the 'single keyboard' bit. For a start, there were people of all ages — on both trade and public days — getting endless fun from sampling each other's burps and splutters into the VSS100 (the same was happening on the Casio stand with the SK1). These ultra-cheap samplers may not bear much comparison, quality-wise, with the Emaxes of this world, but if one out of ten kids that buys one as a glorified toy later goes on to become a 'serious' musician, then the little Yamahas and Casios have done their job.
And what the VSS100 does for sampling, Yamaha's latest PSS series of home keyboards do for FM synthesis. The PSS360, 460 and 560 all include a cunning little device called simply 'FM Digital Synth'. This sits in the top right-hand corner of the keyboard in question, and comprises six sliders that are used to adjust the values of six synth parameters. The change in sound is instant, the controls simple, the educational value immense. 'If only you could buy a DX with this on it', I mused, looking disdainfully at the auto-accompaniment section of the PSS360 — my guess is that, within a year or two, you will.
But Yamaha aren't content merely to make FM technology more accessible. They've now developed an entirely new method of sound-generation, which complements, rather than replaces, Frequency Modulation. The system is called AWM (for Advanced Wave Memory), and although precise details about it are scarce, it's a fair bet that it's a waveform analysis and resynthesis package similar in concept — if not in execution — to Roland's SAS.
The first instrument to feature AWM sounds is Yamaha's astonishing new HX System, best described as a cross between a multikeyboard and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The HX is a modular system: you begin by mixing and matching the tone generator, dual keyboard, amp and pedalboard of your choice, before moving on to optional extras such as additional tone generators (FM or AWM) and multitrack MIDI recorders. Breathtaking stuff, but it's not cheap.
Back to FM, though, and the best demo I witnessed at this year's British Music Fair. It was that man Dave Bristow, almost inevitably, who delivered the goods in a brief 20-minute address to hordes of budding FM programmers in one of Yamaha's two demo rooms. 'There's no new gear at all', Bristow began, 'so now we've got a chance to discover a bit more about how to use the gear we've already got'. And discover we did, IRCAM's bearded wonder taking us through the different ways in which we perceive sound, and how psychoacoustics is probably more relevant to FM programming than conventional analogue synthesis. The jargon about harmonic structure and envelope characteristics may have clouded the issue for some, but Bristow's sounds spoke for themselves: a splendidly detailed Spanish guitar, a bell that became a choir when sustained, and the best distorted rock guitar sound I've heard any synthesiser produce.
Luckily, the standard of demos was pretty high overall. Honourable mentions here must include the regular Roland band, who played with vigour and conviction despite living in the shadow of the 'members of Marillion' gig on the Sunday, and did a much better job of actually showing what the gear can do; Danny Gottlieb, who did the best 'name drummer' demo — for Simmons — I've ever seen in the UK; Richard Young, whose tireless enthusiasm and disarming honesty will be sorely missed when he leaves Casio; and the guys from Tekke Music, a small London company intent on getting ethnic percussion the attention it deserves — their seminars were educational, intelligent and a lot of fun.
On a personal note, the Music Maker stand sold out of the latest E&MM (which had only just appeared), so I returned to Cambridge without a copy, and I still don't have one a fortnight later. There wasn't quite the intensity of alcoholism in the press and exhibitors' bars as there was in '85, but those journalists who ventured out of the show each evening under the guidance of a generous manufacturer or agent were well treated. I ate a huge barbecued Australian meal in the company of assorted E-mu and Sequential people on the Friday night, and was violently sick on Saturday morning. Some people never learn.
And yes, the whole thing will be going on again, same time, same place, next year.