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The Synths Of The Year Show

Synthcheck

Article from International Musician & Recording World, December 1985

Yamaha DX7, Casio CZ5000, Juno 106, Korg DW6000, 30 to 1 the field. Commentator, Tony Mills


Is it a horse, is it a hippo? No, it's the synths of the year show


At this time of the year, when musicians of all persuasions are coming together (ideally) and looking back over the year's purchases, it's traditional to perform an exercise known as The Stretching Of The Bank Account. This involves totting up the year's expenditure, patting ourselves on the back for choosing our new toys wisely, laughing at our little mistakes (did you really need that massive Marshall stack just to practise in the bedroom?) and squeezing the last drop from the beleaguered bank account to afford some post-Frankfurt goodies in February.

Of course, it's been a tremendously active year on the synth front in particular, with competitors old and new slogging it out with each other in a slowly expanding ring. And as we know, newest isn't necessarily best, although inevitably good ideas turn up all the time which threaten to make the existing armoury of the keyboardist redundant every other week.

That's why we've looked at four synths which seem to sum up the best of the old and the new from 1985. The Yamaha DX7, of course, was well established at the start of that year and dominated it with relentless efficiency. The Roland Juno 106 was launched at Frankfurt 1984 and dominated the semi-pro field in the same way that the DX7 dominated the more professional music world. Casio's CZ-5000 was a new introduction with a relatively unfamiliar method of sound production and the difficult task of finding its own place in the market. And Korg's DW6000 shared its problems, with the additional burden of imminent replacement hanging over its head.

Let's stick with the old faithfuls at first. Why has the DX7 survived through yet another year, and why can Yamaha confidently guarantee its survival for at least another two years?


YAMAHA DX7



The DX7 was a bombshell when it landed on the music industry. A completely new method of sound generation, Frequency Modulation (which admittedly was previewed on the GS1/2 and CE20 keyboards, although it was well hidden from prying eyes there) tested the skill and patience of the most experienced synth programmers. Remember the time when it wasn't even clear whether you could program a DX7 sound yourself without a massive computer? Who was to know that it was all done using Dave Bristow, two bottles of Scotch and a padlock on the studio door?

Of course, the reasons which made the DX7 immediately popular still apply — clear, sharp sounds unlike any analogue synth, a velocity and pressure sensitive keyboard which makes playing much more expensive, and an authenticity in the sounds which threatened even established favourites such as the Fender Rhodes piano.

These are the main reasons why players are prepared to put up with the DX7's little eccentricities — programming so laborious that many seasoned pros still haven't made up a single DX7 sound of their own, relatively small memory (32 as opposed to 64 or 100 sounds on the opposition), expensive additional memory cartridges, and some MIDI problems (for instance only transmitting on Channel 1, which is awkward if you want to program on several MIDI channels).

Of course, the DX7's sounds are unique. Apart from that Fender Rhodes sound there are snappy brass effects, metallic percussive sounds which have graced many a sequencer-based pop single, way-out sound effects, even realistic strings and voices. One of the main complaints about the DX7 is that it can't do string ensemble sounds, but of course that's a misapprehension based on the confusion of the Solina-type keyboard sound and the real sound of overweight session musicians scraping bits of wood.

Most of the DX7's operational problems are solved by installing Syco's MX-1 expansion board (and most of the others with a cheap chorus pedal), but that takes the cost of a machine well over the £1200 mark. In fact the DX7 is the most expensive of the four keyboards we're looking at here, but of course it still sells in vast quantities to the professional and aspiring amateur market. In fact it's very much 'the opposition' for the Casio CZ-5000, which suffered a few price reductions before it was able to force its way onto the market.


CASIO CZ-5000



The 5000 has many of the advantages of the DX7. It has a digital sound production system (nobody's yet figured out how closely 'FM' and 'Phase Distortion' are related) and so offers very clear, precise sounds which cut well through a mix. It also has many of the abilities of analogue synths, with a better imitation of the typical "filter sweep" effect than the DX can manage, and it's easier to program — although you still have to vary just one parameter at a time.

The Casio has a few of the DX7's disadvantages too. It has few onboard sounds (32, and 16 of these are preset) and no facility for dumping sounds to tape — expensive (though easy to use) cartridges have to be bought instead.

But some of the CZ5000's added facilities don't seem to have sunk into the public awareness yet. It can play layered and split sounds which the DX7 can't (although the cheaper Yamaha DX21 can) and although, surprisingly, it isn't velocity-sensitive, it does have a powerful on-board sequencer. This is approximately equivalent to two Casio SZ-1s in that it can play up to eight voices simultaneously with different sounds — it's multi-timbral.

So the Casio has compositional facilities which just don't apply to the DX7. The sequencer allows you to compose in real or step time, and you can play polyphonically if you use more than one track on each pass. You can put together useful little compositions, say with one voice for a bass line, three for strings, three for brass and one for a melody line.

On the other hand, the Casio doesn't have individual sound outputs and so the professional uses of the sequencer are strictly limited. Although the smallest of the Casio PD synths, the CZ-101, has had massive sales in the professional sector as a MIDI expander (its miniature keyboard excludes it from many other functions), the large CZ-1000 hasn't made a massive impact yet and the CZ-5000 is having difficulty establishing its professional credibility.

Maybe it's just the name 'Casio' and its long association with home keyboards, but most players seem to be reluctant to invest up to £1,000 in a top-line keyboard from the company. Over the next few months that's all going to change, as the company expand their range of sequencers and accessories and go into sampled drum machines and polyphonic sampling keyboards.

If the CZ-5000 hasn't been updated by that time (and it's hard to believe that the company will turn over their professional synths as quickly as they turn over their home keyboards) it may receive a welcome boost after Frankfurt next February.

Apparently, however, Casio have no more PD synths planned and their next releases will use a sound generation method more akin to digital sound sampling.

So the CZ-5000 has some of the appearances of a dinosaur only months after its release. It certainly weighs about the same as one, but that shouldn't be held against it.


ROLAND JUNO 106



Onto the third of our top synths of 1985, the Roland Juno 106. The Juno has succeeded by keeping things simple, but in fact has all the basic facilities you'd require from a polysynth and a lot more. Although it may be looked down on by the DX7 owners, it's probably installed in more professional studios and keyboard racks than you'd imagine.

Basically the Juno 106 is a Juno 60 with MIDI. The voicing is very similar — one bank of six oscillators with sub-oscillators, a single ADSR envelope which can be inverted when applied to the filter, white noise and an excellent chorus. All that's missing from the Juno 106 is the arpeggiator, presumably in an attempt to push sales of Roland's fine MIDI sequencers, but that's partly compensated for by the addition of polyphonic glide — not as frequently useful but an interesting effect.

The wonderful thing about the Juno 106 is that it's ideal as a beginner's polysynth, but also well equipped for professional MIDI setups. You can change the MIDI receive/send channel in a second just by holding a patch button with the MIDI Channel Select switch, and a rear panel switch decides whether patch changes, pitch-bend and modulation are responded to.

In other words you can program multi-channel MIDI pieces from a Juno 106, which you can't from an unmodified DX7, but of course you don't have the advantage of the DX7's velocity sensitivity. As for the Juno's sounds — well, you have all the standard string, brass and organ patches (128 memories altogether!), lots of silly noises, good snappy filter effects and much more. None of the raunchiness of a Prophet though, and eventually the constant (necessary) use of the chorus begins to grate on the ears.

The main advantage of the Juno is the price, which is by far the lowest of the four synths examined here. In fact it presents astonishing value for money, and has very few disadvantages. No wonder it's survived so well throughout the year, which has otherwise seen Roland cutting their keyboard range savagely (deleting the JX3-P and Jupiter 6) and moving more into expander synths with the exception of the rather misunderstood JX8-P keyboard.


KORG DW-6000



This year's prize for having an undeserved hard time must go to the Korg DW-6000. Announced as a successor to the Poly 61M, which had a rather belated MIDI update, the 6000 introduced yet another method of sound production and retained most of the advantages of the older analogue designs.

But the 6000 was announced with rather a high RRP (around £1200) which had to be rapidly cut to around £999 to compete. Rumours abounded of a velocity-sensitive version in the offing and sales of the 6000 were many fewer than it deserved.

In fact the 6000 has some fascinating effects. It uses eight complex waveshapes instead of the standard square, sine and sawtooth, and so has interesting elements of both analogue and digital effects. Two banks of oscillators produce powerful sounds and complex envelopes ensure that they're more interesting than say, the Juno's basic spec.

But like the Casio CZ-5000 the DW-6000 surprised the pundits by lacking velocity sensitivity, and like the Poly 61M it uses a single parameter control which makes editing fairly slow.

The 6000 does have some fine sounds and a good MIDI spec though. The piano, brass and other effects are good, there are lots of metallic and bell-like digital sounds (some reminiscent of the expensive PPG Wave) and a pleasant keyboard action.

But more to the point, the DW-8000 has now been previewed to the public, and it properly puts the 6000 in the shade. Not only is it velocity sensitive, but it's also pressure sensitive, it has 16 waveshapes, a complex arpeggiator and even a digital delay line built in which is programmable for every sound. Its RRP is around £1200.

Some conclusions



So of the four synths we've looked at, the two established models seem to have an assured future for a while, while the two newcomers have both had a hard time. That seems odd for a market based very much on innovation and change, but just indicates that nothing succeeds like a good basic design. The Juno for simplicity, the DX7 for detail, if you like.

At this point it's traditional to put on a Russell Grant woolly jumper and make some predictions about the year to come. So, based on a bit of industry gossip, a quick look in the magic crystal ball of MIDI, and a lot of guesswork, here are your top four synths and accessories for 1986. Hope you enjoy them.

1) Roland Jupiter 12
2) Casio Polyphonic Sampler
3) Sequential Circuits Drum Machine/Sequencer
4) Ensoniq Mirage II

Sound Generation FM Analog PD Digital/Analog
Keyboard 5 Octave Velocity & Pressure 5 Octave 5 Octave 5 Octave
Voices 16 6 16 6
Memories 32 128 32 64
Performance controls Wheels Bender/Vibrato Wheels Joystick
Effects a) Complex FM effects a) Inverse envelope a) Sequencer a) Chorus
b) Polyglide b) Chorus b) Chorus b) Inverse envelope
c) Polyglide c) Split c) Polyglide
d) Layers
Envelope 8-stage multiple per voice 4-stage single per voice 8-stage multiple per voice 6-stage 2 per voice
MIDI Only transmits on ch.1
Receives any channel
In/Out on any channel In/Out on any channel + mono mode In/Out on independent channels.
Target Price £1200 £600 £900 £700


Also featuring gear in this article

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Browse category: Synthesizer > Yamaha

Browse category: Synthesizer > Casio

Browse category: Synthesizer > Roland

Browse category: Synthesizer > Korg


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Browse category: Software: Editor/Librarian > Sound Design Studio

Browse category: Synthesizer > Korg

Browse category: Synthesizer > Casio

Browse category: Sound Module > Roland

Browse category: Synthesizer > Yamaha



Previous Article in this issue

Long Ryders

Next article in this issue

ddrum Digital Drums


Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

International Musician - Dec 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Previous article in this issue:

> Long Ryders

Next article in this issue:

> ddrum Digital Drums


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