Peter Fitzpatrick gets to grips with Casio's flagship synth - the VZ-1
A lot has happened since the CZ-101 was launched five years ago - Peter Fitzpatrick delves into Casio's lastest and greatest synthesizer yet - the VZ-1
The other week I bought myself a new car. Unfortunately when I tried to drive it away from the showroom, it wouldn't start. The situation was quickly resolved by the salesman who explained that it had no petrol in the tank. 'But don't worry, Sir', he said, 'there's a service station half a mile down the road - it won't take you long to push it there'. OK, so it's fairly obvious that I'm lying but, in the same vein, can you seriously believe that Casio would dare market a synthesiser for £700 and not fit a plug to it?
Once I had wired up the plug I switched on and started playing. Forget that the VZ-1 is a highly sophisticated digital synth for the time being - the first thing to explore is the pre-set sounds. This machine has 128 of them to mess around with. Oh, if only I could be one of the select few who decide what to call these sounds! What sound does 'Yes I Got' conjure up for you? Or how about 'Cinema' or 'See God'?
Plug in the ROM card and there's another 256 sounds to choose from. Where do you start? The whole experience is like that of a child in a toyshop not knowing which way to turn next. Eventually the novelty begins to wear off and dissatisfaction creeps in. Who ever heard a piano sounding like that? If only this sounded a bit more meaty etc etc and so it's time to learn how to use the machine properly.
There's no point in getting a synth if you're not going to create and the realism of pre-set sounds again is of secondary importance. No need to mimic a sound when you can improve on it.
Synthesizing requires a thorough reading of the VZ-1's manual. This is, not surprisingly, written in jargonese but at least it hasn't been directly translated from the Japanese by way of a dictionary, as so often seems to be the case. Just as well, I felt, because there is a lot to understand.
The bare bones of the machine are the eight DCO/DCA modules that make up the 'interactive Phase Distortion' sound source. Each module can either be used to produce sound or to control the output of another module.
The output of the two modules can either be mixed or one can be used to modulate the output of the other. With phase modulation the output is the product of one module controlled by the other. Ring modulation can be seen as a bit of both and it typically produces a metallic 'clang'.
The modules work in pairs known as 'lines'. These lines can then be strung together in a bewildering variety of ways. The line output from one module can then be used as the phase of another module. Repeat this with another module and the number of combinations becomes enormous.
To actually get to design your own sounds requires an understanding of how the Casio's Menus and Functions work. Whether you want to rename a sound, control an external sound source via the MIDI set-up, add vibrato or whatever, this is all done through the Menus system. There are three menus each controlling different types of function.
Menu 1 is the exciting one where sounds are created or adjusted by altering their basic characteristics. This is done by changing the plethora of settings for each module.
Menu 2 takes care of sound effects. These might include pitch bend, manipulated using a plastic wheel, or the positioning of the split point(s) when using more than one sound, or 'patch', on the keyboard.
Menu 3 involves such technical niceties as MIDI control and formatting the RAM card. Each menu is subdivided into functions, each of which is ascribed a page in the handbook. Once you have mastered the page layout formula it becomes very easy to use, although a lot of page turning is needed.
At the centre of the VZ-1 is an LCD display. By selecting a menu and then a function this displays information about the settings you have chosen. An option on many functions is for a graphical display of the data. This is much easier to understand than the seemingly more abstract alternative of numbers, particularly when just starting out. The selecting of menus and functions etc is all done by pressing a few buttons and/or using a slider. Again this takes some getting used to but, once understood, becomes second nature.
Sounds can be manufactured at modular, global and combined sounds levels. The first step is to select Menu 1 and the various modular functions. The first of these is 'Line' which dictates the configuration of the internal lines and the external phase - in other words how the pairs of modules interact, whether through mixing, ring modulation or phase modulation.
It is as well to get this and the 'Waveform' choices decided on before progressing any further unless you really know what you're doing because changes later on will fundamentally affect the sound you are trying to create.
The choice of waveforms is from a sine wave, 5 saw-tooth waves and two noise waveforms. A sine wave on its own is a pure sound without harmonics which resembles some physics laboratory apparatus. Add a few harmonics though and it soon brightens up. The saw-teeth waves fulfill this criterion - the higher the number the more emphasis is given to the higher harmonics. Finally come the noise-type waves which are either with or without the fundamental frequency.
Experimentation at this stage is both productive and enjoyable. By assigning different waves to different modules and then adjusting how they interact produces an enormous range of basic sounds.
'DCA Envelope' is a function which can be segmented into eight steps each of which determine how the amplitude of each module varies with time. For example, one might start off quietly and pick up steadily whilst another could have a sharp attack and decay followed by lengthy sustain. It is more complicated than that though; as there are up to eight steps to select each sound envelope can be made to vary considerably with time. Additionally, sustain can be set at any point which will hold the sound until the key is released. Also, if one line is set on external phase, as is highly likely, it will modulate the sound output of the other line.
'Velocity level' determines how the sound created responds to the velocity of keyboard stroke. There are eight response curves to choose from. This function might typically be used to give a sharp twang when a key is struck harshly and a more mellifluous sound when it is stroked more delicately.
'KF Level' determines the response of each module across the whole of the keyboard thus affecting the overall output. The 'Detune' function allows the pitch of each module to be set as preferred. Normally this would mean detuning one or two to thicken the sound. An alternative is to fix the frequency of one module as constant across the keyboard. If this is set predominantly for the attack part of the sound it gives a realistic impression of the sort of sound produced by some, more 'natural', instruments such as the flute.
Other controls allow you to adjust vibrato, octave settings, tremolo (yeuch!) and amp sensitivity which dictates how responsively each module behaves to after-touch-type effects.
Once all the Menu 1 settings have been finalised you are left with your basic sound. Menu 2 lets you fine tune it and determine the keyboard response. One particular facet of this instrument is the 'after-touch' of the keyboard. By pressing down after playing a note or notes such effects as portamento, tremolo or vibrato can be used. Again, as with everything on this machine, the settings can be adjusted to suit your playing styles or needs. The same effects can instead be controlled by a foot pedal (option) or either of two wheels placed at the bass end of the keyboard. It is really a matter of taste which to use but the aftertouch and the pedal obviously don't require you to take your hands of the keys though it did occur to me that the wheels could be head-operable; possibly this could be incorporated into a live set.
Stepping into the Combination Mode allows the operation of up to four patches at a time. These can each be allocated a segment of the keyboard, all mixed together or a combination of both. 'Split points' on the keyboard can either be moved or smoothed over by using the 'Positional Crossfade' function. This lets the sound to change quite radically from bass to treble without leaving un uncomfortable step at any one point on the keyboard. The comparative levels of each patch can be adjusted and one the output of one or more can be delayed from when triggered by depressing a key. Other fine-tuning lets you invert the tremolo or vibrato phase of one or more patches in a combined sound and alter the velocity criteria by which a patch is triggered.
In its original configuration the VZ-1 has 64 internal patch combinations and another 128 on the ROM card. By selecting four sounds at random and having them all sound at once almost invariably produces a gorgeous rich, warm sound. Sadly this does restrict the keyboard to four-note polyphony - great for the likes of Fur Elise but awkward to use otherwise. I guess you can't have everything.
Saving a patch or combination is relatively straightforward involving over-writing existing data. Care is needed not to obscure a pre-set sound that you might need later. As far as I understand it, it is possible to 'initialise' (or return to factory preset) parameters of individual functions or of all data but not those parameters of individual sounds. However, it should be quite possible to dispense with many factory pre-set sounds very quickly.
The Casio is also fitted with MIDI. This allows it to control another sound source such as a sampler or to be driven by a drum machine, computer or whatever.
As a novice to the black art of synthesizing I found the VZ-1 more than a little distracting. I had recently been to an Einsturzende Neubaten gig and so, quite naturally, was keen to try my hand at bashing out a few metallic sounds. I didn't get very far, partly because of the limited time I had with the instrument, partly because of my own ineptitude but largely because I kept unearthing new possibilities to make equally fantastic but completely different sounds.
It did seem strange at first to encounter so many pre-set sounds many of which sound similar on what is supposed to be a sound creator. No-one is going to buy a VZ-1 for its stock of internal sounds but they are a great source of inspiration. If you find that the Sax sounds as though it is being played with the weediest of reeds then it is up to you to try and better it. The end result may sound ghastly but it will have kept you at the controls for another half an hour opening up all sorts of possibilities. Similarly the 'Marimbas' and 'Koto' sounds inspired experimentation with different cultural styles; again none to fruitfully but, given time, who knows what might be produced.
So, is it all worth it? That's really a question you can only answer for yourself and it's very dependent on the depth of your pockets. You do get a very versatile and sophisticated package for your money and one which appears robustly constructed. It is all too easy to switch the Casio on just to try out a few quick ideas and end up playing for hours. It is a shame it doesn't come with a plug though.
Supplier: Casio Electronics, (Contact Details)
Review by Peter Fitzpatrick