Wise Before The Event
The Frankfurt Fair is still weeks away — but we’ve gathered together a whole mass of advance information on the new instruments that will make this year’s event the most competitive yet.
We make our way through half-baked press releases, foreign-language brochures and prototype illustrations, to bring you news of the gear that'll matter at this month's Frankfurt Music Fair.
Compiling this year's Frankfurt Preview has not been that difficult a task. For reasons best known to themselves, the world's leading modern musical instrument companies have done their best to stagger the unveiling of new product throughout this winter — instead of announcing it all in one go in Frankfurt's exhibition halls.
Thus we already know about the cheap Yamaha FM polys and the Roland Alpha Juno range, for instance, because the machines have actually passed through our hands for review well in advance of the Frankfurt show.
Most manufacturers still have plenty up their sleeves, though, as this preview should show.
Akai, for example, are known to have a bigger, better sampler on the stocks. It's called the S900, and its price will be quite a bit higher than that of the current S612 (which will continue in production), but precisely what sets the two apart in technical and performance terms isn't yet known.
Akai have also put the finishing touches to their AX60 polysynth, first unveiled to the world at the British Music Fair last August. A budget machine, the 60 looks to be a fairly average analogue design, but closer scrutiny reveals a unique routing system that allows samples from the S612 to be altered by the AX60's filtering and envelope sections, and a welcome return to good old-fashioned knobs and sliders on the front panel. It's good to see a major synth company flying in the face of fashion and giving the useless digital parameter access system the thumbs-down. Well done, Akai.
Meanwhile, Casio have a number of innovations in hand, and amongst the most notable of these is the RZ1 digital drum machine. This is the company's first attempt at a stand-alone programmable rhythm unit, but with a specification that includes 12 PCM sounds, separate audio outputs, and programmable accent levels, it's unlikely to fall on deaf ears. Most significant of all, though, is the RZ1's ability to store musicians' own drum samples in four programmable locations, with a maximum sample length of 0.2seconds each. You can even loop all four memories together, to store one 0.8-second sound at a sampling rate of 20kHz.
Still on the sampling front, Casio will also be showing their SK1 sampling keyboard, aimed squarely at Yamaha's VSS1 machine, but weighing in rather cheaper at under £100. The SK can store only one sample onboard at any one time, but users will be able to shape that sound by looping it, altering its harmonic content, and feeding it through a built-in envelope shaper.
Moving back to the percussion world, Casio have also developed a set of touch-sensitive MIDI drum pads, not dissimilar to Roland's Octapad, but eschewing the panel-mount format in favour of a traditional drum kit layout.
And elsewhere, Casio are accelerating the process of incorporating 'professional' features — like Phase Distortion synth voices, piano sounds and programmable rhythm patterns — into their domestic keyboards, thereby narrowing the gap between the two market areas.
No such revolutionary marketing on the Sequential stand, we reckon, but there will be a quieter revolution of an equally fascinating kind.
For the Californians have just completed the design of another new Prophet, hot on the heels of the Prophet 2000 sampling keyboard and its new rack-mounted counterpart, the 2002 expander. The Prophet VS is a new polysynth that employs a novel form of digital waveform storage known as Vector Synthesis (hence the keyboard's name). Budding programmers use a joystick for mixing up to four different waveforms at any time, and the VS features a full-size five-octave keyboard, a total of 200 sounds available simultaneously from a combination of ROM and RAM cartridges, splitting and layering facilities, and a comprehensive arpeggiator.
What does it sound like? Well tell you as soon as we know.
The other purveyors of The Great American Synthesiser Dream, Oberheim, will probably have a quieter Fair, since most of their effort is now going into producing as many examples of the Matrix 6 polysynth as the world demands. They have developed a modular version of the Matrix, though, which should be as facility-laden — and as comparatively cheap — as the synth from which it is derived.
As usual, there's been little or no advance news from the big guns of US hi-tech musical instrument-making. The Synclavier, E-mu and Kurzweil camps have all been noticeably quiet, though at least the last-mentioned will have the voiceless and keyboardless varieties of their 250 digital keyboard on display at Frankfurt. Don't assume the others are resting on their laurels, though.
Not much news from Down Under, either, where Fairlight have got their £60,000 Series III CMI into production. As ever, we anticipate huge crowds around the company's Frankfurt exhibit, which may make objective appraisal of the new machine difficult.
Coming back down to earth a little, we find Roland announcing another 500-odd product lines to complement the 3000 they already have. Exaggerations aside, though, top of the Roland list comes the MC500, a polyphonic MIDI sequencer that aims at combining the functions of the company's successful MSQ keyboard recorders, with those of the equally successful Microcomposers. It's due to cost around £800, and it certainly looks very impressive.
Also on the cards are a new flagship polysynth — the JX10, complete with 12-voice synth section, a 76-note keyboard sensitive both to initial velocity and aftertouch, and a built-in sequencer — and the company's cheapest digital drum machine ever; the TR505 will retail at a modest £225.
Roland have also been devoting a lot of attention toward taking the state of the electric piano art much further during the years to come, and the first fruits of these labours come in the form of the RD1000 combo digital piano (a 16-voice job with an 88-note keyboard, costing around £2500) and a modular version, the MKS20 (£1200). Both machines — and their more domestically-inclined relatives, the HP5500 and 5600 — use a new method of sound-generation not entirely unlike the resynthesis system first developed by New England Digital for the Synclavier...
Technics have stuck to a more familiar technique — Pulse Code Modulation — for their new PX digital piano series. Flagship of this range is the SX-PX1, a £3600 machine of leviathan proportions, whose facilities include six PCM sounds, a touch-sensitive seven-octave keyboard, MIDI-compatibility, a two-channel sequencer, and even a connection for an optional disk drive, with each disk capable of storing up to 27,000 sequencer notes.
Of course, Yamaha have been developing the electric piano for years, and they aren't about to be overshadowed now. Their new PF80 and 70 pianos are direct replacements for the PF15/10. Both feature 10 FM preset sounds, 16 programmable MIDI functions, built-in tremolo and chorus and a three-band EQ section.
Other machines of interest are percussive in nature, with the RX21L drum machine appearing as Yamaha's contender for a slice of the Latin Percussion cake (it's identical to the RX21 in every respect except sounds), while the company will also be showing their first-ever electronic drum kit, something they've been rumoured to be developing for years.
Rumours are also rife that both Yamaha and Roland will have professional-spec, professional-price sampling keyboards to compete with the American Ensoniq (who already have a sampling expander in production) and Prophet 2000. Both Japanese companies should be exhibiting their sampling wares in Frankfurt, if only in prototype guise.
But as yet, only Korg's pro sampler, the DSS1, has been given a model number, a probable price (under £1500), and a flash case for its prototype innards.
As we reported in Newsdesk January, the DSS1 is just one of a whole horde of new Korg machines, which also includes the SG1 digital piano (yes, another one), the DVP1 voice processor (essentially a vocoder brought up to date), and the EX8000, keyboardless expander variant of the DW8000 poly.
We can also reveal that Korg will be introducing a replacement for the budget Poly 800 at Frankfurt. Imaginatively titled Poly 800II, the new synth scores over its successful predecessor in having a built-in digital delay, extended sequencer capacity, and improved envelope generators.
Finally, it's over to Italy for further developments on the Elka and Bit fronts.
Elka will be reviving the spirit of the Synthex at Frankfurt '86, with the unveiling of two new polyphonic synthesisers, the LX600 and the LX900. Both have 36 preset sounds (of which 32 can be edited), 61-note keyboards responsive to velocity and aftertouch, built-in chorus units, and facilities for keyboard splitting, cartridge dumping and MIDI communicating.
The only difference between the two is that whereas the 600 is analogue (we expect it to be not dissimilar to the Synthex in voice structure), the 900 is digital — though the exact nature of its sound-generating system isn't yet known. Expanders for both models will also be announced.
As for Bit, formerly known as Crumar and distributed in the UK by Chase, they're doing more than any other European manufacturer to stem the Japanese tide. And their consistently inventive R&D department has come up with a couple of real gems for Frankfurt.
First of these is the Bit Masterkeyboard, an intriguing voiceless MIDI synth controller with a six-octave, responsive-to-everything keyboard, a comprehensive MIDI data filtering section, and a 4000-note, four-track polyphonic sequencer, programmable in both real and step time direct from the keyboard; What that adds up to is a fuller spec than any master keyboard currently available, but while some companies are asking over £1000 for their models, Bit want less than £500 for theirs.
Even more exciting is the news that the Italians have successfully developed a sampling module of their own. The sampler — currently nameless — is a 12-bit device with a maximum sampling time of eight seconds, and a sampling rate switchable between 24, 32 and 47.5kHz. The module is velocity-sensitive over MIDI, and also has an analogue sound-modifying section onboard, incorporating a VCF, a VCA, two envelope generators and two LFOs.
One thing is for sure. Frankfurt will keep us busier than ever this year.
News by Dan Goldstein
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