Beauty And The Beat
Casio RZ1 Sampling Drum Machine
Fancy an Emulator SP12 for £350? Casio have something approaching it in the new RZ1, the world's first 'affordable' digital drum box with onboard sampling facilities. Dan Goldstein says nevermind the quality...
Casio have taken the big leap forward and put the world's first affordable sampling drum machine into full production. To describe the new RZ1 as revolutionary would be an under-statement.
At long last, somebody has produced an affordable sampling drum machine. It had to happen sooner or later, because the technology's been available for some while now, and the potential market for such a machine, I'd have thought, must be enormous.
It's the Japanese who've got there first, even though it was an American company, E-mu Systems, who produced the world's first generally available sampling beat box over a year ago: the Emulator SP12. Now, the SP12 is an extremely fine machine, and one that's being continually updated and improved to prevent it being made obsolete by developments in Tokyo. But in the end, nobody other than Casio had the foresight, the will, and the manpower to turn drum sampling from a £3000 exercise into a £300 one.
We're told that the Casio RZ1 will be in the shops imminently, but the first production shipment still eluded the UK division as this issue was being compiled, so we had to make do with a prototype for review purposes. It was covered in gaffa tape and mysterious coding written in indelible black ink (so now we know how the Frankfurt demos were done), and a few things rattled inside it every time you gave it a shake. But in most important respects, our RZ1 was the same as the machine you'll get in exchange for 350 of Her Majesty's highest-denomination coins in a couple of months' time.
Whereas it seems perfectly normal to market a sampling keyboard with nothing inside it but a great chunk of memory, Casio have obviously decided not to try selling a drum machine that doesn't have any drum sounds in it when you get it out of the box. Thus the RZ1 comes equipped with 12 percussion voices already sampled into ROM, where they are unerasable, unalterable and generally free from the fiddling of the average user. In a sense that's a shame, because it means only 25% of the RZ1's memory is available for storing sounds you've sampled yourself, A more adventurous (some would say foolish) marketing department would have given the machine a half-dozen or so RAM locations for user samples, instead of the four provided by the new Casio.
Of the dozen preset sounds, the ride cymbal, rimshot and cowbell are all superb, while the bass, snare, toms (three pitches) and hi-hats are better than OK. The crash cymbal suffers, as most short crash samples do, from not having enough memory to cope with the original's long natural decay, while the claps just don't have the presence of most competing versions. Popular fashion dictates that a handclap sample should contain a recording of several people clapping almost simultaneously, so that some sort of chorus effect is discernible; the RZ1's clap sample seems to have been taken with no more than three people clapping, which results in a thin, weedy sound more akin to that of a typewriter than anything else.
Overall, the RZ1's voices don't possess the length or (more crucially) the bandwidth to make really impressive listening. They aren't as bright as those of Roland TR or Yamaha RX digital machines, but they're eminently usable nonetheless. And although you can do nothing onboard the RZ1 to adjust the sounds' pitch, envelope, or stereo position, the good news is that there are 10 individual audio outputs, each with an onboard level slider, mounted on the Casio's rear panel. Eight of these are assigned to the 12 preset drum sounds, so unless you want to make critical adjustments to the cowbell whilst leaving the crash cymbal (say) alone, you should have plenty of scope for trimming the rough edges off Casio's PCM voices.
But sampling is what most people will want the RZ1 for. The four memory locations have a capacity of 0.2 seconds each, though you can loop all four to record one long sample lasting 0.8 seconds. Sampling is eight-bit at a rate preset at 20kHz, and no bandwidth figures are available from Casio; my guess is that they wouldn't make terribly impressive reading for Emulator or Synclavier users (or Prophet 2000 users, for that matter), but that they will more than satisfy the needs of most musicians seeking a cheap, easy-to-use entry into percussion sampling.
Clearly, Casio have gone to great lengths to ensure sampling is very easy to achieve on the RZ1. Even the Art Editor managed a decent bottle-hit sample after just a couple of attempts; total time from microphone plug-in to successful sample — about 30 seconds.
Pressing the Sampling button in conjunction with one of the sample memory switches tells the RZ1 to expect an incoming signal, and where it should be put once it's been received. That incoming signal can arrive from either a mic or line input, with sampling level variable via a top-panel slider. The RZ1 incorporates an automatic triggering system (which can't be overridden) that ensures the machine begins recording as soon as a signal corresponding in strength with the Sampling Level setting is fed in. As soon as that happens, a red LED flashes for the duration of the recording, and the message SAMPLE OK appears in the Casio's LCD window.
That 'OK' message can be a little on the optimistic side, though. On many occasions during the review period, we found samples described by the Casio as OK were in fact distorted beyond all recognition; practice and a little caution do wonders to minimise this.
All things considered, the Casio stores competently-taken samples much more faithfully than its spec (not to mention its selling price) indicate it ought to. Noise stays at remarkably low levels even if signal quality is poor (from a cruddy mic, say), and the only thing that may disappoint users is that, contrary to what many may think, two-tenths of a second isn't really a very long time in which to store percussion sounds.
Even if you manage to capture most of the signal you're after, chances are there won't be enough memory left to store any peripheral information like acoustic reverberation. To compensate partially for this, you can tailor the frequency content of each pair of samples using a rear-mounted rotary control — increasing the high frequencies naturally adds noise, but it does help to cure some of the dryness caused by the Casio's obviously limited sampling bandwidth.
Little of this seems significant, though, once you get down to the business of using your samples in the context of rhythm patterns and songs. Briefly, the RZ1 can record in either real or step time, stores up to 100 patterns and 20 songs (the latter with a maximum 99 steps each), and be programmed manually from the keys of a MIDI keyboard if you wish. Quantisation (or auto-compensation, as Casio call it) can be set to any of 10 values from a half-note to 1/96 of a note, and is switchable from the front panel; if you like the mistakes you made writing your patterns, you can hang on to them without fear of the machine's over-zealousness getting in the way.
When it comes to joining patterns together to form songs, the Casio provides the usual complement of insert, delete, chain and copy functions to ease the programmer's task, and all these are easily accessible from the front panel.
There are two things to be said on the subject of the RZ1's front panel, both of them favourable.
The first concerns the LCD window which, though not quite as comprehensive as Roland's splendid grid system, does a great job of informing you of what's going on inside the machine. When the RZ1 has been switched to play a song, for example, the display shows not only the song number, but also the pattern that's been reached at any given time, and the individual number of that pattern. It also shows tempo in beats per minute (variable between 40 and 250, incidentally) as soon as you vary playback speed with one of the dedicated controllers. The display's backlit, too, which is more than can be said for some.
The second point concerns the layout of switches and, more specifically, the sheer number of them. It's become fashionable to cut manufacturing costs by reducing the amount of controlling hardware fitted to hi-tech musical instruments, but with the RZ1, Casio have flown in the face of fashion by offering a fuller range of switches than any competing machine. Where most manufacturers would fit no more than a pair of increment/decrement switches for value adjustment, Casio fit just such a pair and a complete numeric keypad, which makes pattern selection and the like an absolute doddle. Other, more obscure functions have dedicated buttons all to themselves — like memory transfer to cassette, MIDI channel and clock selection, and tempo control. In fact, only a tiny number of the RZ1's controls serve dual purposes, so you never have to do much 'shifting' from one set of functions to another in the course of setting up, sampling or programming. When you consider there are plenty of other drum box manufacturers giving their switches three or four different tasks to perform, it's little wonder the Casio seems such a joy to use so quickly after you've freed it from its wrapping — and in our case, that's without an instruction manual of any description.
Moving momentarily back to the subject of sampling, the RZ1 — a mains-only machine — retains its sample memories during power-down, but requires the assistance of a cassette to remember any more; tape can also be used to store song, pattern, tempo and MIDI data, too.
There's nothing as hi-tech as a cartridge interface, though, and overall, you get the impression the Casio is a little xenophobic in its attitude to the outside world. MIDI is well catered for by In, Out and Thru sockets, and the machine should transmit and receive MIDI clock information without trouble. But there are no pre-MIDI syncing facilities to be had, and no means of syncing the RZ1 to tape, either. External triggering facilities are also conspicuous by their absence.
Yet despite these omissions, the RZ1 strikes almost the perfect balance between having the right sorts of facilities and bearing the right sort of price-tag. It's conceivable that some people will moan about the dullness of some of the preset sounds, and about the fact that you can't swap sound chips or cartridges in the Californian tradition. But when there are separate audio outputs to help cure the former ill, and four user sample locations to assist in rectifying the latter, there seems little reason to think the RZ1 will cause much genuine complaint.
In one, simple movement of design and marketing genius, Casio have brought drum sampling to the masses without burdening them with a machine that's awkward to use, or that makes too many compromises in sound quality. Finished in a case best described as an anonymous hybrid between everyone else's idea of what a drum machine should look like, the RZ1 looks set to make a big, big name for itself in a market already full to the brim with worthy instruments.
And the terrifying thing is, this is only Casio's first attempt at a dedicated drum machine. Goodness knows what the second one will be like.
Price RRP £349 including VAT
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Review by Dan Goldstein
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