Programmable Phase Distortion Polysynth with Sequencer
Continuing their fight for pro keyboard acceptance, Casio double the CZ1000's voices and throw in a multitrack sequencer for good measure. Simon Trask casts a critical eye over the results.
Their first two pro keyboards were revolutionary enough, but Casio's 'upmarket' polysynth - and the sequencer that's built into it - could put an even bigger cat among the pigeons.
Scarcely has the synth world had time to recover from Casio's (belated) entry into the market, and the company already have a follow-up on the stocks and raring to go. The CZ5000, as the latest addition is imaginatively called, employs the same voice architecture as its CZ predecessors, but now there are twice as many voices (16 in single DCO mode, 8 in double DCO mode); the Tone Mix (ie. dual) mode, monophonic on the 101 and 1000, is four-voice polyphonic; and a Keyboard Split mode has been introduced. Split point is adjustable over the whole range of the keyboard, with separate volume levels assignable to each side of the split; Mix and Split modes are mutually exclusive. Other additions are a modulation wheel (with adjustable mod depth and on/off button), and stereo chorus (implemented on a single master slider as rate and depth are not separately adjustable).
But these new features alone wouldn't exactly justify the extra cost of the CZ5000 over its still-young predecessors. What really sets the Big Brother Casio apart is an eight-track real- and step-time sequencer, something I'll be going into in some detail as we progress.
You know, something tells me Casio haven't quite got their hi-tech aesthetics act together just yet. Whilst the CZ1000's gaudily-coloured membrane switches make it look not unlike a tacky version of the DX7, the 5000 reminds me of nothing more than a high-tech Scrabble board, with row upon row of pale blue, grey and pink buttons simply asking to be slid along the channels into which they're recessed.
Still, beauty is in the eye of the Editor (who quite likes the look of Casio's latest), and whichever way you look at it, the layout is at least orderly and easily understood. Each button has its own LED which lights up when the button is pressed, and most switches have only one function assigned to them, so no need to remember a whole load of 'Shift' possibilities here. The dual row, 16-character LCD of the 101/1000 has been retained, along with the cursor that can be moved between any of four options. Which is a good thing, because it's an arrangement that allows a sensible amount of information to be viewed (and accessed) simultaneously.
Lurking at the left-hand end of the front panel is the ominously-titled 'Total Control' section, which actually governs master tuning, key transpose, portamento and glide selection, together with master control of volume and stereo chorus.
Next one along is the Mode section, which allows selection of Normal, Tone Mix, Key Split and Sequencer modes, and gives access to the Casio's various MIDI functions. Beneath this is the Programmer section, which governs patch selection and storage.
Centrally placed is the Data Entry section, which is where the LCD window and associated controls are to be found, and next to this are the Data Save/Load and Effect sections, the latter governing portamento, glide, bend range and modulation depth. The Parameter section is where all the sound generating elements are accessed. The layout of this section will be familiar to any 101/1000 owners, which is not in itself surprising, as the sound circuitry is exactly the same. Next to this, and completing our guided tour of the front panel, comes the inauspicious-looking but rather effective Sequencer section.
For a description of Casio's Phase Distortion system of sound synthesis, you'd best look back to Paul Wiffen's review of the CZ101 (E&MM January 85), which also has some pretty pictures to help clarify the subject.
As I've already pointed out, the CZ5000 has the same voice architecture as the 101/1000. However, the deluxe model presents you with 64 sound patches onboard (32 preset and 32 programmable), arranged in eight banks of eight. A smaller number of presets might have been desirable, but there you go. Many of the sounds from the 101/1000 are included on the 5000, some benefiting from the increased experience of Casio's programmers, others remaining unchanged. So the overall standard is still remarkably high, and it isn't just a question of a couple of voices being outstanding; the range of sounds is too wide for any of the 5000's presets to be an isolated goody. The CZ strong point is still ear-piercing metallic rings of DX strength and clarity (though just bear in mind this isn't FM synthesis on the cheap), but there are some pretty impressive 'analogue' sounds in the 5000's armoury, too.
The main improvements on the sonic potential front have resulted from the increased number of voices, the improved Tone Mix facility, the new keyboard split facility, and the multi-timbral sequencer.
Each voice consists of two DCOs, two DCWs (Digitally Controlled Waves), and two DCAs. The similarity of this architecture to the traditional analogue VCO, VCF and VCA hierarchy makes it easily approachable for all but the most inexperienced of synth programmers, and most parameter value changes have an effect that's both recognisable and easily attributable to the parameter in question.
Each DCO can generate any of eight waveforms: sawtooth, square, pulse, double sine, saw-puise and three kinds of 'resonance'. Any two of these waveforms can be combined within one DCO (except the resonance waveforms, which cannot be paired), giving a fair range of base material to be worked with even before you get into the realms of dual DCOs.
Individual eight-stage envelopes are available for each DCO, DCW and DCA, and these affect pitch, timbre and amplitude respectively (but then, you'd expect that, wouldn't you?), which means plenty of scope for time-variable sounds here. What's more, each step has its own rate and level settings.
The DCW and DCA stages each have a Key Follow facility, with user-adjustable amount. The higher the pitch of the key you press, the smaller the amount of effect introduced; in the case of the DCA, the amplitude envelope gets shorter as the pitch gets higher. This is nothing new, admittedly, but nonetheless good to see on a synth in the 5000's price range.
"Casio can hardly be accused of skimping on the sequencer; they've even managed to cram in a step-time section as well."
Real-time sequencing is nothing new to Casio. Hands up all those who remember the CT7000 home keyboard from a couple of years back, which sported a two-track sequencer whose input configuration is, in fact, rather similar to that of the CZ5000. Thus, the new synth uses tape recorder-style controls, with Reverse and Forward keys in addition to the more usual Play, Stop and Record. Also included is a Reset button, which returns you to the beginning of the sequence. Forward and Reverse seem not to go any faster than the maximum Play/Record tempo, which is still a bit on the slow side when it comes to wanting speedy access to any part of your epic. I could be wrong, but I remember the CT7000 being much quicker than this.
Basically, the CZ5000 comes equipped with an eight-track, eight-voice real- and step-time sequencer offering 6800 step storage in step time and 3400 note storage in real time. A better spec, in fact, than that shortly to be offered by Casio's forthcoming stand-alone MIDI sequencer, the SZ1 (at least if prototype figures are anything to go by). But the really good news is that what we have here is a multi-timbral sequencer, similar to that offered by Sequential's modern-day polys, on which each track is capable of being assigned its own voice patch. Each track can have as many voices assigned to it as you like in real time, providing, of course, you don't exceed eight voices in total. In step-time mode, however, each track is confined to monophonic input.
In terms of additional MIDI info, the sequencer can store patch changes in both real and step time, but sadly pitch bend and mod wheel usage is disabled during Record, even though both wheels can be brought into action for playing in real time over an already-recorded sequence. Each track can be sent out over a separate MIDI channel (more on this later), and can also be assigned its own volume level onboard, which is jolly useful.
Real- and step-time sequences reside in the same area of memory, and only one sequence can be held in memory at any one time (unless, of course, you assign different tracks to different sequences, as tracks can be turned off at will - but remember that you're still limited to eight voices spread across all the tracks). Track memory is dynamically assigned, and Casio have thoughtfully provided a readout of the percentage of memory still available.
There's a built-in metronome click to assist recording in real time, and this can be set to one of three levels of audibility, which is useful if you don't want to be deafened during a quiet passage, but are also wary of being left all at sea during a more excessive excursion. It's also possible to disable the metronome entirely - handy if you want to use a drum machine.
Talking of drum machines, MIDI Start, Stop and Continue codes are all supported by the 5000's sequencer, which means your sequence should synchronise perfectly with any MIDI drum machine or sequencer. The 5000's sequencer can control a MIDI drum machine/sequencer in both playback and real-time record modes, and can also be controlled by a MIDI drum machine/sequencer in playback mode.
Real-time editing facilities aren't exactly plentiful, but there is a handy drop-in facility that makes it possible to 'rewind' to any point and resume recording. The sequencer will only drop in when you play, so the rest of your recorded material is always preserved intact, thank goodness. Thus, you can correct any errors as long as you do so before exiting Record mode.
All in all, Casio can hardly be accused of skimping on the sequencer side of the CZ5000; they've even managed to cram in a reasonable step-time section as well. This is selected by pressing a button marked (for some reason best known to Casio) 'Manual', followed by one of eight Track Select buttons. You're then presented with the exhortation '001 Select Programmer!!', which can be translated into everyday English as 'select a sound'. And yes, it does get a bit irritating after a while. Most of the time, I found myself selecting a sound before calling up the sequencer, which meant that having to select it again became something of a nuisance. Maybe I'm just difficult to please...
Once you've selected your voice, its name is displayed in the LCD window, and you're given the opportunity to choose whether or not you want portamento or glide. Next, pressing the Forward key takes you forward through each step, while Reverse does the opposite. Logical enough.
I have to confess to finding the step-time sequencer disconcerting to use at first. However, things soon began to fall into place, and you soon begin to appreciate what good use Casio have made of the limited possibilities afforded by the size of the 5000's display. Believe it or not, they've managed to get information relating to three steps onto the LCD at the same time, with the currently-selected step, being displayed in the centre within corner brackets.
Duration (anything from demisemiquaver to semibreve) has to be selected prior to pitch or rest data. The latter is accessed by means of a Rest button (ha!), while pitch is selected by pressing the relevant note on the synth keyboard. And what puts this (fairly rudimentary) step-time package ahead of so many micro-based programs is that if subsequent durations remain unchanged, it isn't necessary to re-input a duration for each note - which means you can effectively play in real time if the mood takes you. The LCD shows duration (notes and rests) in 'proper' musical notation, while pitch is shown as note name plus octave number.
It's possible to insert patch changes, and to turn portamento or glide on or off, at any point. Notes may be dotted or tied, or even given triplet status. And that's not all. Any section of the music may be repeated up to eight times or, beyond that, an infinite number of times. ('Where will it all end?' I ask myself.) Just about the only thing you can't do is nest repeats, ie. place them inside one another. Not a very serious omission, all things considered.
"Whereas the Americans favour the warmth of analogue textures, Casio have put the emphasis on digital clarity - and succeeded rather well."
Also implemented is a first/second time repeat facility, whereby one section of music is played the first time round and another section the second time around. This can be used any number of times, but as with the straight repeat facility, cannot be nested. However, both types of repeat can be used within the same track.
Yet in spite of Casio's design team making a pretty good shot at getting a quart in a pint-pot, it seems unlikely the step-time sequencer will be used to its fullest capabilities, simply because there just isn't enough visual feedback to make such usage anything less than a trial. Still, there's probably scope for some enterprising software house to come up with a step-time program link-up for the 5000, complete with much-needed music notation display. This would (a) ease the musician's plight considerably, and (b) make the CZ5000 an even more attractive proposition from even the casual composer's point of view.
But getting back to what the 5000 offers as it stands now, it's possible to record tracks in step time and then play/record over them in real time - a feature which will no doubt please a lot of people. You can't, however, edit step-time tracks in real-time mode or vice versa. Pity.
One really annoying feature of the sequencer is that it offers no way of deleting leading beats, so that each repeat is preceded by an interval of silence - not quite what most musical applications require, ail in all.
As well as the already familiar cartridge port, memory protect on/off switch, headphone socket and MIDI In and Out connectors, a few extra features have found their way onto the CZ5000's rear panel. There's an eight-pin DIN socket for cassette storage purposes (or 'memory transfer', as Casio would have it), plus sustain and volume pedal sockets and stereo line outs (with a mix output from the right socket). A maximum of 32 patches can be stored on a cartridge (which also just happens to be the number that are held in internal memory), whilst both patches and sequences can be stored on tape.
It's helpful to look upon the CZ5000 as having four MIDI modes (Normal, Tone Mix, Key Split and Sequencer), each of which has its own MIDI 'page'. All modes have a patch change enable/disable option that works for both MIDI transmission and reception, and all modes allow the Basic Channel to be independently set for transmission and reception.
'Normal' allows selection of Poly or Mono modes. In Poly mode, you can set any of the 16 channels for transmission or reception, while Mono mode allows any channel to be selected as Basic Channel, and any number of voices up to eight to be selected for MIDI reception (though selecting a Basic Channel higher than eight automatically reduces this number, of course). The crucial point is that each channel can be assigned its own patch; this effectively turns the 5000 into a multi-timbral MIDI expander - an excellent feature that deserves to receive more than the bonus status likely to be afforded it by the marketplace.
Tone Mix and Key Split modes are as for Normal, but without the Mono option. Sequencer mode is automatically in Omni off/Mono mode with its Base Channel fixed on Channel 1, but instead of sending out one voice per channel as the MIDI 1.0 spec states, the 5000 assigns one track to a channel. So if you record a track in four-note polyphony, say, those four voices are all transmitted on the one channel.
Believe it or not, Trask has actually succeeded in gleaning all this without the help of any MIDI documentation specific to the 5000. Now, that isn't so important in the context of a first-in-the-UK review model, but I hope Casio can provide their upmarket poly with a bit more in the way of helpful bumpf than they gave the CZ101/1000.
After all, the 1.0 spec does say 'So that other users can fully access MIDI instruments, manufacturers should publish the format of data following their ID code' (it's 44 hex, by the way), which is a shame when their design team seems to be trying harder than most to get the best out of MIDI. Come on, guys, this is hardly conforming to the spirit of open communication, is it?
The onboard sequencer obviously accounts for a large part of the price difference between the CZ5000 and its two smaller brothers, and happily, it's rather a neat little device. So by comparison with the 101/1000, the new machine gives you twice the voicing power for twice the money - but with an excellent polyphonic recorder thrown into the bargain. At the same time, the 5000 competes well on its own terms with synths in the same price range - and with some that are a lot more expensive. The flexibility of its multi-timbral voice arrangement can be matched only by Sequential's offerings in the same market area, but soundwise the two companies are poles apart. Whereas the Americans favour the smoothly-rounded warmth of analogue textures, Casio have put the emphasis on hard-edged digital clarity - and succeeded rather well. But unlike Sequential, they've so far failed to make the most of a multi-timbral facility by giving the 5000's voices separate audio outputs. A small point, but it could make all the difference.
The pro polysynth market has never been busier than it is now, but Casio's flagship has more than enough in the way of sounds, facilities and accessibility to keep its head well above the waterline.
Scheduled for availability mid-August, the CZ5000 carries an RRP of £975 including VAT.
Further information from: Casio, (Contact Details).
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Review by Simon Trask
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