Casio FZ1 sampler
High on a stage, at the back of the Casio stand, was the FZ-1 — one of the only instruments at this year's Frankfurt trade show to truly boggle the boggleable. It was lauded as a sampling giant killer with astounding facilities, masses of memory, but a rumoured retail price of only £1500.
In the event the guestimators' figures were slightly optimistic as you can see from the recommend retail of £1899. Small numbers of FZ-1s should now be appearing in the shops, and though the real street price is always a matter for the manager and his inky black fibre tip, stories of 'back orders until March 1988' will hardly encourage fierce discounts.
It's undoubtedly the most important keyboard launch Casio have made in some time, and is easily their most upmarket, professional item of gear. It's also an interesting day for sampling in general.
First the memory — it's vast. On-board RAM totals 1 Megabyte, enough for 14.56 seconds of recording at the top 36kHz sampling rate (58.25 sec at the lowest 9 Hz). An optional, additional 1 Megabyte RAM board (£249) doubles everything. Sampling resolution is 16bit compared with the 12bit technology of, say, the Roland S-10. What does this mean, mother?
Casio's brochure explains by drawing a smooth curve across graph paper, then attempting to mimic it, but only by going up or across the straight lines on the sheet, getting as close to the real curve as possible. The smaller the squares on the graph, the finer the steps you can take, and the nearer an approximation to the original you'll produce. In a (very loosely) associated manner, a sampler splits an audio signal into rememberable, numerical values, and a memory which has a resolution of 16bits is effectively finer graph paper than 12. It should therefore deliver more realistic recordings and less harmonic distortion.
Physically the FZ-1 appears deceptively cool — all black, modest switches, with a raised 3.5in disc drive at the far left of the panel. The four large blue cursor keys are the most prominent feature after the unusual, square, backlit display screen. Voices are called up by a 12 key alpha/numeric pad (the last two for yes and no entries) to the right of the display, and a further eight keys on the left shift you around the various play, modify and menu modes.
More about that display: it's almost a miniature computer screen listing up to eight lines of instructions, or drawing graphs of a waveform around a central axis. You always know what parameter you're working on as it's reversed out of the display (green on black) instead of black on green. The disadvantage is that it tends to cram information into a small space, you occasionally have to squint to read it, and it's not adjustable for angle so if you move from the usual just-in-front-of-the-keys position, it will fade, perhaps disappear.
It makes possible Casio's introduction of graphic waveform analysis, which really is a remarkable step forward at this price. True, other samplers can throw shapes on a computer screen, with the right software, but that's more dosh.
Once you've made a sample you can swap to 'Display' and view its recorded waveform, then begin editing. Move the marker along the wave to truncate, select loop points, or fade samples together. For finer work, the FZ-1 will blow up the display, zooming in to reveal finer and finer detail of certain sections.
Outside of plain sampling, the FZ-1 lets you fix your own eight stage envelopes for filter and amplitude, and superimpose these on the samples. But that's only a minor example of its remaining talents.
The FZ-1 is also a synth, and there are four methods of creating your own sounds, if you want to start from scratch. 'Preset' begins with one of six factory waveforms (see spec); 'Sine' enriches a basic sine wave by adding 48 harmonics, each one programmable for level; 'Cut' lets you isolate one small section of a sample's waveform and save it as a new voice; and 'Hand Drawing' allows you to sketch your own waveform using the cursor keys. Again, all of these practices can be viewed, real time, on the square screen display.
The machine operates a hierarchical menu structure. Like a bossy cafe, really. Its main menu outlines the essential functions. Each time you select one using the cursor and enter keys, you'll be given another menu showing parameters relating to the choice you've made, then you select one of those and start fiddling. The procession of crowded lists can confuse at first, but that's merely familiarity.
The FZ-1 is distinguished from other samplers not so much by inventing new facilities, but by co-ordinating those it has so well. For example some samplers can split the keyboard into eight areas with a separate sound on each one. Others swap from one sample to another the harder you hit the keys. But the FZ-1 splits the keyboard and then stacks up to three different sounds in any area, controlled by key velocity. That would give you a grand piano that not only had self contained samples for sections of the keyboard, but had genuine recordings of real piano keys struck softly, with medium pressure and hit hard.
A further example would be its loop function — not just one but eight. Each sample can be given eight loops with individual start and stop points, and duration times. They can be dropped into the original sample at any stage. It's possible to skip over sections of the original to reach the next loop, go backwards from the end of one to the beginning of the next, and crossfade from one loop to the next to make a seamless join. The degree of manipulation open to you simply is not matched on any other sampling keyboard in this territory.
Surprisingly the one parameter I didn't see in the lengthy menu was Autoloop, where the software will seek out the areas of a sample which are most similar, then smoothly edit the best possible join for you. So, you'll have to get your brain dirty doing the job yourself.
Having only had the FZ-1 for a weekend, this was the area where I initially found the waveform display to be the greatest help. The closer you can match the wave shapes at the beginning and end of your loop, the less likelihood exists of a lurch in the sound as the join comes round. The display lets you scan the sample for matching shapes, and, as you zoom close, will even let you make the splice at exactly the same point in each individual phase of a waveform — at the peak, where it crosses the axis, and so on. A blinking marker moves across the waveform, either in large bursts, prompted by the data entry slider, or a step at a time via the yes/no switches.
The FZ-1 includes a cross-fade option so the two ends of the loop can be blended rather than bluntly glued together. It helps smooth over the edit for complex samples, but when ripping off a few sustaining DX7 noises, the accuracy of the waveform display usually rendered it unnecessary. That said, I occasionally stumbled over the cross-fade doing strange and 'digital' things to the lower registers of a sample when overused.
Best fun with the whole 14 seconds was re-editing people's albums for them; take in a chorus, loop it and keep playing while the band (short on stamina) have returned to the verse. This time the display eases the job by showing up peaks, like the crack of a snare giving away the beat.
Casio haven't missed the more percussive aspects of sampling. Apart from each of the keyboard splits being given its own MIDI channel, they also have their own, assignable jack output at the rear. So that's an editable, MIDI run drum machine.
Which only leaves a few lines to mention the touch sensitivity, assignable after touch, key transpose of samples, cross mixing of two voices, delay mixing (so one sample comes in a preset time after the first), cross zoneing (to fade samples across different sections of a keyboard rather than having them change abruptly on one note), and reversing.
Having listened to the sound discs which Casio supply with the FZ-1, I'd hazard that the boys haven't yet learned how to get the best out of their own creation. In this country they have engaged the not inconsiderable talents of Steve Levine and Alan Parsons to boost the sound library, and that gets a big tick. Blank discs will be around £9.95 and a pack of five prerecorded discs, £69.95, with usually three to five samples on each disc.
I'd say the first promise of the FZ-1 being a giant killer is absolutely supported by the goods. Against it, the disc drive now has to load so much information, it can take up to a minute to dump its memory — a long time on stage. The ears are still the most important, and until you learn what the squiggly lines mean sonically, it will be a gimmick rather than a tool. But that's down to you. Anyone considering buying a sampler should definitely wait to try out the FZ-1 before parting with cash.
Review by Paul Colbert
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