Casio SZ-1 Sequencer
The Next Logical Step
This 4 track MIDI sequencer is a step in the right direction for Casio but have the budget restrictions limited its appeal?
Everywhere you look, there are MIDI synthesizers and drum machines. For all its faults, the standard has done a tremendous amount for studios and players, opening up hundreds of new possibilities and easing equipment interconnection problems which previously bedevilled creative musicians. Unfortunately, there hasn't been much available in the way of stand-alone MIDI sequencers - Roland's MSQ-700 previously dominated the field until Yamaha released the QX7 and now along come Casio with the SZ-1.
Who would have thought that Casio, pioneers of the home keyboard market, would eventually turn their attention to professional synths and peripherals? Bringing to bear the manufacturing power and enormous research and development facilities that have already helped make them the world's largest manufacturers of portable keyboards, Casio look set to do as well with the Z Series machines as they have with their home keyboards.
The innovative VL-Tone, CT-201 preset keyboard, and CZ-101 phase distortion synth, have each marked a notable leap forward in music technology. Coupled with a longstanding devotion to player-friendly compositional aids like arpeggiation and one-finger chord systems, the introduction of the SZ-1 Sequencer seems to be the next logical step for Casio, offering MIDI sequencing at a bargain basement price. The sad news is that, in order to keep the price down to an affordable £295, the SZ-1 has been simplified to the point where some users may well find it inadequate for their specific needs.
Casio's flagship synthesizer, the CZ-5000, already sports a useful onboard eight track sequencer capable of controlling external instruments as well as its own internal voice circuitry. The SZ-1 offers fewer facilities than the CZ-5000 but as a self-contained, dedicated unit, it will nevertheless have greater appeal if what you're looking for is straightforward control of your current equipment set-up.
In short, the SZ-1 is a four-note polyphonic MIDI sequencer ideally suited to drive Casio's own CZ-101 synth operating in Mono mode (four voices, each playing a different sound monophonically). Facility-wise, an LCD display gives most of the necessary status indications to guide you through operations. It's rather difficult to read in low light conditions, but that's a fault shared by the displays on more expensive instruments including Yamaha's DX7 and the PPG Wave 2.
The rear of the SZ-1 features a cartridge port, 7.5 volt DC power socket, start footswitch socket, a tape dump DIN socket, two MIDI Outs and one MIDI In. The two Out sockets are necessary because the CZ synths (among others) aren't fitted with MIDI Thru sockets. Were it not for the dual socket arrangement this would make life difficult for multi-keyboard owners unless, of course, you possess a MIDI Thru box.
The SZ-1 can be powered by five 1.5 volt batteries, making it an ideal match for the superbly portable CZ-101, or via its 7.5 volt DC power socket which would be a safer bet if prolonged studio use is anticipated. Batteries have to be left in the sequencer at all times if you wish to preserve the sequences you've just programmed into the memory. Should you forget this, there are two ways of storing patterns; either by fast tape dump, or in RA5 RAM cartridges which are much handier to use (though inevitably more expensive if you go through lots of them).
Complete sequences can be dumped and reloaded instantly using the optional RA5 memory cartridges. The tape dump facility has Load, Save and Verify functions, but it's inadvisable to rely on tape loading of sequences under typical stage conditions. A full memory set can be loaded from the tape in around a minute. There's some likelihood that it will soon be possible to dump information to a Commodore 1541 disk drive, since another enterprising company, Passport Software, has already developed a CZ-101 data dump program and will probably be looking at doing the same for the SZ-1. In the meantime, you can select the sequence storage mode you require using the Cartridge/MT pushbutton on the top right of the main control area.
On the back of the SZ is a Touch Data On/Off switch which allows you to select whether memory-eating touch response information sent out by the synthesizer is recorded or not. Obviously, this needs to be set to the off position if you're using a CZ-101 or other non-responsive synthesizer.
Also found on the back panel is the Clock Ext/In switch, allowing you to select whether the sequencer clock speed is controlled by another sequencer or drum machine, or alternatively by its own internal tempo setting.
There are two Sequence recording modes and four Track selectors available on the SZ-1. To go over basic ground (which will no doubt be familiar to most of you, so forgive me if I appear patronising), MIDI supports up to 16 control channels along which music information can be independently passed. Before starting to record a sequence, you need to select the channel to be used by hitting the MIDI button and incrementing the Up/Down buttons (which, together with the Enter key, control the input of most information). The resulting channel number appears on the LCD display.
Recording in real time is straightforward - just press Record/Real Time and Play, then begin playing. To aid good timekeeping there's a metronome click audible through a tiny built-in speaker to improve synchronisation, but it's not really loud enough to my ears and there's nothing you can do to increase its volume. A flashing LED would surely be of greater benefit.
As you play, the LCD display counts off elapsed bar numbers. Should you make some mistakes, as on most tape recorders, the punch-in feature allows you to drop into record mode to replace a specific portion of the incorrectly played sequence, then drop out once your correction is complete. Naturally, this can be done as many times as you like with no subsequent reduction in sound quality - in effect a solid state tape recorder.
Once you've finished recording a track, you use the transport controls as you would any tape recorder. For instance, Rev counts backwards through the bar numbers to return you to bar zero and Fwd counts forward through the bars naturally.
Having completed one track, you can reselect from the remaining Track buttons (each one of which has an LED which lights when it's active) and record the next monophonic sequence. This can be achieved using a different MIDI channel, which opens up the possibility of running four different synths off the SZ-1 simultaneously. Some synthesizers, such as the CZ series or Sequential's SixTrak, can play several different voice sounds monophonically on different MIDI channels ('multi-timbral' or 'mono-mode'). You could then use three tracks controlling a CZ-101 to play a bass line, harmony and effect, whilst plugging in a DX7 or other synth for a touch responsive lead line. The control combinations are fairly extensive and afford plenty of variety.
In step time, or Manual mode as Casio prefer to call it, the SZ's left-hand control group is implemented. The pitches of notes (up to 3600) are entered from the attached synth keyboard as in real time mode, but the note length is set manually using the nine various note value keys (crotchet, minim etc) and the Rest button. This programming method is obviously slower than real time input, but gives correspondingly more accurate results - especially if your playing skills err on the dodgy side!
For repetitive music, the Bar Copy facility's Insert, Delete and Copy keys allow you to quickly build up compositions from a 'library' of stored sequences. It's also possible to use the overdub function to add to existing sequences, though you have to be aware that there's a danger that you might run out of voices to play with. Total memory capacity is 1800 notes (real time) and 3600 (step time), expandable to 7200 via the additional RAM cartridge.
One problem with the SZ-1 is that the tempo, which on the internal clock is variable from 40-256 beats per minute, cannot be programmed to vary within a sequence. Although this restriction can be overcome by using a drum machine with programmable tempo as the master clock, it's a silly omission. After all, the great advantage of sequencers is that they enable flawless compositions to be replayed at breathtaking speed, far beyond that possible for manually played patterns. Programmable tempo should therefore be given more priority on future updated models.
There you have it. The SZ-1 is a cheap and simple intro to MIDI sequencing, particularly suitable for existing CZ-101 owners. However, users with larger keyboard set-ups might find the 1800 note memory and four note polyphony too limiting, though at £295 you should be able to find an application for it. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the SZ-1 is that it heralds a whole series of hi-tech, low cost products from Casio, including a digital drum machine, sampling keyboard, and who knows what else. I'm sure the SZ-1 could turn out to be the centrepiece of a complete studio system.
Review by Chris Jenkins
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