Cheap! but not so nasty
Another sequencer first, this time for Casio, seeking to extend their grip over the budget end of the pro synth market. Simon Trask reckons the foray has been worthwhile.
True to form, Casio have entered the sequencer market with a machine so cheap, it could carve out an entire market sector of its own. It certainly deserves to.
As recording in its various forms becomes an increasingly integral part of the musician's approach to their art, there's no doubt that demand for affordable MIDI sequencers is going to grow, and grow rapidly. If you already possess one of the better-known home micros, a computer-based software package can make a lot of sense, both in musical and economic terms. But if the dedicated sequencer route is the one for you, you've previously had to fork out something in the region of £500 to get even the cheapest machine. The recent French entry, the PolyMIDI I (see review, E&MM August), and Korg's new SQD1 (
Well, Casio's new SZ1 sequencer should change all that, with an RRP of £295 (which probably means a shop price of about £250) that should put it in a price category occupied by only one machine - itself.
In both appearance and in operation, it's clear the SZ1 takes its lead from the sequencer portion of Casio's flagship synth, the CZ5000. Like that sequencer, it has facilities for both real- and step-time entry, but what I should make clear right now is that the SZ1 is a cut-down version of the 5000's sequencer. The main result of this economising is that the SZ1 has four tracks as opposed to the 5000's eight, and that the note storage capacity has been halved accordingly. The step-time section has undergone some simplification, too, though it still enjoys more than afterthought status.
Storage capacity is 3600 notes in step time (or Manual, to use Casio's phrase) and 1800 notes in real time - with, in the latter case, an inevitable further reduction if you start recording velocity data. You're also limited to 1999 beats or steps per track - not too serious a problem.
It's hard to say how much, or how little, recording capacity this gives you in real terms, because unlike audio tape recording, digital sequencing is influenced by the style of music you want to record. Still, I'd say an average application would give you 2-3 minutes of music - not quite enough for that concept album you've been planning all these years.
The front panel layout is commendably clear, and sees Casio retaining the tape-recorder style of operation that's characterised the company's previous sequencers, be they in professional synths or domestic keyboards. In fact, you'll be glad to know that operation of the SZ1 requires the minimum of button-pushing. This can only be a good thing, as it allows you to get on with the business of using the sequencer to its best advantage without having to worry about what combination of buttons to press next. If there's any aspect of the SZ1's operation that can be a bit tedious, it's having to hit the Reset button (which resets the track pointers to the start of the track data) before you can do anything.
Real-time recording on the SZ1 is just that - there are no quantisation options, so there's no way you can compensate for lack of playing ability. The SZ1 has a built-in metronome that you can switch out if you want to, but it doesn't sound too unpleasant. You can specify tempo over 45 levels between crotchet=40 and crotchet=256. Once you've specified the track to be recorded, you get a four-beat count-in from the metronome and then you're away, with the LCD displaying the current beat number and the metronome, if you've switched it on, helping to keep you on the straight and narrow - though as the SZ1 functions in beats only, there's no helpful first-beat-of-the-bar metronome accent.
You go out of Record mode by pressing Reset or Stop; selecting the latter means you can resume recording from the point at which you stopped. Once a track has been reset, the SZ1 won't prevent you from recording over it - though you can't record over a step-time track in real-time and vice versa.
As well as note data, you can record patch changes, control changes 0-121 and the Casio CZ series Glide On/Off (a MIDI System Exclusive parameter). The ability to record any control changes (values higher than 121 refer to MIDI mode commands) means controls such as sustain pedal and mod wheel are catered for automatically. A switch on the back panel allows you to enable or disable reception of touch data (velocity and pressure), but this is the only form of MIDI data you can choose to filter out.
One really annoying thing: the SZ1 can't record pitchbend data. Admittedly, such data tends to gobble up large chunks of memory and the SZ1 is only modestly endowed in the memory stakes, but I can't help thinking these choices should be left open to users, rather than predetermined by manufacturers.
The semi-good news is that you can edit a track recorded in real time either in Record mode or after you've exited Record mode. This is achieved in the time-honoured fashion of 'dropping-in' on the relevant track. If you're still in Record mode, you can use Rewind to take you to the appropriate section. The SZ1 enters playback and starts recording as soon as you lay a finger on the keyboard - any data previously recorded is erased from this point on. To make any alterations after exiting Record, you set up the relevant track for recording and then start playback, playing as soon as you reach the offending passage - again, the SZ1 starts recording automatically. What isn't so good is that you can't 'drop out' once you've begun recording - if you exit from Record mode, your sequence finishes at that point. It seems like a small point, but as any Sociology student will tell you, being able to drop out makes dropping in a lot easier.
Step-time recording offers note values from semibreve down to semiquaver (these can also be rests) plus dotting, ties and triplets. The LCD shows you the current step and the note value associated with that step. You input data by selecting a note value and then playing a note on the keyboard, which means that if you want to keep to the same note value for any length of time, you can effectively play in real time.
"Layout - The SZ1 takes its lead from the sequencer portion of Casio's flagship synth, the CZ5000 — it's a cut-down version of that."
Step-time recording is monophonic per track, and as with real-time recording, you can only record on one track at a time. This makes the whole process rather long-winded, something that seems particularly inappropriate when you consider step-time recording has a greater note capacity than real-time. What's worse is that you can't listen to what's on any of the other tracks whilst you're recording in step time - so you really need to have all your parts worked out.
I don't know about you, but I reckon the whole point of step time entry is that it lets you record music you can't play in real time; and that if you're going to have a step-time system, there's no reason why it should limit you to monophonic lines. The SZ1's monophonic limitation seems to have been designed with the Solo mode (MIDI Mode 4) of Casio's CZ synths in mind. This is the multitimbral facility whereby each of the synth's voices listens to an adjacent MIDI channel, and is capable of playing a unique voice patch determined by the incoming data. The only hitch here is that if you want to avail yourself of all four multitimbral voices, it ties up all four SZ1 tracks in one go. Why? Because although the SZ1 allows you to bounce tracks down (more on this anon), you have to assign them to the same MIDI channel first - so before you even begin, you've lost the multi-channel requirement that makes multitimbral operation over MIDI possible. This also means you can't have more than four-voice multi-timbrality.
Editing options available in step time only comprise Copy, Insert and Delete. Copy works within a chosen track, and duplicates whatever data is currently within that track. Thus you can record a four-bar bass riff once and repeat it any number of times within the limits of the available memory - and the facility works exponentially (four bars become eight, eight bars become 16 and so on), so a couple of button-presses go a long way. This is disappointingly inflexible, and it's also a real shame Casio haven't implemented the same facility for tracks recorded in real time.
Meanwhile, no prizes for guessing that Insert and Delete allow steps of data (whether they're notes or rests, patch or control changes) to be inserted into or deleted from step-time tracks. You can reach any point in the recorded data by means of the Fast Forward and Rewind buttons, which operate at the maximum tempo rate of 256BPM, but I can't help feeling it would've been nice to have been able to jump to any beat/step that took your fancy. It's all very well imitating tape recorder-style operations, but that shouldn't mean you have to build in the limitations of that medium as well.
The SZ1 allows you to do more than just record four tracks, though. It's possible to bounce as many as three tracks (which can be any mixture of real- and step-time) onto a vacant fourth track, though regrettably this isn't accomplished through any onboard facility. Instead, you have to connect one of the MIDI Outs to MIDI In, set your vacant track to Record and the tracks you want to bounce to Play, and then start real-time recording. This means the length of your piece determines the length of time it takes to bounce the tracks down - not an ideal situation when you bear in mind that one of the potential advantages of software-oriented devices is that they allow you to transcend the inherent limitations of physical reality (space-time, the universe and all).
And what's more than a mite unfortunate is that any tracks you want to bounce down have to be assigned the same MIDI channel - if you don't do it yourself the SZ1 will do it for you, making its choice of channel according to some arcane principle known only to Casio's programmers. That said, you can assign a track to any of the 16 MIDI channels retrospectively, regardless of what channel the incoming data was sent on, so it may well be that the channel is disregarded for note storage purposes and only added at the output stage. By this token, a track can't encompass more than one MIDI channel. Whatever, it's an unfortunate limitation which means you can't send data out on any more than four MIDI channels at a time.
The inevitable Repeat function makes its appearance on the SZ1, and acts on both real-and step-time tracks alike. Unfortunately, all track repeats are tied in with the length of the longest active track, rather than repeating according to their own length. This means you can't have one track which repeats a short riff or chord sequence while you record a solo on top (as you can on the PolyMIDI I, for instance) unless you copy or play that sequence for the number of times you want it - a bit wasteful on storage space.
You can dump data to a choice of external storage media (cassette or cartridge), but if you do this, you're obliged to saving the entire contents of the SZ1's internal memory in one go. A tape dump takes 22 seconds, but if you heed my advice and avail yourself of the SZ1's Check function to make sure your data has actually saved properly, the process takes another 22 seconds.
The advantage of cartridge storage is that it's near instantaneous, but at well-nigh £30 per cartridge (and remember that one cartridge stores only one complete memory dump), it's an expensive - if essential for live work - way of going about things. Hats off to Casio for providing an alternative to tape, though.
"Performance - The batteries last a year so long as you use them only for backup, but a mere five hours as the main power supply."
When it comes to communicating with the outside world, the SZ1 is strictly MIDI, so if you want to hook up a non-MIDI drum machine, drive an analogue sequencer or (delight of delights) sync to tape, you'll have to invest in another box such as Korg's KMS30 or Roland's new SBX10 - not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean extra cost. On the MIDI front, you can choose between internal or external clock, a choice that allows the SZ1 to be either master or slave to another MIDI sequencer or drum machine. The SZ1's rear panel also houses a start/stop footswitch socket, but unfortunately this is limited to playback only - it would have been useful to have the same facility for recording, too.
But it's good to see Casio have provided two MIDI Outs, which could be the difference between having to buy a multiple MIDI Thru box and a holiday in Corfu.
The SZ1 follows Casio's CZ101 and CZ1000 synths in being able to run off either batteries or mains, and the batteries also backup the internal memory through power-down. They have a claimed life of one year if used only for the latter purpose, but a mere five hours if they're used as the main power supply. So when the batteries go, your sequences go, too. Still, Casio's fascination for battery power does mean you can use a CZ101 linked up to an SZ1 in the Transit between gigs, should inspiration strike unexpectedly.
Summing up, it's clear the SZ1's design brief was to produce an affordable sequencer rather than a no-holds-barred wonder device. It goes without saying that there's room for both in the marketplace, but Casio's underlying philosophy has seemingly always been to produce goods that the majority of people can afford - and it's something they do well.
Thus, the SZ1 won't give you all the flexibility which, in an ideal world, £250 would buy you without any problems. But it is a lot more than the Noddy instrument its price says it ought to be. Some people will write it off altogether, others will welcome the advent of an affordable MIDI sequencer, still more will have a job deciding whether to go for an SZ1 or save up a bit more and go for something more elaborate.
If you're on the lookout for an all-purpose sequencer that's the music world's answer to the word processor and gives you seemingly unlimited note storage, the SZ1 probably isn't for you. But if you're after a usable and useful sequencer at a very modest price, give it the same serious attention you'd give a telegram from the pools people.
Review by Simon Trask
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