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Frankfurt Musik Messe 1988

It's that time of year when the music fraternity descend on a frozen Frankfurt. Tim Goodyer and Simon Trask check out new gear, new ideas and tired feet.

If the theme of the recent NAMM show was one of variations on established equipment, the Frankfurt show had a surprising amount of new gear in store.

Visions of the future on the Ensoniq stand.

MUSIC TRADE SHOWS the world over have certain things in common - and 1988's Frankfurt Musik Messe was no exception. It had its quota of leather miniskirts and trousers, would-be rock stars and overpriced, tasteless food. No other show, however, boasts quite the number of thinning, bearded ex-hippies as does Frankfurt.

In a brave effort to give the show a more contemporary, even futuristic, appearance, Ensoniq had employed Dutch art designer Piet Jan Blauw to create an alien landscape in which the company displayed their new SQ80 and EPS keyboards to good effect. Ensoniq's theme for Frankfurt was "Look, Listen and Touch" - a theme which some punters (not to mention English journalists) were disappointed to discover didn't extend to the "alien" women who inhabited Blauw's landscape.

"Futuristic" also turned out to be a very apt term for some of the many MIDI controllers which appeared at this year's show, including EMS' Soundbeam, Millioniser Marketing's Millioniser 2000 and Digigram's MIDImic MIDI Microphone. The Soundbeam is an ultrasonic echo-sounder which detects the presence and range of any object (the human body, for instance) entering its beam, and converts this information into MIDI data which can then be used to control MIDI synths and samplers. EMS's intention is to extend the use of MIDI instruments to dancers, choreographers and performance artists. Laurie Anderson would love it.

More Larry Adler than Laurie Anderson was the Millioniser 2000. Seven years in development, the Swiss-originated Millioniser employs harmonica playing techniques to control a hybrid digital/analogue sound module and connected MIDI instruments. It's certainly an expressive instrument (sometimes too much so for the humble MIDI bus to handle), but just who it'll really appeal to remains to be seen - especially at a cost of around £2000. With UK distribution forthcoming, all you budding wind players will be able to make up your own minds.

Courtesy of French company Digigram's MIDImic, even singers can now claim membership of the MIDI club. This compact device features a built-in microphone, and employs pitch-to-MIDI conversion to allow any singer or acoustic instrumentalist to control MIDI equipment. Not content with allowing you to hum your musical ideas into a MIDI sequencer, Digigram have also developed software which composes an accompaniment for your melodies. Big Band runs on the Atari ST together with the company's own Studio 24 MIDI sequencing package, and will generate chords, riffs, contrapuntal lines and a bass-and-drum rhythm section. Does this mean anyone can now compose a song? We're not so sure.

Casio's contribution to the world of weird MIDI controllers was the DH100 digital horn, which you may have read about in last month's NAMM Show report. Despite its toy-like appearance, the DH100's simple recorder-style fingering and budget price look set to bring wind synthesis to the masses.

Synthophone inventor Martin Hurni blows his own sax.

In contrast, the awkwardly-named Synthophone from Swiss company Softwind Instruments is clearly aimed at sax players. The culmination of more than six years' development, the Synthophone is a silent MIDI controller which any saxophonist will be able to pick up and play instantly - because it's a saxophone. To be more precise, it's a Yamaha YAS23 alto sax into which Softwind have managed to fit all the necessary circuitry for MIDI conversion, with all performance nuances including wind and lip pressure being translated into appropriate MIDI data. The only new fingerings sax players will need to learn will be those for selecting MIDI transmit channel and MIDI patch changes. Well conceived, and remarkably effective in practice, will the Synthophone attract sax players to the MIDI fold? The biggest problem is likely to be the perennial financial one: how many players can afford nearly two grand (the provisional UK price) for an instrument which makes no sound of its own, as well as the cost of MIDI instruments and associated amplification to hook it up to?

Yamaha's MIDI guitar controller gets a good thrashing.

The mighty Yamaha, who might be intrigued but not entirely surprised to learn that one of their own instruments will potentially be competing against them, chose Frankfurt to debut their long-awaited MIDI guitar. The G10, which comes with its own G10C rack-mount processor unit, sends ultrasonic waves along the length of each string to detect where the string is fretted, while picking and string motion (for bends) are detected by separate pickups. It's a system which successfully avoids the delay problems inherent in pitch-to-MIDI conversion, and which, on first inspection, appears to work remarkably well for guitar technique, handling string-bends, hammers, snaps and glissandos with equal facility. Its only inherent limitation appears to be an inability to play harmonics (because a string has to be fretted in order to reflect the ultrasonic beam).

Although the G10 both plays and (more or less) looks like a real guitar, in truth it's a dedicated MIDI controller. Neither price nor availability are fixed yet, but it's expected to sell for a "professional" price.

NOW THAT YOU can use a real saxophone, a silver drainpipe, a glorified harmonica, your own voice or even your own body movements to control your MIDI setup, what about developments in the instruments that actually make the sounds? Coming so soon after NAMM, Frankfurt produced relatively few surprises in this department. The pressure to introduce new instruments at trade shows was evident on the Akai stand, however, where several new instruments which won't be available for several months were on display but rather short on sounds. At this year's BMF look out for the S1000 16-bit Digital Multisampler, ME35T Drum-to-MIDI interface and XE8 16-bit expandable drum module, together with the MX76 and MWS76 master keyboards.

Latest hi-tech developments from Akai.

Also not available 'til the Summer is the VX600 Programmable Matrix Synthesiser, a six-voice analogue synthesiser with Oberheim-style matrix modulation abilities and a 37-note keyboard. This has an input for the company's EWI and EVI instruments and is also, claim Akai, intended for MIDI guitarists. Does this mean Akai have their own MIDI guitar on the way? This was one product Akai weren't letting on about.

Also debuting at the show was Akai's HS1000 Harmonic Synthesiser, essentially a dedicated additive synthesiser which allows you to create sounds of up to 32 harmonics, with control over both the amplitude and pitch of each harmonic. Apparently Akai will be making the HS1000 to order for around £6000, so don't expect to find one down your local music shop.

In addition to their digital horn Casio were showing the VZ1 synthesiser, which uses an enhanced version of Phase Distortion. Initial impressions suggest that it's capable of producing significantly fuller, more vibrant sounds than the CZ series is capable of. The company also introduced the CDP range of electronic pianos, which come with eight presets, weighted keyboard and onboard digital effects (including reverb). They sounded good, but won't be available for several months. Isn't life tough?

Kurzweil were demonstrating the full range of their equipment, providing a rare opportunity to actually hear it in action - in particular some new sounds for the huge 250 and String, Horn, Guitar and Professional expanders. The expanders are all dedicated to certain types of sound (the Professional containing a selection of popular Kurzweil sounds). The "acoustic" samples were impressive enough to keep Kurzweil's stand busy, only the fact that they were being played with keyboard technique really distinguishing them from the real thing.

The emphasis on the Korg stand was also on performance, with their Professional Performance Series M1 Music Workstation (£1500), S1 Production Workstation (£1500) and Q1 MIDI Workstation (£1000). Korg were highlighting the M1 keyboard, which comes complete with a selection of very impressive, sparkling PCM samples which can be combined D50-style to produce a wide range of sounds. Equally impressive was the M1 demonstration, in which the demonstrator assumed a God-like presence (courtesy of a vocoder and some reverb) and the M1 performed a duet with a Korg DSM1 sampler - the DSM1 first talked itself into the job and then sang while the M1 provided all the music. Outside the demo room, the P3 piano expander's Steinway and Bosendorfer samples and Symphony's orchestral samples were doing nicely without the theatrics.

Roland's demos brought together their new D10 and D20 L/A synths, D110 L/A expander, S330 rack-mounting sampler and MC300 and MC500II Microcomposers (along with a range of older equipment) in a lively (if sweaty) performance. All were seen at NAMM except the MC300 and MC500II - the former being a slimmed-down version of the '500, while the latter is an improved version. Both can take advantage of the new Turbo 500 software.

The PF2000 FM electronic piano represented Yamaha's only new soundgenerating instrument since NAMM. The 2000 boasts a futuristic (some might say peculiar) design and costs around £1400. For your money you'll get three acoustic pianos, four of the electric variety, two harpsichords, vibes, clav and marimba. There's also an on-board two-track sequencer capable of storing about 2600 notes - but, best of all, the PF2000 will accept DX7II voice cartridges and comes complete with 64 ROM voices specially programmed for it.

The Kawai people are threatening to give both Roland and Yamaha a run for their money with their budget-priced K1 and K1M synth and expander. There's no doubt that Roland have now lost the monopoly on their L/A style of synthesis, with both Korg and Kawai adopting variations on the same theme for their impressive-sounding M1 and K1 keyboards respectively.

The familiar shape of Kawai's R100 and R50/R50e drum machines had been oddly transformed by a rotary switch on their front panel. Out of sight inside the cases were expansion boards capable of simultaneously holding four sound chips - which the switch allows you to choose between (although you can't mix sounds from different chips). A clever idea that makes the machines significantly more useful, but whoever chose the knob for the job is unlikely to win any design awards.

Waving the British flag were Cheetah Marketing who finally have their MD8 drum machine up and running. It sounded fine being triggered through a prototype pad-to-MIDI converter from their DP5 electronic drum kit. Apart from the claims of its spec, Cheetah reckon at £149.95, the MD8 is the cheapest drum machine you can buy. The outer case moulding of the MD8 (which looks a little like a junior SDX) was also being used to house the MQ8 sequencer. Although this wasn't fit for active service at the time of MT's visit, it promises 16-song, 8-track, 256-pattern capacity and a host of "effects" like vector chord and embellish - we wait patiently... Also on the Cheetah stand but keeping very quiet was the MS6 synthesiser module: a six-voice, rack-mount affair intended to have 128 user-programmable sounds, 256 presets and 64 programmable performance memories. It promises to be interesting at £275 but there was talk of it as long ago as last year's BMF. Could we be a little quicker with this one please, lads?

The rich, warm sounds of Oberheim's new Matrix 1000 expander, which makes 1000 preset Matrix 6 sounds available for under £500, should be welcome news for many musicians who want a sonic contrast to the plethora of Japanese synths and expanders currently available. The company were also displaying the first two MIDI signal processors in their PerF/X MIDI Performance Effects series: the Arpeggiator and the Zoner. The former allows you to set up short basslines, riffs and rhythms which can be triggered and transposed from a MIDI keyboard, while the latter makes the keyboard zoning features which Oberheim introduced on their Xpander available for any MIDI keyboard. You'll have to wait 'til Summer for these boxes to become available, though.

UK company Philip Rees, already well-known for their inexpensive MIDI Thru boxes and MIDI patchbay, were debuting an inexpensive MIDI input switcher which allows you to switch between any one of five MIDI sources. British companies like Rees and Cheetah have learnt from the sell-'em-cheap economics of the Japanese, and carved a niche for themselves in the MIDI market by providing budget products for which there's a real demand.

Still without a UK deal are Italian company Keytek's range of professional keyboards, which debuted so successfully at last year's Frankfurt show. The CTS-2000 and CTS-400 synths and CTS-5000 electronic piano all use Keytek's patented crosstable synthesis (essentially a combination of sampling and sound modelling) to create a range of clear, vibrant sounds which are genuinely impressive. Why are they still without UK distribution?

The same situation applies to German company Hitec, who were displaying a range of very competent MIDI equipment, including a controller keyboard, a MIDI mapper, a MIDI Time Code synchroniser and an interactive sequencer which allows sequences to be played from the keyboard Zyklus-fashion.

SOFTWARE COMPANIES WERE at Frankfurt in full force, with stands taken out by, among others, Dr Ts, Hybrid Arts, Intelligent Music, Passport Designs, C-Lab and Steinberg.

C-Lab were demonstrating Notator 1.1, their new combined sequencer/notation program for the Atari ST which adds extensive scorewriting facilities to the Creator sequencing package. One benefit of this integrated approach is the provision of a real-time (well, almost) display of your music as you play it into the sequencer, but Notator also adds new sequencing features such as the ability to superimpose "grooves" (ie. feel) on all or individual tracks, and a fader-style method of inputting MIDI controller data for each channel of each output port. All in all, Notator looks to be a very impressive package. The company were also showing an ST-based editing package for Roland's MT32 expander, together with the X-Alyser combined DX Editor/Librarian and DX-to-Sample Transformer software.

The Steinberg stand was positively buzzing with new products, as the company take a significant leap into the world of automated mixing. The DMP7 Desktop Mixing software is the result of collaboration between Steinberg and the Yamaha Corporation of Europe. Running on the ST (surprise surprise), the software can control up to four DMP7s at a time, and allows the user to program mix changes and various types of parameter changes while synchronising to SMPTE or MIDI Time Code. Steinberg claim their DMP7 software will set new standards in automation technology for mixer systems. We shall see.

Steinberg's DTM128 Desktop Mixing software and hardware has been designed specifically to work with TAC desks, with top-quality DBX VCAs, fader-level automation and switch control for up to 128 channels and their associated mute, solo and solo-defeat switches, 16 "software" VCA subgroups, four cue lists and eight snapshots.

In contrast, Mimix is an automated mixing system designed to work with any mixer that has insert points for each channel, with ST software and a basic eight-channel VCA system upgradable to 32 channels. The new TC1 computer-aided tape controller and autolocator, meanwhile, allows remote control of a tape recorder from a computer. The TC1 is designed so that the software can be adjusted to suit a variety of tape machines, with all the functions of a professional SMPTE-based autolocator; currently it is capable of controlling all functions of the Fostex A and B series except the built-in autolocator, while the user software currently runs on the ST in combination with Pro24 version III.

Talking of Pro24, Steinberg aren't neglecting the "traditional" side of their business. Pro24's latest version III software includes the ability to record on up to four tracks simultaneously, and implements Standard MIDI Files format for saving songs to disk. Other new software from Steinberg includes a Soundworks editor for the E-mu Emax, the X-Synth multi-synth editor and a switcher program which will allow switching between up to 10 programs in the ST.

Moving further into the area of studio equipment, this year's show had something for all sizes of budget. Akai's 12-track PCM recording system, ADAM, weighed in at a substantial £18,000 for the basic setup of the DR1200 Digital Multi Track Recorder, DL1200 Programmable Auto Locator and DM1200 Digital Level Meter bridge. ADAM (that's Akai Digital Audio Multi-track format) uses an 8mm tape cassette for storing up to 17 minutes of PCM-encoded audio data and includes an additional analogue track for recording sync codes. The system is also expandable up to 36 tracks by slaving two more DR1200s off the Auto Locator.

On a more modest level, Yamaha's new MT100 multitracker will record four tracks onto audio cassettes at 3 3/4ips, or 1 7/8ips if you're prepared to trade quality for recording time. The MT100 has a stablemate in the R100 Reverb Processor, a 16-bit reverb with 60 preset (but editable) settings, four user-programmable settings and facilities for MIDI control over patch changing. The PLS1 is a 32-input/8-output programmable line selector designed to take some of the drudgery out of repatching audio signal paths. Ninety-nine combinations of paths from inputs to outputs can be stored and called up as over MIDI. Yamaha suggest the PLS1 would make a good partner for the DMP7 automated mixer for more fully-automated mixing. Building on the success of the popular SPX90 and REX50, the SPX50D is a rack-mounting multi-effects processor featuring a comparable range of effects to the REX (reverb, chorus, distortion and so on) and should find favour with guitarists who like racking up their gear.

Sound Technology were also displaying a new digital sound processor in the Alesis Microverb II reverb unit (£199). Like its predecessor, this unit offers preset reverberation patterns at a budget price but these have been selected as being representative of a number of top American producers' current favourites. The patterns are divided into four small, six medium and four large environments along with a further two gated effects. The 16-bit processing and 15kHz bandwidth ensure a clean response and to prove the point, Sound Tech had set up a Microverb II and Midiverb II alongside each other for comparison. Two new Alesis graphic equalisers also put in an appearance: the S15Q is a dual 15-band model while the S31Q dedicates 31-bands to a single audio channel. Both cost £179 and feature switchable boost/cut to make them suitable for severe or subtle tonal modification of a sound. Roland's contribution to studio gimmickry was to be found in two upmarket units, the R880 Professional Digital Reverb and the E660 Digital Parametric Equaliser. Both feature digital inputs and outputs in the form of co-ax and optical cable ports for connection to other suitably-equipped digital hardware (such as DAT recorders and CD players) or even to each other.

At every show you hear it in the canteen, in the press bar, in the toilet, even in the local red light district. The burning question is: "What's the hit of the show?". Last year's Frankfurt show was easy - Roland's D50 and Akai's EWI/EVI stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of sheer innovation. This year it was much harder to single out anything for particular praise, as there was so much going on, especially following a subdued NAMM show. Perhaps this year the star of the Frankfurt show was the show itself.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Apr 1988

Show Report by Tim Goodyer, Simon Trask

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