Last updated 16 November 2006: repaired shortcuts.



and other hi-tech gear - boxes, floppies and 5-din cables

(or how keyboard players changed from herberts to heroes)


Casio CT-101 keyboard Roland SH-101 mono synth Korg Poly 61 analogue poly synth
Roland TR-505 drum machine Casio CZ-5000 digital poly synth Yamaha QX1 sequencer
Yamaha CBX-T3 sound module Yamaha MDF3 MIDI data filer Philip Rees MM5 MIDI foot pedals
Yamaha QY-70 sequencer/sound module Evolution MK-261 controller keyb'd  

Casio CT-101

This was my first ever keyboard, back in 1983. In those days it cost 150, a small fortune for which you got considerably less in a keyboard than you do now and MIDI was just a nameless idealistic yearning among keyboard players. What you did get was a fairly tough metal box of about four octaves with about 32 sounds and four memory storage buttons. The keys were full size and springy, though not touch sensitive, and the controls were either plastic knobs or plastic buttons - no sliders or the like here, folks. The sounds were two pianos, two organs, some strings and brass, plus a few novelty ones such as "Frog" (a low octave sound something between a growl and a croak - very specialised) or "Mandolin" (where the speed of the 'plucking' could not be altered). But in those days, believe me, they sounded great. When you consider that a simple string machine cost a few hundred, this was accessibility to different sounds at low cost (relatively). Handily, there were also two small speakers built into the top of the keyboard, so it was quite portable and I took it with me to Wales once on a retreat. Some of the more unusual sounds were hardly useable within a band context, but I did in fact gig with this keyboard and when the line out was run into an amp it sounded quite reasonable. In particular the organs, strings and electric piano were quite useable, especially when you consider that polyphony on synths hardly existed at that point. And you know what? I still have that little keyboard tucked away in the top of a cupboard. Long after more sophisticated synths have been consigned to the microchip recycling workshop of history, I will probably still have that CT-101.

Roland SH-101

Back in the late seventies and early eighties, before polyphony (a) was invented and (b) became affordable, many synth cadets used monophonic synths (better known as mono synths) instead. These naturally limited the player to one note at a time, but in those days we didn't notice the limitation so much because we normally had an auxiliary keyboard for chords, such as a string machine or organ. In any event, as prog rock had lately taken a battering, full and lush chords tended to be out and nifty little lead lines or bass riffs were in, especially if you were into electronic music or New Romanticism. The SH-101 is arguably the king of the mono synths, not because it was better than all the rest (there were some good ones out there, such as the Oscar) but because it outlived all its peers. Even today you can find SH-101s for sale, and I believe Kenton offer a MIDI retrofit.

Most mono synths were small, and this was no exception. If my memory serves me correctly the keyboard was only two octaves, squeezed in between a compact arrangement of pitch bend and modulation wheels on the traditional left hand side and the various programming sliders and switches on the top. A small extension could be clipped onto one end to allow you to play the instrument standing up, rather like the guitar player, although I never tried this myself. The portamento feature was powerful, allowing you to glide up and down the octaves, and there was a feature which allowed you to make random noises, rather like a spontaneous outburst of robo-talk. The programming aspect of it wasn't too difficult, but I didn't find it easy to remember the settings for the different sounds and so had to resort to flicking through the manual under dim club lights in between songs. Most of it seemed to revolve around the wave form, the ADSR (Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release) envelope and the octave setting. Come to think of it, I suppose that's really the fundamentals of all subtractive synthesis.

I only played the SH-101 during my stint with a local South Coast band. It belonged to the guitarist who suggested I use it, and in combination with the CT-101 (on top of which it fitted quite snugly) it sounded pretty good. Again, there is something about being forced to use monophony that tends to squeeze a little more inspiration out of you, making you choose your notes more carefully. Apart from the random robot noises, I found the SH-101 very versatile with its noises, both in emulating other instruments (the oboe patch was pretty impressive) or being a pure synth. After I moved up to London, I hankered after one for a few years, until the widespread introduction of MIDI and sequencers meant that it would have been prohibitively expensive to buy one and have it retrofitted. But they were true classics.

Korg Poly 61

This was a typical but likeable mid-eighties synth, and the first true synth that I owned. In fact I had by now got quite used to synths, having had some in Byzantine, but I wasn't in a position to shell out hundreds and anyway I frankly didn't like the Yamaha DX-7, which I found rather flacid despite its reputation as the "industry standard". So when one of our transient musicians showed off the Korg to me, I was entranced. Not only did you get 64 sounds, but they were all programmable due to a series of knobs, pots and buttons on the top of the synth, and you could store them into memory. Thankfully there was a manual with it which gave you the list of existing parameters as well as how to programme synths, but I was so keen I also went out and bought a couple of books on the subject.

The sounds on the Korg were rather bright and brassy, and at their best gave you a hard crunchy analogue sound that to me sounded delightful compared with the digital offerings of the time. The orchestral type sounds weren't so realistic, and as Julian Colbeck pointed out, the lack of volume adjustment for each sound meant you could be blasted away when switching from a quiet to a loud sound. Things like "Clavinet" and "Sinful Eyes" (my all-time KP61 patch) sounded brilliant, while the organs and the strings were passable and the pianos less convincing. The gong sound was superb, incidentally: I've never heard one like it on any other synth. You could also programme space-type noises so that they kicked in on a wave of oscillation or soared up and down (once only, admittedly), and there was a handy joystick that you could push in almost any direction to get a combination of modulation and pitch bend. There was also an on-board arpeggiator, which I recently found could be controlled by an external clocking device (CV only, unless you buy a MIDI-to-CV converter).

Despite the flimsy-looking joystick, the Korg has actually proved to be a tough old bird. It has taken several knocks over the years, including one which dislodged the entire keyboard and the said joystick and another which tore off the sharp edge of one of the corners, and has been into the repair shop at least once. Occasionally I have considered having a Kenton MIDI retrofit, but at about 350 it wouldn't be cost effective unless we badly needed it. But it is still playable, and now we use it for those bright sounds and space noises.

Roland TR-505

Boom-CHAK-boomboom-CHAK.... Actually I have a confession to make. For most of the eighties, I hated drum machines. It was probably the Stock, Aitken and Waterman connection, or the mental association with teenybop singers supported by an arsenal of faceless technicians.... actually, in some contexts it can be fun to be a faceless technician, but that's another matter.

Once I got into four-track recording, however, I soon realised to my chagrin that it is impossible to keep time with yourself while recording. At this point I was the guitarist, so I acquired a bass guitar to lay down some rhythm tracks. The problem merely switched itself to the basslines, ie they weren't dead on either. Eventually I conceded that it might be easier to buy a drum machine and run a line out than to have my friend lug his entire kit over and mike it up every time I wanted to make a recording.

The Roland TR-505 was an industry standard in the late eighties, and even now you can still see them occasionally for sale in the second-hand column. For about 150 you got sixteen different drum sounds (bass, snare, etc, ride and crash cymbals, plus a few Latin sounds), 48 pre-programmed and 48 programmeable rhythm patterns. These patterns could be run together into tracks, ie you could make up complete songs. The 505 had a fairly complete MIDI spec, so initially I used it as the master device to run sequencer tracks on my CZ-5000 (see below). By today's standards it had a few drawbacks: compared with the General MIDI specification it lacked some sounds (a couple more cymbals and toms would have been nice), and there were only two levels of volume, normal and 'Accent', although you could change the level of the Accent. Best of all, it was compact, tough and reliable.

By now you may have gathered that I do keep all my old gear, but there is certainly a good reason for doing so in the case of the TR-505 - its drum sounds. Some may disagree with me, but I still find the kick from the bass and snare drums on this machine much meatier than some modern machines I've tried. Furthermore, by now using it as a slave to the QX1 sequencer, the 505's MIDI receive capabilities allow me to use the QX1's more powerful MIDI spec to the full, so I can still get long snare rolls rising in a crescendo, etc. In fact the QX1 allows me to do things on the 505 that the 505 can't do itself, if you see what I mean. Combined with its basic reliability, I think the TR-505 is going to be in service for quite a while longer.

Casio CZ-5000

In the mid-to-late eighties Casio brought out the "Phase Distortion" series of synthesisers. Phase Distortion was a unique way of programming that was only found on the CZ family of synthesisers and which seems to have fallen by the wayside since, but it was capable of producing some good sounds. The CZ family consisted of the CZ-101 (49 mini keys, but capable of powerful sounds and with full MIDI spec), the CZ-1000 (61 keys), the CZ-3000 (61 full-sized keys) and the CZ-5000 (the CZ-3000 with an onboard sequencer). Like the TR-505, you still find CZ-5000s occasionally cropping up in the second-hand columns, a decade after its heyday.

The good points about the CZ-5000 (and the series in general) were the Phase Distortion synthesis, which allowed you to programme one of eight different wave types and subject it to a complicated envelope (keyboard tracking, ADSR, varying volume levels, etc). To be honest, it was fairly complex, and I think only the dreaded FM programming on the DX7 could have been more difficult. When I was out of work I had time to spare and managed to produce a few credible sounds, but ultimately I sent off for two books of sounds from Casio and used theirs. The power of these sounds was greatly enhanced by the fact that you could effectively lump two together to make an even more complicated sound. The annoying part was that of the 64 sound banks you got, 32 of them were unalterable factory presets. While I had no quarrel with the fat organ sound or the strings, I wasn't quite sure of the value of some of the more esoteric ones. This also meant that for MIDI purposes you were always stuck with that one patch in that one location and could not move it to somewhere more suitable, eg to match another sequencing setup. But at the time this seemed a minor quibble. Sounds could also be saved, either to tape or disk, although in the latter case a special Casio disk was necessary - no 3" universality here, mate!

The other two main features of the CZ-5000 were the keyboard split (two different sounds at each end of the keyboard) and the multi-timbral capability. Four notes of two sounds each may sound modest these days, but back then it was a world beater. There were two wheels, one for pitch bending and one for modulation, and both of these transmitted out via the MIDI Out to any slave devices. Portamento and Glide options were also included. The sequencer itself allowed you eight tracks via a fairly limited editing window, but it was nevertheless quite workable and I did produce a cassette full of songs off it. It did also demand some discipline! Unfortunately the quibble again was that songs could only be saved to cassette. I went out and bought a data cassette player specifically for the purpose, which loaded faithfully every time, but nevertheless it could be a time-consuming process when you were in a hurry, and I never used it in a live situation.

The Casio has also proved itself a stayer over the years, despite one twit slightly damaging the topmost key with a cigarette. It has never gone wrong, although a couple of times I was majorly inconvenienced when the batteries ran out, draining the programmable banks of their sounds which necessitated laboriously programming them all back in again. Nowadays we use it mostly as a controller keyboard, connected to the Yamaha CBX-T3. Casio did produce an upgraded version, the CZ-1, which apparently had 128 fully programmable memory banks and was touch sensitive, but this seems to have fallen from favour, and now Casio only produce keyboards for the home market. This is a shame in my opinion, as the CZ series showed what they were capable of. Maybe one day....

Yamaha QX1

The Yamaha QX1, when it came out in the mid-eighties, was simply the mother of all sequencers, and in some ways still is. One reviewer at the time said it would do everything but make the coffee. Brand new then, they cost 2000. In 1990 I bought mine from a shop for 200, such is the rate of built-in obsolescence in modern hi-tech. Nevertheless it was probably one of best three-figure sums I ever paid out.

What you got with the QX1 was an eight-track hard sequencer with capacity for 80,000 events which could be embodied in up to 32 songs ("banks" in QX1-Speak). Incredibly, you also got no less than eight MIDI Out sockets at the back, allowing you to slave that number of devices (assuming you had enough cables). I don't think I have seen that many MIDI Outs on any other piece of kit since. There were also MIDI In and MIDI Thru sockets and a very comprehensive MIDI setup. Naturally each MIDI Out could be allocated a different MIDI channel, and tracks could be turned off or on on each song. The only slightly limiting thing, hardware wise, was that each MIDI Out socket could only be allocated four channels at most, so if you wanted a full eight track song running into just one device then you had to buy a MIDI Merge unit, as I found to my cost (about 80). (I bought a Philip Rees model: the first one didn't work, but the man himself advised me to take it back and exchange it, and sure enough the replacement has never given me any trouble since). Best of all, there was a disk drive for backing up the data which took standard 5" diskettes! At the time, of course, these were standard - now I'm not even sure if you can get them for love or money.

The editing controls on the QX1 are simply superb. To put it mildly, you have complete control over the data that you enter. I won't bore you will all the details, but you could enter any time signature you liked, any odd-length notes you liked, and any amount of esoteric MIDI messages. Most usefully, you could also copy bars or whole sections within seconds, taking a lot of donkey work out of the sequencing progress. Songs could also be copied in their entirety, and joined together to make even larger sequences. The LED backlit screen was quite easy to read compared with some equipment and provided you with most of the information, while helpful little LEDs on the machine showed you which track you were working on and which mode you were on. You could do real-time recording, in which case you also had the option of a metronome click, but after I tried it I was so horrified at how sloppy my timekeeping sounded that I stuck to step recording. You could, however, clean up the results of inaccuracy to a degree with the quantise function.

With the relentless march of technology, the QX1 does now inevitably lack a few functions which would be desirable. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the files are not saved in General MIDI format, thus necessitating the playback of songs into another MIDI recording device if you want to save them in a different format or, say, put them in a music manuscript format. In fact the QX1 has to have the floppy disks formatted in its own disk drive (in a non-DOS format) before they will work with it, so it's no good just thinking you can buy an old 5 disk drive and shove them into your PC. Apart from that, though, it's still a highly useable piece of hardware and has never let me down in the few live situations where I've used it. To be honest I would be more worried about the vulnerability of the floppy disks themselves than that of the sequencer, which was obviously built to last.

The rise of the hardware sequencer peaked in about 1990 and thereafter took something of a nose dive as MIDI software began to pour onto the market and people started making music at home. Coupled with the rise of dance music, which was usually done on computers and often just seemed to entail two men on a stage dancing in front of a PC, it meant that many companies stopped making them or fell out of the market (anyone remember Brother's 16-track sequencer?). Today pure sequencers are hard to find and are often the older models, as the only ones I now know of that are seriously in the market are Yamaha's QY-70 and QY-700 series (the smaller of which doesn't come with a disk drive and only has a 20-song capacity). These do however come with their own built-in sound modules, so one shouldn't be too hard on them. The niche has also partly been filled by the Data Filer, a sort of tough-but-dumb device onto which you can store all your MIDI data lovingly created at home on the delicate PC and play it back in a live gig. Sequencers.... got to love them.

Yamaha CBX-T3

This handy little box came as part of a Yamaha Home Music-type PC package and was bundled together with Cubase Lite. You also got a special MIDI cable with one end taking a standard PC-type plug to put into a socket at the back of your computer. To be honest, I wasn't terribly enamoured with Cubase Lite and gave up on music software for a while. The CBX-T3 was another matter, however. It is about the size of a retractable car stereo player but has the full General MIDI spec plus some extra Yamaha add-ons, giving a total of 192 different voices. As well as the full range of drum sounds it also comes with several different kits (eg Jazz, Power, Electronic), so you can experiment with percussion sounds if you want to go techno. The only drawback with the drums, in my opinion, is that they don't have quite the kick of the TR-505, but then the latter was a dedicated drum machine. There aren't any programmable sounds in the box unless you want to use System Exclusive messages, but then again I bought the system looking for realistic instrumental sounds rather than esoteric space noises. Most of the sounds are excellent, especially in the organ and orchestral departments (particularly the strings). As with most sampled sounds, some of the guitars fall down a bit, but then we use live guitarists (which I don't think can ever be reproduced mechanically). As it is we now use the CZ-5000 to drive the CBX and get the swirling Hammond or lush synth strings - if you didn't see the little box on top of the synth, you might think it was the Casio!

If I have one criticism of the CBX-T3, it's the last part of the manual. Succinct in most parts, it suddenly lapses into gobbledygook in the MIDI specification section, lobbing in lots of "$B$-" type syntax which even a MIDI aficionado and computer pro like me finds hard to grasp. A key at the beginning of the section, or a few examples, would have been immensely helpful. Oh well, for 150 I still think I got a bargain.

Yamaha Midi Data Filer MDF3

I love my Yamaha QX1 so much that I have started to get somewhat over-protective towards it. That, and the fact that I was concerned about the vulnerability of the more physically flexible 5" floppies, made me look at other ways of playing back MIDI files in a live situation. Enter the MDF3....

As the advert on the Yamaha site says, it doesn't look terrible exciting, but then neither does your TV remote control, and try living without one of those.... Well, to be honest, our TV remote control packed up ages ago and I have to get out of the chair and flick through the channels now, but that's not the point, I suppose. The basic selling point of this unit is that it looks, and is, tough, with the disk drive recessed in the side of the unit and the only other features a few strong buttons and a non-backlit screen. At the back you get a MIDI In and Out (no MIDI Thru) and a socket for a footpedal, as well as the power switch and socket for the adapter which invariably you're going to need in a live situation unless you want to chance batteries (or chance forgetting to change them, more like). Although it's shaped a little like one of the older style of cassette players, but smaller, the MDF3 feels quite heavy, rather solid, in the hand, which is reassuring.

The crux of the deal, of course, is the MIDI spec, and here I confess that I think Yamaha made an omission in not including the Song Select or Song Pointer MIDI commands for this unit. With these, it would have been a winner: then again, it might have bumped the price up (I'm no expert). Otherwise the spec is perfectly adequate, once you realise that you're not getting a sequencer but a method of playing back prepared data. In fact you should make sure that your data has all the MIDI- and tempo events in it when you stick the floppy disk in, as it's hard to change anything once you start unless you control the MDF3 from another unit such as MIDI foot pedals (see below). Otherwise tempo can only be changed by manually tapping the Tempo button, and even then I think you may not necessarily be able to do it in Play mode. You can still have as many MIDI channels as you want (up to 16), but they all go out via the same output, so if you have a multiple device setup then some form of MIDI mapping or channel switching may be necessary.

Other things to watch out for? Make sure you set the Repeat option off from 'all' at the beginning of your set, or you'll find the next song starting up almost immediately after the previous one has finished (quick, hit that footswitch!). The other niggle is that if you stop a song with the footswitch, it goes back to the beginning, so you can't actually use the footswitch to pause a song, say, for an acoustic guitar interlude or unaccompanied part. However, you can get songs, or tracks, to repeat themselves in a loop (although that's a bit limiting if you can't break out of a loop and go onto the next song), and you can arrange your songs into a sort of playing order whereby the unit segues from one to another - again, something that in practice needs a bit of work if you want to have a little time between songs to interact with an audience. Finally, in the dark of a club, the characters on the unlit screen can be a little hard to make out, especially if you have to grovel around on the floor amidst cables.

If the above all sounds critical, I should mention that the MDF3 also stores and loads bulk dump data, which is invaluable if you have any MIDI data, such as System Exclusive stuff, that needs uploading into units between songs. And, like I said earlier, it is tough, takes standard MIDI files on a 3" diskette, and will fit nicely into a gig bag. I bought mine with the adapter and footswitch for under 300, so as long as you realise its limitations, it can be a useful piece of kit in any live MIDI setup.

Philip Rees MM5 MIDI foot pedals

One of the problems that MIDI introduced was the paradoxical one of control: the more MIDI you incorporated into your music (particularly with drum machines and sequencers), the less control you as a human operator seemed to have over the material you were playing. You can still see this today when groups play live with the drummer sporting a conspicuous pair of headphones in order to hear the click track or other material being played. Pink Floyd, masters of prog rock, do this, but so do the supposedly freer Hawkwind.

After a while people began looking for ways to restore some measure of control to the MIDI user. Mother keyboards (see below) were one answer to this, but in the early days the few that were available such as the Yamaha KX-76 or -88 were prodigiously expensive. Another, cheaper if less comprehensive solution, was to use MIDI pedals.

The concept behind MIDI pedals is fairly simple. In its basic form, a MIDI pedal when operated sends a MIDI message to the piece(s) of equipment it is connected to. This can be anything from a program change (eg switch from organ to piano) to a System Exclusive message telling a certain piece of kit (only) to do something peculiar to itself. I believe in the early days of MIDI you could buy individual pedals, but after a while manufacturers realised that a one-message pedal which would need reprogramming every song might not be a long runner, so they began producing pedalboards with four or five footswitches on and additional memory to store messages. Roland PK-5 MIDI pedals are one example: the Philip Rees MM5 unit is another.

I have always been impressed by Philip Rees units since I bought the merge unit some years ago, so as we had a gig coming up, I thought it would be a useful move to buy one of these units. They were retailing for £200, so I recklessly lashed out with just a month to go before Christmas and received the unit a few days later.

The pedal unit itself is a sturdy metal casing very reminiscent of many guitar multi-effects processors these days, but actually quite a bit tougher in my opinion. There are four foot switches and a knob for adjusting variable parameters. The MM5 holds 16 "Banks", each allowing a different set of messages/commands to be assigned to the four footswitches, and thus allowing a total of 64 combinations. In addition some of these MIDI messages can be strung together in a single sequence which can be controlled by one footswitch, so there is a fair amount of flexibility. You can even string sequences together, although used this way you can quickly run out of sequence memory as I believe you can have a total of 64 or 68 sequences. Banks are changed by pressing on a fifth footswitch which will walk you through the banks sequentially, and if you hold it down will go in the opposite direction (eg should you wish to go from Bank 2 to Bank 1). You can save all your programmed banks by bulk dumping them via MIDI to an external device (eg a PC or data storage device). A volume control or similar footpedal can also be plugged into two jack inputs at the back of the unit, allowing you to vary certain parameters. The whole unit runs off batteries or (more sensibly) a DC adapter.

As with all their units, Philip Rees include a comprehensive booklet with their product, although it's not as massive as, say, the sort of book you get with a Yamaha sequencer. The writer of the manual does explain the various MIDI terms and concepts, but even so it may be a bit much for the uninitiated to take in at one fell swoop. To help with the explanation, the unit comes with Banks 1-6 containing the demo, a selection of various options including patch changes, sequencer operations, keyboard splits and so on. These can be overwritten but also recalled via a simple DEMO command.

The footswitches are fairly easy to program, at least at a basic level (such as program changes or start/stop commands to send to a sequencer). They do get harder when it comes to such things as arpeggiation, keyboard splits or song position pointers, and a fair bit of trial and error is needed. Don't whatever you do try to learn all this in a week before a major gig! Having said that, there is a lot of functionality in this unit, both for conventional MIDI keyboards and synthesisers, and for such units as sequencers and drum machines. But it does need to be played around with a lot.

Potential grumbles? If you want to use a volume pedal as a controller with this unit, get a decent one: I bought a cheap one and it didn't respond very well (though that may not be the fault of the MM5). The banks can be named, but you get a maximum of 6 characters so you may have to use ingenuity for titles. Also we have had occasional troubles with MIDI glitches and notes that, once triggered, don't turn off until you reboot the sound module or keyboard. The way around this seems to be to make sure that the pedals input into any sound module separately, without retransmitting a signal from a controller keyboard first.

To my surprise Philip Rees stopped making the MM5 about a year after its release. I don't know the reason for their decision, but while it isn't the easiest unit in the world to learn, it had the potential to be one of the best or at least most useful.

Yamaha QY-70 sequencer

The Yamaha QX1 is still a great sequencer, and I still use it for writing music. However, a couple of limitations began to show themselves over the years: (a) it uses 5¼" diskettes, which are now both rare and vulnerable: (b) its MIDI spec is not GM, so does not allow simple swopping of diskettes between one MIDI device and, say, a home PC, even if 3½" diskettes were to be used. That, and the fact that I also wanted a unit whose MIDI spec included Song Position Pointer and Song Selector (yes, some people are never happy, are they?), made me start thinking about acquiring another unit for live work.

The theoretical upgrade from the QX1 would have been the Q-Y700. This supports General MIDI, has all the specs and uses 3½" diskettes, and includes a massive sound module with XG sounds as well as GM. However, even after a couple of years on the market it was still sporting a price tag in the hundreds of pounds sterling range. Shelling out a huge amount of money would have paradoxically made me a bit reluctant to hump it about to gigs, even in a proper flight case.

Yamaha must have anticipated these thoughts (if not mine, at least users' as a whole) because they brought out at the same time the QY-70, essentially a cut-down QY-700. You still got the 16 track sequencer, the sound module and the full MIDI spec, but you lost the disk drive and a fair amount of memory (being now restricted to about 32,000 events, which can soon be soaked up when programming drums). I bought mine for about £250, which is still a bargain.

First, the things to consider before you buy one. As there is no disk drive, you either have to keep your songs in memory or save them by dumping them to another device or computer. Also, like I said, in practice 32,000 events don't go that far (about two to four complete songs depending on what you want to write). In a live situation you would almost certainly need to load most of your songs from another device. This is where the MDF3 comes in extremely handy, more so than as a straight sequencer. If you don't have a PC or a data storage device, you should probably be looking at another unit. The other thing is this is a small, lightweight, almost palmtop unit. The controls and display are very good, but if you are used to doing your sequencing on a computer screen with whole staves or measures rolling out before you, then trying to edit a track on the QY-70 may come as a shock to you. I edit best on hardware sequencers and even I find it a bit of a strain at times. In fact I tend to do most of the writing (still) on the QX1 and then record the data onto the QY-70 where I just touch it up a bit.

For your money you do get (a) a very powerful sequencer with 16 tracks and a lot of useful editing tools if you can bear with the small display, and (b) a very impressive set of sounds. The normal GM sounds (all 128) are of course present, but Yamaha's XG protocol has extended this by a few hundred and made some good variations, including several drumkits and some effects noises. There is also the facility to tweak and edit the sounds as on a normal synthesiser. I have been unhappy with the rather flacid nature of some GM drumkits in the past, but here you have both a wide selection of different kits and the ability to adjust the velocity levels of individual parts of the kit. Hi-hat too quiet? No problem, just edit the parameter. Also included are various effects including several types of distortion, reverb and chorusing that can be applied to the finished tracks.

As if that weren't enough, the QY-70 comes with 128 different templates that give you a sort of sophisticated auto-accompaniment and the ability to set up user patterns of your own. These templates include not only drum patterns but also bass and brass accompaniment, among others, all of which will instantly harmonise to the chords you input via the buttons on the unit or an external MIDI input device such as a controller keyboard. Whilst this may sound cheesy to purists, as a songwriting tool it is actually pretty useful and I can also see that setting up a series of user patterns might add flexibility in a gig situation if you want to do some improvisation. I am not sure that the MIDI Song Position Pointer or Song Number Select work with user patterns, however.

Physical controls on the unit are small but operable and include a two-octave "keyboard" (rubber keys set up like one) which can be shifted up or down by octaves. If you are dextrous you can make chords manually, or you can use the chord keys, a system which is quite clever and fun. There is a MIDI IN and MIDI OUT socket at the back, so you may need to purchase a merge or switch unit if you want to connect more than one device to the QY-70, which you probably will in order to upload bulk dumps. The only audio socket is a headphone one, so for a Line Out to an amplifier you will need to rig up a special cable or purchase one from a specialist retailer (Maplin or Tandy spring to mind) rather than buying the bog standard guitar cable. To make optimum use of the effects you might even want to connect it to two stereo speakers in order to enjoy such options as panning.

Having played around with this small unit for a few weeks (as of March 2001), I can say that it has been a very worthwhile purchase. Even converting old drum tracks to the GM format was easy thanks to the editing tools. Rather than risk that expensive and temperamental laptop on stage, buy yourself one of these and an MDF3 instead.

Evolution MK-261 controller keyboard

A controller keyboard (aka mother keyboard, not to be confused with the motherboard of a PC) generates no sounds of its own. Instead it sends MIDI data to other devices, whether sound modules or sequencers or anything else (theoretically). Although this may sound at first like an idle luxury, controller keyboards are extremely useful pieces of equipment. For a start they usually have a good MIDI spec on them (at least the more expensive ones do), and secondly, they allow you to control various pieces of equipment. Weighted keys are often an option, giving you a piano-like feel, but you can go for the non-weighted controllers instead, which by comparison with other keyboards are often extremely light. As sound modules become more and more common, the economy of simply being able to add a box into your existing setup rather than purchasing another keyboard becomes apparent - not to mention the simplicity of connecting said boxes by MIDI cables as opposed to being hidden behind a rack of about three synths.

As I said earlier, in the early days of MIDI, controller keyboards were expensive, and some still are. What probably brought about the advent of the cheap end of the market was the explosion in computer music. Thanks to soundcards and MIDI people are now making music at home, but it is still somewhat cumbersome to enter chords and the like into your composition using a QWERTY keyboard and mouse. Thus the last couple of years have seen many strictly utilitarian keyboards appear on the market, some just two octave, plastic affairs, but all allowing aspiring musos to enter their data the old-fashioned way.

I had been aspiring to own a controller keyboard for some time, mainly because the CZ-5000, while still a great synth, only had 64 banks, thus annoyingly missing out half of the GM MIDI programmes available even if you remapped the buttons themselves to call up different sounds. Nor could it control the volume or other parameters of the devices it was controlling. When I found the chance to purchase a controller reasonably cost-effectively, I took it.

The Evolution MK-261 is one of the slightly more expensive models, though it is still cheap. For your money you get a 5-octave keyboard in a presentable black plastic, two controller wheels, a slider and ten memory programs which you can set yourself to hold your most common patches. There is also the option to set MSB and LSB parameters, which are vital if you want to access XG sounds from Yamaha equipment, for example. The controllers and slider can also have parameters (eg Pitch Bend, portamento) assigned to them, and the slider in particular is invaluable for controlling the volume of the attached device(s). The keys are touch sensitive, although not weighted, and you can assign different attack velocities to them. The MIDI spec is workmanlike, although there is just the one MIDI OUT socket at the back. Evolution thoughtfully wrote the name and numbers of all GM patches (0-127) on the top of the keyboard, which is very useful or aesthetically cheap-looking depending on your point of view (I hold to the former). The whole thing is incredibly light and in fact you need to take a bit of care not to send it flying if you've got it sat on a keyboard stand.

We have used it with both the CBX-T3 and the QY-70 and find it very useful indeed, allowing a degree of control not always possible by simply linking conventional keyboards with MIDI cables. I recommend this, either for playing in a band (provided of course you have a sound module of some sort!) or else use at home on a PC.

Further gear will be reviewed here as and when we either buy it, borrow it or even (gasp) play it. Don't hold your breath until my bank balance looks really healthy.

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