Sometimes the underground is a surreal place to be.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Gear Change: Suzuki PK-61ex

In the mid-80s, my favorite synth manufacturer Siel found themselves in dire straits.  Their marketshare was dwindling after the digital revolution kicked off by the DX-7, and their product line was poorly received overall.  The DK-70 was an obvious knock-off of the Korg Poly-800, and they suffered from a somewhat deserved reputation for poor quality of manufacture, as did their fellow Italian brand Elka.  It was around this time that they began taking on contract projects for other companies, in this case the musical instrument division of Suzuki.  This isn't the same Suzuki who manufacture engines, but instead the company which runs music schools all over the world which teach the 'Suzuki Method', which is apparently a very regimented approach to learning to play a variety of instruments.  It's been well-known that Suzuki distributed the Siel MDP-40 under their own label as the Suzuki RPM-40, but it turns out that Suzuki actually contracted Siel to design and manufacture a series of PCM home keyboards with some fairly interesting (and distinctly Siel-esque) quirks.

The Suzuki Keyman PK series consisted of at least the PK-49, the PK-61, and the PK-61ex, although there may have been a PK-88 with full weighted keys, but I believe that model was created by a different company.  The initial shortcomings of the PK series were... interesting to say the least.  The keyboards were produced from around 1984 or 85, but there is so little information that I can't be sure.  The first models featured a standard array of sound outputs and a Siel-style 5-pin pedal input, as well as a switchable 5-pin DIN port which functioned as an RS-422 port, compatible with the serial port on the Commodore 64 among others.  When switched, the port would communicate with an external box (presumably sold separately, I've never seen one) which would give the PK-49/61 a MIDI IN and OUT port.  Apparently there was some learning software for the C64, which both trained you in the Suzuki Method and offered the ability to sequence your own songs with the internal sounds of the keyboard!  Of course, this software, as with the MIDI Box, would seem to be totally lost to the ages.

The internal sounds were PCM-based, although with the RPM-40, as with the PK-49/61, the bitrate was stunningly low.  The sounds of the MDP-40 I owned several years ago were so grainy and the sample time so short, they sounded roughly as close to a Roland TR-505 as a Boss DR-55 sounds to a TR-808.  These poor quality samples were omitted in the rhythm section of the first series PK keyboards, which actually feature a fairly nice analog sound, although unfortunately not externally programmable (at least, not without the MIDI interface, the capabilities of which I do not know).  On the other hand, the internal sounds are of the same vintage and the same strangely poor bitrate encoding standard.  This makes them oddly difficult to differentiate from many other lower quality synthesizers of the time (digital or analog), which could provide for some interesting uses were the greater production use of these keyboards not mooted by the fact that they cannot be controlled by MIDI outright.  The internal accompaniment patterns are excellent, not too over-orchestrated as Casio's tended to be, and the beat patterns are very similar to those of the MDP/RPM except more complex, perhaps owing to the larger ROM necessary for the accompaniment patterns.  There are also individual volume controls for the rhythm, accompaniment, arpeggiator (patterns vary based on the drum/accompaniment selected, sound doesn't seem to), and the master voice.  There is also a real-time two track sequencer, similar to the one in the DK-70.

The PK-61ex is a tremendous improvement over the first series, with internal MIDI i/o, higher quality PCM voices (definitely still 8-bit, but up there with the Mirage), and a fully PCM rhythm section with higher quality voices taken from the MDP/RPM.  The sounds are still somewhat staccato, and the cymbal/hats are probably the only digital drum cymbal samples which are worse than the Yamaha RX series, but the snare, kick, and various other percussion sounds are actually extremely warm and punchy.  There is even a separate output for the Drums!  The 61ex also offers a manual drum switch section, which turns the top octave of the keyboard into a drum kit.  I've yet to experiment with the MIDI to see whether the drum sounds can be played from an external source or if the internal patterns can be synched to MIDI clock, but I will update this post once I have.  There are 14 internal sounds with sustain and a 'duet/quartet' function which doesn't seem to actually change the sound at all (maybe it was intended to stack voices as one would on an analog synth?  sample based voices don't really seem to work like that though), and 14 rhythm/accomp patterns, with switchable percussion, hand claps, fill-in and break functions.  There are two variations on the accomp. for each pattern, each using a different sound, as well as two variations on the bassline which also uses two different sounds.  The arpeggiator would seem to just be the same somewhat analog blip sample.  When turned on, the keyboard split uses the note or chord played on the bottom two octaves to drive the internal accompaniment and the upper three (or middle two if manual drums are also on) to provide voices, which are limited to the upper octaves.  There is a Transpose function, but I don't know how it works as it doesn't seem to function on my 61ex.  The internal accompaniment also features a 'simple chord' function which acts similar to the old Casio Chord function while active, otherwise if off the accompaniment functions very, very well as a compositional aid.

The internal sounds themselves leave quite a lot to be desired, even with the higher sample quality.  The organ sounds are superb, as are the music box and vibes patches.  The 'Harmon.' sounds a bit like a cross between strings and a chorus, but not intentionally.  The trumpet, flute, clarinet and violin are absolutely terrible.  The El. Guitar and Synth are both mediocre.  All sounds have vibrato which can't be turned off, but is quite musical for the most part.  The internal speakers are surprisingly warm and powerful, and they make the keyboard sound absolutely amazing for a mid 80's PCM home keyboard.  Through the phones output, on the other hand, the sound is bizarrely different and extremely disappointing.  I've yet to test the stereo and drum outputs through a mixer, and they may be run through some kind of resistor in the circuit.  My PK-49 arrived with a short, which required you to pull the AC adapter input down in order to get power to the drum machine & accompaniment, but the PCM section worked fine!  Classic Siel design, be prepared for it if you find yourself faced with one of these old keyboards.

Gear Change: Korg RP-100

The RP-100 Rhythm Programmer is an odd, obscure little device, produced around 1983/84 by Korg just prior to the transition from the Poly series (Six/61/800) to the DW series.  Apparently it was only produced for about a year, and there is next to no information on it online aside from a quote from a scanned promotional pamphlet.  The RP-100 is part of a series which included the even more obscure MP-100 Chord Programmer and possibly the SQ-8 MIDI Sequencer.  The RP-100 itself is essentially a programmable metronome, with some simplistic drum machine features added in.  The button format and case is the same for the RP/MP-100 and the SQ-8, although the SQ-8 is a far more complex piece of equipment, and its' two little sisters each have a different color scheme.  The functions of the RP-100 are very simple, with a basic metronome with variable tempo from 40 to 208 BPM, selectable only in 4 BPM increments (an odd shortcoming for a metronome), a functionality to 'step write' a bar of blips one beat at a time (capable of adding 1 to 8 blips per beat, and also of subtracting individual blips with the rest function), a 'chain play' which allows you to play back the steps you've written in a time signature ranging from 1/4 to 8/4, and a 'swing' mode which is unfortunately not applicable to the chain play mode, and simply allows you to use the basic metronome with one of 8 drum machine swing settings.  There is also an A440 tone generator, and a tap-tempo input.  A curious feature of the RP-100 is a DIN Sync I/O port, which allows it to either drive another DIN Sync instrument (48ppn) or apparently to accept a "tap" input.  Unfortunately, the only available sounds are four harsh analog blips consisting of the 2 basic metronome blips plus a click and an accent, output through either the internal speaker or the phones port.  The output volume is loud enough that it may be capable of driving an analog arpeggiator, which when taken in tandem with the DIN I/O would open up some extremely interesting possibilities given the swing function and the ability to program blip-numbers on a given beat.

If anyone has any information, or better yet, is interested in selling an MP-100 unit, I'd be very interested in buying it.  As best I can figure, it's a simple MIDI sequencer similar to those which were being included in home keyboards in the early 80s, and possibly something similar to the internal sequencer of the Korg PSS-50 accompaniment machine (which itself does not have any way of synchronizing with any external equipment, which was a very odd shortcoming for a device produced alongside the Poly-800 and the DDM-110/220).

By the way, these units really aren't worth anything.  Unless you'd like to experiment with the internals of it, or just have a rare display piece, they're not worth seeking out.  I paid about ten dollars for mine, plus shipping.  They're a great example of a device which is rare not because it was unknown, or because it has become sought-after, but because it's really just not very interesting or useful outside of extremely specific applications.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Gear Change: Kawai PHm

New gear to talk about, hopefully I'll get around to all of it.  First up is the Kawai PHm "Pop Synth Module", a small half-rack rompler module in the vein of the Casio CSM-1.  Where the CSM-1 was a midi module version of the massively popular MT-540/CT-460 home keyboard, the PHm is a module version of the less popular PH50 Pop Synth.  It's got two hundred patches which have been pulled from the Kawai K1, which itself was a sample & synthesis instrument based on the K5 additive synthesizer.  The K1 itself has been thoroughly documented by the Deep Synthesis site here, if you need a quick primer on its capabilities.  You can find a more general review of the PH50 at the always excellent TableHooters home keyboard review site, although the PH50 is slightly different in interface and the reviewer's interest is focused more towards the circuit bending end of things and the physical interface.  Since most of it's covered there, I'll just speak about the patches.

The PHm can be had for about $25 on ebay, although it goes for as much as $50 at times which seems to be a bit too much to me since you can get an actual K1 for a little more.  The PHm offers 200 patches, but really it's more along the lines of 50 patches with a few variations as was the usual practice at the time.  The patches are actually quite usable, in fact there are several which I believe I've heard on some classic tracks.  Tone 58, "arrangement," is a short, rather odd digital string progression which lasts for a moment or two.  When played as a chord, it strongly resembles a sound from the classic bleep track LFO - LFO.  There are an assortment of somewhat usable digital basses (110, "Round Bass" is straight out of a late 80s industrial rock record, and 111 "Kick Bass2" sounds like something from an amiga game soundtrack), some excellent string sounds, and a surprisingly good handful of Oberheim emulations for some reason.  Also included are some interesting sound effect-type pads which I would guess were largely created on the K5, such as 45-47 and 145-150 (the variations tend to show up every 100 patches, as discussed by TableHooters).  Other patches are clearly samples, and since the PHm was created in the era before sampling became regulated they include one or two samples clearly lifted from classic sources such as 154, which is straight from a kung fu movie, or the fairlight ahh sample which appears as number 85.

The PHm also features 4 part multi-timbrality plus a drum kit on channel 10, but also at least a dozen percussion patches among the 200 primary patches which are of varying usability.  Many of them play only one note across the keyboard, which is extremely frustrating because they're already rather low quality samples and frankly the bit noise added by transposing them would have only made them more interesting.  The FingerSnap patch, for example, sounds like the pop a speaker makes when you take the cable out while it's still powered on.  On the other hand, the BongoCowb split has a very 808-ish analog bongo/tom sound on one half of the keyboard, and a very un-808ish cowbell on the other.  The Tambourine patch is really rather awful, as pretty much every rompler tambourine patch tends to be, while the Single Hit patch is probably the best orchestra hit I've ever heard.

Not all patches are useful, in particular the guitars are about as awful as rompler guitar sounds ever sounded (was there ever a situation where these types of sounds didn't ruin anything they touched?  bleah) and the horns are invariably oozing with cheese.  If you want to do a patch-perfect '87 freestyle track, you could do a lot worse than 161 "Lotsahorns".  The pianos, the test of any rompler worth it's salt, are mostly disappointing and a bit thin, although perhaps passable in a certain style of piano house.  The built in rhythm patterns don't really provide anything of use, although the Echo pattern might actually find its way into a track of mine in the future.

Frankly, the PHm excels at certain things like sound effects and oddball digital synth sounds, but fails to hold up to anything even remotely approaching professional quality.  The price is extremely low, though, and with two hundred patches it's certainly worth having one around.  It's best suited to old school style dance music production or strange-life-esque soundtrack work.  If you're looking for a proper synthesizer, the K1 upon which this is based is available for between $50 and $100 and is fully programmable.  However, if you just want another set of classic rompler sounds and you'd rather not pay the $75 for, say, a U-220 or 05/rw then keep an eye out for the Kawai PHm, and don't bother if it costs more than $30.

Kawai is one of the best companies on earth when it comes to making their manuals available, and the long forgotten PHm is no exception.  You can get the user manual here and the patch list here.