Casio FZ-1

Casio FZ-1

The FZ-1 was a 5-octave keyboard (61-keys from C to C) and hybrid sampler/synthesizer released by Casio Computer Co in 1987. Its original list price in the UK was just under £2000, making it one of the more affordable samplers on the market with features such as waveform drawing and 16-bit sampling resolution that were previously only available on more expensive equipment, such as the Fairlight CMI Series III of 1985.

The FZ-1, for the time, offered impressive sampling features: A 1 MB (10242 bytes) sampling memory (expandable to 2 MB), booting from ROM rather than an OS diskette, harmonic additive synthesis and digital subtractive synthesis in one complete package. Like the Fairlight CMI the FZ-1 used a GUI-driven menu system in which all functions were listed under specific menus and sub-menus. However, unlike the Fairlight, the FZ-1 did not use a stylus and qwerty keyboard for input. Instead, the FZ-1 used data sliders (like those present on the Yamaha DX range of synthesizers), 4-way cursor keys, an alphanumeric key-pad, plus 'yes'/'no' buttons that also acted as a means of data increment or decrement. The FZ-1 was often criticised for its unintuitive interface, which at times could be tedious or confusing, due to the nature and sheer number of menus.

When sampling a sound into the FZ-1, the user could choose the sampling time (in 10ths of a millisecond) and the sampling frequency (either 9, 18 or 36 kHz). As the FZ-1 only came with a meagre (by today's standards) 1 MB of memory, the maximum length of a single sample, or the total length of multiple samples, was just under 15 seconds (with the sampling frequency set to 36 kHz). This is no doubt one of the reasons that the option to sample at lower frequencies was provided.

The additive synthesis section contained 48 harmonic levels, each with a level between 000 and 256 for a high degree of flexibility for organic sounds and ambient textures. The resulting waveform then had to be executed (saved) into the FZ-1's memory before it could be played via the keyboard or over MIDI. When altering the harmonics the user could view the waveform graphically, to get a better idea of how any alterations were affecting the output.

The waveform drawing section gave the user the ability to draw their own waveform cycles, a very uncommon feature at the time. The user specified a range from either -127 to +127 for each of the 96 points across the waveform cycle. Each point could be altered via a textual display or by drawing each point on the waveform via a graphical interface. The user could also hold down the left cursor button and randomly move the data-entry slider to quickly 'draw' a waveform, rather than entering in the values point-by-point.

The FZ-1 also came with pre-set waveforms typical of those from conventional analogue synthesizers, as well as digital waveforms taken from the Casio CZ synthesizers. The pre-set waves were: Random, Saw Pulse, Double Sine, Pulse, Square and Sawtooth. Unfortunately the FZ only permitted the use of one pre-set waveform per voice. In order to have more than one pre-set waveform in a single voice, the user could create two or more voices, each with a pre-set waveform, and then mix them together (applying detune at this point if desired). With this method it was possible to simulate a sound from a multiple oscillator synthesizer, or even create something as complex as a supersaw.

Once samples were saved in the FZ-1's memory, they could be truncated, mixed and detuned with another voice, X-Mixed (similar to cross modulation) and detuned with another voice and/or reversed. Each of these alterations could be made by text input or via a graphical display of the waveform. The same applied to synthesized voices, minus the truncating.

The FZ-1 (unlike Casio's other professional equipment) had a resonant low-pass filter. This filter was a hybrid design, with the same characteristics as an analogue filter and it was one of the FZ series' best features, allowing for dramatic, creative alteration of sounds, in a way not possible on any Akai (Casio's chief competitor) machine until the S3000. The FZ-1 also had an analog amplifier. The filtering and level control were carried out by four Casio MB87186 chips, each of which contain two filters and digitally controlled amplifiers. Some people assume the filters are purely digital, but this is not the case. Close examination of the schematic shows that the filtering is carried out after the digital to analogue conversion and demultiplexing. Both the filter and the amplifier used the same 8-stage envelopes of the Casio CZ synthesizers but had the ability to make sections of the envelope loop. The envelopes on the FZ-1 were also less cryptic to program than those on the CZ synthesizers, because the envelope shape could be adjusted on the LCD display, rather than by text entry alone.

Casio's older CZ synthesizers suffered from a lack of modulation as they only contained one LFO, used for oscillator pitch. The FZ-1 greatly improved on this by allowing the single LFO to control oscillator pitch, amp level and filter level.

The FZ-1's keyboard was velocity sensitive, with monophonic aftertouch. This not only improved on Casio's older keyboards by allowing greater keyboard expression but it also allowed more modulation control - velocity sensitivity and aftertouch both had their own sub-menus where modulation settings could be applied to the filter, amp and oscillator pitch. The velocity sensitivity could also be used to trigger different samples layered on one key (e.g., playing the key lightly would play one sample, playing it harder would play another sample, and playing it as hard as possible would produce another and so on up to a maximum of 64 different samples and 125 velocity levels). This could be useful when recreating a drum kit or an instrument such as a piano.

The FZ-1 also had the ability to perform the functions of a multitimbral expander with 8 independent polyphonic voices played simultaneously over MIDI. Once again the FZ-1 improved upon the CZ synthesizers by having 8 separate audio outputs located on the back of the unit, allowing more control over the volume levels by the use of an external mixer. However, a voice was as polyphonic as the number of outputs it was assigned to. If assigned to one output, it was monophonic; if assigned to all eight outputs, it was 8-voice-polyphonic.

Casio also produced several rackmount expander versions of the FZ. These were the FZ-10M and FZ-20M. The expander units included a number of enhancements over the keyboard version: double the memory (2MB) as standard (allowing a maximum sampling time of 29 seconds at 36 kHz); significantly improved playback sound quality, through the use of a different DAC (Digital-to-analog converter); improved user interface, through a brighter display and the noticeably faster internal response to the use of buttons and sliders, plus a number of bug fixes.

Casio's FZ series offered considerable advantages over their main competition at the time, the Akai S900, but the Akai dominance of the market was much too great to overcome, plus Casio's efforts were hampered by the Casio name, for many buyers, not being synonymous with professional music products. In 1989 Akai launched the S1000 model, surpassing many of the capabilities of Casio's FZ machines (though not the FZ's resonant filter - a glaring omission on the S1000) and Casio had no answer. It seems Casio had already taken a decision to withdraw from the professional hi-tech musical instruments market.

Read more about Casio FZ-1:  Technical Issues

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Casio FZ-1 - Technical Issues
... The FZ-1's LCD display had a back-light that burned out quickly ... Blue, non-Casio-manufactured back-lights are still available from various websites ... The floppy disk drive in the FZ-1 is also prone to failure ...