Category Archives: Home Keyboards

A New Direction

Wow…it’s been a busy few months.

I haven’t been able to do much posting (obviously). I’ve kept up the Synthesizer Price List, but haven’t posted any of the monthly summaries – that, I may do at some point in the future. What I *have* been doing is a fair amount of service work. I have one customer in particular who regularly brings me me interesting vintage toys to work with, and there have been numerous other random replacements, upgrades, and repair work for several other people along the way.

To that end, and because of the feedback from my satisfied customers, I’ve decided to actively start promoting the services I provide.

Up until now it’s primarily been a labor of love for me. I’ve spent close to twenty-five years buying, selling, repairing, modifying, and restoring all sorts of musical equipment, and nothing gives me more joy than finding some beat-up old synth, getting it functioning, and uniting it with someone who really wants it.

The way I see it,  my main goal – particularly with vintage equipment – is to keep this stuff running and making music for as long as possible. My intent is to focus on preserving and protecting the gear,  while still covering my expenses and my time.

It’s been a blast so far, and hopefully will continue to be.

 

Weekend Sale Find – 6/16/2012

Well, it’s sure not a MiniMoog. It also wasn’t a sale.

Casio CA-110. Another trash pick. Seriously, I don’t understand why people throw these out – give it to Goodwill, or find a school to donate it to.

Filthy, as usual. The photo was taken before I cleaned and tested it; at that point I didn’t know whether or not it worked.  It is indeed completely functional.

Despite the full-sized keys, it’s really just one of the myriad SA-series keyboards in a bigger package. It does sound a little better, by virtue of a larger speaker and slightly beefier amp. Sounds are okay – nothing to write home about. No MIDI, nothing but headphone and power jacks. If I’d seen it at a flea market, I would have passed it up. But “free” is always good.

It’s a good beginner’s keyboard, so I’ll either add it to my “to be sold” pile or donate it.

 

 

Synth Price List – May 2012

Format is the same, for a change. Added a couple of new manufacturers and a bunch of new models. I have several manufacturers with just one or two models; I may add them primarily to use as filler to make the pages come out even.

As explained in a previous post, the Range column represents a range of prices based on the high and low to date, but also takes into account the volume of sales. If the range is really narrow, either the item is very popular or the prices are always pretty close. Wide ranges indicate either a big disparity between high and low or a small volume.

In either case, it’s reasonable to assume that if you want to purchase something, seeing a price somewhere close to that range is a good thing.

Synth Prices – May 2012

Weekend Sale Finds – 6/3/2012

Didn’t actually do any yard sales or thrift stores this weekend. I did, however, stop at the Columbus Flea Market on the way to take a friend back home. Since I have several projects going right now, I really wasn’t looking to buy anything. But of course, any lost and lonely keyboards still tug at my heart – and my wallet.

Found two this time. A Casio CZ-230s synthesizer with stand, and a Casio MT-520. Both are a little beat up, but as usual the prices were way too good to pass up.

The CZ-230s is a bit of a rarity, and I’ll do a full-scale review later. It’s essentially a preset CZ-101 synthesizer, with built-in rhythms and limited editing capability. It’s also got strap pegs, so if I ever feel like completely nerding out I can dig out my cape,  put on a little Yes,  and keytar my way around the living room. Okay, that won’t be happening – but I could!

It’s missing one slider cap and one button, but is otherwise all there. The stand is actually quite cool, too. I haven’t run across one yet that can be adjusted to fit a mini keyboard.

 

The MT-520 is more common (in fact, I just realized I may have one already). This was a straight pity rescue. End of the day, tired seller, dusty little keyboard sitting in a pile of toys. I’ll clean it up, test it, and add it to the sale list.

Both of these were initially spotted by my eagle-eyed friend. Now, I’ve certainly had my share of unexpected finds, but lately the only credit I can take is for knowing what’s worth buying.  It’s good to know that when I go out with someone else there’s very little chance of anything sneaking by.

At current prices, both together would sell for around $140, with another $15 for the stand. Since I paid a very small fraction of that, I’m certainly not going to complain about having to clean ’em up a little.

Weekend Sale Finds

Not earth-shaking (certainly not in the same league as finding a Korg X5D in the trash) but kinda cool nonetheless. Picked this up last weekend, at one of the first yard sales of the season. My hunting partner of the day spied this as soon as we walked up the driveway.

Perfect condition, works fine, box is in good shape, but it’s missing one of the styrofoam endpieces (edit – both of them are there, they were just crammed into one end of the box).  No manual or adapter, either, but for the whopping $2 it cost I’m not complaining (current average sale price is $46).

I have another one that I’d picked up last year, but it’s not in as good shape. The older one will be sold, and this one is getting  added to the permanent collection.

And this weekend, at a thrift store…


Completely complete right down to the warranty card. Box is a wee bit beat up, but c’mon – it’s 32 years old! Everything else is minty fresh; the manual doesn’t appear to have been opened.  This one’s also going into the permanent collection.

So, a good start to the season. It’s nice to know that even as I’m selling some of the pieces I don’t use or necessarily want, that there are still lovely things out there for really good prices, provided you know which rocks to look under.  Which is made much easier if you normally shop with  someone (as I do) who happens to be a great rock-turner.

Casio MT-110

The fact that this entry is being made immediately after a post about things that suck shouldn’t necessarily indicate that this is a particularly wonderful device. It does, however, avoid many of those pitfalls and is in fact a very good example of what I’d consider a simple mini keyboard.

This is a mid-size, 4-octave PCM keyboard. It has all of the very basic features one would expect and little else. It is 8-note polyphonic, reduced to 4 when using the auto-accompaniment.  Panel controls are all real buttons, sliders, and switches.

From left to right, there is main volume, accompaniment volume, and chord select switch. “Off” disables the melodic section of the rhythm track, and “fingered” responds to actual notes and chords you play.

The Casio Chord function is present on virtually all of their instruments, and is here as well.  Playing a given key adds a major chord to the accompaniment. Pressing one key to the right of the first changes it to a minor chord, and pressing two and three additional keys change it to a minor 7th and major 7th respectively.

Tones
Piano Elec. Piano
Vibraphone Elec. Guitar
Jazz Organ Pipe Organ
Violin Human Voice
Trumpet Flute
Funky Clavi. Synth. Sound

Most of the voices are usable, as long as one doesn’t expect them to sound too similar to their names. Flute is lovely and both organs are quite good, and Funky Clavi and Elec Guitar are also very usable. There are no modifiers, although some of the sounds do include vibrato. Again, the flute demonstrates this quite well.

I did notice an audible click when pressing the voice buttons. This may be intentional, or the contacts on this particular unit might be a little dirty.

Rhythms
Rock 1 Rock 2
Pops Reggae
Disco 16Beat
Swing Slow Rock
Samba Bossa Nova
March Waltz

Now, the rhythms. It’s important to note that here, the internal speaker does absolutely nothing for the sounds. When using an external amp it may as well be an entirely different keyboard.

There is an intro/fill button, which works as expected, and an end button that has to be hit at just the right moment to sound natural. I recorded about seven demo samples and was able to get it just once; the one I posted is NOT that one. It doesn’t sound bad if you miss, just odd.

The unit is well-built and heavy. There is a standard 1/8″ headphone jack. The keyboard is also surprisingly solid and responsive. While pretty well packed with circuitry, there is certainly enough room around the edges to add switches and contacts if one is so inclined. The bottom of the main board staring at you practically begs to be messed with.

Pros: Some sounds are quite good. Intro and end buttons. Headphone jack. Rugged.

Cons: Fixed accompaniment pattern. No sound modifiers.

Casio MT-110 Demo  Just a small snippet of the accompaniment and a small sample of Flute and Pipe Organ.

I was unable to locate a manual for this on-line. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that you probably won’t need one.

Top 10 List: Mini Keyboard Features that Stink

Well, at least features that *I* say stink.

So I like to collect them, but what exactly are these mini keyboards? Are they instruments? Toys? Musical scratch pads? Cacophonous time wasters? Does anyone really know for sure?

The very early models tended to be very basic. This was for both technological limitations, and also because in a brand new market it was uncertain as to which features would be important to consumers.

As time went on, manufacturers seemed to have been intent on cramming as many representations of whatever technology was available at the time into these little noisy boxes. Doing so as cheaply as possible, though, meant that shortcuts were often taken. On top of that, they needed to be visually appealing to your average non-musical consumer (Oooo….shiny!)

In the time I’ve spent over the last thirty-odd years working with keyboards, these are the top ten things that consistently annoy me about them. It is highly unusual to find any model that doesn’t contain at least one of these annoyances. And I can think of a few models off the top of my head that contain all of them. Your mileage may vary, of course.

10) Non-standard AC adapters

Yes, they're all different.

Yamaha and Casio have opposite polarity adapters. Usually. However, even within these two major manufacturers there are still some oddball units, with either strange plugs or weird voltages. Other manufacturers, such as Kawai, tend to have their own standards. Trying to keep track of all the various  ones for specific units is a real pain. For testing, it’s usually far easier just to throw some batteries in, since most use either C or AA.

9) Poor internal speaker(s)
There’s a difference between “inexpensive” and “cheap”. A difference you can hear, in the form of rattles, buzzes, and a miniscule frequency range. On some keyboards, the speakers are sometimes chosen specifically to mask deficiencies in the sound generating method employed. Which does help to explain item 3 below.

8) No rhythm/accompaniment variations
Fill & end buttons would be nice. Tempo being adjustable over a wide range is good, too.

7) Too many / lousy rhythms
A couple of dozen well-constructed ones would be preferable to a hundred that stink. Get rid of fixed-pitch percussion that requires you to play in the same key. And ditch the waltzes. Ditch the front-panel drum pads, too, unless you can assign different voices to them.

The next few are specifically voice related.

6)  Really bad sounds
And by “bad” it can mean sound quality, choice of voices, or both. There’s no reason some of these should sound as horrid as they do. Square wave, sampling, PCM, additive synthesis, FM…it doesn’t matter that you’re using the latest technology if it still sounds like crap.

What? No Crunchy Frog?!?

5) Too many sounds.
No one needs a 37-key mini keyboard with 240 anemic sounds. A few dozen quality voices that sound good should be adequate for most needs. This would also eliminate the need to devote huge swatches of control panel real estate to nothing more than a list of all the patch names.  And unless the thing is specifically targeted towards kids, all of the “cute” or “funny” sounds are unnecessary.

It also might make sense to take all those cool sound effects and combine them into one patch, where each is assigned to one key. What is the point of being able to play the sound of a jet plane over the entire range of the keyboard?

4) No sound variations
Vibrato, chorus, or maybe sustain. A pedal jack is unnecessary (and frankly silly on a mini keyboard). A button is fine. As above, provide the user with a few good sounds and allow them to be easily modified.

The maid called out this week.

3) No output jacks & other case flaws
Lack of a headphone jack is often cited as a simple cost-saving measure. This is somewhat difficult to believe. Most units have plenty of room; drill one hole and put in a switching jack.

The other major case issue  is unnecessary  cosmetic features such as  grilles, vents, serrations, or anything else that serves no real purpose other than to collect dust.  Recessed controls are particularly annoying, just as they are on full-sized keyboards, because they’re extremely difficult to clean.

Along with those standardized AC adapters, it would have been nice if they could have decided on a standard-sized battery door, too.

2) Poor quality controls
Membrane switches lack tactile feedback. While tearing or puncturing isn’t usually an issue, either graphics being worn off or the surface being scratched or scraped are common. Buttons tend to feel “squishy”, and sliders (if present at all) are rarely smooth.

And the #1 thing I hate, the thing that almost always guarantees a quick trip to the “For Sale” section of my equipment cupboard…

1) Digital access controls
Instead of an actual slider or button, a particular parameter is controlled by either typing in a number or by hitting up/down buttons. This is normally coupled with a lack of indicators. By that, I mean nothing to indicate the current patch, or rhythm track, or tempo, or in the worst cases, nothing to indicate the unit is even turned on. The settings are also volatile, so that each time you turn the unit off and back on again, everything has reset to the defaults.

Volume is the worst offender. It usually defaults to a too-loud setting, so the first thing you have to do after turning the unit on is to turn it down. Second is patch selection. This typically requires at least two button presses and you can’t tell what you’ve typed in until you actually play. Hitting these types of buttons usually results in some sort of audible click, which can be annoying. Increments are typically fixed, too, so that instead of a smooth range of volume or tempo you’re stuck with a number of discrete intervals.

I understand that most – if not all – of these gripes are designed in as a way to save money. Very few are the result of technological limitations. It’s easier to control the functions through software and dedicated logic chips than to use discrete components. It’s a tradeoff, though, and I think consumers – and certainly musicians – end up with the short end of the stick. It always feels as if the marketing departments decide to cram as much as possible into as small a space as possible while keeping costs down, and then the engineers are forced to come up with ways to make them work. Which results, of course, in all of the items listed above.

So the question is, what are some features that DO make sense? Are there any mini keyboards that avoid most of these pitfalls while still remaining interesting? Hey, Relic, are there any your grumpy old ass actually LIKES?

Yep. Stayed tuned.

Synth Prices 1/20/12

Couple of days late on this one. Bi-weekly price update. N/S indicates there were no recorded sales during the time period. Percentage column shows the or decrease from the last period. The larger values here may not be reflective of actual trends, since there may have been only one sale in the period.

I’ve actually begun to track many more models, and can see average pricing over a longer period of time. If nothing else, it gives a good sense for whether or not something on Ebay or craigslist is fairly priced, or whether the seller is under the influence of pharmaceuticals.

Averages based on Ebay sales data from 1/2/2012 to 1/15/2012.

Roland
SH-101 $742.06 -1%
Juno 60 $933.09 16%
Jupiter 6 $2,110.50 -5%
JP-8000     $527.50 -3%
Juno 106 $582.42 9%
SC-55 $81.00 27%
Alpha Juno 1 N/S
D-50 $335.71 -20%

The SH-101 continues to astonish me. It’ll be interesting to see if the release of the Moog Minitaur and the Arturia MiniBrute have any effect on mono synth prices.

Korg
Polysix $385.00 -49%
M1 $461.39 -10%
Poly 800 $260.00 0%
Microkorg $237.78 -7%
X50 $406.50 5%
MS-2000 $503.17 -7%

The Polysix only had one sale; whoever it was got a good deal.  Although it’s still too early to be sure, the Poly 800 appears to be stable – another head-scratcher.

Yamaha
DX-7 $276.11 4%
MM6 $338.09 -5%
AN1X N/S
CS1X $235.63 89%
FB-01 $71.00 37%

The AN1X may not have been a good choice for this list. I like it, but the sales volume has been really low.

Moog
Minimoog $2,972.50 6%
MG-1 $566.33
Prodigy N/S
Rogue $517.50 -20%

Need to rethink this list, too. The MicroMoog has more sales than the Prodigy.

Casio
CZ-101 $144.08 -10%
MT-500 N/S
RZ-1 $107.38 6%
SK-1 $41.59 -8%
VL-1 $32.05 -52%

The VL-1 appears to have corrected; the average price for the past few months has been around $44.

This seemed like a good idea at the time, but I’ve found the 2-week interval is too short for some of the lower-volume keyboards. Instead of this, I may change to doing it monthly but with an expanded list of models. Again, if you have any suggestions let me know.

Yamaha PSS-190

Well…what have we here? Looks like Yamaha’s answer to Casio’s SA-21. Looks like it – but doesn’t sound like it.

This is another 2-operator FM keyboard. 100 voices (more on that later), 22 rhythms, 15 demo songs, 4 dedicated front-panel drum pads, plus all the associated selection buttons. As would be expected,  the only physical switch is the three-way power/accompaniment slider.

Now, I’d expect that any given FM-based Yamaha keyboard would basically sound like any other. However, this isn’t really the case. The voices are all facsimiles of natural instruments. Unlike the PSS-170, the brass, woodwinds, and mallets are quite good. Organs & pianos, not so good – very bell-like. It is FM, after all.

Although the panel lists 100 voices, they are divided into groups of 40 single, 10 ensemble (added chorus), 3o dual (layered) and 20 split. If I had to guess, I’d say there are about thirty actual distinct sounds, which are then  combined in various ways. It is 8-note polyphonic, but obviously choosing the layered voices cuts that to 4-note. Of course, the layered voices are also the more interesting ones.

00 Trumpet 25 Jazz Guitar 50 Brass Duo 75 Carillon&Banjo
01 Horn 26 Rock Guitar 51 Sax&Toy Piano 76 Steel Drum&Harp
02 Trombone 27 Acoustic Bass 52 Drop 77 Marimba&Recorder
03 Tuba 28 Electric Bass 53 Harp&Panflute 78 Sax&Bass
04 Soprano Sax 29 Cello 54 Sax Duo 79 Banjo&Guitar
05 Tenor Sax 30 Banjo 55 String Duo 80 Bass/Sax
06 Clarinet 31 Mandolin 56 Violin&Cello 81 Bass/Piano
07 Bass Clarinet 32 Harp 57 Glocken&Piano 82 Guitar/E.Piano
08 Oboe 33 Violin 58 Sax&Clarinet 83 Piano/Trumpet
09 Piccolo 34 Carillon 59 Trombone&Horn 84 Harpsichord/Flute
10 Flute 35 Timpani 60 Banjo&Flute 85 Glocken/Marimba
11 Panflute 36 Steel Drum 61 Guitar&Trumpet 86 Bass/Clarinet
12 Recorder 37 Glockenspiel 62 Organ&Piccolo 87 Bass/Rock Guitar
13 Ocarina 38 Marimba 63 Jazz Guitar&Organ 88 Accordion/PanFlute
14 Piano 39 Vibraphone 64 Funky Synth 89 E.Piano/Sax
15 Electric Piano 40 Brass 1 65 Crystal 90 Piano/Violin
16 Toy Piano 41 Brass 2 66 Recorder&Bass 91 Toy Piano/Ocarina
17 Reed Organ 42 Chime 67 Carillon&Ocarina 92 Bass/Banjo
18 Pipe Organ 43 Honk-tonk Piano 68 Rock Guitar & Bass 93 Guitar/Sax
19 Jazz Organ 44 Woodwind 1 69 Steel Drums&Organ 94 Bass/Clavi
20 Harpsichord 45 Woodwind 2 70 Harp&Accordion 95 Accordion/Piccolo
21 Funky Clavi 46 12String Guitar 71 Banjo&Horn 96 Piano/Harp
22 Accordion 47 Marimba 72 Mandolin&Oboe 97 Organ/Jazz guitar
23 Acoustic Guitar 48 Strings 1 73 Slap Bass 98 Cello/Flute
24 Hawaiian Guitar 49 Strings 2 74 Piano&PanFlute 99 Bass/Piano/Percussion

There are a few voices that I quite like. Brass Duo (#50) is a very analog-ish sawtooth-y kind of generic synth sound. Rock guitar (#26), more like a Clavinet than any guitar, is buzzy and edgy.  And if you’re looking for a quick way to throw together a creepy melody, you can’t beat Toy Piano/Ocarina (#91).  Generally speaking there are a fair number of decent sounds. The Harmony button on the front panel makes the selected voice monophonic with three layers – kinda like Unison mode.  There are no other modifiers – no sustain, or vibrato, or chorus.

Rhythms
Pop Rock Funk
Boogie Woogie Techno Rock
Rhumba Shuffle
8Beat Samba
16Beat Jazz Waltz
Rock ‘n’ Roll Reggae
Hard Rock Country
Rock-a-Ballad Tango
Disco Waltz
Bossa Nova March 1
Swing March 2

Rhythms are very basic, and selected via the keyboard keys. There’s no intros or fills. The ad-lib button on the front panel plays a little melodic fill for as long as it’s held down.

Demo Songs
Joy to the World Die Lorelei
Brother John Camptown Races
The Old Folks at Home When the Saints
Go Marching In
House of the Rising Sun
A Little Brown Jug Brahms’ Lullaby
Silent Night Yesterday
Jingle Bells Hey Jude
Ave Maria Venus

Demo songs are also selected via the keyboard keys. Hitting the demo button while one is playing will disable the melody part, allowing you to play along.

  

The built-in stereo speakers aren’t bad, although there’s very little bass response. Some of the more resonant tones are quite capable of generating some seriously impressive buzz and distortion if the volume is up. There is a headphone jack, which was surprising enough but the fact that it’s a 1/4″ jack instead of the now-standard 1/8″ was also unexpected. There is some noise when running into an amp.

As on the SA-21, all of the controls are soft buttons (blech!). Accessing sounds is particularly annoying. Not only do you have to key in the 2-digit number, but you have to hit Enter after each one (which I keep forgetting to do). There is an audible “click” when a button is pressed, but it’s not nearly as loud as it is on the Casio. And like the Casio, there are no indicators, so you have no idea which voice, rhythm, demo, or anything else is selected.

Pros: Good sounds, with the split and ensemble voices being very usable.  Real headphone jack.

Cons: Soft buttons. No tone modifiers. No way to adjust relative volume of the rhythm track. Dedicated drum buttons are cute but of little use. No indicators.

Bottom line: Forget about the rhythms & just use the sounds.

Fun fact: Holding down the two right-most keys while powering up puts it into test mode. Hitting any front-panel button then generates a note. Why you’d want to do this, I have no idea.

PSS-190 Demo Recorded straight, no effects.

Yamaha PSS-190 Manual

Casio CK-10

Casio doing what Casio does. In this case, grafting a wonderfully cheesy keyboard to a portable AM/FM radio. Or, if you prefer, grafting a radio to a PT-1 keyboard. This is the baby of the CK line, the other end being represented by the absurd and inexplicable CK-200 boombox.

First – the radio. It’s a radio. Both AM and FM (woo-hoo!) It sounds good for the size. I have the thing sitting on my desk as I write this, cranking out classic rock at a decent volume level. Now, it makes perfect sense to ask whether owning a radio makes any sense in this era of iPods and streaming music. For me, it certainly does. If I’m out on the back deck painting, I don’t like wearing earbuds and my WiFi doesn’t reach the back of the house. So for a little background noise, it’s perfect.

The keyboard section is functionally and audibly equivalent to a PT-1, which is itself a slightly crippled version of the original VL-1 (VL Tone).  It is monophonic. There are four voices (Piano, Fantasy, Violin, and Flute).  I find the piano somewhat useless, but the other three tones are interesting and worth fiddling with (so to speak).  The ten rhythms, which are too silly to justify me making a table, are March, Waltz, 4 Beat, Swing, Rock 1, Rock 2, Bossa Nova, Samba, Rhumba, and Beguine.  The sound will be instantly familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of early Eighties music.  Trio, anyone?

The rhythms are selected from the keyboard keys. There is a small recorder, which has the surprising ability to edit recorded sequences. Not easily, of course, but still… You can also play back the sequence one note at a time. There is a headphone jack, and also a manual pitch adjust pot on the bottom. Also on the bottom is a flip-down stand which allows you position the unit upright, so to better hear the radio. A nice touch, that.

Despite the tiny keys and ridiculous rhythms, it’s still a lot of fun to play with. I can’t conceive of a circumstance where you’d actually want to play along with the radio, so it’s best to think of it as one or the other.

Although I know the PT-1 can be modified to enable some of the features that have been disabled, I’m not sure if the CK-10 has the same circuit boards so that might not be an option. Besides, this little pupster is unique enough that I really wouldn’t feel right messing with it.

Pros: The radio is fine. The sounds are cute.

Cons: It’s be nice to be able to adjust the relative volume of the rhythm track against the main voice.

Bottom line: This one’s a keeper. I may not be composing any film scores with it, but it’s still nifty.

Casio CK-10 Demo Recorded straight with no effects.

Casio PT-10 Manual I was unable to find the manual for this exact model, but the PT-10 manual explains how to use the recording and editing options. If you need a manual to operate the radio, you have no business owning this to start with.