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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.

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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.

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.

Casio SA-21

Casio, Casio, Casio…whatever shall we do with you? What were you thinking? Eye-catching, certainly, lots of colors and buttons, dual speakers, an important-looking tone list…and yet, as far as I’m concerned it’s also completely inexplicable.

This is one of the newer keyboards in my current collection. I actually have several variations of the SA series; this just happened to be the first one I grabbed from the pile. While I will still post entries for all the other units I have, this one will be the most in-depth.

Basics, which are generally common amongst all the SA models: 100 preset PCM tones / 4-note polyphonic / 19 preset rhythms / 13 preset accompaniments (no drums) / 5 demo songs / dedicated drum sample buttons. There are no LEDs or any other visual indicators at all.

Voice list:

00 Piano 25 Ocarina 50 Synth-Piano 75 Cosmic Sound
01 Elec. Piano 26 Bagpipe 51 Synth-Celesta 76 Telephone
02 Honky-Tonk Piano 27 Harmonica 52 Synth-Clavi 77 Car Horn
03 Harpsichord 28 Chorus 53 Synth-Accordion 78 Computer Sound
04 Jazz Organ 29 Brass-Strings 54 Synth-Brass 79 Typewriter
05 Elec. Organ 30 Strings 55 Synth-Reed 80 Vibraphone
06 Pipe Organ 31 Warm Strings 56 Synth Lead 81 Marimba
07 Church Organ 32 Violin 57 Synth-Strings 82 Church Bells
08 Street Organ 33 Violin-Piano 58 Synth-Guitar 83 Bells
09 Accordion 34 Cello 59 Synth-Bass 84 Gamelan
10 Brass Ens. 35 Elec. Guitar 60 Glass Harmonica 85 Afro Percussion
11 Warm Brass 36 Jazz Guitar 61 Fantasy 86 Ethnic Percussion
12 Trumpet 37 Mute Guitar 62 Waw Voice 87 Sample Percussion
13 Tuba 38 Metal Guitar 63 Twinkle Echo 88 Matsuri
14 Brass Hit 39 Slap Bass 64 Metal Lead 89 Wadaiko
15 Wind Ens 40 Elec. Bass 65 Cathedral 90 Triangle
16 English horn 41 Wood Bass 66 Cosmic Dance 91 Conga/Agogo
17 Oboe 42 Snare Bass 67 Plunk Extend 92 Cowbell/Clave
18 Basson 43 Ukelele 68 Pop Lead 93 Tom
19 Clarinet 44 Banjo 69 Pearl Drop 94 Rock Drum
20 Samba Whistle 45 Sitar 70 Airplane 95 Swing Drum
21 Whistle 46 Mandolin 71 Ambulance 96 Bass/Piano
22 Quena 47 Harp 72 Insect 97 Bass/Trumpet
23 Flute 48 Taishokoto 73 Emergency Alarm 98 Piano/Flute
24 Flute-Vib 49 Shamisen 74 Laser Beam 99 Strings/Oboe

While these are all ostensibly PCM samples, I can’t say I’m overly impressed with the sound quality. Lots of aliasing and digital noise. Most of the tones have what appears to be intended as a reverb effect, but rather than actual reverb the sample re-triggers at a reduced volume. Practically speaking, everything sounds like it has sustain, even percussive sounds like the organs. There are no tone modifiers.

The piano is actually not bad, but the four-note polyphony is obviously limiting. Several of the sound effects are quite good.

As would be expected, the rhythms are very cheesy but fun. A couple of the auto-accompaniment patterns are also very interesting, but they’re limited by being fixed-pitch; you’re stuck in whatever key they play in.

  

And now we move into the things that I absolutely hate. Tone selection, volume, and rhythm selection are all done using soft buttons. The power switch is the only “analog” control.  Volume defaults to max on power-up and requires using the up/down buttons to change it. Every time you press either button it’s accompanied by a loud click. In fact, any time you press ANY button there’s a click.  Rhythms and accompaniment are selected by using a panel button and the actual keyboard keys.

This is all annoying enough, but as mentioned there are no indicators to let you know what you currently have selected. Naturally, settings are not maintained when the unit is powered off. As on other Casio units, the front-panel drum buttons are a neat idea, but not really useful (at least to me) in the real world.

And what’s the deal with the demo section? There’s no option for playing along or any kind of  music-minus-one settings; dedicating a good percentage of the control panel real estate and five buttons to this seems excessive.

Having said all that, it’s still worth fiddling with for an hour or so. The sheer number of voices means that there are guaranteed to be at least some keepers. Coming up with melody lines to play over the accompaniment is neat, too, and having to keep them the same key is can be limiting but is also a bit of a challenge.

Casio SA-21 Demo

Demo Songs

  1. Choral (Beethoven)
  2. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Rhythms

  1. Rock 1
  2. Disco 1 (Probably my favorite. Don’t hate me.)
  3. Swing
  4. Pops 1
  5. 16-Beat 2

Auto Acompaniment

  1. New Age Music
  2. Bagpipe
  3. Funk (This one is kinda cool.)

The click which indicates program changes is audible during the rhythm and auto demos. There’s also a lag; I was hitting the button on the beat but sometimes it took a second before the sound changed.

This is the part that puzzles me: What is the intended use of this little beastie? It’s far too complex to be a toy, but the extensive features and options are either poorly implemented or of little use to a musician. The sound quality and inflexible accompaniment options are also strikes against it. The same rhythms with a smaller, better set of voices would be an improvement, or keeping the same voice set while ditching the demos and auto-accompaniment in favor of a couple of volume sliders would help too.  A puzzle wrapped in an enigma, it is.

Pros: Lots of features. Lots of voices. Lots of potential for circuit-bending. Really fun to noodle around with (at least until the frustrations kick in)

Cons: All digital control. No indicators. Low polyphony. Poor sample quality.

Bottom line: If I decide to keep one SA series as an example, it’ll probably be this one. The others I’ll try to find new homes for; I’m sure they’ll make someone out there happy, particularly if they’re planning on opening them up & poking around inside.

Casio SA-21 Manual

Casio CT-510

Released in 1987, the CT-510 is the full-sized relation of the MT-500 and MT-520 mini keyboards.  The immediately distinguishing feature of this particular family is the group of large drum pads on the front panel. Less obvious are rear panel inputs for a pair of DP-1 external drum pads, with an additional input on this model for bass drum pedal. Additionally, there are front panel sliders which allow you to change – or turn off entirely – the various drum sounds in the auto-accompaniment. You can, for example, turn off the snare and trigger it manually using the front panel pad.

   

The pads in the picture are NOT mine. They do come up on Ebay from time to time, typically selling for $20-30 per pair.

Left-side controls include rhythm selection, accompaniment type, a fill-in button, part volume controls, and the aforementioned SuperDrums (!) slide switches.  Keeping in mind the standard level of expectations for any Casio product, the drums are pretty good. The ability to change the various parts even while playing is a definite plus.

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

The right side contains the tone selector, and the minimalist sequencer controls.

Bank 1 Bank 2
Piano Elec. Piano
Vibraphone
Elec. Guitar
Jazz Organ Pipe Organ
Violin Human Voice
Trumpet Flute
Funky Clavl Synth. Sound

The tones are all pretty much standard for a keyboard of this particular time period. The organs are usable, if uninspiring, and the flute is pretty good. The pianos and guitar, not so much – very muted, with not much in the way of a solid attack. Funky Clavl (sic) is probably my favorite. The onboard speakers aren’t bad.

Now, this is NOT normally a keyboard I would have purchased. I try to avoid the full-sized units as I don’t have the space, and the features aren’t different enough from the MT-520 I already own to justify it. However, there were a couple of interesting things about this one that caught my eye. First, it came in the original box with the original packing material, music stand, AC adapter, and (albeit somewhat beat-up) vinyl cover. And second, they sent me the two pieces they could find of the original Casio stand – the upper cross-piece and the all-important and difficult to find lower panel, with the Casio logo.  For me, that was worth the price of admission.

So…

Pros: Full-sized keyboard. Good on-board speakers. External drum pad inputs. “Super Drums” rhythm variations. Small sequencer.

Cons: Mediocre sounds. No voice effects (sustain, vibrato). No sustain pedal input.  And the front panel drum pads give a distinctive look, but for musical purposes they’re not very useful.

Bottom line: It’s fun for a couple of hours of noodling, but I don’t think this one is gonna be a keeper. Try and get the stand parts away from me, though!