Following the first part of my History of Casio Keyboards, this is the story of the years 1984 to 1988, when Casio unsuccessfully tried breaking into the professional music market, unfortunately neglecting the home user business. While Casio’s first years are marked by constant innovation, this innovation started becoming rarer in the mid-1980s.
While their first attempt to build a professional instrument (the Casiotone 1000P in 1982) didn’t meet with success, Casio tried again when they released the CZ line of synths, their first fully digital machines that emulated Yamaha’s FM synthesis with Casio’s house-brewerd PD (Phase Distortion) synthesis. The CZ quickly were a big success. Unfortunately, all attempts to repeat this success flopped — either due to bad marketing, or to overcomplex user interface; additionally, Casio still suffered from their “pocket calculator company” image reinforced by its first great success, the VL-Tone 1. Even such sophisticated instruments like the FZ-1 sampler didn’t gain recognition.
While, as I said, Casio neglected the home user, they released at least one groundbreaking instrument which is as famous as the VL-1: Released in 1986, the Casio SK-1 is often claimed to be the first low-budget, lo-fi sampler. Also interesting were the “Super Drums” keyboards, where you could switch between different rhythm variations. But Casio’s masterpiece of this years appeared in 1984: The MT-400V, and its fullsize brother CT-410V, combined the flexible accompaniment variations of the D930/D931 hardware family with an analog resonance filter that could even be applied to rhythm and accompaniment — no other keyboard of the 1980s has this mighty feature, making it, in my eyes, the single most fascinating and powerful home keyboard of the 1980s. Unfortunately, instruments like these increasingly became the exception. Most keyboards were just clones of earlier hardware, mostly with stripped-down features.
Another trend among Casio’s keyboards of these years was the digital revolution. While Yamaha had completely switched to digital in 1983, Casio still used semi-analog hardware, that slowly began to be replaced by digital technologies. From 1985 on, the percussions became digital; finally, in 1988, Casio exclusively started using wavetable synthesis for their keyboards. This, however, was pretty much the end of Casio as producer of wonderfully weird keyboards. The new instruments completely lacked effects and rhythm or accompaniment variations. Even worse, Casio started literally flooding the market with even more, and even more identical, clones. From 1988 on, you have to look hard for innovations in Casio keyboards.
Finally, not only did the features of Casio keyboards get more boring, but also their designs. While many of the earlier keyboards are really beautiful, Casio now put less emphasis on design, most of the keyboards are boring black or grey boxes. Well, it’s a matter of taste, I know, but still.
But let’s start in 1984, and see what wonderful instruments Casio built in the year of Big Brother…
1984: Masterpieces & Boomboxes
1984 was an interesting year for Casio. Not only did they work on their line of digital Cosmo synthesizers — which would be released as the CZ line –, they also released two of the greatest keyboards ever in this year.
The first was the Casio MT-400V. Using the same hardware as the MT-65, the NEC D930/D931 hardware with its many accompaniment variations and effects, the MT-400V added a unique feature: a fully analog resonance filter. Even more unique is the fact that this filter can not only be applied to the main voice. No, a switch allowed you to also filter the rhythm, accompaniment and even a noise generator (generated from bass drum), allowing the weirdest sounds and noises, including wind and wave effects! The filter can even be controlled by an LFO, which makes this machine Casio’s closest equivalent to a (semi) analog synthesizer. Combine this with the many sound effects and accompaniment variations (lacking only the arpeggio, but adding a stereo chorus with adjustable speed), and you get one of the most flexible and powerful sound machines of the 1980s. While everybody knows about the VL-1, the Rapman and the SK-1, only few people know about the amazing MT-400V, which I consider to be Casio’s true masterpiece. The MT-400V was the first keyboard I bought, and is still the one I use the most and love best. I also looks incredibly cool with its detachable “Micky Mouse” speakers. There also is a fullsize clone, the CT-410V.
The other killer Casio of 1984 is the Casio KX-101, a weird combination of boombox, complete with tapedeck and radio, and keyboard. The keyboard seems to be similar to a 4-voice polyphonic PT-30, and includes a complex, editable sequencer whose content can be read from/written to cassette tape. Strangely though, it is not possible to directly record the keyboard sound to tape. The KX-101 is very rare and much sought after today, getting killer prices on online auctions.
The third legendary machine of 1984 is the Casio PT-7, even weirder than the KX-101. Its unique design consists of a detachable, thin foil keyboard — the main hardware was in a white box. I really don’t know what Casio thought when building this — and as it is pretty rare, it is a popular and costly collector’s item.
Another innovation of 1984 was the introduction of digital percussion synthesis. While all earlier keyboards used analog percussion, the Casio MT-35 and Casio MT-200 apparently were the first to generate their percussion sounds through waveforms. The MT-200 is also the only Casio that featured the PA-1 computer interface, which is totally obscure, like many of Casio’s interfaces (TA-1, RAM-Packs); even Tablehooters knows nothing about it.
Finally, Casio reactivated its NEC D1867 chip, used in the honorable VL-Tone 1, in its PT-1, which is the simplest PT you can imagine — no synth, no sequencer, no accompaniment, just the sounds and rhythms. Despite of that, it is still quite popular among collectors, either because it’s a really cheap way to get the VL-1 sounds, or maybe just because of its many, many color variations — some including colored “black” keys, like the lovely pink PT-1 pictured here.
1985: Going Pro & Super Drums
In 1985, Casio released the first of its line of CZ synthesizer, beginning with the CZ-101 (the only midsize CZ) and its bigger brother, the CZ-1000. The CZ synths used a synthesis method called PD (Phase Distortion), which is functionally similar to Yamaha’s FM synthesis. Especially the CZ-101 was very successful, which encouraged Casio to concentrate on the pro market — unfortunately neglecting the home market in the process.
Casio also a few high-end home keyboards which use PD synthesis for its presets, the first being the Casio CT-6000. The CT-6000 had many professional features, many of them unique for Casio home keyboards, and may well be the most sophisticated home keyboard of its time: Not only does it feature key velocity with aftertouch, it also comes with a pitch bend wheel and MIDI support. Also interesting is its “Super Accompaniment”, meaning that the accompaniment reacts to key velocity and chord progression — from what I know, this is unique for Casio keyboards. It also comes with a chord sequencer.
Another innovation on the home market in 1985 was the introduction of “Super Drums” keyboards, which allowed the user to select different rhythm variations for each of several rhythm tracks (base, snare, hi-hat etc.), allowing you to create a great variety of rhythms. The first Super Drums keyboard was the Casio MT-52, which also is (with its fullsize variant, the CT-320) the only Super Drums keyboard with analogue percussion — the many Super Drums keyboards of the following years already feature sampled percussion.
Speaking of which, sampled percussion also was introduced in 1986, with the Casio MT-210 and CT-430. Both keyboards apparently still use the successful NEC D930/D931 chip combo, as they still feature similar bass and chord accompaniment variations.
Still, Casio started using new chips, beginning with their ROM-Pack keyboards. The MT-18, a midsize version of the PT-80, complete with single-key accompaniment à la PT-30, used the HD61703A01 chips (it apparently is the only one using this hardware). The PT-82 used the HD61703B01 chip and was a stripped-down clone of the PT-80 without accompaniment.
Finally, the Casio CK series also appeared in 1985, which can be considered a successor of the KX-101, as they feature a radio tuner and/or tapedecks. While the CK-10 (radio only) and the CK-200 are based on monophonic PT hardware, the “high-end” CK-500 uses the D930/D931 combo and combines its accompaniment variations (as usual without the arpeggio feature) and effects with radio and a double tapedeck.
Ah, I nearly forgot: Among the most absurd-looking Casio surely is the Casio CT-810, witch its oversized knobs for volume, tempo and stereo chorus speed. Otherwise, it’s one of the most advanced ROM-Pack keyboards, with key lighting, learning features, and a live sequencer where melody and accompaniment could be entered separately — much like the smaller brother, the MT-800.
1986: Lo-Fi Sampler & More of the Same
Around 1986, Casio’s innovations started to thin out on the home market. While the earlier years still had many firsts, 1986 brings us only one real innovation — but a legendary one.
The Casio SK-1 is the first of Casio’s SK line of lo-fi, lo-price samplers. It is often claimed to be the first of its kind, but according to Yamaha, its VSS-100 came out a year earlier. Of course, the SK-1′s sampling features are quite limited. Memory cost was still quite high in these years, thus the sampling rate and sample length had to be greatly reduced. Still, the SK-1 is capable of holding four short, lo-fi samples, which is enough for good fun. The SK-1 also features portamento — unique for small Casios –, and Casio also managed to squeeze an additive synthesizer and a simple editable sequencer into the SK-1′s small case — a real little workstation! Unfortunately, and unlike later SKs, the SK-1 is not able to retain its samples when switched off, even with batteries, which in my eyes severely limits its use. Despite of this, the SK-1 is today one of the most well-known and sought after Casio keyboards. The SK-1 was also the first Casio home keyboard featuring fully digital synthesis based on samples, using the OKI M6283 chip.
Otherwise, not many interesting keyboards appeared in 1986. Among the most interesting are the advanced Super Drums keyboards, the Casio MT-500 and Casio CT-510, with drum pads, more rhythm variations and the ability to plug in Casio’s external drum pads, the DP-1. The CT-510 also was the first Super Drums Casio with HD61702A03 chips, which were subsequently used in all Super Drums Casio.
New chips also were used in beginner’s and ROM-Pack keyboards this year, namely the HD61702A02 used in the the CT-350, the CT-805 (with sequencer) and the MT-820; otherwise, these keyboards offered nothing new.
Somewhat more interesting are the successors of the high-end PD home keyboards CT-6000. While nothing much is known about the obscure CT-5500, the CT-6500 lacks its predecessor’s key velocity, but now has two wheels for pitch bend and vibrato. It is also one of the very few Casios where the user can freely select presets for bass, chords and obbligato accompaniment tracks. Among its many features is a portamento (with adjustable speed) and a “Dual Voice” feature, combining two presets to allow a whopping 1128 combinations. It also features a live chord sequencer.
1987: High-End Lo-Fi Samplers & Toy Keyboards
In 1987, Casio’s next attempt to enter the professional market was the HT/HZ series of synths. These used a synthesis called “Spectrum Dynamics“, which apparently is just a new word for good old Consonant-Vowel — somewhat expanded and made editable, of course. But semi-analog didn’t go well in the late 1980s, and the synths also suffered from bad marketing: Casio launched them as advanced home keyboards, with editable auto-accompaniment and rhythm patterns (except the HZ-600, the only pure synth in this line). While this is indeed a pretty cool and powerful feature, it made the pro’s quite sceptic of the machines powers, especially considering Casio’s image. Still, if you’re looking for a cheap semi-analog synth, I think these machines can be recommended (I have yet to check them out). Casio also released to home keyboards with non-editable SD presets, the MT-600 and the CT-630.
Otherwise, Casio released its last Super Drums keyboards in 1987; especially the MT-520/CT-510 are considered as being the most flexible, as they feature a whopping eight drum pads, and they also are the only Super Drums keyboards where individual rhythm tracks can be muted.
After the success of the SK-1, Casio also released many more lo-fi samplers in the SK series. All of these were able to store two “long” or four short samples (in the same mediocre 8-bit sound quality of before), and they featured more sampling effects, including “reverse”. Sampling memory finally was battery-buffered, so that you didn’t lose your samples when switching the SK of. Among the new SKs were the small SK-5 and the SK-8 — the former with four effect pads, including “Dog” and “Surf” sounds; the latter with a ROM-Pack slot instead of effect pads. While these are quite common, Casio also released some “large” SKs that are mostly pretty rare. Like the HT keyboards, the midsize SK-100 and SK-200, and the fullsize SK-2100, feature a pattern sequencer.
(There also was an obscure variant called SK-8A, where you could change scales to Arabic scales. It wasn’t the first “Arabic” Casio though; an obscure Casiotone 405 variant called AT-400 was first.)
Finally, Casio released its first toy keyboards in 1987, the EP series, all Muppets-themed. The EP-10 used the NEC D1867 (also known from the famous VL-1 and PT-1), while the EP-20 was based on PT-82/PT-87 hardware, but unlike them, didn’t offer a ROM-Pack slot, but rather came with a with fixed integrated ROM-Pack. The most interesting EP keyboard is definitely the EP-30, which is based on SK hardware and indeed allowed lo-fi sampling. Not bad for a toy keyboard! Unfortunately, all EP keyboards are quite rare.
On the other part of the scale, Casio also released its professional sampler, the FZ-1, and its electronic guitars of the DG and MG series in 1987. Especially the FZ-1 had some very advanced features (e.g., you could literally “draw” your own waveform), but, as with the HZ line, it didn’t go strong.
1988: Leaving Pro & Going Digital
In 1988, Casio started its last attempt to repeat its CZ success on the pro market. The VZ series of synths used a synthesis method called iPD (interactive Phase Distortion), an greatly expanded version of the the CZ’s PD synthesis. Unfortunately, and unlike the earlier CZ synths, the iPD was complex and hard to program, and the VZ’s cumbersome to use, which meant another flop for Casio, which after the VZ-1 decided to retreat from the pro market (of course, they also offered the incredible DH “Digital Horns” before doing so…)
On the home market, Casio finally decided to abandon its semi-analog Consonant-Vowel synthesis and switched to fully digital keyboards with wavetable synthesis for its MT and CT line. The first chip used was the NEC D938GD, which allowed the 20 or 30 presets to be combined via “Dual Voice” feature, resulting in 220 or 465 combinations, respectively (that’s why Casio boasted “220/465 Tone Bank”. These keyboards also finally had MIDI, and they often came with a simple, live non-editable sequencer. Unfortunately, they had no effects at all, and also didn’t have any accompaniment variations — and the accompaniments are grossly over-arranged, making the useless for creative music-making. In my eyes, a big step backward from the greatly flexible semi-analog keyboards of the classic NEC D930/D931 age — although it has to be said that the wavetable sound actually is very good and clear.
Although precise dates are hard to obtain, judging from the design, the first NEC D938 keyboard seemed to have been the CT-370. In the following years, Casio literally flooded the market with many similar variants, most of which with stripped features — the cheapest keyboards of this hardware family came without sequencer and MIDI. The most advanced keyboards where the MT-540 and its 61-key brother, the CT-660, which additionally featured some totally cheesy “atmo” sounds (ocean waves, forst atmo, sci-fi or western movie).
In the last part…
The next and final part of this series tells of the few interesting machines Casio built from 1989 to the mid-1990s: the first SA keyboards, the famous Rapman keyboards, and finally the VA-10 and the SK-60. Casio still built many, many home keyboards, but most of them are not much more than clones of earliers keyboards.