This is the first in a series of three articles where I retrace the development of Casio keyboards from 1980 to the early/mid 1990s. Instead of listing all keyboards, I’ll concentrate on the innovations that makes the world of Casio keyboards of that time so exiting and weird, and I’ll of course present such legends as the VL-Tone 1, SK-1, KX-101, and Rapman, as well as some other wonderful crappy cheesy Casio’s home keyboards that I consider often vastly underrated.
I’ll start with the story of the early years, 1980 to 1983. This definitively was Casio’s time of innovations and experimentation, where Casio made its first experiences creating musical instruments.
Mainly because of their lack of experience, some of their designs are just plain stupid and totally flopped — the “sine-wave disaster” is a great example.
But at the same time, it is this exact lack of experience that led to some of the most wonderful keyboards during its early years, with great, weird, flexible, easy-to-use features that were never seen before and after, as nobody who knows anything about it would even think of features like “Harmony Arrangers”. All of the keyboards of this time are just great fun to play with and are worth owning; some of them (especially the VL-1, the PT-30, and the MT-65) belong to the greatest home keyboards ever.
Unfortunately, Casio was a quick learner, and from the mid-80s on, they concentrated less on innovations and started building more or less boring keyboards with pseudo-realistic sounds and less fun features. Many of the best features were dropped when Casio (in its attempt to imitate Yamaha?) tried to become “professional” or even “user-friendly”.
Apropos user-friendly: One lovely thing about the early, (semi-)analog keyboards, both Yamaha’s and Casio’s, is their intuitive user interface. Everything is controlled through knobs, sliders and switches, and every change is immediately reflected by the instrument. This lets you create really weird shit by quickly switching rhythm variations or tones. I was appalled when, after knowing the MT-400V, I got a CT-660 and realized that rhythms are only switched at the end of each measure — no “samba-waltz-disco-swing-rock” fun any more! Even later, they forbid tone switching fun by forcing you to punch in numbers…
Anyway, were not there yet, let’s go back in time to the year 1979. Everything started when…
1979: Humble Beginnings & A Melody Calculator
Casio was already well-known as manufacturer of LCD watches and electronic pocket calculators when, in about 1979, they released the “Melody Calculator”, the Casio Melody-80. This little pocket calculator had a unique feature: You could play it pretty much like a keyboard by punching the calculator keys. Although it is not much more than a gadget, the Melody-80 is a pretty cool one; and it is also, by my knowledge, Casio’s first foray into the world of music.
In the following years, Casio built many more ML calculators. But at the same time, Casio had the idea to apply digital chip technology to build portable home keyboards. Until then, electronic home keyboards were organs — bulky, heavy things, not much lighter than a piano. Casio — and another company, Yamaha — realized that you could do basically the same in a much lighter version by replacing most of the analog circuitry by chips.
1980: The Very First Casiotones & Consonant-Vowel Synthesis
In 1980, Casio and Yamaha released their first “portable electronic instruments”. Both were 8-voice polyphonic, but while Yamaha’s keyboards — the “PortaSounds” PS-1, PS-2 and PS-3 — were quite small and featured rhythm and auto-accompaniment, Casio’s rather bulky Casiotone 201, which lacked both, had the advantage of having a much better sound and much more presets — a whopping 29, compared to Yamaha’s meagre 8.
Casio achieved this by using a sound synthesis method they dubbed “Consonant-Vowel synthesis”. It basically consists of two multipulse waves, processed by independent envelope-controlled filters, which are then mixed together. While this didn’t produce truly realistic sounds, it provided for a vast variety of acceptable sounds — from pianos and guitars to organs, violins and flutes.
As for the rhythm, Casio wasn’t lazy and soon started to catch up. The first Casiotone with rhythm was the Casiotone 301, released that same year.
Also in 1980, Casio released its first midsize keyboards, first the small Casiotone M-10 with but four presets, closely followed by the MT-30 with 22 presets. Both keyboards lacked both rhythm and accompaniment.
As an aside, the MT-30 also was released in a very rare brown woodgrain version (maybe called MT-30W, of which I happen to be the proud owner; I never saw it mentioned anywhere). It is the only small/midsize Casio I know of with that weird 70s design; while Casio exclusively used woodgrain for their fullsize keyboards until 1984, the early smaller models were nearly always white. I guess Casio quickly realized that a woodgrain keyboard isn’t something for those fashionable gadget freaks of the early 1980s.
1981: The Little White Wonder & The Great Sine Wave Disaster
Automatic accompaniment, however, had to wait until 1981. The midsize Casio MT-40 featured only monophonic bass accompaniment, and also one of the coolest fill-in buttons I know of. At first press, you get a “four-to-the-floor” bass drum beat; at the next, you get an 1/8s snare drum roll — simple, but very effective. You can also switch back and forth within the same measure, which gives a virtually unlimited variety of weird fill-ins and breaks. The MT-40 also has the honor to be one of the few Casio keyboards whose sound is well-known from a classic song: Everybody who loves reggae knows the warm, lovely sound of the MT-40 bass — it’s the basis for the famous “Sleng Teng Riddim”.
The fullsize Casiotone 401 is much less well-known, but it was the first Casio keyboard to finally feature full, fingered polyphonic accompaniment, complete with fill-ins and and even rhythm variations.
The most famous Casio keyboard ever, however, is probably the legendary Casio VL-Tone 1, Casio’s first mini-keyboard. It was not much bigger than a chocolate bar. It used a simple sound synthesis with only one filtered multipulse wave. It was monophonic, and all sounds were unrealistic, obtrusive and cheesy. It had buttons instead of keys. But it truly was a technological marvel. For just about 70 bucks, you didn’t just get those incredibly minimalistic rhythms (low blip, high blip, noise); you also got a simple, but fully workable synthesizer, complete with selectable waveforms and editable envelopes. Casio even managed to squeeze a complete editable sequencer into the little box, with realtime recording and step-by-step editing. And finally, and best of all, it came with a fully working — calculator. In fact, this thing was based on a calculator; it’s hardware is similar to the 1979 Melody Calculator. The calculator memory in fact is used for storing the synthesizer parameters — you can literally add, subtract, multiply, divide and extract roots of sounds with this thing!
The VL-1 got a lot of publicity, and at the price, it became a smash hit. (People on Ebay keep pretending they’re rare, which makes me laugh. The VL-1 is everything but rare: it is the single most common keyboard, even after nearly 30 years. There’s at least one, often two or even three, VL-Tones available, at any time.) Even professional musicians fell in love with that little white plastic box — probably the most well-known being the German band Trio with it’s “Da Da Da” –, and still do so today.
The publicity Casio got for the VL-1 had a downside, however: It reinforced Casio’s image as “pocket calculator company”. While this wasn’t so bad on the home keyboard market, Casio never really got a foot into the professional market. No matter what they tried, and despite many inspired innovations and high technological quality, Casio’s instruments were always considered inferior compared to products by, say, Yamaha, who has had a century of experience in manufacturing musical instruments.
Casio, however, lacked this experience — which can be clearly seen when, still in 1981, Casio released their first keyboard using sine wave synthesis similar to the Consonant-Vowel method, but with sines instead of multipulses. At that time, sines were much harder to create electronically than multipulses, so Casio probably thought that would be better. But as anyone who knows a bit about sound synthesis could have told them, sine waves much less suited for sound generation, as they are pretty much immune against frequency filters.
Despite having advanced features like complex editable sequencers, complete with barcode readers for input, and key lighting the Casiotone 701 and its successors (including the midsize MT-70) sold only poorly: They may have had good, realistic organ and flute sounds — everything else sounded like bad organs and flutes.
1982: More Little Wonders & The First Professional Flop
In 1982, Casio started its PT series of mini keyboards by releasing the Casio PT-20. While it lacked the synthesizer of the VL-1, it was the first mini-keyboard with polyphonic accompaniment (played using special “chord keys”) which could also be stored and edited in the built-in sequencer. The sequencer also had another unique and totally weird feature called “Harmony Arranger“: You can automagically create the “right” chords for a melody stored in the sequencer! (This feature was revived in the mid-90s for the Casio VA-10.)
Released one year later, the PT-30 had bigger chord keys, an LCD, and an even more advanced sequencer: You could record up to eight different parts, which could then played back in any order. It is also the only Casio mini-keyboard to feature three separate, analog volume sliders for main, rhythm and accompaniment — all other PTs just have main volume buttons. Finally, and somewhat more esoteric, the PT-30 is the only PT able to save its sequencer content to a tape cartridge, the TA-1 — which is so rare it’s almost mythical.
In my eyes, the PT-30 is one of the best Casio keyboards ever, even more usable than the VL-1, as it is the perfect musical notebook for the travelling componist.
Another innovation of that year was Casio’s first “pro” keyboard: The Casiotone 1000P was the high-end model of Casio’s unfortunate sine wave keyboards. Featuring 61 keys, and lacking rhythm, the 1000P (P for “programmable”) essentially was an additive synthesizer that featured an arpeggio sequencer — unique in the world of Casio keyboards. Still, it was awkward to use, and it fell through among the target audience — Casio’s first failed attempt to enter the professional market.
Also in 1982, Casio released its first midsize keyboards with polyphonic fingered accompaniment. While the MT-70 is again based on sine wave synthesis, the MT-45 and the MT-60 use good old Consonant-Vowel. While the latter (and its bigger brother, the Casiotone 403) are said to be the best sounding of all Consonant-Vowel keyboards (I haven’t heard them yet), the MT-45 has many accompaniment variations with arpeggio and two bass variants. This was made possible by the versatile NEC D930G accompaniment chip, whose greatest moment was yet to come. Another peculiarity of the MT-45 is that accompaniment cannot be switched off — in fact, the lower part of the keyboard is hardwired to the accompaniment chip and the upper part to the voice chip.
The MT-45 and MT-60 are also, in my eyes, by far the most beautiful keyboards ever built, with their off-white case, angular yet elegant design, and round switch buttons… absolutely lovely. Even if I never use it, I simply cannot sell my MT-45. The keyboards of the early 1980s generally had the nicest designs, which gradually got worse since then. The 1990s were completely dominated by ugly black boxes, while the 2000s brought us extremely ugly silvery monstrosities. Ugh.
1983: ROM-Packs & Infinite Possibilities
While Casio released relatively few keyboards in 1983, most of them belonging to the last of the ill-fated sine wave keyboards, but some of them introduced much more successful and interesting features that would characterize Casio keyboards throughout the mid-80s.
The first being the famous ROM-Pack. Introduced with the Casio PT-50, the ROM-Pack replaced the barcode reader as Casio’s input medium for its home keyboards. (Yamaha had introduced the similar “PlayCard” for its keyboards a year earlier.) A ROM-Pack is a small cartridge on which songs are stored, which can then be simply played backed or used for learning features. On the PT-50, however, ROM-Packs can only be played back. Otherwise, it is pretty similar to its predecessor, the PT-30, with slightly different presets and rhythms, a fill-in added and, unfortunately, sequencer realtime recording removed. Besides ROM-Packs, the PT-50 could also save melodies to a “RAM-Pack”, but while Casio released dozens of ROM-Pack keyboards until the late 1980s — mainly pop hits and movie songs –, the RAM-Pack was abandoned soon; the PT-50 is the only keyboard able to use it.
Second, Casio released the Casiotone 405 and its mid-size brother, the Casio MT-65 in 1983. These were the first keyboards of the “classic” NEC D930/D931 family, which undisputedly is the most versatile and successful hardware in Casio’s history. Especially the accompaniment chip D930G, already used in the MT-45, is pure genius: With 12 basic rhythm/accompaniment patterns, switchable arpeggio, and four independently selectable patterns for bass, chord and arpeggio, this gives you over 1,500 accompaniment patterns (3,000 when you count rhythm-only as accompaniment) — an incredible number at that time, and impressive still today. (The first wavetable keyboards in 1989 had no variations at all.)
The main voice chip NEC D931C fades in comparison, but with its 20 presets, vibrato/delayed vibrato, sustain/reverb, and two envelope variations per voice (the latter only on the Casiotone 405), this still makes 360 voice variations in all. I know of no other home keyboards with such a wealth of options. As with all Casios of this time, all of the controls are simple analog switches and sliders, which makes these keyboards perfect for live play, creative exploration and experimentation.
Apparently, the same chips were also used in two advanced keyboards with 61 fullsize keys, the Casiotone 610 and the high-end Casiotone 7000, both the first stereo keyboards by Casio. Although both feature the same sound and rhythm preset names, both come with only very few accompaniment variations and only sustain as effect. While the 610 featured a stereo chorus instead (depicted here is a beautiful, but rare, gold version; most were brown woodgrain), the 7000 had many other new features: You could position each track (melody, accompaniment, and rhythm) independently in the stereo field; it had a complex editable sequencer whose content could be saved to and loaded from magnetic tape; and a “Dual Keyboard” feature allowed to store two user-defined settings (consisting of preset, panning and effects ).
While Casio had constantly changed their hardware for their home keyboard, the D930/D931 “dream team” became the basis for all mid- and fullsize Casio keyboards until at least 1986. Unfortunately, Casio soon began its practice of increasingly cutting down on the hardware features made available to the users — all later keyboards lacked the arpeggio, for example, even if the hardware was still there. (This was done probably in order to save a few cents on buttons, wiring, and memory.) Thus, the MT-65 and Casiotone 405 are the only keyboards that fully exploit the features on these two chips — not surprisingly, the MT-65 is highly valued on the collector’s market, while I got my Casiotone 405 for 20 €…
Still, at least at the beginning, Casio sometimes added some interesting new feature instead. I can live without arpeggio if I get a fully functionable resonance filter controlled by analog sliders! And this is what Casio did — but you’ll have to wait until my next creative surge to learn about the single greatest home keyboard ever built.