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Crumar Bit One, Bit 01, Bit 99

Synthesizers (Retro) By Gordon Reid
Published August 1998

Crumar Bit One, Bit 01, Bit 99

Gordon Reid is bitten by the memory of a brilliant, but deeply flawed trio of Italian synthesizer designs that could have been the last word in affordable analogue.

I remember the first time I played a Bit One. It was a hot summer's day in 1984, and my girlfriend and I had travelled to central London to buy a set of Chase CBP1 bass pedals. In many ways the poor man's Taurus pedals, these were made by an Italian company for Chase (a keyboard store more often known as the London Synthesiser Centre).

Soon after we arrived, Mr Pammi Singh, the store's manager and an industry 'character' without peer, calmly informed me that what I really needed was the CBP2 bass pedals because they sported a second oscillator, and for only a mere £100 more.

"Hold on", I said. "I can barely afford £199 for the standard model, let alone £299 for those." At which point, Mr Singh uttered the immortal line, "Ah, but with a girlfriend like that, how can you be poor?"

While I was battling with my better judgement and my cheque book, Mr Singh showed me a new keyboard that he had just received from Italy. It was (in his words) a digital synth that, at £799, cost just half the price of a DX7, yet blew away the equivalent Rolands and Korgs of the day. It was black, sleek and, despite a five‑octave keyboard, very compact. It was, he told me, warm, fat, flexible, expandable, and it had MIDI. It was a Bit One.

"Bit?" I asked. "Who are they?" In retrospect, it was hardly surprising that I had never heard the name, because it turned out to be the nom de plume of a far more famous manufacturer. Like the bass pedals that I had set out to buy, the Bit One was produced by Crumar, a company better known for its ghastly electric pianos, weedy string machines, and early 'multi‑keyboards'.

Crumar had shot to prominence in the mid‑'70s when a handful of bands such as Emerson Lake and Palmer, Greenslade, and The Enid adopted some of their quirky polyphonic ensembles. Unfortunately, these instruments seemed to have no place alongside the Moogs, ARPs and early Oberheims of the day. They even suffered in comparison with other Italian imports including Logan string ensembles and Elka Rhapsodies.

It was, nonetheless, an important company, if only because it made keyboards that were cheap enough for players who would otherwise have just been restricted to lusting after the unaffordable instruments.of their heroes. Furthermore, the Crumar Multiman assured the brand's place in history, because it was the world's first 'multi‑keyboard', a concept that was subsequently copied by ARP, Moog, Yamaha, Korg, and many others. But as the name Crumar always conjured up an image of cheap shoddiness, serious players avoided their products, no matter how innovative or well designed they later proved to be (it's interesting to speculate how successful the Bob Moog‑designed Spirit monosynth, or the Organiser T2 might have been had they been manufactured elsewhere).

Clearly, Crumar understood this, so when they designed their first MIDI keyboard, their name was changed to Bit.

A digital synth that, at £799, cost just half the price of a DX7, yet blew away the equivalent Rolands and Korgs of the day. It was black, sleek and, despite a five‑octave keyboard, very compact.

The Technology

The Bit One conformed to the standards of the day by being six‑note polyphonic, but that was where many of the similarities ended. For example, instead of following the lead of low‑cost, single‑oscillator‑per‑voice synths such as the Korg PolySix and Roland Juno 106, its dual‑oscillator voice structure was more akin to that of the Roland JX3P. And, whereas all these competitors offered just a single ADSR envelope per voice and a single LFO per patch, the Bit One featured two of each. What's more, you could assign these to many more destinations than the Roland or Korg models allowed.

Unlike any other low‑cost synth of the day, the Bit One was also velocity sensitive. This facility was no afterthought, either: you could direct the velocity response independently to each of the LFOs, each of the DCOs' pulse widths, and to the attack times and envelope depths of both envelope generators, thus making both the VCF and the VCA touch sensitive.

The Bit One was also bi‑timbral, and you could place any of its patches in Upper and Lower zones above and below a user‑defined split point. There were even Upper and Lower outputs, so you could direct each zone to its own mixer channel for independent EQ and effects treatments. The Bit One had a duophonic Unison mode, and in the standard Play mode this stacked voices one to three under one key, and voices four to six under another, thus placing six oscillators under each finger. You could even select Unison in Split mode to get two different sounds — one created from the three voices in the Lower zone, and another from the three voices in the Upper zone.

Crumar Bit One.

If this wasn't enough, a Double mode allowed you to allocate two patches across the whole keyboard. Instead of playing one patch in the Upper zone of the keyboard and one patch in the Lower, you heard the two superimposed upon each other. While this reduced the polyphony from six notes to three, the depth and complexity of the combined sounds more than compensated.

This may make the Bit One sound like some sort of low‑budget super‑synth, but in truth it wasn't. Yes, it had great strengths and, when you consider that its designer was Mario Maggi, the man responsible for the Elka Synthex, this isn't too surprising. But its weaknesses were astounding. Minor complaints included the position of the Modulation and Pitch‑bend wheels, which lurked one behind the other on the control panel itself. But far more serious was the inability to balance oscillator levels: DCO1 and DCO2 were always either 'on' or 'off'.

Another failing was the lack of option to modulate the pulse width via an LFO. Sure, you could vary the pulse width using an envelope or by velocity response, but you couldn't sweep it for those classic, lush PWM sounds. Even worse was the omission of fine‑tuning and detune from the programming system. Instead of being programmable within each patch, you determined the detune between DCO1 and DCO2 by moving a slider on the top panel. So, if you wanted to jump between a thick ensemble patch and a thinner sound, you had to adjust this slider by hand as you played. Noise, while it was present on the synth, could only be accessed using a top panel slider. This was arcane. If you wanted a patch based purely on noise, you had to program it with both oscillators switched off, then introduce the noise from the front panel whenever you selected that patch. Weird, or what?

I reckon that the Bits proved to be the right synthesizers at the right prices — but at the wrong time. The mid‑'80s were the heyday of FM synthesis, and the world had temporarily tired of all things analogue.

Finally, the MIDI specification was a joke, even in 1984. Compare it to its contemporary, the Juno 106 — a synth that understood all 16 MIDI channels, and transmitted and received note numbers, patch numbers, performance data, and any control panel changes. By contrast, the Bit One transmitted just note number and velocity on MIDI channel 1. When receiving (Omni mode only) it also recognised patch changes. And that was it! So, despite In, Out and Thru sockets, you couldn't use the Bit One to select patches on other keyboards or expanders, and you couldn't dump patches via MIDI. If you wanted to create a patch library, you had to use cassette tape storage. Yurg!

The Next Generation

In early 1985, Crumar addressed many of these problems by releasing an improved Bit synthesizer, though contrary to expectations, this was not the Bit Two keyboard, but the Bit 01 Expander module.

Crumar's 3U Bit 01 rackmount synth expander.Crumar's 3U Bit 01 rackmount synth expander.

The deep, 3U‑high Bit 01 (available in both black and ivory) was not just a repackaged Bit One, but very much a 'souped‑up' version, with extra parameters and a dramatically improved MIDI specification. Additions included a parameter to control the maximum modulation depth applied by the Mod wheel, programmable noise on DCO1, programmable detune on DCO2, and programmable volume for the complete patch. Unfortunately, the Bit 01 lost the Bit One's ability to sweep the DCOs' frequencies using the VCA's envelope generator, and the Unison mode disappeared. On the other hand, the Bit 01 now allowed you to store 'splits' and 'doubles' as performances, with memory increased from the 63 single patches found on the Bit One to 99 patches/performances. It was a strange system though — 75 of the 01's memories were Bit One‑style patches, and the other 24 were performances.

Equally important, the MIDI specification was much better. You could now leave Omni Mode, and the Bit 01 recognised all 16 MIDI channels. It also received controllers such as modulation and pitch‑bend, making it much better for live work. Unfortunately, the 01 lacked a MIDI Out socket, so it was still impossible to save sounds over MIDI. Nevertheless, at £499, the 01 provided excellent value for money, and it should have been high on everybody's analogue shopping list.

The Final Cut

Had Crumar released the Bit 01 as a keyboard, I might have gone elsewhere when, in the summer of 1985, I bought a Roland JX8P as my first MIDI keyboard. This boasted much the same specification as the Bit 01, but with oscillator sync, an oscillator mixer, Roland's famous chorus effect, and pressure sensitivity. Three months later and (as far as I was concerned) with appalling timing, Crumar released the Bit 99.

In retrospect, the Bit 99 was simply a Bit 01 with a keyboard, performance controls, additional MIDI commands that the keyboard‑less expander had not required, and the ability to chain three sets of 33 patches. This last attribute was an excellent feature, although overlooked by most players. The JX8P allowed me to chain eight patches but, in my view, the Bit 99's ability to step through 99 patches during a gig placed it in a league of its own. At its reduced recommended price of just £699, the Bit 99 should have been a winner.

Retrospective

So what went wrong? The fact that the Bits were not resounding successes, and that Crumar disappeared just three years later, was nothing to do with the sound of the instruments themselves. Their lead synth patches and synth pads were remarkable, and they also excelled at punchy brass and polysynth patches. Indeed, many of the Bits' analogue sounds comfortably filled the shoes of the far more expensive Prophets and Oberheims. The Bits were also capable of some remarkably FM‑esque sounds, and produced a wide range of DX‑style electric pianos and harps.

Crumar Bit 01 synth expander.Crumar Bit 01 synth expander.Sure, they weren't perfect. For example, strange summing differences between DCO1 and DCO2 could give unexpected tonal responses whenever you played a key. Depending on your point of view, this was either a benefit, since it imparted a CS80‑ish organic nature to many sounds, or it was a pain in the neck. Oddly, the differences did not seem to cycle as you played the six voices, so you could never be sure when it would occur, or by how much. There were other minor annoyances too, such as the (sometimes) audible stepping of the LFOs. But these deficiencies should not have detracted from a warm and versatile family of synthesizers that could out‑perform many more illustrious instruments.

Why then did the Bits disappear so quickly? Maybe it was the lack of tweakable knobs and switches. Maybe it was the lack of software support. Maybe, in the UK, it was the mistake of trying to sell them exclusively through one shop in central London.

I reckon that the Bits proved to be the right synthesizers at the right prices — but at the wrong time. The mid‑'80s were the heyday of FM synthesis, and the world had temporarily tired of all things analogue. Digital effects units were just becoming affordable, and these were clearly superior to their analogue brethren. The new 'compact discs' were also digital, and the music industry was beginning to come to grips with ideas such as digital audio tape, hard disk recording, and techniques such as digital audio restoration. In this digital/digital/digital climate, the Bits were doomed, and their short reign came to an end.

But, even today, playing a Bit through a touch of chorus and a splash of reverb is a rewarding experience. And for those fortunate enough to be able to do so, layering two Bits through a stereo effects unit can produce stunning results. If you ever have the good fortune to get your hands on a pair of Bits (no giggling at the back please), you'll soon begin to wonder whether it's time to stop lusting after those ridiculously expensive and unreliable 'vintage' synths.

Postscript

Incidentally, I had no choice in the end but to buy the CBP2s from Mr Singh and, ultimately, it proved to be the right decision. Unfortunately, I sold them in 1989 for just £99 — that was a big mistake. If they (or another set tucked away in somebody's loft) are still in the near‑mint condition that mine were when I last saw them, I would gladly buy them back. Contact me, and you'll be guaranteed a warm reception.

What Are They Worth? — Part One

There were only three models of Bit, but I've separated the early Bit Ones from the later ones. This is because, for some people, the CEM filters make the later units less desirable. I don't think it makes any difference to their values, because the instruments' common failings are far more significant. If you get the chance (and the urge), buy a Bit 99.

MODEL

DATE OF RELEASE

PRICE ON RELEASE

SECOND‑HAND BARGAIN

SECOND‑HAND RIP‑OFF

Bit One (CEM filters)*

Late 1984

£799

£100

£200

Bit 99

Late 1985

£699

£150

£300

What Are They Worth? — Part Two

Just for comparison, here is a list of prices (all obtained from SOS June '98) that owners are charging for some of the other synths mentioned in this article. It makes you worry about the buyers' sanity.

MODEL

PRICES BEING ASKED... AND PAID!

Elka Synthex

£1,250

Korg Polysix

£300

Oberheim OB8

£699

Sequential Prophet 5

£1,099

Roland Juno 106

£550

Roland Jupiter 8

£999

Roland JX3P

£350

Published August 1998