The last 15 years have seen ever‑increasing activity on the electronic musical instrument market. The advent of MIDI, in particular, seems to have urged manufacturers into a frenzy of research and development, with an accompanying yearly cycle of new product launches and a shorter shelf life for each batch of instruments. While this can be galling if you happen to have bought one of these instruments new, it can only be good news for the many musicians who buy almost exclusively on the second‑hand market, where many amazing deals can be found on instruments that are no longer current, but not yet trendy. At the moment, the best bargains are to be found on instruments of mid‑to‑late '80s manufacture, and here, we've picked out a personal selection of what we think is the cream of cheap gear. We've tried to choose gear which we think offers an excellent price‑to‑performance ratio, and all the instruments mentioned, from synths to drum machines, sequencers and samplers, work with MIDI, so there's no bother with retrofits. Whether you're new to electronic instruments, and looking for a complete music and sequencing setup for minimum outlay, or whether you simply need cheap new sounds, we hope the following ideas will at least give you a starting point for your own journey into the unhip zone...
- CASIO CZ‑SERIES
Casio's mid‑'80s CZ‑series synths used the company's Phase Distortion (PD) synthesis, which, broadly speaking, was a variant on Yamaha's FM synthesis, as found on DX synths. What this meant at the time was up‑to‑the minute digital sounds at an unprecedented price; what it means now is a slice of soon‑to‑be‑hip digital history, at unmissable prices on the second‑hand market. To be more specific, the strengths of the CZ series are the strengths of FM‑style digital: metallic bell sounds, thumping basses, and sharp, precise textures that stand out in a mix. The CZ101, particularly, is a winner where space is at a premium, being about the size of a Novation BassStation. But don't let the diminutive size fool you — this is a real synth, and eminently programmable. Those looking for a cheap synth to use as a master keyboard could do worse than big brother CZ1000, which boasts full‑size keys, although if you need velocity sensitivity, you'll want to look at the top‑of‑the‑range CZ1. In between, you'll find bargains in the form of the CZ3000 and the sequencer‑equipped CZ5000. Note that patches are pretty much transportable between the whole range.
With all the hype surrounding the new generation of MIDI‑controlled analogue synths, such as the Novation BassStation and Control Synthesis Deep Bass Nine, it's easy to forget that Cheetah made a MIDI‑controlled analogue synth module way back in the late '80s. The MS6 utilised circuitry based around the legendary Curtis Electro Music chips, as found on Sequential's Prophet 5 and Digisound's range of modular synth kits. This 1U rack module produces genuine analogue tones under full MIDI control, and can regularly be picked up for around £150.
- ENSONIQ ESQ1
First launched in 1986, the ESQ1 was Ensoniq's first synthesizer, and very well‑specified for its price tag of just under £1100. Boasting a 2400‑note sequencer (though you may find a machine expanded to 10,000 notes), the ESQ1 was embraced by many musicians as a master keyboard and centre of their MIDI setup — a role for which it is still well suited today. It's available fairly easily on the second‑hand market for little more than £300 — indeed, a recent SOS Reader Ad offered this worthy instrument for £325 or nearest offer, complete with full metal flightcase! Sound‑wise, the ESQ1 offers a take on sample plus synthesis, as pioneered by Roland's D50, but with a warm, pleasing, human quality which may be a result of the genuine analogue circuitry used for the filters and envelope generators. Synthesis options are comprehensive, and programming is as friendly as you'll find using a parameter access system — the large display and a system of soft keys really helps here. The ESQ1 is also available as the sequencer‑less ESQM module, although these come up less often on the second‑hand market, and have tended to retain higher prices.
- KAWAI K1/K1R/K1M
The 1988‑vintage K1 is still regarded with affection by many musicians. Launched as a budget instrument, with an original price of under £600, it nevertheless offered a respectable specification, including a velocity‑ and aftertouch‑sensitive keyboard, a maximum 16‑note polyphony, and 8‑part multimbrality. But it's the instrument's distinctive sound that makes it well worth having in the mid‑'90s — a combination of the delightfully cheesy and the richly complex is easily attainable with Kawai's idiosyncratic implementation of Sample and Synthesis (S+S) technology. The lack of filter means that the K1's basic waveforms are never really disguisable, but a clever method of delaying the onset of waveforms (a patch contains up to four) allows strikingly complex textures to be developed — and dig that crazy pseudo‑ring modulator effect! A joystick on the front panel allows you to alter, in real time, the relative volume of the waveforms that make up a patch.
The K1 is also available in table‑top module (K1M) and rackmounting (K1R) packages. Both are identical sonically and operationally, though the K1R lacks the joystick. Note that a K1 MkII appeared in late 1989, adding effects and dedicated drum sounds (the drum part is additional to the eight multitimbral parts), but since this later version doesn't appear to have sold very well, the majority of machines on the second‑hand market will be original K1s.
- YAMAHA DX11/TX81Z/V50
In 1995's FM‑synthesis‑free synth marketplace (the most recent synth incorporating an FM element, Yamaha's SY99, having lately been discontinued), it's easy to forget the hype and promises of over a decade ago, when FM was apparently the future of synthesis! The immensely popular DX7 spawned an enormous family of synth offspring, all of which sold in sufficient quantities to make them easily, and cheaply, available on the second‑hand market now (a DX7 for £250, anyone?). This is where you come in, and as the word on the street is that the definitively '80s sounds of the DX family are on the way back 'in', now is probably the time to cash in. Don't expect analogue‑style over‑inflation, though — supply is probably too plentiful for this to occur, and naturally, if you can't stand FM‑style sounds, don't let fashion dictate.
With so many 6‑ and 4‑operator FM synths and modules to choose from, we have to pick out a couple of favourites. The four‑operator TX81Z has been a perennially popular choice for the fiscally‑challenged musican looking for a versatile digital module, and if you're in the market for an FM keyboard, check out the DX11, which is essentially a TX81Z with a keyboard. If you'd like a workstation, hunt out a V50: this four‑operator monster features the equivalent of two TX81Zs, a QX‑style sequencer, an RX‑style drum machine, effects and a disk drive, all for a street price of about £450. Phew.
If you're not familiar with what FM can add to your sound, think bass (more than a few dance tunes feature FM on bass), bells, and delicate, spiky digital textures — but don't expect sample‑like realism. An especially nice feature for the adventurous amongst you is microtonal tuning.
- KAWAI R50/R50e
Like so many currently cheap, second‑hand instruments, Kawai's R50 is of late '80s vintage. Its launch as a budget machine (£325 new) is reflected in a very low second‑hand price; it can be picked up for as little as £60, though a reasonable price is more like £80 to £100. It is this affordability, coupled with some rather nice features, which make it worth considering for the musician on a budget.
One consequence of the R50's late '80s provenance is a collection of 24 12‑bit, 32kHz drum samples. Do not let this put you off; there is a little noise, and a little crunchiness, but in practice, this simply adds to the character of the sounds, which can be modified and enhanced by per‑voice tuning (+7/‑8 semitones) and panning, plus chorus, delay and gating effects. While these effects aren't quite in the top rank of on‑board DSP, they do add a little something extra. Playing the R50 over MIDI takes it several steps further: the sounds become velocity‑sensitive (the pads aren't), and by setting up your kits carefully, you can assign every sound in all 12 kits to its own MIDI note number. Note that each kit also features eight mute triggers, which can be assigned their own MIDI note numbers. These are used to trigger sounds from external synths or modules, allowing the R50 to be used as a simple sequencer.
The R50 (like the more up‑market R100 which preceded it) could be supplied with alternative drum sounds; however, the only way to do this was by removing the back and changing the sound ROM chip. Kawai produced several such chips. We have heard of internal and external modifications for the R50 and R100 that allow you to switch between several ROMs, but availability was never widespread, so don't hold your breath if your machine isn't already modified. Incidentally, the R50e is simply a relabelled, relaunched R50 equipped with one of the alternate chips. And for your interest, the larger R100 (reviewed June 1987) had double the patterns, and eight individual outputs.
- KORG MR16
It was early days for stand‑alone sound modules when Korg released the MR16 in 1985, and many couldn't see the logic of a drum machine without the machine. Almost exactly 10 years later, it all seems to make sense: the MR16 offers MIDI compatibility and 19 sampled drum sounds of reasonable quality, each with their own level and pan control, and individual output. The sounds themselves are sourced from Korg's DDM110 and DDM220 pre‑MIDI drum machines. That means sample quality is not late '90s hi‑fi, but it's not without its charm either. In a world where individuality seems to be defined by paying as much as possible for a TR909, the MR16 could well find a niche.
Note that some pairs of sounds share an output, and cannot sound at the same time (the snare and rim shot, for example — although a drummer would be physically unable to produce this pair of sounds simultaneously anyway!).
- ROLAND TR626
With all the attention grabbed by Roland's TR808 and TR909 drum machines, it's perhaps surprising there are beatboxes from this company that are not in any way cool or trendy. The fact is that Roland released so many drum machines during the '80s (off the top of our heads we managed to list well over a dozen) that some have inevitably fallen by the wayside. One such is the TR626, a compact machine that offers a compilation of Roland sampled drum sounds up to late 1987, drawing heavily on the excellent, but also not very trendy, TR707 and its Latin partner, the TR727. A large‑ish LCD aids in programming the TR626, which utilises Roland's easy‑to‑absorb grid‑based system. Sounds are tuneable +/‑7 semitones, a tape sync facility is built in, and there is a trigger output, perhaps the last time this appeared on a Roland drum machine. You can use it to trigger the arpeggiator on your pre‑MIDI synth, or to drive non‑MIDI drum machines. A budget machine on its release at £350, the TR626 now commands a second‑hand price of £100 or so, making it a bit of a bargain.
- YAMAHA RX5
Yamaha have never had the recognition they deserve for their drum machines — certainly none is anywhere near as sought‑after as the legendary units produced by Roland (Yamaha are even providing thinly‑disguised samples from the TR808 and TR909 in their current instruments — and don't forget that the Analogue Kit in the General MIDI sound set is essentially a TR808!). This is not to say that all of Yamaha's drum machines are unsung classics, but the flagship of the RX range, the RX5, is definitely worth a little reassessment, especially given the fact that it was spotted recently in the SOS Readers' Ads for the exceedingly silly price of £100. A more realistic price would be in the vicinity of £200.
On its launch in mid‑1987, the sample‑based RX5 cost an amazing £999 — though reviewers of the time seemed to think that this was quite reasonable for the facilities on offer. It's possible to see why — for a start, how about 12 individual outputs, all sounds tuneable over a five‑octave range (two octaves up, three down), a 6‑parameter envelope generator, pitch bend, reversable sounds, and a selection of non‑percussive samples including electric bass, DX Orchestra, DX Marimba and DX Clavinet. This set of samples assumes increased significance when you realise that the RX5 has a so‑called 'Multi Voice' function which allows you to have 12 'copies' of any one sound assigned to the top row of 12 pads and given their own parameters. In practice, this function would allow you to play tunes with RX5 sounds, and make better use of the Latin percussion on board. Note also the inclusion of good tape sync facilities.
There is a disadvantage, though: the RX features a mere 24 internal sounds. Fortunately, the comprehensive sound‑shaping facilities on board, and waveform cartridges containing 28 sounds each go some way towards mitigating this limitation. Note that one of these cartridges was supplied with the RX5, so ensure that it is present if you buy second‑hand. Be aware also that programming may not be intuitive for those brought up on Roland‑style drum machines.
- CASIO FZ1
Criticised for its difficult operating system when first launched, the FZ1 remains popular due to the long sample time offered even by the unexpanded version. At its top sample rate of 36kHz, 14.5 seconds of sample time is available, increasing to a whopping 58 seconds at 9kHz. The optional RAM board doubles these figures. This 16‑bit machine features comprehensive synth‑style editing features, plus the so‑called Wave Synthesis feature, which allows you to create your own digital waveforms from scratch or from a selection of preset Waves. An early association with Steve Reich gave the FZ1 a certain credibility, and the long sample time, coupled with 16‑bit quality and vast quantities of library disks, makes either the FZ1 or its two modular counterparts (the FZ10M and FZ20M) worth consideration.
- ENSONIQ MIRAGE
It's become a bit of a music industry cliché, but the Mirage was really a bit of a marvel. Fairlight may have made sampling possible, Emu may have made it affordable, but it was Ensoniq who made sampling truly democratic: initially priced at around £1700, and eventually reaching a price of under £1300 (with a module launched at £995), the Mirage really was attainable by the musician in the street (or bedroom).The Mirage's sampling time is not huge, and quality is only 8‑bit, but a number of points make Ensoniq's machine viable today: its cheap, excellent third‑party support means it has a large sound library, and, most importantly, it uses 3.5‑inch floppy disks — you may recall that certain 'budget' Japanese samplers of a similar vintage saved samples to 2.8‑inch 'Quick Disks' — a short‑lived format that was rather inefficient in data storage terms.
The Mirage is a sampler with a history, and was the recipient of numerous hardware and software enhancements. Make sure that you buy one with MASOS (Mirage Advanced Operating System), which provides you with a better selection of editing features (including sample reversal and digital mixing). You might prefer a later machine with stereo outputs as well; very early machines had only one. Note that samples can be comprehensively split across the keyboard, although true multitimbrality isn't available as such.
- ROLAND S330/S550/W30
Until they started releasing the S700 series of 16‑bit samplers, Roland were definitely seen as playing second fiddle to Akai. As long‑time Roland users, we always thought this a shame. Sure, sample organisation was a bit of a chore on the S330 and S550 (it still is to a certain extent on the 16‑bit machines), but it was worth it; being able to use a full‑sized monitor and a mouse to edit samples was a revelation, and the sheer musicality of the S330/S550's synth‑style editing parameters put either sampler ahead of Akai's machines, in sonic terms at least. Also worth noting is the excellence of the Roland sound library — a truly inspiring collection of orchestral, percussion, ethnic and pop sounds. The S550 (which offers double the S330's sampling time) could be upgraded with a SCSI interface (unlike the S330), and just this machine, plus Roland's library on CD‑ROM, could provide all the basic samples you'll ever need. One irritating feature, though, is the way that the sample RAM is divided into two unjoinable sections (four in the S550's case).
The W30 is also worthy of mention. This was basically an S330 with a keyboard, sequencer, half a megabyte of ROM samples, and an optional SCSI connector for access to CD‑ROM or a hard drive. The lack of MIDI Sample Dump Standard compatibility gets the thumbs down, though, and so does the fact that samples made with the W30 have to be converted before they'll load into the S330 or S550. The W30 seems to have retained a certain popularity with DJs, and has consequently retained a fairly high second‑hand price.
- ALESIS MMT8
The MMT8 came relatively early in Alesis' master plan for studio domination, released in 1988 as a partner for the HR16 drum machine. It's a simple‑to‑use, yet powerful sequencer, whose lack of on‑board storage is one of its few real failings. Most notable is its extremely friendly method of programming, which gives each of the eight tracks its own button, thereby allowing real‑time track muting and unmuting for spontaneous mixing. In addition, each track is capable of recording all 16 MIDI channels, enabling very sophisticated sequences to be built up. Up to 16 channels of MIDI data can also be bounced down onto one MMT8 track, giving you the potential for a total of eight alternative mixes, if you like, at the touch of a button. This friendliness (especially for the non‑music‑literate musician) is further underlined by the fact that the MMT8 works in terms of beats rather than time signatures and bars.
Yet another notable bonus is the inclusion of on‑board tape sync connections, complete with MIDI Song Position Pointer compatibility, saving you the cost of an external device. At prices as low as £80, this has to be the cheapest well‑specified hardware sequencer around.
- ROLAND MC500
The first of Roland's modern generation of Microcomposers provided the musician with a powerful, flexible and easy‑to‑use compositional tool, including an on‑board floppy disk drive, informative display, two MIDI outputs (for 32‑channel operation), a built‑in Smart FSK tape synchroniser, and software expandibility. This last point means that various enhancements could be, and were, introduced to improve the MC500's performance — for example, the MRB500 bulk librarian, and the Super MRC system software, which doubled the number of sequence tracks to eight. Roland even produced an MC500 conversion kit to upgrade it to MC500 MkII status. Amazingly enough, the MC500 retailed at £999 on release in 1986 — contrast that with a more up‑to‑date and powerful MC50 MkII recently spotted at retailers for around £550. However, the MC500 can be had for a rather more reasonable £175 or so on the second‑hand market.
- YAMAHA QX5FD
Yamaha have produced more than their fair share of hardware sequencers, although they seem not to be pursuing this market at the moment. But that leaves us with no end of QX‑prefixed machines, the most immediately useful of which must be the QX5FD. This was much more sophisticated than the host of cheaper QXs, and even offered facilities not found on the QX1 (which was originally much more expensive). In common with the MMT8 and MC500, the QX5FD allows you to record on all 16 MIDI channels at once, and all 16 channels could be bounced onto one sequencer track, if so desired; be aware, however, that the QX5FD allows a maximum of 32 notes to be played at a time. Yamaha's editing system — based around a collection of Jobs — is not quite as immediate as that available on Roland's MC series, but it's still perfectly logical. Similar features are still found on the sequencers of Yamaha's more up‑to‑date workstation synths, such as the SY85. FSK tape sync facilities are also featured on Yamaha's machine. Don't be tempted by an FD‑less QX5 — unless it's very cheap.
AND, AS ALWAYS...
Don't buy it if you haven't heard it! But do stay open to sounds and instruments that don't fit in with what's currently trendy. A willingness to use less obvious sound sources in your music could result in you creating the next TR909‑style vogue...
The Atari ST needs virtually no introduction to readers of SOS: in spite of rumours to the contrary, this computer is alive and well in music studios all over the world. Impoverished musicians can therefore make a second‑hand ST their choice as a sequencing platform, secure in the knowledge that there is still an abundance of excellent software available for musical purposes, and plenty of companies capable of servicing and upgrading your computer. Finding decent games for down times may be problematic, however! Although buying latest versions of ST music software from companies like Steinberg and Emagic can make a big hole in your budget, you may well find that your second‑hand bargain ST will come with older versions of software that will do what you need perfectly; if you're not content, then contact the distributor for details on trading your dongle up to the latest version. This will often be considerably cheaper than buying the new version outright. Alternatively, there is lots of cheaper and very good sequencing software available new (for example, Roni Music's Sweet 16, at around £50), and PD libraries offer adequate music software of all kinds for the price of a disk.
A few suggested setups to set you thinking about what you can get for your money!
SAMPLE SETUP 1: AROUND £500
- Casio CZ1000 — £150
- Cheetah MS6 — £150
- Alesis MMT8 — £100
- Roland TR626 — £100
Or you could just buy a Yamaha V50!
SAMPLE SETUP 2: AROUND £750
- Ensoniq ESQ1 — £325
- Casio CZ101 — £75
- Yamaha QX5FD — £175
- Yamaha RX5 — £200
This setup could come in at almost £200 cheaper if you decided you could manage with only the ESQ1's own on‑board sequencer, since you wouldn't then have to buy the QX5FD. This is eminently possible (someone we know used to produce albums using the ESQ1's sequencer). Bear in mind, though, that you would run out of sequence memory fairly soon, and would need to budget for some way of saving sequence data — unless you can cope with the decidedly low‑tech tape dump option!
SAMPLE SETUP 3: AROUND £1000
- Yamaha DX11 — £250
- Kawai K1R — £200
- Roland S330 — £350
- Roland MC500 — £200
- Korg MR16 — £100
This setup adds sampling, with the S330, and still gives you a nice range of modern synth sounds.
SAMPLE SETUP 4: AROUND £1500
- Ensoniq ESQ1 — £325
- Yamaha TX81Z — £150
- Cheetah MS6 — £150
- Roland S550 — £500
- Atari ST + software £250
- Kawai R50 — £100
SAMPLE SETUP 5: AROUND £1750
- Yamaha V50 — £450
- Ensoniq ESQM — £300
- Cheetah MS6 — £150
- Casio FZ10M — £600
- Yamaha RX5 — £200
Setups 4 and 5 give you everything: sampling, FM, analogue, sample + synthesis, even a drum machine — all for less than the cost of just one high‑level synth such as a Kurzweil K2000 or an Ensoniq TS10. Go and buy yourself a mixer with the change.