Laboratory Tests of the Casio XW-P1
Laboratory Tests of the Casio XW-P1
by Carvin Knowles
Back in the 1980s, Casio released a true synthesizer, the CZ1000, along with a few other members of the CZ series. They were positioned as entry-level synths, but they were so good that they showed up in the A-Frame keyboard stands of many a major act. Then came FM synthesis and the sampling revolution and the Casio synthesizer disappeared. Until about a year ago.
The XW-P1 (and it's sister-synth the XW-G1) is Casio's first new synthesizer in nearly 30 years. Released in the last quarter of 2012, I waited impatiently to get my hands on one, so when the opportunity arrived while I was in the middle of production of music projects for a film, I grabbed the opportunity without hesitation. What better way to test the new machine than to plug it in and put it to work on a real project or two?
The XW series several "modes" that include Solo Synth, where it functions as an analog-like monophonic synthesizer, Hex-Layer, which lets you build complex layered sounds from General MIDI tones, and a Drawbar Organ mode which allows you to uses set of sliders on the front panel of the keyboard as organ drawbars. After that are the usual PCM presets for Pianos, Strings/Brass, Guitar/Bass, Synth and "Various." I would need to test each section and look for strength and weakness.
My first test for the XW-P1 was simple. I would add a little organ to a track that was near completion. I switched it into Drawbar Organ mode and in no time had arranged the "drawbars" to get the sound I wanted. It was ridiculously fast. Much faster than scrolling through organ presets. The sound was very good. Almost, but not quite as good as a "clonewheel" organ sound, but for the price, it was a great substitute. In the mix of the track, it sounded huge.
Then it was time to give it a real test. My Los Angeles-based music supervisor gave me a brief for a "feel-good party song at 128 bpm." They preferred a House beat. I had already scheduled the singer. so I decided to take a risk and use the XW-P1 for every sound on the track.
First, I began building the drum track. The drum kits on the XW are quite modern, pretty good and have almost every sound you could need. The only omissions are the 808 Kick Drum and the 909 Snare Drum. If you really wanted those, I suppose you could sample them into the XW, but I was working on a 48-hour deadline, so I just found other snares and kicks that worked. In a couple hours time, I had a house drum track that sound very current. The limitations of the unit shaped the track into something fresh.
Using it as a module was remarkably easy. The Electric Piano sounds are classic Casio, and something they have done extremely well for several years. For the bass track, I used a combination of Synth Bass and GM Slap Bass 2. That slap bass, in particular may be the best I’ve ever used (and I’ve used ones from most of the major players). It has a snappy quality like the bass used on Basement Jaxx recordings. For the “Hoover” sound, I dug up something from the Solo Synth patches. I also used the same patch in the “Baritone” layer, just above the bass sounds, for that rhythmic dance-track sound, as if someone is using a light-sabre as an instrument. It’s quite grimey and gives the whole track a bit of edge. Then another layer just for extra sparkle, a patch called "Bellscatter."
Finally I needed to add some arpeggio to the track. Instead of triggering it via MIDI, I simply played the chords on the keyboard and let the arpeggiator run, recording the whole thing in a single take. It was incredibly easy and fun. By the time my singer arrived, I had a complete track that sounded as good as anything I had done with more expensive equipment.
With that second test complete, it was time to test how it works as a real synthesizer, creating sounds from scratch. In this case, I was writing to a brief that called for a "funky house track at 128 bpm." It would appear that 128 is the "in" tempo this season.
After putting together a drum track (using the same basic kit I used on the song), I started dialling up a sound for the bass. The “Edit” menu in the “Solo Synth” mode took me through a couple of hierarchical screens to get to the oscillators. After a few moments of scrolling past wave-forms labelled JP and MG and OB, I found what I was looking for: a square-wave labelled CZ from that old CZ-1000 of legend. After choosing a CZ square wave, I made short work of the filters and envelopes. Programming a patch was a little like the old Roland Junos of the 1980s.
I didn’t even bother saving it (although saving a tone is very simple). My goal was to treat it like an Analog synth, not just for programmability, but for expression too. On the “Solo Synth” section of the keyboard, the four control knobs on the upper left are dedicated to the controls you’ll find on most analog synths. The very first one is the cutoff knob, so I played the bass with my right hand manipulated the cutoff with my left, getting a “wah-wah” sound, just as I would on my old MicroMoog. The first recording of the bass part was perfect, but I was having so much fun, I did it twice more (just to be sure).
Programming in Solo Synth mode was pretty straightforward, but the big mystery on the XW series is the “Hex Layer.” The name is the main clue: you can layer six different tones, many from General MIDI, but with a respectable number of original sounds and waves from vintage synths (including, again, the old CZ series). Each tone has it’s own amp envelope, so for pads each of the different parts of the Hex can crossfade and evolve as each note is held. The expressive possibilities are impressive. But to make things even more interesting, each tone’s volume is assigned to the first six sliders (the same ones that function as organ drawbars). The entire Hex Layer can be routed through DSP effects. I set up an array of pad sounds, from synth pads to strings to “birds” from the GM sound fx patches, then routed the whole thing through the DSP effect “Lo-Fi.” The result was rich and mellow. I wrote the pad chords as MIDI data and as I recorded them, I faded different layers in and out using the sliders.
Next, it was time for the “House Organ.” In House music, the organ part is usually pretty simple, so I wrote two chord stabs which land on the “4” of alternating measures. It’s not advanced music theory. House never was. But the sound of that organ is what makes the House vibe work. I let that simple sequence run while I used the drawbars to dial up an organ sound that was right. 10 minutes later, I recorded it with no drama.
Having built the main parts from scratch and used the front-panel controllers for expression as needed, I repeated the process a few more times. I wrote MIDI data with the “cutoff” knob to get a filter sweep across a rhythmically repeated chord. I used the LFO across another CZ wave to create bleeps and glitches. Finally, I added the Arpeggiator. In the recording session I used Arpeggios everywhere. I had to edit out nearly half of it for the final mix, but playing it was too much fun for me to care.
As with the song, I was able to create an entire track in less than 48 hours, using only sounds from the XW.
Throwing the XW into a hard-working production situation also revealed a few of its weaknesses, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention them. The most noticeable thing is that all the organ patches, and the Drawbar Organ mode itself, uses velocity information. This can be switched off, but it would be more convenient if I didn't have to think about it. I probably only wasted 5 minutes dealing with that, but it is something to be aware of. Other flaws were even smaller and less annoying. I have already mentioned the omission of 808 and 909 sounds from its drum kits. After a while, I didn't notice them. The drums are current enough for it not to matter. And if I wanted to be nit-picky, the hierarchical menus for programming Solo Synth patches could be simpler. But beyond that, it's a great little synth. And for the price, it blows away anything else in its league.
In summary, after nearly 30 years, Casio has a synthesizer to be proud of. Like the old CZ-1000, it is priced as an entry-level synth. And like the CZ-1000, the XW-P1 is so much more than that.
Carvin Knowles has recorded music for over 25 feature films and has produced more than 7 albums.
These tracks he produced using the XW-P1