Sunday, 9 March 2014

New keyboard!

Well, the word "new" is relative...this little bugger is really old, but it's new to me! Picked up for fiver in a local car boot sale with a ropy box and a manual, this was quite a surprise to find. It's a Casio PT-30, described even at the time as a very budget-level digital keyboard, and is an offspring of the original Casio PT-1 (as featured on German one-hit wonder Trio's Da-Da-Da), albeit it with some new and improved features.

Listen along to Trio as we dive deeper to this little box of tricks (the PT-1 can also be seen in the video)

A quick look around the back reveals that the keyboard can be powered from a DC centre-negative power supply of 7.5V or with 5 AA batteries. I understand the design decision of powering the keyboard using relatively cheap double-A batteries, but using 5 means that this is really awkward when you use two 4 packs of batteries to power the damn thing.

Luckily, a standard quarter inch mono output means at least I can plug it into my mixer - or more likely my Mini KP2. Lastly, there's a separate little compartment for some kind of optional I/O cartridge for external storage - probably something quite advanced for its time.

The keyboard itself comes with a 31 key keyboard, giving you 2.5 octaves to play with, though the octaves themselves are fixed. The sounds are all digital samples, without any kind of envelope to trigger, so of course the keyboard is not velocity sensitive and as you can only trigger one sound at once this is a monophonic digital piano. The PT-30 comes with the following "killer" sounds:

Piano (not enough attack to sound very like a piano, but whatever)
Harpsichord (a thin saw-like sound)
Organ (thick sound with tremelo, like stacking violin and horn together)
Violin (thin saw-like sound with tremelo)
Flute (a triangle-like sound)
Horn (a half/half saw-like sound)
Fantasy / Mellow (very nice dreamy leads with tremelo)

The sounds all start at around C3 and some sound very similar to each other. I expect that the machine was designed for kids to try and learn how to do lead lines for classical or pop music, so don't expect to do much more - although I have been doing Van Halen Hammer-offs on it quick successfully. More usefully, there is the option to transpose keys either +3 or -7, so you can play around with the limited keyboard if you wish.

Speaking of sounds, the keyboard has separate sliders for Main Keyboard, Chords and Rhythm (drums), so you can adjust these to suit. However, either time has been a cruel mistress or the manufacturing was cheap (I suspect a combination of both) and the sliders are very crackly and at higher volumes there's an audible chatter of noise. Either way, I can always boost the signal later in the chain, so having to keep the sound down is not such a big deal.

More interestingly, there's a separate little keyboard on the left hand side that plays sampled major chords (sadly no choice of samples). These are quite deep and nice to hear, plus if you hold one of the other buttons underneath, you can chose to use the keyboard to play minor chords, diminished chords, 7ths as well as sus4, min6ths, 6ths, major and minor 7ths. It's really quite complicated and I have it in mind to sample these as they would go well in a kind of retro-rave track.

These chords also change the melody of the available drum patterns, which are typical for a budget keyboard (read: crap). You've got your boring rock, disco, waltz, swing and samba beats, plus arpeggios and other bits and pieces: good for practice but not really useable for anything else.

However, it's when you add some effects later in the chain that this synth starts to sound a bit better. In fact, I think that any lead sound sounds better with a bit of reverb or delay, and the Mini KP2's phaser delay effect in particular gives a bit of life and energy back to this old little unit, rather than sounding bland.

So, not a bad little unit, as long as you know what to do with it and add effects, plus I have plans to clean it up properly and see what else I can do with it, as there are options for playback on board as well. Fingers crossed I can find something as good at a car boot sale soon!