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electronic MUSICIAN

Review: Casio XW-G1 Synth/Sampler for Musicians and Djs

By Craig Anderton | August 14, 2013


 
Fig. 1. The XW-G1 may look a lot like Casio’s XW-P1, but offers features aimed more toward the groove/DJ/sampling crowd.
Remember the “synth vs. sampler” debate, when people eventually figured out they were different animals so they ended up using both? Apparently Casio came to the same conclusion, so they introduced the XW-P1 with multiple synth engines for hardcore synthesizer fans, and the XW-G1 for the more groove/DJ/sampling crowd. The surface similarities (see Figure 1) belie the significant internal differences.

I’ve become a major XW-P1 fan because it goes places other synths don’t. It’s quirky, brilliant, fun, surprisingly deep, and nothing else is quite like it . . . or comes in at that price. You may find the architecture or UI off-putting at first because it’s unique (a word I don’t use lightly), but once you wrap your head around “the Casio way of life,” it’s a blast. The G1 manual (downloadable at casiomusicgear.com) explains the synth in great detail; this review will concentrate more on summarizing the G1, and describing its particular gestalt.

Overview The G1 dispenses with the P1’s Hex Layer and Drawbar Organ engines, replacing them with a Sample Looper and a flash memory-based Sample Player with ten presets. Sampling/looping RAM allows 19 seconds of a mono signal at a 21kHz sampling rate; halve that for stereo or when using the 42kHz sampling rate. Files can then be transferred over to Flash ROM as user waves to free up the RAM buffer.

The P1’s assortment of PCM Melody and PCM Drum Tones, which you can think of as a sort of super General MIDI module with sounds ranging from adequate to outstanding, remains intact but more importantly, so does the Solo Synth and its “Minimoog thinking on steroids”—it’s a monster.

The highest level of operation, the Performance, stacks up to four sound engines (one Solo Synth, and the rest PCM Tones or user Waves).

However the G1 isn’t just about sounds and samples, but control. The Multikey feature, which allows using an octave of keys as trigger controllers for various functions, is quite cool. The 16-step step sequencer is similar to the P1’s, with a few key differences: nine tracks instead of 16, four controller tracks, and a couple additional ways to trigger it. The G1 also offers a 16-step arpeggiator and phrase sequencer. Don’t overlook these, particularly the Phrase Sequencer, which can serve as a scratchpad recorder of notes and/or controllers for catching inspirations and riffs, or on a more formal basis, provide “drop-in” sequences—for example, I made a cool little sample-and-hold controller phrase to drive the filter.

I also play guitar, and with the external input, I can use both hands while the phrase sequencer alters notes and other parameters. Notes? Yes, this external input (for mic, line, or instrument) has an oscillator block that provides realtime pitch transposition while you play keys. It’s lo-fi for sure, but that’s its charm, as you can transpose your way to some really wacky sounds.

Each zone can have its own arpeggiator and phrase; the step sequencer can be enabled/disabled for each zone. The sequencer is great for building up patterns, and with a little manual-reading time, easy to use. I can even do an approximation of my Ableton Live “fader-slamming” act by using the nine sliders to control mixer levels for the sequencer tracks, and of course, it’s ace for drum patterns.

Other control options include four assignable realtime control knobs, and the usual pitch bend and mod wheels. These controls take a little getting used to, as they’re fairly small and close together; but you can manipulate both simultaneously with ease.

Looping and Sampling The looper does what you’d expect, but more—like being able to re-sample sounds from within the G1, although you can also plug an instrument into the back and treat the looper like a standalone effect. It can also work with sampling. (I’ll describe that later.)

 
Fig. 2. The crossplatform editor is an invaluable addition to the keyboard, not just for programming but also for understanding its architecture. This shows a Performance’s parameters.
Sampling does some things well, some things superbly, and some things . . . not so well. Transposing a sample across the keyboard works great—transposition quality is good, and the G1 recognizes a sample’s loop. If you try to transpose way out of range, it will just repeat the top octave of the range so there’s no dead space on the keyboard.

Multisampling is non-standard; a G1 user wave tone has only one sample, so there are no conventional multisampling split points. Instead, you assemble up to five samples consecutively, one after another. Each “split” then specifies the start and end of each section within the sample; in other words, each split plays back a different portion of the sample. Each split can loop from an arbitrary point in the middle to the end, but for instrument sounds, you can’t specify the loop points with sufficient accuracy to do short (e.g., only a few cycles) loops. No sample editor that I’ve used can generate multiple loop points within a single sample that the G1 will recognize. If you want a multi-sampled cello, this is not the droid you’re looking for.

However if you have a sampled phrase like a piece of music, it’s a very different story. Defining different sections, mapping them to keys, and being able to loop them makes for some great breaks, DJ-style loop mashing, sound effects, stutters, and more. What’s more, the looper fits resampling like a glove—for example, it’s easy to record five consecutive step sequencer sequences, shuttle the wave into a tone, and the G1 automatically sets the split points and you can start playing immediately. The integration among all the G1 elements—looper, step sequencer, sampler, arpeggiator, etc.—is a major strength.

Computer Connection Casio’s G1 Editor/ Librarian (see Figure 2) is a stellar addition to the package. It’s well-crafted, and doesn’t have that tentative feel some custom editors do. It needs better documentation for sampling and user waves, but overall, does the job. It’s also the quickest way to understand the G1’s architecture and capabilities. The manual will fill you in on the details, but spend 30 minutes with the editor and you’ll have the big picture.

The G1 communicates MIDI (but not audio) over USB, but also has 5-pin DIN MIDI jacks so you can drive it with, for example, a controller with aftertouch (which the Casio synths lack, but recognize) or use the G1 as a four-zone master controller.

DSP Yes, you have effects—46 total for any of the tones, including the basics as well as combinations (compressor + wah, distortion + flanger, etc.). The Solo Synth only offers six effects, although Casio gets extra credit for making one of them a ring modulator. They’re reasonably good, but I suspect in the studio, most people will run the synth dry and use their favorite plug-ins.

Extras As mentioned earlier, this product is deep, and it has lots of extras. The Solo Synth can blend two oscillators, two PCM waveforms, the external input, and a noise generator; it also has 8x8 matrix modulation, and an overall filter to complement the ones for individual voices. The G1 can run off batteries, and the sliders provide a control surface for three banks of Solo Synth parameters. And the Step Sequencer is wonderful—there isn’t space to tell its full story, but it’s an important part of the synth.

Oh, and the G1 is really light and easy to carry around. No, the case isn’t all-metal, but Casio has some kind of mojo that makes these keyboards more rugged than they would seem at first.

Conclusions The G1 is just as much fun as the P1, and for groove fans, perhaps even more so. Stepping back, the thing that distinguishes Casio’s new synths is the fact that they are new synths. I know some keyboardists who have Rigs of the Gods but got themselves one of these puppies because, to quote one, “this is the most fun I’ve had with a synth in a long time.” Just remember to approach these synths the way they want to be approached; appreciate them for their unique characteristics, and you’ll have a blast. I sure am.

 
SUMMARY
STRENGTHS: Brings something new to the party. Costeffective. Solo Synth engine is extremely flexible. User sampling and looping. Excellent companion software, although front-panel editing is pretty transparent. Cool step sequencer. Solid realtime control.

LIMITATIONS: Sampling process is convoluted. Sample memory not expandable. Lacks the XW-P1’s Hex Layer and Drawbar Organ engines.

$799.99 MSRP, $599.99 street
casiomusicgear.com

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