Sophisticated instruments, such as keyboard workstations, can be wonderful, but sometimes you want to play an instrument that is simple, immediate, and

Sophisticated instruments, such as keyboard workstations, can be wonderful, but sometimes you want to play an instrument that is simple, immediate, and fun. When I first saw the Suzuki Q Chord QC-1, I thought I had found such an instrument. The inclusion of MIDI and a playback-only GM synth gave me high hopes that it would serve as an alternative controller. However, the more I played the Q Chord, the more I realized that while it might be a nice songwriting tool or performing instrument, it is not the controller of my dreams.

Although Suzuki calls the dark burgundy, pear-shaped Q Chord a "digital songcard guitar," it's more like an electronic Autoharp, complete with chord buttons and a Strumplate that lets you "strum" the chords. The "neck" has 36 rubber chord buttons that are laid out in three rows of 12. These trigger major, major 7, minor, minor 7, augmented, and dominant chords in all 12 keys but also have other functions. The front panel presents a 5-inch speaker with bass porting, a volume dial, and numerous plastic buttons for selecting modes of operation. The pitch-bend wheel is located on the upper right side of the instrument.

On the side of the unit are MIDI In and Out ports, a 11/44-inch audio output that doubles as a headphone jack, and an AC adapter jack. A Q-card cartridge port at the end of the neck allows you to play along with popular song sequences and rhythm patterns. Underneath is a compartment for eight C cells. Among the numerous optional accessories are an AC adapter ($12.50), a DC car adapter ($12.50), a strap ($19.95), and a case ($24.95).

STRUMMIN'The main draw of the Q Chord was the Strumplate, which spans four octaves and is played by stroking with the tip of the fingers. You can tap as well, but the response is poor: even the response to slow taps can be uneven unless you hit the small sweet spot.

The Strumplate triggers the chord tones using one of ten sounds selected from the front panel: Guitar, Piano, Strings, Vibes, Organ, Voice, Flute, Harp, Synth, and Sound FX sounds. If these sounds won't do the job for you, you can select from 100 other GM sounds using the Strumplate Select button and the Q Card Control window or MIDI Program Changes. You can also control relative volume and sustain.

THE SECTIONSThe Q Chord is clearly intended to be a "home" instrument, not a professional-caliber musical instrument. The focus is on playing along with chord, bass, drum auto-accompaniment, and melodic fill. Q Chord sections control rhythm, Strumplate voices, effects (vibrato and reverb), Chord mode, EZ Play (for quick auditioning of sounds), and Q-card. Except for the drums, unfortunately, each of the accompaniment sections can be switched off individually.

Chord mode has six buttons that let you set up your accompaniment. Auto Chord provides basic comping, Chord Hold sustains the chord, Chord Plus adds incidental auto-accompaniment parts, Manual Chord triggers a consistent chord without any other audible accompaniment (some accompaniment MIDI data is still sent), and Bass Control adds the appropriate patch and bass line. You can use various combinations to create a mix.

The Melody Keyboard feature in Chord mode lets you perform single notes with the chord buttons. The notes are identified using a plastic "keyboard" overlay on the lower two rows. In this mode, the top row of buttons provides Transposition (in semitones), Tuning, MIDI Ex (which lets you play the internal voices from an external controller), Octave, and Voice Ex (for selecting additional onboard GM voices).

There are ten onboard rhythm-section styles: bossa nova, country, jazz, dance, new age, march, waltz, ballad, rock, and blues shuffle. Most of them groove reasonably, despite the expected "cheese" factor. However, the new age rhythm is more akin to Latin, the ballad works better up-tempo, and blues shuffle is preferable at a slower tempo.

You can alter the tempo (from approximately 62 to 240 bpm) and control the relative volume of the rhythm track. You can trigger a 4-bar intro or ending, and a 1-bar or shorter fill that ends on the downbeat of the next bar regardless of where you start.

In addition to its onboard accompaniment features, the Q Chord lets you play along with popular tunes in the form of GM Standard MIDI Files on Suzuki's proprietary Q-cards ($19.95 each). As of this writing, there are at least nine cartridges and companion books, including Rhythm Styles (30 generic styles, including salsa, reggae, rap, folk, and R&B) and collections of Beatles, pop, country, religious, and children's songs. That's not a bad starting selection for a home sing-along. You can't create your own cards or load MIDI files via the MIDI input, though, so you can't take advantage of third-party song sequences.

MINOR DISCHORDPlaying the Q Chord is uncomfortable no matter how you hold it. If you lay it flat on its back (it has rubber feet) and play the Strumplate right-handed, the pitch wheel's location is very inconvenient, but you can reach the chord buttons with your left hand. This is the playing position shown in the manual. However, the chord buttons seem oriented toward being played upside down, as if holding a guitar neck. After all, this is a "digital songcard guitar."

Indeed, if you hold the instrument like a guitar (rested on your knee or with the optional strap), you can fairly easily strum and reach the pitch wheel with your right pinkie finger. The chord buttons are oriented correctly for left-handed playing. But an intrusive plastic "horn" and narrow "cutaway" (obviously intended to make the Q Chord appear guitarlike) prevent you from comfortably playing the chord buttons with your left hand. Laying the unit flat seems to be the better of two poor choices.

MIDI OVERBOARDThe Q Chord receives and transmits MIDI in Omni mode only. It transmits its various parts on 12 separate channels. For instance, the Melody Keyboard is on channel 1, Chord Plus on channels 3 and 4, and the Strumplate on channels 14, 15, and 16.

As noted previously, most Q Chord sections can be turned off, but not drums-so MIDI data is constantly output on channel 10. Strangely, the Q Chord regularly sends MSB, LSB, and Pitch Bend value 64 (the middle, "neutral" position on a pitch wheel) messages on all accompaniment channels, even those that are supposed to be turned off. Presumably this data is intended to reset synth voices on all channels, but when a part is off, it ought to send no data.

To top that off, when you change chords with the buttons, the Q Chord sends unexpected Pitch Bend messages in order to shift sustaining Strumplate notes to the proper pitch. (Remember, the Strumplate triggers chord tones determined by the buttons.) These Pitch Bend messages can make a non-GM synth sound drastically out of tune. Add the three channels for Strumplate output, and you have enough extraneous data to annoy the average sequencer jockey.

I connected the Strumplate with several GM-compatible modules (an EVS, Yamaha MU5, and Korg NS5R GM set) and found that the auto-accompaniment and Strumplate triggered the GM modules correctly. But using it with a GM sound bank in my K2000 resulted in very off-pitch notes. In addition, the tails of ringing notes were often truncated on playback, even with GM modules.

With some effort, you can sequence Strumplate parts, even in odd meters. To sequence the Strumplate on its own, I had to turn down the drum part (turning down the Rhythm volume on the Q Chord sends CC 7 messages to the GM module) so I didn't have to listen to it. But I was still forced to remove the superfluous drum, Pitch Bend, and other data recorded to the sequencer.

THE LOST CHORDThe Q Chord is a deeper product than I initially thought. It's fun when used as a stand-alone instrument, seems well built, and sounds good as low-end home instruments go. In conjunction with a GM module, it makes a viable songwriting tool for basic sketches.

However, the odd selection of MIDI data it sends, the fact that you can't disable the drums, and the ergonomic problems convinced me that the Q Chord is not the MIDI controller I had hoped for. Basically, it's a nice home-entertainment instrument with limited MIDI features.

Jeff Obee is a San Francisco Bay Area-based composer and producer who plays the synthesizer and fretless bass.