The Strange History of Casio’s '80s Pro Line

In 1984, Casio had a sizable hit with the CZ-101, the calculator giant’s first foray into pro-level instruments. But by the end of the decade they had all but abandoned their pro line. What happened? How did they go from boom to bust in such a short time? This is the strange and fascinating story of Casio’s ill-fated 1980s pro line.

The CZ Line: A Challenge to The DX7

Before 1984, Casio was known primarily for three things: calculators, watches, and cheap toy-like keyboards. Sure, the company had a surprise hit with the VL-1 in 1981, which combined two of Casio’s strengths—calculator and keyboard—into one.

With its bleepy sound and cheesy rhythm settings, it broke through into popular consciousness thanks to pop tracks like "Da Da Da" by Trio. Despite its popularity, though, it could never be considered a professional-grade musical instrument.

Behind the scenes, Casio was working on something that was definitely pro. Teaming up with synthesis titan Isao Tomita, Casio developed the Cosmo Synthesizer—a workstation-style digital synthesizer with a computer, MIDI keyboard controller, sampler, and a bank of rackmount digital synths. Tomita debuted the new technology at a concert in Linz, Austria in 1984 and in subsequent performances. The technology developed for the Cosmo Synthesizer would eventually find its way into a number of Casio releases throughout the 1980s.

The first to make it to market was the CZ-101 in late 1984. It didn’t look like much. We’re used to small synthesizers now, but at the time, when big beasts were the order of the day, it was particularly miniscule. It even had mini keys like other Casio keyboards. The sound, however, was anything but chintzy.

An example of the analog-like tones that the Casio CZ-101 is capable of.

Employing a proprietary digital synthesis called phase distortion (or PD) the CZ-101 could do DX-like percussion as well as subtractive analog-style basses and leads. There were four voices of polyphony (eight in mono mode), two digital oscillators with a variety of waveforms, two eight-stage envelope generators (complex for the time), and even multitimbrality.

The kicker was that you could get all this polyphonic power for around $500—half the price of the Korg Poly-800, which was heralded as a breakthrough when it beat the $1000 price barrier in 1983.

Unsurprisingly, the CZ-101 was a hit. It moved around 70,000 units, which was a home run by anyone’s calculations. For many musicians, the CZ-101 was their first synth. In fact, its organ patch became ubiquitous in the rave music released in the early 1990s by the same people that first got 101s in high school. It was championed by big names as well, including Vince Clarke of Erasure, who had an entire rack of them at one point.

Knowing they had a hit on their hands, Casio soon expanded the CZ line to grab professional players turned off by the mini keys. The first out was the CZ-1000 (also 1984), which is a 101 with a full-size keyboard and DX-like membrane buttons. It sold another 45,000 units.

Other releases followed in 1985, including the CZ-3000, which doubled the polyphony to eight, expanded the keyboard to 61 keys, and added chorus and a mod wheel. The CZ-5000 included an eight-track sequencer, making it one of the world’s first workstations. Finally, the CZ-1 appeared in 1986. It dropped the sequencer but added velocity and aftertouch, plus provided three different playing modes.

The RZ-1: Casio’s Dedicated Drum Machine

Along with the three big CZ units previously mentioned, 1986 also saw the release of the RZ-1, Casio’s sampling drum machine. Although not completely ubiquitous yet, in 1986 sampling was starting to filter down from the Fairlights and Synclaviers of the rock star world to the general music-making public. Casio had even released a consumer-grade sampler, the SK-1, the year before.

The eight-bit RZ-1 featured 12 factory PCM drum sounds reportedly recorded by Yukihiro Takahashi of Yellow Magic Orchestra, like kick, snare, and hi hats. But it was the four available sampling slots that made this machine relatively unique in 1986—and for the price, unbelievable.

Despite its technical limitations and low bit-rate and sampling frequency, a number of hip-hop producers made history with the RZ-1, including Price Paul, who did De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising album with it. The RZ-1 made it onto some house tracks too, like Steve Poindexter’s raw, "Work That Mother Fucker."

The RZ-1 was not a runaway success, however. Although prized for its lo-fi sound now, at the time it was seen as second-tier to other sampling beat machines like Korg’s DDD-1. As Price Paul said, "It's like a Dollar Tree SP-12... not quite the name brand but still gets the job done."

The HT/HZ Line: A Quick Detour

After striking gold with the CZ series, Casio made the surprising decision to release a line of subtractive synthesizers in 1987—this, despite the fact that the days of analog-style synthesis were clearly coming to an end and digital was on the rise.

This was the HT/HZ line, and it included a number of unique yet flawed instruments, such as the HT-3000 (and the Japan-only HT-3500 version), HT-6000, and the HZ-600 which was billed as the professional model.

Although these were all polyphonic synthesizers complete with analog filters, they had rather strange digital oscillators. They made use of what Casio called SD, or spectrum dynamic synthesis. While using the traditional triangle, sawtooth, and square waves, as well as pulses and wave combination, they were fixed rather than free-running and often changed over time.

An overview of the unusual Casio HT-6000.

Despite their potential for providing a new form of analog synthesis, Casio largely shunted them into the consumer market, adding auto accompaniment and onboard speakers. While the HZ-600 did look a bit more pro, it was oddly far less powerful than the consumer-aimed HT-6000, which had a surprising four oscillators plus filter per voice (compared to the single DCO on the other models). On a whole, the line did not sell well, and Casio decided to not continue it.

The FZ Line: Sampled Frequencies

Until this point, although Casio had been releasing pro instruments, it had still been following its usual consumer strategy of keeping costs low. Even the CZ-5000, with its full size keyboard and pro-grade features, used regular store-bought batteries for memory retention rather than one soldered to the PCB. This was about to change.

For the new FZ series, Casio again looked at sampling. They had been working on a sampler called ZZ-1 since the Cosmo Synthesizer days, and while it allegedly offered some unique features, its low memory and limited four-note polyphony, coupled with a high price tag, ensured that it never made it past the R&D stage. Determined to create a competitive sampler, Casio had their ZZ-1 team get back to work. The result was 1987’s FZ-1.

With eight notes of polyphony and a full, 61-note keyboard, the FZ-1 had the makings of a solid instrument. It looked the part too, with its black, metal chassis and large, backlit graphical display. No one would ever confuse this with a home keyboard—it looked the business. It was 16-bit (Japan’s first), with a selectable, variable sampling rate of nine to 36kHz. It had all the usual sampling functions, including looping and truncating, made all the easier with the graphical display. It even had additive and waveform drawing synthesis types.

Where the FZ excelled (and what makes it something of a prize still to this day) was its sound. Sure, it was 16-bit, but it was the onboard switched-capacitor-type filter that really set it apart from other samplers. It had a distinct squelch that didn’t sound like anything else. Because of this, it and its rackmount version, the FZ-10M, were popular with techno and other electronic acts like LFO (it’s all over the Frequencies album) and Aphex Twin.

The VZ Line: Digital Supercharge

First released in 1988, the 16-voice VZ-1 was a thoroughly professional-looking instrument. Gone were the unusual buttons and mid-'80s colors. Here was a sleek, all-black machine that sat comfortably next to Roland instruments like the D-50 and S-50 on music store shelves. It was also a professional-playing instrument, with 61 full-size velocity and aftertouch-equipped keys and three (yes, three!) mod wheels: one for pitch bend and two assignable for modulation.

Rather than build on what it had already developed, Casio chose to use a new form of synthesis that they called iPD, or Interactive Phase Distortion. While both were digital, it was iPD that was closer in feel to Yamaha’s FM synthesis.

Gamelan and other sounds programmed on the Casio VZ-1.

iPD also upped the ante by organizing its oscillators and VCAs into eight modules arranged in four pairs, which could affect each other with ring modulation or phase modulation. Combine this with multiple modes and you could get some pretty big sounding patches going. However, it wasn’t capable of emulating warm and filtered sounds like the CZ line—something that may have turned off people enamored with the CZ sound.

Unfortunately for Casio, the age of FM was already coming to a close when the VZ-1 and its rackmount brothers, VZ-10M and the cutdown VZ-8M, were released. Sample synthesis, kicked off by the D-50 and now fully underway thanks to Korg’s monster hit M1, was all the rage. The lack of sequencer and effects—both hallmarks of the now common workstation—were also a drawback.

Finally, although the VZ-1 had a powerful and robust synth engine, it was reportedly difficult to get good sounds out of it, the ease of which helped make the CZ synths popular.

The End Of The (Pro) Line

After the failure of the VZ line, Casio seemed to give up on its pro ambitions, at least until the new millennium. Why leave the professional market?

Some sources indicate that Casio was never happy with the numbers it was moving. Even when the CZ-101 and 1000 shipped a combined 115,000 machines—numbers that would have made Moog (which sold only 13,000 original Minimoogs) jump for joy—they were paltry compared to home keyboard numbers. For example, the SK-1 sold a reported million units.

Casio CZ-101 is used a lot in Balkan music.

As we’ve seen, Casio also unfortunately has a history of starting new lines and then abandoning them. BatteryCoverMissing, an expert on Casio, explained it like this: "Each new project seems instigated by different engineers, resulting in one-off products with new synthesis methods, which are soon dropped from the market before before any community can form to help maintain a supply of spare parts, write better editing software, or create educational materials on how to use them. The synthesis technique is gone before anyone has a chance to master it.

"That is probably the sad part of the story," he lamented. "There was a lot of potential, but there was no incentive to consolidate those ideas into an integrated and successful package, which contrasts greatly with the pianos that they were making in similarly low volumes but continued to nurture until the products matured. This becomes especially frustrating for those who, out of economic necessity, learned to program and compose music with those unique sounds because there is no continued support. On the other hand, it does attract people who are looking for a unique challenge or a sound to set themselves apart."

Special thanks to BatteryCoverMissing for the assistance with this article.

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