Casio XW-P1

June 14, 2012
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WHAT IT ISN’T: AN ANALOG MODELING SYNTH, THOUGH IT PROCESSES sampled analog waves (and plenty of digital waves, too) through a well-rendered DSP simulation of analog filters. It isn’t a workstation, though it has intriguingly powerful multiple sequencers, one of which can even control external sound sources. It isn’t an arranger, though it can trigger sequences and arpeggios from keystrokes the way an arranger can.

What it is: a highly impressive, versatile, powerful, fun instrument that can work itself into all kids of gigs. The XW-P1 has plenty of raw materials to fill a weekend warrior’s needs, whether those weekends are spent in bars, clubs, hotel lobbies, art and wine festivals, or churches. Minus the six D batteries you’ll need if you don’t use the included AC adapter, the XW-P1 is just a little heavier than your guitar player’s favorite Les Paul. A non-skid pad at the right end is ready to hold your iOS device. In our tests, cell phone proximity induced no noise in the synth’s output.

Sound

Pure electronic sounds—analog and digital—are the XW-P1’s first foot forward. Warmth isn’t lacking. In fact, there’s so much energy in the low mids that I wondered whether Casio applied a fixed EQ curve at the output stage. Whatever the case, boatloads of synth waves are available. You see “CZ” a lot as you scroll through them, and fair enough—Casio’s vintage CZ synths are only now being properly appreciated. “MG” and “JP” waves announce their origins loud and clear as well. They run through nine-stage volume and filter envelopes, which can be clock-triggered in addition to note-triggered. The samples are short-ish, and some of them loop awkwardly in the top octaves. Others alias quite obviously when you use the pitch-bender. Now, the success of Casio’s Privia stage pianos proves that they can capture high-quality wave data and assemble it into musically accurate sounds, so these anomalies must have been included intentionally. Lo-fi samplers like the Ensoniq Mirage and Casio’s own SK series trade briskly online today, so perhaps Casio is after some of that mojo. The fact that preset 0-0, “XW SoloSynth,” whistles and whines like there’s no tomorrow proves they’ve embraced “rude.” The dark side of rude? Sweeping parameters with the four knobs often reveals audible stepping; no smooth filter sweeps.

Hex Layer mode, as its name indicates, lets you layer up to six sounds. These have to be from the PCM bucket; the Solo Synth or Drawbar Organ modes are off limits. But you can still get plenty fat, and—somewhat shockingly on a modern synth—even overload the output bus if you want: Push all six layers to the max using the realtime mixing sliders, and call yourself Cap’n Crunch. Bug or feature? Who cares? I like it.

Here’s a gonzo feature I’ve not seen on any other keyboard lately: the ability to run everything through the same resonant lowpass filter and DSP effects at once. Yup—drums, arpeggiated or sequenced riffs, the sound you’re playing live, everything. In Performance mode, the mixer screen shows the option “mixer all.” Pick this, and the DSP effects applied will be those active on the current Solo Synth sound—plus that sound’s filter settings. This is great for DJ- or remixer-style mangling of the entire mix.

Samples of acoustic and electric (non-synth) instruments abound as well, and they’re very good. For gigging or composing, the acoustic and electric pianos are far more than good enough. Drums, basses, guitars, accordions, winds, brass, strings—name it, it’s here, and it won’t give you General MIDI-itis.

A word about the DSP eff ects would have to mention the four-band parametric EQ, swimmy chorus, aggressive flanger and trippy phaser, serviceable reverbs (they sound a little metallic and less diff use than I’d like, but they’ll do), distortion from subtle to ravening, and Edge-from-U2- worthy delays. They don’t match Motif/Fantom/ PC3 quality, but then, they live in a keyboard that streets for $499.

Quarter-inch mic and instrument jacks appear alongside a stereo mini jack. Any of these— one at a time—can be routed through the XWP1’ s filter and effects. You can even trigger the filter envelope with the audio input.

Drawbar Organ

Clonewheel sound and functionality is much improved over the last Casio we tested that had it, the WK-7500 (reviewed June ’11). The XW-P1 offers all eight volume levels per drawbar as opposed to the WK’s three, and they update in real time. There’s also a more realistic simu-Leslie with tonally improved (but still overcrisped) distortion. Convincing vibrato/chorus is still missing, but if you’re not a B-3 tone obsessive, this organ is good. Using it onstage wasn’t quite one of those “Yesss!” moments, but I was humbled by how well it held up in the mix. It’d be nice to be able to put custom drawbar sounds with rotary effects into a Hex Layer, but there is a workaround: Choose an organ wave from among the presets for your Hex Layer. You can easily get that icy Pink Floyd organ layered with whatever you like.

Arpeggiator and Sequencers

Yes, as in plural, and we’ll start with the arpeggiator. A hundred preset arpeggio patterns and another hundred locations for user arpeggios nullify any objections about variety. Step-type arpeggios can contain up to 16 steps, and can be set to start from the lowest note played, highest note played, or they can play with up to five-note polyphony. You define notes in the pattern by how many semitones they are away from the note you play on the keyboard, and each step’s velocity can be specified. You can also specify the “step size” or note value: quarter, eighth, eighthnote triplet, sixteenth, sixteenth-note triplet, and 32nd. Further, you decide the length of the note sounded within each step, from 100 percent of the note value to 50 percent.

The Step Edit screen is pretty painless, but here’s a place where you’re aware you’re working with a $500 keyboard rather than a $2,000 one: There’s no graphic of what’s going on, just a list, so you’ll need to know the tonal center of your riff and how many semitones away each step should be. That, or use the eight sliders to edit step values directly; a button toggles them between steps 1-8 and 9-16. You can turn the steps themselves on or off using the 16 buttons above the nine sliders. Lit buttons indicate active steps. Arpeggios can hold upon key-up or start and stop (and sync) with the Step Sequencer (more on that in a bit). Overall, it’s not totally unlike working with a vintage groovebox or analog sequencer.

Then there’s the Phrase Sequencer, which the manual calls a scratch pad but is usable in lots of other ways. It records input from the pedal, wheels, and knobs in addition to keystrokes, and can do so in multiple passes in overdub mode. Again, 100 preset phrases and 100 user phrases of up to 1,600 notes each offer you lots of variety. Odd meters are supported; wildly, whether you’re an electro-pop disciple, a Dave Brubeck fan, or a prog monster, the XW-P1’s Phrase Sequencer will accommodate you.

Wait—there’s more! The Step Sequencer uses the scheme Roland more or less invented for the TR-808. You get nine tracks for instruments and four for recording MIDI controller moves; you can apply each control track to your instrument track of choice, and steps can play melodic notes as well as drum hits. You can also choose the MIDI out per track: USB, five-pin, or both. Anyone making electronic dance music doesn’t need me to tell them that messing around with this is just as fun as it is on a TR-808, and our resident EDM expert Francis Prève agreed: “Used in conjunction with the drum grooves, the Step Sequencer delivered really cool results right off the bat.”

The Step and Phrase sequencers can run together, and although they’re clock-locked, they’re not necessarily beat-locked, meaning you can trigger a phrase from the front-panel button or a keystroke while the Step Sequencer is playing, whether it’s “in time” or not.

In Use

A weekend worship gig brought the XW-P1 into a rig that includes a Roland RD700-GX, a Korg BX-3 organ, a MicroKorg, sometimes Logic/ MainStage, and sometimes Reason. The XW-P1 did not embarrass itself in the company of all these other instruments.

I needed a mono lead with a ghosted, overdriven pad behind it and a tempo-synced delay. Hex Layer mode let me nail it, and the Tap Tempo button let me match the drummer’s count-off. Another tune wanted a warm pad, and rather than going to my usual on the RD- 700, I Hex-Layered an impressively fat analog pad with Prophet-like character, a couple of detuned sawtooth patches mixed really low, something that was surely Fairlight’s “ARR” sample, and a PWM sound low in the mix that animated against the two detuned saw sounds. It was flat-out gorgeous.

It’s funny—the slight opacity of the interface (compared to workstations at four times the price or more) made experimentation more fun for me, and reminded me of the hours I once happily burned peering into the displays of my Ensoniq ESQ-1 and Roland W-30.

Working with the preset drum kits and patterns, electronica producer Francis Prève was able to quickly customize a groove by turning steps on and off and nudging the sliders, which changed the drum sample assigned to the various steps. Moving the master slider changed all of the drums simultaneously. “For grooves with a world or tribal flavor, the Step Sequencer delivers instant inspiration,” he observed. “For synth riffs, there’s a bit of a learning curve, but you’ll get results you wouldn’t get using standard sequencing techniques.”

Conclusions

The XW-P1 is a provocateur that offers a compelling argument for spending less. Casio says they had the Korg PS60 (reviewed Oct. ’10) in their sights. I get it—Hex Layer mode in particular is similarly useful. But the PS60 doesn’t have multiple sequencers, a true drawbar organ mode, or audio inputs. This seems like Casio’s first salvo in a new assault on pro keyboard territory. If this is any indication of where they’re headed, look out. The XW-P1 is a clear Key Buy for its excellent sound, solid arpeggiator and sequencers, delightfully insane ancillary features, light physical weight, and low price.

Snap Judgment

PROS Very good synth and acoustic sounds. Flexible and capable arpeggiator and sequencers. Does pretty and ugly equally well. MIDI over USB and 5-pin MIDI can be addressed separately. Lightweight and inexpensive.

CONS Display is Casio’s best in a while but still limited. Aliasing and grunge on some synth sounds won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Bottom Line

The price of entry into serious standalone pro keyboards hits a new all-time low.

$699.99 list | $499.99 street
casiomusicgear.com

Key Info

POLYPHONY 64 voices.

SYNTH TYPES Monophonic analog-style solo synth, 400 PCM-based polyphonic sounds, drawbar organ mode. “Hex Layers” can consist of up to six PCM sounds.

SEQUENCING Phrase sequencer, 13-track Step Sequencer, and polyphonic arpeggiator.

WEIGHT 11.9 lbs.

Software Editor

We got an early look at Casio Data Manager 6 while it was still in beta. It looks to be a great resource for programming and shuttling data between XW and computer. I’d have been happier to be able to edit sequences in addition to the synth parameters shown here, but no dice—yet.

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