Arranger keyboards are something of a known quantity these days. All serve up a buffet of sounds, “one-person band” accompaniments that follow your chord changes, the ability to record your performance, and bells and whistles such as auto-harmony. Powerfully musical in experienced hands? Yes. Cool, easy-play factor for beginners? Of course. Hip and relevant for 2016 onward? Opinions diverge, but the Casio MZ-X500 might make them diverge less.
With the Casio MZ-X500, Casio tried to give us a new take on an arranger and wound up offering a very robust multi-timbral synth workstation with a contemporary and fun user experience in the bargain. Its bang for buck is off the scale.
My first impression of the MZ-X500 came from its industrial design. Yes, it’s plastic, but the fit and finish are excellent and everything feels very tight.
As on most arranger keyboards, Registrations act as snapshots of pretty much everything in the machine. In general, navigation is very easy, though occasionally “so easy it’s hard” if you’re used to synth workstations of the past 20 years—on the Casio, the thing you’re looking for is almost always more in-your-face than you think.
Three buttons on the right side of the color touchscreen assure you that you can always get back to where you came from; the Main button is home base for everything going on in the current Registration, and the Menu icon offers cheery-looking icons for anything that can be selected or edited, such as Tones, Rhythms, effects, and the extensive mixer, which manages all multi-timbral parts in the machine plus incoming external audio.
Speaking of external audio, the MZ-X500 is well-endowed with inputs—stereo 1/4" line, TRS mic with a physical trim control, and 3.5mm stereo for an MP3 player. You can apply the keyboard’s effects to the mic and line inputs, as well.
In the effects department, two DSP slots function as Inserts and include a variety of useful algorithms. After that, you get Sends with chorus, reverb, and delay. A master EQ and compressor put the final spit and polish on the mix.
The 16 velocity-sensitive pads do several different things. Factory modes include one-shot samples such as drum hits, programmable chords, and musical phrases appropriate to various sounds. The pads can also trigger articulations (MIDI-generated, not alternate audio samples) that you select from a generous factory bank that ranges from bends and crescendos to choppy dance-floor gate effects.
It gets better. In User mode, you can mix and match these functions on a per-pad basis and save your custom setups. Using the easy Pad Record function, you can play your own phrase into each pad, overdub onto that phrase (with the same sound), and program custom chords. You can even sample your own audio to a pad via the audio inputs. The pads can drive or be driven by the accompaniment styles that you interact with via the intro, variation/fill, and fade buttons, with everything syncing to musical key and tempo.
Both audio and MIDI recording are onboard. The former lets you record simply everything—your playing, auto-accompaniment, and incoming external audio—to a USB flash drive as a stereo file. The latter is a full 16-track multi-timbral sequencer, and since it’s on a separate internal MIDI port, it exists independently of the live keyboard parts and auto-accompaniment playback. (Bring up the Mixer and cycle using the Port button, and you’ll see the sounds assigned to the tracks change.)
Physically, the only thing that says “budget” is the keyboard itself. The piano-lipped keys are nicely sized but quite springy and somewhat loose side-to-side. Play a glissando or wipe, and you’ll hear ’em.
Casio told me that under the hood, the MZX500 actually has more sonic horsepower than the Privia PX-5S (read our review at keyboardmag.com) and after checking out its factory Tones (sound programs) I believe them. You can play two upper and two lower tones at once, with an adjustable split point. Here are just a few highlights.
Acoustic pianos are on par with what’s in the PX-5S, with a lot of dynamic range. I might not use them for a solo jazz or classical recital, but I’d do so for just about anything else—definitely any live band gig in any genre. The EPs offer a ton of variation and personality across the Rhodes, Wurly, Dyno, DX, CP, and Clav gamut. (Oddly, the EP bank is where you’ll find mallet instruments.)
The organs are impressive, with drawbar control on the mixer sliders. Buttons toggle harmonic percussion and speed for a rotary simulation that gives a clear sense of distinct bass and treble rotors spinning. Foldback (repetition of extreme high and low drawbar frequencies) is reproduced accurately. Nothing is quite in the league of today’s dedicated organ clones, but the overall sound is warm, realistic, and miles ahead of the static organ samples you would usually get in a keyboard of this type.
The synth sounds positively shine, and there are tons of them. Subgroups comprise leads, pads, bass synths, and Hex Layers. Originating on Casio’s XW-P1 synth, these are six-way stacks that the machine treats as single sound programs. One among many addictive examples, PriviaSynth1, is as good for Prince’s “1999” as I’ve ever used. The special Bass Synth group is monophonic: Its sounds range from simple sub-basses to Juno and Minimoog territory to postmodern buzzsaws.
Many of the guitars and basses are new and the nylon guitars are especially delightful. Orchestral sounds include some great new solo instruments that take full advantage of the pad-based articulations mentioned earlier. World instruments are plentiful, with emphasis on China and Indonesian gamelan.
Sound editing goes much deeper than I expected in an arranger at this price point: filter cutoff and resonance; amp attack, decay, and release; entry volume, and velocity sensitivity are adjustable per Tone from the first editing screen. Hitting the Advanced icon takes you to even more fine-grained control, including graphical pitch, volume, and filter envelopes. You also get independent and highly programmable LFOs for pitch, filter, and amp (volume). Effects settings are editable per Tone as well, and you can save your creations as User Tones. There’s no “oscillator” editing; any User Tone begins with the multi-sample of some factory Tone. If that makes the MZ-X500 less than a full and true synthesizer, it’s only just barely.
Synth-style performance control comes by way of the K1 and K2 knobs, which you can assign to any MIDI CC. Each knob can control two parameters at once, with different ranges and reverse polarity if desired. Knob assignments, however, are saved at the level of Registrations, not User Tones. This seems related to the fact that each of the two parameters under a knob’s control can affect all four Tones in the Registration. Though it’s the same aspect of the sound across the board (e.g. filter cutoff), you can toggle whether each tone receives your knob twist.
Casio calls accompaniment styles Rhythms; the Accomp On/Off button mutes everything but the drums. A style on the MZ-X500 is composed of 12 “elements” (song sections) that you can switch in real time. There are two intros, four main variations, four fills, an auto-fill option for when you switch variations, and two endings. Each element can make use of up to eight multi-timbral parts—drums, bass, five melodic/chordal parts, and additional percussion.
The factory styles are very good, with special attention paid to giving electronic dance and hip-hop styles some credibility and attitude. Latin, European, and pan-Eastern styles from Bali to Bollywood are also well represented. Of course, all of the standard rock, pop, ballad, and waltz fare is on hand.
Can you create your own styles? Yes, element by element and part by part. The tools here include a pattern sequencer with both real-time recording and an event list editor. You can also import Standard MIDI files.
Parameters governing how the accompaniment behaves are no less deep. Left-hand chord recognition can operate in a variety of fingered modes or the easy Casio Chord mode, which triggers full chords based on one-and two-finger input. You can set up fades and slowdowns, specifying the starting measure for each. An unexpected arranger feature is auto-harmony, which adds notes to your right-hand melody based on the left-hand chord. It’s here, with a dozen voicing modes to choose from.
Another level of accompaniment consists of Music Presets, which add ready-made chord progressions to all the other goings-on as well as pre-selecting appropriate Tones. You can alter, rename, and save Music Presets in a step-based editor. For ease of use, this presents itself in terms of measures, beats, and ticks, and offers tools for adding ties, rests, and different note values including triplets. Powerful stuff, here.
The MZ-X500 strikes me as one of those rare items that is way better than it’s supposed to be. I’ve only had room to scratch its surface here, particularly with regard to the way its various modes can interact to kickstart your music-making. There’s a fusion going on here of a modern “producer” mindset with a traditional “arranger keyboard” paradigm.
As a synth, it’s great-sounding and powerful enough to be the cornerstone of any band rig even if you never touch the accompaniment features. If you do, they’ve received a welcome hipness injection. As a studio tool, it offers multiple and fun pathways to quick composition. As a value, it’s a definite Key Buy.
PROS Excellent sounds in all categories. Deep sound editing. Accompaniment styles/rhythms are musical and satisfying, with custom styles easy to record and save. Drum pads perform many cool tasks and integrate seamlessly with arranger section. Onboard speakers play loud and clean.
CONS Keyboard action is on the low-cost side. Neither keys nor pads sense After-touch. Many great features are under-documented, even in supplemental tutorial downloads.
Part arranger and part pro synth workstation, the MZ-X500 punches well above its price class in terms of sounds and features. More importantly, it’s serious fun.