Casio VL-Tone VL-5 polyphonic mini keyboard with blip rhythm & barcode reader

This quite rare keyboard was the polyphonic successor of the famous Casio VL-Tone 1. Unfortunately it is missing the great built-in synthesizer, the octave switch and even the natural violin sound of the VL-1. Instead it has only 10 simple preset sounds. The rhythms are more complex but awkward to select. By an optical barcode reader pen (Casio MS-1) songs can be scanned from special barcode song books into the internal sequencer memory. The sequencer is only monophonic, but at least you can manually play to it.

The hardware of this thing contains a lot of hand- rewired complex component mess that looks rather like a prototype. It also has odd sequencer bugs those are mentioned in the manual.

main features:

This is an eBay photo; mine lacked bag and barcode pen.



The hardware of the Casio VL-5 is astonishingly complex and contains a lot of digital ICs. At least in my specimen it looks rather like a handmade prototype than a finished serial product, since it contains a lot of cut PCB traces those were manually re- wired with coloured cables, those were partly soldered directly to IC pins. Some of these loose wires affect the barcode reader hardware, but also the back of the analogue PCB is full of them. (The only other keyboard where I found such a lot of hand wired PCB fixes is the cheap Chinese Angeltone DM-200 toy keyboard.) The CPU "D910G 011" seems to be a close relative of the Casio MT-60 accompaniment CPU "NEC D910G 012". The VL-5 seems to be fairly rare, thus I don't know if later PCB revisions without the cable mess exist, or if Casio abandoned this model entirely after making only a few thousand. In opposite to the Casio VL-1, here the panel PCB already has carbon contacts under the buttons, and the LCD seems to employ an odd shaped silicone contact strip instead of the foil cable despite that cable was still used in the Casio PT-30 and PT-50. Like with Casio MT-800, the crowded VL-5 hardware has some odd bugs, those are documented in the manual. (I haven't analyzed the hardware further yet.)

The sound generator seems to be technically like the Casio VL-1 (see there), but unfortunately uses far simpler preset sounds and has no synthesizer. The timbres are likely made from multipulse squarewaves with different pulse patterns those are partly muffled through capacitors. The sounds contain neither vibrato nor tremolo and seem to employ only a simple sustain/ decay envelope. The "violin" has here no similarities with the astonishingly realistic VL-1 one, but is just a slightly harsher version of "flute". The "pretty" sound is a sort of simple xylophone with short decay envelope and pulse ratio 1:1. The "funny" sound is a harsher version of this and resembles the "guitar" on VL-1. With sustain off, all sounds stop almost immediately after key release. With sustain enabled, as well the release phase as the decay of decaying sounds are lengthened to about 3s. The sustain button also affects held and currently decaying notes, which can be used for live play tricks.

The LCD displays the current preset sound and rhythm number so long the sequencer is not in use. Like with the ancient Casiotone 201, to select sound presets the "mode" switch has to be moved from "play" to "set", which will also assign the selected sound to the current position of the "tone memory" switch. The sounds are then selected by white keyboard keys. Unlike other such instruments (e.g. Casio MT-60), here selected sounds always play immediately, and not only when their key is held down longer than about 0.2s.

Also rhythms are selected by keyboard keys, but unfortunately (unlike the VL-1) the rhythms here can be only selected in the "set" position of that switch, which always starts that rhythm, but stops it again by pushing the switch back to "play", thus to select a rhythm you have to move the switch, press its key, move it back and press "rhythm start/ stop", which is really awkward. At least there is a great analogue tempo slider with that the rhythm speed can be adjusted from very low to partly extremely high. The rhythm tempo of the individual rhythms varies a lot (likely depending on the internal rhythm pattern resolution), thus while some rhythms (e.g. waltz) can be set only fairly fast, others (slow rock...) turn into a furious jungle drumroll pattern. The percussion is only made from simple squarewave blips and shift register noise, but unlike the only 3 sounds on the VL-1, here a great variety of different blips is used. It is especially astonishing how many different "drum kits" Casio used among the only 8 rhythms; while some are made from only long sounds, others consist of only very short percussion blips. Like the great Hing Hon EK-001, these rhythms sound very impulsive and are great for tekkno. It's really a pity that Casio gave this thing only 8 rhythms with such an awkward selection method - a programmable custom drummer (like e.g. on Letron MC-3) would have been nice...
Like the VL-Tone 1, also the VL-5 features that strange built-in speaker that permits to bend the sound in strange ways by simply moving the left hand over the speaker grill during play (similarly like jazz trombone players do with their instrument's funnel). In the VL-5 the speaker resonance pot is a unique construction formed by a moulded case cavity in combination with a very odd sheet metal can that covers the lower half of the speaker diaphragm behind the piano keys. The wahwah trick works especially well with the VL-5's harsh "bagpipe" sound, but by the missing octave switch it can be unfortunately not transposed as low like on the latter although with polyphonic sounds it gives the whole thing a quite different exciting quality.

In the ancient home computer magazine "Your Spectrum" (Issue 4, June 1984) was an article about connecting a Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer with the barcode reader input of a Casio VL-5. This article contains a BASIC program and many technical details about the data format of the Casio barcode song books, and it says that the same program works also with the Casio MT-70. The article can be found here.

The simple sequencer is only monophonic. To program it, set the power switch to 'record'. The LCD displays now in the middle the current step number of the editor. To the left you see the current preset sound number and to the right  the current note or sequencer event. Press 'reset' together with 'delete' to clear the memory contents. Now play notes with the keyboard. Enter pauses with '}' and the rhythm start point with 'rhythm' button (those enter a special character instead of the note number). Wrongly entered notes can be removed with 'delete'. At the end you can press 'reset' and step through the song with the 'one key play' buttons to enter the correct note lengths. You can also insert new notes here or delete unwanted ones. To step forward through the song without changing note lengths press 'fwd >'; unfortunately this doesn't play the notes, which makes its use confusing. (With power switch in 'play' mode you can safely step through the song with the 'one key play' buttons without changing it.) Press 'autoplay' to play the entered song. Press 'repeat' and then 'autoplay' to repeat it in a loop. You can also manually play 2 note polyphonic to the sequencer contents. As well sequencer as the manual play both use the currently selected main voice sound and rhythm; you can not set independent preset sounds them. According to the manual there is a bizarre bug that can alter the last entered note in the sequencer memory so far certain conditions are not fulfilled (see eastereggs).

My first VL-5 was missing its barcode pen and song book, thus I have tried out those from my Casio MT-70; the VL-5 only reads the monophonic main voice part but refuses the chord barcode lines (playing the error sound), thus I could only scan the monophonic melody track into the sequencer. Later I bought a complete VL-5 specimen (with box, pen and manual) which came with its original "Bar Code Score Book" (see here for song list); like expected, its songs are only monophonic and have no chord section.

I first thought that  the VL-5 was not officially released in Germany, because (beside one defective specimen) I only found them offered from in England, USA and Australia, and even there they seemed to be much rarer than the common VL-Tone 1 and often quite expensive. But the 2nd VL-5 specimen that I bought on eBay came with multi- language manual in German, French and Italian, which hints that it was also released in these countries. By my knowledge the Casio VL-5 had also neither direct successors nor was its hardware ever re- released in other keyboards. Other Casio instruments with barcode pen were the midsize Casio MT-70 and the wooden fullsize Casiotone 701.

 removal of these screws voids warranty...    
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