In which we discover how credible this instrument, MIDI keyboard, and stereo sound system is for serious musical applications. Synth and Software’s Nick Batzdorf holds its feet to the fire.
We were really impressed with the Casiotone CT-S1 when we first covered it a few months ago, and it’s a tremendously fun instrument that sells for a ridiculously low price.
But is it just a $200 toy, or does it have more serious musical applications? Yes it does, and we’re going to take a look at them.
On the surface, the Casiotone is a 5-octave unweighted keyboard with built-in speakers and good selection of bread and butter keyboard sounds – grand pianos, electric pianos, organs, a harpsichord, some classic Casio synth sounds… including variations, there are 61 different sounds. It also has built in effects, you can layer and split the keyboard, and it has built-in rhythm tones. But it’s more than that.
For a professional musician, this is a very lightweight instrument (just under 10 pounds) that’s relatively portable and that can be powered by batteries or the included power supply. It sounds good enough that you could play a gig or rehearsal with it, use it as a keyboard for writing, connect it to a laptop as a MIDI controller, and you can plug external audio sources into it and use its speakers for listening to music.
For someone just getting into the synth and software game, this is an affordable stand-alone “starter” instrument that will still be useful as you expand your setup.
For an overview of the instrument with all the details, check out this one from Casio.
1. Is its built-in audio usable as a sound system?
When you first turn the Casiotone on and start playing its default grand piano… well, it sounds impressive. Okay, its built-in stereo sound system isn’t up to a decent set of powered studio monitors, but it’s certainly on the same level as the Vizio soundbar we compared it to – and that soundbar cost almost as much on its own.
The instrument has 1/8” TRS stereo audio in and out jacks. For the uninitiated, the outputs mean you can play through external sound systems, and you can record the instrument through cables rather than having to use microphones. They also double as headphone jacks if you raise the level.
And the inputs mean you can play external sources through the Casiotone’s built-in amps and speakers. Those sources would include smartphones for playing and practicing along with recordings, but more importantly for our applications it means you can plug a computer into it if – when – you start using software instruments.
That Vizio soundbar is a good yardstick to measure the CT-S1’s sound quality. It’s also on par with a mono $100 Bose Bluetooth speaker that happens to be in our arsenal – except the Casiotone’s audio is stereo, which is a huge improvement over mono.
And in fact Casio offers a Bluetooth add-on that plugs into the back, but we didn’t have it – we just used old-fashioned cables. Audio always has very noticeable latency over Bluetooth anyway, so we’re guessing that you’d only want to use the Bluetooth add-on for playing along with recordings.
A “surround” feature widens the stereo image of the built-in sounds (only – it doesn’t affect external sounds). I personally would only use this type of effect for organs and pad-type washing sounds, not on, say, pianos. Used appropriately it’s a dramatic effect, used badly it’s a phasey sound that feels like your head is being turned inside out.
Answer: The Casiotone’s built-in powered speakers are absolutely fine as an entry-level or “I just need to listen on something much more revealing than my laptop” sound system, or for listening to music non-critically.
Sure, keyboard amps will get louder, and studio monitors are going to play louder and reveal more details. But even after you upgrade, this will be useful as an additional playback system for checking mixes.
2. How is its keyboard, and does it work as a MIDI controller?
Yes it does, but first a PSA: while the instrument has a music stand, it doesn’t ship with a sustain pedal. So – putting it undiplomatically – you’ll definitely need to pick up one of those to avoid a frustrating out-of-box experience. And if you’re going to connect the Casiotone’s MIDI in and out to a computer, it uses a USB-A to USB Micro B cable that you may have to order online.
With that out of the way, the best feature of the CTS-1’s keyboard is simply that it has 61 full-size velocity-sensitive keys – five octaves. You only have to watch Casio’s demo to see that it’s fine in the hands of a good keyboard player.
If you’re a keyboard almost-player, especially one like me who’s used to a controller with weighted keys, its somewhat springy, spongy action takes a little more getting used to than perhaps a higher-end unweighted keyboard would.
I will stop a little short of saying the action feels cheap, however, because there are far worse keyboards out there. And while the physical keybed is the physical keybed, you can adjust its velocity response in the CT-S1’s software. What’s more, the keys themselves have a nice satin surface. It’s a good-looking instrument.
As to MIDI, the Casiotone sends and receives it. While it has a basic MIDI recorder and a metronome built in, you can connect it to a computer and enter the Synth and Software world of DAWs (digital audio workstations) and software instruments.
The CT-S1 is USB Class-Compliant (capitalized), meaning it’s plug-and-play without any driver. Just plug it in and the operating system sees it as an available MIDI input and output.
When it’s connected to a computer, you’ll use the Local Off feature. That sends your keyboard playing down the MIDI cable to the computer, rather than directly to the built-in sounds in the default Local On setting.
Like most settings, you toggle local control on and off by holding down the Function key plus a note on the keyboard. You’ll probably want to keep a cheat sheet of the various functions handy.
Answer: Musicians who, for example, control advanced sample libraries will want to upgrade to a keyboard or other accessory with pitch and modulation controller wheels. But this keyboard is consistent across its range, it’s playable, and it works fine as a functional if entry-level MIDI controller.
3. Are the sounds usable outside your parents’ living room?
Indeed they are, and again we refer you to a Casio demo for proof. We’re surprised at how good they are.
Here’s a short video clip comparing the Casiotone’s Stage Piano grand to one in a $400 sample library – the Yamaha grand in Spectrasonics Keyscape, which is one of the gold standards for sampled pianos.
Now, you know going in that any higher-end sampled piano library will sound better. The Casiotone grand loads instantly from ROM, so it has far less memory and computer processing power to work with. That means fewer samples, shorter samples, and less detail such as pedal-release sounds.
What this will show you is both how well the Casiotone piano’s basic sound holds its own, and while we’re at it what the differences are when you upgrade to more advanced libraries. To be sure there are some, but the Casiotone’s piano has none of the brittle midrange and high register sounds characteristic of bad sampled pianos.
Naturally, there are arguments for the comparison being unfair to both instruments. Both have many sounds in addition to grand piano. We could have chosen a brighter piano in Keyscape or a different one in the CT-S1, the Casiotone’s analog output was recorded through an audio interface rather than being bounced to disk, we could have tweaked the EQ on the Casiotone (it has it built in)… and on and on.
But it’s still interesting.
Answer: Yes Sir/Ma’am. We’re impressed.
Bottom line: We’re still shaking our head at how far $200 can go.