Blast from the past: Casio VL-1 (VL-Tone)

The spiritual ancestor to modern mini-instruments, this diminutive dynamo gave many musicians their first taste of sequencing and synthesis

If you’re old enough to have been listening to the radio in the early '80s, you can’t have missed Trio’s Da Da Da, a charming chunk of proto-chiptune cheerlessness, a jaunty ’jerker of indifference delivered in dour monotone over a chirping electro beat. US listeners relived the rollicking lo-fi lament nearly two decades later when its re-emergence in a Volkswagen ad propelled the tune onto the dance charts.

The song’s infectious rhythm and chiming ‘piano’ sound came courtesy of Casio’s VL-Tone - a slim, sleek brick of white with a speaker at one end, and a keyboard consisting of buttons seemingly culled from the company’s calculator division. It could run on batteries and came with a rather spiffy snap-tight vinyl slip case. A positively minuscule LCD display was quite forward-thinking at the time - for better or worse.

This portable package of pop tones offered a whopping five built-in monophonic preset patches: Piano, Violin, Flute, Guitar and ‘Fantasy’, none of which sounded anything like their namesakes, but all reeking - to be sure - of the most exquisite cheese. For those who dared, there was a sixth sonic selection on offer - the mysteriously labelled ‘ADSR’. Switching over to that one allowed the user to wrap a custom envelope shape around a choice of oscillator waveform. This was deep stuff, made headier still by the fact that it was all programmed by tapping the keyboard.

Ten preset analogue drum beats could be dialled up to provide a rhythmic backing, and a 100-note sequencer was also provided for recording any miniature musical masterworks that might emerge. Oh, and did we forget to mention that those little calculator keys and LCD display could actually be called upon to serve as an actual calculator? Because who doesn’t love maths?

Casio peers

Trio weren’t the only big names to call upon the Casio’s considerable cache. The Human League, Mark E Smith of The Fall, and XTC’s Andy Partridge were all known to flirt with those quaint calculator keys. Even fictional characters weren't immune to the VL-Tone’s call: Gorillaz’ cartoon keyboardist 2D has been quoted as claiming that it was his very first synth.

The VL-Tone may finally be getting some of the attention it deserves, thanks in no small measure to Swedish wünderkinds Teenage Engineering, who unashamedly acknowledge the VL-1 as the inspiration for their awesome OP-1, a thoroughly modern high-tech take on the idea.

For the moment, those who’d like a lick of the lo-fi lollipop can still find a secondhand VL-1 for a fraction of its original $150 price. However, like Gorillaz’ erstwhile ivory tickler, we needn’t enter the real world to get our hands on some of those vibrant VL tones. Indeed, sample packs and virtual options abound for those willing to look. And really, you should.

The VL-1 is perennially overlooked by historians of electronic music technology - most of whom probably had it high on their Christmas lists back in 1980 - but it was significant at the time and still packs a characterful punch for those enamoured of the lo-fi sound.

Three great plugin VL-1 alternatives

AfroDJMac Casio VL-1 Rack Ableton Live Pack

A great sample-based option for a paltry five US bucks. New York-based producer AfroDJMac has sampled every single bleep, bloop and beat from his VL-1 to create this collection of seven Ableton Live racks. Those who don’t have the full Ableton Live Suite can use the included Simpler-compatible version.

READ MORE: AfroDJMac Casio VL-1 Rack Ableton Live Pack

polyValens VL1

A Windows-only affair, polyValens’ free clone of the fantastic plastic Casio VL-1 goes beyond merely collecting samples from the real deal. This little guy is a full-on circuit-modelled emulation that even offers that arcane and intimidating [well, to most of us kids in 1980] ADSR page. And wouldn’t you know it? The calculator function is included – well played!

DOWNLOAD FOR FREE: polyValens VL-1

Mokafix Cheapo Tonefree

Another free Casio clone for Windows (32-bit). This one likewise eschews samples for a fully synthesised experience (the developer cops to the snare sound not being perfectly emulated). It also adds a handful of knobs for easier control over patching while in ADSR mode - though they're ineffective when using the familiar preset sounds.

DOWNLOAD FOR FREE: Mokafix Cheapo ToneFree

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