Somewhere in Japan, in an office high above the confusion of the streets, a man dressed in an impeccable business suit sits at a neatly arranged desk. This is a sunny corner office, with an excellent view to both the north and the east. Anywhere else in the world this would be a sign of success and honour. But here in Japan it has the opposite meaning – this is the untouchable that came up with the Zoom ARQ-96.
Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the ARQ that is not wrong with every MPC style ‘drum machine trying to be a grown-up compositional tool’. All of them are inscrutable, arcane and involve the kind of jargon that usually is associated with Scientology. Whenever you see anything with pads in a grid you can be pretty sure it’s for making sonic LEGO. The difference is while most MPC tools gaze at you with cool disdain, the ARQ holds the gaze of Bozo the Clown. You will not look like you’re DJing on stage, you will look like you are folding balloons at a child’s birthday.
I’m grateful to DJ2mn for pointing out ARQ-96s being dumped online for less than cost. I was compelled to add it to my musical sin bin. We have matching balloon animals!
It’s justified that musical phrases travel around in a ring – obvious even. But the colours on the ring are many and varied – they can represent instruments or notes or audio channels or set off light shows. The interface is unstable – a map where the continents are sometimes oceans. You must refer to the central LCD display for help and be reminded that this is a Zoom product – by God that LCD gets a workout. Have you ever used a Zoom recorder? Kissing Cousins.
I cleared out a ‘pattern’, and then cleared out the associated ‘kit’ of cheesy techno blips. I then found an instrument that wasn’t too bad and mapped it over the whole ring. Push the select knob and the ring becomes a round piano, which is somewhat surreal. I played notes while adjusting the instrument’s filter sweep and resonance to get a nicer sound. Each instrument can combine samples and oscillators, the enveloped filter is pretty good, there’s individual effects and it best of all it can be POLYPHONIC – which beats Elektron’s vastly more expensive boxes for example. I hit record and play and attempted to tap a melody line into the loop using the ring. That wasn’t so great. Actually, it was shit – this is NOT a great way to enter a melody.
I tried to use a MIDI keyboard with wireless (I have a MicroKorg AIR). The ARQ will see it but pays absolutely no attention. Bugger. There’s a USB port but it goes to a host computer, not to another USB instrument. (If you have a computer onstage then why use this?) Playing the ARQ as a sound module is not a plan.
Once I had achieved a reasonable melodic loop, I twisted the filter knob up and down, tapped in a few moments of delays and flanges and ended up with a quite decent wibbly phrase. I guess. I mean, it wasn’t the Blue Danube. You can also pick the ring up off the base unit and wave it in the air to control the effects, which impresses cats, but who the hell knows what it is doing what where and how.
I hit the sample button and the whole phrase was sampled on to the SD card to become a single audio file wrapped around the ring. That’s pretty easy.
It’s not a bad toy for wibble making and I can imagine coming up with a live performance using the ARQ as the central conceit. Maybe two performances. But it’s not really solving any of the issues in phrase-LEGO music making. That is, stitching together tiny little blocks of sound to make flowing music is not any easier on the ARQ than on an AKAI MPC, in fact the ring interface makes it harder to find your place in bars and beats by wrapping them on a clock face. It looks cool but it’s not going to sound better for being made on a ring than a grid.
For the original asking price that’s just not good enough. At ¼ the original price you get a hell of a LED light show under MIDI control and that’s cool. Even cooler would be connecting a real MIDI keyboard without a computer, which would then make the ARQ a pretty fine sound module.
A discussion that eventually becomes helpful: