Company Report - Yamaha
the Yamaha story
Now this may come as something of a surprise but Yamaha did actually manage to do quite nicely as a musical instrument manufacturer before the DX7 took over the world. The history stretches back further than you would imagine... 1987 will mark their centenary which places Yamaha in a rare position. Crudely put, musical instrument companies are cast in two moulds — the 'oldies' relying on tradition, reputation and crafts-manly skills gained in the eons of time, and 'newies' thrusting forward on the knife edge of technology.
By this definition, Yamaha shouldn't have come up with the world's leading digital music technology of FM synthesis — yet they did. How can this be?
There was a Mr Yamaha — Torakusu Yamaha, an engineer who developed an interest in the workings of reed organs round about 1887. The first models were small and produced for children, but the business grew, expanded into pure 'punk' for the reed business (harmonicas), and settled on a factory site in Hamamatsu, sited between Japan's two best-known metropolii, Tokyo and Osaka. Yamaha are still in the same location today.
Sixty years later, America arrived at a device called the electronic organ, and Yamaha decided to follow suit. To outside observers this moment was pivotal in their future, because rather than buying or importing parts, they elected to manufacture their own transistors. The direct descendant of that choice can be seen today in Yamaha's production line for LSIs (Large Scale Integrated circuits). They are the only musical instrument company making their own chips (a colossally expensive investment) and that's how the DX7 can be.
By then Yamaha had begun to view themselves as a 'music company' rather than an 'organ maker', and over the following 20 years, grew to take in drums, amplifiers and guitars — combo products (as in 'crazy-beat-combo', not 'combo amplifier').
With the LSI factory on Kyushu Island and a brass line in Tokyo that leaves Hamamatsu as the centre for all other operations. First off, it has a daunting reservoir of timber, much of it for guitars and pianos. Japanese forests are not hard enough, apparently, so the wood is imported, mostly from South-East Asia, and prevented from drying out by a sprinkler system. (Not, incidentally, a popular move with European private guitar builders who place the blame for the rarity of certain timbers at the rush mat of Yamaha's stockpile.)
Hamamatsu was the research base for FM (though much of the DX7 programming is now done by Britain's own Dave Bristow and America's Gary Luenberg). FM (Frequency Modulation) as a scientific theory was the province of Dr John Chowning (a contemporary of Robert Moog's). Yamaha took the step of applying it to musical instruments. It needed more than seven years. The first commercial outcome was the almighty, touch-sensitive, preset GS1. It was three years in prototype form, cost £10,000, yet was actually no more complex than today's DX7. FM for the people was kept waiting by computer power — developments in microprocessor technology were required to make one small enough for a keyboard and powerful enough to run an FM programming system that could be understood by the public. (Original programming for the GS1 and its GS2 road version required four separate computer screens.)
It's arguable, and some Yamaha engineers agree quietly, that the DX7 is still too complex for everyone. Approximately 80 per cent of DX7s sold never have their factory patches changed, and often only 50 per cent of the facilities are used. This, say Yamaha, is at the core of two arguments for not making a DX7 MkII. There's still much to be explored on the existing synth and to offer extra facilities such as user programmable algorithms could so ensnare a musician's instrument in technobaffle, it might actually put back the acceptance and development of FM.
Interestingly Yamaha have recently started to sell their simplest FM chips to other companies (computer ones, we guess). The development teams work to two plans — a five-year one for direction and a one-year one for details. For example, in '82 they were working on an inter-synth communication method called YCAMS (Yamaha Computer Assisted Music System) — today they apply the acronym to any large instrument link-up). But they swapped to MIDI in that year after meetings with other keyboard companies.
The head of Yamaha's instrument Research and Development department is called Mr Harry Suzuki. Three R&D teams report directly to him — the 20-strong combo keyboards and hi-tech division, ten chaps in the PA/guitar amp slice and five developing guitar lines.
Peripheral to these are five drummists and five acoustic guitarist(ists?). But below the iceberg tip are 50 experts quietly labouring on computer design and an undisclosed number researching digital sound applications. Draw from that what you will when analysing the thrust of Yamaha's future plans.
The Japanese worker, fiercely loyal to the company, is a phenomenon often parodied by the guardedly envious west. However, there is little stealing of expertise. Yamaha recruit their designers from universities, not other manufacturers, and then train them. At the far end of the same scale, Yamaha's Vice-President is Mr Ueshima, the President is Mr Hiroshi Kawakami Jr, the Chairman is Mr Gen-Ichi Kawakami Snr. Mr Kawakami's father was the previous President. Perhaps, one day, his son will be Chairman after him. Who is to know, flows the strange Japanese sagacity by which they disarm the pre-destined.
Be specific. How many DX7s have been sold? "Er... company secret." Five figures? "Yes." Maybe six? "Yes, maybe." Either way production of DX7s broke a previously sacred and pleasantly auspicious limit. It exceeded the capacity of a Yamaha computer programme to keep a list of the serial numbers. The software had to be rewritten to add another nought at the end.
Torakusu Yamaha builds Japan's first reed organ in '87 (exports 78 to Britain in '92). Forms Nippon Gakki Co Ltd as President in '97.
First Yamaha piano in '16, acoustic guitars in '46. Electone (original transistorised organ) comes in '58, and by then products expanded to include boats, skis, archery equipment, you name it.
Individual instruments achieve 'classic' status including FG180 acoustic, dependable all-rounder and adopted in droves by folk circuit.
Introduction of SG electric guitars, probably Yamaha's longest-running and most revered guitar line. Britain learns eastern electrics are not all cheap copies. SGs feature immaculate finishes and standards of construction, coil taps, bonded or through necks (2000 and 1000), durability and a solid, authoritative sound. PA systems also win favour with musicians for their reliability, compactness and ability to be understood without a doctorate. Clean sound, too.
Keyboards go big. The CS80 polyphonic synth features early programmability (four miniature control panels under a flap), individual touch sensitivity on each of the 60 keys, a ribbon pitch controller and back strain. It's massive, but unmatched. The CP80 and 70 electric grands take real piano strings onto the road for the first time. Still standard equipment in a pro-keyboard player's set up, the cross-strung frame and the keys are in separate clip-together sections to facilitate transport. Peak of the organ division research is the three-manual GX1 costing £30,000 (apparently), bought by Stevie Wonder, still used by Keith Emerson.
P series power amps set a level of ruggedness, affordability, clean power and resistance to roadie mentality envied elsewhere. Come with peak (not just VU) meters and are rack mountable.
FM arrives, shyly, in the GS1. Initial response is fascination as players absorb the 16 pre-set digital voices, touch-sensitive piano-weighted keyboard (second touch too), highly-polished Harpsichord exterior and library of extra sounds on magnetic cards. The words 'Frequency Modulation' appear only once in the eight-page brochure — for the moment, no one questions.
9000 Series Recording drums break ground by being the first kits to have a true, buffed lacquer finish instead of an acrylic wrap around. Perfect example of musician's feed back. Yamaha player Steve Gadd asked for a kit 'with a finish like a grand piano'. Yamaha made him one. The 9000 was it.
The DX7. Now a new set of musicians' terms arrive overnight — algorithm, carrier, operator, MIDI. A range of sounds totally new to the synthesiser is opened up. Keyboard players discover the delights of velocity and second touch control. Early DX7s are like gold dust. Bells, clangs, and digital waveforms begin a sweep through pop.
Another surprise. The CX5 is a computer with FM synthesis on board, meeting the desires of a new breed of synth musicians, requiring computing and sequencing power, digital sound generation, high quality graphic displays and something to play space invaders on. Yamaha grabs music technology and shakes it awake.
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