Yamaha's follow-up machine to the DX7 is essentially a budget DX1, offering two '7s in one neat package. We take a look at the DX5.
Q: What's better than a DX7?
A: Two of them! That's what Yamaha's follow-up machine is — and just a little bit more, too. Tony Mills checks it out.
Yamaha have been content with a single world-beater for long enough! Just because every studio, every pop group, every TV and radio station in the world has a DX7 is no reason to rest on your laurels, and Yamaha's launches for the Frankfurt show proved that they had no intention of doing that. In the coming months, the few hermits living in caves in the outer Hebrides who haven't already heard of FM synthesis will be queuing up at the Invercockaleekie Rock Shop for their shiny new DX5.
So what's new about the DX5? Basically, it's a cross between a built-up DX7 and a cut-down DX1. The DX1 was top of the range last year, consisting of two DX7-like synths with a wooden weighted keyboard and enough wood panelling to conjure up images from the hernia-inducing days of the good old CS80. The DX1 also has individual key response to aftertouch information, and a whole heap of parameter displays making it easier to create new FM sounds.
Unfortunately the DX1 at around £7,000 was very much for the small professional market (rather than the market of small professionals like Nik Kershaw), and the DX5 is going to have much wider appeal than that. In fact it's very much a logical update for the existing DX7 owner — of course you could get a second DX7 and link it by MIDI, but the DX5's performance memories (of which more later) offer a huge advantage over that alternative.
At £2999 the DX5's only relatively cheap of course, but since it has most of the facilities of the £7,000 DX1 it's something of a bargain.
The DX1's wooden weighted keyboard is replaced on the DX5 with a more conventional plastic one, and most of the parameter displays are sadly absent. The synth still has that all-important 76-key E-G keyboard range which would allow classically-trained players to take full advantage of its great responsiveness.
As previously mentioned, inside the DX5 are basically two DX7's. Each of these has 16-note polyphony, 6 sets of sine wave generators or operators and 32 possible combinations of operators, or algorithms. For those as yet uninitiated into the delights of FM synthesis, there now follows the world's shortest introductory course.
Each sine wave Operator can be a Carrier, which actually produces an audible tone, or a Modulator, which acts on the carriers to produce the harmonics of which FM sounds are composed. The algorithms are simply different ways of assigning these two jobs to the operators and piling them up, and range from patterns with several carriers for multifaceted sounds to ones with several modulators for more complex single effects. Each operator can be given a complex envelope whether it's acting as carrier or modulator, and the frequency ratios between operators can be set to harmonious intervals for musical sounds or disharmonies for effects.
The result of all this technology is a sound quality unparalleled in analogue synths. Clear, chiming sounds are most typical of the FM synth (the multi-thousand pound Synclavier is an FM synth as well) but it's possible to produce striking brass, astounding special effects and some highly realistic orchestral noises. The DX7 never excelled at smooth, detuned string ensemble sounds and the like (Yamaha could have stuck a chorus unit in it...) but with the DX1 and DX5 all that is in the past — simply set up similar patches on the two onboard synths and detune them slightly for swirling string effects or whatever.
The DX5 has several performance modes; you can split or layer sounds or pan them apart from stereo outputs. The keyboard split point is programmable, and of course you have the option of programming sounds which change gradually or sharply over the length of the keyboard as well. The DX5, unlike the DX7, has 64 Performance Memories which store pairs of voices, keyboard mode, performance control parameters and much more. This means that a single switch can call up for you a new pair of voices split at a programmed point, with the range of the pitch bend wheel and depth of the modulation wheel all preset to be suitable for the patch.
There are many different ways to alter the DX5's sounds, including the performance wheels, foot pedals for volume, after touch on the keyboard and breath control. These functions can combine to give amazing performance possibilities — such as a string sound with an organ fading up if you press harder on the keys and a brass chord if you blow into the breath controller. You'd have to be fairly well co-ordinated to take full advantage of all these, and the breath controller is a special technique all to itself. Yamaha's Dave Bristow can make it sound like Jimi Hendrix — the best I can manage is a wet rasping sound.
One of the DX1's major advantages over the DX5 or DX7 is that it has several parameter displays which make it easier to alter sounds to your own specification. FM takes some understanding, and to have a visual display for the algorithm in use and the envelope parameters is invaluable. The DX5 is again a little short on displays, but some cutbacks have to be made to achieve the £4,000 saving over the DX1 — you can use a CX5 computer to give you a visual display of all the parameters, and SIEL, Rosetti, XRI and others have packages which will allow you to do this using a Spectrum, Commodore 64 or other computer as well.
The DX5's very much a performance instrument, with its emphasis on performance memories and fast access to complex sounds. A full specification is given below, but it's easy to see that the DX5 is a little more than the sum of its parts. Potentially it's much more than two DX7's linked by MIDI, and just the de-tuning facilities should take it into a new realm of smooth, analogue-type sounds previously denied to DX7 owners. The effectiveness of this system is proved by the keyboard player from Pallas, who takes two DX7's on stage as part of one of the most interesting keyboard setups on the road at the moment. Do you need all those sounds, we asked? No, came the reply, they're all the same sounds, just detuned a little.
As a canny Scotsman, he should see the possibilities of the DX5 and realise that, even for £2999, it's a bit of a bargain.