FM's Finest Hour
Yamaha V50 Workstation
Paul Ireson explores Yamaha's latest professional keyboard, which integrates FM synthesis, a drum machine, a powerful sequencer and a multi-effects unit into a single package. Could it be FM's finest hour?
Yamaha started something big with FM, and they know it. Ever since the launch of the DX7, every single Yamaha product that employs sound synthesis rather than any form of sampling-related sound production, has been FM-based. The innovation of the DX7 now seems in sharp contrast to the conservative design of Yamaha's subsequent products, for in some ways they appear to have rested on their laurels in offering up more and more variations on the FM theme, none of which are really anything new. So too, it seems, with the V50: following Korg and Roland's launch of keyboard workstations, Yamaha have produced their own in the shape of the V50.
The V50 combines a multitimbral FM synthesizer with an 8-track sequencer, a rhythm unit offering 61 PCM sampled sounds, and digital effects processor. On the face of it, the V50 is Yamaha's most versatile keyboard to date, for never before have any of their professional FM synths offered any of these 'extras', let alone all three together. As a performance keyboard, several different sounds can be split or layered across the keyboard, and the sound beefed up still further through the use of the effects section. As a workstation, the multitimbrality and 16,000 note 8-track sequencer allow you to record complex, multi-part music, with the effects adding that final professional touch. A built-in 3.5" disk drive allows storage of sounds, rhythm patterns and sequences.
Aesthetically, the V50 bears little similarity to the DX7. The V50 appears less deep, a little more squat, and the front panel is raised slightly, joining with the 'pivot' axis of the keyboard via an almost vertical strip. This styling seems to have been chosen to allow a disk drive to be incorporated into the machine without creating any unsightly bumps. This drive is located at the left end of the keyboard, just behind the pitch bend and modulation wheels. Lying as it does on an almost horizontal plane, and being so low, the two controller wheels do tend to get in the way of your fingers somewhat. Two more real-time controllers are located at the left of the front panel: the volume and data entry sliders. A useful feature of the data entry slider is that it can be assigned to generate any MIDI Controller data when the V50 is not in edit mode. Another way in which the V50 appears different to its forebears is that all the front panel buttons are large and have a reassuringly positive feel to them.
The first thing I did when I plugged in the V50 was to let the machine do all the work and show itself off. Like almost everything else these days, it has an 'auto demo' facility. I popped the demonstration disk into the drive, selected Chain Play (in which the V50 plays all the songs it can find in ROM and on disk), and settled back to cast an eye over the manual whilst keeping one ear pinned back to listen to the machine in action. I received two major shocks. The first came a few bars into the second song, when it began to dawn on me that not only had the first demo song been totally uninspiring, but that the second was worse, and perhaps the rest were just as bad! They are: the demos are dreadful, and really don't do the V50 justice. I advise anyone who's interested in buying this instrument to play the thing for a good half hour before even thinking about listening to the demos. After playing the keyboard for myself, it was hard to believe that the demos had been produced by the same machine.
The pleasant surprise was the manual. If the demos were the worst I've ever come across - the Casio VL1 excepted - the manual is the best. Every aspect of the V50's operation is clearly explained, in good English. I can't see anyone having any problems with understanding this machine if they keep the manual to hand.
With my unfortunate experience with the demo songs behind me, I started using the V50 for real. The synthesizer operation looked like a good place to start. The FM synthesis side of the V50 is nothing new, and is basically equivalent to two TX81Zs or DX11s: 16-note polyphony, 8-part multitimbral, four operators per voice, and eight algorithms with eight selectable waveforms per operator.
The V50's basic sounds are called Voices, and these can be played in either Single or Performance mode. In Single mode, you can select and play one Voice at a time, and Performances group up to eight Voices together as eight Instruments. The basic FM sounds are fleshed out by the digital effects unit, and effect type and parameter settings can be programmed as part of each Voice or Performance - in a Performance the same effect must be applied to all Instruments, though a parameter is available to turn the effect on or off for each. The V50 gives you 100 preset (non-editable) Voices and 100 preset Performances. A further 100 of your own Voices and 100 Performances can be stored in the internal memory, and another 100 of each on optional RAM cards.
Exactly how Voices are combined in a Performance is determined primarily by the MIDI receive channel of each Instrument, and the V50 keyboard's transmit channel. All Instruments that are set to receive on the keyboard's transmit channel will be played simultaneously from the keyboard (provided that the MIDI 'local' setting for the keyboard is not switched off), and in this way layered sounds can be created. Polyphony decreases as Voices are stacked, so layering four Voices on top of each other reduces the polyphony from 16 to four notes. Alternatively, each Instrument can be set to respond to a different MIDI channel, which creates a multitimbral Performance that can be played either by the V50's internal sequencer or an external MIDI unit. Notes can be split between the parts dynamically, as they are needed, or given a fixed allocation (two notes for one part, four for another, etc).
When creating Performances, you don't have total freedom over how many Instruments can be used - you must choose from one, two, four or eight. This might seem a little odd, but it's not any kind of limitation. If you only need to use six Voices, dynamic voice allocation ensures that no notes are 'wasted' on the Instruments that you are not using. As on previous FM machines, the V50 allows one of several microtuning scales to be used in place of the standard equal temperament scale. You have a choice of 11 preset and two user-programmable scales.
Although the Single Voices are intended to be heard in Performances rather than on their own, they sound good solo, when beefed up by the effects unit. There are some excellent 'analogue' type strings and atmospheres, and the usual percussive plucks and metallic plinks that FM is so good at. Only two of the Voices are programmed to take advantage of the V50's pressure sensitive keyboard, which is an unfortunate oversight, as it can add a lot of life and expression to Voices. The Performance combinations are fantastic, with layers of two, four and eight Voices per note that enable great depth and richness to be produced. Whilst most of the preset Performances comprise layers of Voices, a few use the note range parameters to produce keyboard splits, with (for example) a bass at the bottom and an electric piano at the top of the keyboard.
To get back down to the level of the basic Voices, the use of four rather than six operators does mean that the sounds of the V50 are a little less complex than they might be - though programming is made correspondingly easier. Yamaha have presumably decided that users have too many problems coping with 6-operator FM synthesis, and that there's no point in providing facilities that most people won't use. The eight possible waveforms for each operator (a la TX81Z) go someway to making up for fewer operators, but the scope for sounds is nevertheless more limited. On the other hand, sticking to this particular FM architecture means that V50 owners will have immediate access to a huge catalogue of sounds: all TX81Z, DX11, DX21, DX100, TQ5, YS200 voice data is compatible with the V50, and the Voice parameters are the same as on the TX81Z/DX11.
Yamaha seem to be taking more time and trouble to make their equipment easier to use. The excellent manual is one sign of this, and in terms of the V50 hardware, the trend that the V50 shows towards making FM more accessible and easily understood is most obviously reflected in the choice of four rather than six operators. However, it's also apparent in the V50 user interface. Yamaha have come a long way since the days of the DX7, and the V50 presents the user with a 40-character, two-line illuminated display. The large display is taken advantage of through the use of eight 'soft' buttons along the bottom of the display. Whilst all the other buttons on the front panel have specific functions, such as entering Sequencer or Rhythm mode, or selecting a particular set of parameters to edit, these 'soft' buttons have functions that vary according to what is on the display at the time. (Ensoniq and Roland keyboards adopted this system a good while ago.) All this combines to make the V50 an unexpectedly easy machine to understand and programme at all levels of its operation. When editing sounds, for example, the crucial chore of accessing the correct parameter is easier than on any other 'full' implementation of FM - ie. one that does not reduce the parameters for all four operators to 'Brilliance', 'Attack' and so on. Having said that, the V50 also offers a Quick Edit function to make changes to all four operators simultaneously: the Quick Edit parameters are Volume, Attack, Release and Brilliance.
Accompaniment for the synthesizer, in both Performance and Single play modes, can be provided by the Rhythm section. 61 PCM drum sounds are available, which can be used in 100 preset and 100 internal patterns. The Preset patterns are permanently burned into the V50's memory, whereas the Internal patterns are user-programmable. The Internal patterns are not retained in memory on powerdown, and should be saved to disk if you want to use them again. Patterns can be strung together into songs, eight of which can be created, and either patterns or songs played back to provide rhythmic backing as you play the V50's keyboard. The keyboard can either trigger drum sounds 'live' or its synthesizer section.
If you want to go beyond simple rhythm accompaniment, the sequencer allows you to record up to eight tracks of music. In order to use these tracks to play the V50 Voices multitimbrally (ie. with a different Voice per track), the synthesizer section must be in Performance mode. There are nine tracks to write on: one is always a rhythm track, and simply plays the selected rhythm song; the other eight tracks allow you to play V50 Voices, or external sound modules. The capacity of the sequencer is 16,000 notes - not princely, but a good deal more than the Korg M1. You can record each track in either real-time or step-time mode, and I found more editing options than I'd expected. The editing facilities are still not as powerful as you would expect to find on a dedicated sequencer - controller data can be erased from a track, but not edited - but they're pretty good nonetheless.
FM continues to become easier to programme and understand, and it seems that in order not to frighten anyone off with the complexities of six operators, Yamaha have decided that the V50 should use only four operators per voice. However, this is sufficient: the V50 sounds excellent. When played through the effects section and in Performance mode, four operators have never sounded this good before. The Single Voices are good enough, though more use of aftertouch modulation would have been welcome. With its improved user interface, in terms of FM synthesis alone, the V50 marks a new high in combining programmability and power. With 16-note polyphony, keyboard splits and layers, and effects that are programmable for every Performance, the V50 makes an excellent player's keyboard.
Nevertheless, most people who will be interested in the V50 will be attracted by its integration of a sequencer and drum machine. The composing and editing features that are included here are really very powerful for on-board devices, and make recording music as easy as is reasonably possible. The effects are the icing on the cake, and add that professional finish to your compositions.
All in all, the V50 is nothing dramatically new - we've seen 4-operator multitimbral synths before, and there are now other affordable keyboard workstations - but it is an instrument that brings together some very useful ideas, and offers both great sounds and ease of use as a performance and writing tool. If you need a keyboard to fill either role, the V50 is well worth a look; if you need both, it could be very hard to resist.
£1239 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Paul Ireson