Grey Matter Response E! Board
For the DX7II
Grey Matter Response's E! expansion for the DX7 virtually gave it the power of the DX7II; E! for the DX7II represents another quantum leap in DX capability. Chris Many checks it out.
How would you like to give your DX7II or DX7S multitimbrality, a MIDI sequencer, a MIDI event processor, and expanded memory? GMR's latest wonder gives you all this and more.
IT WOULD BE fair to say that Yamaha's DX line of synthesisers was responsible for creating a sub-industry of third-party soft and hardware manufacturers. Voice patches, software to ease the pain of FM programming, powerful librarians and RAM cartridges capable of storing hundreds of sounds are just a few examples of this industry. One of the most innovative upgrades for the original DX7 is an internal modification which provides additional storage capabilities as well as a host of extra features.
The arrival of the new DX7's has occasioned a new E! board. The board currently works with the DX7IID and FD, but it will also work with the DX7S once the software has been revised to account for that instrument's smaller LCD display. Not only does the new E! board allow 256 patches and 128 Performance setups to be stored internally, but it also makes a single DX7II multitimbral (up to 8 voices), adds a sophisticated MIDI control station capable of generating arpeggios, ostinato patterns and multitimbral chords (all triggered by hitting one key) and includes a 16-track sequencer on board, as well as many other features. Quite an upgrade, really.
INSTALLATION IS NOT for the faint of heart. If you're not comfortable with a soldering iron, or counting IC pins I'd recommend you have someone qualified do the installation for you. The instructions for fitting the board are useful to those who have a working knowledge of circuitry, but not really for the novice. It may cost you a few quid, but unless you are really familiar with this sort of thing, plan on spending the money.
When you turn on your upgraded synthesiser, you'll immediately be informed that it has the E! board installed courtesy of a message on the DX's display. But be reassured; there have been no changes to the functions of the synth as you know them, all the modifications are over and above the original functions. So you won't have to relearn anything you'd already invested hours in learning about operating your instrument. And E! shouldn't present you with too many operational problems as most of its features are simply accessed with three buttons.
FIRST OFF, THERE are four banks of 64 slots available to store sounds, as well as four banks of 32 Performance setups. There's no real trick to accessing or storing any of the sounds - by using the data entry buttons, you select the bank you want to be in and select or save patches just as you normally would. You've already recouped a healthy piece of your investment by virtue of this one feature alone as you might spend over £200 on RAM cartridges to hold the sounds you can now store internally in RAM - though the FD's internal floppy could also store patches which could be loaded into RAM.
E! consists of three main modules: Engine, a 16-track DX/MIDI event processor; SE!quencer, the 16-track built-in sequencer; and Voyeur, a MIDI monitor program. Engine is the heart of E! giving your DX7II all the capabilities of a full-function keyboard controller.
Engine's features, as with all of those found in E! and the DX7II, are laid out in structured menus displayed on the LCD screen. Adjustment of parameters is achieved either by using the cursor keys, the entry slider or +/- buttons. There are three main segments to Engine: the Controller menus, the Performance/Voice mode menus and the DX Voice menus. Each group has been assigned its own access button (27, 28 and 29 respectively), and the menus are cycled through by repeatedly pressing the appropriate button.
Setting up your DX as a MIDI controller involves understanding how E! approaches MIDI data management. Engine's main menu is called the Track Assign menu, where you can assign up to 16 Tracks of MIDI setups, directing the Engine data to any internal DX voice or MIDI channel - so as to play external synths or MIDI devices. It's easy to get confused because of the use of the word "tracks" as a MIDI organising term, but if you think of this as a channeliser feature, and not a sequencing term, you'll get the idea (it'll make more sense once you get into the sequencer, since its 16 tracks correspond to Engine's 16 Tracks).
Each Track can be assigned a specific MIDI channel, a transposition amount (for either internal DX voices or external synths), velocity response curve setting and a volume/brightness control. You can also change patches from this menu - helpful if you've got an array of synths and you want to select your patch from the DX. Velocity curves can be set to normal, higher than you play, the inverse of the velocity you play (so playing soft will sound loud and vice versa) and to high/low (playing anything over a medium velocity will produce high). Once you've got your Track set up it can be stored in a Performance, creating in essence a 16-track MIDI patch map that will transmit patch changes, transposition settings and so on at the press of a button. Keep in mind, however, that Track 1 is basically reserved for Engine's live play track when you get to the sequencer assignments.
Using the controller menus, you can also reassign controller functions to specified Tracks. For example, pitch-bends can be set up to affect only those voices on Track 5, aftertouch for channel 2 and so on. This is true for 17 different controllers, however only one controller can be routed to one destination; no multiple combinations are permissible (like breath control assignments to tracks 4, 8, 9 and 13).
"Performance: Chord and Player performance modes allow you to accompany yourself with chords, arpeggios or complex rhythms by pressing a key."
WITH E! FITTED to your DX, you have four DX Voice modes: Single, Dual, Split and Octal. The first three are identical to the original DX7II Voices modes while Octal mode lets you play up to eight DX voices at once. You can adjust each of the eight voices' volume levels with respect to each other (a mini mixer is built in), in addition to eight separate transposition and microtuning assignments. Polyphony is selectable as well, although each voice needs a minimum of two notes and you'll need to arrange from high to low assignments in even numbers.
Not only can you use the Octal mode with the sequencer, but E! also permits an 8-way split mode. Splits are easily assigned by selecting the ranges of MIDI note numbers to be used (you can assign ranges outside the DX keyboard), meaning you can play up to eight different sounds at once from the keyboard. Although you can preset the polyphony of each voice, there's another alternative for more efficient voice distribution - E!'s dynamic voice allocation (DVA). This will allocate the voices only when they are actually playing. In other words, if you only use a brass patch during the chorus of a song, and not during the verses, more voices can be available for other patches when the brass is not playing. DVA can be used in conjunction with manual settings as well.
Patch assignment in Octal mode is fairly painless. When you go from the menu to the main DX display, a letter (A-H) will appear next to the patch name. By pressing the A/B button you can cycle through the eight available voicings. By selecting your patches as you move through these locations, each one will be automatically stored. There is a slight delay as you select patch numbers, but nothing that creates any problems. You can access each of these voices using an external sequencer as well, providing you're in Direct MIDI mode. Each track assignment (1-8) corresponds with MIDI channels 1-8. Stereo panning, as you normally set it up, is disabled when you're in Octal mode; however, there is a pseudo pan feature available. By pressing the Pan button while in Performance mode, the DX voices that have been allocated the first eight notes of polyphony will come from one audio channel, while the remaining eight voices come from the other. This is as close as you can get to stereo panning in Octal, but it should be adequate for most purposes and is a small price to pay for making your DX7II multitimbral.
Engine also comes with eight different Performance modes. Normal is essentially the same as the regular DX7II/DX7 performance mode, with the exception that the active track (the one that is considered the live track, or the one you're actually hearing when you press the keys) can flip between Tracks 1 and 2 (remember, these are the first and second MIDI setups). Track Hi has Track 1 play all the notes, but the highest current note is also played by Track 2.
Using Floating Split performance mode, your left hand may play Track 1 while your right plays Track 2. However, there is no fixed split point - the split automatically adjusts itself and moves up and down the keyboard as you play. E! constantly monitors the highest current note, and any note within a nine note range beneath the highest note is considered to be assigned to Track 2. Although it sounds good in theory, the processing speed is a little slow, so E! doesn't always quite keep up. And if you jump more than a nine note interval, there's no way for E! to know that you meant for the note to be assigned to Track 2. It takes a little getting used to, but this Floating Split point is a nice touch.
There are also Chord and Player performance modes, whereby you can accompany yourself using one finger to produce chords, arpeggios or complex rhythms by pressing a key. You're limited to 10 PlayerSongs/ChordSongs but it's an interesting feature that can be programmed using 16 Track patterns and something called the Tonal Processor.
This Tonal Processor basically allows you to assign preprogrammed chords of your choice to individual notes in the bottom octave of the DX keyboard. Four parameters are available that you can adjust per note - Key, Scale, Pattern, and Alternate Tonality (which will trigger only when you hit two notes simultaneously). Depending on the mode you are in (Player or Chord), these will get either chords or arpeggios/rhythm patterns.
Everything I've talked about so far (in fact just about anything you can do with E! - including sequences and tempos) can be stored as a Performance patch on the DX7II. You've got 128 Performance settings at your disposal now, and this is where they come into their own. Storing MIDI setups that automatically update your synth patches is a great asset for live performances, as is switching from an 8-voice split keyboard to a normal single patch with a key press. If you're using the onboard sequencer, you can store and activate the whole setup: patch changes, track assignments, tempo, levels and so on, all within a Performance setting.
"Structure: E! consists of Engine, a 16-track DX/MIDI event processor; SE!quencer, a 16-track, built-in sequencer; and Voyeur, a MIDI monitor program."
SE!QUENCER IS A 16-track MIDI recorder now built into your DX. There aren't a lot of frills to it, but it certainly takes your synth to a new level of performance. SE!quencer employs drum-machine style programming: create patterns including up to 16 tracks each (conventional track terminology used now) and string them together into songs. The Engine settings are an important part of utilising SE!quencer, as whatever you record into it (as tracks 1-16) will be played back by whatever instruments the Engine's destinations are currently set to. It sounds more complicated than it is, but suffice it to say that this is an integrated operation, and it is easy to switch from one mode (SE!quencer) to the other (Engine) and make any necessary adjustments.
A pattern can be up to 64 bars long, and you can adjust the time signature to your liking. You also have the option of lead-in beats. Recording is simple - just put it into Record mode and start. When you're finished, you can quantise the track, preview what you played before saving it, or strip out MIDI controller data. When you save the pattern, SE!quencer automatically advances to the next available track so you can continue your recording with a minimum of fuss. Variable tempos can be incorporated into the pattern as well. Step recording is also available and works just as you'd expect - you play notes and advance the clock to determine their length.
Laying out a song is relatively simple, but you'll have to be prepared; you select the Patterns in real time while SE!quencer records them into a song (remember the TR808?). Select Record Song mode and start the sequencer - after the count-in clicks just begin selecting the patterns in the correct order. If you want a pattern to repeat, do nothing and it will automatically loop until you select another pattern or stop it. That's all there is to it.
Editing is a little tougher and not as friendly as I've grown to expect from MIDI recorders. Basically, you can step through a Pattern or a Song and adjust events (note, velocity and duration) or controller events. However, you'll need to know what you're looking for before you attempt any changes. You can't hear anything while you're doing this editing, so you'll be relying on the visual readout of events to tell you what's going on. It makes correcting things harder, as you need to be able to recognise the note or event and have a good idea of when it occurred. It's not that it can't be done, but it would have been helpful to hear the notes if only to make it easy to navigate around the pattern.
A rudimentary Utility mode is also included, allowing for the copying of Patterns and the initialising of Patterns, Tempos or Tracks. SE!quencer stores up to 22,000 events - a respectable capacity for a keyboard update. And remember, not only will the sequencer play internal DX voices but any external synths it's MIDI'd to. It also allows internal and external sync, so it will follow a drum machine's clock pulse or drive one.
The last module, Voyeur, is a MIDI monitor program and is included for those already familiar with the more technical aspects of MIDI. It's helpful if you're working with a large synth setup, or if you just want to see how MIDI works. Voyeur displays all incoming MIDI data on the DX7's LCD - interesting but not that useful really.
A few other features are available that I've not mentioned: expanded memory for 12-tone microtunings, a 12-tone scale compiler that creates a global scale much faster than by individually tweaking notes, storing E! information to disk (on the DX7IIFD's internal drive) or via MIDI to a SysEx computer librarian program, and a 4-voice stack mode.
E! ENHANCES THE versatility of the DX7II considerably. The documentation is well prepared and easy to use, although a bit complicated. The main stumbling block is the confusing use of the term Track for different things depending on the mode you're in. Once you get the grasp of that, E! is actually a breeze. It is excellent value for the money, not only expanding the capacity of Voice and Performance storage by four times, but turning your DX into a sophisticated MIDI controller and throwing in a functional sequencer to boot. And it means your dual-voice DX7II (or single voice DX7S) is now capable of up to eight separate voices at once, making it a multitimbral synth.
More from UK distributor to be confirmed. Meanwhile, contact Grey Matter Response, (Contact Details)
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Review by Chris Many
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