Life in the Machine
The Yamaha PS6100 - portable F.M. power to the People.
A portable FM keyboard for £1,100. Miriam Rodell gets keyed up about Yamaha's PS6100.
Everyone loves FM. Okay, some (misguided) musos may wish cultured FM technology could make philistine analogue-like noises (warm, gutsy, friendly, familiar), but there's no denying FM can produce some amazingly real sounds and that FM, if not a replacement for other systems is certainly a major advance. Playing synthesis with FM, however, is far from easy. Hearing a sound change as you take away its overtones, shape the quality, volume and speed of its ADSR, modulate the sound with other signals, is so immediate. The old technology brings instant results. But mixing or adding digital sine waves into complex 'algorithms' is a very different, and initially much more confusing matter, especially when the envelope of each wave generator (operator) can be individually controlled to such a fine degree, as it may with the Yamaha DX synths. There is a great deal to think about when programming sounds by FM. Which is why many DX owners prefer to stick to the factory presets.
And if, as a player, you are going to stick to presets, why pay for programming facilities? Why not, if you're Yamaha, call an FM keyboard a special product, and instead of programming facilities, follow the successful format of other Yamaha single keyboards, and throw in easy-play features instead, and rhythms, and a split keyboard? Why not, indeed, bless the portable keyboard range with the tremendous gift of FM sound?
Despite the distinctive brightness of FM created voices, many of the presets on the 6100 are quite stunning. The moment you touch the keys you sense there is life in this machine.
There are three voice sections available — 18 upper orchestral (polyphonic) presets, six lower orchestral (polyphonic) presets and 18 solo (monophonic) presets.
The upper orchestral voices are the most immediately rewarding of the three — available polyphonically across the length of the keyboard — and although the section is not touch-sensitive (disappointingly, as it includes the only melody piano voice) in terms of the portable keyboard, the quality is exceptionally high. Organs, flutes, accordions, you might expect to sound fairly realistic, but take the vibes — the shape and ring of the voice, the keyboard follow from its hollow bass to the bright, metallic treble, is remarkably accurate. The strings too have just the right amount of delayed vibrato, just the right gentle attack to hold the authenticity of the voice even through the fastest runs.
There are, inevitably perhaps, some disappointments. The piano, although it's difficult to pin-point the problem, doesn't sound quite right, doesn't have quite that distinctive richness or depth. The harp lacks that characteristic metallic ring — surprisingly given that a metallic aftertaste is one of the hallmarks of FM sound. But in general, I have to admit, the section is pretty damn good.
To dedicate a portion of the keyboard to the lower presets, there are three separate split points — four if you count no bass at all — which is a significant advantage. Unfortunately, whilst it is a joy to have any choice of presets for the bass, if a choice is being given it seems a shame to limit the selection to six, or at least to this six. The presets are all very good, but it seems strange to find no double bass or adequate bass guitar. The guitar preset which is available here can produce a great flamenco solo, but, well...
The pièce de résistance as far as the presets are concerned must be the solo section. This is the one section with touch or pressure sensitivity — the greater pressure you apply to the keys the greater the volume, vibrato and brilliance of the sound. The effect varies according to the preset involved, so you can rock your own violin vibrato but squeeze your Funny (this machine is Japanese). And there are 18 solo presets, so, despite the lack of polyphony and consequently a piano preset, the selection is unusually wide.
It is also possible, if you have the confidence, to combine the solo presets (using upper note priority), with the upper orchestra presets — but if you accidentally lay down a right hand harmony figure before your lead line, or leave a harmony note ringing in the treble, the effect is catastrophic as the solo voice crashes up and down the keyboard after any note that may come to the top of the pile.
To back these many voices, spun into your own exciting melodies, there is both a built-in rhythm unit and an automatic accompaniment section.
The rhythms are PCM, with preset pan pot placing the instrument sounds in the stereo spectrum. PCM (using digital recordings of real, acoustic sounds) is, in theory, an excellent method of synthesising sound. But it has its drawbacks. It is true of any sampling method that unless you can afford to record and compute a sound over a lengthy period — several seconds — whilst taking many, many readings, you are going to miss out on something characteristic - some quality in the sound which will give its reproduction authenticity. Many portable keyboards now offer PCM rhythms, but the quality varies tremendously. These are, without any question, among the best I have heard from an integrated rhythm unit. And not only are they powerful and, comparatively, very real (PCM drums often sound muffled, rather like toy instruments), but there are also 32 of them, each with its own variation, two hand-clap options and three fills. More exciting still, the machine offers the facility to programme your own rhythm patterns, using up to 21 percussive instruments.
What generally makes poor electronic music gnaw at the brain are short, incessant, perfectly timed accompaniment sequences, devilish arpeggios which never drop a beat, never make a human error. Unfortunately that kind of effect is unavoidable if you have to rely on automatics. Apart from single-finger chords, the 6100 also offers a bass accompaniment working in conjunction with any of the vast selection of preset rhythms. Mercifully it does not offer any rippling arpeggios, but appropriate walking bass lines and rhythmic chord patterns. For anyone who doesn't play well, it opens the door to (almost) live two-part music. As far as easy-play sections go it is among the best, but please, please use headphones.
For the more adventurous, the model also provides facilities for programming your own sequences, including melody, chords, bass and automatic bass/chord accompaniments, each on its own channel. An instruction manual was not available when the instrument arrived for testing, and I could find no way of either recording a sequence without first selecting a rhythm, or cancelling the rhythm on playback. Those in the know at Yamaha do assure me, however, that is possible to lose the rhythm once the recording process is completed. Aside from this, the recording and editing system is self-evident. It is also possible, incidentally to dump your own rhythm creations on cassette tape, run on any common-or-garden tape recorder.
Apart from the several hours I spent happily doodling with the 6100, I did attempt to play and subsequently record one complete piece — Stevie Wonder's I Wish. The music stood on the instrument's own music rest, packed into the back of the control panel. For the majority of the song, the bass line follows an identical two bar pattern, falling easily within the lower octave-and-a-half of the keyboard, so I selected a midway split. Running through the rhythm patterns I eventually chose Disco II as the most appropriate, with a guitar bass voice. This is where some kind of slap bass or genuine bass guitar would have been useful, but I was able to balance the upper and lower manual volume controls to give the bass some clout. For the melody voice I chose electronic piano, with jazz organ for some variety.
It all sounded satisfyingly Stevie - Wonderful until I reached that awkward part where the bass changes, climbing chromatically to the climax of the main theme — "Even though we sometimes did not get a thing, we were happy with the joy the day would bring." So I slowed down the rhythm and programmed in the bass on the sequencer, speeding up the tempo again for playback. Despite a break between the end of the pattern and return to the beginning of the loop (which an instruction manual may well have cured) it not only overcame the problem but gave me the mental freedom to jam more expressively over the top.
Until now, £1,100 would have seemed a great deal of money to spend on a portable keyboard, and yes, it still seems a great deal of money. But then the PS6100 would still cost you less than the Yamaha DX9 together with the cheapest digital rhythm unit yet on the market, less than the vast majority of two-manual organs, and the price of only the least expensive of acoustic pianos. In terms of the number and quality of the features it's only just on the pricey side of good value and with its MIDI interface at least it need never become redundant. Perhaps it is about time we seriously rethought the status of the portable keyboard.
Review by Miriam Rodell
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