Can multi-keyboards match up to the latest hi-tech instruments? We take up the challenge.
Can multi-keyboards compete with today's hi-tech synthesisers? Dave Foister takes up the Yamaha challenge and investigates.
A few years ago no self-respecting keyboard player would appear on stage without lugging some kind of organ up to complete his keyboard rig. The famous Hammond sound is deeply ingrained in all styles of music from Zoot Money and Procul Harum to the Stranglers. However in design and styling these instruments crossed over from the rock'n' roll to the consumer keyboard field, and accessibly priced polyphonic synthesisers have to some extent replaced organs in their traditional TOTP slot. Has the new generation of 'multi-keyboards' then, anything to offer today's musician that he can't get from his existing DX-9's, DX-7's, pedals and signal processors?
Yamaha believe they have and dropped the gauntlet at the door of ES&CM's office in a challenge for us to investigate the claims of some of their latest FM multi-keyboards. 'We promise' they said 'You'll be amazed.'
One of the biggest points in favour of the multi-keyboard is that you get so much all packed into the one box. You have two (sometimes even three) keyboards, pedals — which could be useful to us all if we spent a bit of time mastering them — a digital drum machine, FM sounds, memories, effects, reverb, and lots of add-on odds and sods available. To build up a system like that any other way would involve two or three instruments plus half a dozen extra boxes of chips and the proverbial half a plateful of spaghetti, although you would of course be able to choose all the components yourself. Since everything's all on one instrument it makes the whole thing much simpler to operate than a studio full of gear.
The sounds themselves are strong, with many of them clearly familiar from tinkering with DX's and PF's, although the emphasis seems to be on the imitative rather than the striking, and on the big orchestral rather than the strong solo. Notwithstanding, there are pianos, electric pianos, 'cosmic' sounds and so on, with keyboards which on most models are touch sensitive; as with the DX7 the tone changes when you hit it harder as well as the volume, and many models have the same 'after-touch' facility, where extra pressure on the key after you've played it makes the sound brighter or louder or adds vibrato.
Of course there's not a lot you can do to change the sounds apart from adding chorus, tremolo, phasing and/or reverb, but since there are so many sounds is that necessarily a drawback? Research has shown that half the people who buy programmable synthesisers never program them; they make do with the factory presets, which are obviously designed to give a wide variety of strong sounds, and that's what you get on a multi-keyboard. Few people so far have got the nous to program their own sounds accurately and predictably on a DX7 but they still sell faster than they can make them, and the Roland JX3P is doing very nicely thank you with its two banks of factory sounds.
Particularly strong sounds come from the rhythm unit. The drums are PCM recordings, pre-programmed in various patterns. The cheapest model has 16 patterns with fills which should cover most things, while many models have four variations on each pattern. The sounds are as good as you'd expect from a digital unit, and for the sake of knocking together a quick song demo, how much easier to find a pre-programmed pattern for it than to spend hours pushing buttons to program a Linn.
Many of the extra features have very strong 'organ' connotations, mainly to do with automatic accompaniment, but again for a demo why not use it to advantage? The machine produces automatic bass lines, automatic harmonies, automatic rhythm sections and all sorts, and if that sounds too much like a Casiotone for comfort, these things are in a different league. You do have a choice of styles for the accompaniment, full control over the sounds you use, and the end result is so full that you could stick a demo down in one take, straight to stereo. Better still, on some of the top models you can use an optional digital recorder which records the entire performance in digital form on floppy disc, which duplicates everything you did on the instrument on playback. On the subject of digital memories, many models use DX7-type RAM packs to store full registration settings.
Ah, you cry, but it still looks like an organ whatever you say. So what? Surely it's the sound and the facilities which matter, not the styling, and anyway a couple of the models are available in quite spacey-looking cabinets.
The range is simply too big to look at in any individual detail, but the choice is enormous, from the simplest model, the FE-30, to the top-of-the-line FX-20. The FE-30, at under a grand, has a good selection of voices, digital drums, 'play assist' features, effects — quite a lot for the money. The FX-20 is twelve and a half thousand, and looks like it. It's got the works — RAM pack interface, disc recorder interface, loads of voices, programmable rhythm sequencer for stringing together all the factory patterns and fills in a large memory, three keyboards with full touch response, programmable vibrato on all the individual voices — rate, depth and delay — and the whole range of effects. If you really want to go mad there's the FX1 at over 27 thousand. Altogether there are 13 models to choose from, all including some or all of the features I've mentioned.
So have they actually any relevance to us whizzos at the forefront of today's creative musical technology? I think probably yes, within certain limits. If you're heavily into experimental stuff perhaps not, but for someone who needs a complete system to work on at home writing songs it could well provide the answer to a dream or two. While the things still look like organs you might feel a bit of a berk taking one on stage or into the studio, but really there's so much in there that most of us seem to want that they must be worth thinking about. You could always cover it up with a big black cloth studded with hundreds of sequins and rhinestones and LEDs and fibre optics — not, of course, that the image matters at all. What counts is the sound, and if you haven't listened to one of these instruments lately, the DX-7 generation of multi-keyboards will, as promised, raise more than a few eyebrows!