Synthesist Ian Boddy casts an eager eye over Yamaha's low-cost DX21 polysynth and discovers some little publicised aspects of its performance...
Veteran DX7 owner Ian Boddy casts an eager eye over Yamaha's recent synth offering, the DX21, to see how well it fares in the performance stakes.
This is not a review - OK? Hopefully that will grab your attention as to all intents and purposes this probably looks like a review. If this isn't a review, then what is it? Well, it's more a look at the philosophy behind the introduction of a relatively new product, namely the Yamaha DX21 synthesizer. As such, we are not going to have a copy-book listing of all this machine's functions but rather, special attention is going to be paid to those facilities which set it above being just another synth, one of many to come off the production lines of our Japanese friends.
In many ways, this could well have been the case but for the fact that this manufacturer has not been satisfied with bringing out just a cheaper, smaller version of the ever popular DX7. The temptation must certainly have been there as in the past many companies have produced a popular synth in the mid-price bracket and then, due to demand, introduced a cut-price version of the original product at a later date. The cheaper instrument, while looking and possibly even sounding like its bigger brother, obviously can't be as good can it? Surely, if the price is to come down functions have to be omitted, corners have to be cut - don't they?
Strictly speaking, the answer to both these questions has to be 'yes'. But what's to stop the smaller synth having improvements over its ancestor? After all, with any product design, when it hits the market place lessons are going to be learned, expectations are going to be fulfilled or not as the case may be, and errors may arise in the original layout of the instrument that weren't evident on the drawing board. It should then be the manufacturer's responsibility to work on these areas and when designing their latest instrument to incorporate the practical ideas thrown up by the feedback they receive from customers. Thankfully, the DX21 fits right in with this line of thinking.
The DX7, undoubtedly today's most popular programmable polyphonic synthesizer, has to date been snatched up by literally thousands of musicians ranging from complete amateurs to the top professional performers. Even so, it is still not a cheap instrument being significantly over the psychological one thousand pounds barrier. Unfortunately, this puts FM synthesis beyond the reach of many people who would dearly love to get to grips with the good old algorithms of the DX range. And with the demise of the DX9 (which was too similar to its bigger brother but with far fewer facilities and thus didn't appear good value for money), Yamaha have had to introduce a more affordable FM synth that, although not as sophisticated as the DX7, expands on the original design philosophy and incorporates new design features. The DX21 hits this aim right on target. Basically, it is an eight-note programmable polyphonic FM synthesizer retailing at a little over half the price of a DX7. Of course, sacrifices have been made: only four operators as opposed to six on the DX7, eight algorithms compared to 32, a simpler envelope stage more closely resembling a conventional ADSR, and 64 preset frequency ratios. Despite all of this, however, the DX21 retains the characteristic 'FM' sound and while it lacks some of the power, sophistication and versatility of the DX7, for its price (around £700), it represents excellent value for money and is more than capable of producing very good sounds.
That's fine so far, being much as one would expect from a budget version of the DX7, but now it's the turn of the DX21 to put a few over on its big brother. Not only can it play single sounds but also two sounds over the entire keyboard (Dual Mode). There is even a Split Mode with an assignable keyboard split point whereupon each of the two sounds in this mode revert to being either four-note polyphonic or one seven-note polyphonic and the other monophonic. Of course, a stereo output would be useful to make the best of this feature in terms of individual effect processing of the two voices with, perhaps, a slider for balancing the levels of the two patches and, if we're working in stereo, why not throw in a chorus unit (for imitating a Juno 60?) and even a control for detuning the two voices? Which is fine, for they are all provided!
Oh well, as Yamaha are being so generous let's see if we can squeeze a few more goodies out of them. How about cassette storage of voices; after all, there's little or no point buying a synth in this price range and then paying a fortune for expensive RAM packs to store your patches on, is there? Yes, you've guessed it: that's provided too. Surely they've forgotten something you ask? Well, yes - even Yamaha designers are human (I think) - for there is still NO back-lit LCD. Many of you will know what that means: we'll still have to fumble about on dimly lit stages with small pocket torches. The major design fault though must be in deciding to place the pitch-bend and modulation wheels in the top left-hand corner of the instrument (ie. above the keyboard as opposed to beside it) giving lots of scope for fumbled bass notes-pity.
However, despite these minor quibbles, the DX21 still has more surprises in store. Let's not forget the 128 preset sounds stored in the internal ROM (some of which put those of the DX7 in the shade) nor, more importantly, the fact that it is now possible to store 32 performance memories. This latter facility would have been a godsend on my DX7 yet, despite its inclusion on the DX21, Yamaha haven't quite gone far enough I feel, as only the play mode, key split, dual mode detune, key shift, pitch-bend mode and voice numbers are stored and remembered. Other performance parameters such as portamento, modulation wheel amount and breath controller aren't catered for as far as patch storage in the performance memories is concerned. It's possible to give these memories a name if you like, although that could call for some real imagination as it's difficult enough thinking up names for the actual sounds, let alone how to identify a particular combination of performance parameters!
Of course, MIDI is present; can you imagine anything these days without it? Fortunately, the DX21's MIDI facilities are more flexible than those of the DX7, being able to both transmit and receive on any of the 16 channels (another lesson learned). It should now be self-evident how the DX21 fits in with the design philosophy of product improvement discussed earlier but if you thought that would be the end of the story then think again. As well as keeping down the price of the DX21 and incorporating all these new functions - a feat impressive enough in its own right - there is one feature on this synth which is even more significant in that it shows a positive move toward more expressive playing, as we'll see.
With the arrival of the DX7 (apart from the stunning effect FM sounds had on many people), musicians suddenly found themselves with an affordable touch-sensitive synth that also offered a new-found means of expression through after-touch and breath control, all of which helped in making the instrument a joy to play. (No doubt a contributing factor to its runaway success.) No longer had those of us with fairly modest budgets to be content with plastic keyboards that, no matter how much expression you put into them, always emitted the same tones.
Thankfully, the realm of making the synthesizer a more responsive instrument to play seems to be a highly desirable (maybe even profitable) area for manufacturers to explore. Certainly touch-sensitivity is becoming more commonplace although, sad to say, the DX21's keyboard is lacking in this department (though its FM tone generators will respond to key velocity information via MIDI, so you could control it from another touch-sensitive keyboard or MIDI sequencer). After-touch is another useful performance facility that needs to be investigated further although, until someone can come up with a cost-effective method of making this effect respond to individual notes when a chord is held down, its usefulness will never match its potential. Then there is the breath controller: while not to everybody's taste (!) it is another step forward in the quest for keyboard expression.
For the majority of synth players, as expected, the two main synth controllers are still the pitch-bend and modulation wheels (and/or benders). Whilst on the DX21, Yamaha haven't progressed with the latter, something very significant has happened to the former. Pitch-bend has been around on synths in much the same format for so long that even your gran will remember it. Until now that is, as the DX21 features two nice improvements on this facility. Firstly, when playing a chord, adding pitch-bend can often, though not always, result in a pretty awful sound! On the DX21, it is now possible to select the pitch-bend to operate on only the top or bottom note of a chord which is precisely the mechanism that our friends the guitarist and violinist (to name but two) often include in their repertoire of playing techniques.
Now the problem with many of the purely imitative FM sounds available from the DX range of synths is that to get the best out of them, it is necessary to play them in a similar manner to the instrument that they are supposed to represent. Certainly the breath controller helps in this respect as regards brass/wind instrument sounds and, similarly, these new pitch-bend modes will aid greatly in producing improved guitar and string imitations. Even if you're into purely synthetic sounds, this facility can still produce some very interesting effects.
The second problem the DX21 solves is how to bend the pitch of a note while playing the keyboard with both hands. Unless you are a contortionist and have a good sense of balance, you obviously can't use your feet, so Yamaha have overcome this by giving the breath controller a new feature called 'Pitch-Bias'. With this, it is possible to select pitch-bend up or down, the degree of effect being related to the amount programmed and how hard you blow - although at any one time the bend will only work in one direction. Even so, together with the new pitch-bend modes, this takes the synthesizer another important step up the ladder towards full expression.
So there stands the DX21, not just another cut-price keyboard but a synth into which a lot of thought and time has been invested. Let's just hope that Yamaha, and all the other manufacturers, are able to maintain the ideals of product improvement outlined above, particularly when it comes to making the synthesizer a more expressive instrument to play.
Many thanks to Rock City Music of Newcastle for their kind loan of the DX21.
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