Yamaha's QX1 Sequencer, KX88 Master Keyboard, TX816 Modules
Yamaha's professional FM sequencer master keyboard and FM modules.
Although there is never one product that provides everything for everybody, there is usually one product that stands alone from the rest of the pack. In some respects Yamaha have, if not revolutionised, then at least 'broadened' the options available/affordable to the serious musician with their DX7 synthesiser. As they are certainly not fools (and would not survive in this business for one minute if they were), they can recognise a winner and know how to exploit it to its fullest potential; and this is where their TX816 system fits in.
The system is based around the TX816 sound generator - essentially eight DX7 sound generators (with 32 performance memories each) in one 19" 4U rackmounting unit, which ideally is controlled from a DX7 or their new KX88 Master Keyboard. Then as a kind of 'brain' for this set-up, there is the 80,000 note, eight track, floppy disk based QX1 sequencer which will also store all the TX816's voice and performance parameter data onto disk.
As there is a huge amount of technology in this system to get to grips with, I shall outline each of the three components separately, starting with the most straightforward, and yet most dramatically powerful - the TX816 Sound Generator.
This relatively modest looking unit consists of the MRF8 power supply/racking unit which houses up to eight TF1 Sound modules. These modules slot into the front of the unit each one having a red numerical LED display and three multifunction switches. The master module on the left hand side of the front panel has a power on/off switch, MIDI In, Out, and Thru sockets, as well as an LED display and switch for the selection of which TF1 module is routed to the front panel MIDI Out (primarily for voice data transfer). On the rear panel are individual balanced XLR audio outputs (much more preferable and 'professional' than conventional jack outputs), and MIDI Out and Thru sockets for each of the eight sound modules, which are differentiated from the front panel MIDI connections by switching the TF1s between 'Individual' (individual back panel MIDI Ins and Thrus) and 'Common' (the master module's front panel In, Out and Thru), with the first of the three multifunction switches.
The switches on each of the TF1 modules are arranged one above the other, with the LED display lying next to the third one. It is from the third selector switch that the different operating modes are selected - Play Mode, Edit Mode, Store Mode and Utility Mode. When the power is first switched on, each TF1 will automatically enter the Play Mode, and in this mode the top two switches relate to the writing and LED On/Off indicators next to them - the top one being Individual or Common MIDI source selection, and the second one down is assigned to Memory Protect On/Off.
The third switch down ('Select') can be depressed in two different ways - in order to select between the four operating modes, it must be held down and the LED display will then scroll through the four modes at roughly two second intervals. The sub modes of each of these can then be selected by repeatedly pressing the switch. Thus in the play mode, the Select switch will access three Sub-Modes - MIDI channel select, Omni mode On/Off and Master Tune. In order to change the settings, the first two switches act as increment and decrement controls, the top one being '+1/Yes/On', and the middle switch being '-1/No/Off'. Therefore, in order to change the TF1's MIDI channel, one must depress the Select switch once, and then press the top switch to increase the MIDI channel or press the middle switch to decrease it. This method of operation might appear a bit fiddly, but I found it quite easy to get the hang of and is infinitely preferable to littering the front panel with loads of switches and displays, as a surprising amount of information is shown on the single LED display.
The second operating mode is the Edit mode. By holding down the Select switch for about two seconds, this mode is entered and there are four Sub-Modes which can then be accessed - Program Number Select, Output Level Attenuate, Limit Lowest Key and Limit Highest Key. Although I described the TF1s as essentially being DX7 sound generators, there are several important features that they have which are not found on the DX7, such as 32 performance parameter memories (on the DX7 these are not programmable) and the last two of these Edit Sub-Modes - Limit Lowest Key and Limit Highest Key. What these two features enable you to do is not simply to give a conventional split point on any MIDI keyboard, but also to allocate different regions along the keyboard for the different modules as well as some 'trickery' by placing the Limit Lowest Key higher than the Limit Highest Key. which will assign the module to only the top and bottom end of the keyboard!
The third operating mode is the Store Mode - the Yamaha manual gets a little witty here by saying "No, the Store mode is not a fashion boutique...", which can only be a good thing, knowing it's only the American manuals that have a sense of humour. In this mode the edited voices and/or performance data can be stored and re-arranged with the three Sub-Modes being Select Destination, Store Voice And Function, and Store Only Function.
The Utility Mode is the fourth mode, and in it are found many clever and useful Sub-Modes - Dump All Voices And Functions will transmit all of the voice and function data out through the Common MIDI bus, to be either stored on the QX1's floppy disks, internal memory, RAM pack or Yamaha's CX5 computer (with the DX7 Voicing Program). The second Sub-Mode is for clearing and initializing all of the performance memories, followed by a very useful Audio Check Sub-Mode. This, when selected and switched on, will provide a 440Hz test tone from each of the modules at -4dB, with which one can check audio connections and set levels on mixing desks etc.
The final Utility Sub-Mode is for checking on the TF1's backup battery's voltage - which should, says the manual, last up to five years. When the battery voltage does become low the error LED on the front panel will light giving the error code 4 (which means 'Low Backup Battery Voltage'...). In this same way, various other internal memory faults can be displayed with their various codes - 1 = Data Receive Error, 2 = Receive Buffer Full etc.
The TX816 is a very robust looking unit, yet still fits in quite smartly with the current Yamaha styling. The switches are conveniently made in such a way that when switching all the modules to different modes, it is possible to quickly slide a finger across all of them for quick changes between, say, Individual or Common MIDI select etc.
One rather important point to mention is that it is possible to purchase this TX816 with only two modules and then add more modules when finances allow. This is called the TX216, which consists of two TF1 modules in the MRF8 rack, which retails at £899.00. Each additional TF1 module will cost £449.00.
As I mentioned, the QX1 is Yamaha's 'big' floppy disk based sequencer which can store a staggering 80,000 notes per disk! The layout and design is attractive and functional with all operation mode information being printed at the top of the facia. An illuminated LCD screen in the center is the QX1's means of communication with the user, and as on the TX816, the system is divided into four operating modes - Play, Record, Edit and Utility.
In the Play Mode, any information stored in the QX1 will be transmitted to the MIDI instrument with which the QX1 is linked - the TX816's eight modules corresponding to the QX1's eight tracks. These are completely independent tracks in which musical data is stored, and can be thought of in much the same way as an eight track tape recorder, yet with the ability to speed up or down playback tempo without changing pitch, and edit individual notes with complete control over dynamics, amongst other things.
The QX1's memory is divided up into 32 banks (songs or sub-divisions of songs to be chained together), each of which can store up to 999 bars of music over the eight tracks. All the data is directly stored and read from the 5¼" floppy disk, and it is in this way that such huge amounts of data can be handled. In each of the banks, all system control is stored - not just the note on/off, touch sense, modulation wheel etc., but also program change, time signature, tempo change, and of course overdubbing is possible - with a maximum of 127 notes at once!
The Record mode is where one begins to appreciate the power inside the QX1 - essentially acting as a real time sequencer (although it is possible to input step time data in the Edit mode) the QX1 enables you to record a piece of music into one bank, and then lets you completely rearrange, overdub, transpose, insert and delete specific notes - all in one of the eight tracks in each of the 32 banks.
The different modes have various job commands. In the Play mode there are three different job commands - Disk Change, Status/Switch and Output Assign. In all the four modes, the first job command is always for Disk Change. The Status/Switch selects which track you want to play and selection of clock synchronisation. The Output Assign job will select which tracks go to which output and on which MIDI channel.
These same job commands appear in the Record mode, with the addition of a Receive Condition mode - selecting MIDI receive channel, and whether or not it receives Program change, Control change and Modulation Wheel.
The third mode is the Edit mode, and it is here where some of the more sophisticated editing functions are found. In addition to the previously mentioned job commands found in the Record mode, the Edit mode has commands for Gate Time Ratio (the percentage of the duration of the note length that a key is held), Step per Measure (number of beats per bar), Copy Measure (copies measure from any location to any location in the piece of music), Transpose measure (transposes a selected part of the track), and finally Time Quantizing which will autocorrect a performance's timing imperfections or synchronise notes to a selected primary beat. There are a few other job commands which are not listed on the QX1's front panel which come under the Edit mode, and these are for modifying Velocity, Bend, Gate, Time, or Note Length data.
The fourth mode is the Utility mode, and this is where one will find some of the more major QX1 commands - Chain programming of the banks, naming, copying, deleting, initializing and back up of disks and banks, deleting and mixing of tracks, Data transfer and an overall Time Display for that bank.
On the QX1's rear panel are the eight respective MIDI busses for the eight tracks which in this instance interface with the individual MIDI inputs on the TX816, as well as a MIDI Thru and In which connects up to a DX7 or the KX88 Master Keyboard Controller...
By now, most people should be familiar with the modular MIDI synthesiser concept - playing several MIDI sound modules from one remote keyboard. Well this is Yamaha's remote master keyboard - 7 octaves of weighted keys which are sensitive to velocity and after-touch, which can be used in either Single, Dual or Split modes.
In addition to the standard pitch and modulation wheels, the KX88 has a breath controller, two foot switches, four front panel sliders, and seven front panel switches which can all be assigned to any type of MIDI information. This means that it is possible for the user to assign the modulation wheel to control operator feedback, one of the front panel sliders to master tuning, the keyboards's after-touch sensing to modulation pedal etc.
Once you have assigned your own configuration, this information can be programmed into one of the KX88's 16 memory locations, for future recall.
There are two banks of program select, which would usually correspond to two different MIDI channels. In this way, the keyboard can be split and layered (Dual Mode) between the two channels with each channel being independently transposable, and also can have different controllers being assigned to do separate tasks for each channel.
To change the voice program of the remote Sound Modules, one must simply press one of the switches along the top row (initially) which will go from 17 to 32 by depressing the orange 'A' selector on the left of the top row. To get into the Controller Assign mode you must press the Mode switch to the left of the LED display and then you can access any of the controllers and assign them to any destination.
There are a selection of 'conventional' destinations to choose from - portamento time, modulation rate, depth and delay, transpose, volume, mono on/off, MIDI clock start/stop (for controlling external sequencers and drum machines), which as I said before can be routed to any of the controllers. For less conventional destinations, the actual MIDI controller code can be assigned (there is a table in the back of the manual outlining System Exclusive and Universal MIDI codes) which can then be assigned to your chosen controller.
The actual feel of the KX88's keyboard is quite superb. In the past I have found many keyboards with weighted keys a bit of a struggle when played as a synth, rather than a piano. However, the KX88's keys seem to have the best of both worlds by feeling solid, positive and responsive whilst remaining fast and un-tiring for long-ish periods of time.
When the KX88 is linked to the Common MIDI input on the TX816 (therefore playing all eight modules at once), the result is nothing short of breath-taking. The string voices might as well be samples they are so realistic, and the first piano voice is certainly the best synthesised Piano I have ever heard. When you select some of the layered patches - say Rhodes+Strings+Brass (Strings being controlled from the footpedal and the brass envelope being controlled by the breath controller), you begin to get an idea of some of the power and potential that lies within the TX816. Once I had saturated myself with the voices already programmed into two modules, I linked my DX7 to the 816 and started building up layered patches of my own sounds - some synth patches with strings controlled from the footpedal, bass guitar (split up to middle C), brass on after-touch etc; and making up such patches is simple.
If that wasn't enough to make me break into a cold sweat and begin quivering at the knees, the simplicity and versatility of multitrackinq on the QX1 is 'inspiring' in much the same way as I found Linn's 9000.
Although I have been talking in terms of the TX816 rather than the cheaper two module version, the TX216; everything that I have mentioned equally applies to the 216.
On this month's tape I have recorded some of the demos that Dave Bristow has recorded onto a demo disk for the QX1 - all of which were played totally live and in real time. The different instruments were controlled from the various performance controllers - breath, modulation wheel, etc.
In a future issue I shall discuss in a bit more depth the more intricate aspects of the QX1 linked with the TX816.
Prices: QX1 £2499; TX816 £4199; KX88 £1399
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Review by Curtis Schwartz
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