The Power To Be Portable
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's a battery powered, pocket sized, 8-track sequencer/32-note 8-part synth'n'drums module. Craig Anderton checks out Yamaha's mighty midget.
The muse seems to have a habit of showing up when I'm nowhere near a MIDI studio (like on a plane or at a quiet beach). As a result, I've longed for a portable songwriting machine. I've tried everything from fold-up guitars, to consumer mini-keyboards, to shipping a keyboard to my final destination, to just carrying a harmonica and microcassette recorder. All of these methods left something to be desired. What I really wanted was a songwriting machine that would:
• Be compact (about the size of a VHS videocassette).
• Handle a transcontinental flight without a battery change.
• Have good quality sounds and drive headphones to a reasonable volume level.
• Dump sequences via MIDI Out so the good bits can be edited on a computer-based sequencer with a big screen.
• Offer standard sequencer features like copy, quantise, real time or step time recording, etc.
• Include plenty of voices so notes don't always cut each other off.
• Feature an operating system that's intuitive and smooth as silk.
Granted, Yamaha's QY10 doesn't score so well on the last one, and the headphone volume level isn't quite loud enough to allow composing on a noisy tube train, but aside from that the songwriting machine of my dreams is now reality. The QY10 brings to musicians what the laptop computer brings to writers: the power to be portable.
In the box overleaf we'll cover some applications tips for the QY10, but first let's look at what it is and what it does.
The QY10 is an 8-track sequencer with built-in sounds (30 instruments and 26 drum sounds), 24 ppqn resolution, battery (six AA cells) or optional AC adapter operation, and the memory to store up to eight separate songs. Like drum machines, songs can be built by linking short (one to eight measure) patterns, although these patterns include melodic instruments as well as drums. However, you can also record linear sequence tracks, or combine the two approaches: string together a series of patterns, then overdub lines that run the length of the tune.
Of the eight tracks, four are dedicated to a 'backing track' consisting of bass, drums, and two different melodic/chordal instruments. Each of the 76 preset patterns plays a backing track with a particular musical style (see box). What keeps these presets from being merely a laundry list of musical cliches is that the performances and sounds are really pretty good, especially considering that they usually have only four measures to make their statement.
You cannot record your own lines into the four backing tracks; think of them as 'read-only', although you can switch presets at any time within the song. You can do anything you want with the other four tracks.
There are also 24 user-programmable patterns (up to eight measures each). The user pattern could start off as a copy of a preset pattern which you then edit, or be created from scratch.
There are three ways to play notes into the machine: via the MIDI In; in step time by entering notes and durations with the various buttons; by real-time playing on the 13 microkeys that are laid out to form a microkeyboard. It's an ideal size for those with micro-fingers (or perhaps nano-fingers), but don't expect to manage anything even approaching standard keyboard technique, especially since you can only play one note at a time. There is a mode where pressing a key produces a chord and different keys produce different inversions, as well as a mode for entering chord notes one at a time, but this isn't the same thing as playing standard chords.
The sounds in the QY10 are surprisingly good. Sure, hook the unit's line out into a decent playback system and you'll hear problems like awkward loops on the strings, buzzing on some of the really tight loops, and quantisation noise. Yet these sounds still go way beyond the average 'consumer' device. What's more, they're musically useful; there isn't any filler. The sounds are sufficiently good that they help the creative process, not hinder it.
The drums offer 26 trap and percussion sounds: three different kicks (including rap kick), four snares, three toms, three congas, crash, ride, open/closed/alternate hi-hat, and so on. Some of the rock sounds are really excellent.
All sounds can be transposed, sometimes to the point of becoming a new sound altogether. Transposing way down gives rumbles and roars that I'm sure someone will put to extremely good use (and which everyone will think were painstakingly generated in the digital domain with a Synclavier). Transposing way up gives aliasing noises right out of the 41 metre short wave band.
This is where it starts getting really interesting, and often confusing. Whilst it's tempting to blame any confusion on the manual, I've always felt that a manual can be no better than the operating system it documents, and that operating systems could use some streamlining. To be fair, though, the QY10 does a lot, and you have to access all this through a 16-character LCD display and 46 buttons (there are no sliders or pots, except a level control), many of which do double-duty.
Don't expect to learn this box in a day. It took me many hours until I knew my way around the machine well enough to actually do useful work. My advice: Never go anywhere without a photocopy of the QY10 Function Map, a single-page flow chart that shows which buttons you need to press to get from one function to another.
Programming a pattern works just like a drum machine, with both step and real time note entry. When entering notes in step time for either patterns or songs, there are dedicated buttons for different note values and durations. To create a song from patterns, you first create the backing track by stepping through the song and specifying where particular patterns are to play, and the chord progression you want them to follow. You can change the key/chord type at any time in the song; there are 20 different chord types (Major, Major add9, minor, minor add9, 7th, 9th, m7th, m9th, M7th, M9th, 6th, 6th + 9th, sus4, 7sus4, diminished, m7-5, augmented, 7+5, 11th, and 13th). As the song goes through the various chord changes, the music (bass part, melody lines, chords, etc.) follows the new chords.
Even more importantly, any of the backing tracks can follow a different pattern at any measure boundary. For example, the bass and two melodic sounds could follow one pattern while the drums follow a different pattern, then they could all follow the same pattern later on. This feature also allows you to insert fills, mutes, and variations, as described in the box below. After creating the backing tracks and specifying the song's chord progression, you can embellish the song with the other four sequencer tracks.
The QY10 has 32-note polyphony, which is enough voices to get a lot of music going. Time signatures from 1/4 to 8/4, 1/8 to 16/8, and 1/16 to 16/16 are supported.
Step editing lets you adjust (or insert) a note's start time, duration, transposition, and velocity, but you can also add pitch bend (incidentally, this is the only way to do so without an external device; there's no physical controller), program changes, or sustain messages. If you don't like step entry, you can overdub or record over sequencer tracks 1-4 in real time. Recording can start at any point in the sequence (this is preceded by a countdown, after which recording begins), and ends whenever you punch out.
There are several additional 'jobs' whose effect can usually be restricted to a particular measure range. These jobs include mix tracks, quantise, create blank measures, copy measures, insert measures, delete measures (removes measures on all tracks and closes up the gap this creates), erase measures (removes data on just one track at a time), transpose, and clear tracks. There's even a unique function I wish every sequencer had: Combine Track, which can take timing data from one track, note data from another track, and velocity value from a third track to create a composite track. For example, you could combine the timing data from a drum track with note data from a bass track to lock the bass and drums together.
Pattern editing is similar to song editing but there are also Put and Get functions that allow you to 'put' a backing track part into your own pattern, or 'get' parts from sequencer tracks for use in the pattern.
Each instrument can have its own level, output assignment (left, right, and centre, although the instruments are not stereo), and pitch bend range. There are also several utility functions such as MIDI sync select (internal or external), metronome, store instrument assignments for a given tune, and bulk dump option.
The QY10 is a remarkable device that falls into the 'my, we've come a long way in a few years' category. Yamaha hope the QY10 will be a consumer electronics sensation, which strikes me as somewhat optimistic given the complexity of not only the QY10 itself, but of the act of making music (just because a beginner can make music doesn't mean it's going to be personally satisfying music). However, everyone who has seen my QY10, musician or not, has been fascinated by it (Same here — Ed). Whether consumers will be fascinated enough to spend £249 is open to question, but the QY10 offers capabilities that are truly leagues beyond the average mini-keyboard in the same price range — and it has a very high 'fun factor'.
Regardless of whether or not the QY10 is a hit with consumers, musicians will probably flock to it. The QY10 has certainly answered my prayers for an electronic music notebook; I can't imagine that any MIDI musician who can afford the QY10 would pass it up. When you're offered a box that lets you create surprisingly sophisticated music virtually anywhere — from 30,000 feet in the air to the sands of a quiet tropical beach — it's almost impossible to say no.
Author/musician Craig Anderton is the author of MIDI for Musicians and Home Recording for Musicians, as well as Editor-at-Large for Guitar Player magazine. His latest recording, Forward Motion, is on the Sona Gaia label.
£249 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble Music UK, (Contact Details)
Review by Craig Anderton
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!