Yamaha's DX1, here at last
Yamaha's new DX1 keyboard at over £9000 may appear expensive to the average musician but Chris Everard finds himself swayed by the delights of FM.
In case you haven't heard, Syco systems have thrown away their 'only for Arabs' image and have developed their premises in Conduit Place to such an extent that they practically own one side of it. Nevertheless, they are still stocking the elite of the electronic instrument world and as such are now selling the Yamaha DX1 FM keyboard.
So, it was to Syco that I went to survey and sample the delights of this instrument. I was hoping that the DX1 was going to be as powerful as the Synclavier and be of a fully 'open-ended' design concept, but after just two or three minutes, it was apparent that the DX1 isn't (and probably won't be) as powerful as the aforementioned American model.
The attempted comparison is well founded as New England Digital, the makers of the Synclavier, are actually manufacturing the FM side of it under licence from Yamaha and are about to launch (at the time of writing) a new 'resynthesis' package for the Synclavier which will allow the system to listen to and analyse any sound fed into it, and then match all of the sound's parameters and thus create an FM generated version which has remarkable similarities with the original. In fact, it's difficult to tell the difference, so much so that Yamaha have incorporated a similar technique in their new RX drum machines.
So, apart from this, the £9200 DX1 is really two DX7's in one box, with a wooden weighted keyboard and has been primarily designed as a performance orientated machine.
Design and construction wise, the DX1 is simply the best looking and most impressive keyboard on the market. It's hand made by Yamaha, and they've performed an excellent job. The DX1 has the usual envelope and algorithm diagrams on the front panel, but the greatest advantage is that along with the illuminated LCD readout red LED's in smart windows have been provided to give you 'up to the second' information on the actual algorithm being used — this is an enormous advantage over the DX7 and 9, as practically all the vital information is immediately available.
As you've probably gathered, FM isn't as simple as some dealers would have you believe. 'Oh it's so straight forward, we didn't think it was worth going through the manual and setting up our own sounds...' is a comment I heard from one dealer when confronted by an eager punter wanting to know why wherever he went, all he ever heard were DX factory presets. Dealers like that should be hung drawn and quartered for lying — Yamaha have gone to great lengths educating their dealers about the delights of FM, so if you come across a rogue shop assistant, don't take no for an answer — there should be no excuse. (A full explanation of FM will follow in a later issue. ED) Getting back to the design, I am convinced that although the front panel information is very useful it is not essential. Let me explain — the new Yamaha equipment is all MIDI and as such is interfaceable with computers, in particular, the Yamaha CX5 (though no doubt computer interfaces for many more models are on their way), therefore all relevant information stored in a DX keyboard can be displayed in glowing colour on any handy TV set.
"The sounds of the DX1 are the best that I've heard come from an FM keyboard, rich in character and frighteningly realistic, some making me wonder whether Yamaha have encoded digital samples into the ROM packs — they are that convincing."
The performance memory is undoubtedly going to be the DX's main selling point, with its capacity to remember a large number of combinations of any two presets, the balance between them, the definable split point on the keyboard (if used) — in fact all the vital information. The DX1 can take two ROM packs at a time, which are the same type as those used on the DX7. You can combine or layer two presets from the same ROM cartridge or have one from each. You can program how the breath controller affects the sound so that on a brass/orchestra setting, the orchestra comes in when you do a bit of judicial puffing! The DX1 can also have its programmable modulation modes controlled from the wheel and a rocker foot pedal inserted on the back panel simultaneously.
As DX7 owners will have discovered, touch sensitivity properly assigned to presets can make all the difference, and the DX1's touch sensitivity is multi assignable, capable of doing everything from making sounds louder when pressure is increased to bringing a second preset. It's interesting to see that when two sounds are layered together, no compromise is struck in their generation as you always have the full, original number of operators being controlled by the same algorithm, unlike the analogue synths that usually trade-in polyphony and/or number of oscillators available when layering of sounds is selected. This is where FM wins!
The sounds of the DX1 are the best that I've heard come from an FM keyboard, rich in character and frighteningly realistic, some making me wonder whether Yamaha have encoded digital samples onto the ROM packs — they were that convincing! The stringed instruments were particularly good, with amazing cello quartets and ensembles. There was a good jungle present complete with a touch sensitive roaring lion and screeching monkeys — very eerie! All the usual metallic clangs and bowed saws were there, in fact, they took up most of the memory. Phil Nicholas, Syco's demonstrator, whizzed through most of the cartridges jumping from trombones to Fender Rhodes pianos with split second timing. One preset was meant to be a Hammond organ going through a Leslie cabinet that was distorting. It just sounded like a muggy Casio to me, but to organ freaks everywhere it might bring reminiscent nostalgic tears to your eyes!
A demonstration of the performance memory, detailing how easy it was to skip from combination to combination, was brought about when Phil called up a setting that had an excellent sounding violin on the left of the keyboard and a rather 'overbowed' scratch effect on the upper. "Take the left as being the teacher and the right as the young beginner..." I stood bemused as he played a little ditty, the upper keyboard had been tuned out so as to emulate the efforts of a student protege. "Two weeks later..." (and a change of preset) the student had become better, in tune more and the bowing action much improved. Anyhow, it was an interesting concept and put the message across, albeit very strangely!
"FM keyboards because of the very way they are programmed will never have their full potential realised by their owners."
Getting back to sounds (and this is the nitty gritty of this review) (about time ED) FM synthesis isn't an end in itself. FM keyboards because of the very way they are programmed will never have their full potential realised by their owners. I know many DX owners and all they've ever really come up with are Casio type weedy poly noises and a few excellent percussion sounds. As an engineer friend of mine once said, when commenting on the uses the bands he works with put the DX7 & 9's to, "they just hit them now and again, the closest they get to really playing them is in conjunction with an analogue keyboard via MIDI!"
I'm afraid this is true as many professionals who I've seen using a DX (other than for pose value) have got poor sounds from them, a genuine case of being used (and originally purchased, no doubt) because they are FM keyboards, or are digital!
FM keyboards are capable of producing astonishing sounds that no conventional analogue synth could ever create. But FM won't sound mellow, washy, or as some term it, 'warm'. It's true that FM keyboards are capable of producing clean and precise percussive effects but that perhaps, is the root of the trouble — the fact that all FM sounds are clean and are precise — 'clinical' is the best word to use. Music played entirely on FM keyboards is clinical, too sharp in timbre and too hard in transience. Counterpoint is the main ingredient of any interesting sound (or composition) and only FM mixed with analogue can achieve this. In music 'Light & Shade' is the ultimate aim.
So where does the Yamaha DX1 fit in? Personally I'd rather have two DX7s MIDI'd together, a computer such as the Yamaha CX5 (which includes a DX9 voice card and event generator), a portable colour TV for display of aforementioned information and a touch sensitive, wooden weighted external MIDI keyboard controller, all of which still only comes to £4,360 inc. VAT and subtracted from the asking price of the DX1, still leaves you enough money to buy a van to put it all in!
I suppose though, that there are many among you die-hards who will no doubt cast an admiring eye over those wooden piano keys and say "Ah, but its a professional's keyboard..." But who are they talking about? Surely todays professionals were never all born and bred pushing wooden keys down, people like Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Vince Clark and Howard Jones (actually Billy Curry and Howard Jones are classically trained, ED) have all begun and continued to play in a sea of spring loaded plastic keyboards. Truly, the days when a piano was the best piece of furniture in the average working class parlour have well and truly gone. A lot of today's professionals started on plastic and therefore, on the whole, are happy to stick with plastic, or at the very least to use both mediums together.
Many hire companies have already expressed an interest in obtaining a DX1, and no doubt, by the time you read this you'll be able to hire one for a very reasonable sum on a daily, or weekly basis. The DX1's future looks promising, as it will have enormous chic appeal for many months to come.
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Review by Chris Everard