The Resurrection Shuffle
Yamaha SY22 Dynamic Vector Synthesizer
If you're one of those musicians who recall the Prophet VS synthesizer with misty-eyed affection, then you'll probably welcome Yamaha's decision to resurrect vector synthesis on this latest addition to their SY range. Paul Ireson checks out this blast from the past.
If you had conducted a straw poll of hi-tech music watchers a few months ago and sounded them out as to what shape they thought a new synthesizer from Yamaha might take, I'm happy to say that I don't think any would have described the SY22. Happy? Yes, because you might have expected the instrument to be another RCM-based unit following hot on the heels of the SY77 and SY55. In fact, it uses a different synthesis technique based largely on the near-legendary Sequential Prophet VS synthesizer, and I for one am delighted to see that Yamaha are actually offering quite different types of synthesis in their range rather than pushing the same one in countless different (yet somehow all too similar) instruments.
Yes folks, the SY22 is new. Actually, it's not so much new as a successful combination of some existing and some overlooked technologies, but that doesn't read quite as well. As I said, the SY22 draws on the Prophet VS for inspiration in its voice architecture. VS stands for Vector Synthesis, and the SY22 also uses 'vectors', and has the same joystick-style control that was featured on the VS. More about all this later - for the moment, just note that the vector aspect of the SY22 is not really a method of sound generation in itself, but a means of combining synth (FM) and sampled (AWM) voice Elements. The SY22 is cast very much in the mould of so many other current electronic instruments, in that it combines synthesized and sampled voice Elements, but it's the way they are combined that is interesting here.
Korg are also soon to be shipping an instrument that bears more than a passing resemblance to the VS, in the form of their WS Wavestation. The fact that these two giants of the industry are producing such similar instruments almost simultaneously smacks of bad planning on someone's part, but it's no coincidence that both have the ability to build a VS-based instrument. When American synth pioneers Sequential, manufacturers of the Prophet VS, went under a few years ago, they were bought by Yamaha, and were later acquired by Korg - it doesn't take a genius to guess what the ex-Sequential boffins were working on at the two companies.
To get down to the most basic specs, the SY22 is an 8-part multitimbral instrument with onboard effects and drum sounds. Unfortunately, all this sound is squeezed through simple stereo outputs, and internal audio routing possibilities are not varied enough to do anything other than apply effects to all sound generated.
There are 16 Multi-play Setups (two banks of eight) in each of the Preset (ROM) and Internal (user RAM) memory sections, and 64 Single Voices (eight banks of eight) in each. In addition, a further 64 Single Voices and 16 Multi Setups can be stored on a memory card. Single Voices use either two or four Elements as their sound sources.
In a two-Element configuration, one is FM (synthesized) and one is AWM (sampled). In a four-Element configuration, two Elements are FM and two are AWM. The voice structure is simple in that only a minimal amount of fundamental manipulation can be applied to the Elements before they are enveloped, modulated, and mixed. However, the vector control makes the mixing part of the process particularly interesting, as it gives dynamic control over the balance between the Elements in a very immediate way, and provides a means of both real-time control and of creating dynamic, changing sounds (by programming the vectors). Each Element can be independently panned, and each has its own dedicated LFO, which contribute to a good deal of the presence and movement in the sounds.
Perhaps this is all getting a little involved - I haven't told you what the instrument sounds like yet, and that is what you want to know, isn't it? Well, the SY22's presets show it to be versatile enough to cover a good deal of sonic ground. The sounds that grab you are mainly big, warm, analogue-type sounds that it does surprisingly well - very well, in fact. There are some particularly fine synthesized brasses, strings, pads, and atmospheres. Some classic-style FM sounds also feature, and the synth/sample mix provides both LA-ish textures and plenty of whacky effect sounds. These sound wonderful if you just play one note and hold it - some are even good for chords - though many of these complex sounds tend to be just too distinctive to be expressive, creative sounds. Get programming! The digital effects liven things up, although the blanket reverb gets a little predictable.
Physically the SY22 is not particularly impressive - it has the distinct feel of a mass-market instrument, which is what it is after all. At least this makes it easy to carry around! The velocity and aftertouch sensitive keyboard is five octaves long, and unweighted. Conventional pitch bend and modulation wheels are located at the left of the keyboard. The most prominent feature of the front panel is the Vector Control - a joystick-cum-tracker ball at the top left, which moves through two axes of rotation. Next to this is the master volume fader. The centre of the panel is occupied by a two-line backlit LCD display, and to its left is a two-digit LED display. The latter can only duplicate in extremely condensed form part of what is being shown on the LCD (ie. it would show patch numbers but not names), but it will nevertheless prove a boon on a dark stage.
To the left of the displays are buttons for selecting functions and modes of operation (ie. Edit, Single, Multi), plus cursor and data entry buttons. To the right are two rows of eight Bank and Number/Multi-part select buttons; these double up as selectors for groups of parameters when in Edit or Utility modes. There is no data entry slider or alpha dial, or numeric keypad, which makes some editing aspects a little laborious.
The rear panel features stereo jack outputs, volume and sustain pedal sockets, a memory card slot, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru sockets. Power is supplied from an external PSU.
I think it's best to explain this aspect of the SY22's synthesis method before looking at anything else in detail - this is what makes it different, after all.
The Vector Control allows you to control the relative levels and/or fine tuning of all four voice Elements, in real time, and also how they change dynamically during the course of a sound. Hit the Vector Play on/off button to select manual vector control, and you can alter the volume balance or tuning of all Elements in a Voice, live with the Vector Control. Next to the Vector Play on/off button is a button which enables you to switch between level and tuning control.
Going around the Vector Control clockwise from the top, you will find the letters A, C, B, D printed at the four compass points, representing the four Elements. If a four-Element configuration is being used, and you are controlling the levels manually, moving the control towards a letter increases its level and decreases the levels of the others accordingly.
So you have at your fingertips a very simple and immediate way of dealing with what is a relatively complex mixing problem - controlling the relative balance of four sound sources in real time. Similarly, tuning control can be manipulated - with the Vector Control centred, all four Elements are in tune. Move the control upwards (towards the letter 'A') and the pitch of Element A rises as that of Element B drops. Provided the control does not waver to the left or right, the pitches of Elements C and D remain unchanged. The range of tuning variation seems to be within half a semitone, and it is not variable. With two Elements the mixing is simpler, as it only involves the balance between the two, and their relative (de)tuning.
This is good stuff, and vector control over levels is a wonderful means of adding another performance dimension to your music, but the fun really starts with the Dynamic Vector mode of operation. You can actually record your control movements as part of each Single Voice - if Vector Play is off, then a recorded vector is automatically played back to dynamically control the balance and/or tuning of the Voice Elements.
To record a Vector, you enter Single Voice edit mode and select the Vector set of parameters. In the recording page for either Level or Tuning Vector, you then select Record, play a note and twiddle away. In this context, 'recording' consists essentially of 'sampling' the control's position at 50 different time intervals. You can vary the time the SY22 takes to move between samples from 10ms to 160ms, so the whole dynamic vector sequence can be from 0.5 to 8.0 seconds in length. Obviously, the greater the Vector Interval (Vector Rate), the less smooth will be the level or tuning changes that occur.
The control that this gives you over the relative levels of the four (or two) Elements and how they alter over time is fantastic - in order to provide the same potential merely in terms of sound creation, you would need to be able to programme very complex envelopes. Inevitably, very few people would go to the trouble of actually programming them, and the beauty of vector control is its immediacy. The way that the relative levels of the main components in a sound relate and change is one of its most important features, and the SY22 takes you right to the heart of this.
You can also edit the recorded Dynamic Vector - an unexpected bonus - although the process is a little laborious. It involves stepping through the 50 sample stages, one by one, in the Vector Edit screen. For each stage, the Vector Control's position is shown in terms of co-ordinates on X and Y axes, with values from -31 to +31. To help you visualise how the co-ordinates relate to Element levels or tuning, a 4-section bargraph is provided on the display. At each step, you can edit co-ordinate values to change Element levels or tunings, using the data entry buttons. It would perhaps have been easier to use the Vector Control here, but the familiar restriction of a control's physical position not moving to match each recalled value would be a problem. Any step can be looped up to 255 times, to extend that section of the vector sequence, and any one step can also be designated as the Repeat step - when this point is reached, the vector sequence is automatically repeated from the start. Alternatively, a step can be designated as the End, in which case the playback sequence terminates there. The default for this is step 50.
Once you've got the hang of vectors - which is pretty easy - what remains of the SY22's voice architecture is even more straightforward. Press the Edit button, and then the Voice Common button (which doubles up as a Bank select button) and you can access the Voice parameters that affect all Elements. Perhaps the most fundamental parameter is configuration - you have a choice of either a two-Element or a four-Element Voice. In a two-Element configuration, Elements A and B are used; in a four-Element configuration it's A, B, C and D. The former will obviously be more simple, though the waveforms in the SY22 are a lot less static, and far fuller in their own right, than many LA-type waveforms (certainly a good notch above the Kawai K1), so a two-Element sound can still be pretty beefy. As is to be expected, with a four-Element sound the maximum polyphony is half that with a two-Element sound - 8 and 16 notes respectively.
The SY22's built-in digital effects section offers 16 preset programs. You can choose a program and set the effect depth, but that's as far as your control goes. The programs are: Reverb Hall; Reverb Room; Reverb Plate; Reverb Club; Reverb Metal; Delay 1 (short single delay); Delay 2 (long delay); Delay 3 (long delay); Doubler; Ping-Pong Delay; Panned Reflections; Early Reflections; Gated Reverb; Delay & Reverb 1; Delay & Reverb 2; Distortion & Reverb.
The effects all sound clean but are a little dull, not really anything to get too excited about, and it's a shame that you have so little control over programs apart from their depth (0-7). The latter is a mix level, so on the Distortion program it sets a balance between the dry and distorted signals rather than actually varying the amount of distortion that is applied to the basic sound.
All the reverb programs have quite short decay times of under two seconds, except for the very harsh Metal program, with its four second decay. Delay 1 is a simple slapback effect. Delay 2 gives around 300ms of delay with four or so audible repeats. Delay 3 is a stereo effect with around 150ms delay. The Doubler is perhaps just a little too subtle. Ping-Pong Delay uses a very short delay time, and whips the repeats back and forth in the stereo picture. Pan Reflections is a series of early reflections that move rapidly from left to right; Early Reflections is a simple unpanned variation on the former. The Gated Reverb sounds a little odd - it's more like a reverb with a fixed decay length and a very sharp cutoff than a true gate. Delay & Reverb 1 features around 150ms of delay, with a touch of reverb thrown in. Delay & Reverb 2 uses a much shorter delay time. The Distortion & Reverb program is a welcome addition to the fold - it's not a particularly gutsy effect (too weak for my tastes) - but it's still great for adding grunge and bite to Voices.
Moving on, you can set the pitch bend range of a Single Voice from 0-12 semitones. In truth you do not have total freedom here, as some waveforms do not like being bent too far. The SY22 lets you know if any of the waveforms you are using have such limits by automatically stopping the pitch bend range parameter at a suitable point - an exclamation mark appears on the display to warn you that this is as far as you can go.
The modulation wheel can be used to control both pitch and amplitude modulation - you can turn mod wheel control on and off for the two independently. Similarly, you can also specify whether amplitude or pitch modulation will be introduced by keyboard aftertouch or not. Aftertouch can also affect note pitch - you can set an interval, from -12 to +12 semitones, over which a note will be bent by increasing pressure. As with pitch bend, the range may be limited by your choice of waveforms. Volume can also be modulated by aftertouch - you set on/off for pressure volume control, and sensitivity is specified independently for each Element.
A very basic envelope control is provided in the Common parameters. As each of the Elements have their own amplitude envelopes, you are simply given attack and release rate parameters. These modify the Elements' envelope attack and release times, rather than overriding them entirely.
The last Voice Common function that you come across is quite unexpected, but also rather welcome. Taking a leaf out of the books of software voice editors, Yamaha's designers have provided a randomisation function to help you through your less inspired moments. This function will choose random waves for all Elements, or levels, or tunings. As with randomisation in software editors, the results are often useless - but being unexpected, and unusual, they can lead to some superb sounds that you just wouldn't have thought of otherwise.
The Tone parameters give you control over all aspects of the Elements that are combined to make a Single Voice - A and B in a two-Element sound, and A, B, C and D in a four-Element sound. When editing these Tone parameters, you can switch each Element on or off independently and select which of the Elements to edit with the eight Number/Multi-part select buttons.
The most important Element parameter is the choice of wave type. Only sampled AWM waves can be chosen for Elements A and C, and synthetic FM waves for B and D. There are 128 AWM and 256 FM waves to choose from, and they are helpfully displayed by group and name as well as number on the LCD display when you are scrolling through the lists.
The AWM waveforms are all sampled sounds. Some consist only of looped waves or sustain portions of sounds, whilst others may be multisampled and contain attack and sustain portions. I refer you to the accompanying 'Waveforms' panel for an extensive list, but the waveforms are basically divided into the following groups: Piano; Organ; Brass; Wood; Guitar; Bass; Strings; Vocals; Percussion; Synth; Effects; Hits; Transients; Osc (waveforms); Sequences; Drum Set. The acoustic instrument sounds are fair, but rather lacklustre, and when they're multisampled it does tend to show. The Basses are a little noisy, but this type of sound often seems to suffer unduly on pre-sampled instruments (Roland's U110 springs to mind). I have to give a special mention to an absolutely wonderful strings sample - a beautifully atmospheric and smooth sound. The Synth samples and Osc (simple waveforms) sections also contain some very useful source material. Unfortunately, there is no way of altering these sampled waveforms, apart from adding pitch modulation and amplitude enveloping.
The Sequence sounds are a collection of short samples strung together, which play in sequence over and over. These are great for creating rhythmic sounds, or adding a serious weirdness factor to a sound, but for me they're simply too distinctive to be used more than once and not versatile enough. The 61 Drum sounds are good, but hardly remarkable - the quality is decent, but Yamaha just don't seem to pick drum sounds that really kick.
The FM waveforms are grouped into: E.Piano, Organ, Brass, Wood, Reed, Pluck, Bass, Strings, Percussion; Sustained Synth Sounds, Moving Synth Sounds, Decay Synth Sounds; SFX; OSC1 (sine, sawtooth, and other standard waves), OSC2 (basic FM timbres), OSC3 (basic FM timbres). The FM waveforms, unlike the AWM ones, can be altered somewhat by the user. The SY22 offers something of a halfway house between actual preset waveforms and FM programmability, in that for any selected waveform you can set a Tone and a Feedback level - so, although the waveforms are essentially preset, you do have some control over their basic sound.
The FM waveforms seem to employ 4-operator synthesis - at least that's how it sounds to me - so in a two-Element Voice you are stacking a single 4-operator FM Element with a single AWM Element, and in a four-Element Voice you get two 4-operator Elements with two AWM Elements.
Selecting a waveform presumably selects an FM algorithm (Yamaha have done their best to hide the 'nuts and bolts' of FM synthesis away from the SY22 user), and operator envelope shapes and levels. Nominal Tone and Feedback values are selected along with each waveform, which you can then change. Tone affects the brightness of a waveform, and so is presumably working by altering the level of one or more of the modulators in the algorithm. Feedback increases the level of signal fed back into one of the modulators, and makes a sound more harsh or noisy. All this is pretty obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of FM synthesis. These are very useful parameters, enabling FM waveforms that are 'almost right' to be shoehorned to fit your requirements. However, it's a shame that no time-variant means of control is available. The selection of 256 waveforms is good, both in terms of providing a range of timbres and types of sound - ie. short percussive plucks, slowly building sounds, and so on.
There are no comparable parameters available to modify AWM waveforms. The remaining Element Tone parameters are common to both the FM and AWM waveforms. Elements can be transposed up or down by up to two octaves, in semitone steps, and a volume set for each (0-99) - this is in addition to the vector level control, and amplitude changes imposed by envelopes. Elements can also be panned - there are five positions from left to right. With four independently pannable Elements, some lovely spacious sounds can be created, and it's a pity that no dynamic control is available here. Velocity sensitivity for each Element is variable from —5 to +5. This is not a simple linear range of sensitivities, rather there are five different response curves, with positive and negative response versions of each. Similarly, you can select one of three aftertouch/level sensitivity curves for each Element, in positive or negative form. A nice touch is that a small graphic representation of aftertouch or velocity curves is shown on the LCD display - it may not be all that accurate, but it's enough to tell you what's going on.
LFO modulation is a mixed bag - on the one hand you have one LFO per Element, which is good, but the ways in which you can introduce and control the modulation are a little limited. For each Element's LFO, you can set a maximum amplitude modulation depth, maximum pitch modulation depth, wave type (saw up, saw down, triangle, square, sample & hold), delay, rate and speed. Delay is the time that elapses before LFO modulation cuts in, Rate is how fast it fades in, and Speed is the LFO speed. The limit on this modulation is that if you have chosen to control amplitude modulation from either the mod wheel or aftertouch, no amplitude modulation can be brought in 'automatically'. In other words, in order to have either form of LFO modulation fade in of its own accord during the course of a note, you must sacrifice the ability to introduce that type of modulation with either the mod wheel or aftertouch. However, you can use both mod wheel and aftertouch to introduce the same or both types of modulation, and you can have amplitude modulation fading in automatically with pitch modulation on the mod wheel or aftertouch, or vice versa.
A very useful programming feature is Element Copy, which enables you to copy all parameters (except envelopes) from an Element in any voice to the current Element. The only restriction here is that an FM Element can only be copied to another FM Element, and an AWM Element can only be copied to another AWM Element. So, if you are editing Element A, you could choose any Element A or C as the source, but not an Element B or D.
Each Element has its own amplitude envelope. You can either programme your own ADDSR envelope, or select from one of several preset envelope shapes Yamaha provide: Piano, Pluck, Strings, Guitar, Brass or Organ shapes, and also Preset. The latter selects an envelope which is tailored to the selected waveform, ie. a piano envelope for a piano waveform.
The programmable envelope parameters are Delay (Rate and On/Off), Initial Level, Attack Level and Rate, Decay 1 Level and Rate, Decay 2 Level and Rate, Release Rate, Level Scaling, and Rate Scaling. You can copy any envelope across to the current Element from any Element of any voice, using the Voice Copy function. The envelopes only affect amplitude - you can't use them to modulate pitch or tone at all, and fiddling with envelopes on the FM waveforms reveals that only the envelope shape of the carrier is being changed - the modulator envelope shapes remain unaltered, so you can't actually slow down a sharp peak in the timbral movement of an FM waveform. One of the Single Voices, 'Sad Angel', seemed to involve envelope pitch control at first listen, but dissecting it revealed that the pitch swoops were achieved with slow LFO modulation. This, however, did lead to the discovery that the LFOs are reset with the start of each note.
The 16 Multi-play Setups of the SY22 are pretty basic in nature. You can set a MIDI transmit channel for the keyboard and receive channels for each of the eight parts - any parts that are on the same MIDI channel as the keyboard can be used in a split/layered arrangement, or you may create a multitimbral setup for use with your sequencer. Voice allocation is entirely dynamic - you cannot reserve notes for special parts.
Each Multi-play Setup has only two global parameters - Name and Effect Type/Depth. Effects are applied as for Single Voices, except that all eight parts (or however many are in use) are all fed through the effects section. There is no way of having some parts emerge dry, or apply less effect to them - it's all or nothing. Each part can play any Single Voice (Internal, Preset or Card) and you can set a volume, fine tune (-50 to +50 cents), note range, and pitch transpose (two octaves up or down) for each.
As far as MIDI goes, you can specify a basic MIDI receive channel for the SY22, as well as receive channels for each part in a Multi-play Setup. Local control can be switched on or off. Program changes can sometimes be a headache with multitimbral instruments, but the SY22 gives you all the important options. In Common mode, program change numbers 0-63 will select Single Voices and 64-79 will select Multiplay Setups. In Individual mode, the Single Voices selected for each part of a Multi-play Setup can be changed with program change numbers 0-63 on the appropriate channels. Finally, you can turn program change reception off, in which case all such messages are ignored. Reception and transmission of all control change messages can likewise be switched on or off. The SY22 transmits aftertouch, sustain pedal, and mod wheel data, and in addition to these can recognise volume changes. The Vector Control generates MIDI controllers 16 and 17, one for each axis of its movement. Aftertouch and pitch bend reception and transmission can also be turned on and off, but in both cases the internal control is unaffected. System Exclusive reception/transmission can be turned on or off, and both individual Single Voice data or all Voice and Multi-play data bulk dumps can be initiated.
The SY22 is something of a bolt from the blue, and I think we might even regard it as some kind of late Christmas present from Yamaha to the world of electronic music. You can look at it in a number of ways: it's a 'synth+sample' instrument with a uniquely powerful and easy to use way of combining its Elements; it's an accessible successor to the Prophet VS (the SY22 is cheaper, its multitimbral, and uses quite different sources for its four Voice Elements in comparison with Sequential's machine); it's another 8-part multitimbral synth with an excellent range of sounds and a versatile synthesis method.
The FM/AWM combination means that a good selection of familiar sounds can be easily produced, but the vector component of the instrument opens the way to new sorts of sounds. The timbres aren't different, but the way you can sweep from source to source makes for superb dynamics, and the vector control is both a welcome performance and programming tool. It's just a shame that Vector Synthesis has been away for so long.
In some respects the SY22 is disappointing - the slightly limited modulation facilities and the totally preset effects, for instance - but I feel that it has enough potential in other areas to make up for this. My initial impression was that in many ways it is the most instantly appealing and likeable synth that Yamaha have produced since the DX7II (SY77 not included), and although discovering its limitations lowered its standing a little in my estimation, I still like this little beast a lot. I believe the SY22 is destined for well-deserved popularity - it's versatile yet unusually easy to programme, and full of top-class sounds. What more could you ask?
£799 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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