The Vector Factor
Yamaha SY35 Dynamic Vector Synth
Yamaha's SY35 may be little more than an updated version of the SY22, but new sample ROM and a price tag of under £600 make it an ideal choice for the serious synthesist on a budget. Derek Johnson checks it out.
So it's another Yamaha SY synth. But before you turn the page wearily, thinking that you've read it all before, consider this: a 61-note keyboard, Vector Synthesis, brand new sample ROM, 8-part multi-timbrality, 16-note polyphony, onboard digital effects, and a jaw-dropping price tag of just £599. Perhaps you'd care to read on...
Those of you who know your synth history will recall that Vector Synthesis first appeared on the scene with Sequential's epoch-making Prophet VS. You may also know that Yamaha acquired Sequential a few years back, and that Yamaha also have more than a passing interest in Korg. The result of all this intrigue is that Vector Synthesis has not been allowed to disappear, and that Korg's Wavestation is arguably the ultimate in contemporary interpretations of the theme. Yamaha, however, have made the technology available on a number of more accessible (ie. cheaper) instruments, starting with the SY22 keyboard. The TG33 module followed, and now Yamaha have brought us the SY35.
Physically, the SY35 looks very much like the SY22, and sports the standard 61-note velocity sensitive keyboard, which also features channel aftertouch. Pitch bend and modulation wheels are located to the left of the keyboard, and volume and sustain pedals can be plugged into the rear. One thing that really stands out — literally, as it happens — from this contemporary but unremarkable-looking instrument is the Vector control, which I'll come to soon.
Next to the Vector control is a volume control, and the middle of the front panel hosts the now traditional collection of small buttons for accessing various editing parameters and modes. Patches are selected by the two rows of eight buttons at the right of the synth. In play mode, the upper eight select the bank, and the bottom row select the Voice (ie. SY35 single patch) within the Bank; these buttons also have alternate functions during Voice and multitimbral editing.
The SY35 is essentially an entry level synth, so it's just as well that the two manuals are clear and helpful. The 'Getting Started' volume is about as good as they come: it explains everything simply and clearly, and takes the new user through a number of simple exercises which get him or her used to basic editing and Multi usage, as well as such novelties as the Vector Control. The full reference manual is pretty good too, logically divided, with individual sections for each of the major features.
The sound source at the heart of the SY35 is more or less equivalent to that found on Yamaha's previous SY22 and TG33, which means a combination of FM and AWM sampled waveforms. A little bird inside Yamaha informs me that the ROM samples are in fact new, even if some of the sounds have the same name, and that there are actually rather more samples. So: same names, same waveforms, but better sound and more multi-samples. The SY35 has 64 preset Voices, as well as room for 64 of your own, and 16 multitimbral set-ups. Again, half of these are preset, half user-definable.
A Voice can contain either one FM and one AWM Element, giving 16-note polyphony, or two of each Element, giving 8-note polyphony; not over-generous, but still perfectly usable. The complement of preset Voices on board the SY35 is weighted in favour of those with two elements, some of which are both impressive and useful. You can tell how many elements a Voice uses from its name: 2-element Voices have a ':' (colon) between the identifier and the Voice name, while four element Voices have a '*' (asterisk). Thus, 'AP:Clsic' is an acoustic piano sound with two elements, emulating a classical piano, and 'BR*Sect2' is a 4-element brass Voice. Identifiers are all self-explanatory: EP for electric piano, ST for strings, WN for woodwinds, BA for bass, PL for plucked (ie. guitars), SE for sound effect, and so on. When you design your own sounds, you could follow Yamaha's lead for consistency's sake, but you're not obliged to.
The sampled side of the SY35 consists of 128 waveforms, with the usual variety of piano, organ, brass, string, guitar, bass, synth and percussion samples. There is also a dedicated, preset drum set 'waveform', and loads of special effects — bottles, crashes and so on. The drum kit is serviceable, if not too exciting, and un-editable. There is a large collection of oscillator-type waveforms but, since the SY35 has no filter, it's tricky to do anything very drastic to change their character. The SY35 also contains the single worst sample of any bank of waveforms on any synth ever: HumanAtk, a sample which is meant to be a soulful wail (I think). The sound even features in a Voice or two (including the drum set), and it's awful. The other low points are the demo tune (which has its own dedicated front panel button — waste of space) and the Sequence waveforms. These are almost useless sequences of apparently random sounds from the waveform ROM, triggered one after the other — perhaps some way of defining your own sequence(s) would have been a better idea. But don't worry folks, it's rapidly uphill from here.
Having briefly addressed the AWM component of the SY35, what about the FM side? This is not second-generation 6-operator FM as found on the SY77, but sounds like a preset version of 4-operator FM as found on the DX11 and TX81Z. This time, all the operational complexities have been removed. While the FM waveforms are preset (all 256 of them), certain parameters — basic envelopes, for example — are adjustable. Most importantly, there is a Tone parameter, which allows the programmer to quite drastically alter the character of the FM portions of a Voice. There are two parameters here: Level brightens or mellows the sound, and Feedback does what feedback always did in FM — makes sounds brassier and harsher at high levels. This almost makes up for the lack of a proper filter. Between them, the AWM and FM waveforms make for some interesting noise, but the secret weapon on the SY35 just has to be the vector control, as found on the aforementioned SY22 and TG33. This allows you to dynamically alter the level or pitch of each element in a sound against time; just waggle the joystick and make the changes. Vector movements can be recorded for each sound and become part of the finished Voice. They don't take up any extra memory or processing power, and can give sounds more movement and zing. Up to 50 steps can be recorded during each movement, and you can define the time between each step at between 10ms and 160ms. Editing of the steps afterward is possible, although a little baffling. You can also use the control in real time (in single mode only), and its movements can be recorded into a sequencer. If you find the concept a little tricky to get hold of, the Getting Started manual offers a very clear explanation.
Besides the vectoring and the FM tone control, the rest of the synth's parameters are fairly standard. Each Voice has a selection of common parameters — such as name, effect type and level and an overall envelope, while each Element has a more exhaustive set of parameters. These include wave type, volume, pan, velocity and aftertouch sensitivity, and LFO. There is a comprehensive envelope for each element, offering delay — which is unfortunately only applicable to all elements at once — initial level, attack, decay 1 and 2, release rate, and level and rate scaling. The velocity situation is a little awkward, but by careful use of positive and negative velocity values — negative values = soft sounds when the keys are hit harder — velocity splits of elements are just about possible. The onboard digital effects are good, but not particularly flexible. All 16 effects algorithms are totally preset — even the handful of delays. The only editable parameter available here is Depth, which simply increases or decreases the level of the effect. Even so, the reverbs are varied and useful, although a little more flexibility would have been welcome.
Multi-timbral setups (or Multis, as Yamaha call them) have an overall name and effect setting, and are made up of eight parts, each with its own MIDI receive channel, volume, detune (+/-50 cents), note limit and note shift (+/-24 semitones).
Global utilities, located under the three buttons labelled Recall, Setup and MIDI, include master tune, transpose, memory card functions, Voice and Multi initialisation and overall MIDI functions. The SY35's MIDI implementation is fairly rudimentary — you can set basic transmit and receive channels, select local on/off, and SysEx is available, to save either the complete memory or individual Voices to an external MIDI device. There are small things lacking at all levels of the SY35, and it's the same with MIDI. For example, only program changes 0-79 are recognised; 0-63 select Voices, and 64-79 select the Multis. There is no way to remotely select between internal, preset or card banks of sounds, which is a bit irritating. The way to manage sounds is perhaps to store sounds in banks of 64 and keep loading them into the internal memory for each project. An Individual mode does allow program changes to be recognised individually on each channel of a Multi, but again, you only have the choice of program changes 0-63.
Up to eight parts can be used in the multi-timbral setups, with dynamic voice assignment. Each Voice can be assigned a MIDI channel and volume level, detuned, transposed, and a global effect (and Multi name) can be assigned to the Multi as a whole: it's effects on everything or nothing, I'm afraid. Since the basic reverbs are anonymous enough to add ambience, I'd tend to use only them, but at a very low level. Of course, having a global effects setting kind of kills the distorted guitar patches, since they aren't nearly as effective without distortion.
Editing itself — either Voices or Multis — is initially a little convoluted. First of all, you press the Edit/Compare button. Then you press a button corresponding to what you'd like to edit, which can be Common (for global Voice parameters), Vector (for the vector control recording), Tone (for selecting an Element within a Voice to be edited), Envelope, Multi, and three global utilities (Recall, Set Up and MIDI). You scroll through parameters, editing as you go. As with Voice editing, there is a certain clumsiness in dealing with multi-timbral setups, but doing it a couple of times gets you familiar with the system.
Operationally, it's hard to get lost or confused with the SY35 — once the few tricky operations are mastered. Simply choosing sounds is easy, and very rewarding for the newcomer, and you can make small changes to sounds relatively easily. From a sound point of view, the SY35 does score highly, with a varied selection of quality usable Voices. As is so often the case, the sampled side of the SY35 gives it much of its sonic character; you can edit away and create new sounds a-plenty, but getting 'un-SY35-ish' patches will be a challenge.
It's an unfortunate fact of life with sample-based synths that the loops on some raw waveforms will not be perfect. Here, a couple of loops are out of tune, but not to a great degree — where looping is most critical (on the piano waveforms, for example), the loops are, in the main, excellent. Another basic sample problem involves crossover points between multi-samples, and a few are very obvious indeed. Where the crossover points are obvious (as on some string sounds), careful arrangement of parts should avoid any of the jarring changes in timbre that can occasionally occur.
But overall, there's a refreshing lack of naffness on this synth (HumanAtk notwithstanding). I find it hard to fault the pianos, acoustic or electric, on this machine, the strings are very playable, and the winds are also very pleasant. Thumping basses and synth textures are present, providing plenty of funky or ambient options depending on your mood.
The FM side of the SY35, like FM everywhere, provides some interesting sound sources and some downright cheesy ones. FM of any ilk has always been great for bells and bass sounds, and although FM string patches will never fool anyone into thinking they're listening to the Kronos Quartet, I've a soft spot for the average FM simulation as a valid sound in its own right. In fact, FM and AWM complement each other rather well. The SY35 is definitely a case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
What gives this particular breed of synth most of its character and edge is the vector joystick, which allows you to either alter the balance of elements as part of a Voice, create wavetable-type effects in the same way, or to detune elements against each other. Since the SY35 is a relatively simple synth, one has to work a little harder to get the results, but it is worth the effort.
The only real problem I had, noise-wise, on the SY35 was an insistent whine that showed up even when all elements were muted. This whine was masked by vety full sounds, and reverb, but is always present if you listen hard. On consultation with Yamaha, it would seem that this problem was particular to the pre-production review model, so the one you buy from your friendly neighbourhood keyboard emporium is unlikely to have the problem. Otherwise, the waveforms seem to be refreshingly low in digital buzz.
I liked the SY35 — can't you tell? Initially, I admit I was baffled as to a reason for its existence, given that it has so much in common with the SY22. But Yamaha's reasoning becomes clear: the new sample ROM makes a difference, in that the SY35 does sound much better, and the synth has been produced for an exceedingly silly price. It makes an ideal first keyboard for the potentially serious synthesist on a budget, and makes a pretty good second or third instrument for the self-indulgent — I was definitely tempted to indulge myself. The keyboard is full-sized, very nice to play, and even with the relatively basic MIDI facilities, the SY35 could make a decent controller for other MIDI sound sources, given that it is velocity and aftertouch sensitive; in my opinion, the feel of the keyboard itself is worthy of an instrument double the price.
But enough levity — let's put on a slightly cynical hat. I couldn't help but wonder why the program change table was left in such a basic state, and it would have been nice if some of the good points of the TG33 — which was rather more than a module version of the SY22 — had filtered through to the SY35. Facilities that would really have taken the SY35 into a different league include 32-note polyphony, 128 presets, 16-part multi-timbrality, and so on, but I concede that all these would add to the cost, and I'm not complaining. I can't really see the point of preset multi-timbral setups, but eight are present here if you disagree. I don't see the point of preset delays either — surely it wouldn't have been too expensive to add just delay time and feedback parameters?
For me, the omission of a pan facility for each Voice in a Multi (available on the TG33) was a big disappointment, and the global effect setting, although a fairly widespread device in synths in general, is still irritating. It's not unusual to have a really good distorted guitar patch, relying on on-board effects, which is useless in a Multi setup because every other part has to be effect-free. If you keep your head screwed on, you can programme your Voices with the necessary pan settings, but that's not really the most elegant solution. There is no solution to the effects problem. And finally, although key ranges can be assigned for each Voice in a Multi, there is no facility for velocity splitting.
But let's put the SY35 into perspective. On its release a couple of years ago, the SY22 retailed at £799, and even the TG33 started life at £499. Here we are, in the middle of a recession, and Yamaha introduce a new synth at £599. That spells bargain from where I'm standing, in spite of my few reservations. The only way you'd get a Yamaha keyboard for less than this would be to pop down to Argos and buy a home entertainment model. Learning of the sub-£600 price tag puts the SY35 into a completely different perspective. I just can't get used to a synth this good being this cheap — I apologise if I seem to be going a bit, but I defy you to think of anything else on the market with these facilities for this price.
The SY35 has one important, but often elusive, quality: playability. As it comes, the synth has a lot of classy, usable sounds which are just plain fun to play, and the editability allows the user to customise his or her instrument to a fair extent, stretching the range of possible sounds. For the money, I don't think there's currently anything to beat the SY35 as a valid entry into the world of electronic sound.
Yamaha SY35 £599 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble Music UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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