Tokyo Music & Sound Expo
The Tokyo Expo is normally a fairly low-key domestic affair, but this year several major new products were unveiled for the first time ever. Our man in Japan, Paul Wiffen, was there to report on some of the hi-tech instruments that will be vying for your money in the coming year; including Yamaha's new mega-synth, the SY77
For several years now the synthesizer fraternity has been expecting Yamaha to launch a professional product not based solely on FM synthesis. In the New Year, the wait will be over. On show for the first time in Tokyo, and due to hit the UK this January, is the SY77 synthesizer, which adds a brand new synthesis method (RCM: Real-time Convolution and Modulation) to Yamaha's arsenal. This is not to say that they have given up on FM altogether, for the SY77 very generously gives you 16 voices of 6-operator multiple wave advanced FM (AFM) synthesis to go along with your 16 voices of second generation AWM2 sampled sounds, and adds real-time digital filtering (with resonance) into the bargain. 45 algorithms are available, and operators can make use of any of 16 possible waveforms (not just sine) plus three feedback loops (previous FM synths offered one loop only). A single voice can be constructed from any combination of AFM and AWM2 elements, and it is possible for AFM operators to be modulated by one or more AWM2 waves to realise a truly vast range of sounds.
The SY77 sounds being demonstrated at the show encompassed the best 'real' timbres this writer has ever heard from a Yamaha synth, including excellent piano, strings and brass, many familiar FM staple sounds and, particularly impressive, a range of atmospheric 'evolutionary' textures which have proved so popular on machines like the Roland D50 and Ensoniq VFX. The sound quality of the onboard 24-bit signal processing was truly excellent (thanks no doubt to the 22-bit digital-to-analogue convertors) and a wide range of popular effects were being demonstrated, including reverb, chorus, flanging and delays. Real-time control of effects parameters is possible from the two modulation wheels (one standard, one centre-detented for positive and negative values), breath controller, velocity and keyboard aftertouch. A pitch bend wheel is also included, naturally.
The SY77 can function in Multi mode as 16 independent synths, and benefits from 32-note polyphony and dynamic voice allocation. A 61-note (C-C) velocity and pressure sensitive keyboard is standard. In keeping with most workstations these days the SY77 boasts built-in signal processors (four of them), which allows two effects simultaneously (two pairs of stereo audio outputs are fitted to the rear). Effects and performance data can be saved as part of each program and stored on credit card RAMs (two card slots are provided: one for voice parameter data, one for waveform data) or floppy disk.
Qualifying the SY77 for membership of the workstation club (although Yamaha avoid using the phrase 'workstation' when describing the SY77 - I wonder why?) is a built-in 16-track sequencer with 3.5" disk storage, which in conjunction with the drum and percussion sounds that form part of the AWM2 side of the machine allows complete pieces of music to be performed on the instrument all by itself. Recording in real-time or step-time is possible at 96 ppqn resolution, with a memory capacity of 99 patterns and 16,000 notes. Yamaha have taken a leaf out of Roland and Ensoniq's book by including a massive 240x60 character LCD window - backlit, of course! - which should get more people programming the SY77 than did the DX7.
Converting Yen prices into sterling is always misleading, but a trusted source at the show predicted that the SY77 would sell over here for £1999 inc VAT. [Roll on January! - Ed.] For those just wanting to access the SY77's AWM sounds, the new 1U rack-mounting TG55 expander will deliver these with 16-note polyphony. Again, the piano, strings and brass timbres demonstrated in Tokyo easily outstrip anything Yamaha's professional keyboards division has come up with before, and may well stop the rot of pro players buying instruments like the EMT10 and AVS10 intended for the domestic market.
Returning to workstations, America's latest contender for the all-in-one stakes was shown for the first time in Tokyo. The Ensoniq VFX SD, an expanded version of their already successful multi-synthesis keyboard, adds a powerful sequencer, disk drive and separate outputs in its bid to be all things to all men. Particularly welcome as an expansion to the VFX is the increased number of drum and percussion sounds (41), and each bank has a drum kit preset designed to cater for a wide variety of tastes, 24 in all.
The sequencer has 24-tracks for internal/MIDI control and the basic 25,000 note capacity can be expanded further to 75,000 with the optional SQX70. The sequencer's operating system is loaded from disk into dedicated RAM so that no sound/sequence memory is used up, whilst also making it easier to distribute future updates to owners. Also included on the disk are 84 additional patches and numerous preprogrammed drum patterns to get you started. The VFX SD should weigh in at well under £2000 when it arrives in the UK in late October/early November.
Tokyo also afforded the first look at Roland's U220 sample player module, a rack-mount version of the U20 (currently one of the best-selling keyboards worldwide). The improved sound quality over the U110 is just as marked as on the keyboard, as is the easier access to multitimbral operation for MIDI sequencing.
Launched at NAMM in Chicago and heard at the British Music Fair earlier this year, Roland's S770 16-bit stereo sampler looked much closer to final release, with a virtually complete operating system identical in look and feel to those of the S550 and S330, providing basic functions via the front panel display and in-depth programming with the CRT interface and mouse option. Both CD ROM and rewriteable optical disk storage will be available from day one via the SCSI interface, which is standard attire (please note those manufacturers who still treat SCSI as an invariably late update!) and the same is true of the digital in/out. Have your five grand ready by January if you want to be the first on your block with one of these babies.
Emu System's most recently announced sampler, the Emax II, should actually be in the shops by the time you read this, having been shipped in October, but Tokyo afforded me my first listen. It was being put through its paces by Gerry Basserman in his usual inimitable style. Particularly impressive were the stereo sound disks sampled using the Emulator III, giving a brightness and clarity not previously available on an Emu product at this price point. Hands-on appraisal was not really possible at the show, as the only unit was in Gerry's demo rig.
Old synthesizers (Moogs, Prophets, Oberheims and Emu modular systems) seem to fetch an extremely high price in Japan, judging by one exhibition stand exclusively devoted to such vintage models, but there was one 'classic' sound at the show being given away at a bargain price. The Waldorf MicroWave recreates the authentic sound of the famous PPG in its heyday, with its classic wavetable synthesis (already enjoying a resurgence of popularity courtesy of the Transwave section of the Ensoniq VFX), and at around £900 represents a fraction of what one used to have to pay to obtain this dynamic digital sound generation (PPG Wave 2.2s and 2.3s typically sold for over £5,000 in the good old days). What's more, you won't put your back out carting one around (as I did with a Wave 2.3 once), as the MicroWave's fully multitimbral, 8-voice polyphony has been squeezed down to fit into a 2U rack case. You'll know it when you see one - it has the biggest, brightest red alpha dial you've ever seen!
Apart from the keyboard version of the S1000 and a baby grand sized digital piano (which I was told would not be released in the UK, apparently), Akai's main new product is an excellent 16-bit drum machine, the XR10. Based on the S1000 (on which the drum samples were made), it features 64 high quality sounds and 50 preset rhythms in addition to user-programmable sounds and patterns. If the remarkably low Japanese price is repeated in Europe, it promises to be a runaway success.
October 18th sees the focus of the trade show circuit shifting to recording-related equipment with the AES Convention commencing in New York. Rumour has it that Yamaha plan to unveil their digital multitrack recording/editing system, called the DMR. Brief snippets I picked up at Tokyo reveal that the DMR is based on a stationary (as opposed to rotary) head DAT system, and is modular to allow varying track configurations to be purchased according to customers' needs. I'm off to catch a plane now, so watch this space for further details...