Walk the dinosaur
The Walkstation grows up
Can a single machine combine the portability of a walkstation with the power of a full-blown workstation? Simon Trask takes the for a jog round the block and comes up with some conflicting answers
Yamaha's QY10 and QY20 composition 'walkstations' have been a big hit in recent years. The formula has been simple - take the ever-popular music workstation and give it use-anywhere portability - yet no-one else has copied it with any success. Meanwhile, the workstation formula continues to thrive in general at the more professional end of the market with synth and keyboard workstations, which have superior features and quality but lack that ready portability which makes the QYs so appealing. Well, this year has seen two more additions to the range, with the Gameboy-size QY8 and the 'big brother' QY300 - it's the latter that's on test here.
With the QY300, Yamaha are trying to address the middle ground by providing an all-in-one composition centre which is more sophisticated than the cheaper QYs, yet provides a degree of portability not offered by a keyboard-based workstation - it is easy to carry around from gig to gig but cannot be powered by batteries like the rest of the QY range. Does the latest QY give you the best of both worlds, or is it simply lost in space?
With its 'desktop' design, chunky white buttons and 26-key micro keyboard, the QY300 stands out from the crowd - although, disappointingly, Yamaha have opted for a standard sober grey casing rather than a more adventurous colour scheme (presumably to give the 300 that 'serious' look).
The new QY packs a surprising number of features into its compact, slimline frame: as well as a multitimbral General MIDI sound source (drawn from Yamaha's TG range), it provides a fully-featured 16-track internal/MIDI sequencer, a versatile auto-accompaniment section with flexible user-customisation facilities, and a built-in 3.5-inch disk drive which allows you to save and load your own musical creations and gives you access to both Yamaha ESEQ files and sequences stored in Standard MIDI File format (which includes General MIDI song files).
As on the cheaper QYs, the auto-accompaniment and sequencer sections are well integrated, allowing you to create 'songs' with style, pattern and chord changes, out of preset and user patterns - and then, if you want, add your own parts using the 16 sequencer tracks.
All auto-accompaniment patterns on the QY300 are completely user-customisable, a process which involves assigning preset and/or user phrases to the eight instrumental parts which make up a QY300 pattern.
Operationally, the QY300 is a curious mix of the pleasingly accessible and the frustratingly obscured. In part this is a reflection of the 'schizophrenic' front panel, which combines LCD/soft button-based access in the upper half with a more old-fashioned (but welcome) physical immediacy. In practice the two halves interrelate, with the chunky white cursor buttons being used to steer the cursor around the numerous parameter fields in the LCD.
"Solo sounds tend toward thin side - a sure sign that ROM sample memory is at a premium"
If the QY300 has one significant failing, it's the omission of LCD backlighting - which inevitably means you end up peering into the display. Given that the portable nature of the 300 means it could be used in many settings, not all of them well lit, this is a surprising omission.
Nor does it help that in many instances the software pages displayed by the LCD are cluttered up, crammed full of parameters to the point where navigating your way around them with the cursor buttons can be a messy and confusing business.
These (albeit significant) criticisms aside, the QY300 is not a difficult instrument to get to grips with - thanks in no small part to the graphic-style user interface which Yamaha are increasingly adopting these days. Perhaps inevitably it is fiddly in operation, but this is at least in part down to the sheer number of parameters and detail of editing provided. The accompanying manual is clearly written and methodically laid-out, and proves to be a useful backup for exploration of the instrument.
No surprises here. The QY300 provides the 128 standard General MIDI instrumental sounds plus eight 'drum kits' (the GM one plus seven conforming to Roland's GS Format spec). In effect Yamaha have built a TG General MIDI sound module into the new QY, which means that you get an overall sound quality which is a pleasing mixture of brightness and warmth, with a solid if not stunning bass end, and a collection of sounds which work best when used in ensemble, where they blend together very effectively. As solo sounds, in many instances they tend toward the thin side - a sure sign that ROM sample memory is at a premium. Then again, this very character can lend them a charm all their own.
"Sequencer memory is a very reasonable 53,000 notes"
Thanks to its larger casing, Yamaha have been able to give the QY300 a bigger rubber-button 'micro' keyboard than that on the QY8, 10 or 20. It's quite playable; as long as you're not trying to do anything too complex or fast you should find it up to the job. And you can always plug in a MIDI keyboard if you want the performance advantages of the 'real thing'. The micro keyboard isn't touch-sensitive, but it is polyphonic, so you can play chords as well as single lines. In the absence of a full-size keyboard, this particular micro version will do quite nicely, thank you.
If you're looking for powerful, full, rich patches and a sound quality which shouts 'professional', this is not really the instrument for you. But the QY300 is a fine all-rounder with the range of sounds necessary to make it a good compositional tool. It's also worth bearing in mind that you're not confined to using QY300 sounds, as you can integrate non-QY sounds into your QY patterns and sequences by replacing internal sounds with MIDI'd ones.
The QY300's auto-accompaniment section is based around 800 Patterns, broken down into 100 Styles of eight pattern-types each, namely Intro, Main A, Main B, Fill AA, Fill BB, Fill AB, Fill BA, and Ending.
Using the micro keyboard you can select these pattern types or select chord changes in real time - the function changes depending on which parameter field you have selected in the Pattern LCD page. When in chord select mode, the lowest 12 rubber buttons are used to select the chord root, while the remaining buttons are for choosing from a very creditable 27 chord types (you get a choice of two types on all but one button). Once you've made your selection, you have to press the white Enter button to activate it. With practice it's possible to make reasonably fast chord changes in this way, though you may find yourself having to slow down the tempo in order to get them in.
Making pattern-type and chord changes at the same time isn't really feasible, given the 'double duty' which the micro keyboard performs here - but when you're sequencing an auto-accompaniment in Sequencer mode you have to enter Pattern and Chord tracks separately anyway.
"The micro keyboard is quite playable; as long as you're not trying to do anything too complex or fast, you should find it up to the job"
Yamaha have really got style-programming down to a fine art now, and there should be something for everyone - including, as usual, a selection of contemporary dance styles. And if you want to program your own styles, you can do that too, either by combining preset Phrases from a vast catalogue stored in ROM, or by programming your own Phrases (up to 100 of them, in fact). A Phrase is a single track within an auto-accompaniment - for instance a guitar part or a bass part. There's plenty of scope for your own creativity here, so if the idea of user-programmable auto-accompaniment takes your fancy, this is definitely an instrument to check out.
Lack of space precludes covering everything that the QY300's onboard sequencer offers but suffice to say that this is a very well-specified, very flexible sequencer with recording and editing features galore. No mere afterthought, this sequencer will serve many users well as the centrepiece of a MIDI setup, with 16 linear tracks plus a further eight tracks via the auto-accompaniment Patterns which can be smoothly integrated into the sequencing environment.
Memory capacity is a very reasonable 53,000 notes, and you get real-time, step-time, punch-in and edit-insert record modes, plus the ability to block edit and 'micro edit' (down to individual event level) your sequences.
The QY300 is a feature-packed unit which offers a well thought out (and well integrated) combination of sound module, sequencer, and auto-accompaniment section. Its inclusion of a 26-note micro keyboard, together with its compactness and portability, make the QY300 a viable 'stand-alone' composition centre which can be carried around easily and used in any situation where a mains supply is to hand. In this respect, its flexibility is marred only by the lack of LCD backlighting, which would have made pattern-tweaking in dimly-lit clubs, studios, and rehearsal rooms much easier.
At the same time, with its fully-featured onboard 16-track sequencer the QY300 can be used as an effective centrepiece for a fixed MIDI recording setup. You can plug in a MIDI keyboard for performance input, and replace onboard sequenced sounds with external MIDI'd sounds - an attractive if not essential option, given the over-familiar nature of many of the QY300's internal patches.
For the £900-odd Yamaha are asking for the QY300, you could grab yourself a MIDI sound module with rather more in the way of hip, happening sounds (and probably some means of programming your own) plus a decent computer-based sequencing package. But such a system wouldn't have the portability of the QY. And, crucially, neither would it have the vast and impressive range of auto-accompaniments which many songwriters and arrangers prefer to use as the basis for their programming.
If only it could be powered by batteries, the QY300 would be the perfect partner for those mid-Channel tunnel pauses between London gig and Paris recording session. As it stands, however, it could be just the thing you need to get you that gig or session in the first place.
Price: £899 inc VAT
More from: Yamaha-Kemble, (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
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