Yamaha DX1 Synth
the ultimate in FM
Individually hand made, virtually a limited edition and finished in hand rubbed rosewood. Not the average synthesiser, you might reckon, and you'd be scoring full marks from the Swedish judges, John.
History has tripped us up here, as the DX1 was unveiled at roughly the same time as Yamaha's DX7. The 7 immediately went into mass production (and massive success), while the DX1 was taken back for the fine polish befitting a Rolls-Royce.
For thus were the Japanese ones describing their creation. Now it's finally in the shops (well, some shops), how close are they to their boast?
Electronically the DX1 is two DX7s. There are twin synths inside its case, each one containing the same algorithms and accepting the same programming information as the genuine article. It's more than happy to chew on a DX7 RAM pack and swallow its contents.
This allows you to layer two sounds (each with a maximum of 16 notes), or split the keyboard. Of vital importance is the fact that the twin 7s can be detuned from each other which does much to skirt the 'clean and over clinical' criticism occasionally raised against FM synthesis.
Why, then, should a DX1 cost as much as six DX7s? Apart from the sheer physical size, there are three main differences that make the 1 quite unlike the 7. First is the keyboard, a wooden, piano weighted job with 79 keys bouncing gently under the fingers.
The 7 has both velocity and second touch sensitivity. The first produces dynamics, the second delivers modulation effects as you press harder on the keys. The 1 has these features too – but polyphonically. Depress any note on a 7 and the modulation or volume increase will affect every key you're holding down. On the newcomer it will influence ONLY the note you've exerted yourself on. It can mean vibrato on the top note of a violin chord or one accented 'doink' in the middle of a Fender Rhodes run without the left hand chords lurching up in volume to match.
Those among you who recall Yamaha's original CS80 synth will recognise this feature. It may also bring back shuddering memories of trusses and back sprains since the mechanics of such a keyboard involve wood and weight... lots of it. The DX1, thankfully, isn't as leaden as the CS80, but it wouldn't go on the back of a scooter.
Second separation is the wealth of red LED readouts, figures, graphs and markers that sit beneath the black plastic skin across the top of the front panel. Though contributing nothing to the sound they catapault the DX1 in comprehensibility.
First on the left is a pyramid of 13 squares which shift to represent the selected algorithms. For those new to FM synthesis, an algorithm is a gathering of sine wave oscillators (operators). There are carriers (a man singing), and modulators (another man shaking him by the throat so his voice changes). Depending on their levels and how they are linked, different tones will be produced.
The squares will light with figures from 1 to 6 showing which operators are activated, and in what positions. Linking LED strips indicate how they're connected.
Perhaps one of the most puzzling areas of FM is the operation of its envelope generators. On in analogue synth this section is usually termed ADSR – attack time, decay time, sustain level and release time. The 7 and 1 are more mathematical in their approach. There are four output level points within the envelope generator curve, and four rates determining how long it takes the output to reach those peaks or troughs. Each operator has its own EG to control amplitude, or pitch.
The DX7 could never fully display these areas with a single LCD screen window. The DX1's ability to show all four rates and levels at the same time, both in figures and LED bar graphs, makes the subject easier to grasp, experiment with and program.
Keyboard scaling, another FM mystery that varies the strength of the operators across the keyboard, is also explained more clearly with a graph and additional LEDs. And finally there are windows to reveal keyboard velocity, modulation amount and output levels for sections not already gifted with a dedicated display.
Third is the DX1's performance memory. The centre of the panel still has a two tier LCD screen that talks to you – it's longer, and it's green, but the principle's the same.
Memory switches are akin to those of, say, a Prophet with integral LEDs and a positive action instead of the DX7's membrane. Those to the left of the LCD are arranged in four banks of eight for the A and B sounds. The DX1 can mix any A memory with any B memory (there are two matching RAM ports and a balance slider), but it can't combine one A with another A.
The switches directly under the LCD have, as is usual with FM, a mass of multiple functions. In the first level they call up 64 pre-programmed pairs of voices, but they're also capable of superimposing new instructions concerning second touch and velocity sensitivity especially for a 'performance'. And they get you into the FM electronics providing access to the many parameters – tuning, EGs, scaling, operators etc. Some of these switches have as many as four tasks. Thankfully a list is enscribed in one corner of the front panel so you don't have to commit them to memory. "What are the 39 steps?"
Let's scoot round the rest of the machine and see what Yamaha have added. Stereo outputs, but little else on the back panel bar the MIDI sockets. No computer interface for example. The pitch and modulation wheels feel smoother and classier, and within the programming section there are now parameters for 'total' sensitivity, decay rate and release rate so you can elicit quick changes without having to realign six operators.
There are some heavy duty processors at the heart of the DX1 to cope with the vastly increased touch sensitivity information, but otherwise the technology of the 1 is no further forward than the 7. There WILL be another leap in FM techniques, it's doubtless already sitting on the Yamaha mainframe, but just because the DX1 has materialised a year after the DX7 doesn't mean that it's an advance in science.
So how come it sounds different from the DX7? Syco Systems, who appear to be the major dealers in 1s, have tried fitting identical RAM packs to a DX7 and a DX1, and even, with just one channel selected, the latter has an indefinable extra something. Depth, perhaps... more body without losing any of the bite or percussion inherent in digital sound creation.
The most noticeable, immediate improvement is in string voicings, always, to these ears, a weakness on FM, if you're after a mushy, orchestral swell. The presence of two detuned DX7s softens the digital character and helps overcome the 'standing still' feeling that can afflict sustained notes on FM. Brass also picks up some points.
Flicking through the performance memories, it's apparent Yamaha have not been satisfied simply with doubling voices. Even with two violin or two piano programs stacked on top of each other, one will be slightly brighter or earthier for example.
A paired electric piano shows the advantage of two differing vibrato rates. As the mod wheel is slipped forward the voices wobble gently away from each other, adding to the subtle drift. A wonderful lilting atmosphere assisted by the emotion vested in the weighted keys.
This keyboard feels looser and bouncier than, say, a Prophet T8, and is expressive in a different way – a more piano like manner which is natural considering how FM works. The T8 influences its synthesiser functions. Fingers can be responsible for swelling the filter, shortening attack, altering modulation depth, etc. The DX1 gets inside the earliest stages of tone forming, shifting the operators and directly affecting the harmonics. That's much closer to the reaction of a piano string when you belt it softly or loudly.
It manages all the modulation, pitch and volume effects as well. Filtering is difficult to draw any obvious parallels with because it doesn't exist in FM, as such. It's another job for harmonic management.
In terms of expense it's in that keyboard and its dynamic capabilities that the DX1 has to score. Remember, but for that final, indefinable 'something' previously mentioned, the sound of two DX7's would cost you the price of two DX7s – about £3,000.
Is the DX1 more than a pair of Yamaha's finest? In particular, is it £6,000 more?
Unfortunately, I don't think so. It's arguable that the DX7 and DX9 took FM and made it into a sound. The DX1 takes FM and makes it into an instrument. The response it produces in you, as a player, adds an invigorating element to digital synthesis, almost as if Yamaha had added a new parameter on the front panel – 'human'.
But which price tag is right? Is the DX1 true to the immense amount of research and development Yamaha sunk into FM so the DX7 could come out as a tearaway bargain, or is the 7 accurately placed in the market, and the 1 an inflated collector's item?
It's fabulous, but the money frightens me.
DX1 FM POLY £9195
Gear in this article:
Review by Paul Colbert
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