Jim Betteridge gets broody over the baby of the DX range
It's 1986 and you still don't have any FM sounds in your armoury. People in magazines keep exclaiming about price barriers being broken, and incredible value being offered, but the piggy bank remains sheepish, and the keyboard situation FM'less. What to do?
Now is the time to make the supreme effort, maybe even have a word with the bank manager re a small overdraft. You'll have to explain to him that there's been an amazing price breakthrough and that incredible value is being offered – he'll like all that and probably won't have heard it before regarding DXs. What's more it's the truth.
The DX100 is more or less a DX21 with a 4-octave, 8-note polyphonic keyboard and no split/dual mode; those are really the only minuses and at £349 it's literally half the price. The similarity in price and market targeting with the Casio CZ-101 (RRP: £395) can't go unmentioned. It has the same size keyboard, the same over-the-shoulder capabilities and offers the same low cost access to sounds associated with larger synths, though without the full performance facilities. Whilst the CZ offers the advantage of being able to operate in the Mono (omni-off) MIDI mode, the DX100 has velocity sensitivity through MIDI. The relative importance of these two points depends upon how you work, but if you're the proud owner of, for instance, a Roland JX8P, it's great that you can now add the excellent sounds of both the CZ and DX ranges to your repertoire for around £700 (with discounts).
The DX100's keyboard is static but, as I mentioned, velocity sensitivity can be accessed through MIDI – ie, if you're playing it remotely from another touch-sensitive MIDI keyboard. As with the DX21, external storage is on cassette as opposed to the ROM/RAM packs used on the more expensive DX models. It's a fully programmable FM synth with four operators and eight algorithms (as per the now redundant DX9). We thought it impressive when the DX21 came forth with 32 RAM memories into which you can write and re-write your own voicings, and 128 factory preset (unalterable) ROM memories, but the DX100 puts all that most firmly in the shade with a total of 312 memories. Of these 24 can be used for storing your own voicings leaving an equally immodest 192 ROM factory presets plus a further 96 performance memories. This gargantuan store house has been split into three sections:
1. Internal Play – 24 instantly accessible RAM memories used to store sounds from any location, including newly edited sounds in any order for immediate performance. It is to and from this section that the memory tape storage facility operates. Any sounds to be edited must first be transferred into this section.
2. Preset Search – 96 performance memories arranged in four banks of 24. These can, if you like, be used to store different sets of voices, ie strings, brass, bass/lead, effects etc, for easy reference and access during performance. Factory preset voices can also be stored here.
[Text missing in article] that can be quickly accessed and used straight, or as a basis for editing, then to be stored individually in either of the two sections above. Whatever you do, this section will remain fixed – it's nice to know that no amount of incompetence will wipe them. The voices are accessed through two modes: Normal and Shift, and in each mode there are four groups of 24. Thus the same size of block is maintained throughout all the types of memory for easy interchange.
One of the major improvements made to later DX synths, including the DX100, is that of being able to store performance details as part of each individual preset. This includes pitch bend range, portamento mode/time, footswitch function (sustain or portamento), modulation wheel range, breath controller range and voice name. This is really a huge plus as it can be severely limiting to be stuck with your fretless bass pitch bend characteristic for your lead synth voicing, etc.
Editing is as simple/complicated as on other four operator DXs although, as with the DX21, an instructional cassette is supplied along with a mildly patronising beginner's instructional book called 'Play Book', which has one immediately in mind of 'Play School'. Each section has an adult sensible heading and a nine year old's heading: Basic Operation/Here We Go!, Voice Banks/Let's Play & Enjoy!, etc. However, I think most people would prefer to be a little patronised rather than being completely baffled, and the tape/book combination definitely makes things clearer to the uninitiated.
During all operations you are kept informed as to what's going on via an LCD display. The only drawback here is that, once again, it isn't back-lit, meaning that if you find yourself stuck away in the dark and dingy corner of one of the world's less salubrious venues, you can't see a thing. Admittedly, it should be switchable so that you don't unnecessarily run your batteries down, but if you're working with a mains adaptor (optional extra) there would be no problem.
Strap points are provided at either end allowing you to sling the DX100 over your shoulder for on-stage performance antics. Playing a keyboard of this 'mini' size initially seems easier than you might at first have thought, and then you find yourself making mistakes all over the place as you reach for octaves that come out as ninths, etc, and in fact it does take a fair amount of practice to become really fluent, especially if you have chunky fingers. The performance controls are located on the top left hand edge of the instrument which gives it a guitar-like action for the left hand when playing over the shoulder, and is reasonably convenient from a static playing position. As is normal with Yamaha instruments, there are two separate wheels for pitch and modulation, the first with a sprung return to centre whilst the second has to be pulled back to its zero rest position. I find this rather cumbersome when playing fast and wanting to simply drop a touch of vibrato on the end of a note. As it stands, the wheel is pushed upwards to produce an effect and returned to its end stop to cancel it. It would bean excellent addition to have a spring-loaded downward position that acted in a similar way to the Roland performance control, so that a flash of vibrato could be added without having to worry about pulling it back to zero whilst you should be concentrating on negotiating the next pitch bend. Along with the lack of a light on the LCD, that's about my only complaint; not exactly damning is it?
This really is an ideal way for someone already in possession of a MIDI synth to get a little FM in his/her life, and even as a performance synth in its own right – chunky fingers allowing – it's incredible value for money (again). The only thing that stops me phoning up your bank manager for you is that in a couple of months from the time of writing (more or less as you're reading this magazine) it will be the time of the annual Frankfurt musical equipment exposition where every major manufacturer is likely to introduce a whole range of stunning new synths.
But what could be better value than this (he gasped)!?! Lookout for the Frankfurt review in the April issue.
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Review by Jim Betteridge
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