Every so often a product comes along which changes everyone's idea of what they can expect at a certain price. Yamaha’s new £250 box sets a new standard in price/performance for sampled piano (and other) sounds. Paul Wiffen gets excited enough to spend his own money!
Every so often a product comes along which changes everyone's idea of what they can expect at a certain price. Yamaha's new £250 box sets a new standard in price/performance for sampled piano (and other) sounds. Paul Wiffen gets excited enough to spend his own money!
Every time a new synthesizer/sampler arrives in a music store, the staff are besieged with customers coming in to check it out. They stand there for a couple of minutes, patiently tolerating great unique sounds which have never been heard before. However, they soon grow tired of all this originality and get down to the really serious business of evaluating the machine's performance. "What sort of piano sound does it do?" or "Let me hear the strings", they cry, convinced that these are the two critical tests for any new keyboard/module. The more adventurous of them may ask for the brass sound as well. If and, often it seems, only if the demonstrator can pull something out of the bag to approximate these three timbres, do they start to take notice of whatever weird and wonderful sounds the box can produce.
What a dire comment on the state of musical creativity this is! The world's designers struggle to create new and exciting ways to manipulate sound, and if they fall at the piano/strings/brass hurdle, then we in effect send them back to try again, however good they may be in other areas. If the DX7 hadn't done that overbright version of a Fender Rhodes and the stabby brass sounds, I doubt if most people would even remember its model number. In stark contrast, great synths like the Kawai K5 and the Oberheim Matrix 6 are ignored by large numbers of players just because they don't come with a killer piano sound in preset number 1.
What is the remedy for this situation then? Somebody needs to come out with a really cheap box that concentrates on authentic piano, strings and brass sounds (plus some others). This will satisfy everybody's craving for these 'basics' and free up all other instruments for more creative uses.
Enter the Yamaha EMT10. Using the AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) technology developed by their Clavinova division, the EMT10 uses onboard ROM to store Piano, Strings and Brass samples, plus half a dozen other timbres, and weighs in at under £250 suggested retail price. It occupies just half a standard 1U rack space, is 8-note polyphonic, and features an ingenious system for power, MIDI and audio connections which allow two to be used as if they were one 16-voice unit (more of this later).
The EMT10 is one of a series of modules being produced not by the Digital Musical Instrument division of Yamaha (which is where all the DX/TX/RX series come from), but by the section which distributes their portable keyboards and Clavinovas. As a result, you may find that your normal rock 'n' roll music store doesn't have it in stock! If they can't order it for you, then you may find you have to visit your local organ/portable keyboard store to find one. Take a deep breath and suffer the demonstrator playing 'Tulips From Amsterdam' - it'll be worth the pain, I promise you!
The rest of this EMT module range is not really that interesting to us rock 'n' rollers. There is the EMT1, which uses 4-operator FM to make a variety of sounds (a la FB01); the EMQ1 sequencer, which is the simple 2-track overdub type; and the EMR digital reverb, which sounds great but only features a handful of presets (check out the Yamaha R100, which is basically the same but with 100 presets).
The EMT10 crosses over perfectly into the rock 'n' roll market, simply because the sounds it makes are so good. It shares the same sampled Piano, Harpsichord, Guitar and Bass sounds as the more expensive Clavinovas, plus several 'new' sounds which I haven't come across before.
The two Acoustic Pianos (which form presets 1 and 2) sound very similar - presumably because they both draw on the same set of source samples. The second is a touch mellower than the first, but the difference is very subtle. Nevertheless, both are superb and by any previous reckoning would have easily been worth more than the price of the unit on their own. The Roland MKS20 Digital Piano, for example (which until recently people have been happily paying over a grand for), pales in comparison. To get a better piano sound than this you would have to splash out for one of the Korg Sampling Grands or a Kurzweil Piano.
Under close examination you can spot where the multi-samples change and the loops start, but under normal playing conditions - with just a hint of reverb - these are inaudible. The Piano sounds are, for example, infinitely superior to anything I've heard on a sampler for less than £6000 (the Simmons SDX piano sample is the first thing that comes to mind as being audibly superior).
As I've already said, in a world without the EMT10, the piano sound alone would be worth several times the price of the unit, but the good news doesn't stop there. In addition, you get two Electric Pianos, Harpsichord, Classical Guitar, Strings, Brass, Choir, and three Bass sounds.
The Electric Piano sounds are not going to change the world, but they are eminently usable and make a very pleasant change from the FM version everyone now seems to think is what a Fender Rhodes used to sound like. There is more variation between the two Electric Pianos than there is between the Acoustic Piano timbres. The first is a bright Rhodes-type, with plenty of the sound of the tines being struck. The second is a warmer, smoother sound closer to a Wurlitzer piano, although this is not necessarily the sample source (it could just be a filtered version of the first).
The Harpsichord is a very usable sample, sounding really quite authentic, especially at the lower end of its range. It gets a bit tinny at the top of a seven-octave keyboard, but then most harpsichords don't have anything like that range. The same applies to the Guitar (the nylon-strung classical variety), which Yamaha have made a brave effort to stretch over a seven-octave span. Seeing as a classical guitar only covers 3½ octaves, this seems a little excessive. Even so, the sound is very authentic - great for John Williams impressions.
Now we come to what Yamaha call the 'sustained voices': Strings, Brass and Choir. These sounds are not the sort of thing you would normally expect on a typical piano module, and indeed they are new to the Clavinova range altogether.
The Strings are very warm sounding (surprisingly so for sampled sounds, they have more of an analogue synth quality about them), almost as if they had been put through a chorus unit. They are not the most realistic voices I have ever heard from sampling, but they are recognisable as real string samples. You can carry a tune with them (unlike most analogue strings) but they are warmer than your average digitally generated string sounds, making a nice compromise between the two. Used as a layer behind something, they sound wonderful. The sample is least authentic in the lower register, mainly because of short loops, but this only shows if you sustain long notes in the left hand on their own.
The Brass sample, whilst giving a pretty realistic impression of a trumpet in the right hand and a trombone in the left, is a bit thin sounding. This is fine for solo classical things but don't count on doing pop brass stabs with it. It is weakest in the middle register because of the transition between the different instrument sources. However, doubling it with an analogue brass sound (from the new Cheetah MS6 synth module) worked wonders and gave the warmth of the synth a bit of realism.
The Choir sound on the EMT10 is excellent and very authentic. Of course, the fact that the sampled human voice sounds strange even a tone higher or lower than the sampled pitch has caused them a few problems, and some of the multi-sample split points are a bit obvious, but they have done at least as good a job as on most samplers costing seven or eight times the price. Though you may run into a few problems if you play melody lines with this sound, used chordally it sounds superb. I had a really hard time persuading visiting friends that such a sound could be coming from a little box like this.
"With their excellent sounds, ridiculously low price, and ingenious system for linking two units together to form one 16-voice device, the Yamaha EMT10s are the best purchase I've made this year."
There is also a mode on the EMT10 which uses two voices per note against each other, on the Sustained Voices, to create a detuned effect. This works best on the Brass, which is in need of a bit of fattening up. On the Strings and Choir, the resultant phasing tends to make the samples sound a bit more synthetic but it is still a pleasant effect. Of course, the polyphony is reduced to four notes when using this mode, but ain't that always the way when doubling voices?
The final three sounds on the EMT10 are all Bass voices. First of all there is Upright, a double bass pizzicato sample which is very realistic. Then there is Electric, which is a plummy sounding roundwound Fender Precision sample. The third, Slap, is a very aggressive sound which might be a bit overpowering for most types of music (but fine for all you funkers out there!).
Of course, these Bass sounds are not much use when played above the lower octaves (although the samples do run all the way up an 88-note keyboard), so Yamaha have included a split keyboard mode which allows you to use the bottom 2½ octaves of your MIDI keyboard for a Bass sound (with 2-note polyphony) and any one of the other nine sounds over the rest of the keyboard. So you can mix and match Choir with Upright or Pianos with Electric or Brass with Slap to suit your needs.
You do this by pressing the two required timbre switches at the same time, and the split is automatically assigned to the F#2 note. It's a shame you can't change this at all, but if there has to be one fixed split point, I guess this is a good place to have it. You can also call up Bass splits via MIDI Program Change, although you'll need to refer to the table in the manual as it gets very confusing. I defy anyone to deduce that Guitar and Slap is called up by Program Change numbers 69 and 78, or that Choir and Upright is 56. I don't know why they had to make it so complicated.
If you want to enter the Program Change into a sequence, then you can avoid this whole mess by selecting the required combination of timbres from the front panel switches (the appropriate Program Change number is then sent out).
Although the sounds in the EMT10 cannot be edited in the same way as you are used to on most synths, it is possible to obtain variations on the timbres from the Voice Variator switches (common to all EMT modules). This allows you to select a Bright or Mellow version of the sound (in addition to the standard), and Slow or Fast Attack in addition to the normal way in which the voice speaks. LED indicators show you which of the nine possible combinations you have currently selected.
The Voice Variator LEDs are also used in conjunction with the MIDI button and the other switches to show and change the status of a whole bunch of extra functions. These include changing MIDI channel, switching to the 4-note detuned mode explained earlier, transposing the Bass an octave down, shifting the span of the whole unit up or down one octave, changing the touch sensitivity curve, and selecting the grouping of received MIDI notes. If you're going to want to do all these things though, you'd better keep your manual handy as remembering which combinations do and mean what is more than most human brains can handle. This is particularly true of the MIDI channel assignment, which uses a binary sequence of the four LEDs to show the current MIDI Channel, and requires you to press the Piano 2 and MIDI buttons to step through the current Receive Channel.
Of course, those facilities which you use often enough will soon impress themselves on your memory, and the one that I know by heart now is MIDI and Choir together, which cycles through the grouping of received notes. This may not mean anything to you, but it is the key to the EMT10's best feature. You can select whether the EMT10 will respond to all incoming MIDI notes or just to odd- or even-numbered ones. Sound a bit strange? Well, think about it. If you have one EMT10 set to play just even-numbered MIDI notes and another to play only odd ones, then whatever note you play will be sounded by one of them and, hey presto!, you have two EMT10's behaving like one 16-note polyphonic unit.
Add to this the fact that you can take DC out of one and into the second (although you will need the beefier PA5 power-pack to provide enough current for two units) and you can feed the audio Line Outs from one to the Aux In of the other so that the signal from both is being sent from the Line Outs of the second unit. A really neat system!
And the cost of this? Over £100 less than Yamaha's own TX1P 16-voice Piano module, which features the same Piano, Harpsichord and Guitar samples (but omits the Strings, Brass, Choir and Bass sounds in favour of a solitary Vibes sound). With two EMT 10s, not only can you get 16-voice piano performance (which any half-way decent piano player needs, especially if he ever uses a sustain pedal), but you can also double any of the sounds by selecting one from each module. Piano and Strings or Guitar and Choir, etc. You don't use up any more audio inputs because of the ingenious Aux In system, you simply balance the respective volumes using the Volume sliders on the front panel. I also suspect that you can easily rack-mount two units side-by-side in a 1U space by using one of the Akai or Roland Micro Effects mounting brackets. Alternatively, Yamaha give you the necessary brackets to stack them.
Any operational changes that you can make from the EMT10 front panel can also be performed via MIDI, so you can transpose the whole thing down two octaves or switch to the 4-note poly mode for a richer String sound in the middle of a sequence, using the appropriate System Exclusive messages. It's a pity, however, that more of these changes aren't feasible via the more accessible Program and Control Changes instead of System Exclusive, which most people find tricky to set up. Still, you could use an MEP4 or any other Mapper-type device to convert Program Changes into the necessary System Exclusive codes for rapid status changes (which is what I'm thinking of doing).
The reason I'm thinking of doing this at all is because as soon as I heard the EMT10 I bought two of them straight off, which is the first time I have made such an impulsive purchase! The reason was, I wanted to get mine before they became extinct. A product like this is going to be in huge demand for a long time, all over the world, and it may be quite a while before supply catches up. Already I hear stories of London dealers with dozens on back order, and they're all spoken for. Still, news moves more slowly in the domestic market (they don't all read magazines like SOS) and you may still be able to find an organ dealer whose normal customers haven't woken up yet, so he still has one or two in stock.
I have now had my EMT 10s for over three months and I am still delighted with the sound of them. I got them primarily to save tying up my samplers and synths with 'stock' sounds on sessions, leaving them free for more creative use. The artists and producers I have worked with have loved them (one even chose to record an 'exposed' piano part with them instead of using a 9ft Steinway, because it was less fuss!). Transporting them backwards and forwards to the States is no problem because they are so small and light, and the external 9V power supply means you can avoid the usual problem with non-switchable power supplies on Japanese product (when will they do something about this?) by buying a different adaptor in whatever country you want to use them.
Naturally, there are a few little niggles. Despite the fact that the EMT10 receives MIDI Sustain, Soft Pedal and Sostenuto (I have yet to find a master keyboard that transmits the last two controllers, incidentally), it does not respond to MIDI Pitch Bend, Mod Wheel or Aftertouch. Whilst this is not a problem on the Piano sounds (which, I suppose, are the EMT10's principal raison d'etre), it would be nice to be able to pitch bend the Guitar sample, add some vibrato to the Brass or the odd slide-in on Upright Bass. Still, you can't have everything in this world - and you certainly can't expect it for this sort of price. With their excellent sounds, ridiculously low price, and ingenious system for linking two units together with audio, MIDI and DC power to form one 16-voice device, the Yamaha EMT10s are the best purchase I've made this year. I am confident now of nominating the EMT10 not only for 'Product Of The Year', but also 'Bargain Of The Year'.
Price £250 inc VAT.
Contact Yamaha-Kemble Music (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by Paul Wiffen
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