FM Sound Generator
Yamaha's preset synth expander offers a multitude of FM sounds for reasonable money, and also boasts MIDI Mono Mode for multi-timbral recording. David Ellis gives his verdict.
Finally, Yamaha have implemented MIDI Mode 4 on an FM module to provide a multitimbral source of DX-type sounds. But you need a computer and software to program your own voices.
THE TITLE attached to Yamaha's latest offering in the continuing tale of their domination of FM waveforms suggests great things. In truth, the bland facade of the FB01 hides a sound source that's already been met in several previous incarnations - namely, the four-operator FM chips used in the DX9, DX21, DX100, and DX27 synths, as well as in the CX5M computer's SFG05 module. So, contrary to the rich six-operator tradition of the DX7 and its rack-mounted modular counterpart, the TX816, the FB01 belongs to a more minimalist camp, where imaginative programming is needed to escape from the limitations of just four operators.
But the FB01 does mark one important break from Yamaha's previous product line philosophy - namely, that the FB01 operates in MIDI Mono Mode (Mode 4). Yamaha have been longer than most to come round to the delights of multi-timbral voices from a single unit. The TX816 is, of course, an exception to this generalisation, but some would argue that the "eight DX7s in a box" approach is like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And in any case, eight TF1 modules hardly come under the description of a single unit.
No. There must be a cheaper (and easier to program) way of getting a multi-timbral box of sounds. At a fraction of the price currently being charged for a TX816, the FB01 seems to fit the bill - on paper, at least. The question is: can it really be likened, in practice, to "a monophonic TX816", as Yamaha's representatives claim?
In photographs, the FB01 tends to look smaller than it really is. Or at least, what it lacks in height (1.9") it makes up in depth (11.4"). The front panel is fairly basic, with just a small, backlit amber LCD (nicely legible under all lighting conditions) and eight of Yamaha's customary multi-function buttons. The FB01's backside includes the stereo out jacks, a memory protect switch, and a MIDI DIN socket trio for In, Thru, and Out.
An impressively thick manual is also supplied with the FB01, but further exploration reveals that only 61 of its 183 pages are in English, of which a large proportion is taken up by an explanation of the FB01's MIDI protocol, explanations on interconnecting the unit with other Yamaha gear, and the usual sub-literary padding under the heading of "getting started".
THE FB01'S sounds ("voices") are constructed along standard lines: eight available algorithms for interconnecting the four operators, with individual ADSR envelopes for each operator plus keyboard scaling. One improvement over its predecessors is that the FB01 allows velocity-sensitivity to be applied to envelope attack rate as well as level. This has the welcome effect of making timbral variation more realistically velocity-responsive than on, say, the CX5M computer. But as with the CX5M's sounds, only a single LFO is available for all eight output channels, so it's important to switch off the modulation source from those channels you don't want to be affected.
The voice definition is only one side of the story, though. Because the FB01 responds to Mono Mode MIDI data, it's necessary to provide some means for deciding how MIDI data is to be allocated to the eight available channels, and which sounds are to be played. This is achieved by selecting one of eight possible "instruments", and then assigning a MIDI channel, the number of notes to be allocated to that instrument, its lower/upper note limit (or MIDI zone), octave transposition, output volume, any detuning, LFO enable, and stereo position (limited to left, right, and centre, as on the CX5M).
These eight potential instruments then have respective voices allocated to them and various performance parameters added, ie. pitch-bend, portamento, poly/mono operation, and the type of modulation controller defined - aftertouch, modulation wheel, breath controller, or foot controller. All this organisation comes under the heading of "configuration", and 20 memory spaces are provided for this data, of which four are preprogrammed (numbers 17-20) and 16 are available for the user's own definition (1-16). Three of the stock configurations are as follows:
17: Single instrument receiving all eight notes on MIDI channel 1. Brass voice (01) from bank 3 selected, with maximum output, centre pan, no detuning, LFO enabled with modulation wheel, and pitch-bend selected.
18: Eight monophonic instruments receiving notes on MIDI channels 1-8. Voices 01-08 from bank 3 assigned to respective instruments, all with maximum output, centre pan, no detuning, LFO enabled with modulation wheel, and variable pitch-bend on each instrument.
19: Single dual-stacked instrument receiving all notes on MIDI channel 1. Brass voice (01) from bank 3 on both four-note instruments with +4 detuning between the two. All instruments with maximum output, centre pan, LFO enabled with modulation wheel, and pitch-bend selected.
So, to recap. Sounds are constructed as banks of 48 "voices"; pitching, dynamic, and MIDI details come under the-heading of "instruments"; and putting the whole shooting match together for all eight channels is termed "configurations". Well, the more you stick with it, the more usable it becomes, and it certainly makes for a comprehensive voice-patching system. I'd give anything, though, for a decent display and more buttons, in the vain hope of clearing the inevitable cobwebs of multi-function confusion. If only Yamaha would switch over to something like the nice 80-character display and "soft" buttons used on Ensoniq's ESQ1 synth...
THESE ARE divided into 240 presets in onboard ROMs (banks 3-7 inclusive), and 96 voices stored in battery backed-up RAM (banks 1 and 2).
"One bank offers a good range of keyboards, from a workable upright piano to some neat electric pianos and funky variations on the theme of Clavinets and things that get plucked in the night."
The first bank of 48 ROM voices is basically equivalent to (and compatible with) that in the CX5M's SFG05 module, with a fair mixture of decent brass, average strings, bright metallic percussion, and the usual weird sounds that Yamaha insist on adding when their musical imagination runs out (or seemingly so, anyway).
Bank 4 covers a good range of keyboards, from a workable upright piano that excels in the middle but flounders at either end, to some neat electric pianos and funky variations on the theme of Clavinets and things that get plucked in the night.
Bank 5 is dedicated to brass, strings, and wind. As usual, it's the brass end of the instrumental spectrum that comes off best, with some pungent horns and "hard brass" that work well over most of their allotted ranges. Less impressive are the strings and woodwind, which just tend to sound like four operators doing their best on a bad day.
Bank 6 is better, with all manner of sync'd synths, upright, fretted, bowed, and lying-down basses, and some typical (though less rich, again because of the four operators) FM percussion.
Finally, there's bank 7, with the usual display of organs, a good assortment of plucked instruments, and yet more sound effects.
If you're unhappy with Yamaha's own programming endeavours, CX5M software for the FB01 is on the way in the shape of the YRM506 voicing cartridge. But while the FB01 is probably a dream come true for existing CX5M owners, its appeal may be limited outside that circle. It's a shame, really, because the notion of a Mono Mode FM expander module is an attractive one. If Yamaha had de-multiplexed the stereo outputs to provide eight individual outs, and provided the display and panel controls to allow at least basic voice programming, then I'd be a good deal more enthusiastic about the machine.
As it is, the FB01 is filled with 240 adequate (and occasionally significantly more than that) preset sounds, which, while hardly damaging Yamaha's reputation, aren't quite enough to make the unit bear comparison with a monophonic TX816.
In sonic terms, the FB01 makes a fine expander for the CX5M (if you want to program your own sounds) or a source of "instant DX" noises (if you're not too concerned about originality) to contrast with the sounds from another MIDI synthesiser, piano, or whatever. Personally, I'm not sure it's quite up to standard for use in a professional sequencing environment, despite its Mono Mode implementation.
Maybe it's about time Yamaha took their expertise at FM synthesis a stage further, rather than recycling the same old sounds and technology, along with miniscule displays, confusing multi-function buttons, and a programming environment that's a nightmare for the average musician.
There's no question that the FB01 is what a lot of keyboard players and MIDI system users have been waiting for. It's just that somehow, it lacks a little in the inspiration department.
Gear in this article:
Review by David Ellis
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