The world's most advanced portable domestic keyboard is just about to hit the UK. Dan Goldstein finds out what FM voices, PCM drums and MIDI add up to.
Novel packaging, FM preset voices and MIDI compatibility set Yamaha's latest Portatone product well apart from the crowd, but how efficiently have its designers used the technology at their disposal? Dan Goldstein
As we reported in last month's round-up of new products at the recent British Music Fair, the latest trend among personal keyboard designers seems to be to put more in the way of 'professional' facilities into their machines, introducing a measure of playing and programming flexibility whilst retaining basic features that are essentially easy to use. It's a perfectly logical step to make, since on the one hand even the least exploratory home keyboard user is bound - sooner or later - to tire of an instrument that offers little or no scope for musical experimentation, while on the other, there are still a good many people (most E&MM readers excepted, I hope!) for whom the complexity of, say, a fully programmable polysynth is simply too much to cope with.
Yamaha's first attempt at glamorising the humble personal keyboard manifested itself a couple of months back in the shape of the MK100, which introduced the concept of user-programmability to miniature instruments via its versatile 'Multi Menu' section (see review E&MM July). The PS6100 takes some of the MK's features and develops them a stage further, so that whereas, for example, the 100 had only seven percussion voices in its semi-programmable rhythm section, the 6100 has no fewer than 21 - and they're of superior quality.
The major problem facing this instrument's designers must have been lack of space: a multitude of pushbutton selectors and slider controls but only a standard five-octave keyboard width over which to mount them. However, the ergonomic solutions adopted by Nippon Gakki are both elegant and functional. Briefly, the 6100's controls are laid out on a flat metal panel that also acts as a foldaway lid when the instrument is not in use: a much smaller panel flips up over the bottom of the instrument, so that the keyboard is covered completely and can be transported without fear of, say, water infiltrating vital working parts.
The 6100's output is ordinarily mono, but this becomes stereo when the stereo chorus/ensemble circuitry is activated, so twin speakers are included at either end of the keyboard. The top of the control panel contains a built-in music stand, while a neat foldaway stand for the instrument as a whole was also included with the review sample. At a time when almost all modern keyboard instruments (and especially those from the Orient) seem to be made up of one giant plastic moulding, it's refreshing to see a machine that's solidly constructed from good old metal, so the aesthetics are as well executed as they are conceived. If the PS6100 were British, it would be on display at the Design Centre before it reached any music shop.
Like many of Yamaha's domestic keyboards, the 6100 has two banks of factory preset voices, the first being polyphonic (labelled 'Orchestra') and the other mono (labelled 'Solo'). The latter contains 18 different sounds, the best of these being the vaguely 'synthetic' tones like Funny, Fantasy and Synthe. These are enhanced by the inclusion of an after touch facility (activated by the Touch Response' button), though the 6100's keyboard is perhaps a little spongey for the effect to be a real pleasure to use. A sustain option is also included, but strangely, none of the Solo section's voices seem to benefit greatly from its use.
In common with the remainder of the Yamaha's various control sections, the Solo voices are brought into operation by means of colour-coded switches and indicated by red LEDs: a further LED is connected to the section on/off switch that lies above the voice selectors.
The Orchestra section is split into two parts, and these correspond to the upper and lower halves of the keyboard, though 'halves' is something of a misnomer, because the split-point can be at any of three user-selectable points. The 'upper' bit offers 18 polyphonic voices, a sustain section (with two different sustain times available), and a stereo chorus/ensemble facility. Of the voices themselves, a few (Chimes, Marimba, Jazz and Pipe Organs) stand out as being very effective over the whole range of the 6100's keyboard, but some of the others (notably Strings, Brass, Jazz and Hawaiian Guitars) are considerably less agreeable: thin, weak sounds that bear almost no relation whatsoever to their real-world counterparts.
Frankly, if I hadn't been told beforehand that this Yamaha used FM for sound-generation, I'd never have guessed it - the voices are nowhere near DX standard. Having said that, in the context of the personal keyboard market the sounds are quite presentable, and it's only because the 6100's design has professional overtones that I've adopted such a critical attitude to the quality of its preset voices.
I don't think it would be inaccurate to suggest that the PS6100's machine is the most comprehensively-equipped unit in the entire domestic keyboard arena. There are no fewer than 32 preset rhythms to choose from, while an innocent-looking button marked 'Variation' effectively doubles this range. There are also three different fill-ins available for each rhythm - accessed by the fill-in switch above the lowest octave of the keyboard - while selecting 'Break' eliminates the percussion track for one bar.
What really gives the rhythm machine its edge however is the quantity and quality of the percussion voices employed. There are 20 of them in all (excluding the handclaps, which are selected separately), and these are divided into two groups - drum percussion and Latin percussion. All the sounds use PCM encoding techniques for tone reproduction, and with the possible exception of the snare drum (why do electronic snares never sound absolutely right?), sound quality is exemplary. Listening to the Latin congas, for example, you could be forgiven for thinking that Working Week's rhythm section had been incarcerated within the PS6100's sleek exterior, and my only grumble is that the (non-user-programmable) stereo positioning of the voices is a little disconcerting, even using the instrument's built-in speaker system.
Like the MK100 alluded to earlier, this Yamaha rhythm section features a semi-programmable feature that goes by the name of 'Custom Drummer'. This enables the user to create personalised rhythm patterns by adding new percussion voices in real-time using specific notes on the Portatone's keyboard, and two such customised variations can be stored and recalled at the touch of a button.
The 6100's Auto Bass Chord section also contains more than a few surprises. Comprising pre-programmed monophonic bass lines and arpeggiated chords, the section offers some pretty agreeable backing tracks in conjunction with the drum machine, and what's particularly interesting is the way the lines change depending on the configuration of the chords you're playing. The bass and chord voices are also variable (though not by the user), and the section's bass guitar impression is especially impressive. Less wonderful is the fact that, no matter where you set the split-point between auto and manual sections on the keyboard, the Auto Bass Chord section can only span one octave: severely limiting to all but the most narrow-minded of keyboardists, I'd have thought.
The final section on the PS6100 control panel - located at the extreme right of same - is the Music Programmer, a four-track real-time recorder whose capabilities and operation will be familiar to anyone with previous experience of Yamaha's upmarket personal keyboards. Basically, the programmer allows you to store the output of the Solo, Orchestra, Rhythm and Auto Bass Chord sections individually, and you can play back what you've recorded for one section and layer another section on top of it. If that sounds a little confusing, just imagine a four-track tape recorder in dedicated, solid state form - the 6100's music programmer is just as straightforward to use as its magnetic tape counterpart. A further section called 'Tape' allows digital data from both the Custom Drummer and Music Programmer sections to be stored on conventional cassette tape (to be accessed at a later date), while the extreme left of the panel contains a transpose selector, the master volume control, and a further selector that allows you to choose which of several functions comes under the control of the supplied footswitch.
"If I hadn't been told that this Yamaha used FM for sound-generation, I'd never have guessed it - the voices are nowhere near DX standard."
The Yamaha's rear panel contains a number of sockets, some of them fairly typical of personal keyboards, others more unexpected. Phono sockets take care of Aux In and Out, the tape recorder connections are on mini-jacks, while standard five-pin DINs take care of MIDI In and Out - another nod in the direction of the pro keyboard market. The rear panel also houses the master pitch control, but although this is undoubtedly the safest point to mount such a fundamental item, the fact that it has no locking function or centre detent means that the chances of some accidental detuning occurring are still a little on the high side.
The first thing that struck me on powering up the review model was an inordinate amount of RF interference appearing at the PS6100's output. This increased when the Orchestra section's chorus/ensemble section was brought into play, and since the 6100 has no earth lead incorporated into its mains cable, I can only assume earthing was the cause of the problem. Maybe Yamaha's metal case wasn't such a good idea after all...
Even without the interference problem, the chorus circuitry was unacceptably noisy in operation, and there was a fair bit of digital noise in evidence on some of the machine's preset voices, too, though this phenomenon manifests itself on the DX polysynths as well, so it isn't something that's confined to this particular version of FM.
As already mentioned, some of the preset voices - in both the mono and poly sections - were a lot more usable than others, though the chorus/ensemble circuit did beef up some of the Orchestra voices (strings, for example). By contrast, the Yamaha's auto-accompaniment section was a joy to use, and a constant source of entertainment to anyone who happened to stroll into the E&MM offices while the machine was under test. If only Yamaha made a self-contained, programmable drum machine with Latin percussion sounds as good as these!
Connecting the 6100 to external amplification did more justice to the quality of the machine's sonic output (though as built-in units go, the Yamaha's four-inch speakers aren't at all bad) as well as ameliorating the interference problem, though I was a little surprised to find no option for DC powering from batteries - if you haven't got a mains point nearby, you can't use your PS6100.
The PS6100 appears to be something of an enigma. Its paper specification would indicate a domestic keyboard that could justify being associated with the 'semi-pro' tag, yet in reality its design has a number of niggling faults which lessen its appeal by a not insignificant degree. Most of these - the quality of some of the preset voices, the one-octave accompaniment span, and so on - should be fairly easy to rectify given Yamaha's proven technological and engineering skill in other market areas, but that fact only serves to make them more annoying.
As a competent multi-purpose instrument, the 6100 will no doubt find a market amongst cabaret performers and home organists seeking a more contemporary-looking keyboard, but for the serious modern musician - and especially considering the model's formidable RRP - it doesn't quite take professionalism far enough.
Separate outputs for each of the sections, a somewhat less noisy stereo chorus unit, and some method of modifying the preset voices (the MK100 has this facility, so why hasn't Yamaha's flagship model got it too?) are just a few of the facilities serious keyboardists will want to make use of but which the PS6100 does not, as yet, provide.
I should imagine that Yamaha see the role of the PS6100 as two-fold: to introduce the domestic hobbyist to the world of programmability and (using MIDI) computer control, and to improve the basic specification of a home keyboard to make it suitable for the professional user. As you'll have gathered from the foregoing, there can be no question that the 6100 performs the former function admirably, even if the requirements of the latter role would seem to have been afforded rather less attention.
So call it the dabbler's DX, rather than the professional's Portatone.
RRP of the PS1600 is £1100 including VAT.
Review by Dan Goldstein
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