The latest dedicated sequencer from Yamaha offers 16 tracks, extensive editing capabilities and a built-in disk drive. Howard Massey gives it a spin.
Following in the footsteps of the QX5, the latest Yamaha dedicated sequencer offers comprehensive editing facilities and a multi-purpose, built-in disk drive.
WHERE DO THESE letters and numbers for product names come from, anyway? I mean, we all know that "X" is this magical, mystical symbol that most hi-tech synth manufacturers feel compelled to include in order to ward off the curse of Low Sales. But where did the "Q" come from, I hear you ask? I haven't the vaguest idea, really.
At least we know where the "3" came from, since the QX3 represents Yamaha's latest entry in the dedicated sequencer sweepstakes - about halfway between the "affordable" QX5 and the all-singing, all-dancing QX1. Halfway, that is, in price but by no means halfway in features. The QX3 offers so many more advanced features than the QX1, you can almost hear the sound of QX1 owners' hair being torn from their heads. The saving grace for QX1 owners takes the form of the QX3's compatibility with the QX1, so a good deal of data can freely be transferred between the two sequencers.
Let's begin at the beginning (original thinking - that's what I'm paid for). The QX3 is, first and foremost, a 16-track sequencer, offering a total memory capacity of about 48,000 notes complete with velocity. As a point of comparison, the QX1 has an 80,000-note capacity, although it offers only eight tracks of recording. The QX1 also offers eight discrete MIDI outputs - one per track - while the QX3 has only two, but any track can be routed to either or both MIDI outputs. An assignable routing scheme of this sort can be a great help when transmitting dense sequence tracks (tracks containing large amounts of controller or SysEx data) along with other, less dense tracks. In effect, it helps to unclog the MIDI traffic jam that can occur in such circumstances: simply route the dense track to one port and the remaining data to the other.
One thing to keep in mind is that the QX3's internal memory is volatile. In other words, like most computers (but unlike most sequencers, synthesisers, and drum machines), it forgets everything but its operating system when you turn the power off. Fortunately, there is an onboard 3½" disk drive for fast and easy data storage - but you'll need to remember to use it frequently, and not let your goldfish trip over the power cord when you're in the middle of your latest masterpiece. The disk drive can also be used to store generic MIDI files (called MDR files), but more about these later.
The QX3 is also a little unusual in that the transmitting channel number is itself not recorded. Instead, each of the 16 tracks holds data which can then be routed to any outgoing MIDI channel. You accomplish this with a simple command, and a similar one is used for the receive channel routing. For example, tracks one to 16 can be set to receive MIDI channels one to 16 respectively, so that any instruments transmitting on channel nine, for example, can only be recorded on track nine. Changing this is very easy, and you can even select Omni receive for any track (so that it will record incoming data from any MIDI channel - but bear in mind that, since the channel numbers themselves are not recorded, it will be difficult if not impossible to unmerge the data afterwards). This system can take a little getting used to, but it is ultimately very flexible and easier to work with than you may think, especially since it resembles audio routing schemes you may already be used to in multitrack recording. In fact, with its dedicated Run and Record switches and Record Ready controls (where LEDs blink just like the equivalent lights on a multitrack), the QX3 is closer in concept to the standard multitrack recorder than many other sequencers. Like a multitrack recorder, you can put any number of tracks in record simultaneously (and each may be recording the same or different data, depending upon how their channel assignments are set) and you can bounce tracks together to an unlimited degree.
FIRST, THE DISPLAY. For a dedicated hardware sequencer, this is quite a good one: two lines of forty characters each in a backlit display and - finally - Yamaha provide a contrast control so as to make viewing at different angles possible. On the left-hand side is a 40-key keypad (that's right) plus several function and cursor keys and an "Enter" key that, unfortunately, is located where a computer keyboard spacebar normally is. I'm sure you get used to having it there eventually; but for those who toil over computers and/or typewriters a good deal of the time, it would probably be easier to find it over on the right-hand side. This is a minor quibble, though.
Each of the 40 keys can perform several different functions - some enter note values, some enter timing values, and others enter dynamics or act as plain numeric entry keys. All these keys double as character keys when used in conjunction with the "Character" key, and lower as well as upper-case letters are supported when naming tracks and files. The ubiquitous Yamaha Shift and Job keys are present as well, allowing you to perform a myriad of other functions. The Shift key calls up a series of different commands all printed in green, while the job table of the QX3 is silkscreened on the front panel. A couple of very special function keys, labelled F1 and F2, are also available. They give you the option of predefining up to 128 keystrokes and then executing those keystrokes instantly. This is a wonderful timesaver when entering repetitive data or long strings of notes or System Exclusive commands.
Immediately to the right of the keypad is a series of eight switches, numbered 1/9 through 8/16. These act as record ready switches for the various tracks when in record mode, and as mute switches when in play mode. Beneath them are four switches, labelled Tempo, Measure, Step, and Clock. These determine some of the functions of the single rotary dial. While vaguely reminiscent of the "alpha dial" used in some Roland products, it has small incremental clicks, making it easier to use for fine data entry than a smoothly-rotating control. Depending on which of the four switches are pressed, the dial will change tempo or step through events in memory by measure, step, or clock.
"Capacity: The QX3 is, first and foremost, a 16-track sequencer, offering a total memory capacity of about 48,000 notes with velocity."
The QX3 uses 96ppqn, unlike the QX1, which used a rather over-the-top resolution of 384ppqn. The only reason this may have some impact is if you use the QX3 to play back sequences that were created originally in the QX1 - quantisation will have to take place in the process and may lead to unsatisfactory results if the QX1 sequence had a lot of syncopated or arhythmic data.
Beneath the rotary dial and its four function switches are eight larger and three smaller switches that are responsible for most of the normal sequencing activities. Included are separate switches for loading and saving operations (to disk), an MDR switch for generic MIDI data transfers, separate Record, Stop, and Run switches, an Edit switch, and a very handy Exit switch which allows you to abort any operation or exit from any mode back to play mode. Three location switches are also available, labelled Top, Loc 1, and 2-3, which allow you to quickly move to either the top of your sequence, to a predetermined autolocate point (Location 1), or to loop between two other predetermined autolocate points (Locations 2 and 3). This last feature is particularly useful if you want to work on one small piece of your sequence and need to keep listening or punching in until you get it right. It's worth noting that these three switches very closely emulate positional switches commonly found in multitrack remotes - obviously, someone at Yamaha R&D has been spending a lot of time in the recording studio. Seriously, this is yet another nice touch that makes the operation of the QX3 second nature to anyone who's ever operated a multitrack tape machine.
AS WITH THE smaller QX5, there are three record modes: real-time, punch-in, and step record. The punch-in record mode of the QX3 is quite a bit more comprehensive, however, offering no less than three different types of punch-in recording: just, which allows you to punch in and out on the fly, either by pressing the Enter and Exit keys, or by using a footpedal; Meas, which works the same way but automatically punches in and out at the next available "top of measure" mark; and Auto, which allows you to preset both punch-in and punch-out points and simply executes them automatically.
Real-time recording is extremely straightforward but, while real-time playback can easily be looped, real-time recording cannot; you won't be able to simply keep running through the track over and over and stop when you get a good take. Not a major complaint, but something that could perhaps make life a little easier for the user. Step recording is pretty much everything we've become used to, except that the presence of dedicated note, note duration, and dynamics keys makes the task a whole lot easier. You can also enter notes directly from your MIDI keyboard, though only note numbers and not velocity increments are recorded - meaning that you'll still have to manually enter velocity values. I think this is a real shame, because a sound can change drastically when you strike a key harder or softer. It would have been nice to at least be able to see what the velocity value is when the key is struck. The built-in MIDI monitor will let you do just that, but it's a royal pain to have to keep switching between monitor mode and step record mode.
The QX3, in common with the QX5, is capable of recording and playing back System Exclusive data as well as the channel data traditionally stored by most sequencers. This not only allows you to create generic Bulk MDR (MIDI Data Recorder) files on their own (which the QX1 and DX7IIFD can do), but also allows you to incorporate parameter changes into a sequence itself. This is an exciting new area in sequencing and one which more and more artists will, hopefully, begin taking advantage of in the months ahead.
"Disk Drive: Disk operations are a breeze, thanks largely to the dedicated Load, Save, and MDR switches, which keep you from having to fumble through job tables."
All kinds of incoming MIDI data - Note, Controller Changes, Velocity, System Exclusive, and so on - can be viewed when the MIDI Monitor mode is selected, and this can be a big aid when trouble-shooting. Any of these events can be selectively filtered out, and the QX3 can also send and/or respond to just about all of the applicable MIDI System Common commands, including Song Select and, of course, Song Position Pointer. In fact, incoming Song Select data will actually cause the QX3 to seek the equivalently numbered song file and load it from disk into memory - all from a remote command.
Disk operations are a breeze, thanks largely to the dedicated Load, Save, and MDR switches, which keep you from having to fumble through job tables or use doubleclick or shift/select-type operations found on other Yamaha products. Up to 112 files can be stored on a double-sided disk, with a total disk capacity of 720K. As mentioned above, files may be of several different varieties: sequences (called "songs"), song chains (collections of songs in a particular order), system setups, bulk (MDR), or bulk chains. The drive can also read "E-seq" files created with the CX5M MIDI recorder program or some Electone consumer instruments. Files created in the QX1 can also be transferred and converted to QX3 files. QX3 files can be sent to the QX1 as well, though only tracks one to eight will be transmitted.
You can easily get around this problem by merging the QX3 data in tracks 9-16 over to any of the first eight tracks before transmitting. You can also use the QX3 disk drive to back up DX7IIFD disks, since both instruments use the same type of disk format. The advantage of doing so is that the memory buffer of the QX3 is much, much larger than that of the DX, so backing up takes less time and requires fewer changes of disk. A status light on the front panel goes on whenever the drive is in operation so you know when not to insert or remove a disk.
The QX3 can either use its internal clock or can be synchronised to an external clock, either FSK or MIDI clock. Somewhat surprisingly for a sequencer in this price range, it tracks neither SMPTE nor MIDI Time Code, though various external converter boxes are available which can convert these to MIDI clock. As mentioned above, MIDI Song Position Pointer and Song Select messages can be both received and transmitted. When the QX3 is listening to an external clock signal, a status LED lights up. This is a nice touch which can save you embarrassing moments of wondering why pressing the Run button produces no response.
If you are using the QX3's internal clock, you have the option of using a nifty feature called Relative Tempo Record. What you can do with it is use the rotary dial to alter the tempo of a sequence while listening to a playback, and have these tempo changes embedded into a separate, "17th" track and stored as relative percentages of the starting tempo. A similar feature is actually found on quite a few sequencers and sequencer programs, but what makes it unique in the QX3 is that the tempo changes are displayed as absolute values on the display while you are making them. Thus, if you've created a sequence at, say, 120bpm and you know that you need it to speed up to precisely 132bpm at a certain bar, you simply dial up twelve increments at the exact moment and you'll see "132bpm" in the display. This will actually get recorded as a 110% tempo in the track data stream, but the important thing is that you don't have to guess - you can actually go directly to the tempo value you want, at the time you want it to change.
Tied in with this concept is an exciting feature that can be considered one of the major strengths of the QX3. Referred to as Time Display, it allows you to view exact timings of any sequence or specified measures within any sequence, in familiar hours, minutes and seconds. If tempo changes are made with the rotary dial, the resultant absolute time is instantly calculated and displayed. This will surely be a boon to score and jingle writers, who need to time events to a very fine degree. By giving the task of doing these calculations to the microprocessor, it takes the guesswork out of making tempo changes in order to speed up or stretch out a musical event.
"Editing: The QX3 includes a new feature called Spot Extract, which permits you to perform highly exotic manipulations like extracting the first beat of every bar and moving it slightly forward in time."
AS I SAID earlier, the editing features of the QX3 are extensive. Any track can be edited at any time (unlike, for example, the QX5, which only allows you to edit track one) and events can be easily changed, deleted, or inserted. Because the only kind of editor here is a MIDI event editor, however, you might have to search through an awful lot of data to find the one event that you want to change. For this reason, the QX3 incorporates a terrific function called Event Display. What it allows you to do is specify which types of event you wish to display, and which you don't want to see. Note-on messages are also transmitted while stepping through events (accomplished by the measure, step, or clock with the rotary dial) while in edit mode. For any of you out there who have ever had to sift through an event editor filled with 892 separate aftertouch messages in order to find a note that needed changing, you will greatly appreciate this feature. Any of the following events can be displayed or not displayed: Note On/Off, Controller Change, Pitch-bend, Program Change, Aftertouch, System Exclusive, or relative tempo.
Data can, of course, be bounced from track to track and merged freely. Extensive extraction functions are also available that let you pull out specific data for bouncing or deleting. These include the ability to extract only specific notes (set by note range), or Controller, Pitch-bend, Program Change, Aftertouch, or System Exclusive data. An excellent new extraction process featured in the QX3 is called Spot Extract. Although it doesn't remove embarrassing stains from ties, it does allow you to remove data within a very specific time range (determined by clocks, and remember, there are 96 of these suckers per quarter note). Consequently, you can perform highly exotic manipulations, like extracting the first beat of every bar and moving it slightly forward in time (with the Clock Shift function) or increasing its velocity slightly (with the Velocity Modify function). Another advanced application of this is to quantise only specific events within a measure - useful, since the Quantise function (which, incidentally, is destructive - so copy your tracks before quantising) can only be initiated by measure.
While I'm on the subject of quantisation, I should mention that this function quantises all events - not just note-on messages. This is potentially problematic if you've got a track with smooth controller changes or many program changes. The manual therefore advises that you transfer note data to a different track and quantise it separately before merging it back with the original track. This seems to be a convoluted solution to a simple problem, and it would have been nice to be able to specify that note events only should be quantised, or not, as the case may be.
Measures can be copied from place to place within a track or to other tracks and new measures can be created and inserted at any points. Whole measures can also be deleted or simply erased - the data inside the measure is removed and the measure becomes blank. Any or all notes within measures can be transposed, this is especially useful when using the QX3 to control a drum machine that has different instruments assigned to different notes. The gate times (note duration) of all notes within a measure or measures can be modified, as can the velocity values. Crescendos and decrescendos can instantly be created over specified measures by using the Crescendo function and specifying the depth of increase or decrease in velocity values. The QX3 also includes a pair of functions called Chord Sort and Chord Separate, that allow you to make arpeggios out of chords. Personally, I'd expect to find this sort of function on a sequencer mounted in a home organ, not in a professional product like the QX3. Still, it can be fun.
Another handy edit mode job is called File Include, which allows you to call up any sequence file from disk and insert it into your current sequence at any point - a little like a merge file function in a word processor. It effectively allows you to create a Song Chain within your Song. The QX3 also includes a formal Chain function that allows you to string together up to 99 sequences (or bulk, or system files) in any order you like, with up to 99 playbacks for each sequence. These can be played through non-stop, or with pauses inserted that require manual pressing of the Run switch or footswitch - making this perfect for stage use. My only complaint here is that entering this mode erases all song data currently in the volatile memory (you will, however, get a warning first), so you'll have to remember to save to disk first. Bear in mind also, that you can't do any recording or event editing while in Chain mode; if you need to overdub to a pair of sequences strung together, you'll first need to use File Include and combine them.
Finally, the QX3 incorporates an MDR (MIDI Data Recorder) mode, which allows its drive to be used for generic MIDI data storage. Virtually identical to the MDR function in the DX7IIFD, this feature adds the ability to initiate bulk dump requests. You accomplish this by using the Bulk Dump Request job and simply entering in the hex code for the request needed by your instrument (which can usually be found in the owner's manual). In this way, patch or sequence data from non-Yamaha instruments can be stored in the QX3 disk drive. Because the input buffer is a massive 480K, you can even use this to store most sampler data. Hats must go off to Yamaha for providing an onboard generic data storage system that works and is easy to use.
SO, WHAT CONCLUSIONS can we draw? It's clear that, in the QX3, Yamaha have built one of the most comprehensive, feature-laden sequencers available at any price, much less at under £1000. It's also relatively easy to use, particularly if you've had any experience before with multitrack recording and/or the Yamaha "job" approach to multiple functions. The major advantage of using a dedicated hardware sequencer like this one is its roadworthiness, and the memory capacity of the QX3 is not only large enough to store a whole gig's worth of sequences, it's also large enough to store most of the data from your other instruments as well. The ability to record multiple tracks simultaneously makes MIDI data transfers from other software-based sequencers a piece of cake, though most users will probably find that the fine editing controls of the QX3 make it an excellent sequencer for editing as well as for live playback. My only major complaint lies in its use of volatile memory, but this is negated somewhat by the onboard disk drive. In short, if you're doing any kind of serious sequencing work - and especially if you're performing live - it's hard to imagine any sequencer available today delivering more punch for the pound than the QX3.
Price £1199 including VAT
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Review by Howard Massey
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