Yamaha QX5 Sequencer
Less a sequencer more an astonishingly flexible 8-track digital multitrack for keyboards. David Mellor pinpoints the essential differences and judges where the QX5 fits into the Yamaha product line.
This review is dedicated to all Yamaha sequencer owners everywhere who may wish they had waited just a little longer... Engineer/musician David Mellor tells it like it is.
The choice in sequencers is growing wider by the minute and Yamaha have certainly gained a reputation in the field with their mega-sequencer, the QX1, which happened to cost mega-pounds! Further downmarket are the QX7 and QX21, which I think even Yamaha would admit provide only the basic sequencer functions with few of the facilities needed for serious use. I have to say that, until very recently, I was a QX7 owner. I bought the machine about a year ago, specifically to achieve the 'sequencer sound', and at the time it was a good buy.
The QX7's problem was not that it did not perform as well as it was meant to, but that it gave you a taste of what could be done with a sequencer - but wouldn't let you do it! The frustration was tremendous, and although the tracks I was producing with it were finding their way onto record, I kept an eye open to what was coming out new onto the market at a sensible price.
My first encounter with the QX5 was at the British Music Fair this August. It was hooked up to a TX816 playing a terrific arrangement of a Debussy piano piece. Boy was I impressed! I can be a bit sneaky myself though, and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps the music had been programmed on a QX1 and downloaded into the QX5 - but a long chat with the demonstrator convinced me that virtually anything the QX1 can do, the QX5 can do - and perhaps some things that it can't. (There now follows a short paragraph to reassure QX1 owners.)
Before I delve into the facilities that the QX5 provides I shall tell you about its one big problem. There are 48 main functions listed on the top panel of the machine, some of which contain as many as ten options. To control all these are a mere ten buttons, plus a shift key. As with the QX7, much time is spent merely accessing a function - before actually doing anything with it. To compare with the QX1, the larger machine has 53 typewriter-style keys, and although you still have to access many functions, the coefficient of tedium is less by a factor of 5.3. This is not to criticise the concept of the QX5. At £419 inc VAT it is a far less expensive sequencer than the QX1 and is still extremely powerful - but the point does need to be mentioned.
The QX5 has eight tracks, each of which will hold up to 16 MIDI channels, and in addition has 32 'macros'. Macro is Yamaha's term for a 'floating' track which (drawing the analogy with a tape recorder) can be spun in at any point. For example, you may use the first macro to store a drum-fill plus orchestral stab which occurs several times in the piece you are working on. The macro can be called at anytime from any track, thus saving a lot of time spent re-entering the procedure. Macros are also handy for extra storage space as it is quite simple to copy a track to a macro and vice versa. Total memory capacity of the QX5, by the way, is 20,000 notes (15,000 with velocity) which is automatically allocated appropriately - tracks and macros can be of any length as long as the total remains within the 20,000 note limit.
The QX5's three recording modes are simply selected with the large REC MODE key. Real-time recording is exactly what it says. Press RECORD and START and after a two-bar countdown, you're away! Unlike the QX7 and QX21 the time signature is selectable, from 1/2 to 32/16, and can change during a track. Tempo is programmable too, between 40 and 300 bpm, and can be varied at any point in a track as I shall explain later. You can also set your three favourite tempi for quick recall.
Punch-in is Yamaha's term for dropping in and out of record. Drop in and out points can be programmed (but only on the bar-line) and, using the AUTO LOCATE button, a pre-roll time can be set. AUTO LOCATE can also be used in normal real-time recording which should save a lot of button pressing.
Step recording is far more sophisticated than on Yamaha's junior sequencers. Not only can note length be selected, but also gate time (between 10% and 300%) and velocity for each note. (Setting a gate time of 300% on strings produces a great Mantovani effect!) There are also the usual facilities for inserting ties and rests. Interestingly, it is possible to assign a MIDI controller to set gate time, velocity, tie and rest. For example, the DX7's data entry slider can be the velocity controller and the data entry [+1/yes] key set to input rests.
During playback, the eight tracks can be individually switched on or muted and the display tells you whether a track is playing, contains no data or has finished, or is muted. There is also a handy three-position locate function for finding your way around the track.
That completes the description of the straightforward recording and playback functions, but the real test of a sequencer is in its editing facilities. One moment while I fit my green eyeshade...
What can you edit on the QX5? It would be a lot easier to say what you can't edit - but a blank page wouldn't be very interesting to read, so here goes...
Event Edit works on track one only. Since you must always record on track one (before 'bouncing' its contents across to a spare track), and all tracks and macros are freely interchangeable anyway, this is no hardship. There are two modes: Search and Change. In Search mode you can use the START button to step through the track note by note, find the little devil that's causing your problem - even in the middle of a 16-note chord - and deal with it, by removing or changing it. You can change the timing of any note in 1/96 notesteps, or change the MIDI channel, pitch, velocity or gate time. Not bad!
There is also access to aftertouch information, pitch-bend, control change (modulation wheel, breath controller, foot controller, portamento time, data entry slider, main volume, sustain, portamento, sostenuto, soft, data increment, data decrement), mode change (local, all notes off, omni off, omni on, mono on, poly on), program change, system exclusive messages, macro, relative tempo and measure. Phew!!!
Let's rewind briefly. In Event Edit you are in a position to enter some tempo changes. Relative tempo can be set from 25% to 398%, though I would rather it could be done in terms of ± beats per minute, but I am sure this method is OK once you are used to it.
As you can see, there is not much you cannot do here, but it can take a long time changing your sequence note by note - especially if you have to wade through a lot of pitch-bend or aftertouch data! If a coarser control is required then we move to Measure Edit, where we edit by bar numbers.
This facility has more tricks than the Chinese 'whist' championships! But here goes...
1. Copy selected bars to the end of the tracks. This is useful for creating repeated patterns.
2. Delete specified bars.
3. Remove data from specified bars. The following types of data can be selectively removed:
-Messages of a certain MIDI channel
-Notes within a certain range
-Control changes in a certain range
-System exclusive messages
-or EVERYTHING, leaving just a skeleton of empty bars.
4. Shift channel, note, control, or macro data. These types of data can be shifted eg. one specified note to another note each time it occurs, within specified bars.
5. Quantise, to adjust note timings to specified values in selected bars.
6. Transpose, to change key up or down by up to two octaves in selected bars.
7. Velocity adds or subtracts a specified velocity offset to all notes in selected bars.
8. Gate Time adjusts how long notes are held in selected bars. This is done by specifying a percentage change (10% to 300%).
9. Crescendo. I like this one! You can make the velocity values of all notes increase (or decrease) gradually between two selected bar numbers, to a specified level.
10. Create. Use this when you want to add empty bars anywhere in a track.
If you think back to my earlier remarks about the QX5 only having ten function buttons, I think you will understand why I made them by now - and we are not finished yet! Look forward to a severe case of button-pusher's finger!!
Moving to the third edit function, Track Edit; this works on whole tracks or macros. Once again there are a number of sub-functions:
1. Exchange lets you swap data from track to track (or macro).
2. Copy simply copies data from one track (or macro) to another.
3. Track Down mixes two tracks together.
4. Clear does what it says, so think before use as there are no safeguarding 'Are you sure?' messages here.
5. Cut splits track one at a specified point and transfers the 'tail' to another track.
6. Insert places track one into another track in front of the specified bar.
7. Extract. See next section.
8. Clock Move. See next section.
9. Thin Out. No, this doesn't delete every other note, although I'm sure Yamaha are thinking about it. It deletes every other selected continuous controller message (pitch-bend, aftertouch etc). Use this when free memory is short.
10. Shift changes specified data throughout the track, eg. MIDI channel, macro etc.
Although I feel it is important in a review to list as many features as possible, some of which may not be mentioned or only mentioned briefly in the manufacturer's literature, two features of the QX5 deserve special attention - not because they are unique but because they are so valuable.
It is tempting to think of a sequencer as a multitrack tape recorder of sorts, but multitrack tape has two problems which I believe to be insoluble. Not so in a MIDI recorder like the QX5. The first problem with tape is that if you bounce two tracks together onto a third, then they jolly well stay bounced! The QX5, mercifully, lets you have second thoughts. You can bounce as many MIDI channels as you like onto one track and, using the 'Extract' edit function, separate them again. Wonderful! You can also extract other types of data separately, such as note data, aftertouch etc.
The other multitrack problem is that all tracks are inextricably linked in time on the tape. This is a bigger problem in sequencers because if you use a synth sound with a slow attack, then once quantised it will always sound 'late' ie. behind the beat. This is one of the causes of the fictitious 'MIDI delay' problem. (Ooops! Cat's among the pigeons again!) The QX5 neatly solves this by having a 'Clock Move' function which can alter the timing of one track by up to 999 clocks - backwards or forwards. I can see the 'QX7 For Sale' ads already! On that point, you may be interested to learn that you can transfer sequence data from a QX7 or QX21 to a QX5 using the 'MIDI transmit' system exclusive message. So if you intend upgrading, you know what to do first...
Yes, you will be glad to hear that the Yamaha QX5 does have MIDI! As well as what you would expect, the QX5 will also re-channelise your incoming and outgoing MIDI data. This means that rather than selecting the MIDI record channel on your master keyboard (which you can't do on a DX7 anyway!), you can do this on the QX5. Also, you can select which synthesizer plays which track at the sequencer end rather than at the instrument, which makes for more centralised control.
A full compliment of MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets are provided on the rear. There is also a useful MIDI monitor feature which tells you via the display when there is any input or output activity, and on which channels it is occurring.
Anyone want to buy a tape sync box? Yamaha's YMC10 MIDI-to-tape sync convertor was, at around £99, an expensive add-on for the old QX7 sequencer. What's more, it rather stupidly tied up the MIDI In socket so that there was no way of recording into the QX7 while listening in-sync to the multitrack. This made overdubbing a rather long-winded affair and also tied up one track (one of your two tracks!) for use as a backing-track to play along to.
The QX5 solves this by having its own FSK tape sync jacks. It still means having to stop the sequencer, rewind the multitrack and start from the top every time, but until someone invents timecode we shall have to manage somehow. (Someone tells me that timecode has been invented already. I find this difficult to believe for surely all sequencers would use it?!) Seriously though, if you want to use a MIDI-to-SMPTE or EBU convertor you can, because the QX5 will (according to its MIDI implementation sheet) receive and transmit MIDI song position pointers. The 'tape out' jack is also used for saving sequence data to tape.
There are still some stones that I have so far left unturned, such as the set-up memory. You can store four different set-ups for instant recall. Memorised parameters include: MIDI input and output assignments; whether or not velocity, aftertouch information etc, will be recorded; whether the metronome click is on during record, record/play, or manual. I could list more! There is, by the way, an output jack for the audio click so you can have it sounding as loud as you like!!!
How about saving DX voice data to tape? How about transmitting voice data as part of a sequence rather than just a program change? It is all possible. How about a floppy disk recorder that records sequence data from the MIDI Out socket? Now that's the rumour. I didn't hear it from an official source nor can I confirm it, but when you think about it - why not? Perhaps I just made it up myself because I would like Yamaha to make one. Perhaps they will...
My final point concerns the owner's manual. Sorry chaps but it's not one of your best. Everything is in there, it is just a bit hard to sort out at first. It took ages before I found out how to call up a macro. I have a soft spot for the old yellow RX11 drum machine manual which tells you exactly which buttons to press and in which order. It may sound like I am carping but equipment is getting increasingly complicated and manuals in general are going to have to improve. Having said that, it is certainly not the worst manual I have ever seen (the original PPG Wave and QX1 manuals took that award) and it is neither incomplete nor incorrect - it could just do with a little tidying up.
I mentioned earlier about the minimal provision of buttons on the QX5, and since this is a shortcoming obviously not unconnected with the price of the machine then I accept it. Also the display, which is quite dim and has only 32 characters, cannot help but give very abbreviated information to the user. Not that the information is not there, it is just supplied in a very condensed form.
All this means that the QX5 is hard to drive - but so is a Porsche, and that doesn't stop people wanting one! You have to commit much of the manual to memory to be able to achieve any kind of fluency, although the QX5's top panel does have descriptive diagrams and job lists to help.
The choice nowadays, of course, is between stand-alone sequencers such as this one and computer-based types such as the Steinberg Pro-24, which can be much more user-friendly. The advantages of the QX5 are its compactness and its thoroughness - I can not think of any useful feature that Yamaha have omitted and at 350 x 240 x 49mm, 2.9kg, it is hardly going to break the keyboard stand. The computer sequencer on the other hand requires a monitor, disk drive and MIDI interface in addition to the keyboard/CPU. Hardly giggable!
I went for the QX5 and said so with real money! I examined the marketplace thoroughly but could not find anything that impressed me sufficiently to buy until this model appeared. The QX5 is indeed a very competent machine and I seriously doubt whether its host of facilities could be improved upon.
You may have to put a little effort into getting used to the QX5 but, as they say, you can only get out of anything what you put in-and with a sequencer, well I'd hope that would be the case!
MRP £419 inc VAT.
Review by David Mellor
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