Yamaha QX5 Sequencer
Digital Multitrack Sequencer
The latest in Yamaha's family of sequencers returns to cassette storage, but offers eight tracks with features not even found on the prestigious QX1. Simon Trask puts it through its paces.
In another variation on their MIDI recording theme, Yamaha introduce an upgraded QX7 that contains a few features even the QX1 couldn't boast. Confused? It's simpler than it looks.
LET'S FACE IT. Dedicated sequencers don't appear to have a lot going for them. They don't make any sounds themselves, and unlike those other noiseless wonders, controller keyboards, they don't even have any nice keys for you to run your fingers over. And whereas computer-based sequencers offer nice screen displays for musicians to gaze at, the typical dedicated sequencer is little more than a dull black (or grey) box which seems to bear little relation to the wonderful, exciting world of music.
But in truth, today's dedicated sequencer might just prove to be the best musical accomplice you've ever had.
At first glance, Yamaha's newest offering appears to be pretty much like their previous two budget sequencers, the QX7 and QX2I - which were actually very similar apart from one important feature: their price. The QX5 weighs in at around the original asking price of the QX7 but offers a good deal more sophistication, and so turns out to be a very successful compromise between the cheaper QXs and the (originally) high-priced QX1, while at the same time introducing some useful features not to be found even on its more expensive relative.
Out there in the big bad commercial world, the QX5 is competing with both Korg's SQD1 (reviewed E&MM September'85) and Roland's MC500 sequencer.
GIVEN THE NEW Yamaha sequencer's myriad functions, its two-line backlit LCD and small number of multi-function buttons suggest this is one sequencer that's going to be a bit of a pain to use. In practice it's surprisingly friendly, a result of carefully thought-out design - though the function list and operations guide printed on the top panel are essential to this amicable state of affairs. The manual, meanwhile, maintains a clear and informative standard of presentation throughout.
Recording can be in real or step time, and you can use punch-in/out for real-time re-recording of those bits that didn't quite work out as you intended. You pre-define the punch-in/out locations in bar/beat/step format, and then start playback from any preceding point; the sequencer will automatically drop in and out of record mode at the locations specified.
Another useful feature of real-time recording is autolocate, which allows you to specify a location from which recording and playback will automatically begin every time - handy for when you're working on a particular section.
If you're using real-time record as opposed to dropping in, you get a two-bar count-in (from either the QX5's quiet internal metronome beep or an adjustable-level click via the sequencer's Click Out), during which time you can record a program-change which will be stored at the beginning of the track - a very useful feature.
The QX5 eschews the pattern-chain approach to recording, while allowing you to record onto any section of track that you want - just as you can with tape.
Step-time recording allows you to enter single notes or chords for each step (which may be as little as a 96th of a beat, if you really go in for excess). You can also enter a program change on any step, and define gate time and velocity for all notes in a step, velocity being set from the QX5's front panel or from the keyboard. You can enter rests and tie notes, and there are limited editing facilities; though input of gate time, velocity, ties and rests can be achieved more quickly by specifying MIDI controllers to do the job (a nice touch).
Essentially the QX5 is an eight-track sequencer, but through the inclusion of what Yamaha term "macros" (see later), it's capable of offering a greater number of tracks. Memory capacity (always something of an approximate figure) is quoted at around 20,000 notes, or 15,000 when recording velocity data.
As with the QX5's budget predecessors, recording is always to track 1, after which you can transfer your recording to another track or to a macro. To edit tracks and macros after this, you have to transfer them back to track 1 in most instances. While it's a limitation in some ways, at least this approach encourages you to make copies of tracks before editing them. Every cloud has a silver lining, and all that.
Many sequencers nowadays restrict recording to a single MIDI channel at a time - and in turn assign a single MIDI channel to a track. The QX5 (together with Roland's MC500, incidentally) allows you to record on as many channels as you want, and stores these channel allocations unaltered in its tracks and macros. This system gives you the
freedom to record using whichever sonic textures you want, whereas the single-channel approach usually limits you to recording one "instrument" at a time and one per track.
Each and every incoming MIDI channel can be assigned to a new channel at the recording stage (in which case the reassigned channel(s) will be recorded), and you can alter the channel assignment of an already recorded part within a track, or reassign any channel at the output stage - options which give you just about all the flexibility you need in this area.
If you get confused about which channels are coming in and which channels are going out, the input and output monitor displays will prove invaluable. Also highly useful is the ability to mute tracks, either during playback or idling mode.
"Console yourself with the thought that you can now store a whole song in a single track - a useful way of storing several songs at once in the sequencer."
Although the QX5 is an eight-track sequencer, there are ways in which you can effectively increase this figure. The most obvious way is to use "track down", which mixes the contents of two tracks and puts the result on the second track. With sequencers which limit you to a single MIDI channel for each track, you find at this stage that what you thought was a marimba part on your DX2 I has suddenly become a string part on your CZ101, along with the existing string part (ie. both parts are now on the same MIDI channel). But the QX5's system preserves the channel assignment of each part, so you can store up to 16 different channels within a track - though it's worth noting that the QX5 will allow only a maximum of 32 notes to be playing at any one time.
But console yourself with the thought that you can now store a whole song in a single track - a useful way of storing several songs at once in the sequencer.
As already mentioned, the other method of effectively increasing the number of tracks is to use those macros.
These can best be thought of as "floating tracks"; they contain the same data as a track, and in fact tracks and macros can be freely exchanged (all macros begin life as a track recorded on track 1).
To make use of a macro, you insert the relevant macro number (there are 32 macros altogether) at any point in a track, and when playback reaches that point, the macro will begin playing along with the data in the tracks. Each macro has its own MIDI channel assignment, which it retains whichever track it is used with.
Memory can be freely shared between tracks and macros, which means that a macro can be as long as a track if you want it to be. Insert a macro number at the beginning of a track, and you've effectively got an extra track.
Now, don't imagine that you've suddenly got a vast number of tracks at your disposal: there can only be four macros playing at the same time. But a combination of track mixing and macros can allow you to build up a healthy selection of parts.
Macros can also be useful as a "notepad" section (leaving your main tracks free for building up compositions), or as a temporary backup storage when editing a track - assuming you've enough spare memory. And as you can easily insert a macro at any point in a track (and just as easily delete it), macros can be a useful way of introducing an extra phrase, single note or chord at specific places in a track without altering the track itself.
SO FAR WE'VE looked at the QX5's "surface", which is to a certain extent analogous to tape-based recording. But sequencers can also offer the sort of in-depth editing capabilities which just aren't possible with tape recording.
Which is why they can be such a useful adjunct to more traditional recording, allowing you to get your music just how you want it before you even think about turning the tape-recorder on.
There are three levels of editing on the QX5: track, measure (ie. bar) and event. Track editing is performed on any of the eight tracks, while measure and event editing are both performed on track 1 only (requiring you to transfer other tracks and macros back to track 1 before they can be edited).
In addition to the "track down" function mentioned earlier, track editing allows you to exchange, copy and erase both tracks and macros. Track-only functions include inserting track 1 into another track (2-8) at any location, either moving to another track or deleting the latter portion of track (which can be any length), and moving any track forwards or backwards by up to 999 MIDI clocks.
You can also "thin out" selected continuous control messages (including aftertouch and pitch-bend); around half of the selected continuous control message will be removed each time. It's a neat way of cutting down on memory usage, and used in moderation, it doesn't necessarily make much audible difference.
Selected data can be extracted from a track and either deleted or moved to another (empty) track. This allows you to remove, say, all data associated with a particular MIDI channel. For instance, if you have a bass part recorded on one channel and a chordal string accompaniment part recorded on another channel - within the same track - you could remove the bass part, record a new bass part on track 1, and use the Track Down function to include it in its original track.
Other data that you can extract includes notes within a specified range, aftertouch, pitch-bend, continuous controllers, program changes and macro numbers. Finally, you can shift channels, notes, controllers and macro numbers within a track to any other value within their specified ranges; this is where, for example, you can reassign channels once they've been recorded.
"The system gives you the freedom to record using whichever sonic textures you want... you're not limited to recording one 'instrument' at a time."
Measure-based editing provides you with similar functions and more which can be applied to any range of bars within a track. These include copy, delete, shift and remove. Remove offers the same range of data as extract, but doesn't allow you to move the data to another track.
Other functions at this level allow you to quantise and transpose notes, adjust their velocity values and gate times, and insert empty bars. A more unusual function allows you to insert crescendos and diminuendos into any part of a track: you specify the start and end bars and the amount you want the velocity to vary by, and the QX5 does the rest. Before you start shaking your head in doubt, this can come in useful on parts recorded in step time, or if you have a master instrument which isn't touch-sensitive but a slave that is.
All of which adds up to a lot of editing flexibility. Shortcomings are that you can't copy any section of a track to any other section of the same or a different track (only to the end of the same track), and that a number of the measure-based editing functions apply to a whole track, rather than to a particular channel within a track - meaning that if you've recorded a multi-channel track, you sometimes need to extract individual channels. Still, at least you can get there in the end with a bit of manoeuvring; and with so much editing being centred around track 1, manoeuvring is something you have to do plenty of.
As you might imagine, event editing allows you to go in at the level of individual MIDI codes- which isn't as frightening as it might seem. The QX5 identifies what the data is for you (ie. whether it's a note, a program change or a particular controller value), and allows you to delete, insert or replace data. Here you can work to step resolution (a 96th of a beat).
Event editing (which, again, can be carried out on track 1 only) allows you to work on individual channels within a track - inserting a program change or a sustain on/off command, for instance. It's here that you insert macro numbers to call up anything from a track-length part to a single note.
The event level also includes two unusual functions. First, the QX5 will record System Exclusive data which can then be sent to an instrument during playback, and an Exclusive Dump option allows you to edit recorded System Exclusive data, and insert dump request messages which will be sent to the relevant instrument during sequence playback and recording.
The theory is that you record not only your sequences, but the sounds you want to play those sequences with. It seems a nice idea at first, but in practice it's fraught with too many difficulties to make it of more than limited value. What may prove more valuable for some people is the possibility of recording real-time alterations of sound parameters.
More immediately useful is the second oddball feature, Relative Tempo, which allows you to insert a tempo change at any point in the music, specified as a percentage of the master tempo (from 25% to 398% in 127 exponential steps).
I mentioned earlier that the QXS competes with Korg's SQD1 and Roland's MC500. One feature which it lacks in comparison with those machines is onboard disk storage of sequences; the QX5 makes do with cassette storage, and that really isn't a good substitute.
On the other hand, its ability to send and receive sequence data via MIDI opens up the possibility of storing sequences to disk using a computer with appropriate software. And in lieu of a MIDI sequence dump standard making data exchange possible between all compatible sequencers, it would also be possible to write a computer-based sequencing program based around the QX's data format - giving the best of both worlds for those that need it, and can afford it.
The QX5 also offers the best of both worlds when it comes to tape syncing. FSK tape sync compatibility is built in, while if your recording setup runs to SMPTE timecode facilities, the QX5 can respond to the pre-MSMPTE complement of MIDI sync codes, including song pointers.
A potentially useful feature when using the QX5 as master is the ability to delay sending of the Continue code for up to 999 milliseconds after sending a song pointer message - which means you can compensate for other MIDI devices taking a short while to relocate themselves to the new position. It's a practical feature which indicates that manufacturers are endeavouring to improve on the thoroughness of their MIDI implementations.
LURKING BENEATH THAT bland, uninspiring grey exterior is a powerful device which provides you with the sort of recording power and flexibility that would have been undreamt of only a few years ago.
There's no way you can place the QX5 above its rivals automatically, and no way in which it is inherently inferior to any of them. What it lacks in display information, open-ended software, and storage facilities, it gains in user-friendly operation and a multi-layered (and ultimately valuable) system of editing.
Like I said at the start, these are powerful things, these grey boxes.
Price £489 including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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