Yamaha QY20 Portable Workstation
Something to play with in your pocket
Small, perfectly formed and positively bristling with useful features, this new baby from Yamaha will occupy a lot more of your time than it will your workspace...
Success through innovation is not something anyone can predict these days - particularly when it involves a product like the QY10. A video cassette-size keyboard with rubber keys doesn't exactly sound like an inspiring new piece of kit. But inspiring it was to a great many people and it went on to become one of Yamaha's most popular products for 1991.
But time moves on and so do musical instrument designs, so it will come as no surprise to learn that the QY10 has been overhauled, revamped and re-jigged into the shape of the QY20. It's a teeny bit bigger than the QY10 but still qualifies as being video cassette size. In its Tardis-like interior it houses an eight-track sequencer, 100 preset patterns each with six variations, 100 AWM sounds and eight drum kits. It can store up to 20 Songs with a total capacity of 28,000 notes. It's 32-voice polyphonic (some sounds use more than one voice) and can play a maximum of 28 notes at once.
Externally, it has a nice big 128 x 64 dot LCD with adjustable contrast, MIDI In and Out sockets, a stereo mini jack Out and a headphone Out. The controls are still squidgy rubber thingies but it sports a 25-note, er... button, polyphonic keyboard compared with the QY10's one-octave monophonic affair. You can run the QY20 off batteries for composition on the move or plug in an optional mains adaptor - if you're paying for a hotel room you may as well use their electricity.
It has three operational modes. In Voice Mode you can access the sounds and drum kits which may be played from the QY20's keyboard or from a connected MIDI keyboard. The sounds are also assigned to the sequencer tracks in this mode. In Pattern Mode you can play and record patterns up to eight bars long using drums, bass and two chord tracks and in Song Mode these may be linked together and added to a further four tracks of your own to produce a complete song. If you want to hear what all this can add up to (with a little programming skill), try accessing the Demo song from the Voice Mode menu - it's excellent!
Overall operation is surprisingly easy - especially when compared to the QY10 - although cramming so much into such a small space does involve you in a fair amount of button pushing and you'll have to read the manual carefully. However, if the QY10 was created just to see if it could be done, the QY20 has certainly been through the R&D department and the design boys have implemented a good interface considering the space available.
The Voice Mode screen shows a graphic eight-track mixer. The first four tracks are used for your own music lines and these are followed by two chord tracks, a bass track and a drum track. You can assign sounds to the first seven tracks and choose one of the eight drum kits to play on the eighth. You can mute tracks and adjust the pan settings and the volumes. It's very graphic and quite easy.
The 100 AWM sounds are surprisingly good although the loop points are discernible in some. They are broadly similar in feel to the TG100 and divided into the same 16 categories used by GM. They also follow the GM layout fairly closely - although with only 100 sounds it's a few tones short of a full GM module. Some program change numbers from 101 to 128 select sounds from the 100 while others switch the track off altogether.
The drum sounds are quite excellent with 54 drums per kit (MIDI note numbers 29 to 82) and mapped to GM so you can play a GM drum track through the QY20. It's a shame Yamaha didn't go the whole hog and include another 28 sounds and full GM compatibility and have done with it. Would the company prefer GM'ers to buy the TG100? At the moment it's considerably cheaper! And a unit with the extra facilities of the QY20 would have been very tempting to many more potential buyers, I'm sure.
The QY20 has 100 built-in patterns each with six variations: Intro, Normal, Variation, Fill 1, Fill 2 and Ending. Yamaha are past masters of the accompaniment pattern and there is some really tasty stuff here including one or two which have been borrowed from popular songs.
Patterns are divided into 10 categories: Dance, Ballad, Rock & Pop, Rhythm & Blues, Hard Rock, Rock 'n' Roll, Jazz, Latin, Reggae and World. There are 100 empty Pattern slots for your own patterns and they can be up to eight bars long. Any variations you want, however, must be recorded as patterns in their own right. You have the two Chords tracks, Bass and Drums to play with.
Recording in real time can be a bit of a faff. You need two pairs of hands the size of a six-year-old and the dexterity of Paul Daniels to create a good pattern using the QY20's keyboard. Step recording is easier and more accurate - but inevitably takes longer. To complement your programming skills there are eight Pattern Jobs: Copy Pattern, Quantise, Transpose, Modify Velocity, Modify Gate Time, Pattern Name, Clear Track, Clear Pattern - fairly self-explanatory as you can see.
Song Mode is actually the best place to try out the patterns as you can step through them in real time. Fill 1 takes you to the Variation and Fill 2 takes you back to the Normal pattern. The QY20 uses Yamaha's ABC (Auto Bass Chord) feature which can be found on the company's portable keyboards. It automatically creates chord and bass tracks to match any chord you select. There are 25 chord types to choose from which should cater for most users - even the jazzers. To select a new one highlight the chord area of the display, press the key corresponding to the root note, then the key holding the chord type and finally the Enter key.
You can record an accompaniment in real time or step time. Real time is quicker, of course, but you really need to know what you're going to do before you start recording and unless you've got nimble fingers it's a good idea to slow the tempo down. The chord changes, for example, occur on quarter-note divisions and it can take up to four button presses to enter a chord. Step-time recording includes Repeat and Tempo change functions and you can even enter accels and rits. It's a bit more involved than real-time recording and involves the selection of sub-screens - but that's the price you pay for accuracy.
You can alter the time signature of any measure and specify the bass note for a chord. The Syncopate function makes a chord begin on the upbeat, an eighth note before the beat on which it is entered. On playback, the chord display shows which chord is coming up next before it actually plays.
The whole Song creation process is surprisingly easy. Typically, you would lay down the drum pattern track, then the chord track and then record your own four tracks on top. Again, you can do this in real or step time. If you are not going to change patterns (other than to use the variations) then it's quite easy to record the drum track in real time. There are 14 Song Jobs: Mix Track, Copy Measure, Create Measure, Quantise, Delete Measure, Erase Measure, Transpose, Move Clock, Remove Event, Modify Velocity, Modify Gate Time, Song Name, Clear Track and Clear Song - most of the functions, in fact, you are likely to want in a sequencer.
Mix Track is useful for building up complex parts, Move Clock may be of help if you've recorded something a little out of sync or you need to make a track more laid back or give it a bit of a push. Remove Event lets you remove pitch bend and control change data (which can often take up huge amounts of the machine's memory). There are extensive edit options in the Edit menu although inevitably on a display such as this, an event list is the order of the day. It's all rather numeric and there are several screens to flip through; the display keeps you informed about what event you're editing and it does handle the task quite well but it's not my idea of programming heaven.
The QY10 succeeded because it was a unique product at a price low enough for it to be a mass market item. Obviously, the intention was for the QY20 to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, but thanks to the efforts of that nice Mr Lamont chappie and his action to 'steady' the pound last year, there was a time when it looked as though the price would approach the £450 mark.
In this light, the actual retail price of £399 (inc.VAT)) seems much more reasonable - especially when you look at the features of the QY20 which are an improvement on the QY10 in almost every department. In fact I'd go so far as to say it's easily twice as good. It's a darn sight more straightforward to use and I'm sure it won't be long before we start hearing it in commercial recordings - the sounds really are that good. You might also be tempted to use the patterns for your own songs - they're pretty excellent, too.
But however good value for money it represents, its price does put it in the same ball park as full expanders and sophisticated portable keyboards. It even starts to encroach upon low-end synth territory - and this does cast it in a rather more unfavourable light. Clearly, what you're paying for is versatility and adaptability and also a measure of the novelty value associated with the QY10 from which it developed. Add to this the ability to use it anywhere to write a song, then take it home and use the sounds in your studio (gigging musicians could even use the patterns live to sing to or as a quick way of putting down backing tracks) and you're forced to the conclusion that no other instrument can match it for compactness or power.
Price: QY20 £399.00 inc VAT
More from: Yamaha Kemble Music (UK) Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Waugh
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