Yamaha RY30 Rhythm Programmer
The Feel Factor
Martin Russ rydes with the rhythm as he explores Yamaha's latest percussive product.
The last seven years have seen a gradual evolution of the drum machine, from simple sounds produced by analogue circuits, via 8 and 12-bit digital samples of increasing length, to the current CD quality 16-bit samples. Our ideas of what constitute 'drum' and 'rhythm' sounds have also expanded to cover a wide range of percussive and pitched sounds, with the result that the description 'drum machine' often seems rather inadequate. You have to be very confident to call a product by a title like 'Rhythm Programmer', which suggests complete competence at producing programmed rhythms; so does the RY30 succeed?
The RY30 is a rhythm programmer in the widest sense. A full set of conventional drum sounds is complemented by additional percussive/effect sounds and a sprinkling of pitched sounds, and more raw samples can be added via a card slot. You can edit all of these sounds, to make them uniquely your own, and you can make further modifications to sounds whilst entering rhythm patterns in real time. Control over the timing of the sounds comes from a sophisticated dedicated pattern/song sequencer which allows interaction from other MIDI devices — again in real time.
The RY30 has the traditional drum machine lines — wide and low, with a sloping top surface — and the graceful curves and matt grey finish recall the appearance of the SY22 and TG33. The 24-character 2-line green backlit LCD display occupies the upper third of the working surface, whilst the lower third is devoted to 12 light grey velocity sensitive instrument pads and six additional control buttons. The strip in the middle is in three parts: the left side has the Real-time Parameter Wheel and three slider controls for parameter selection, master volume and data entry; the middle section holds the 12 function buttons and 12-button numeric keypad; and the right side has the large Start, Continue/Stop and Record buttons.
The rear panel carries all the input and output connectors, with clear white text on the top surface to make plugging in easier from the front. The 15v external power supply inlet is not very rugged and the plug could easily be pulled out of the socket — I would have preferred some sort of locking connector, which might also ensure that you only use the supplied mains adaptor. Audio output is via a stereo master pair of jacks and two individual outs. There is a standard footswitch socket for starting, stopping and continuing under foot control. Cassette storage of patterns is provided for by a miniature stereo jack socket rather than the more usual DIN socket — so using it means finding a Y-lead suitable for a data recorder, although these days MIDI bulk dumps will be a more popular way of storing the RY30's memory contents.
As far as MIDI goes, there are only In and Out sockets, which I suppose helps to prevent problems with people expecting MIDI clocks to come out of a Thru. This will also encourage the greater use of Thru boxes and 'starred' MIDI networks, which must be good news. The final back panel socket is for a credit card sized pattern, sound and sample ROM card (this does not allow additional pattern or song storage in a RAM card).
Although the top surface is all plastic, the underside is black folded steel and inside are two PCBs, one in the top half for the rubber buttons and pads while the lower half holds all the digital and analogue circuitry. Yamaha custom ASICs provide the majority of the digital components, as usual. The Operating System is held in a 1 Megabit Intel 27C010 EPROM. A Burr-Brown PCM56P 16-bit DAC is closely coupled to a YM3029 Yamaha chip and active reconstruction filtering to provide the high-quality audio outputs.
The interior is neat and tidy, with short ribbon cables and SIL connectors used between the two boards. The layout and construction is to a high standard. With the 1992 Electro-Magnetic Interference (EMI) regulations due to come into force next year, it was interesting to note the large amount of metal foil used for shielding purposes. The MIDI sockets are RF filtered and securely fixed to the casing and the PCB — full marks!
ROM-based samples have traditionally determined the characteristic sound of a drum machine — which means that you can tell a Kawai R50 from an Alesis HR16 just by listening. The RY30, however, is different. All the sounds can be comprehensively edited (with parameters for pitch, pitch EG, filter, filter EG, decay, pan, and level) and you can add additional sounds via plug-in ROM waveform cards.
12 Pad Banks provide rapid access to internal sounds, of which there are 96. An extra Pad Bank is provided for assigning the same sound at different pitches to several pads, which is handy for programming instrument parts — bass lines for example. The 96 sounds themselves are not just the raw internal samples — most of them exploit at least some of the pitch or enveloping functions, and about half use two layers to form a composite sound. To some extent, this means that describing the sounds is meaningless, since you really can alter them quite radically.
The pads can be used in either fixed velocity or velocity sensing mode, but the Real-time Parameter Wheel is the RY30's main interactive feature. It looks and behaves like a small modulation wheel on a synthesizer, and allows you to change the pitch, decay, pan, filtering and balance (between the two layers of a sound) in real time whilst hitting the pads. Fast, fun and expressive — I guarantee you'll be hooked!
Parts of any two waves can be mixed together to produce composite sounds, which can be synthetic or realistic in character. All 96 named internal sounds (Voices in Yamaha-speak) are permanently in edit-ready mode, and you can reload the preset sounds from the on-board ROM if you need to. The 32 extra ROM card sounds behave in much the same way — internal RAM lets you make changes, although you cannot store the revised sounds on the ROM card.
There are 100 preset patterns (100-199) and 100 user patterns (0-99), with 32 more available on card. The preset patterns mostly have Verse, Chorus and Fill variations (indicated by V, C or F at the end of the name), and cover a wide range of contemporary styles with give-away names like Funk, Hous, NuAge, Zydec, Jazz and Fusio. They are mostly in 4/4 time with a few excursions into other time signatures.
Pressing Record takes you to the record setup page where you can set the record mode, initial tempo, time signature and quantisation; pressing the Start button sets things going. There are real-time and step-time recording modes, and you can add or edit the real-time parameters whilst entering the pattern first time around, or add them later. The LCD display shows the usual graphical 'blobs and crosses' display for step time editing and parameter modifications, and you can change quantisation, pad banks etc. during record by using the function or page buttons and then exiting back to record mode. You can drop in and out of some other operations in this way — the tempo can be altered by pressing the tempo button and moving the data slider, and then pressing the Exit button returns you to whatever you were doing. Pad bank selection works in exactly the same way.
The function and page buttons allow you to select specific areas of operation, and then flip through the various pages relating to it. So, pressing the Pattern button takes you to the main pattern playing page, and pressing the Page+ button will take you through the other pattern pages: Clear; Copy; Append; Divide (copy individual measures to other patterns); Merge two patterns; Clear; Memory; and a series of Jobs which provide more precise editing functions for individual instruments. Several buttons on the numeric keypad double-up as short cuts for various functions, which can make editing much faster. An even more powerful short-cut facility is provided by the Macro function, which allows you to record sequences of key strokes and assign them to the ten numeric keys.
After recording a pattern, you can fine tune it by editing sound and pattern parameters, and move sounds back or forwards in time relative to other sounds. I estimated the basic note event capacity at about 7,000 notes, which drops to about 4,000 notes with heavy use of the real-time parameter wheel. 97 of the 100 preset patterns will fit into the pattern memory, which gives a good idea of the true capacity. Interestingly, the pattern and song memories are separate, so using fewer patterns does not increase the space available for songs.
Songs are assembled by chaining together patterns, using the increment and decrement keys to select the next pattern to be played and then pressing the Enter button. An audible click confirms the entry, and you can append patterns faster than real time, so roughing out a song can be very fast. Each pattern you enter increments a 'part' count, and the measures display goes up accordingly. Simply chaining patterns together eats up memory and parts, but through the song edit functions you can enter repeat marks and add tempo or velocity changes. For example, 1,800 measures using 999 parts (the maximum) used 84% of the song memory, whilst 1,800 measures incorporating lots of repeats of 25 parts only used 6%. You can only repeat a pattern or group of patterns up to 99 times, so I needed several repeats to get 1,800 measures-worth.
The RY30 has depth. At its simplest level it provides the MIDI clock syncing capability and mapped drum sounds you would expect, whilst at its most complex, when used as an expander in Multi mode, you can map sounds to all 128 notes on each MIDI channel; each channel can either map different sounds to different note numbers, or assign a single sound, pitched, across a 6-octave range. The unit is 15-note polyphonic with single layer sounds, but you can only actually program eight simultaneous sounds on any one beat — since many sounds use more than one layer this is not normally a limitation. There is also a facility to switch patterns remotely with Note On messages.
The pitched sounds respond to MIDI volume (the first time I have seen this on a drum machine) and the parameters for decay, filter, pan and balance are mapped to MIDI Controllers 17, 16, 10 and 8 respectively, although you can filter out these messages if you want to. The RY30 will recognise Song Position pointers and transmit Song Select messages.
When pitch is assigned to the parameter wheel, you have the option to send pitch bend data via MIDI. However, note that if you use an external pitch bend wheel to control pitched sounds on the RY30 (perhaps instrument sounds from a ROM card), the sounds do not respond in the usual way to the controller data. The RY30 takes 'snapshots' of the pitch wheel position at the start of each note, and subsequent pitch wheel movements will not affect the note's pitch — they will only affect the pitch of later notes, and only as they are triggered. When you think about it, this is actually very sensible, because in the context of a rhythm track the control wheel is used to set a parameter only at the start of a sound. This does slightly limit the RY30's use as a 'conventional' expander, but at least you can plug in and use TG/SY wave cards.
The RY30 offers you far more potential to alter its sounds than most other drum machines. The nearest equivalent unit is the Kawai XD5, which is more expensive and has no sequencing or convenient real-time modulation control, but most importantly, it lacks any way to add to the internal samples.
The organisation of the RY30 seems to be designed to encourage you to edit the sounds to your own taste and then leave them like that, much as you would tweak a drum kit to your own tuning and personal preferences. The end result is a rhythm programmer which has the flexibility to express your own personal sound and style, and a neat, fast and intuitive method of controlling parameters which are normally left to experts instead of mere mortals.
As a complete rhythm machine, the RY30 succeeds brilliantly. As an expander for a workstation with limited drum sounds (or a computer-based sequencer), it is almost a perfect add-on solution. And as the focus of a complete rhythm programming section, interacting with other MIDI devices using its Multi mode, it offers great possibilities. It seems Yamaha make good drums of all sorts.
£459 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble Music, Professional Music Division, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Russ
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