John Renwick looks at the new SY-77 from Yamaha
John Renwick previews Yamaha's most significant instrument since the DX-7, the SY-77 workstation
The world's best-selling synthesizer, the Yamaha DX-7, exploded onto the scene five years ago. It immediately established Yamaha as the leaders in musical instrument technology; but since then it could fairly be said that the company has rested on its laurels. But does the announcement of the SY-77 put Yamaha back in the lead?
It's hard to imagine the musical world without Yamaha's FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesizers; practically every keyboard player will be familiar with some version of the system, which uses simple sine waves or 'operators' modulating each other in complex 'algorithms' to create powerful, realistic, digital sounds. The six-operator DX-7 is the basis of the whole range, but there are dozens of variations, including the TX-7 and TX-81Z modules, DX-9 keyboard, cut-down four-operator instruments including the DX-100/21/27, modules like the FB-01 and TX-81Z, many home keyboards with preset sounds, and the latest V-50 multi-timbral workstation. The fact remains that popular though FM is, it's notoriously difficult to program, and has been overtaken in the last couple of years by 'samploid' technology.
Instruments such as Roland's D-series, Kawai's K-series and Korg's M-series all use variations of the sampled partial system, where digitally encoded portions of real sounds are combined with synthesized waveforms to create a stunning range of realistic or strangely unreal sounds. Relatively easy to program, Roland's LA, Korg's AI and Kawai's VM have outpaced Yamaha's FM; the time is ripe for a whole new technology.
The SY-77 is due to be launched in December, and looks like putting Yamaha right back at the top of the musical tree. As you might expect, it's a professional product, with a professional price tag; as you might also expect, it's a 'workstation', incorporating sound synthesis, sequencing, effects, drum samples and data storage. The surprise (although it was obvious in retrospect) is that the SY-77 combines FM and sampled partial technology.
Get used to a new bit of jargon - RCM. Realtime Convolution and Modulation is the new Yamaha sound system; it combines AFM (Advanced Frequency Modulation) and AWM2 (Advanced Wave Modulation Squared) in a way which allows you to imitate the working systems of a whole range of analogue and digital synths; and, by using sampled partial and FM sounds to modulate each other, to create a whole new spectrum of sounds.
We could go into a great deal of depth on the theory behind RCM, but it doesn't mean a lot unless you actually hear the results yourself. For the first time, the power and movement of FM can be coupled with the realism of a sampled sound; a good example is the trumpet patch demonstrated at the SY-77's industry preview at the Yamaha R&D centre in London. Adrian Lee, keyboard player of Mike and the Mechanics, had been brought in at short notice to put together a demo, and did amazingly well with an unfamiliar instrument. But to some extent the sounds of the SY-77 spoke for themselves; the trumpet patch for instance is amazingly realistic, because while a sampled sound would end in an unrealistic loop, the RCM sound continues to move and evolve after the sampled attack portion.
In order to make AFM and AWM2 sounds modulate each other in real time, the SY-77 uses 24-bit microprocessors which work extremely quickly. The building blocks of RCM sound are called elements, and each patch can use up to four of either AFM or AWM2 type. The AWM system was first used on Yamaha's range of digital pianos, and also the EMT-10 sound module; the AWM2 samples found in the SY-77 are 16-bit, sampled at either 32 or 48 KHz, and there are 4 megabytes of samples built in, including a huge range of real brass, string, keyboard, wind and percussion instruments, abstract synth sounds, voices, special effects and so on. Waveform ROM cards can add another half-meg or one-meg of AWM2 samples.
Each element of an SY-77 patch can have its own parameters for transposition, velocity scaling, keyboard placement, stereo panning and filtering, and they can also be combined in a range of different ways, so the SY-77 can imitate systems like ordinary FM, Roland's LA, pure sample playback, and even analog synthesis (since it features powerful digital filters, unlike the DX-7). The SY-77 has four audio outputs (you might have expected eight at this price) and any voice can be assigned to any output.
If you know anything about FM, you won't have any difficulty with AFM (but then, knowing about FM and being able to program it are two different things). AFM still uses operators and algorithms, but now there are six operators, each with 16 different waveforms, and 45 algorithms. Any operator can be modulated by another operator, a noise generator, or an AWM2 waveform, and processed through a six-segment envelope.
Another innovation is the SY-77's digital filtering, which is notably absent on the Kawai K-1. Each SY-77 voice element has two 12 dB/octave digital filters, one low pass, one switchable low pass/high pass, each with its own envelope generator. They can be coupled together to create a single 24 dB/octave filter, and unlike most digital filters they can be made to self-resonate. The result is the ability to imitate analog synths like the MiniMoog with a fair degree of accuracy (cue shattered windows all round). You can also process sounds through the SY-77's digital effects unit. This 16- bit system boasts four independent chains, offering a range of forty reprogrammable preset reverbs, and four modulation presets. Like the Roland D-50, the SY-77's effects unit means that it can create sounds which are suitable to be recorded straight to tape; no mucking about with external effects processors.
Physically, the SY-77 most resembles the Korg M-1 - remember that Yamaha now owns a share of Korg, and the lessons learned from the success of the M-1 have obviously been learned. The sleek black SY-77 has a five-octave velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive keyboard, with three modulation wheels mounted on the left. Two are normally configured as pitchbend and modulation, the third is programmable.
Also on the left is the standard 3.5 inch disk drive for storing patch and sequence information. This immediately puts the SY-77 a step ahead of the M-1, the major drawback of which was the lack of a disk drive.
In the centre of the keyboard is a large 240x60-dot backlit LCD display (again reminiscent of the M-1). This uses a paging system to edit sounds, effects and sequences, and looks efficient enough to make software patch editors unnecessary (although that probably won't stop them appearing!)
To the left of the LCD are volume and expression sliders, together with slots for two types of cards; AWM2 sample waveform ROMs, and RCM patch memory RAMs. Obviously, the availability of extra plug-in sample waveform cards means that the SY-77 is not as limited in its sound-creating abilities as, say, the Roland D-50.
Over to the left are the patch select and data entry controls, there are 128 preset voices, 64 programmable, 16 multi-program presets, and 16 programmable. Of course, more can be loaded from disk or card as you require them.
The SY-77 can be up to 32-voice polyphonic, but as with most synths of its kind, sounds are usually layered to produce more complex effects, thereby reducing polyphony. In multi-timbral mode, voice assignment can be fixed or floating.
This brings us neatly along to the sequencer, which admittedly wasn't fully demoed at the Yamaha preview. It's a fairly powerful 16-track, 99-pattern, 1-song, 32-note polyphonic system with 16,000-note capacity, you can record in steptime or realtime with a resolution of up to 1/96th quarter-note, and you have a complete range of editing functions such as track merge, copy, delete and insert. Although sequences can be saved to disk in a format compatible with the QX-3 sequencer, the graphic assistance of the SY-77s large LCD panel makes it much easier to use than any other Yamaha sequencer.
Also scheduled for a December launch was the TG-55, a 19-inch rackmounting 16-voice polyphonic multi timbral module featuring AWM2 sound synthesis. The TG55 has 64 preset and 64 programmable memories, 16 preset and 16 programmable multi-memories, digital filters, card slots, four audio outputs and a 34 program effects unit, but no AFM or sequencing. At £699, though, it's a sight more affordable than the SY-77, and offers much of its sonic excellence.
As a final word on the SY-77, it's probably true to say that users of existing FM synths will see it as the logical upgrade (though it's not compatible with patches from FM synths). But for absolutely anyone in the market for a professional music workstation, it has to feature high on the list.
Product: Yamaha SY-77 Performance Synthesizer
Supplier: Yamaha-Kemble UK, (Contact Details)
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Review by John Renwick