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Yamaha SY77 & TG55

Article from Music Technology, December 1989

It's been a while since Yamaha revolutionised synthesisers with the DX7 but now they're making ambitious claims about their SY77. Simon Trask gets a glimpse of Yamaha's latest synth.

IS THERE ANYTHING truly new under the sun? Is there anything really true in the Sun? Such are the great imponderables of life running through my mind as I arrive at Yamaha's R&D Centre in the heart of London, only to have a brochure thrust into my hand which proclaims "The Sound Of All The Great Synthesisers In One Box Plus A Whole Lot More!". Underneath this banner are the words "Real-time Convolution & Modulation Synthesis". Pardon?

The occasion is the press unveiling of Yamaha's SY77 Performance Synthesiser - which the company hope will "set a new direction for synthesiser development through the 1990s" - and the TG55 Tone Generator 1U-high 19" rack-mount expander. The SY77 has a 61-note synth-style keyboard which is sensitive to attack velocity and channel aftertouch. Its sounds are provided by a combination of second-generation Advanced Wave Memory sample technology (16-bit linear resolution, 32kHz and 48kHz sample rate) and Advanced FM synthesis (six operators, 45 algorithms, a choice of 16 waveforms, two user-configurable inputs per operator). Twenty-four-bit internal processing and 22-bit DACs are employed to give a high degree of clarity to the sound. No less than 109 AWM waveforms are stored in an internal 2Mword ROM, with further samples accessible off plug-in 256 and 512 Kword ROM cards.

An SY77 Voice (what you and I might call a patch or a program) consists of four Elements which can be combined on the keyboard in a variety of ways using Element-specific velocity and note ranges. Each Element can be assigned an AWM2 or AFM sound, and in addition has its own pair of 12dB/octave realtime digital filters (one low-pass with resonance which can raise the filter to self-oscillation, the other switchable between low- and high-pass) - meaning that you can use up to eight filters per Voice. Each filter has its own envelope, while filter pairs can be combined to produce band-pass and 24dB/octave low-pass filtering.

In addition, each Element can have its own dynamic panning assignments, allowing you to create unique and impressive "polyphonic" spatial movements of sound. Sixty-four preset pan memories and 32 user-programmable pan memories are provided onboard the SY77.

Yamaha's new synth has a maximum polyphony of 32 voices divided 16:16 between the two types of sound source, suggesting that the actual polyphony depends on the ratio of AWM2 and AFM sounds within a Voice.

As well as a straightforward choice between AWM2 or AFM, you can layer the different types of sound or use amplitude enveloping to create LA-style combinations. But the SY77 moves beyond what other synths are capable of when it allows you to assign an AWM sample to an operator within an FM algorithm, either using the sample as a modulator for another waveform or using other waveforms to modulate the sample.

The SY77 also has the by-now-familiar workstation-type accoutrements: a 16-track sequencer, digital multi-fx, drumkit section, onboard 3.5" disk drive (which can store Voice and sequence data) and 16-Voice multitimbral capability. Front-panel operation is greatly aided by a 240x64-dot backlit LCD window. My initial impression is that the SY77 isn't overly complicated to use, but maybe that impression will change when I get a chance to investigate it more fully.

I should mention at this point that the TG55 isn't exactly a rack-mount version of the SY77, as it forgoes the synth's AFM processing, onboard sequencing and disk drive. It also has fewer effects, half the internal ROM sample memory, and necessarily loses the SY77's generous LCD window (expect ST-based editing software from the likes of Steinberg). There again, the TG55 does have a substantially cheaper price. Full shipments of both instruments aren't expected till late January.

The SY77 shows that Yamaha are capable of competing at the forefront of synth technology, but it isn't about to do a DX7 and sweep aside the competition, which is just too good to be swept aside. Yamaha's new synth takes the company significantly beyond the sonic world of "pure" FM - in fact, despite the talk of AFM it doesn't sound overtly FM-like.

What it does do is fulfil today's expectations of equal competence across a broad range of sounds, handling the "straight" sounds as well as any other synth which utilises samples, while also producing weird, complex "unnatural" sounds and "natural" sounds which have a subtly synthetic edge (the latter presumably by means of the SY77's unique sample-as-FM-operator facility, something which could end up being one of the most significant aspects of the synth). Its sounds also have a very musical responsiveness which should endear it to players.

The SY77 does seem to have something unique to offer. Its overall sound quality evinces an impressive clarity and definition, with an obviously digital character which is nonetheless distinct enough to suggest that it will find its own niche in the market alongside the VFXs and T3s of this digital world.

Prices SY77, £1999; TG55, £699. Both prices include VAT.

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Atari STacey

Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Dec 1989

Preview by Simon Trask

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