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Yamaha SY77 Performance Synthesiser

Long awaited and long overdue, the SY77 is Yamaha's real successor to the DX7; it combines advanced FM synthesis, AWM sound modelling, digital filtering and musical usefulness. Innovation with Simon Trask.


The first in a new generation of Yamaha synths arrives just in time to see in the new decade. Will the SY77 set the pace for synth development in the '90s?


THERE'S NO GETTING away from it. The DX7 is the synth which Yamaha will always be known for first and foremost. In a sense, every subsequent FM synth from them has existed in the DX7's shadow, despite the many improvements which have been made to the original spec along the way.

Both a blessing and a curse for the company, the now venerable DX7 still holds a unique position in the history of the synthesiser. But then it came at a unique time: the transition from analogue to digital synthesis. Through foresight the company were able to place themselves at the vanguard of this transition.

It was some four years before Roland were able to bring out the D50 and regain the ground they'd lost to Yamaha; only a year later, Korg's M1 was the synth to be seen with. It's a tough world out there, and the pace is getting quicker all the time.

The question is: now that everyone's working in the realms of software and digital technology, can anyone get far enough ahead of the game to pull the same stunt that Yamaha did in the early '80s? Can Yamaha themselves get far enough ahead? Because they achieved so much with the DX7, rightly or wrongly people are bound to assess any next-generation synth from the company against that synth's success.

Which brings us to the SY77 and Yamaha's claim that it will set a new direction for synthesiser development through the 1990s. What exactly that means I'm not sure; after all, the DX7 set a new direction for synthesiser development in the 1980s, but that didn't mean anything as obvious as every other manufacturer following them down the path of FM synthesis. Digital synthesis, yes.

What the SY77 does have is the workstation-type paraphernalia which seems to be an essential part of the contemporary synth: 16-track sequencer (16,000 notes), disk drive taking 3.5" DSDD disks, digital multi-fx section, 16-Part multitimbral capability and dedicated drumkit capability.

But the question on everyone's minds is: will the SY77 be the DX7 of the '90s? That could mean will it leapfrog the competition both sonically and technologically, or it could mean will it be the hardest synthesiser in the world to program? Well, let's have a look...

I HEAR VOICES



ESSENTIALLY WHAT YAMAHA have done with the SY77 is take advanced forms of their FM synthesis and AWM sample technologies (AFM and AWM2), made them interactive and added digital filtering to each section. The interactive bit means that you can use an AWM2 sample as a modulation input to any AFM operator (carrier or modulator), and/or use the AFM output as an AWM2 "sample". Yamaha call this Realtime Convolution and Modulation synthesis, but perhaps we can forgive them for that.

Each Voice (Yamahaspeak for program or patch) can consist of up to four Elements, an element being either a complete AFM or a complete AWM2 sound. AFM and AWM2 Elements are paired: 1 and 3, 2 and 4 (AFM and AWM2 respectively in each case). Each AFM Element uses its paired AWM Element as a modulation input, so you can't use more than one AWM2 sound to modulate the operators within an FM algorithm, though you can use the one AWM2 sound on any number of operators, providing they have a spare modulation input. Using an AWM2 Element as a modulation input to an AFM algorithm doesn't remove it from the Voice, though if you want to do this so that it only sounds within the AFM context, you turn its output assignment off (turning the Element itself off removes it as a modulation source).

You can choose one of 11 possible combinations of Elements: 1, 2 and 4 AFM mono, 1 and 2 AFM poly, 1, 2 and 4 AWM poly, 1 AFM+1 AWM, 2 AFM+2 AWM, and Drum Set - with the latter allowing you to select and program a keyboard drumkit configuration drawing on the AWM samples. There are then a number of parameters governing how the Elements are combined: Element volume level, detune amount, transposition, note range, velocity range, panning, output assignment, random pitch fluctuation, portamento (for AFM-only Voices), digital effects selection and programming, single microtuning scale selection with Element on/off, and controller assignments. The SY77 divides its polyphony 16:16 between the AFM and AWM2 sections, so with 1 AFM + 1 AWM you have 16 notes, while if you double the Elements then you still have eight notes.

There's much that will be familiar about the SY77's AFM section to those of you who already know FM through the DX series. The carriers, modulators and algorithms are still present, as are the operator level settings, operator envelopes, LFO, pitch envelope and associated familiar parameters. But programming access, via the LCD screen, is so much easier than it's been in the past.

There's much more to justify the 5Y77's Advanced FM tag than its ability to use AWM2 sounds as operator modulation sources. For a start, each operator has two modulation inputs. One is taken up when another operator is modulating it, but that still leaves the other free for either a noise waveform input or the AWM2 input; if no operator is acting as a modulator, you can use both noise and AWM2 as modulation inputs. Each input's level is adjustable on a scale of 0-7.

The SY77 also ups the number of feedback loops from one to three and makes them configurable, an advance which allows much greater timbral richness. And not only have Yamaha upped the number of algorithms from 32 to 45, but even more significantly they've revamped the operator configurations, coming up with a good deal more variety, complexity and sophistication in the process - we're not talking original 32 algorithms plus 15 new ones here. Algorithms 1-20 all have a single carrier, concentrating on providing a wide variety of configurations of the modulator operators. Algorithms 21-29 all have operators 1 and 2 as carriers with the remaining modulator carriers all hanging off operator 2, while algorithms 30-33 have operators 1 and 3 as carriers, with operator 2 hanging off operator 1 and the other three operators hanging off operator 3. To cut a long story short, the remaining algorithms include such variations as two carriers with two modulators hanging off each, three carriers with three modulators hanging off the third, three carriers with one modulator hanging off the second and two off the third... The modulators come in both parallel and serial configurations, in some cases with a feedback loop on one of them.



"Yamaha have taken advanced forms of their FM synthesis and AWM sample technologies, made them interactive and added digital filtering to each section."


Algorithm 42 is perhaps the best balanced: three carriers each with their own modulator. You can get some rich, luscious sounds out of this one with relative ease, particularly if you add configurable feedback loops to the modulators. Algorithm 44 has carrier operators 1-5 all being modulated by operator 6, which also has a preconfigured feedback loop with itself, while algorithm 43 has carrier operators 1-4 being modulated by operators 5 and 6, while 5 is also being modulated by 6 and has feedback loops with itself and with 6, and 6 has a feedback loop with itself. Finally, algorithm 45 returns to comparative sanity with the good old six carriers - though even this has more potential than it did on the DX7, what with the configurable feedback loops and the noise and AWM2 modulation inputs. Then there's the opportunity to choose any one of 16 waveforms for each operator. Other new features which justify the AFM tag include four-breakpoint scaling of each operators' output level (allowing more flexible volume and timbre enveloping across the keyboard), six-segment envelope generators with initial delay and settable loop point, and a sub LFO in addition to the main LFO which is used to control pitch modulation only.

The AFM-synthesised sound can be routed through its own pair of digital filters (OHz-22.43kHz cutoff). Either or both of two 12dB/octave filters can be used, with filter two always low-pass and filter one switchable between low-pass and high-pass. In the latter case it can be used in conjunction with filter two to create a band-pass filter, while when both filters are low-pass and set to the same cutoff point they function as a 24dB/octave low-pass filter with the addition of resonance which can push the filter up into self-oscillation. You can select whether each filter will be controlled by filter cutoff envelope or by the main LFO; you can set the amount by which the LFO will modulate cutoff, and the sensitivity of the filter itself to the LFO as well as to velocity. Additionally you can create a four-breakpoint envelope to scale the filter cutoff point of each filter independently across the keyboard.

No filter would be complete without a cutoff envelope for filter sweeps, and the SY77s filters are no exception. You can define a six-stage envelope for each filter, with rate and level settings for each stage as well as a rate scale amount for adjusting the envelope rates across the keyboard. The AWM2 section has an identical pair of digital filters; in fact, a four-Element Voice can make use of up to eight filters at once. Being able to select an AFM Element as an AWM2 sample allows you to route its output through a second pair of filters.

The AWM2 (Advanced Wave Memory) section allows you to select one of 112 16-bit linear samples which have been recorded variously at 32 and 48kHz. AWM is the sound-modelling technology that Yamaha have used with great success as the basis of their Clavinova digital pianos, so it's only natural that FM and AWM should meet at some point. Only here the AWM is programmable.

The quality of the samples is very impressive, but then AWM technology models changes in sound based on samples. You can hear the difference on, for instance, Preset 1 A01: Grand Piano, where the decay of the notes is quite natural, suffering from none of the thinning of tone which results from sample looping done when memory is at a premium.

So what sort of source sounds do you get in the AWM section? Well, there are plenty of acoustic instruments: piano, trumpet, muted trumpet, horn, flugel, trombone, flute, clarinet, tenor and alto saxes, violin, pizz, strings... In the bass department there are fretless, wood, thumping and popping, and a punchy synthbass. Then you have various tuned percussion (vibes, marimba...), several blown bottles (cue breathy sounds), some spiky metallic percussive sounds, struck piano strings, sax breath, a booming Japanese temple drum, delicate koto and shamisen and a selection of waveforms: triangle, sawtooth, pulse and digital inharmonic.

Rounding out the selection are 20 drum and percussion sounds, mostly standard kit with a few Latin sounds thrown in. They're punchy, tight and clean, and when tuned around and used with other percussive samples in the Drum Sets (see below) they're a passable collection.

Overall there's plenty of clarity, detail and vitality in the sounds, and where characteristic attacks need to be caught (on some of the brass sounds, for example) they are for the most part caught well; the tenor and alto saxes were the only samples which struck me as a bit lacklustre.

As well as being able to select an AWM2 sample (internal or card) or AFM input, you can specify normal or fixed pitch together with what the fixed pitch is (this can yield some interesting results when you're using an AWM2 sample to modulate an AFM operator). The sample is routed through a four-stage volume envelope, four-breakpoint output scaling and the aforementioned filter section, and can also be modulated by an LFO and a pitch envelope. Nothing difficult to get to grips with here.

As an alternative to AFM and AWM2 Elements you can program Drum Sets for individual Internal patches. In addition to specifying an overall volume level, you can select any one of the SY77's 112 AWM samples together with volume, semitone transposition (+36/-48), fine-tune amount, static pan value, output group and alternate on/off assignment for each note on the keyboard. Any notes assigned alternate on will interrupt one another, so that only one at a time can play (you could have open and closed hi-hats cutting one another off). Additionally you can program a complete set of effect parameters specifically for the Drum Set, and select a controller to control the overall volume of the Set.

You'll find that in the verdict I've talked at some length about the quality and nature of the AFM sounds, so I won't indulge in any particular description here, or in any list of Voices (which I understand may well have changed on the production models). What I will say here is that the SY77 can produce the full gamut of sampled, synthesised and sampled plus synthesised sounds that we've come to expect from today's synths, but goes beyond the sonic vocabulary of these synths with the sophistication of its new AFM section. Programmers will love the SY77, but it's not an obscure instrument in the way that the DX7 was. In true glasnost spirit, the SY77 welcomes you with open arms.



"The SY77 can produce the full gamut of sampled, synthesised and sampled plus synthesised sounds that we've come to expect from today's synths, but goes beyond with its new AFM section."


The SY77's panning capability has to be the most sophisticated going. As an alternative to static pan positions for each AFM and AWM2 Element within a Voice, you can draw on a range of preset and user-programmable dynamic panning effects, allowing you to have up to four such effects going at the same time within a Voice. For each programmable effect you can specify pan source (velocity, note or LFO) and depth together with a six-stage pan envelope and a ten-character name.

Yamaha introduced microtuning on the DX7II, and they're not about to ignore it on the SY77. As well as allowing you to create two tunings of your own (coarse and fine-tune pitches for every note in the MIDI range) Yamaha's new synth provides you with a choice of pure major, pure minor, mean tone and Pythagorean (in each case with any pitch in the octave as root note), Werkmeister, Kirnberger, Valloti, quarter- and eighth-tone and more, much more. You can also specify tuning on/off for each Element.

The last stage in the sound chain is digital effects processing. The SY77's four effects processors are divided into mod1, mod2, reverb1 and reverb2, and can be configured in any one of three ways. In the SY77 scheme of things, Voices are routed to either, both or neither of two Groups, which are effectively inputs to the digital effects section and "hard-wired" to a pair of stereo audio outputs. One way of configuring the processors has a mod/reverb pair in each signal path, with mod before reverb; another has Group 1 routed through mod1, then reverb1, then reverb2, while Group 2 is only routed through mod2. Finally, all four effects processors can be put in the Group 1 signal path, with mod1 and mod2 in parallel followed by reverb1 and then reverb2; Group2 outputs are not effected. Additional parameters allow you to turn the stereo mix for each path on/off.

Each of the two mod processors can be set to stereo chorus, stereo flanger, symphonic, tremolo or off. The reverb processors have a much larger number of effects to choose from: in addition to hall, room, plate, church, club, stage, bathroom (honestly), tunnel and metal reverbs there are various delay and echo effects, distortion, tone control (rough and ready EQ) and combinations of reverb and delay, reverb and distortion, distortion and delay, tone control and delay. . . Scarcely any of these effects have more than three parameters to their name, and none more than four, so we're not exactly talking flexibility here. No wonder there are so many different effects and effect combinations. Disappointingly, the mod effects are on the weak side, while the reverb and associated effects are usable as far as they go, which isn't as far as you might like.

FRONT AND REAR



YAMAHA HAVE GIVEN the SY77 a 61-note synth-style keyboard which is sensitive to attack velocity and channel aftertouch and has a pleasantly chunky feel to it.

The front panel has been well thought out, with the different functional areas clearly organised and delineated. The centrepiece is a 60 x 240-dot (8 x 40-character) backlit LCD screen with easy-on-the-eyes blue shading and adjustable contrast. Related parameters can be grouped in a single display, graphic editing of envelopes is possible, and edit pages within a Mode and Voices within a Bank can be listed. The SY77 adopts a now familiar method of operation, with eight Function buttons below the LCD assuming different functions (if there are any) according to the LCD page you're on (listed on the bottom row of the screen). In addition there's just about every edit control possible: data slider, infinite rotary wheel, ± buttons and numeric keypad, together with Page left/right and cursor left/right/up/down buttons.


To the left of the LCD are Mode select and sequencer control buttons, while at the right-hand end of the front panel are Voice and Multi select buttons which double as sequencer track selectors and AFM operator select and on/off buttons (complete with helpful pinpoint LEDs indicating on/off status).

Also on the front panel are card slots for Voice/Multi RAM and ROM cards and waveform ROM cards (like Korg's M and T series, the SY77 can access a library of samples on card). The SY77 comes with 128 Preset ROM Voices and capacity for 64 Internal RAM Voices, and can access a further 64 Voices off ROM and RAM cards.

Finally, on the rear panel are MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, knobs for adjusting LCD contrast and the onboard sequencer's metronome click output level, a dedicated breath controller input, dedicated volume footpedal and sustain footswitch inputs, programmable footpedal and footswitch inputs, headphone output and two pairs of stereo audio outputs plus power on/off button.

MULTI MODE



SIXTEEN-PART MULTITIMBRAL CONFIGURATIONS of Voices can be defined for use with the SY77's onboard 16-track sequencer or for remote sequencing from an external MIDI sequencer, with dynamic allocation of the synth's polyphony across the Parts. As well as selecting a Voice (or off) for each Part, you can specify volume level (1-127), fine-tune amount (+63/-64), semitonal pitch-shift amount (+63/-64 again!), stereo pan position (+/-31 or Voice) and output routing (Off, Group 1, Group2 or Both). It's worth emphasising that for each Part you can either set a fixed pan value or retain the panning assignments programmed for the Elements of that Part's Voice, which means that you can have a lot of dynamic panning effects going at the same time - or perhaps just use dynamic panning to emphasise a particular Voice within a sequence. Sophisticated stuff.



"Combined with the accessible front end Yamaha have given AFM, and it's user-friendly combination with AWM2 samples, there's really no reason to be frightened of (A)FM any more."


You can also program effects settings as you would for a Voice, only here they apply to all 16 Parts, with effects routing per Part determined by the output parameter. Finally you can give each Multi memory (remember, there are 16 onboard and 16 on a card) a 20-character name, and initialise and recall individual memories.

SEQUENCER



YAMAHA HAVE COME up with a very workable and practical 16-track sequencer for their new synth. You record a single song at a time, up to 999 bars in length (assuming there's enough memory), using the 16 track buttons mentioned earlier to select the Record track (its LED turns red) and to mute specific tracks (LEDs flash green-yellow). Active recorded tracks are indicated by continuously lit green-yellow LEDs. The same colour coding is used by the 5Y77 when it comes to sequence editing, with the LEDs of track(s) to be edited turning red when you select them.

Tracks 1-15 are continuous recording tracks, although you can start and stop recording anywhere within a track, with a two-bar count-in for real-time recording. Recording modes available for these tracks are real-time replace or overdub, step-time and punch in/out (with pre-defined punch points). Track 16 is reserved for playing patterns recorded in the separate Pattern mode; to play patterns back within a Song you have to chain them together in track 16 in Song Edit mode. Once you've constructed a pattern chain you can copy it to any other track, where it becomes continuous data (for instance, a four-bar pattern's worth of data repeated ten times in track 16 becomes 40 bars' worth of data in another track). You can also copy an individual pattern directly into any of tracks 1-15 and extract into a pattern any portion of one of these tracks (up to the maximum pattern length of 32 bars). As real-time pattern recording is loop-in-overdub, you can use these get/put functions to loop overdub any portion of a continuous track, or to use the Song Edit functions on patterns; step-time recording and editing of patterns is also possible.

Sequencer tracks use whatever Voice is assigned to the equivalent Part in the currently-selected Multi configuration (if no Voice is assigned to a Part, that track will play over MIDI only), so patterns (whether in track 16 or being recorded or played back in Pattern mode) will use whatever Voice is assigned to Part 16. Alternatively, a Song has its own set of user-programmable MIDI transmit channel assignments for its 16 tracks, and by selecting MIDI channel five for track 16, say, you can get that track to play the Voice assigned to Multi Part five.

Song Setup parameters allow you to disable the recording of velocity, control change, pitchbend, patch change, aftertouch and SysEx data, specify whether the SY77's sequencer will be master or slave to an external sequencer or drum machine, define four accent levels for step-time editing, set a MIDI transmit channel for each track, and decide what clock resolution will be displayed for editing purposes. Additionally you can give a song an eight-character name.

The step-time recording and editing screens both allow you to scroll forwards and backwards to any bar within a track. If you're into odd and constantly-changing time signatures then you'll be glad to know that the SY77 allows you to specify a different time signature for each bar, chosen from the ranges 1/4-8/4, 1/8-16/8 and 1/16-32/16 - surely enough to please anyone. A horizontal line of dashes in the upper half of each screen displays up to 32 steps of a 1/32nd note each (one 4/4 bar's worth), with vertical dividing lines indicating where the beats fall; bars which are longer than 4/4 are split across two displays. An arrow pointing down at the line can be scrolled across the screen using the front-panel dial and ± buttons, indicating whereabouts in each bar you are. Note duration can be selected either by scrolling through musical notes in an onscreen parameter field, or by selecting a duration more directly by pressing the relevant button in the numeric keypad (as I mentioned earlier, each of these buttons has a graphic note value inscribed above it).

Step-time input operates on the familiar principle of only advancing to the next position when all notes have been released, so that as long as you keep one note held down you can play around with other notes in a chord until you get them right. You can also choose for each "step" whether your notes will be normal, staccato or slurred, and select one of the four accent levels that you programmed elsewhere.

Blue blobs on the dashes and crosses indicate wherever notes are present, while a graphic representation of a keyboard in the lower half of the step-record screen allows you to see what notes you've played when you scroll through a track. Other functions allow you to delete individual steps or whole bars.

Step-time record is continually in overdub mode, so that whenever you play notes they're entered at the current step with the currently-selected duration. Step-time edit functions slightly differently, allowing you to switch between the graphic keyboard to help you see what the notes are at a particular step, and a numerical data display (one MIDI event at a time) for the actual editing. Here you can change event values and insert and delete individual note, patch change, pitchbend, controller, aftertouch and relative tempo (10%-200%) events at any position.

The Song Edit Job page provides access to 16 editing functions, a number of which operate on user-specifiable portions of individual tracks. You can post-quantise notes (with the option of quantising note durations), modify note durations and note velocities, create a crescendo or diminuendo (the SY77 achieves this by scaling note-on velocities), transpose notes (±99 semitones within the overall C-2 to G8 limit), thin out memory-intensive data (aftertouch, pitchbend and control change), erase specific types of event (aftertouch, pitchbend, control change and SysEx), erase multiple bars, and shift a specific pitch to any other pitch within the MIDI range (particularly useful for rhythm tracks, where it allows you to readily change, say, a conga part to a bongo part). Additionally you can shift a whole track forward or backward in time in clock intervals (96ppqn) up to ±99 clocks, copy, delete and create multiple bars across any configuration of tracks 1-15, mix two tracks together (or, if the destination track is empty, simply make a copy of a track), erase a track and clear a song.

Finally, the SY77's sequencer is able to read off disk sequences which are stored in Yamaha's NSEQ and ESEQ formats, allowing you to load sequences recorded on other Yamaha devices such as the QX5 FD sequencer and V50 FM synth.



"Where other synths have integrated samples into a traditional synthesis framework, Yamaha have done this and put it alongside a much-enhanced FM synthesis section."


UTILITY



UTILITY MODE GOVERNS a number of overall settings grouped under System, MIDI, Card and Disk headings. Under System you can set master tuning, choose fixed velocity (1-127) or one of seven velocity curves, assign functions to the two programmable foot controllers, decide whether you want 'Are You Sure?" edit confirmation messages to mediate between you and your actions and enter a 2 x 20-character power-up greetings message.

MIDI Utilities allow you to set keyboard transmit channel, Voice receive channel, local on/off, note on/off mode (all, even or odd), a SysEx device number (Off, 1-16, All), Bulk Protect on/off and patch-change reception mode. You can also initiate SysEx transfer of the SY77's onboard data in a number of different groupings (such as All data, Sequencer data, Voice and Multi data, Single Voices and Single Multis).

Card Utilities allow you to format RAM cards and save and load synth data (Voice, Multi, system, pan and microtuning), while Disk Utilities allow you to format 3.5" DSDD disks, save and load all types of SY77 data, make a backup disk, rename and delete files and get a readout of disk status (total number of files, disk space occupied and free).

VERDICT



WHEN YAMAHA UNVEILED FM synthesis in the first half of the '80s, they effectively issued a challenge to other manufacturers: produce a synthesis system which provides the same degree of sonic detail and clarity. The response to that challenge has been unfolding through the rest of the decade, and as we've reached the close of that decade it seems like a good idea to survey what has been happening to the synthesiser post-DX7. Then we shall see where these developments have left Yamaha and the SY77.

When Roland eventually broke Yamaha's dominance of the synth market, they did it with an instrument which laid the ground rules for other manufacturers to follow. The D50 combined sampled instrument attacks with traditionally-conceived synthesis transplanted to the digital domain, which was a logical move on two counts. Firstly, FM synthesis had imparted a new degree of instrumental realism to synthesis partly through the amount of sonic information it was able to convey in the attack segment of a sound, the segment which plays a large role in defining one instrument from another - even from staccato notes you can tell a trumpet from a guitar from an oboe. You only had to listen to a synthesised strings sound on the D50 without and then with a sampled strings attack to appreciate the added degree of realism which the latter imparted.

Secondly, while many musicians liked what they heard from FM, the unfamiliar ins and outs of its programming structure proved much less attractive to them. By transplanting familiar analogue-derived concepts to the digital realm, Roland achieved a certain continuity with their past analogue synths and at the same gained a stick with which to beat Yamaha.

Subsequently Korg came along with the M1, which extended the sample principle to include not just attack segments but complete instrumental samples - at the same time expanding the range of samples available by allowing further samples to be read off plug-in PCM ROM cards. Now the sample board for Korg's T-series synths represents the latest logical extension of this development, freeing musicians from reliance on sample cards provided by the manufacturer. Much further and synth and sampler will become one (can the day be far off?). At the same time Korg's M and T-series synths stick closely to traditionally-conceived synthesis. Meanwhile, confirming the prevailing trend, 1989 has seen the emergence of Ensoniq's strongest synth yet, the VFX, which also combines samples with traditionally-conceived synthesis (in this case closer to a Matrix 12 than a Jupiter 8).

So where do these developments leave Yamaha and the SY77? In a way the relationship which has developed between samples and synthesis - not to mention the advent of affordable sampling - during the '80s has worked in Yamaha's favour, by removing the onus on synthesis systems to come up with realistic recreations of "real" instruments. FM synthesis probably got closer to achieving that aim than any other system, admittedly with varying degrees of success, but the means of achieving the results were by no means straightforward. How much easier to plug in a sample card - which is exactly what you can now do on the SY77.

What about that other "development" - the retaining of a traditional model of synthesis? Well, seven years on from the DX7, it isn't only analogue-styled synthesis which can claim to be traditional: thanks to Yamaha's persistence with it over the years, FM synthesis has passed the "future shock" stage and created its own tradition. Combined with the accessible front end which Yamaha have given AFM on the SY77 (courtesy of the synth's large LCD screen, sensibly-presented programming structure and clearly thought-out front panel) and its user-friendly combination with AWM2 samples, there's really no reason to be frightened of (A)FM any more.

There are other important points to be made about the SY77. It should be clear that Yamaha have given it all the technological "knick-knackery" expected of the contemporary "workstation"-styled synth, so you need have no fear of losing out there. But, more importantly, where other synths have integrated samples into a traditional synthesis framework, Yamaha have done this with the AWM2 section of the SY77 and put it alongside a much-enhanced FM synthesis section - which can in turn use the output of the AWM2 section as a modulation input to its operators. Do you get the impression there's something more going on here than on the SY77's contemporaries? You're right (though Ensoniq's VFX-SD, with its sophisticated analogue-style modulation possibilities and TransWave synthesis section, also has something out of the ordinary to offer in this respect). It's also worth bearing in mind that AWM is more than just sampling, and the SY77's samples have a greater degree of realism and responsiveness to them than straightforward samples.

But ultimately it must be the AFM section on which the SY77 stands or falls. It's easy to be cynical and laugh at the fact that Yamaha are still using FM after all these years. But the 'A" on the front of the FM is more than wishful thinking. In pure sound terms AFM is capable of producing full, warm, luscious pad-type sounds and fat, warm, punchy analogue-type bass sounds which old-style FM could never produce, introducing a new breadth and richness to FM synthesis. Also included on the sonic menu are metallic sounds which can be warm and rich or cold and harsh, the familiar DX-type bright, tinkly electric pianos but also seductively dark and warm electric pianos, fat and punchy brass sounds, rude and dirty organ sounds, silky smooth strings and all the harsh, ugly, cutting FM sounds you could wish for.

There was also more than one occasion when I thought I was listening to a sample, only to find out that it was an FM sound. In fact, many of the SY77's Preset sounds use the 1 AFM+1 AWM combination, but don't construe this as an attempt on Yamaha's part to hide shortcomings in the AFM section, because AFM can stand proudly by itself. In the light of its new and expanded set of algorithms, 16 operator waveforms, three assignable feedback loops, dual modulation inputs per operator and ability to accept AWM2 sample sounds as modulation sources, and the far more user-friendly programming access provided by the SY77, (A)FM deserves to be considered afresh. Bringing the AWM samples into the picture, the SY77 is also good at playing Korg's M1 at its own game (you know, the breathy, swirling, ethereal sounds).

I must say I found the SY77's (digital) filtering, and in particular the resonance, a little disappointing after the Waldorf MicroWave's rich, powerful analogue filtering. It does add an extra dimension to the AFM, however (well, maybe half a dimension), particularly when it comes to filter sweeps. I'd also say that the digital effects aren't the most exciting aspect of the SY77, but they're adequate. The SY77's ability to layer four sounds and still have eight-note polyphony is also a point in its favour, as are the sophisticated panning effects the synth is capable of, while the 16-track sequencer is user-friendly and reasonably powerful but still (of course) no substitute for the computer-based option (surely a cheaper sequencer-less companion would have been a good commercial move on Yamaha's part).

The DX7 comparison looms large in the collective psyche of synth players, which is perhaps why I've heard (and heard reports of) lukewarm initial reactions to the SY77. I must admit my initial reaction was that it sounded good but wasn't about to knock the socks off the competition. It certainly doesn't represent a DX-equivalent quantum leap forward, but it does at least represent a significant step forward. No future shock, but maybe that's a good thing. I grew steadily more impressed with the SY77 as I got to know it, and it's left me with a feeling that I want to go on getting to know it. Sometimes those relationships can last the longest.

Price £1999 including VAT.

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

 

Music Technology - Jan 1990

Review by Simon Trask

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