The appliance of SYience
When you've produced as many classic synths as Yamaha, it's easy to find yourself labouring under the weight of your own reputation. But it seems they still have a trick or two up their sleeves...
I sometimes think I'm the only muso in the world who has never owned a Korg M1. I can't tell you the exact reason why I didn't buy one - it probably had something to do with a pre-birth experience, but my analyst is having trouble digging that far into the past. Nevertheless, I did like the M1, yes indeed I did, and it is undoubtedly one of the most popular sample-based synthesisers ever.
By contrast, when Yamaha's SY77 came along it caught me at just the right time - musically and financially - and I bought one. It could virtually out-Korg the M1 itself and its combination of AWM and AFM sounds gave it an excellent sonic repertoire. I was glad I'd waited.
Then came the SY99 with its ability to load new samples (woweee!) but that was too expensive. The SY77 has now officially been dropped from Yamaha's catalogue and can be picked up for around a grand - nigh on half the original price (and making the SY99 seem even more expensive in comparison). There's nothing like the hi-tech music game for hammering your investments is there? Okay, perhaps the house-buying game or the used-car game or the...
Anyway, now there's a new instrument to discuss with our financial advisors - the SY85. It sits in the medium-to-upper price bracket and forsakes AFM altogether in favour of AWM2. But what it has lost on the swings (essentially, lots of 'orrible programming parameters) it has gained on the roundabouts with the addition of a wealth of goodies inside its sleek black casing. For example, it has 256 Voices (four times that of the SY77), 128 Performance memories which can consist of up to four layers of Voices (the SY77 can't directly layer Voices at all) and it's 30-note polyphonic (the SY77 has a maximum polyphony of 16 AFM plus 16 AWM voices, which in practice is usually far less than 32 notes).
The SY85 also has a pretty heavy set of digital filters and a spiffing DSP (Digital Signal Processor) with 90 types of effects which is similar to the DSP in the SY99. The built-in sequencer has only nine tracks, but it can store 10 Songs with a total capacity of 20,000 notes - which is quite a respectable amount for any stand-alone sequencer.
I suspect 99 percent of us select an instrument on the strength of its presets. Let's be honest, guys and gals, modern synths are just too bloody complicated to program. And why bother? Most synths come packed with excellent presets and there are always the musical anoraks who delight in creating new sounds which you can buy for a nominal sum 'off the shelf. To anyone who says that the only way to make real music is to create all the sounds yourself from scratch I say bollocks! The SY85 has some of the best 'play me' sounds I've ever heard. I was particularly impressed by the guitars: some of the electric voices out-Hendrix Jimi himself. The sounds are arranged in Banks by type so one Bank contains mostly acoustic pianos, another contains organs, another strings - and so on. The SY85 uses a two-letter prefix to identify the sounds - AP for Acoustic Piano, BR for Brass, GT for Guitar and so on. It's an excellent convention which has been catching on in various places. Wouldn't it be nice if all instruments used it?
Without running through a list of my fave sounds, let's just say that the presets are excellent and the instrument has a good sonic range. It has 6Mb of samples onboard which are a higher resolution than those in the SY77. They are divided into 16 categories - piano, keyboard, brass, wind, strings, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, folk (including dulcimer, harp and sitar), synth, choir, tuned percussion, drum, percussion (ethnic), sound effects and oscillators (a selection of waveforms).
But the best is yet to come: included are 128 Performances which can contain up to four Voices in layers or splits. These really are the creme de la creme as Miss Jean Brodie would say (did she own an SY85? - Ed). The sound at position one is a piano backed by a chorus which comes in after a short delay. Talk about moody!
Some of the layers are real works of art. You know when a certain sound inspires you, suggests riffs and simply makes you want to play? Well the Performances are like that. Okay, not all of them - but a helluva lot of them. Run through them for an hour (don't park on a meter), say you're not hooked and then go home to your Jason and Kylie records.
Anyway, having confessed to being impressed with the performance, I guess I'd better take a look at the dashboard...
The SY85 has a 61-note velocity-sensitive keyboard including aftertouch with pitchbend and modulation wheels to do your widdly-widdlies with. A 2 x 40-character LCD keeps you informed about what the synth is up to. There are Quick Edit keys below this, edit controls to the right and function buttons to the left. A nice touch is the Mode Matrix which tells you which buttons to press to select various, er, modes without stepping through an endless corridor of menus.
To the left of the Matrix are the seemingly sparse sequencer controls and to the left of these, a disk drive. There are slots for Waveform and data cards and on the back are two sets of stereo out sockets, a headphone socket, and jacks for foot volume, foot controller and sustain pedals plus MIDI In, Out and Thru ports.
The SY85 has half a Meg of RAM (volatile) which can be upgraded with two SYEMB06 RAM cards to add an extra 1Mb of non-volatile RAM. You can also use 1Mb SIMM chips to add a further 2Mb of volatile RAM; in fact, according to Yamaha-Kemble it should be possible to fit two 4Mb SIMMs, which would give a maximum memory of 9.5Mb. Into this area you can load your own samples via a MIDI Sample Dump and save them off to disk. The demos on the disk supplied with the instrument contain samples (they take quite a while to load, too) and show how they can truly transform a sequence.
You can have up to 64 samples in memory at once, RAM permitting, and there are basic - but useful - edit functions including looping, volume and pitch. Samples can be grouped together as a Waveform and mapped to the keyboard as a multi-sample. It's a great feature, although of course you need a sampler to get the most out of it. However, a budget computer-based sampler such as Replay 16 (to be reviewed) which supports MIDI Sample Dumps could prove a very cost-effective accessory.
The most impressive sample examples are vocal snatches which the demos use to the full. It's really strange to hear a keyboard doing vocal lines (even if they are more house than Pavarotti) - although this is more imposing and useful live than in a studio. The programmer can, of course, incorporate the samples into his or her own voices.
You get not one but two manuals with the SY85. The first is a 70-page Getting Started guide and it's really very good. I suspect many owners will prefer not to look at the second manual which is a Feature Reference manual written very much in feature-reference-manual style. It is a little daunting at over 300 pages, although you will certainly have to dip into it occasionally to look up the techie bits.
The indexes could have been more comprehensive. As all the features are dealt with individually (as opposed to explaining how to perform a particular procedure requiring a combination of functions) it's not always easy trying to discover the bits of the manual you need to refer to. But there's also a Job Table reference sheet for the user and a MIDI Data Format booklet for the boffins.
OK, let's get some niggly criticisms out of the way. For the sake of including an extra Bank button or two, you have to press the Internal buttons twice to access the second set of 128 sounds. Fine during recording, but I know from experience that live it's hard enough to hit three buttons to change a sound without worrying about whether or not you have to hit the Memory button twice!
I'm not a fan of built-in sequencers, although presumably someone's market research somewhere has shown that punters like all-in-one machines. My argument is that the majority of people buying a synth at this price will already have some sort of external sequencer whether they use it live or for recording. In such cases they are paying for something which they do not want and will rarely use.
However, I'm sure not everyone shares my opinion (and someone somewhere no doubt has some figures to prove how wrong I am). The sequencer on the SY85 does the job and it's fine when you know the arrangement you want to record, but I really wouldn't like to compose with it.
Finally, there's a General MIDI drum setup so why not include a GM setting as well? An increasing number of people are dabbling with pre-recorded MIDI files these days and most files are now configured to GM.
The SY85 is a mean machine. It has dozens of 'Buy Me' sounds, and the ability to load in your own samples lets you (or the dedicated programmer) greatly expand its sonic range. It has an excellent DSP with which to enhance the sounds and a Quick Edit system which really does make it easy to alter them all. Throw in a sequencer (for those who want one) and you have a wicked piece of kit. For the gigging musician fond of a twiddle, the SY85 also scores heavily in the real-time performance department.
The SY85 is not a vast departure from the other SY synths but it has arranged the technology Yamaha is good at in a slightly different way. It's a step on from the SY77 in most departments and if you've been tempted by the 77's new low price, I'd urge you to save up a few more big ones and take a look at the SY85.