Improvements and additions to the SY77 concept have produced a new instrument — the SY99. Martin Russ Looks at Yamaha's new flagship synth.
When the SY77 came out, I described it as a 'dream of an instrument'. And now replacing the SY77 as the flagship of Yamaha's synthesizer range is the SY99, which takes the ideas behind the SY77, expands and enhances them, and ends up with that incredible rarity — a dream which is still there when you wake up!
Externally, the SY99 looks deceptively similar to its older cousin: the extra 16 notes on the keyboard and the mysterious large access plate on the rear panel are the only visible changes apart from the 'SY99' lettering. Inside, however, both the hardware and the software have been extensively revised and updated, with many improvements and additional features.
The number of AWM waveforms has been increased, from 112 to 267, and they now occupy 8Mbytes of ROM memory — double the SY77's ROM size. Although all the SY77 waveforms are still present, many are new or reworked versions. The order of waves (ie. their numbering) has also changed because new variations have been introduced, but the SY99 takes this into account when loading SY77 voices, so conversion is automatic. The AWM waveforms are now organised into two banks of presets: 155 'conventional' sounds in Preset 1, and 112 residual, special effects, and single cycle waveshapes in Preset 2.
The Instrument waveforms now include some which have quite a lot of 'movement' within the sound (and some very impressive sample looping). Analogue synthesizer sounds using features like oscillator sync are now much easier to create, since AnlgBrs2 is a waveform of exactly that sound, whilst Pad 1 is an instant pulse width modulation type pad sound. The original Itopia choral sound was very resonant, and this has been modified to include more breath noise and a smoother sound, whilst OohChoir compensates by providing even more resonant voices. SteelDrm is a marked improvement on the rather clunky SY77 original, and has lots more authentic 'wobbly metal' feel. The Piano waveform is also a bit brighter, and sounds and plays very nicely, especially with the extra notes at top and bottom — the 'Chick Corea' demonstration song shows it off well.
Attention to detail has been quite thorough — the 'Flute' sustain loop now leaves out the chiff at the start of notes, and several of the sounds (Strings, Chorus, BigSynth) are in stereo pairs (although you have to be careful with the use of the dynamic panning and other effects if you want to retain the stereo imaging). Some of the waveforms have been made easier to use in their normal context: SectPizz has several violins plucking their strings, instead of the solo pluck of Pizz, and 12string is a lovely, detuned, chorussy jangle.
There are a few looped 'atmospheric' sounds for filling out pads, or layering with more percussive sounds, and some of them (EleMagic, VoxBell, Mellow...) sound like samples of the SY77 itself. Analogue synthesizers are well represented, with several samples of sawtooth and other classic waveforms, including a set from the legendary CS80, as well as a sampled CS80 brass sound.
On the border line between instruments and percussion lie the special effects. OhAttack is so much better that I could not believe the SY77 original was intended to try and achieve the same effect: it now sounds like an orchestral attack transient, and is not suddenly truncated. The final 47 waveforms in the Preset 2 bank are all called 'Stuff' followed by a number, and although most of them are just single cycles of waveshapes with particular harmonic structures, there are a few which really belong earlier in the series, with more descriptive names. Since the otherwise excellent manual and accompanying quick reference cards make no reference to the contents of this section, here is a quick guide to these extra sounds:
|15||Organ with Leslie FX|
|40||Cup Echo 2|
The capacity of the sequencer is now more than a third larger: 27,000 notes instead of 16,000, and 10 chainable songs are provided. There are separate sets of jobs for song editing (covering big changes or fine detail) and a separate softkey for the Song Directory page. The Transmit Channel setup page has been moved up a level in the menu hierarchy, and is now instantly available from the main Song Play page — a great time-saver. To my ears, the transitions into Edit mode whilst a sequence is playing do not seem to glitch as badly as on the SY77 — this is due to a faster clock for the sequencer microprocessor, which improves the overall performance of the whole sequencer section.
The sequencer memory is not battery-backed, so you always have to save your sequences to disk or card. The SY77 can only save sequences in proprietary Yamaha formats, but the SY99 now incorporates Standard MIDI File (SMF) capability. It can read formats 0 and 1 files from PC/ST format floppy disks (or Apple Mac disks via Apple File Exchange and a SuperDrive equipped Mac) and can save in SMF format 0. This makes transferring sequences and songs between the SY99 and a computer sequencer much faster, and a lot easier, than recording one track at a time. I had some problems loading MIDI Files produced by Band-in-a-Box — the SY99 manual gives a list of the quantisation resolutions which it can load, and here lies the probable reason why they could not be loaded. My main MIDI Files from Dr.T's RealTime transferred with no problems, even the 6/4 stuff at 200 bpm.
After several years of only five octaves, the additional notes are a welcome change, and not running out of notes at the top or bottom of the keyboard so often is great. Having 76 drum sounds available at once is slightly intimidating, and I must confess to using a drum map on my sequencer for entering most drum patterns.
The other major change to the keyboard is not to the hardware, but to the software: aftertouch is now zoned, so you can choose the way that it affects sounds. The normal mode affects all the notes, but you can choose to affect only the top or bottom note being played, or only the notes above a split point, or below a split point. Pitch bend is also affected by how you assign the mode, and the perceived effect performance-wise is very similar to a keyboard with polyphonic aftertouch.
There are now many more softkey assignments, which speeds up the process of moving around the SY99's many pages. Several of the frequently used pages have been moved higher up the menu trees to make them easier to use: the Transmit Channel Setup for the Song and Pattern Play pages is particularly useful, and the setting of the Transmit channel for the keyboard is now also available at any time by pressing the shift key and one of the 16 program select/track buttons. Some of the pages have been moved around to make them more consistent: the AWM and AFM edit pages now have the same structure.
The Jump page can now store 5 softkey-driven pages instead of the single marked page on the SY77, and the 2-page 'flip-back-and-forth' is now made more obvious by the flashing 'Undo' label. The auto-save has also been made more explicit by naming the softkeys as Return, Quit and Store, with a flashing reminder at the top of the screen which makes their purpose a little clearer. When you load a Song there is now an option not to overwrite the Pattern memory, which is useful if you keep Drum patterns in the Pattern area and don't want to lose them every time you load a song. There are many other similar little shortcuts and refinements scattered throughout the machine, which can speed things up significantly for experienced users.
It can take quite a while to become familiar with the operation of a sophisticated synthesizer like the SY99. The hierarchical paged menu system means that the front panel, although liberally provided with switches, is only the surface of the instrument. Your fingers will soon learn where the 'Enter' and 'Exit' buttons are, without any need for conscious thought, although there a few inconsistencies to keep you on your toes.
The effects section in the SY99 now boasts full 20kHz bandwidth, instead of the original 15kHz, and is roughly equivalent to an SPX900; however, it has the added benefit of integration with the SY99's performance controls to modify effect parameters. Although there are two separate effects units, some of the modes of operation provide two individual effects from each processor, which means that there are up to four effects available simultaneously.
Each element (up to four) within a sound can be sent to any of these four possible effects using a page devoted to send routing and levels. The two effects units themselves can be arranged in either series or parallel configurations, whilst the individual effects within the units can be either single, cascade (series) or dual (parallel) types. A graphical representation of the whole of the effects section makes all the panning, effect levels and wet/dry mixing easy to understand.
There are 63 different types of effect setting, ranging from Reverbs, via a licensed Aural Exciter, Triple Panned Delays and Pitch Shifts, to combinations of Flanging and Chorus. A special Rotary Speaker setting is designed for use with organ sounds. A Ring Modulator is available for special FX purposes, and several settings can be controlled by a simple Attack/Release envelope. The maximum delay time is 1360 ms (1.36 seconds), and the maximum reverb time 30 seconds.
One page is devoted to the control of the parameters inside the effects section by other controllers. You can control any two of the parameters for the effects units with any MIDI Controller, aftertouch, velocity, key position, or the Effects LFO (which is separate from the LFOs within the sound). Many of the preset sounds use the Data Entry slider as the effects controller.
The quality of the effects section is a radical improvement over the SY77, and makes a great deal of difference to the perceived quality of the sounds. The clarity and noise are much better — in fact, some of my SY77 sounds do not transfer well purely because they make heavy use of the effects.
The filters have also been improved: they are slightly smoother at high resonance values, and when set fully open they colour the sound less significantly than on the SY77. The combination of high quality effects, the new 'Pad' AWM waveforms and the filters makes the SY99 sound more 'analogue' than ever. When you are editing the filters, there is now an extra softkey called 'Sync' which automatically copies any changes to both filters.
The 332-page A4 manual is excellent, with overviews, detailed descriptions, and hints and tips on getting the best out of the instrument. It also details one of the hidden features of the SY77: if you save all your work as 'All Data' files, then you can load in voices, songs, multis or patterns from inside the 'All Data' file — this can save a lot of messing about, because you no longer have to save lots of data different formats. Several quick reference cards avoid the need for dedicated programmers to photocopy parts of the manual, and the separate 24 page MIDI Implementation booklet completes a thorough and impressive set of documentation.
The major new facilities that the SY99 offers over those of the SY77 are: User Samples for AWM; a MIDI Data Recorder; Master Keyboard functions.
The SY99 provides a special area of battery-backed RAM memory designed for holding user samples for use as AWM waveforms. The instrument comes fitted with a basic 512K of RAM (in addition to the RAM used by the sequencer) and extra memory can be added in 512K chunks. You can install up to five of the Weetabix-sized expansion modules in the slots under the access plate on the rear panel, to give a maximum of 3Mbytes of storage. The SYEMB05 modules cost £249 each, and can be installed by the user — there's no need to return the SY99 to the factory.
You can define up to 64 named user waveforms for use in AWM synthesis. These are made up out of up to 99 user samples held in the non-volatile RAM memory — a waveform can be anything, from one made up out of several samples spread over the whole keyboard range (a multi-sample), to just a single sample assigned to a single note. You can control the level, tuning and looping mode (forward or backward, once or repeated, normal or alternate) but, as with any sample based system, you need to make sure that you have looping turned on, and that you do not have a 'null' loop of a couple of samples of silence at the end of the sample. There are also good facilities for organising large numbers of samples.
Samples can be loaded from disk (TX16W format or SY99 format), from waveform card, or via MIDI using the MIDI Sample Dump Standard (SDS). It's a shame that only TX16W sample disks can be read, as it is hardly the most popular sampler of all time — the ability to read and convert S1000 or Emax disks, for example, would have been far more useful. Card and copy-protected disk samples cannot then be saved to disk or sent out via MIDI SDS, but all the other sample types can. The samples which come on the SY99 demonstration disks are not copyprotected, and serve as a good introduction to using the facilities.
The Master Control utility provides eight Master Control Setups which provide master keyboard facilities. You can define up to eight 'zones', and for each of these zones set the transmit MIDI channel, velocity and aftertouch curves, transposition, and velocity and note limits. One of the factory setups, for example, transmits from the full length of the keyboard on four MIDI channels, allowing you to play layers with four sounds from a Multi patch. Some of the other setups are designed to split notes into chords by using the transposition facilities. Three additional softkeys will send the MIDI Start, Stop and Continue messages, regardless of the mode of the machine — you need to be in Song Mode to use the dedicated sequencer buttons.
As with all the other overall setup and preference information, you can save the Master Keyboard settings via the floppy disk drive.
Up to 512K of non-volatile RAM memory can be assigned for use by a MIDI Data Recorder (MDR). This is the same RAM which is used by the User Samples, and a memory allocation page allows you to monitor both the size of the samples currently in memory, and allocate memory to the samples or the MDR as required. The MDR has a maximum memory allocation of 512kbytes, which means that a fully equipped 3Mbyte SY99 would have 2.5Mbytes of user Sample RAM remaining memory if the MDR was allocated the full 512kbytes.
The MDR acts as a general purpose storage unit for MIDI information from other pieces of MIDI equipment. You can store System Exclusive bulk dumps of voices, drum patterns or sequences in the MDR for subsequent output, or store them on disk for later retrieval. Although using the MDR in this way is slower than RAM cards, the disks are much cheaper than RAM cards, and the linking that has been provided between the MDR and the Master Keyboard means that you can automate the process of sending bulk dumps to other pieces of equipment when you select a new Master Control setup. This can be a powerful utility for use in live performance, where you might need to load up several other devices with data partway through a set because their internal memory is not large enough.
The complicated program change modes and sending of two program change messages which the SY77 sometimes required to choose a Voice or Multi has been replaced by a system using the recently announced MIDI Bank Select messages (MIDI Controller number 0). This ensures future compatibility and is much easier to understand and use.
The first 50 purchasers of an SY99 in the UK will get a special bonus. As well as the five official demonstration disks, they will receive two sets of 12 TX16W sample disks. Another bonus, which all SY99 buyers can take advantage of, is that SY77 disks can usually be loaded without any problems. Some of the sounds may be altered slightly, due to the AWM waveform changes or the new effects section, but the songs and patterns transfer without any problems. The SY99 can be set to save to disk in its own format, or in the original SY77 format for compatibility.
The incremental changes could be misleading — this is not a Mark II SY77. The master keyboard facilities, MIDI Data Recorder, samples as AWM Waveforms and integrated effects make the SY99 much more than a reworking of the SY77. It is a more flexible, performance oriented workhorse. This is a big, powerful and complex machine which will take some time to learn thoroughly, but then the same is true of any 'real' musical instrument.
Apparently Yamaha took all the comments from SY77 owners into account when designing the SY99. Listening to feedback from users of the SY77 has definitely worked: the SY99 is closer to 'a perfect synthesizer' than any I have ever seen. The US advertising for the SY99 includes a quote from Chick Corea: apparently when they asked for the prototype back, he said "This one's mine, now". When you play one you will probably feel the same.
Yamaha SY99 £2,499 inc VAT (with 512kbyte user sample memory)
Yamaha-Kemble Music (UK), (Contact Details).
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Review by Martin Russ
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