On from the revolutionary DX7, on from the souped-up DX7 II, on even from the mighty SY77, comes the SY99. Simon Trask takes the new Yamaha flagship on her maiden voyage.
Yamaha have launched a new flagship for their SY fleet in the middle of a recession - will it ride the cruel economic tide or will it turn out to be the Titanic of the synth world?
THE LAST TIME Yamaha had a megasynth to their name was in 1986, when they brought out the DX5. This was essentially two DX7s in a bulky casing with much-improved (over the DX7) front-panel styling and layout, and a 76-note (E-G) attack velocity and channel aftertouch-sensitive keyboard, retailing for £2999.
The DX5's 1991 equivalent is with us now in the form of the SY99, an upmarket version of Yamaha's successor to the DX generation, the SY77 (reviewed MT, January '90). The SY99 isn't two SY77s in a box, however, and its front-panel layout and styling are exactly the same as the '77's, but it does have a 76-note (E-G) keyboard, sensitive to attack velocity and channel aftertouch, and inevitably it's a larger and heavier instrument than the '77. The SY99 looks every inch the professional's instrument, and in a world full of 61-note keyboards its 76-note keyboard should certainly help endear it to performers, as should the keyboard's nicely-balanced action. However, Yamaha's new synth has more going for it than this.
THE SY77 AND SY99 are both 32-voice polyphonic, and the AFM/AWM synthesis architecture is essentially the same on both synths, but crucially the '99 offers far more sonic flexibility through having 267 AWM Waveforms in 8Mb of ROM compared to the SY77's 112 Waveforms in 2MB of ROM, and through having onboard sample RAM which allows you to bring any samples you want into the SY99, where they are treated like AWM Waveforms. It's worth bearing in mind that by making the AWM part of the SY99 sonically open-ended, Yamaha have made the AFM part open-ended, too - because, as SY77 owners will know, AWM samples can be used as modulation inputs to the operators in an AFM algorithm.
Yamaha's new synth comes with 0.5Meg of sample RAM fitted as standard, battery-backed so that you don't lose your samples when you switch the synth off. This memory is upgradable in half-Meg chunks (Yamaha SYEMB05 memory boards) to a maximum of 3Mb - which compares very favourably with the Peavey DPM3 SE's 64Kb and 1Mb respectively. To upgrade the memory, all you have to do is unscrew the plate on the SY99's rear panel and slot the memory boards into the five numbered Expansion Memory "bays" recessed into the body of the synth.
The greater sonic scope provided by the SY99's bigger AWM ROM sample memory soon becomes apparent when you play through the synth's Preset Voices - which, incidentally, are far better than the SY77's Preset Voices - while something which strikes you from the moment you start playing the synth is how much smoother and classier than the SY77 it sounds. This difference in sound quality is down to the SY77's somewhat rough and rugged effects processing being replaced by processing in the SPX900 class, offering superior bandwidth and a greater selection of effects with more detailed programming.
Other new features and improvements are more to do with performance flexibility and the SY99's general working environment. For instance, you can now set zoned aftertouch, allowing channel aftertouch to affect only notes played either above or below a user-programmable splitpoint. New master keyboard functions (see below) make the SY99 more effective than the '77 as a MIDI controller keyboard, as well as allowing you to play multi-Voice split and layer textures from the keyboard.
The filters within each Element now have a Sync function as an aid to programming: turn it on and any parameter edits on one filter affect the other. The Send function which allows you to send a patch change on the keyboard transmit channel at any time now allows you to send a Bank Select message as well, while the keyboard transmit channel itself can be set without having to delve into Utility mode, by holding down the Shift button and pressing one of track buttons 1-16 - particularly useful for calling a different track/Voice onto the keyboard while a Song is playing.
A new feature called Switch Lock allows you to disable the front-panel buttons, the idea being that, once you've selected the Voice you want to play, you can lay out sheet music or a fake book on the synth's front panel without fear of accidentally changing Voice or activating the sequencer; you can unlock the buttons by simultaneously pressing the Shift and Exit buttons, or by turning the synth off and on.
Yamaha have taken advantage of the SY99's sample RAM to include a MIDI Data Recorder mode. This allows the synth to store multiple SysEx data dumps, from instruments which can initiate transfer, in a partitioned area of its sample RAM. Memory can be allocated to the MDR in 4Kb steps, from 8Kb minimum to a generous maximum of 512Kb. Once you've transferred your instruments' SysEx data into the allocated memory, you can save it to disk, then subsequently reload it and transmit it to your instruments whenever required.
"Something which strikes you from the moment you start playing the SY99 is how much smoother and classier than the '77 it sounds."
The SY77's onboard 16-track sequencer remains, in many respects, unchanged on the SY99, but the memory capacity has been upped from approximately 16,000 notes to approximately 27,000 notes. The number of Songs has been upped from one to ten. There are also some extra features as a result of this: Append Song (append one Song to the end of another), Cut Song (create two Songs out of one), Copy Song and Copy Track (copy a track from one Song to another). Disk storage allows saving and loading of individual Songs as well as all sequence data, and you can choose not to load Pattern data along with sequence data.
The SY99 allows you to save your sequence data in Standard MIDI Files formats (0 and 1) so that they can be loaded into computer-based sequencers running on PC, Atari ST and Apple Mac. Equally, sequences put together on these sequencers can be run on the SY99, though there is one potential problem: the SY99 can only handle sequences recorded in one of five clock resolutions, which tends to suggest that MIDI Files transfer won't work with all sequencers (the SY99 sequencer's own maximum resolution, incidentally, is 96ppqn).
Other potential problems with MIDI Files transfer are down to the differences between sequencers. For instance, many computer-based sequencers allow multiple MIDI channels to co-exist within each track, whereas the SY99's sequencer works on the principle of one MIDI channel per track. Nonetheless, MIDI Files capability is a welcome feature on the SY99, which can only increase the synth's flexibility - and increased flexibility is what Yamaha's new synth is all about.
There have also been various changes made to the organisation of the SY99's software pages and the positioning of parameters in the page hierarchy - some brought about by the new features, some introduced purely to help streamline operation of the synth. These changes are neither extreme enough to be offputting to SY77 owners making the change, nor subtle enough to be inconsequential. If I had to describe the effect of the operational changes, I'd say that they provide a more "polished" user interface.
Moving around the SY99's many software pages has been made easier by the inclusion of multiple Marked pages: you can now Mark - and subsequently Jump to any one of - five software pages, where the SY77 only allows you to Mark one page at a time. However, I think Yamaha would have been better advised to identify Marked pages by name rather than number - for instance, the name Cut Song rather than the number 602.
ALL THE SY77 waveform data has been included on the '99, so the two synths aren't sonically incompatible: however, some of the samples have been "reworked" for the SY99 to improve them, and the order of the samples has been changed.
The SY99's AWM Waveforms have been split into two Preset banks. The Preset 1 bank contains the bulk of the original samples, covering the standard range of instruments and including some very effective analogue-type waveforms which blend well with the rich brassy sounds that AFM is able to create, plus a greatly-expanded collection of drum and percussion samples (85) and a few "multisample" waveforms offering all the bass drums, all the snares, all the toms and all the cymbals, mapped onto different areas of the keyboard so they can be used together. There's a Drums multisample wave which combines a range of drum and percussion sounds into a kit. The SY77's 20 drum and percussion sounds were a passable collection but nothing particular to write home about, while the collection of sounds on the SY99 reflects a newfound attention to contemporary drum and percussion samples on Yamaha's part, drawing heavily, I'd say, on European - and in particular British - input.
"Unlike the effects on the SY77, the SY99 provides plenty of parameters for you to get to grips with - typically ten per effect."
Much of the SY99's extra sonic flexibility comes from the samples and waveforms in the Preset 2 bank. This is given over largely to effect samples, including atmospheric loops such as 'EleMagic' and 'Mellow' which feature plenty of movement in them, and a large collection of digitally-created waveforms. The former allow the SY99 to offer convincing impersonations of the Korg Wavestation's wave sequences, as in, for example, Preset Voice P2 B11, 'SP: Arpeggi', a rich, shimmering pad sound which uses the 'Mellow' waveform to create the sparkle and sense of movement within sustained sounds which is characteristic of the Wavestation. The large number of waveforms could also be construed as a Wavestation-like return to abstract sound synthesis, though of course the SY99 is already strong in this department courtesy of its AFM synthesis section. In fact, the sonic flexibility of AFM synthesis can be enhanced by using the new waveforms as AWM inputs to the operators in an AFM algorithm.
LIKE PEAVEY'S DPM3 SE synth, which also has onboard sample RAM (see review MT, August '91), the SY99 has no sampling capability of its own. However, there are three possible sources of samples for it: its onboard disk drive, MIDI sample dumps in Sample Dump Standard format, and plug-in Waveform cards.
The value of the first source depends on how well Yamaha and/or third-party developers get their act together with a disk-based sample library. Yamaha have made a start by allowing the SY99 to read TX16W disks, not exactly a move calculated to set hearts pounding - now, if they'd given it the ability to read Akai disks...
Another source of Yamaha samples is the SY77's library of Waveform cards, which can be read directly by the '99 as Card samples or loaded into the synth's sample RAM. This latter feature provides the ideal solution to that familiar problem of how to use samples off two cards at once when there's only one card slot. In fact, you can load in more than one card's worth of samples - though not into 512Kb of RAM.
The SY99 can't read SY77 Voice data directly off card, but it does allow you to load the data into its Internal (RAM) Voice memory and save it to disk (see later for more on SY77 compatibility). At this point you may be thinking to yourself: "if I can load the samples on my SY77 Waveform cards into an SY99 and save them to disk, and if I can do the same with the Voice data cards, I won't need the cards any more". Well, Yamaha have thought of you thinking of that, and as a result they've copy-protected the SY77 Waveform sample data. This means that you can't save it to disk and you can't dump it via MIDI. This is where battery-backed RAM really comes in useful, because you don't have to load the samples off card each time you switch the SY99 on (though loading off card is far quicker than loading off disk).
The SY99 can also read RY30 card samples and load them into its sample RAM, though you won't (or, at least, I didn't) find this fact documented in the synth's manual. Again, the samples are copy-protected, so you can't save them to disk or dump them via MIDI.
"The collection of drum sounds on the SY99 reflects a newfound attention to contemporary drum and percussion samples."
MIDI SDS sample dumps provide the most flexible option. The Sample Dump page in Utility mode allows you to request a sample via MIDI and load it into any one of 99 sample locations; you can also transmit an individual sample or the entire internal sample data.
Once you have a collection of samples in the SY99's RAM, you can set about assigning them to the synth's 64 Waveforms. This involves selecting a From and a To sample for each Waveform, which means that multisamples intended for a single Waveform must be consecutively ordered; sample Delete and Copy functions can help you out if you need to do any housekeeping here. Additionally, samples and Waveforms can both be given eight-character names to identify them.
Once you've assigned samples to a Waveform, you can map them onto the keyboard by setting Low Key and High Key parameters and, if necessary, changing the Original Key for each sample. You can also give each sample its own volume level, pitch transposition (±5376), loop type (forward once, forward loop, backward once or backward loop) and loop mode (normal or alter - that is, alternately forward and backward). Your Waveform, whether it consists of one sample or ten, can be used as the basis of an AWM Element in the same way as the preset and card Waveforms - you just select Internal on the AWM Waveform Set page in place of Preset 1, Preset 2 and Card. Waveforms in the sample RAM can also be used within SY99 Drum Sets.
To make the most of the SY99's sample RAM, then, you really need an external sampling setup, not only to capture your own samples but also to manipulate them, because the SY99 has no sample manipulation facilities of its own. This brings me to the subject of Peavey's DPM SX sampling "front end" unit. When I reviewed the SX (MT, August '91) I mentioned that it should be possible to use it as a sampling add-on for the SY99, as they both use the MIDI Sample Dump Standard format. However, there's one hitch: the DPM SX expects sample looping to be done at the sample destination, while the SY99 expects it to be done at the sample source. The end result is that you can forget about using any samples that need to be looped. You can't trim samples on Yamaha's synth, either, although because you can initiate sampling on the SX manually or from an audio or MIDI trigger, and because you can Stop sampling manually on it, this needn't be such a problem. Still, it's not exactly an ideal marriage.
THE NEW DIGITAL effects processing on the SY99 provides 63 effects, divided into 29 single effects, 22 cascade effects and 12 dual effects. Any one of these can be assigned to each of two effects processors, which can be configured in serial or parallel fashion or switched off. Effects settings can be programmed per Voice, of course, in Voice mode, and per Multi in Multi mode. Multis provide plenty of effects routing flexibility, with each Voice routable to group 1 and/or 2 outputs and any combination of effect sends (the number varies depending on the effect configuration).
Single effects provide reverbs (including hall, rooms, stages, plate, gated and reversed, tunnel and canyon), early reflections, stereo delays and echo, pitch changers, Aural Exciter (licensed from Aphex), flange, chorus, symphonic and phaser, rotary speaker, ring modulator and filter wah.
Cascades include serial pairings of flange, chorus, symphonic and phaser up with reverb, EQ with reverb, delay, echo, flange, chorus and phasing, and flange, chorus and phaser with stereo delay. Dual effects, meanwhile, include parallel pairings of stereo flange and chorus with stereo delay, echo and delay with reverb, and stereo flange with stereo chorus. Unlike the effects on the SY77, the SY99's effects provide plenty of parameters for you to get to grips with (typically ten per effect, divided between the two effects per processor in the case of cascade and dual effects). To give you an idea of the programming level, White Room, Rev Tunnel, Rev Canyon and Rev Basement reverbs include width, height, depth and wall vary parameters (the latter allowing you to define the irregularity of the wall surface).
"Many other additions and changes also help to make the SY99 a generally more flexible and more satisfying synth than the SY77."
Two effect parameters per Voice or Multi can be selected for real-time modulation - one from each effects processor, or both from one or the other processor. The modulator for each parameter can be selected from a choice of MIDI controllers 1-120, aftertouch, velocity, key scale or a special effect-modulator LFO for which you can select the waveform - triangle, saw down, saw up, square, sine or sample & hold - and program speed, delay and initial phase settings. You can also fine-tune the modulation amount for each of the two selected effect parameters by defining a value range within which the selected modulator will operate. The SY99 allows many of its effect parameters to be selected for dynamic modulation, ensuring plenty of possibilities in this area.
THE SY99 COMES programmed with eight keyboard control setups which govern how internal and MIDI'd sounds are played from its keyboard. Once selected, a control setup is assigned to the SY99's keyboard in every mode, with the exception of Song Record mode. The default setup, selected as part of the synth's initialisation procedure on power-up, is Normal 1Voice - one Voice assigned across the entire keyboard range, with MIDI performance data being transmitted on the selected keyboard transmit channel. When you're in Multi mode, the keyboard channel defines which of the 16 available Voices you play from the keyboard - so if you want to play the Voice assigned to channel 10 in the currently-selected Multi configuration, you set the keyboard transmit channel to 10. SY77 owners will be familiar with this.
However, if you select one of the seven other control setups - Normal 4Voice, Key Split, Velocity Split, Major 7 Chord, Minor 7 Chord, 7th Chord and 7sus4 Chord - this familiar situation changes somewhat, as the MIDI channel assignments of four programmable zones within each setup take over. Normal 4Voice, for instance, transmits on four MIDI channels simultaneously - which in Multi mode also means that four Voices are layered on the SY99's keyboard. Key Split provides two-channel output (and therefore two Voices in Multi mode) for each half of the keyboard, while Velocity Split switches from one pair of channel assignments/Voices to another around a central velocity value. The four Chord setups allow you to trigger a four-note chord from a single note, an effect created by transposing each zone in the setup by an appropriate amount (though why they're referred to as seventh chords I'm not sure, because they're actually ninth chords). It's a shame that the SY99 reverts to the standard single Voice and single keyboard transmit channel when you're in Song Record mode, because this means you can play but not record a musical part which uses single-note triggering of chords. The only way around this would be to play the part into an external sequencer, then record it back into a track of the SY99's sequencer (providing all the notes of the chord are on the same MIDI channel).
The real flexibility of the Master Control utility comes when you get into programming your own setups in place of those provided by Yamaha. Setups are saved to disk as part of an All Data file, so you're not limited to eight setups. For each of the four zones within a setup you can select MIDI transmit channel (1-16), velocity curve (1-4), aftertouch curve (1-4), Bank Select number (off, 1-16384), patch change number (off, 1-128), volume level (off, 0-127), MDR transmit (off, 1-99), transposition (+64), upper and lower note limits (C2-G8) and upper and lower velocity limits (1-127). It doesn't take long to realise that a tremendous variety of keyboard textures can be created using these parameters.
The MDR parameter, incidentally, allows the specified MIDI SysEx data file(s) to be loaded off disk and automatically transmitted via MIDI when the control setup is selected.
Finally, a Transmit Filter page allows you to program patch change, controllers, pitchbend, sustain pedal, aftertouch and volume transmit on/off settings for each of MIDI channels 1-16, common to all eight setups.
YAMAHA HAVE DONE their best to ensure compatibility between the SY77 and the SY99 - and not just in the upward-compatible direction. As well as being able to load SY77 Voice and Song data off disk into the SY99, you can optionally save SY99 data to disk in a format which can be read by the SY77. Song data must be saved to disk one Song at a time if you're using SY77 format, because, unlike the SY99, the SY77 can only hold one Song at a time in memory. SY77 Voices can't be played directly off data cards, but they can be loaded into the SY99's Internal Voice memory, and from there saved to disk. Obviously there are sonic differences between the two synths when it comes to AWM samples and effects processing. When you load SY77 Voices off disk, the '99 converts the waveform numbers to take account of the different ordering of samples on the 99, but even so, because some of the SY77's samples have been "reworked" on the '99, SY77 Voices can still sound different. More significantly, the very different quality and arrangement of the effects processing on the two synths is bound to introduce differences. In fact, if you're considering trading in your SY77 for a '99, it makes a lot of sense to try out your SY77 Voice library on the newer synth.
THE SY99 IS well worth the extra £500 on top of the RRP of the SY77. The extra AWM samples, the addition of onboard sample RAM and the superior flexibility of the new effects processing considerably enhance the sonic versatility of the synth, while the superior quality of the new effects processing considerably enhances its sonic quality. The many other additions and changes also help to make the SY99 a generally more flexible and more satisfying synth than the SY77. More than that, the SY99 is one of the most satisfying workstation synths I've ever used, providing a very well-integrated combination of synthesis, samples and sequencing.
If I was an SY77 owner I'd seriously be considering upgrading to the '99. The trouble is that in today's harsh economic climate, changing over from the '77 to the '99 is going to cost considerably more than £500. Many synths in the £1000-2000 price bracket are now selling in the shops for considerably less than their original price, which in turn has pushed secondhand prices down.
Whether the SY99 will founder on the iceberg of recession remains to be seen, but if it does it will be a sad fate for what is undoubtedly a luxury oceangoing liner of a synth.
Prices SY99, £2499; SYEMB05 512Kb memory expansion boards, £249; both prices include VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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