Taking over where the TX816 left off, this DX7II in a rack is the very latest in a long line of powerful FM synth expanders. Mark Badger puts it in perspective.
Yamaha have taken the concept of the multitimbral FM expander another step forward with the launch of the flagship TX802. Mark Badger assesses its performance.
Yamaha brought FM synthesis to the masses and, therefore, I think it appropriate that the TX802, their new 'eight synths-in-a-box' MIDI module, should herald what must be the apex of (relatively) low-cost FM synthesizer development. The major attractions come in the form of what seems to be one of the most versatile MIDI implementations I've ever seen; extensive and easy programmability via a comprehensive keypad and 2-line x 40-character backlit LCD; eight separate voice outputs in addition to two mixed outputs; and all stylishly packed into a 2U high, rack-mountable, black box.
Fundamentally, the TX802 is a DX7 MkII without a keyboard but with quite a few added attractions to make up for the loss. Both these new machines introduce no fresh palettes from which to select tones and timbres for our sonic creations, rather they are refinements of earlier efforts - principally, the 6-operator DX/TX family: DX7, TX7, TX216, TX416, and TX816 (the 'big daddy' of them all, with no less than eight TF-1 [DX7] modules). The widespread success of these instruments, and the fact that no new ideas concerning the actual synthesis of the sound have been introduced with the TX802 or DX7 MkII, means that I can point to almost any single, 12-inch, or album recorded in the last four years for examples of the Yamaha FM sounds. There must have been times where every song in the charts had at least one DX/TX playing on it, and no doubt many people's ears have been so convinced by the 'chopper bass' available on these synths that real bass recordings leave many wondering if it isn't just a synth they're hearing!
In order to keep a grip on what will be a fairly detailed discussion of this new device, it will help you if you 'take on board' the idea that the TX802 operates under the control of three types of program memory, simultaneously. There is a patch memory, which governs the creation of timbres; a function memory, which controls how the timbres are produced; and a performance memory, which governs how the sounds are eventually presented to the user.
Though 'how the sounds are made' presents no new concepts (the patch and function memories), 'how the unit makes itself available to make the sounds' (the performance memories) represents a new level of flexibility for Yamaha. In fact, the proliferation of these configurations to the point where they are always active and in control, signals the demise of the 'single voice' memory. Although the TX802 has 192 of these onboard - 128 presets and 64 user-definable (with 64 more on an optional RAM4 cartridge) - you do not play these patches directly. Instead, they are always controlled via a 'performance memory', a concept first introduced on Yamaha's FB01 4-operator FM synth module.
The core of the FB01 unit was a matrix of MIDI response parameters which enabled the user to configure the module as eight separate monophonic instruments. This facility, coupled with the accelerating rise in the popularity of MIDI sequencing and thus the need for an enhanced degree of configurability for MIDI synth modules, caused Yamaha to develop the idea of the performance memory further with the introduction of the TX81Z. I had the pleasure of reviewing one of these in the May issue of Sound On Sound. This unit added full onboard programmability and seven alternative operator waveforms to the facilities provided on the FB01. The first to remedy the mistake Yamaha made when they brought out an expander which required a computer to edit the programs, the second to make up for the lack of operators.
At the time, I speculated that Yamaha would make these new waveforms available on their 6-operator range of products but they have taken another direction. Instead, they have carried the notion of the 'performance memory' still further. As it is this aspect which sets the TX802 apart from its forebears, it is on this that I will concentrate in my review.
For review purposes, I screwed the unit into the rack space between my TX216 and TX81Z (I thought it was so good I bought one!) in order to provide a guide as to what distinguishes the TX802 from its relations (apart from its price tag!).
I'll explain what a 'performance memory' is in a moment, but first a brief word about the sounds themselves. I've been blythely going on about 'operators' and 'FM' assuming that, as regular readers, you will be familiar with this type of sound synthesis. In case you aren't: FM is based on the effects produced when one waveform 'carries' another. Imagine a sine wave composed of a single wavy line, then introduce another wave which rather than alternating around zero alternates around the first wave. That is the concept in a nutshell. An 'operator' (digital oscillator) creates a wave which can either 'carry' a 'modulator' or 'modulate' a 'carrier'. Given several operators, these can then be arranged in different sequences and formats (algorithms) to provide a wide degree of acoustic effects on which to base the required synthesis.
The TX81Z has four operators which can be combined in eight different algorithms, making up for the lack of wave sources by also being capable of producing waveforms more complex than pure sine waves. The TX802, on the other hand, has six operators which can be combined in any of 32 different algorithms, though each operator is restricted to producing only sine waves. Net result? Read on...
As I mentioned earlier, the TX802 comes with 128 preset patches stored in ROM (Read Only Memory). As these are non-erasable 'fixtures', they are pretty much instantly usable patches which cover a wide range of earthly, and unearthly, instruments. There are pianos, strings, horns, plucked instruments, gongs, bells, whistles, etc, with a good few variations of each. Last month, in his review of the Elka ER33, our Editor commented on the lack of 'space-age' presets to be found on modern synths and that most manufacturers concentrate on providing sounds which imitate conventional instruments. While Yamaha have not really departed from this norm, the TX802 offers a good complement of the 'weird and wonderful' and experimenters will find many a happy starting point from which to commence their explorations of the more esoteric/interesting realms of FM synthesis.
My only real criticism is that these memories are 'read only'; in other words, you are limited to using the 64 RAM memories or a cartridge for storing your own creations. Much as I liked the presets, and their 'instant applicability' is nothing to be scoffed at (does anyone apart from Run DMC use the factory presets on their Casio?!), I far prefer my own collection of patches, something I'm sure is true for many other existing DX/TX owners. The widespread popularity of FM sounds and my own inclinations to 'hone' a sound in my mix have caused me to spend a great deal of time developing patches which are more individualistic. Therefore, I for one would far prefer 192 RAM memories into which I could fit my whole sound collection, and still leave room for experimentation. But you can't have everything I suppose.
Because the TX802 is data compatible with the earlier versions, one of the first things I did was to inject what RAM there is (two 'old style' banks) with the patches from my TF-1 modules, whereupon one aspect of the TX802's superiority became immediately apparent. It is virtually silent in operation, and there is silence when it is not playing too. With my TX216, I can hear the operator envelopes open up and start creating the sounds, and, during the silences, I become aware of the faint background hiss introduced into my system by the idle DACs of the TF-1 modules. Not so with the TX802, ensuring that this is a machine capable of responding to the needs of digital recording techniques, where the noise floor is of critical concern.
While I don't feel that any of the 'single voice' memories are worthy of particular comment here, the TX802 does come out of its box containing two patches which I feel illustrate its incredible potential very well. These are not patches of individual sounds, rather they are 'performance memories' and as such are collections of several sounds, configured to respond in particular ways to incoming MIDI signals. If you get a chance, have a listen to performance memories 40 ('Fuzz Synthe-Lead') and 27 ('Magic Marimba'), preferably in stereo, and you'll instantly grasp what I'm getting at. Memory 40 comes closer to imitating my 'Les Paul/Music Man RD210 at max' combination than any other synthesizer I've ever heard. I can't help it, my lips twitch characteristically whenever I hit a low note on this patch (rumour has it that a MIDI Lip Controller for guitars is in development. Watch this space). The opening 'kerrang' of raucous acoustic energy is drawn out into fierce harmonic feedback, an effect I normally associate with totally steam-rollered guitar amps - it's simply awesome!
Configured in a similar way, with all eight separate 'instruments' or voices being utilised, the 'Magic Marimba' performance memory really is just that, magic. Play a single note repeatedly, or better still with a little syncopation, and you are treated to an alternating line of stereo plinkety-plonking. It creates a rhythm all of its own with a captivating gentleness and an acoustic intrigue which can result in time flying, its meditative tones capturing the 'flying leads' of your imagination and plugging them in to some sort of FM ecstasy. [Sounds cosmic, man - Ed]
So what exactly is a performance memory and why have Yamaha provided the TX802 with 64 of them? As it is this aspect of the machine which is 'new', it is this that requires the most explanation. Please bear with me as there are a number of issues which require examination before a full picture can emerge, and by the time I'm done I think you will agree that what we have here is an incredibly versatile tool which can be vitally applied in almost any MIDI system, studio or stage.
As mentioned already, all the sounds on the TX802 are played via one of these 64 performance memories. They are best described as a matrix of parameters, with a 'set' or 'column' for each of the TX802's eight two-note voices. The actual parameters cover which program each voice is using, which MIDI channel it will respond to, the output socket at which it will appear (I, II, or both - the eight separate outputs always carry the tone produced by that voice), whether the envelope of the notes will be re-opened with each fresh keypress, the relative volume of the voice and its upper and lower note limits, any transposition or detuning, which scale its harmonics will be calculated to (more on this later) and, finally, a name to distinguish this performance from the other 63!
In addition, there is a parameter which I discovered on the TX81Z but couldn't find any practical use for - Alternate mode, where linked voices play alternate incoming notes. Revelation - it is this feature which bestows the magical properties on the marimba sounds created using performance memory 27, making each new tone appear in a different place in the stereo field, with subtle, ever changing, alterations in its timbre.
So, if you simply want 16-note polyphony, you can use a memory which utilises only one patch. On the other hand, you could configure the memory to provide 8-note polyphony for one patch, 4-note for another, and utilise two separate 2-note patches, with a great deal of flexibility as to how you can actually sound the voices via MIDI. Imagine you are on stage with only two hands and one master keyboard; by using the note limit and transposition functions, messages can be split so that you can obtain all of the above, in virtually any register, in the way in which you find the notes easiest to play. On the other hand, perhaps you are enlisting the assistance of a MIDI sequencer and require a piano, guitar, bass, and trumpet to be played on separate MIDI channels, with their true note values to assist editing - fine, just set it up. You can even dump all the relevant split details via MIDI into the sequencer itself and store them along with your song. This versatility, when coupled with the quality of the tones produced, ensures that every available voice can be used in any situation.
One of the drawbacks of my TF-1 modules is that when I'm using them 'stacked' to produce killer bass lines. I'm essentially wasting 28 notes of available polyphony (assuming I only need two voices on each module to cover overlapping notes). With the TX802 I can stack what is essentially seven TF-1s to produce a mega bass sound, and I've still got one voice available for the basis of the screaming guitar patch mentioned above.
When one considers the same stacking exercise using the unit the TX802 ostensibly replaces, the TX816, which is rigidly capable of 16-note polyphony on all eight modules, the number of wasted notes becomes considerable. Even given that it can be split into several instruments, very few people are capable of arranging music for eight distinct polyphonic instruments (not counting drum kits) and certainly not all playing 16-note chords at once!! The reality of most musical arrangements is that one is usually dealing with instruments which are only capable of a monophonic line anyway, with pianos (read keyboards) and guitars the only common instruments capable of serious chordal work.
I'm harping on about this because there currently seems to be a 'bigger is better' ethic amongst musicians, in terms of polyphony, which I don't believe is justified given the constraints of orchestral arrangements. We only have ten fingers! While a lot of sustained notes can use up the remaining polyphony pretty quickly, it also drowns out the rest of the orchestration! Far more attractive, to me at least, is the multitude of options which the performance memory approach offers. Yamaha's inclusion of eight separate outputs on the TX802, one for each programmable two-note voice, means that I can get the sound I need, on the output I require, responding to a specific and distinct MIDI channel, with a particular set of functions, all at the touch of a button.
Well, almost. First I must programme the appropriate memory to deliver the goods, and with this consideration we arrive at one of the other aspects of the TX802 which distinguishes it from its predecessors. Like the TX81Z, it is entirely programmable from the front panel. Unlike the TX81Z, however, the TX802 uses the same large LCD as the DX7 MkII which, in conjunction with a generous provision of 'single function' buttons (much nicer) and a comprehensive keypad, makes it much easier in practice to actually reap the full benefits of the machine's flexible programming.
Now, the old TF-1 module has probably the smallest complement of controls ever fitted to a MIDI unit, with just three buttons and a 2-digit LED display on the front panel. This means that you end up needing a DX7 or a computer with suitable voice editing software to alter or programme patches. The TX802, on the other hand, is fully programmable from the front panel, with both more actual patch parameters than the old style DX/TX and a more extensive implementation of performance parameters than the new TX81Z. The extra parameters on the patch programming side of things are mostly concerned with the 'functions' (another Yamaha buzzword which I'll explain in a moment), partly because of the requirement for data compatibility with the earlier synths and partly because Yamaha got it right in the first place. There are more than enough parameters for most people to cope with, and the existing 100 or so enable their synths, whichever generation, to produce some truly sparkling sounds.
Before I move on to the patch and function memories, I should point out that, as with the DX7 MkII and the TX81Z, there are 13 different tuning scales available to which the notes produced can be aligned (if you dedicate your cartridge to microtuning scales, you can store another 64). Eleven of these scales are preset and two are programmable. In my review of the TX81Z I wondered how many applications this feature would find, given that anything other than 120 bpm in 4/4 seems destined for late nights or Radio 3. I speculated that at the very least they would provide an easy route to 'proportional detuning' for those musicians with perfect pitch.
Gladly, I can report that this route is made even more attractive on the TX802 as a distinct scale can be specified for each voice. On the TX81Z you can use only one of the 'interesting' scales, the performance memory controlling whether your patch is scaled to the conventional 'equally-tempered scale' or the pitch ratios dictated by your choice. Having lived with the feature for a while on my TX81Z, I have found that a judicious choice of tonic can lead to some monstrously dissonant dissonances and can be extremely effective for harmonically emphasising particular sections of music. Indeed, I am convinced it is this feature which grinds the sharp edge of reality on the knife-like sound in performance memory 40. It certainly has enabled me to emulate the ancient and well-bashed upright piano in my local to aural perfection, a task requiring extensively 'spread' note values. Luckily, I don't have to pay a piano tuner to return to well-tempered harmony!
Having mentioned the 'genesis' of FM synthesis, that of the theory of carriers and modulators, it's time to get a little more involved now with a description of the actual patch parameters, ie. the values which define how FM sounds are created.
The actions of the six operators which generate the waveforms are controlled by a variety of parameters other than just the values which govern their ADSR envelopes ('EG's in Yamaha parlance). Each wave is produced at a given frequency, which can be specified as being fixed to a particular frequency or relative to the point on the scale which is played by a given keypress. The envelope itself is affected by a variety of variables, each adjustable in terms of sensitivity. These include such items as velocity, LFO depth, and EG Bias, which are in turn programmed from the function memory (more on this momentarily).
Different degrees of scaling, an effect used to make upper notes shorter in duration than lower notes, can be set for each side of the keyboard. There are a number of LFO options, with control being routed from any of four sources: modulation wheel, foot controller, breath control, or aftertouch. There are still more controls governing the envelope of the pitch itself, how it is affected by note duration, velocity, and scale point. In short, there are sufficient parameters to create a wide variety of realistic (or unrealistic) and effective timbres, whose appeal has been proven by time, the proliferation of rival FM synthesizers, and literally millions of hit records.
Having briefly covered the parameters which control the generation of the tones themselves, we can now examine the function memory on the TX802 (which is still distinct from a performance memory). These parameters do not really affect the qualities of the timbres, instead they control the way in which the tones are produced, usually in relation to one or more real-time controls. Thus it is here that you set the pitch bend range, portamento type and effect, assign levels for the effects of the modulation wheel, foot controller, breath control, and aftertouch. There's a 'random detune' parameter, which varies the pitch of each successive note to a given degree, and a parameter that controls the MIDI mode of a voice - mono or poly. Mono mode allows you to make use of fingered portamento, where the pitch-sliding effect is only produced when a key is depressed before the previous one has been released.
Having looked at all the parameters which control how the TX802 will respond to incoming MIDI messages, we can see why the 'housekeeping' functions contained in the Utility and System Set-up modes are necessary additions to our armoury of TX program manipulation.
The Set-up options allow you to specify what MIDI messages will elicit a response and how that message is assigned to the various real-time controls available. There are tables for mapping any incoming program change command to call a particular performance memory and for mapping any incoming MIDI controller messages to any of the seven available control effects (modulation, breath control, foot control, portamento time, MIDI volume, sustain and portamento switches). This sort of facility ensures that you'll be able to make use of whatever controllers are available on your particular master keyboard, regardless of the actual MIDI controller numbers it assigns to any of the given parameters.
Other system parameters control the master tuning of the whole instrument, the memory-protect switch, and the editing of the user-definable microtuning scales. There is also the unusual facility to specify a global MIDI channel, to which all voices being currently played by the TX802 will respond, and to specify which MIDI channel will be used by the System Exclusive facilities. This is necessary as the channel number becomes 'embedded' in the System Exclusive dump when transmitted, requiring the receiving instrument to be set to the same channel.
The Utilities options cover mostly memory management tasks, from saving and loading voice banks to the cartridge memory, to transmission of a variety of different details via MIDI to a "bulk storage device", by which I assume Yamaha mean your MIDI sequencer.
There are also options to initialise the controller and program change tables found in the System Set-up options, the edit buffer, and an option to allow you to copy one of three sets of parameters from operator to operator. These can be either the envelope parameters and scaling levels, the parameters concerning the frequency of the operator, or both.
I'm generally a cynic when it comes to the latest stuff, partly as a defence against all the advertising hype that always accompanies new gear. You know the sort of stuff: "an unprecedented level"... "Never before in the history of mankind"... It always makes me wonder how we are expected to keep up with all these things that, apparently, we can't live without.
Sometimes, however, rather than introducing something entirely new, someone brings out a new product which is a 'development' of something they made previously. Here, rather than having to explain why you need something you've never heard of, the ad agency is stuck with the task of attempting to put across the advantages of the new version over the old. With some devices this can be a difficult job, the new version is just a cheaper implementation of the old. Occasionally, the manufacturer has actually done their homework and the new gizmo rectifies all the most common complaints levelled at their earlier attempts, with the boys in the back room burning the midnight oil to find a few new features to add.
Well, I think the people at Yamaha must have developed myopia from so much close studying. Output noise, wasted polyphony, chronic user-friendliness, elementary MIDI implementation, severe memory limitations - all these problems and more have been addressed by Yamaha's engineers. They have listened carefully to the grumbles of existing DX/TX owners and have responded with such a thoroughly professional device, which is to be applauded.
I think that is the key, the TX802 is a professional machine. It would grace the synthesizer arsenal of virtually any MIDI studio, working at any level of the industry. But, for the 4-trackers amongst you, I would recommend the TX81Z as an excellent device well worthy of the exchange for your hard-earned pounds. There are few devices available which represent such good value. Yet, when the medium gets a bit more critical, when the 'wall of sound' is a possible reality rather than an auditory hallucination the TX81Z begins to sound a bit weedy, "temperamental in the mix" so to speak. While sounding great in splendid isolation, up against any 6-operator synth (or my Roland JX-8P) the TX81Z excels only in 'thin' sounds (I've got a particularly good choppy guitar patch, for instance).
For those of you working in mediums where the presence and depth of a sound can be accurately captured and conveyed to your listener, I think there are few devices which will allow you to attain as great a degree of dynamics and utilitarian synthesis as the TX802 (and when you want something really meaty, just check out a low note on performance memory 40. I'm serious, it's the Grand Canyon of FM synthesis). I suppose the best accolade I can heap on the device is, 'Anyone looking for a TX216 or a TX81Z?' Nuff said!
Price: £1329 inc VAT.
Further details from Yamaha-Kemble (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
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