Although Yamaha are reluctant to call it a workstation, the V50 incorporates FM synthesis, drum voices, and sequencing and effects processing facilities. Dan Rue checks out Yamaha's workst...
Although Yamaha aren't too keen to call it a workstation, the V50 has all the workstation trappings - but is the balance right?
A NEW SYNTHESISER from Yamaha ought to be big news. Until now the only entries into the workstation market to emerge from Yamaha have been aimed at the home market, but now Yamaha have unveiled the V50, their first fully-fledged professional music workstation. Refinement is the key word here - Yamaha are not offering us new technology, but rather a well-considered refinement of their existing technologies. Basically, the V50 embodies two TX81Z four-operator synths, an RX-style drum machine, a QX-style sequencer, a single effects processor and a disk drive.
The V50 comes with six demonstration songs (three permanently stored in ROM, three on a demo disk) and a single-voice editing demo. The voice-editing demo races through the steps involved in creating a voice from scratch - a great idea, except that the demo hardly pauses for breath, rendering it far less effective than if it had given you time to consider its content. You're better off with the Operating Manual, which, by the way, is extremely well written.
BECAUSE THE V50's basic voice architecture is built around two four-operator, multi-waveform FM tone generators, the editing parameters are much the same as Yamaha's other four-op synths. However, polyphony is expanded to 16 notes, with up to eight-voice multitimbral capabilities. The V50 includes 100 Preset (ROM) Single voices and enough RAM for 100 user-programmable or "Internal" Single voices. Also included are 100 Preset and 100 Internal "Performances", in which up to eight multitimbral voices can be layered or split across the 61-note keyboard. To augment the V50's RAM memory, an additional 100 Single voices and 100 Performances can be stored in an external RAM card. In addition, voices, Performances, and setup data can be saved to floppy disk.
The V50's four operators can be arranged in any one of eight algorithms, with any one of eight waveforms assignable to each operator. Further modifications to each operator include pitch and amplitude modulation; EG Bias and Key Velocity sensitivity settings; individual detune; a five-parameter Envelope Generator; rate and level Keyboard Scaling; and Output levels. On top of this, the overall sound can be modified by an LFO with saw, square, triangle and random waveforms; a six-parameter Pitch Envelope Generator; Transpose; Portamento; controller and aftertouch settings; and digital effects processing. All functions are quite clearly laid out across the front panel and accessed via 11 buttons that are large enough and positioned far enough apart to let you comfortably flick through parameter pages. If any of this sounds involved, don't worry - the manual explains everything.
Voice editing on the V50 is virtually identical to voice editing on the TX81Z and DX11. There is, however, one welcome difference: the Quick Edit function. With this, you can adjust the Attack, Release, Volume (output level for carrier operators), and Brilliance (output level for modulator operators) of all four operators simultaneously. For example, you want to adjust the attack of a patch: press the Quick Edit button once to call up the Attack page (repeated pressing reveals the other three functions) where the display shows the current levels of Attack Rate. By moving the data slider or using the plus and minus keys, the levels of the Attack Rate (actually, Attack Rate and Decay 1 Rate) for all four operators shift in proportion to each other. It's almost as good as ol' analogue programming.
Another function designed to simplify editing is revealed when you press the Store/Copy button in the Utility section. This allows you to copy specific parameter values from one operator to another. Useful.
Last in the chain is the digital effects processor. Thirty-two different effects are available, including hall and plate reverbs, delays and echoes, several gated reverbs, distortions, early reflections and EQ. You can save a different effects setting with every Single Voice and, similarly, one effect for each Performance setup. After selecting the effect you're going to use, you can set the output level for the effect, and the effect/signal balance. By pressing the Effect button a second time, three additional parameters are revealed. These vary, depending on which effect you're using. For example, Reverb Hall (along with several of the other reverb effects), allows you to adjust the reverb time (0.3-10.0sec), the low-pass filter setting (1.25-12.0kHz or bypass), and the first reflection delay time (0.1-50msec). Once again, the manual offers detailed explanations of each parameter for each effect.
Because the V50 has only one effects processor, the effect you choose will affect not only the Single voice you're working on, but all the voices used in Performance mode, as well as the drum kit sounds in the rhythm machine. This setup is similar to that of Roland's D20, and is generally quite useable. However, it does present certain problems when dealing with the rhythm machine. More on that later.
IN PERFORMANCE MODE you can combine up to eight Single voices at once by layering them together or assigning various splits across the keyboard. This allows you to store your basic multitimbral setups, and several parameters are available.
Since the V50 is 16-note polyphonic, the first thing you must specify is the note allocation. You can reserve a maximum number of notes for each voice (Normal mode), assign notes to alternate between two voices assigned to the same MIDI receive channel (Alternate mode) or set the V50 to Dynamic Voice Allocation (DVA). From there you can set the MIDI receive channels for each voice, high and low note limits (to define the splits and layers), individual Detune, transpose (Note Shift), Volume, left, right or stereo Output Assign, LFO on or off, Performance Effect data, and Microtune on or off.
The Performance Effect data is worth a closer look. The effects are not a part of the digital signal processing and only apply to the Performance mode. This feature allows you to pan the Performance patch from left to right at various speeds, produce an echo or delayed repeat of the sound at various speeds and pitches, or produce a three-note chord from a single note. A example of chord generation is found in the preset Performance patch called Big Band' (PFP42), giving an instant Glenn Miller effect. The parameters of all three effects can be tweaked to your liking in the Utility section under the Setup button.
The Performance can be assigned any one of 11 preset microtunings, or one of two user-programmable microtunings that allow you to define the tuning within one octave or for every note on the keyboard. The editing pages for the user-programmable settings are held in the utility functions and additional personalised temperaments can be stored on external RAM cards or on disk. Most of the alternate preset tunings are rather subtle, but can be very effective and are definitely worth exploring. This is an excellent feature of the V50, and one that sets it apart from other workstations currently on the market.
As in Single mode, you can set and adjust the digital signal processing while in Performance mode. Once again, this has global effect. Yamaha define a Performance as a combination of voices and a "Setup" of the other various parameters. As a result, you have the option to save entire Performances or Performance Setups to disk or RAM cards. Similarly, the Performance Effect data can be saved separately onto RAM cards. As with Single voice editing, you can copy and paste Performance setups or specific parameters within a Performance to other Performances with the Store/Copy button in the Utility section.
ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH Yamaha's RX line of drum machines (particularly the RX21), will have no trouble finding their way around the V50's Rhythm mode. As with the voice editing parameters, the setup of buttons and displays is intuitive and a number of editing options are available.
On the right-hand side of the front panel, all the rhythm machine's editing functions are listed by page. This provides a quick and very useful reference - found myself referring to it constantly. Writing Rhythm Songs entails writing Patterns of one to four measures in length and then assembling them on the Song edit page. The V50 has room for 100 Patterns and eight Songs. However, none of this data is permanently stored in RAM, so you must save it to disk or card. This is a bit of a pain, but not uncommon (the Roland D20 works this way as well). Just pray that you don't encounter a power surge after hours of programming.
When you enter Rhythm mode, the drum kit is automatically called up onto the keyboard. The kit consists of 61 PCM sampled sounds (one on each of the 61 keys) including six kick drums, seven snares, rimshots, toms, hihats, a crash cymbal, and an assortment of percussion. The arrangement of the sounds across the keyboard can be set to one of three preset Rhythm Assignments, or you can position the kit yourself in two user-programmable settings, stored in RAM.
You have the option of recording Patterns in real time or step time, with time signatures ranging from 1/4 to 32/16 (so you could conceivably arrange to have eight-bar patterns in 32/16). Quantisation can be set from 1/4 to 1/ 32 notes, or turned off. I should mention that "real time" recording provides 1/192 note resolution. This allows you to capture most of the subtleties of human error.
"Basically, the V50 embodies two
TX81Z four-operator synths, an RX-style drum machine, a QX-style sequencer, a single effects processor and a disk drive."
In Step recording, a single-line 32-segment bar graph representing one measure appears in the display. Moving the data slider reveals the pattern played by each of the 61 instruments one by one. A little diamond appears on the beats where data has been recorded. As the cursor is scrolled forward, the notes you've entered sound when you reach their respective steps. However, the notes do not sound when you scroll backwards. From this page you can mark accents on specific notes by striking the keys hard, or by adjusting a parameter (0-7).
Editing functions within Pattern mode include copying one pattern to another, linking two patterns together to create a third, Pattern clear, MIDI receive and transmit channel settings, MIDI note number assignment for each instrument, and effects setting (on, off, or stereo mix) for the rhythm machine as a whole.
In Rhythm Song mode, you assemble Patterns into Parts. In addition, you can place repeats, song markers, and volume and tempo changes. Once you have put a Song together, various editing jobs can be performed: jumping from one Part to another, inserting Parts, deleting Parts, copying Parts, and searching for the markers mentioned above.
THE V50'S SEQUENCER records around 16,000 notes in up to eight Song positions with time signatures from 1/4 to 16/16 . You have up to eight tracks, in addition to the Rhythm track, on which to record, each with assignable MIDI transmit channels, program change maps, and playback muting. Like the rhythm machine, sequencer data is not stored permanently in RAM, so you must save it to disk or card.
Real-time and step-time recording are available, logically controlled by a tape recorder-like arrangement of buttons in conjunction with eight Track buttons (also used for voice and Performance editing). These buttons have LEDs beside them to indicate which Tracks are playing. Unfortunately, 'punching in" is a bit more of a hassle - while punch-in facilities exist, you cannot do it in real time. Your start and end punch-in points must be preset before you begin recording. Like some of my other gripes, I'm not too concerned about this; it's just a bit inconvenient.
A little more disconcerting is the fact that the aftertouch and velocity enable/disable cannot be set for individual tracks; these settings affect the entire song. True, you can exit the sequencer and call up the appropriate Performance edit page to accomplish this for each voice that's only a small hassle. The real problem arises when you are driving external sound sources, like other synths and samplers (which the V50 is quite capable of doing). In these situations, you would have to address each machine separately - not very conducive to creative spontaneity.
On the positive side, however, the sequencer does offer several editing functions once a Song is recorded. As with the rhythm machine, all of the sequencer's editing functions are printed on the right-hand side of the front panel. Tracks can be "bounced," measures can be inserted or deleted in all Tracks as well as in individual Tracks, quantisation for individual Tracks can be set from 1/4 to 1/48, and measures can be copied within individual Tracks.
As with the rhythm machine, what you have here is all the necessities. You can write your songs with the V50, but because it lacks some of the more subtle editing functions of other sequencers, you probably won't be able to perfect them.
SO HOW DOES the V50 sound? Well, as far as the Single voices go, it sounds like a DX11/TX81Z with effects slapped on it. Obviously, what you really want to know is how the Performances, effects, and drum kit sound. Pretty good, actually.
Performance mode produces some rich sounds, often much more so than the DX11 because of the V50's 16-note polyphony. While you could layer eight sounds on the older synths. the added polyphony of the V50 makes this more practical. Additionally, dynamic voice allocation takes this further. Excellent examples within the preset Performances include: 'V Brass' (PFP57), a huge fanfare blast; 'W-limba' (PFP51), a cross between a marimba and a nylon string and 'V Bass 4' (PFP67), a thick, driving synth bass. In general, the V50's strongest points are brass and bass-type sounds, since those are the ones that tend to capitalise on the sharp, biting character of FM synthesis.
The digital effects on the V50 sound are well implemented. Reverbs are clean, the distortions are dirty - you won't be dissatisfied. The impact of the effects on the voices is noticeable, especially on the string, brass and "atmospheric" timbres. This, of course, has advantages and disadvantages...
The drum sounds are a compromise: yes, the drum kit consists of PCM samples; yes, the samples are superior to a synthesised kit. But the samples are just too short. The timbres are fine, the samples are clean, but they're so short that when used unprocessed, they simply don't pull their weight. That's what the effects processor is for, right? Well, yes and no. Because the samples are short, they tend to get swallowed up when using a heavy effect. This is where the compromise comes in. Some of the Performance sounds really need heavy processing; take 'V Brass 1' for example. This is a huge, grainy, biting brass patch. The preset effect attached to it is Rev. Hall (the longest reverb setting). Without this reverb, the patch is much too up-front to be readily useable. So you compromise. The V50 is powerful, flexible and friendly, but you can kiss those atmospheric timbres goodbye.
ASIDE FROM THE balance between the synth and drums, and their relationship to the effects processor, the V50 still offers an improvement sound-wise on Yamaha's previous four-op synths. The expanded polyphony and the implementation of dynamic voice allocation really make a difference in the Performance patches. As I said at the beginning of this review, the V50's strongest points lie in its refinement.
Yamaha should get an award for the V50 manual. We're talking a table of contents, full index, dozens of cross-references, easy-to-read detailed instructions on how to edit FM synthesis (why did it ever seem so complicated?). Couple this with the Quick Edit functions, and programming FM voices from scratch has never been simpler.
The sequencer and rhythm machine functions, and arrangement of the front panel are fairly intuitive - you know where to go without checking first. The massive storage capacity of RAM voice presets, along with the disk drive and RAM card port, add all the more power. As a complete instrument, a true workstation, the V50 scores high marks.
Price £1099 including VAT
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Review by Dan Rue