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Yamaha X-series MIDI System

TX816 Rack, QX1 Digital Sequencer, KX88 Master Keyboard

At last, a detailed appraisal of Yamaha's state-of-the-art MIDI system. FM rack, digital keyboard recorder and master keyboard come under David Ellis' careful scrutiny.


We take an extensive look at Yamaha's flagship modular MIDI system. The verdict? It's probably the most expensive, most complex and most impressive such set-up currently available.


Reviewing the TX816 is a bit like taking a Formula One racing car out for a spin in the rush hour - there's an awful lot of oomph under the bonnet waiting to be released, as and when life and limb isn't standing in the way. And indeed, if a sonic replica of Le Mans is what takes your fancy, there's no doubt the equivalent of eight DX7s hidden behind the TX816's rack-mounting facia is capable of doing that whim justice, and with vengeance, too. But you can have too much of a good thing, and it's a moot point as to whether a collection of eight DX7s is actually eight times better than just the one.

Still, if the prospect of eight digital cylinders isn't exactly what grabs you, there's always the more sedate FM synthesis starting-point in the shape of the TX216, the double-DX7 version of Yamaha's flagship unit. You can tell it's the flagship by virtue of the solidly professional construction, the equally professional array of XLR audio connectors on the back panel, and the complete absence of anything like summed mono or stereo outputs. This caused some consternation in this reviewer's household, as XLR connectors are in short supply. Initial comments from Yamaha that I ought to go out and buy some more weren't exactly greeted with enthusiasm, but eventually they warmed to my plight and provided a wadge of XLR-to-jack leads. Thanks for that, chaps.

Modular Concerns



But whether it's the TX816 or the TX216 that's in front of you, the hardware is basically the same - there's just less of it with the latter. Specifically, what the £4250 RRP for the TX816 gets you is a rack frame unit, the MRF8, and eight TF1 synth modules that slot into the aforesaid. On its own, said MRF8 doesn't do very much apart from sit blackly in the style of an Arthur C Clarke monolith. Well, it does keep the universe ticking over by virtue of a clock or two and a power supply, but that's about it. Either way though, the means to the modular rackmounting end doesn't come cheap. Armed with the information that it's £1899 for the TX216 and £449 for each TF1 module (goodish value, really), a simple bit of maths leads you to the realisation that the MRF8 is costing the best part of £1000. Which isn't quite such good value, to put it mildly.

Anyway, aside from the XLR audio out, there's also an individual MIDI In and MIDI Thru at the rear of each TF1 module, and then at the front, a handful of switches and LEDs. Whilst keeping the MIDI Ins at the back of the unit is undeniably a good way to avoid cluttering up the nice clean frontage of the TX816 with such irritating things as five-pin DIN sockets, I don't think many users will thank Yamaha for their aesthetic principles once they find themselves searching in the dark for the MIDI orifice at the back of a 19" rack. All that could have been avoided by duplicating the MIDI Ins on the front panel, but then, I'm not part of Yamaha's mighty corporate design logic. To be fair, the front panel of the TX816 does have a MIDI In, but this is merely the common MIDI In bus that all the TF1 modules share by virtue of being plugged into the MRF8.

But ere I go deeper into the TX816's multifarious ins and outs, how about some synthetic food for thought? Well, as far as the sound of the TF1 module is concerned, it's identical to a DX7 - right down to the 16-note monotimbral polyphony and the much-criticised carrier noise. So you'd expect the innards of the TF1 to be identical to the innards of a DX7, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong. Because what you have to remember is that all the keyboard-encoding circuitry on the main DX7 board is jettisoned, the power supply is supplied by the MRF8, and there's no need for the front panel PCBs that drive the LCD and interpret your finger prods on the purple, green, and brown front panel pads of the DX7.

And what's left isn't really an awful lot - a PCB measuring about 10" by 7", to be precise - and on that there's the same brace of 64-pin VLSI FM chips that's in the DX7, four 5118 CMOS RAMs (one more than in the DX), a 16K 27128 ROM, a seemingly custom processor (marked 'HD6303') that seems to incorporate both the means for MIDI Receive and Transmit (an ACIA, in other words) and an I/O port, and all manner of chips serving underlying logic and latching, 12-bit digital-to-analogue conversion, and low-pass filtering. All very nicely put together, all very sonically impressive, and all very Yamaha.

The one area that's a slight departure from the DX7 (and where the extra RAM chip on the TF1 board comes in) is connected with what actually gets stored for each of the 32 voices. On the DX7, you're restricted to just the standard 145 parameters that make up the basic guts of the sound. With the TF1 module, the extra RAM means that there's also space for storing 25 performance parameters (or 'function data') for each voice. These include such delights as portamento, glissando, modulation wheel setting, foot control, and breath control. Definitely a positive move, that.


Programming



Because each TF1 only has three switches and a two-character LED display on its front panel, programming of the 32 voices that can be stored in each module's battery backed-up RAM isn't quite the self-sufficient process it can be on the DX7. In fact, to edit the TF1 voices you'll need either a DX7, a CX5M with DX7 voicing program, or a more or less plagiaristic equivalent running on some other micro. What the limited controls on each TF1 do allow you to do is switch between four modes - Play, Edit, Store, and Utility.

Switching on the TX816 automatically engages the mode, and what appears on the display is the current voice number. If the top push-button on each TF1 is pressed to switch the input of all eight modules from individual MIDI In to common MIDI In, then connecting the MIDI Out of a DX7 to the front panel MIDI In of the TX816 will parallel all eight TF1s to the MIDI data from that keyboard. And whether it's simply playing the DX7, using performance controls, or making voice changes, all eight of the TF1 modules will follow suit in an identical fashion.

But that's only Play mode's ground state. By going into the three sub-modes for Play (you press the switch next to the LED display once, twice or thrice in rapid succession), it's a simple matter to program each TF1 module for the desired MIDI Receive channel, Omni on or off, and fine or coarse tuning. And although you can follow Yamaha's suggestion of de-tuning all eight modules for a 'drastic improvement or enlargement of the sound', you might also feel that turning a £4250 box of tricks into a chorus unit to end all chorus units isn't the most profitable pastime in the world.

Moving on rapidly to Edit mode, we find three more sub-modes (logical lot, the Japs). First off is one that allows you to select a program number for editing from a DX7 or voicing program-equipped micro. Next, there's the means for adjusting the output level of a particular voice. And last but far from least, we come across the 'limit lowest key/limit highest key' sub-mode. Now this really is interesting. Basically, it provides the wherewithal for allocating each voice in the TF1 to any region of a DX7 or other MIDI keyboard. By spreading all eight modules across the keyboard, with suitable parameter variations to mimic the pitch-dependent variation in timbre added along the way, this is the means of simulating the sort of multisampling approach made famous by the Emulator and Kurzweil 250. Mind you, it takes a lot of work to get the crossover from one module to another just right, so it helps if your name is Dave Bristow. In fact, the aforesaid's 'road show' has as its piece de resistance a stunningly realistic grand piano created on the TX816, with the KX88 (see later) for keyboard input.

And so it's on to Store mode, where we've again got three sub-modes to explore: 'select destination' (to which of the 32 voices you want new voice or function data to go to), 'store voice and function' (self-explanatory), and 'store only function' (ditto).

Which leaves Utility mode as the last on the TX816's spec sheet - and this time, there are four sub-modes. First along the line is 'dump all voices and functions', which allows you to dump all the voices and functions in each TF1 to a waiting DX7, QX1 disk drive, or fellow TF1 elsewhere in the rack. As Yamaha put it, 'dumpling does not mean that the data is removed from the TF1's memory'. And roast beef and carrots to you, too. Next, there's 'clear and initialise all functions' for resetting the performance scratchpad, followed by 'audio check' (which outputs a 440Hz sine wave at -4dBm for setting-up purposes - a nice touch) and the sublimely fascinating 'read out current voltage of battery'. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the TX816 in a nutshell.



"My best judgement tells me the TX816 isn't the best way of going polytimbral, but my ears tell me I'd sell my grandmother to get hold of one."


Impressions



In some respects, the TX816 belongs to the school of design philosophy that believes in using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. If you want a unit that'll play 128-note polyphony with a maximum number of eight different timbres at once, then fine, but there are more cost-effective ways of playing eight different voices simultaneously. True, Yamaha have explored the cheaper side of poly-timbral synthesis in their highly successful CX5M computer, but for whatever reason, they appear reluctant to follow this up in their more up-market equipment. Mind you, from a commercial point of view, it's not hard to speculate why. If each TF1 module was capable of operating in Mono mode, thereby allowing 16 monophonic lines to be played with 16 different voices, the TX216 with two TF1s would seem like a gift from Mount Olympus, leaving the TX816 in the River Styx as an example of monumental overkill.

Fortunately, eight TF1s going full pelt do sound mightily impressive. Which leaves me in something of a quandary: my best judgement tells me that the TX816 isn't the ideal way of going polytimbral, but my ears tell me that I'd sell my grandmother to get hold of one. Actually, there is no quandary now - my grandma's sold already!



The QX1, on the other hand, is a rather different kettle of fish - it doesn't really have any sort of precedent, either from Yamaha themselves or from any other company currently engaged in MIDI sequencer activities. To start with, it's the first sequencer that makes a stab at parallel MIDI buses. And just as important is the jettisoning of recalcitrant cassette interfaces and dubious data recorders in favour of a decent double density disk drive (try saying that when you're seeing pink algorithms). But not all is sweetness and light. The major question has to be whether or not it makes a lot of sense producing a hard-wired MIDI sequencer for the hardly insubstantial sum of £2499, when personal computers that could in theory do as much for a lot less are positively in abundance - and with the added benefit of a proper display, more memory, and a less idiosyncratic QWERTY keyboard, too.

Because no matter what Yamaha might want you to believe, the QX1 is nothing more nor less than an eight-bit (6809 processor) micro with 64K of RAM; an extremely non-standard keyboard (neither QWERTY, DVORAK, nor anything else known to man or mouse); fairly vestigial display facilities (a two-row by 40-column LCD); highly specialised I/O circuitry (the eight parallel MIDI Outs, one each of MIDI In and Thru, tape sync, click out, and foot switch); and an 800K (formatted) 5.25" disk drive.

Modus Operandi



Starting off with the QX1 is simple. You switch on, wait for the 'Welcome' message on the LCD, and then insert a disk into the disk drive. Pressing then starts the QX1's exploration of the data on the disk. If it's a disk that's never been in the machine's clutches before, you'll receive a 'Conflict disk' error message and be offered the chance of initialising the disk so that it and the QX1 can talk to each other. 'Initialising' involves dividing up the disk's total surface into manageable regions (or sectors), the locations of which are then stored in a special area of the disk called a directory. This keeps the QX1 well informed as to what's living where on the disk. However, because the QX1's disk drive is quite generous by 5.25" disk storage standards, this initialising process takes time - several minutes, in fact. Once it's done, though, the disk is ready and waiting to receive various blocks of data as and when they're created or stored by the user.

Before we get around to considering what forms these blocks of data can take, it's worth getting accustomed to some snippets of the English language that Yamaha have seen fit to bend in the direction of their sequencing endeavours. For starters, sequences are known as 'Banks', each of which can contain up to 999 measures. Within each Bank, there are eight individually overdubbable Tracks, and each of these can be sent off in the direction of separate MIDI Outs to the individual MIDI Ins of the TF1 modules in the TX816, or indeed any other MIDI equipment you may have to hand. Finally, Banks can be linked together into 32-step Chains, in which each step can be either a single Bank or up to 32 repeats of a Bank. So, two of the possible data formats that can be stored on the disk are the Bank and the Chain. And there's space in the directory for 32 of the former and eight of the latter, the theoretical maximum for all that amounting to 80,000 notes. Not what you'd call peanuts, exactly.

The other data that can be stored on disk relates to using the QX1 with the TX816 (or TX216, of course). This comes under the heading of 'Bulk' data, and in the case of the TX816, comprises eight sets of voice parameters (Bulks 1-8) and eight sets of function values (Bulks 9-16). In fact, a further option is provided for storing all that goes to make an RX11 drum machine tick on disk, though not being an aficionado of such things, I didn't pursue that avenue of data storage.


More Modes



Returning to starting points, we find four basic modes of operation - Record, Play, Edit, and Utility. Accessing any of these is simply a matter of pressing the relevant key on the top line of the QX1's right-hand keypad. Following the typical stab-in-the-dark approach of the average musician, pressing results in the following info being displayed:


Now, most of those display contents are pretty self-explanatory. The first part of the bottom line indicates that it's Bank 1 that's under scrutiny, and that the name allocated to that Bank when it was stored on disk was 'Piano'. Earth-shattering stuff, that. Move number two is to see what else is on tap in the bottled Banks, and that's achieved by finding the Up and Down cursor keys on the left-hand keyboard and manipulating them accordingly. The display will then scroll through the 32 possible Bank entries, with corresponding changes for the Bank number and name, preset tempo, memory usage, and time signature. That leaves the cryptic PROT:1, which merely indicates that the Bank has been protected from accidental erasure by idiots like yours truly who make a point of pressing buttons before reading manuals. Sensible lot, Yamaha.

Recording



Recording a sequence is actually a piece of cake - until you start trying to get all flashy and sophisticated, anyway. The first thing the manual uses to re-attract your attention after all that disk initialising palaver is the opportunity to indulge in a 'quick demonstration' of the QX1's realtime recording. Which all goes to show that Yamaha have their heart(s) in the right place. After all, the last thing you want is to be obliged to sit through endless renditions of this or that megastar's greatest hits before actually getting down to using the thing.

So, going from the previous Record Mode display, you choose your Bank (0-32), assign it a name (and hunt for the alphanumeric characters dotted so liberally about the QX1's keypads), check that the memory protect is off (PROT : 0), whiz the cursor along the display to enter values for Tempo and Time, press the key to switch on the click-track (output from a jack at the back of the QX1), and then jab to get into Record Ready status. Pressing then gives you a two-bar count-in,- and anything after that gets stored away in the QX1's 64K internal memory as Track 1 of the chosen Bank - until the key (or its associated footswitch) is pressed. Remember that what's recordable also includes all the performance data you care to throw at the QX1. And with the KX88 in the MIDI driving seat, that can even extend to whatever System Exclusive data takes your fancy, as we shall soon see. So, if you've always wanted to play a line of notes with a gradually evolving filter cutoff or decaying modulation index, this is the way forward. Which is another reason why that 80,000-note storage comes in so handy...



"The QX1 doesn't really have any sort of precedent, either from Yamaha themselves or from any other company currently engaged in MIDI sequencer activities."


The logical follow-up to all that is to go for a playback, so you jab at the key. This conjures up the message EXECUTING NOW!! on the LCD. All this actually means is that the previously recorded data is being shifted onto said disk so that all is not lost should you or the world go berserk listening to the abysmal squeak the disk drive makes. Pressing then retrieves this data from the disk, moving you on to the Bank Play Ready status, and keying starts the playback itself. Twiddling the Tempo Controller knob varies the speed of the Bank playback, pressing repeats the playback (indefinitely!), and the key allows you to transpose the playback from the octave of keys at the front of the main keypad. The squeak stays the same pitch, though.

But that's only for starters. Where the QX1 really scores is in the many and varied ways in which it transforms the humble sequencer into a really powerful composing tool. The point is that, unlike the QX7 - the more affordable face of Yamaha MIDI sequencers, which achieves overdubbing by a track bouncing operation and which was reviewed in last month's E&MM - the QX1 has just about every facility you could want for creating complex, multi-part pieces. But there's a price to be paid for all that, namely the complexity of the 34 sub-modes, or Job Commands, required to mediate between your creativity and the QX1.

Commencing with overdubbing, the QX1 offers two options; either literal overdubbing (pressing , once you're happy with the first take of a Track, takes you back into an ongoing Record situation for an overdub), or track-mixing overdubbing (using Job Command 14 in the Utility mode, but then, you'd guessed that already, hadn't you?). What's more, you're able to choose where you want the overdubbing to start - a welcome break from the wretched machines that oblige you to go back to Bar 1 every time you want to do anything new to a track. And that also includes deleting notes, because included in the long and winding list of Job Commands is the means for deleting an entire Track (Job Command 15) or just a single measure (Job Command 20).

Multitracking



But the QX1's main claim to fame, and what's likely to motivate most people into purchasing it, is the fact that you can also record in sync onto each of the eight separate Tracks in the sequence Banks, and then pipe these individually off to the eight MIDI Outs a derriere. Which is why Yamaha are quite correct in claiming that the QX1 is 'just like an eight-track tape deck' - it's the output individuality that really counts here. Again, there are some Job Commands involved: first, Job Command 3 in Play mode, which programs 'terminal assign' (the MIDI channel you want assigned to each Track), and second, Job Command 2 in Record mode, which switches Tracks between Record and Playback functions.

The other side of the sequencing coin is Edit mode. Although you may question Yamaha's suggestion that 'editing on the QX1 is a truly exciting creative experience', you can't deny the QX1's editing facilities are comprehensive, to say the least, and they also provide the entry point to something equivalent to steptime sequencing.

First off is the means of 'examining music data'. Having selected a Bank for editing by pressing , the standard EXECUTING NOW!! (talk about a death wish...) message is followed by a new one proclaiming something called INCREASABLE SPACE. Sounds great - though it may or may not make sense to you. Actually, it tells you how much data you can add to an existing Bank. Pressing the Up cursor key then allows you to step through the events on the chosen Track of that Bank, and the display illuminates accordingly at the same time as the note is actually played:


To be honest, all that's likely to be pretty indecipherable unless you're a member of the QX1 cognoscenti. Going along the top line first, there's the measure number, the step number, and the clock number. Along the bottom, we have the note name and octave, the dynamics of that note, the note number, the gate time, and finally, the volume number. But even at this stage, all these parameters can be altered simply by moving the cursor along to the relevant part of the display and manipulating the Up and Down cursor keys to scroll the values. Easy, really. But not exactly what I'd call 'truly exciting' if you're attempting to edit an entire symphony or LP of notes.

The next editing possibility comes under the heading of 'Clocks, Steps, and Quantizing'. Or at least that's how Yamaha put it. Briefly, the QX1 handles musical events on the basis of timing units equal to 1/384th of a quarter-note. As a result, a semiquaver or sixteenth note is 96 clock pulses, a quaver or eighth note 192 pulses, and so on. However, by heading for Job Command 6 in the Edit mode, you can choose how you want to divide up measures into clock pulses, which can't be bad.

Finally, we arrive at the areas of QX1 sequencing endeavours that fall under the aegis of the key. The first way of using this is to add voice changes wherever and whenever you want in a particular Track. For those into step-time antics, however, the Insert sub-mode provides the means for entering music data that's never seen the light of day on a DX7, KX88, or any other MIDI keyboard. In fact, this is Yamaha's means for creating 'sophisticated digital music, with only minimal knowledge of music theory'. This end is achieved by using a) the octave of pitch keys on the main keypad for the note, b) the row of keys above these for the note length (which includes triplets, quintuplets, or whatever), and c) the key to register these choices with the QX1. The clock will then move on to the next position by an amount equal to the note that's just been entered. And if you want a rest rather than a note, it's simply a question of pressing the rest key rather than a pitch key.

But doesn't stop there. The post-grad programming side of the QX1 allows you to do all manner of tricks on a per-note basis, though it's certainly a tough life for the old mind box. Take a decko at the following display, for instance:


Like the man said, a lot of numbers begging for elucidation. Well, it's measure 21 that's under scrutiny this time, and we're currently on step 4 of a four-step measure. That's the easy bit. Things get more difficult once clocks (CLK) come into the picture. The second figure (0384) indicates there's that number of clock pulses in a step, and the first figure (0001) indicates on which clock pulse of a step that note actually begins. Then, underneath all that maths, there's the note name and its octave, the duration (/4-3 indicating a triplet quarter note) entered from the QX1's duration keys, the dynamic, the MIDI equivalent of the note (002 in this case), the gate time in terms of numbers of clock units (192 here, indicating a 'gate on' time of 75%), the note length in clock units (256 for a triplet quarter note), and then last but not least, the MIDI velocity value.

Take your time recovering from all that, because things aren't too bad in practice. The reason? Well, the QX1 follows a sort of default system for a lot of the step-time entries. So for instance, both STEP and CLK are nominally set to the values shown above, the gate time is set at 80%, and the note velocity assumes a value of '064' unless told otherwise. Which leaves you, the musician, to concentrate on the more manageable side of musical data, and the other options of adding tempo changes, control changes, pitch-bend, and even System Exclusive data anywhere within a Track.


Having assembled a Bank or two of notes, you have to decide exactly what you want to do with them. Play mode holds most of the answers, specifically in the areas of various Job Commands and sub-modes. For instance, Job Command 2 in Play mode allows you to select particular Tracks for playback and, at the same time, whether or not you want an external sync source to play a part in the proceedings.

However, it's in the Edit and Utility modes where the lion's share of Job Commands is to be found. Of particular value on the creative side of editing are Job Commands 7 and 8, which allow you to copy measures within the same Track and transpose them. Then there's Job Command 10 ('Clock Move') for shifting part of a Track by a selected number of clocks - one way of getting unusual echo and timing effects. On the Utility mode side of the business, a fair proportion of the Job Commands is involved in the general housekeeping side of using the QX1 - changing disks, making back-up copies of disks, changing disk IDs, assembling Banks into Chains, deleting Banks and Chains, and so on. And don't forget the very useful Job Command 14, which mixes Tracks between Banks.

But it's also in this neck of the woods that we find the means for shifting System Exclusive data to and from the QX1 (Job Commands 16 and 17), and the provision for passing voice and function data between the QX1's disk drive and a TX816, DX1, or DX7, or even allowing an RX11 a look-in on the disk drive's action.

The only drawback here is that loading up all eight TF1 modules in the TX816 with data takes a fair amount of time, because each has to be loaded up separately with both voice parameters and performance data. Thinking ahead to the musician using the QX1/TX816 combination on stage, it seems a bit thick not to have provided the means for loading and saving the whole kaboosh of TX816 data in one go.



"Thinking ahead to using the QX1/TX816 combination on stage, it seems a bit thick not to have provided some way of loading the whole kaboosh of TX816 data in one go."


QX Conclusions



Let's make no bones about it: the QX1 is a magnificent sequencer. But it's also a classic example of fairly cheap computer technology being hard-wired into the format of a rather expensive musical tool. And bearing in mind the imminent emergence of cheap, high performance 16-bit micros with ultra-sophisticated and user-friendly front ends, it's a difficult juggling act to tip the balance of performance vs. cost in the direction of the Yamaha.

Aside from the squeaking disk drive, which is bad news on a machine of this price, my main qualms rest with a) the choice of processor, which surely doesn't have a chance in hell of adequately servicing eight separate MIDI buses to the 128-note polyphony extent of the TX816's capability, and b) the rather limited display, which makes life more difficult than it should be on a unit that sets out to do as much as the QX1.

As far as the former criticism is concerned, this is where only time and experience will tell. After all, filling eight 16-note polyphonic tracks isn't the sort of thing you do in your lunch hour, especially when you've got to write a review of this length. So I'd have welcomed hearing some of the demo pieces shown on page 33 of the owner's manual to see what someone with more time to hand was able to coax out of the QX1 - particularly the Philip Glass piece with a quoted duration of 3 hours! But again, this wasn't to be. Which begs the question as to why Yamaha seem to like teasing their manual readers with demos that appear to be lost in another time dimension...

But it's the display that's the major disappointment. As you'll have noticed from the review, there are an awful lot of Job Commands scattered around the four modes of the QX1's operation, which, quite understandably, involve a lot of shifting between different displays. However, if Yamaha had come up to date and used one of the larger LCDs now gracing all manner of lap-held portable micros (including those of Japanese origin), then most of this brain-muddling would have been avoided, simply because 'soft' keys around the display could be programmed to take on the mode-specific functions of particular Job Commands. Mind you, even better would have been the facility to connect the QX1 up to a decent monitor like every other micro under the Western sun. Ah, well.



By contrast, the KX88 looks positively conventional. Don't get me wrong: the last member of Yamaha's grand triumvirate is grand indeed. But it's also possibly the least contentious of the three. After all, an 88-note remote keyboard with the luxury of real wooden keys, after-touch, and velocity is hardly breaking new ground. Well, as it happens, the KX88 does go a good deal further than most when it comes to extra facilities for adding 'performance' to whatever's perpetrated on its rather wonderful keyboard. And those factors alone will probably ensure its popularity, even given the hefty price tag of £1399.

The main problem with the KX88 is the daunting complexity of its many and varied functions. And in typical Japanese style, the manual hardly improves matters with its page after page of functions in this or that mode. Mind you, after wading through three other manuals for the TX816 and QX1, I've got good reason to feel the pinch of functional overload!

But starting simply, we find three modes - Play, CA (for assigning predefined MIDI controller codes to the various KX88 controllers), and PA (which allows you to define your own controller codes to suit whatever MIDI equipment you're using with the KX88). Next off is the fact that the KX88 can operate on two MIDI channels simultaneously via 'MIDI Bank A' and 'MIDI Bank B'. In fact, you can choose between three different Play modes, courtesy of this duality: 'Single' (in which note information is sent via either Channel A or B), 'Dual' (in which MIDI data is piped by both Channels A and B), and 'Split' (in which events are sent off in opposite directions on either side of a split point). But remember that you won't be able to realise the delights of keyboard splits unless you've got access to MIDI equipment that's at least bitimbral. (And in Yamaha terms, this is where the TX816 or TX216 steps into the KX88 picture.




"The really remarkable thing about the KX88 is the way it attempts to be all things to all men - and that includes other manufacturers of MIDI instruments."


Now, aside from the obvious flexibility of being able to define your own split points, Play mode also activates a mind-boggling number of potential performance controls, including the two wheels to the left of the keyboard, the BC1 breath controller, after-touch, four sliders to the left of the front panel, two foot controllers, five MIDI send pads (MS1-5), and two footswitches. That's 17 in toto. No wonder there are rumours spreading that Yamaha will be bringing out a MIDI-controlled robot to look after all those controls while you take care of the playing...

The really remarkable thing about the KX88 is the way in which it attempts to be all things to all men (and women, I guess). Just for a change, that includes manufacturers of other MIDI instruments. For instance, we all know that the voice banks for the DX7 and TX816 run from 1-32. So, on that basis, you'd assume that that's all the KX88 would bother about in the way of voice changing. Not a bit of it. In fact, the KX88 has two voice bank modes - one for 32-voice equipment and another for synths of the 128-voice Roland ilk.

However, contrary to what some have read into the KX88's features, this generosity doesn't quite extend to having all the different System Exclusive data for different machines encoded in as standard. That really would be asking too much. However, what you are able to do is program in the Parameter Changes and Universal Parameters that your particular synth is programmed to respond to, and then apply these to all 17 of those performance controls. Of course, that means searching through manuals and getting to grips with the basics of hexadecimal coding, but Yamaha make it just about as easy as they reasonably could, given the present diversity of MIDI equipment.




"When you consider that most systems in this price bracket are still making do with 16 digital oscillators and one MIDI Out, there's no doubt Yamaha have a winner on their hands."


System Conclusions



As a total computer music system, Yamaha's grand trio is capable of creating what are beyond question some of the most stunning sounds around. When you consider that most of the systems in this sort of £8000+ price bracket are still making do with 12 or 16 digital oscillators and a single MIDI Out, hiere's no doubt that Yamaha have something approaching a winner on their hands.

But there are problems. The TF1 modules should have moved on a bit from the monotimbral and somewhat noisy DX7. The fact that Yamaha simply transplanted the DX7 FM synthesis circuitry into the TF1 smacks of taking the easy way out, which is a crying shame bearing in mind how incredible the TX816 could have been given a little more of the company's undoubted brilliance at R&D in this field.

The QX1, on the other hand, is a much more difficult part of the system to get into. Undoubtedly, it has a huge potential for creating very complex music - if that's what you're into. But ironically, its convoluted array of sub-modes and Job Commands and limited display features are likely to deter all but the most committed to exploiting it to this extent. That said, I still think it's going to become the 1985 successor to the much-revered Roland MC4 as a versatile compositional tool that requires very little knowledge of music to be operated successfully. In fact, I'd be surprised if, by the end of the year, the combination of QX1 and TX816 isn't de rigueur for every forward-looking, MIDI-equipped studio in the country.

Quite where the KX88 really fits into the picture isn't quite so clear. Sure, it's a great keyboard, and it must be the way of choice for programming time-evolving sounds into the QX1, but there's also a touch of overkill accompanying all those performance controls. Perhaps the only real sense in them is if you've sprouted an extra set of arms and legs and you're into wowing a Wembley Stadium audience every night of the week with amazing feats of digital dexterity.

Still, it's a nice keyboard (though something tells me the DX1's was nicer again), and it does make an ideal partner for the TX816, regardless of whether or not there's a QX1 in the system chain as well.

Further information on all X-series products from: Yamaha-Kemble, (Contact Details).


Also featuring gear in this article



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Akai S612

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Technics DP50


Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

Electronics & Music Maker - May 1985

Review by David Ellis

Previous article in this issue:

> Akai S612

Next article in this issue:

> Technics DP50


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