Yamaha call It "Easy FM" - it's the latest and most friendly presentation of FM synthesis to date. Ian Waugh takes the easy option.
"Easy FM" is the catch-line Yamaha have adopted to promote their YS synths - but are they a genuine FM development or are the company merely trying to get the last miles out of an over-familiar sound?
I'VE A CONFESSION TO make - I don't have a DX7 - although I do use OP's (Other People's). I must be one of the few who have managed to resist the temptation to buy what is now the world's best-selling synthesiser. It had nothing to do with the sound (that impressed me as much as anyone else) it was due entirely to the fact that the DX7 wasn't multi-timbral.
Now, however, FM - especially when used to produce hard digital sounds - has become something of a cliché and I have continued to resist subsequent DX incarnations (although I did fall prey to the charms of a multi-timbral FM expander).
Having resisted so long and having heard the new generation of "breathy" sounds emanating from the likes of Roland's D50 and Kawai's K1, I was beginning to wonder if FM had anything left to offer. The fact that FM programming is only slightly more appealing than a day trip to Birmingham may have had something to do with it, too. Has FM reached the end of its life, I wonder?
Definitely not, if the Yamaha stand at the British Music Fair is anything to go by. FM is alive and well and begetting even more synthesisers, this time two surprise newcomers in the guise of the YS200 and YS100. The YS200 has an onboard sequencer, the YS100 hasn't - but otherwise the two instruments are identical.
You've got to admit they're strange-looking beasts, although not unattractive. They are finished in a dark chocolate-brown plastic with predominantly yellow buttons, something of a change from the hi-tech green and black image we're so used to. Personally I like it, but I wonder if it's got pose appeal.
So why more FM synths? Well, having well and truly saturated the pro end of the market (anyone who wants an FM synth has probably got one by now), Yamaha have set their sights on the home user, the first-time buyer and the semi pro. The main attraction of the YS synths can be summed up in one long hyphenated word - ease-of-use.
We'll look at the YS200 - as that's what's in my keyboard rack - and make relevant comments vis-a-vis the YS100 where appropriate. Let's see what the beast is made of, basics first.
The YS200 is a four-operator, eight-algorithm, eight-note polyphonic and multi-timbral instrument. Its very close relatives are the DX11 and the TX81Z. It has 61 velocity-sensitive keys with aftertouch - nice. Centre stage is a two-line, 40-character backlit LCD, big enough to show you what's going on.
Below the LCD are four pairs of triangular + and - Selector buttons. These are the hub of the YS200's operation. When you're editing, parameters and submenus appear in the LCD above the buttons and - yes, you guessed - you use the Selector buttons to alter parameters and make menu selections. The buttons increment values in steps of "1" but you can also type values in directly from the keypad. In operation it is very simple.
Above the LCD are the sequencer controls (YS200 only) and to the left is a large - nay, massive - rotary volume control (shades of Roland and Casio). It is calibrated, if that's the word, with an indent the size of a pin head and it's virtually impossible to see your current volume setting. If you play everything at full volume that won't bother you. There is a socket for a Volume pedal, however, which will help in some circumstances, although I suppose you could always stick a piece of light (try yellow) tape on the wheel.
To the right of the LCD are the Easy Edit buttons. Next to the keypad is an Exit button and a Store button. If you get stuck in an operation, Exit will take you back to the last-selected voice - a mild sort of panic button. Store, as you might suspect, is used to store edited voices to user memory locations or the optional RAM card.
The first thing you do with a new instrument is listen to its sounds. There are 100 Presets plus 100 user memories which are initially the same as the Presets. More sounds can be stored on optional plug-in RAM cards and the manual says ROM cards will be made available containing new sounds.
Press the buttons, Waugh. The default sound, 'Elegant', could almost be off a Kawai K1 - it has a hint of breathiness about it although that digital FM edge is still present. There are some delicious brass sounds, acoustic guitars, lots of basses, a variety of percussive sounds, a few novelties and quite a good attempt at voices ('AngelChoir').
The strings are quite ensemble for a four-operator machine. Not Mantovani but very usable. The pianos, however, are a little on the thin side and definitely more electronic than acoustic but that's to be expected.
Otherwise the YS' voices are definitely a cut above the rest of your four-op synths. How do they do it? With Effects, that's how. There are ten built-in digital effects including reverb, delay, distortion and stereo echo and they really are rather tasty. Their contribution to the sound should not be underestimated.
All the Presets have added reverb. On some it's a little OTT. The Oboe, for example, sounds as if it is being played in the Albert Hall - empty. Take away the effects and you're left with pretty standard TX81Z/DX11 voices. But who wants to take them away? The sounds are really very clean, too, and I'd be very happy to record with them.
EASY EDIT HAS its roots in the DX11 and it has been extended on the YS200. There are five buttons here labelled EG, Tone, LFO, Name and Effects. Terms such as operators and modulators are generally hidden from the user although the manual refers to them occasionally to explain what the editing functions are actually doing.
Most features can be altered through plus or minus ten steps. EG (Envelope Generator) lets you alter the Attack, Decay and Release of both the volume and tone envelopes.
Tone has three editable features. Brilliance makes a sound brighter or more mellow. Wave determines the harmonic content, in FM terms it controls the coarse frequency setting of the modulator operator(s). Something called "Input-4Nos!" selects one of the eight waveforms for each operator, although just exactly what type of waves they are is not revealed.
There are two LFOs which are used for both vibrato and tremolo, and Effects is used to assign one of the effects to a voice.
Name I like. Here the keyboard functions as a typewriter: pressing a key inserts the relevant letter. This is far, far better than stepping through the letters of the alphabet one at a time, a common procedure on many instruments. No big deal perhaps, but it's little things like this which help make an instrument user-friendly.
The manual generally suggests a trial and error approach, and if you have an understanding of FM theory you'll know what's going on behind the scenes. Even if you don't, it's easy to tweak a parameter and see if it takes the sound in the direction you want to go. Yamaha have tried to make FM programming just about as easy as it can be, although obviously you do not have control over much of the finer detail.
THERE ARE SEVERAL other functions under the Job button's sub-menu. Voice Edit houses the Feedback, Transpose, Touch Sensitivity and Poly/Mono mode options. Mono mode only sounds one note at a time. Pressing a second key before releasing the first will not retrigger the envelope allowing you to slur notes - try doing that via MIDI.
The Control menu determines the pitch-bend range and the assignment of the modulation wheel, breath controller and aftertouch. Assignments include vibrato, tremolo, wowwow, tone and volume.
Bulk Out will send the edit voice, the 100 User voices or the System setup memory (the current Multi Mode setting - coming up) which consists of tuning, MIDI receive and transmit channels, instrument settings and so on via MIDI Out.
As the YS200's sound generation system is similar to other four-operator synths you can send voices to other four-op instruments. When transmitting to a 32-voice synth, however, only voices 75 to 99 are sent.
The YS200 is also at least partially compatible with four-operator voice editors. Dr. Ts 4-Op Deluxe (see review in MT, July '88) requested and got the first 32 voices from it although, obviously, the YS200 has features it was not designed to handle (like the Effects). It also transmitted 32 voices but a request for a Performance Bank, not surprisingly, was met with no response. Soundbits' 4X4 Editor (also reviewed in July '88) transmitted but couldn't receive.
"If you have an understanding of FM theory you'll know what's going on behind the scenes - if you don't it's easy to tweak a parameter and see..."
IT TOOK YAMAHA five years to realise that endowing their FM keyboards with multi-timbral facilities would be a good idea - hence the DX11. But they continue to confuse by calling a sound a "voice", a term which more correctly refers to the polyphony of a "sound" or instrument. They then have to resort to the term "simultaneous notes" to refer to the number of notes an "instrument" can play at once.
Most of us tend to use voice to mean a sound, but when you get down to multi-timbral level it would help if everyone used the same terminology. Still, I don't suppose they're going to change horses mid-stream.
The YS200 then, is eight-voice multi-timbral (or it can play eight simultaneous notes in Yamahaspeak) and each voice can be given its own key assignment, volume, pan (left, right or left and right) and detune settings. Effects and Pan can not be used at the same time - sad but reasonable - and all voices share the same Effect.
You can edit a voice in Multi Mode but in order to play and hear it, it must be set to receive on the same channel as the keyboard is set to transmit on. It's probably best to edit first then work out Multi Mode assignments.
As mentioned earlier, the YS200 only has two LFOs. These are used for tremolo, vibrato and wowwow but each voice can be given its own vibrato setting which is very useful when building ensemble effects, especially when used in conjunction with detuning and reverb.
Multi Mode - is the equivalent of the TX81Z's Performance Mode and the FB01's Configuration settings but the YS200 only has the one such setup. If you intend to do much layering or external sequencing I reckon this could be restricting.
Multi Mode can be used to construct layered sounds across the keyboard as well as for multi-timbral operation with a sequencer. Which brings us nicely to the YS200's sequencer.
FOR A KEYBOARD add-on, the sequencer is powerful. It can store eight Songs each with up to eight Tracks capable of holding up to 999 measures. The total capacity is 10,000 notes if only note data is recorded.
Songs can be stored on the optional RAM card and saved to a MIDI storage device via the Bulk Dump. The data format is the same as the QX5 so file transfer between the two should be easy.
Each Track can record up to eight notes - the YS200's polyphonic limit - and voices and polyphony must be allocated to each Track. If you run out of notes before you run out of Tracks, the remaining tracks can be used to play external instruments.
Seven voice combinations known as Part Types have been preset for you. These are very helpful, especially in the early-learning stages. They include Solo Piano, Pops, Fusion, Rock, Jazz, Latin and Classic. The Pops, for example, consists of 'Bass', 'Piano', 'Strings' and 'Vibes', and Classic contains 'Harp', 'Violin', 'Cello', 'Flute' and 'Oboe'.
There are three types of recording - Normal, Punch and Step. Normal is real-time recording. Punch is the same but it only records over the measures you specify. If you want to re-record a track you must either erase it or use Punch recording.
In Step recording you first select a note duration in increments of 1/32nd notes; triplets and dotted notes are also available. Then you play a note (or notes) on the keyboard, select another duration, play some notes and so on. You can select normal, staccato and tenuto articulation (the manual calls these note lengths) and rests. You can insert voice changes and erase notes in step-time, too.
The system doesn't tell you the names of the notes you've recorded, which is one of the features I look for in a step-time system, especially during editing, but perhaps it wouldn't worry you. And even though it has graphic displays, its operation is quite numeric.
The Sequencer has its own Job functions which include naming and storing the Song, Quantise, Condition, Edit, Mix, Card, Record Mode and Effect.
Quantise affects the whole of a Track. Condition is used to set internal or external Sync, whether aftertouch and velocity information will be recorded and whether or not the metronome will be heard.
Edit has erase, copy, delete and insert functions which operate on complete measures (bars). While copy and erase let you operate on individual tracks, delete and insert affect the whole of the Song.
Working your way through all these features requires a fair amount of button pushing, Job selection and parameter fixing. The Sequencer, too, has fallen victim to the digital multiple button function syndrome. However, as with most things, a little use will bring familiarity but its operation is such that if you don't use it for a few weeks you may have to dip into the manual to remind yourself of a few things.
The manual starts off in excellent fashion and the first few pages lead you gently by the hand through "getting started" operations. It even has an index, albeit a brief one. A couple of Quick Guide operation cards are included which are handy aide memoires.
A couple of years ago the YS200 would probably have been an instant hit. Now there are several alternative sources of those familiar breathy tones. And with the resurgence of popularity currently being experienced by old analogue timbres, the first-time buyer is likely to be looking for a good all-rounder.
FM has its strengths and weaknesses, but Yamaha have done all they can to build "Easy FM" into the YS instruments. If you want FM sounds but aren't interested in getting to grips with the programming, they really must be on your shortlist.
Another plus for the YS200 is that the built-in sequencer makes it eligible for this year's hip title - the workstation. However, if you're looking for an all-in-one package to produce songs and backing tracks, you need to remember that drums aren't FM's strong suit and you only have eight voices to play with. You could link it to a drum machine, and although they would appear to make an ideal partnership, the YS200 does not support Song Pointers.
A price for the optional RAM card has yet to be fixed but rumour has a figure around £75 on it. As this is the only way to save data other than via MIDI, you may have to budget for a few RAM cards. The Voice cards promised in the manual will, no doubt, be even dearer. It all seems a little on the expensive side for what is, after all, a budget synth.
As the sequencer is the only difference between the YS200 and YS100, you've got to ask "is it worth the extra cash?". Well, for £90 how can you turn it down? Easy if you already own another sequencer.
When you consider that both these instruments have a velocity-sensitive keyboard, aftertouch and all those effects, you've got a pretty tempting instrument. In fact, if I hadn't already forked out for an FM expander I think I would be sorely tempted indeed...
Prices YS200. £789. YS100. £699 Prices include VAT
Gear in this article:
Review by Ian Waugh
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