The Friendly Face of FM
Yamaha’s FM-based synths have incorporated more and more ‘easy editing' features of late in an attempt to make FM synthesis accessible to a broader spectrum of potential users. Yamaha's latest synth, the YS200, takes this approach even further with the inclusion of onboard digital effects, an 8-track sequencer, and large controls! Martin Russ looks at FM in a different guise.
Yamaha's FM-based synths have incorporated more and more 'easy editing' features of late in an attempt to make FM synthesis accessible to a broader spectrum of potential users. The YS200 takes this approach even further with the inclusion of onboard digital effects, an 8-track sequencer, and large controls! Martin Russ looks at FM in a different guise.
The YS200 and YS100 are instantly memorable - once seen, never forgotten. When the review sample arrived I showed it to my wife, whose first words were something like: "Why is the volume control so large?", followed by "Is this calculator removable?" as she tried to prise away the keypad. Futuristic and a designer's design is certainly how it appeared to me at first, but I have to report that the shape, layout and ergonomics actually grow on you. I am actually very impressed, both with the sounds and the feel. Let's have a look at why...
The YS200 and YS100 have identical voice generation circuitry, though the YS200 has the added benefit of aftertouch sensitivity and a built-in sequencer. For the purposes of this review, I shall refer to the YS200 only.
The centre of the YS200 top panel is dominated by a large backlit 80-character LCD display (arranged as two rows of 40 characters each) with the sequencer control buttons above it, and eight yellow arrow buttons below it. The YS series uses a 'paged' control system, where you interact with parameter pages displayed on the LCD to control all the functions. The 'arrows' are assigned different functions depending upon which page you are on - the action they have is clearly displayed on the LCD above the relevant arrow. All the buttons have a positive click to them.
This assignable button system is one of the major reasons why there are so few buttons in total (and so few printed legends on the top panel), since it makes it both easy to use, simple and cheap to manufacture, and also allows the functions to be changed just by revising the software. (If you have used a D50 or ESQ1/SQ80 then the system of assignable buttons will be very familiar.) To the left of the display is the volume control (it really is as large as it appears in the photo!). This serves only the volume function - it is not assignable to other parameters! If you have mostly used parameter access synths before then you may have some habits to break here! To the right of the display are two rows of five buttons used to select pages on the display. Beyond these is a numeric keypad which also incorporates the +/- incrementors. Recessed out of harm's way on the far right are the Exit and Store buttons - used to exit pages or store user sounds, respectively.
The top left of the front panel has a distinctive wedge leading to a memory card slot. The memory card provides preset voices in its ROM form, or RAM-based storage for user voices and sequence data. Only three other objects protrude from the front panel - the Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels (much wider and chunkier than on previous Yamaha synths) and the keyboard: five octaves, C-C, and slightly spongier, lighter and springier than I prefer - very much like a DX100 keyboard in feel. Once acclimatised though, my fingers had no problems pressing the keys (only the usual problem of playing the right ones at the right time!).
The rear panel is even sparser - there are A and B jack outputs for the stereo audio signals, and two more jacks for a volume pedal and sustain switch. The usual MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets are present. The only other items are a fixed mains lead (not a very good idea) and a push on/push off mains switch. The front of the YS has the headphone socket and breath controller socket just located below the wheels. That concludes the external examination. Everything else happens on the display pages.
When you power up the YS200, it beeps, displays its name for a few seconds, then reverts to the main Play page shown below:
|PLAY)||PRESET VOICE||Tuning||Note Shift|
The left row of buttons is also dedicated to a single purpose - voice editing. The new Quick Edit function, first introduced on the DX11, is presented in a different and very effective form in the YS synths. From the top, the buttons are concerned with the Envelope, the Tone, the LFO, and the Voice Name. The final button controls the Effect setting. Even though you can edit the presets 'live', all changes disappear unless you save them in user memory. Unlike DX synths, which have separate Performance memories for dealing with things like effects and modulation, all these editing functions are tied to the voice - in other words, it behaves as you would expect; store any changed voice in user memory and it will reappear the next time you call up that voice, complete with effects and modulation settings.
As you press each button, a red LED illuminates as an indication. Pressing another button changes to that editing function, with the Exit button returning you to the Play page. The EG button lets you alter the Attack, Decay and Release for three elements of the sounds separately: Volume, Tone and Volume & Tone. The control range is from -10 to +10, with 0 as the initial position. Tone offers control over Brilliance, Wave (which controls the fine frequency of the modulators, I think), and the strange 'Input 4 Numbers' - which lets you select one of the eight special FM waveforms. The LFO button lets you edit the Speed, Vibrato and Tremolo Depth of LFO modulation.
The Voice Name button lets you modify the name of a voice with a rather novel way of entering characters - you use the keyboard! C2 selects the letter 'C', D2 selects 'D', E2 'E', etc - all the way up to E5 for 'Z'. C1 toggles between upper and lower case letters, and the rest of the keyboard is allocated to other symbols. Numbers are entered with the keypad. All the available characters are shown on the top line of the LCD and the arrow keys are used to advance between the 10 available character slots. This system is quick to use, once you get over the initial shock of idle playing producing silly names!
The Effect button gives control over the built-in reverb (similar to a restricted function R100). It has only 10 editable memories and 10 effects: three reverbs, two delays, one stereo echo, two distortion and reverb/echoes, and two gated reverbs with the last one reversed. You can change the time or room size, as appropriate, and the balance between effect and original. The reverb sound is exactly the same high quality as the SPX and REX units - 12kHz bandwidth, 16-bit linear conversion giving 74dB signal-to-noise and 0.1% distortion at 1kHz.
There are only two buttons left - Save/Load needs almost no explanation except to say that it deals with transfers to and from the memory card, not MIDI. Everything else is hidden beneath the Job button. Pressing this produces six options in a Job Menu above the arrow keys: Edit, Control, Bulk, MIDI, Split and Multi. Pressing the arrow beneath the Edit display provides further control over the voice parameters - Feedback, to control the roughness of the sound; Transpose, to set the key or octave; Touch Sensitivity; and Poly/Mono.
Pressing the Job button again returns to the Job Menu. The Control option enables the Pitch Bend Range and Modulation Wheel, Breath Control and Aftertouch to be assigned to vibrato, tone, tremolo, wow or off. The Bulk option controls MIDI output of the voice in the edit buffer, all 100 user voices, or just System information. The MIDI option lets you set the transmit and receive channel to 1-16, off or Omni (Omni is for receive only, of course), so the YS could be used as a master keyboard as well.
You only get one memory each for Split mode and Multi mode. The Split option lets you choose only the upper and lower voice, together with the split point. In contrast, choosing Multi mode produces another set of options - the Multi menu. The options let you set the maximum number of notes which will be played by the eight available sound generators or parts (Yamaha do not seem to be very keen on dynamic assignment of voices, unlike Roland and Kawai), the receive channels for each of the parts, the voice number for each part, the volume, pan position (L, L&R, R), detune, note limit (to restrict the range to a specific part of the keyboard) and, finally, the LFO assignment - off, LFOa, LFOb and vibrato.
Interestingly, if you are in Multi mode and you look at the MIDI job, you will find that the MIDI receive is fixed at 'multi' - a nice touch showing that a lot of thought has gone into the software. I also discovered that if you press the Effect button whilst in Multi mode, then you get an effect specific to just the Multi mode - and it is stored in the battery-backed RAM. So I set up a detuned string sound with two sets of 4-note assignments, and used the stereo echo to widen out the sound.
That describes the main features of the Play mode. The remarkable thing about the YS synths is that their ergonomic design really does seem to work. I was able to find my way around without any major problems, even without a manual!
The YS200 looks very different, sounds great, and includes a sophisticated sequencer with relatively simple to use controls. You would have to buy a DX11 synth, QX5 sequencer and R100 budget reverb to obtain the same functionality, and you would need MIDI cables and some know-how to be able to use them (as well as about £1000). In contrast, the YS200 is deceptively easy to operate and comes as a self-contained, ready-to-use package - at the price, it must be a bargain!
I could find only a couple of points to criticise: the memory card might be seen as an expensive external storage medium - there is no provision for cassette storage of voices or sequencer data. MIDI Bulk Dumps may provide a low cost alternative, but this rather goes against the single unit 'workstation' concept - perhaps a disk drive will appear on the next generation of YS keyboards, as on the latest Roland LA synths. Also, the division of the voice editing between a button and a Job is rather strange in view of the careful thought devoted to the other aspects of the design - but this could easily be fixed by a software revision (hint, hint!).
Criticisms aside, this could be the synth that takes FM to the masses! I have a sneaking suspicion it is a trial model aimed at a wide audience which will lead to a new generation of professional instruments. It tries extraordinarily hard to take away the complexities and mystique of FM synthesis. Like most people I initially thought the design was peculiar, but once you start working with it you quickly realise that your old DX7 is beginning to look very difficult to use and very old fashioned in design. The YS200 shows that Yamaha have not been resting while the DX7 took over the world, and the YS synths could be the future of FM as we know it - I eagerly await the 6-operator version!
Price YS200 £699, YS100 £619.
Contact Yamaha-Kemble UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
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