Yamaha's DX21 FM Digital Synth
Julian Colbeck reviews the DX synth from Yamaha
The DX21 is the latest, best and smallest of Yamaha's renowned programmable FM digital synthesisers. It's a self-contained unit with its own keyboard and a large, unalterable slice of ROM, containing no less than 128 preset tones - but on the other hand it's still fully programmable, and is blessed with 32 performance memories which allow you to store all kinds of information like splits, layerings, MIDI data and pitch bend data. In conjunction with the umpteen individual voice-enhancing function memories this makes the DX21 the perfect answer to the plain man/woman's prayer for hassle-free playing, using FM synthesis.
There's so much going on here that it's difficult to give the DX21 a full appraisal without sounding over-technical or wordy - both of which would do this instrument a severe disfavour. So I'll be brief and to the point: First of all, the DX21 enables you to achieve really impressive results without having a clue what FM stands for, means, or can do. Yamaha have no difficulty in selecting 128 different tones (many first-class, several good, and with only the occasional duffer), and storing them in ROM (Read Only Memory) in named groups of sixteen. Thus you have a bunch of pianos, a bunch of brass sounds, bunches of percussion sounds, etc. In order to play and hear any sound, you must load a sound (or a group of them) into the 32-channel RAM voice memory, which is then controlled by 32 green push buttons on the main panel. Once you've loaded a sound (or sounds) into RAM, it's free to take part in all the fun and games that the DX21 has to offer.
Initially, you'll just want to play the sounds on the five-octave keyboard and have a good time. The keyboard itself is not touch sensitive, but the touch sensitive information is available for use if you employ a touch sensitive keyboard as a controller. Seeing as Yamaha have now made the KX5 remote keyboard available at a giveaway price, the temptation to stand up, sling on and play becomes all the more irresistible.
The main panel 32-channel memory is divided into groups A and B. Any group A sound can be combined with a group B sound, in a split or simply layered one on top of the other.
Still using any of the sounds in their inherently preset form, the 32 memory buttons have another purpose in function mode. This involves pressing the 'Function' button when a sound has been called up, and you can then choose between eight note polyphonic playing or monophonic playing, alter the pitch bend range, the portamento mode, activate the chorus, and even programme the (optional) breath controller to affect pitch, pitch bias, EG bias or volume... there's a substantial list of functions on hand here.
When it comes to using the DX21 in performance, Yamaha have made things even easier. There are 32 Performance memories - again, using the green push buttons - but this time you have to press the Function and Edit/Compare buttons to get into this mode. The Performance memories will retain individual 'functions' as applied to each voice, but they'll also store, as I mentioned, split positions, layers, pitch bend modes, and (a very handy one, this) a pre-programmed key shift. You can store which key you'll need to jump in to, and on simply pressing the Key Shift button when the moment arrives, bang! you'll be transposed into that particular key.
Performance memory information is, in the main, displayed on the central display screen. I say 'in the main', as there's no reference to MIDI information, which can also be stored.
Now the pitch bender. Who'd have thought that you could come up with a new and provocative concept for this trusty old friend? Not only can you store pitch bend range, but also different modes. With the mode set to 'Low', only the lowest note of a played chord will bend, leaving any subsequent notes at a static pitch. Initially this concept might be weird to operate, but once you've got the hang of it you'll find it beautifully expressive. Similarly, you can set the pitch bender to only bend the highest note.
Already the DX21 seems exciting, relatively simple to use and remarkably accommodating to your requirements. But we haven't even touched on the fact that it's a fully programmable FM synth yet!
The voice structure is that of Yamaha's CX5M Music Computer. You have eight algorithms and four operators, and although some of the parameters have been somewhat streamlined, the process may well prove to make FM just that little bit more comprehensible. 'No bad thing' I hear you say. Quite!
Organisation is the key to the DX21. So many parameters have been included that to make the most of them you'll need to be fairly clear about what you want, and not simply busk about hoping for the best. For instance, you can only edit sounds, or totally re-program them, once they are in the 32-channel RAM. Without due care it could be quite easy to spend hours programming and then innocently call up another bank of sounds from ROM - which neatly erases your efforts! Fortunately, there are a couple of ways to ensure this doesn't happen too often. One may be to set aside, say, channel A and B locations 1-8 for customised sounds only. In other words, when you are flipping through the ROM banks, stick to A and B 9-16 locations. The other, more permanent, way of playing safe is to load customised sounds onto cassette as soon as possible. There's no external RAM pack facility, so cassette will have to do.
Similarly, organisation plays a big part in saving your performance memories. Once again, it may be best to use half the RAM memory to store performance memory raw material. Since you can load voices stored in ROM one at a time, as well as in groups, this shouldn't be a problem. The DX21 may be small and light but it contains a large amount of heavyweight material. It even transmits and receives on any of 16 MIDI channels unlike the DX7. Particularly at the price, this one's not to be missed!
RRP £699 Inc. VAT
More details from Yamaha Musical Instruments Ltd., (Contact Details).