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Control Room

Natural synthesis

Yamaha VL1m

Article from The Mix, December 1994

Virtual synthesis in a box

The original Yamaha VL1 was hailed as the next big thing in synthesis, and rightly so. Now the repackaging of virtual synthesis technology has begun, and the first model to appear is the VL1-m module. Roger Brown is virtually in his bank manager's office already...

Every so often in the world of synthesis, a new approach is taken which changes our perception of sound.

Roland's generation of digitally controlled analogue synths offered unprecedented control over sound programming, culminating in products like the now famous JX8P. For synths to offer dedicated sound patches and circuitry, rather than the sound being the result of an engineer's patching was a giant leap forward.

Then Yamaha introduced their FM synthesis, most famously on the DX7, and another great step forward was taken. For the first time, players had a synth in which control and expression were considered to be on a par with 'real' instruments. It seems amazing to think about it now, but people used to rave about how 'real' the piano, brass and strings on the DX7 were.

Roland then kicked the ball into another court, with the introduction of sample and synthesis. Using samples further increased people's perception of synth sounds as being 'real', but also sharpened up our ability to distinguish between live sounds and the essentially static nature of samples.

For the past ten years, synth manufacturers have been content to repackage the sample & synthesis approach, increasing the verisimilitude of sounds by increasingly effective use of reverb, chorus and delay, to re-introduce an element of 'naturalness' to the sound.

With the advent of affordable sampling, this approach is beginning to sound a little tired, and the main reason for the analogue revival has been a retreat into the warmth of unstable voltage control. The shifting nature of analogue sounds has given them a new naturalness to our ears; we no longer perceive them as simply weird noises, and warm to their instability in the same way we do to the shifting harmonics of 'real' instruments.

La meme c'est plus...

Yamaha introduced the concept of acoustic modelling to the world of synthesis only six months ago with the VL1. Boasting a walnut-effect keyboard with duophonic capabilities, it was able to produce the sounds of the woodwind and brass sections of a traditional orchestra. Using the mod wheel and optional breath controller, the VL1 provided expressive control over the player characteristics mentioned above.

Now, Yamaha have lowered the price of the VL1 to £3,200 and given us the VL7 and VL1-m package to play with, at an almost affordable £2,200. With dealer discounts expected to place these two models in the marketplace at under two grand, once again Yamaha have introduced an affordable synth with extremely playable 'real' sounds. This time it's the brass, bass and woodwind families' turn to be featured.

My background is in sequencing, and the VL1 is supposed to be all about live playing, but this synth is so exciting it should not be overlooked by anyone. All the players who tried the VL1-m in The Mix studio found it to be a truly expressive instrument, while the sequencists found the VL1-m the most exciting thing they'd used since the DX7.

Its sounds are simply amazing. I'm sure you've heard all about how good this synth is at replicating the sounds of 'real' instruments, but what impresses me is its ability to produce the sound of 'unreal' instruments. Whether replicating a funky sax or fine-tuning the flanging of a ride down the Mad Tube with the BC2, the 'player' elements of a voice are easily controlled, until the desired effect is achieved.

Virtual tones

For those unfamiliar with computer-based physical modelling of sounds (or Virtual Acoustics, as Yamaha call it), the concept is that the onboard computer of the VL1 holds models of instruments and their properties in its memory. These models include the resonance of the material the flute, pipe or violin is made of, and the physical dimensions and harmonic properties of that instrument (or 'element', as Yamaha call it).

Add to this one of a range of 'player characteristics', and you produce a model of a 'virtual' instrument, which Yamaha's custom sound chips then proceed to output as sound. There's a clear parallel with the concept of ray-tracing, in which a three dimensional model of an object is mapped out, then coloured according to the angles of refraction of light sources hitting that object.

Building blocks

Yamaha divide a virtual instrument up into a 'driver', and the 'resonant system' or pipe/string. If we understand the driver as being the input into an instrument, and the resonant system as being the body of that instrument, things become more clear.

The drivers of the VL1-m are those of reed vibration (as in an oboe), lip vibration (the way a trumpet is played), air vibration (as in a flute) and string vibration (as on a bass or violin). The resonant system consists of the pipes or string of the instrument in question.

This level of programming is not accessible to us mere mortals. Instead, Yamaha supply models on disk. The interesting thing about this is the ability to couple any type of driver to any type of pipe or string. This means you have examples such as BowBamBoo, which emulate the sound of a bamboo pipe being played by a violin bow. The astonishing thing about these instruments is how natural they sound, even 'though the model in question is physically impossible!

The next stage in the VL1-m's voice architecture are the modifiers, and although you don't have direct programming access to the instrument block, these allow a marked degree of control over the final timbre of the-voice. The modifiers comprise: Harmonic Enhancer; Dynamic Filter; Frequency Equalizer; Impulse Expander and a Resonator.


Taking them in order, the Harmonic Enhancer lets you manipulate the harmonic structure of the sound, and create radical timbral variations within the instrument family you have chosen as the basis for an element.

In a structure reminiscent of FM synthesis, the Harmonic Enhancer has a Carrier and a Modulator block, both of which have high-pass filters that can be used to roll off the low-pass frequencies between 17Hz and 11.2Hz. Overdrive boosts the modulator or carrier signal, forcing a controllable degree of distortion to alter the harmonic structure. Level and Balance can also be set for the carrier, with Phase and Index determining how much of the modulator is applied to the carrier signal.

Next up is the Dynamic Filter, which is similar to the dynamic filters found in conventional synths. Selectable high-pass, bandpass, band elimination, low pass filters and a wet/dry balance parameter allow delicate variations to the sound. Coupled with the Frequency Equalizer, which is a 5-band parametric with frequency, Q and level control, these offer detailed sculpting of the VL1-m's timbres.

The last two are the Impulse Expander and Resonator, which work in conjunction to simulate the effect of the instrument's resonant system or sound box, and can also be used to simulate the acoustic environment in which the instrument is played. The Impulse Expander is good at simulating metallic resonances, and is effective at simulating everything from brass and metal-bodied woodwinds, through to the 'metallic' sound of analogue instruments such as a Moog. Listen to Mr Mogue on Re:Mix, and you'll hear this in effect.

The analogue patches available for the VL1-m are all truly amazing, both in the real gutsiness of their sound and in the level of player expressiveness they offer. It's like playing an old Minimoog, without any of the random phase-shifting of unstable voltage tunings, and is vastly more expressive than the sampled analogue patches appearing on most synths these days.

The Resonator produces a woody resonance effect, suitable for wood-bodied instruments, whether violin, oboe or bassoon. Woodiness being a 'warmth' factor, adding a little of this to a sound can often spring a dead voice into life.

Response to external controllers, such as Yamaha's BC2 breath controller, can be set to respond to an individual's own style.

Vibe controller

The Controller section provides realtime control over the 'player' characteristics of the instrument. Yamaha have defined eight player characteristics, all of which can be assigned to any external MIDI controller such as a breath controller, modulation wheel, foot controller and so forth.

First up is 'Throat', which emulates the characteristics of a player's throat or bowing arm. 'Pressure' and 'Growl' are next up, with the former simulating the amount of pressure applied to the virtual reed, mouthpiece or string, while the latter adds a periodic pressure modulation in imitation of the grumbling effect often heard in saxes and the like. Embouchure reproduces the puckering of the lips, or force of the bow on a string, while 'Tonguing' simulates a sax player's technique. 'Pitch' changes the length of the air pipe or string, thereby altering the pitch of the sound. And the wonderfully titled 'Scream', drives the entire system into chaotic oscillation for some truly mad sounds, which can only be achieved with physical modelling. Have a listen to 'Mad Tube' on Re:Mix to hear this in full effect.

Finally, Yamaha offer control over 'Damping and Absorption' which simulates both the effects of air friction in the pipe or on the string, and of high-frequency losses at the top end.

Effects Return

In either the studio or the live arena, effects are the finishing touch, which polish the 'presence' of a voice, and make it sit comfortably in the mix. I have never been much of a fan of onboard effects in the past, finding their sense of timbral space 'tacked on', rather than the integral part of the sound they should be. Somehow, mixing this in from outboard effects through a desk has always ended up far more integrated, perhaps because the choice of effects and their levels in the mix are far more controllable. Yamaha's ProMix 01 impressed me at the APRS with its onboard effects, but as this was still a mixer, I wasn't prepared for the integral nature of the VL1-m's Reverb, Modulation and Feedback Delay effects.

Yamaha really seem to have their chips in order when it comes to treating sounds in the digital domain. When the sound is already digital, it is entirely logical to compute factors such as delay length while it is in that domain, rather than the analogue-to-digital and back again approach normally involved in patching into a desk.

When using physical modelling as the basis for sound generation, this adding of effects entirely in the digital domain becomes even more intelligent, as the ambience of a sound (its place in real space) is actually as much part of the soundgenerating process as as it is of the later stage of room reverberation (An advanced form of feedback? - Ed).

Simply put, the VL1-m's effects do not sound like effects, but form an integral part of the sound's character, and transform the whole way in which we perceive them. In fact, so authentic were the guitar sounds emanating from the VL1-m, that the Guitarist team rushed through from next door, hoping to get their mitts on some kind of vintage Rickenbacker.

As with all good synths, the program change table is mappable to your own requirements. No GM tyranny here!

In Conclusion

Any move towards making this exciting new synthesis available to a wider audience must be seen as positive. This is the first synth in a decade with something for everyone, be they players or sequencists. I've not been so animated about anything recently myself, bar the return of analogue synthesis to the MIDI domain with the release of products like the Bass Station and the SE1.

Against this must be weighed the fact that the VL1-m and the VL7 still seem like very expensive synths, taking into account their essentially monophonic nature. But this is an essential part of the market mechanism, and I confidently predict that in less than a year's time, the likes of the VL1-m will be available at a price even I can afford. This can only be good news for us all, as this is truly a ground breaking step in sound generation.

With Korg's new Wavedrum utilising some of the same principles and exciting players in much the same way as the VL series, perhaps these new virtual machines will begin the move away from the artificial distinction that is still perceived between 'real' and 'synthesised' instruments. A violin doesn't grow on a tree either!

The essentials...

Price inc VAT: £2,200

More From: Yamaha-Kemble Music (U.K.) Ltd., (Contact Details)


Roger's demo of VL1-m patches:

1. Moby (Using Pitch Bend, Aftertouch and Mod wheel.)
2. Guitar Hero (Utilising the Mod Wheel.)
3. Bagpipes (Controlled with a breath controller and Mod wheel.)
4. Digeritek (A tekno didgeridoo, you won't believe it till you hear it, Aftertouch sensitive.)
5. More Grunge C3 (The sound of an analogue synth distorted through a guitar amp.)
6. More Grunge - C4 (Add vibrato and tremelo with the Mod Wheel.)
7. QuiScivit? (Percussion voice which is controlled by the breath controller.)
8. Mr Mogue (Vibrato from Mod Wheel.)
9. Mad Tube (Synth guitar cross, change timbre with Mod Wheel.)
10. Tube Bass (Velocity controls filter cut off, Mod Wheel controls delay time.)


Polyphony Mono/Duophonic (depending on how the two elements are used.)
Voices 128 Voice locations.
Effects Reverb, Modulation and Feedback Delay
Inputs Breath Controller (Front) MIDI (Rear)
Outputs Stereo (Left (Mono) + Right)
Controllers Pressure, Embouchure, Pitch, Vibrato, Tonguing, Amplitude, Scream, Breath Noise, Growl, Throat Formant, Dynamic Filter, Harmonic Enhancer, Damping and Absorption. (All mappable to any external MIDI controller.)
Controls Power On/Off, Volume, Data Dial, Function & cursor buttons.

Previous Article in this issue

Control freak

Next article in this issue

Liquid engineering

Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


The Mix - Dec 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

Control Room

Re:Mix #6 Tracklisting:

22 Yamaha VL1-m demo
23 Yamaha VL1-m sounds

This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at - Re:Mix #6.

Review by Roger Brown

Previous article in this issue:

> Control freak

Next article in this issue:

> Liquid engineering

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