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Skyslip DX ROM & RAMs


ROM wasn't built in a day opines Jim Betteridge

So then Willie says to me, "Fair enough, Jamie old son, point taken, but on the other hand, 'What's in a name? that which we call a ROM by any other name would store as much binary encoded data', if you get my drift, Jimbo me old mucker."

"Stick to roses, Shakey," says I, with a suspect Stateside lilt, "You ain't so hip to the firmware as to be conspicuously brilliant in that department, if you dig my pitch there, Mister." William seemed to take this slight tolerably well, and toddled off in search of his quill sharpener, mumbling something about ROM-eo and EPROM-eo and the like.

Stunned by the abject inadequacy of my own American accent, I fell into a deep and ruminative silence: so, Skyslip Music Ltd are distributing a series of voice ROMs for the DX7 and DX5,1 ruminated, and in the long run they're to prove cheaper than the Yamaha equivalents. Editor Horkins ought to know about this, and right speedily I should say.

William's confusion clearly reflected the general level of public confusion concerning RAM, ROM, PROM, EPROM and EEPROM and thus I suggested that we should include an edifying introduction to this review explaining the situation to one and all:

The Edifying Introduction

The two terms most commonly applied to solid state memory (chips) at the moment are ROM and RAM, and you might possibly know that RAM stands for 'Random Access Memory' and ROM for 'Read Only Memory'. The beauty of RAM is that it is relatively inexpensive and you can write data into it or read data out at any point (any address) immediately. In other words if you want to pull out preset No 30, the synth's computer doesn't have to trundle through the first 29 presets in search of it. RAM is like a note pad in which you can write things, and then rub them out, and then write more things as you go along — it's instant and very flexible. One of its drawbacks is that it is 'volatile', meaning that as soon as its power is disconnected, ali the data is lost. For instance, I am writing this nonsense into the RAM of my word processor. If someone was to inexplicably leap into the room and pull the plug from the wall, all these words would be gone forever(!).

ROM is used to store information more permanently, and only allows the user to read information from it, it can't generally be utilised by the user to store information. Thus when you purchase your DX7 you are given a library of 128 sounds on two ROMs which, assuming you don't do anything too nasty to them, will store that information indefinitely.

Then there are PROMs: 'Programmable Read Only Memory' and EPROMs: 'Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory', which are both varieties of ROM that allow information to be written into them via the use of a special programmer or EPROM blower, as they are generally called; PROMs can be blown only once, whereas EPROMs can be re-used repeatedly like magnetic tape.

Yamaha get around the problem of the volatile nature of RAM by using EEPROM in what they are calling their RAM cartridges. This is 'Electrically Erasable Programmable Memory', and can be seen effectively as non-volatile RAM, ie it can be used just like RAM but doesn't lose its information when the power is removed.

The Skyslip RAM cartridge actually uses RAM and has a small built-in battery to prevent memory loss. This battery apparently lasts ten years and can then be replaced. The other drawback with the Skyslip RAM is that you have to remove it from the instrument BEFORE turning the power off, otherwise all the data is lost. I must admit that this seems to be a rather ludicrous requirement. At £59 the Skyslip cartridge is an insignificant £4 more than the Yamaha one, but it does have 64 memory locations as against the Yamaha's 32. Lots of nice pro's and con's to sort through.

The ROM's

These are intended as a permanent storage facility, and come complete with 64 sounds per ROM. However, if you have the necessary blowing equipment, I am told that you can re-use them. The ROM I was given is the first in a promised series of at least four, intended to be on the market by Christmas, each of which will contain 64 original sounds. The clever thing here is that the ROMs come as chips in a simple plastic cover, which fit into a ZIF socket (convenient form of chip holder) mounted on a DX-compatible cartridge. Thus after the first acquisition of ROM-chip and cartridge (£59) the extra ROM's area mere £15.99 — considerably cheaper than Yamaha's £55. You then have to suffer the inconvenience of having to take a small screwdriver to the cartridge to change chips, and the careful storage of the spare chips.

Most of the sounds on this first ROM make good use of the touch and velocity facility. Bank A (1-32) is a collection of sounds from members of the DX owner's club, Dave Bristow (the well known Yamaha programmer) and the lads at Skyslip. Bank B (33-64) contains sounds from the aural pen of Skyslip ROM designer Martin Russ.

There is a selection of strong, percussive sounds with cutting attack that defy description and thus for want of a better alternative have been landed with appellations such as 'VeeCeeYeff', 'Perky', 'Spikey', 'Duck SOUP' and 'Funkmaster'. Then you've got your more ethereal types such as 'Mysty Lane', 'Atmosphere' and 'After...'. All very usable in an arrangement somewhere.

'SAXtch' is rather fetching cross between a bowed cello and a saxophone. A good sound to represent a huge but benevolent bear in a cartoon or in the radio. Make a note of that for future reference.

Now, you might be interested to know that I once worked on the Rolf Harris show in which I was let into the innermost secrets of didgeridoo playing — it's that long wooden tube that you blow loosely like a brass instrument to make a deep, boomy roaring sound. To do it properly takes all sorts of fancy breath/mouth control, a neatly trimmed beard and real boss accent; but preset 14 on this new Skyslip ROM is yours at the touch of a key. It is called 'DidgeriDOO' (why the last three letters have to be in capitals escapes me). I have to admit that my memories of that original experience are dim beyond any claim of accurate recall, but nevertheless the digital version does give a thoroughly pleasing effect, especially if articulated with the breath controller. Now all you have to do is find a way to incorporate 'Sun Arise' in your set.

This brings us to Bank B: 'Elec Cello' is a very usable sound with a strong bowing feel brought out with the velocity sensitivity. It's slightly rounder and generally more 'electric' than the standard DX bowed cello sound which is also very good. The block string sounds such as 'DX5', '(Strings)1', 'Anal. Strgs'(?), don't manage to get over the standard DX problem of lack of orchestral warmth and richness. '((Pianet))' is not unlike the real Hohner Pianet and you can feel the sucker wrenching itself free of the tine with a progressively thinner sound as you give it more welly.

The acoustic piano is as feeble as other inexpensive attempts at the same, while 'El. Piano 2' is not at all bad. The original DX electric piano voice is unashamedly like the Fender Rhodes and achieves an excellent replication. Thus there is perhaps little point in attempting further Rhodes impersonations. This voice has more of a round, middly, resonant sound that is far from unpleasant, although it gets a little thick and muffled if you try to do chords in the left hand in too low an octave. A good voice however and very responsive.

Other piano sounds include 'CP80' which predictably offers the real thing absolutely no competition, although it is again a very usable, hard piano sound for cutting through in a mix. There's a useful version of 'FM Piano' and a Wurlitzer voice that breaks-up in such an appallingly real way as to remind me of why I had to get rid of my Wurlitzer and how much the keyboard player's lot has improved over the last few years. As with all the electric piano sounds what you don't get is the plague of inconsistency that was part of the fun(?) of the real things.

There are a couple of good 'Guitar' sounds which are really the keyboard player's answer to the lead guitar sound, but what momentary aberration lent the young Russ the audacity to associate voice 15 with the sound of an acoustic guitar, I'm at a loss to comprehend: a very average sound altogether, and a truly dreadful approximation of an acoustic stringed instrument of any description.

FOR: RAM: 64 memories ROM: Inexpensive

AGAINST: RAM: Data easily lost
ROM: Inconvenience of swapping chips
Battery change after 10 years

After a small selection of reasonable bass and organ sounds comes the 'unashamed section' in which names are very nearly named and voices are not particularly closely approximated: 'Synth. 106', 'Synth. JP8', 'Synth. OB8', 'Synth. JX8'. To sum up any of these instruments with a single sound seems a little crass, although in the case of the 106 and JX8, I can almost see what he means. It's a little demeaning, however.

Finally, I shouldn't leave out 'Wimbledon' which sounds like a game of electronic tennis, or something; or a real game of tennis using an over-ripe honey dew melon instead of a tennis ball. Maybe I SHOULD leave it out?

RRP: £59 each (additional ROMs £15.99)

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Simmons MTM

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Studio Diary

International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


International Musician - Feb 1986

Review by Jim Betteridge

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