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Yamaha TG100 General MIDI Tone Module

A lightweight multi-timbral module, with 28-voice polyphony and 192 sounds, which also acts as a MIDI Interface for your computer — where's the catch? Paul Wiffen looks hard but just can't seem to find it.



Now here's a funny thing. For some reason I never seem to get around to using any of the Macintosh sequencers I own, on any of the Macs I also own. The basic problem is that I spend most of the time constantly moving from A to B, and the time and energy required to set up a Mac for music is not inconsiderable: I have to take along my Opcode Studio 3, find an extra power socket to plug it into, and then discover I've forgotten the necessary Apple cable to hook it up to the computer. Even a Powerbook, which is a joy to use for writing articles and developing other projects, seems to be a pain when it comes to sequencing. I really hate the fact that Apple don't put MIDI sockets directly on their computers. I understand the economics perfectly; far more people buy Macs to do DTP or run databases than ever use them for music (indeed that's my principal reason for buying Macintosh, and to date the only music-related program I have used regularly is Alchemy). But by the time I've dug out the interface, found all the necessary cables and hooked everything up to whatever MIDI gear is lying around, all my enthusiasm has evaporated. I'd like to be able to connect one cable directly to one module, and then plug in a set of phones to hear what I'm doing; but then that's unrealistic, isn't it?

Well, I thought it was, until in a chance conversation at Frankfurt, Yamaha's Jim Corbett dropped the bombshell (almost as an afterthought) that their new General MIDI module also acted as a MIDI interface for the Macintosh. Suddenly I was all ears. Did this mean that the process of using the Mac for music on the move might be somewhat less daunting? Ever since then I have been ringing around, desperately trying to get hold of one. At last I'm happy to report to those of you who can empathise with my predicament (ie. those whose Macs don't reside permanently in their home studios) that not only has all this telephonic activity resulted in a TG100 sitting underneath the Mac on which I am currently writing this article, but that it is connected by a single cable to the Mac, and that it has just finished playing a General MIDI sequence I wrote on a Roland Sound Canvas without any of the inappropriate sound assignments that normally crop up when you first play a sequence back on anything other than the MIDI hardware that was used to create it (you know: snare playing the sax solo, orchestra hit playing the piano arpeggios, flute playing the hi-hat part). I am a happy man.

THE GENERAL MIDI CONNECTION



It is all too easy for those of us in the industry to assume that, because most of the huddling and whispering in corners at trade shows and other industry gatherings for at least the last year has been concerned with the pros and cons of General MIDI, the world and its spouse is fully conversant with the concept. For those of you who live in the real world (instead of the virtual reality of Vapourwareland), what follows is a quick synopsis of its principal features and advantages. Those of you for whom this is old hat can pass without further ado to the next section.

It will not have escaped the notice of anyone who ever used more than one piece of MIDI gear that if you feed into one instrument MIDI performance data designed for another, the results are unpredictable, to say the least. At best you can hope to make out the melody and/or harmony of an individual track, played by a completely different timbre; at worst you will find a drum track playing a complex piano part or vice versa. Multiply this potential cacophony by the number of tracks in the average sequence and you have a recipe for the musical equivalent of Armageddon.

The problem arises from the fact that MIDI can only define note numbers (pitches) together with a program change, which on two instruments, even from the same manufacturer, might represent sounds as diverse as 'Log Drum' and 'French Horn'. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that several different systems have evolved for linking different drum and percussion sounds to individual note numbers of unspecified MIDI channels. You can see how the door is wide open for Babel-like confusion to flood in. Many are the times I have spent longer in getting a sequence to play back in a meaningful manner, on new MIDI equipment, than was spent writing and recording it in the first place.

The masterful simplicity dubbed General MIDI (or GM for short) which solves this problem in two fell swoops consists essentially in associating each MIDI Program Change with a particular category of sound and assigning specific notes of a particular MIDI Channel to individual drum and percussion sounds. Those of you who have been keeping your eyes on evolving MIDI standardisation will not be surprised to learn that MIDI Channel 10 has been selected as the drum/percussion channel (Roland have been using it as their rhythm channel for years) and that C1 (MIDI Note Number 36) triggers a kick drum, D1 (38) a snare, F#1 (42), G#1 (44) and A#1 (46) closed, closing and open hi-hat respectively, and the white keys between F1 and D2 (41, 43, 45, 47, 48 and 50) play a set of toms in ascending order of pitch. This is a convention which has been supported by an increasing number of manufacturers as more and more keyboards and modules feature drum kits. Other drum and percussion sounds (far too numerous to mention here) are assigned note numbers up the keyboard. Similarly, I will not list all 128 of General MIDI's Program Change allocations, but merely mention that 1 is 'Grand Piano', 25 'Nylon Guitar', 41 'Violins' and 110 'Bagpipes'.

Of course, General MIDI assignments are not compulsory. There is nothing to force manufacturers to use these Program Change numbers for the instruments specified, and they certainly won't apply to instruments already on the market. It is also of far more value on 'consumer' music products than on pro instruments. All that General MIDI offers is a standard for people creating sequences, so that specific timbres will match the parts they have programmed. Send such a sequence to any General MIDI product, and you should get a pretty accurate representation of the instruments in its creator's mind. Of course, it all depends on manufacturers not abusing the use of the general MIDI logo by applying to products which don't have all 128 sounds — I have visions of product specialists running around looking for a bird tweet sample (124) or a helicopter (126) the night before the sample ROM is sent off for mass copying — but the odd variation from the standard will surely be a lot better than the complete pot-luck that preceded the General MIDI allocation.

THE INTERFACE ANGLE



Of course, adherence to the General MIDI spec is just one of the TG100's features, and in this Yamaha were beaten to the market by Roland over six months ago. But there are several other aspects to the TG100 which make it uniquely useful. The direct connection to your computer (be it Mac, Atari, or PC-compatible) is a major breakthrough. Obviously there is no great feat in connecting directly to the ST — Atari have long allowed any musician to do that — but I think I'm correct in asserting that the TG100 is the first device of any kind that can be a MIDI interface for both a Mac and a PC clone.

Connection to the Mac is via a standard Apple 8-pin mini-DIN cable (like all other Mac MIDI interfaces) and for PC-compatibles you will need to lay your hands on an 8-pin mini-DIN to 25 or 9-pin D-connector cable, depending on which type of clone you have. Personally I'm glad that I didn't have to do this, although Yamaha have thoughtfully provided the wiring configurations in the back of the manual, should you need to get busy with a soldering iron to make up the correct lead.

I tried running both Vision and Performer on the Mac, using the TG100 as a MIDI interface. I connected a master keyboard to the TG100's MIDI In and the other devices to its MIDI Out, and it performed flawlessly. Of course, as the TG100 is a multi-timbral synth as well, the TG100's voices will normally respond to all 16 MIDI channels, so if you want some sequencer tracks to trigger only other MIDI devices, you should set the TG100's MIDI Receive parameter for each of those channels to Off. In this way you can use a combination of sounds from the TG100 and other devices without any of them wasting polyphony by needlessly doubling parts.

I did also run the TG100 from an ST, running both Cubase and Notator without problems, but as this involved only the standard MIDI connections it is hardly surprising. I'm afraid no MS-DROS computers are allowed in my house (my insurance doesn't cover antiques), so others will have to test the compatibility of the PC-1 and PC-2 settings for use with these machines. However, it looks as though Yamaha are doing their level best to be compatible with everyone. As I only know one person who uses a PC for sequencing (the Editorial Director of SOS Publications, as it happens, who lives too far from the great metropolis to boldly go visit), we'll just have to give them a general thumbs up for 'cross-platform compatibility' (this year's newest jargonese).

PLUG IN AND PLAY



My favourite toy of the last few years, the Zoom 9002 (which nobody would let me review because it's a guitar effects box), had a great feature in that it let you plug in an external sound source to jam along with. Well, my favourite new toy of the next few years, the TG100, offers you a similar facility, except that what you would normally connect to its audio input is the instrument you are using to jam along with. There's a clip LED which lets you know if you are overdoing your guitar histrionics, and an input level control which lets you do something about it if you are. The beauty of this facility is that you don't need to mess about with a mixer just to hear a guitar part or vocal with your TG100 sequence. Instead you can listen to the whole thing on headphones, or a pair of powered monitors plugged directly into the TG100. This effectively reduces a travelling writing setup (OK, my travelling writing setup) to a guitar, Zoom 9002, TG100, and notebook computer, plus a MIDI controller (maybe the new Novation keyboard) to actually input the notes if step-time programming isn't your bag.

THE SOUNDS



Of course, all these excellent features — General MIDI, the Mac/PC interface, the audio input, the headphone out — would be nothing if the sounds in the TG100 were unusable. However, I'm happy to report that this is not the case. Au contraire, I think many of them may well end up on finished recordings. The drum kits are uniformly excellent, with not only standard, room, and power kits, but also brushes, electronic (with more than a hint of classic 'six appeal'), and the truly excruciating analogue sounds à la TR808, 606 etc. (which sound every bit as awful to me as the originals).



"The TG100 is not only a GM sound module — it is also the first device of any kind that can be a MIDI interface for both a Mac and a PC clone."


The orchestral percussion features some of the best timpani I have heard from anything, ever, and fans of latin and other percussion will be pleased to hear that the top half of the keyboard is crammed with it, whichever kit you have selected.

The pianos — all six of them — respond over the entire MIDI range, and the multi-samples are extremely well-matched across the keyboard (I really had trouble spotting where the samples change). In the best of all possible worlds one might wish that they didn't go into their loops quite so early, as this tends to make sustained notes unnaturally bright; but then that never did Bruce Hornsby any harm, did it? Don't forget that Yamaha have squeezed over 200 sounds into this little box, and pianos are among the most memory hungry of instruments. The 'GrandPno' has the same authenticity which made the EMT10 such a big hit, despite its 8-note polyphony. With the TG100 you can use all 28 voices, if you stamp on the sustain pedal. Fans of Yamaha's CP series of electric pianos will need look no further than 'El. Grand' for a friendly sound, whilst traditionalists will be pleased to see that Yamaha remember what electric pianos sounded like before FM (even if most producers don't).

Moving on to other sounds, 'Harpsich' has a very satisfying 'quill pluck' (though purists might criticise the fact that it is velocity sensitive), and the 'Clavinet' gives you that authentic buzz. The tuned percussion ('Glocken', 'Xylophon', 'Marimba', 'Tubulbel') are all very good, and I sat playing the 'Dulcimer' for much longer than the review required. The first two organ sounds cover drawbars and percussion adequately, although the mod wheel tremolo was too fast for my personal taste. 'RockOrgn' was much more my cup of tea, with the Leslie effect sampled in (although of course this means that it gets faster and slower as you go up and down the keyboard). A very pleasant (but not huge) church organ and reed organ precede an authentic 'Harmonica', 'Accordion' and 'TangoAcd' (if that's your bag), and then we come to the guitars.

This is the one area where I found the TG100 to be a bit weak. Of course, bright 'n' sparkly acoustic guitars take loads of memory, but I had high expectations of the 'NylonGtr' at least (because of the sounds in the EMT10). Maybe memory space was running short when they came to this sound, because it seemed much less smooth across the keyboard (a typical result of reducing the number of multi-samples), and the loops seemed much more obvious. Perhaps I have just got fussier since I sold my EMT10. Still, the authentic sound of the nylon strings is still there, and in a mix I'm sure it would be fine.

Sadly, I can't say the same of the other guitars. The 'SteelGtr' and 'CleanGtr' go into their loops much too soon for the sound to ring true, and the distorted and overdrive sounds are the usual sampled disappointments (only the original Mirage disk ever seems to have captured the sound without on-board distortion and FX). The 'JazzGtr' is much more authentic, but it's still not a sound I would ever use. 'MuteGtr' and 'Harmonics' are much more useful, and pretty good. In fairness to Yamaha, I have come across a much worse complement of guitar sounds in much more expensive gear, and to satisfy my picky taste in guitar sounds would probably have used twice the ROM the TG100 has available. As I would always use a real guitar and FX, plugged into the audio in, this is fairly irrelevant in any case (unless you are relying on the TG100 as your sole source of guitar sounds).

The bass guitars are back to the high standard of authenticity. I particularly liked 'WoodBass' and 'Pick Bass' but there are also 'Fretless' and 'SlapBas1 & 2' for variety. 'SynBas1 & 2', however, were a real revelation. Normally these are the sounds you pass hurriedly over when looking at a general sound module, but here they are both excellent. The first, though ideal for any overtly electronic music, features a little too much resonance for general use, but the second, with its meaty texture and sharp attack, would work in virtually any style of music.

Next come the bowed strings, and again I was delighted to find that the excellent 'Ensemble' sounds from the EMT10 have made it but that they have been augmented by individual 'Violin', 'Viola', 'Cello' and 'Contra' multi-samples. Whilst these may not be the thick, lush carpets that most people expect from strings (see 'Ensemble 1 & 2' for these), they will be invaluable to people who want a more 'chamber' quality to their string parts. I found that doubling them with the ensemble strings produced a very 'Marcato' effect which gave me the best of both worlds: rich, but precise. My only criticism is that the default LFO speed is much too fast to give a decent vibrato to the individual strings, and try as I might, I could find no mention in the manual of a way to change it from the front panel (but see my SysEx experiments later for the solution).

In contrast, the 'TremStrg' patch, although a very pleasant sound, was too slow for traditional tremelando effects but one listen to the 'Pizzicato' (a much more common requirement) and all was forgiven. They are among the best I have heard at any price.

'Harp' certainly justifies its name, and I was delighted to find the 'Timpani' was mapped across the whole keyboard (the sound is only available over an octave in the Orchestral Percussion Kit).

The synth strings aren't as synthetic as one might expect, but are very pleasant, and the 'AahChoir' and 'OohChoir' were recognisably human, unlike so many choir samples (although my nostalgic memory of the EMT10 Choir is better still).

Passing rapidly over the 'Orch Hit' (I hate every one I've ever heard), we come to the brass. These are a little variable (one of the trombone samples is out of tune, and there is a click at the top end of the trumpet range), but the basic timbre is good and the vibrato fits much better than that set up for the strings. The 'French Horn' is very good, and the 'BrasSect' has a lot of punch.



"Overall, it is difficult to fault the TG100. Yamaha have gone to considerable lengths to make the TG100 useful to as many people as possible."


The reeds are much more consistent; the 'Soprno', 'Alto', 'Tenor' and 'Bari Saxes' are amongst the best I have ever come across. The 'Oboe' and 'English Horn' sound very sweet, and 'Bassoon' and 'Clarinet' are unmistakable. I could hear no difference between 'Flute' and 'Piccolo' — presumably they are given different presets to fit the General MIDI numbering — but they sound fine in the upper register (still, an extra sample wouldn't have gone amiss for the lowest octave of the flute's range). I bet many parents wish their childrens' recorders sounded as sweet as the patch bearing that name, and 'Pan Flute' is very effective (especially with lots of reverb).

Covering the remaining sounds in groups — it's the only way to get through them all, I'm afraid — the eight synthesizer lead sounds are as good as the previous synth basses, and can also be used in the lower register. The eight pads cover many popular synth textures to the same high standard. The eight 'atmospheres' are not as literal as their names might suggest ('Rain', 'Echoes', 'Goblin' — yes, 'Goblin'!) but they are very useful, all being pitched musical sounds instead of the sound FX I was expecting.

The ethnic section is pretty good, albeit brief ('Sitar', 'Banjo' and 'Fiddle' are the more notable inclusions here), and the associated percussion instruments support it well (there are no tablas, however).

The last eight General MIDI patches are not things I would ever use (apart from the 'FretNoiz', which sounds very familiar), but they are obviously there to allow GM instruments to be used for games and sound FX. 'Seashore', 'Tweet', 'Helicoptr', 'Applause' and 'Gunshot' live up to their names particularly well.

That covers the 128 patches in the machine which are assigned to General MIDI Program Changes. The other 96 are a little trickier to access, as they can only be called up by the Yamaha Disk Orchestra, or by Roland CM64 program numbers. These seem to be, in the main, edited versions of the 128 GM patches or percussion sounds available within the drum kits, and the principal reason for their existence is to allow compatibility with sequences intended for the Disk Orchestra or Roland CM64.

USER EDITING



The presence of these edited sounds led me on to trying a little editing myself. There are 64 internal Voice locations, whose contents you can edit; the first 64 GM sounds are automatically loaded into the internal memories on power-up, although you can copy any of the other voices into the internal bank. The amount of editing you can do from the front panel is fairly limited. If the sound is composed of two elements then you can set the individual levels, detune, and panning of each, and then rename the sound. (You can do the same with a 1-element Voice, but it hardly seems worth it, as these parameters, plus Reverb Send, EG Attack and Release, can be set for each multi-timbral Part without going into Voice Edit.)

Serious Voice parameter editing seems to be possible only via SysEx (unless I'm missing some documentation), but using the reference tables at the back of the manual I was able to set up a editor in C-Lab's PolyFrame to enable me to do such things as change modulators (LFO speed and depth), pitch and volume envelopes, and even basics like source waveform. Although these are obviously parameters which many people will never want to touch — preset voices are the raison d'etre of the TG100 — it would be nice if there were a way to edit these parameters from the front panel, however tortuous, for those who don't have access to SysEx editing.

Just before I switched off the TG100, my eye spotted a warning in the manual that all edited voices are lost on powering down. This is obviously to save on the cost of battery-backed RAM, and forced me to try using SysEx to save edits. This worked fine with all the different sequencers I tried, involving only a very short batch of data that can be sent during a 2-bar count-in. The dump includes the TG100's System Mode, Multi, Common, and Part Edit settings, Drum Setup, and Internal Voice Bank data for all 64 programs.

Whilst playing with SysEx, I discovered the solution to a minor but irritating problem with the TG100. The machine defaults to a mode in which, whenever MIDI data is received, its display switches to a screen showing velocity meters for each of the 16 MIDI channels. This is a useful diagnostic tool whilst sequencing, but it becomes irritating when you're just scrolling through sounds, as it requires a front panel button push to return the TG100 to patch select mode. However, I was very pleased to discover that you can turn this automatic switch mode off, so that patch auditioning becomes more streamlined. I saved my SysEx Dump with this setting.

THE FINAL ANALYSIS



Overall, it is difficult to fault the TG100. Sure, some of the sounds aren't quite everything you've ever asked for, but look how many they have crammed in for the price. It certainly has a more varied sound complement than any other instrument I'm familiar with. Yamaha have gone to considerable lengths to make the TG100 useful to as wide a range of people as possible, with a built-in Mac and PC interface (for those whose computer manufacturer ignore the MIDI market) on the hardware side, and General MIDI, Disk Orchestra, and CM64 Program Change assignments. Along with the audio input, for guitarists and other non-MIDI instrumentalists, this all adds up to the perfect composing package, especially for the muso on the move. And don't be surprised if, when you get the sequence to the studio, you can't find better replacements for half the sounds you've used.

The TG100 is already proving more useful than I thought from hearing the spec, and if anyone wants to take it away from me they'd better bring some heavies with them. Wouldn't be much easier for everyone if I just send a cheque?

Further information

Yamaha TG100 £349 inc VAT.

Yamaha-Kemble Music, (Contact Details).


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Shape Of Things To Come

Next article in this issue

Orient Expression


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Jul 1992

Gear in this article:

Synthesizer Module > Yamaha > TG100


Gear Tags:

Digital Synth
Polysynth

Review by Paul Wiffen

Previous article in this issue:

> Shape Of Things To Come

Next article in this issue:

> Orient Expression


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