Yamaha CX-5M Computer
It's been a while since its launch last Summer, but Yamaha's CX5 version of the Japanese MSX home computer standard is now properly with us, in dozens of music shops throughout Britain. Rather than ask a journalist/reviewer (who'd have only limited time to try it), IT asked a team who had actually bought a CX5 how they'd found it in practice - Bournemouth's leading 16-track STUDIO 95. What follows, then, is a unique, 'user's report'. Having paid for one, and used it in their professional work, how do they regard the CX5? But first, what is a CX5M?
Home computers come and they go. Recent events have seen Acorn - manufacturers of the ubiquitous BBC-B - slide into financial chaos on the Stock Exchange. At the time of writing, their future seems uncertain. Sinclair, meanwhile, steam on with their Spectrum, and Commodore remain among the best-sellers with their 64. Newcomers, like the highly successful Amstrad system, are appearing all the time.
Most, if not all, home computers can have musical applications where, armed with suitable software and interfaces (usually MIDI), they can link to keyboards and become creative music systems.
Japan Ltd. has (rightly) realised the need to overcome the confusing mess of conflicting operating systems, whereby a Sinclair won't run Commodore software and so on. The Japanese have, therefore, opted for just one common operating system which all their home computers can work to. Joining forces, such giant names as Sony, Yamaha and others have chosen a unified (Microsoft derived) standard - the 'MSX' system, of which Yamaha's CX5M is undoubtedly the most musically orientated. The Yamaha CX5M affords all manner of musical potential. It combines Yamaha's expertise in FM synthesis (developed to an early peak with their DX7) coupled with the MSX computer standard and the ability, via MIDI, to link many different MIDI-equipped synths, drum machines etc. to the software/hardware combination. Needless to say, it functions as a conventional home computer in its own right (you can undertake a degree of word processing on it, play games with it, run some small business software etc.), but that's not the application which most musicians would, presumably, buy it for. In fact, as with the MSX invasion plan as a whole, it might well have failed to make the impact Yamaha anticipated for it, had it not been for the outstanding musical capability it offers.
In essence, the CX5M is a package, comprising the MSX computer and a keyboard unit. In addition you'll need a monitor (TV to you, guv!), and you may well find a few extra bits and pieces essential if you want to get the maximum benefit from the CX5M.
On its own, the CX5M runs a Z80 microprocessor (the standard 8-bit device) with 32K ROM and 32K RAM. A programmable voice generator (8-octave, 8-note polyphonic) is built-in, using Yamaha's famed FM system. On its own, this provides an 8-voice range with all manner of useful keyboard options to employ the (basic, as standard) YK-01 three-and-a-half octave (44 note) keyboard. If this latter unit doesn't suit, by the way, you can have, optionally, the more expensive YK-10 keyboard with its full size keys. This is by no means the end of your potential - but you have to pay more to get more, and you might well feel that the CX5M system is just 'ticking over' unless you have the already available 'extras'. And even that's not all, as Yamaha have 'open-ended' the system, promising such future introductions as the 'RX Rhythm Editor' and a 4-track real-time sequencer.
In fact, the range of add-ons and extras available for the CX5M can be seen either as a boon or a drawback. Although you can get going pretty well with a basic package, as Studio 95's Claudette Evans has pointed out to us since this review was written, you soon find that you need extra upon extra as your abilities - and ideas - grow.
So, having bought the basic CX5M system, what will the darned thing do? Well, as we've seen, it'll function as a home computer. On the musical front - which seems like its major reason for being - the CX5M with its on-board FM polyphonic synth can be used as a 46-voice 8-note poly preset/programmable synth, in stereo. Using the MIDI interface system you can link-up with other MIDI-equipped gear. You can use it for the onscreen facility, employing the real-time display for voice programming. You can (using the FM Music Composer package) also have the onscreen image show you a musical 'stave' for compositional purposes (hope you can read/write music!). Using this latter feature, notes you play into the CX5M via the either the QWERTY (typewriter-style) or musical keyboard show up on the stave, as they're played. From that, using either pre-set or programmed voicings, you can thus create up to 8 synchronised parts, compose 8-part musical notation and then play that via your own MIDI synth if you wish. And even that's just scratching the surface! Disc and cassette drive 'dumping' of data are both possible - and much more besides. In short, the expanded CX5M system is an amazingly complete package which, with the optional extras, could bring computerised music making both to non-keyboard playing composers, existing keyboard users and musicians who want to learn what all the current fuss about computerised music is based on. It doesn 't cost an arm and a leg either, and the growth potential, given the almost inevitable success of the CX5M, looks set to expand rapidly over the next year.
Having said all that, what did Studio 95's Claudette Evans make of the system which they had bought?
Firstly, I am in the main a guitarist - so what, you may ask, is one of them doing reviewing a Keyboard Computer? Well, the Yamaha CX5M Music Computer isn't so much a keyboard, more a way of the future life of the music scene as I see it. With computers becoming increasingly available to the less wealthy amongst us, it follows that their application in music will soon no longer be restricted to 'electronic' bands.
The package I chose to buy was the CX5M with the Voice Program, and Music Composer with the larger keyboard. Being already the owner of a DX7 and RX15, I felt I needed the computer to enable me, via MIDI, to link the machines together. I've always been the impetuous type, so it's get the boxes back to the studio, unpack the goodies - Manuals? Three of them - aggh! About fifty pages apiece; forget that. I'll read them later - let's have a go!
Firstly, we'll need a telly (well, we really didn't want to watch Dynasty, now did we? Right, connect all the leads - not too many of them. What shall we try first? Let's have a go at the Voicing. At this point, I started to read the manual. It's quite easy to follow really, and with the aid of the TV screen makes it very clear how the sounds can be adjusted. The manual proved most helpful here, as it gives a couple of diagrams of sounds which I copied, then edited to make new sounds, which of course can then be tape dumped. Also I've found since editing with the CX5M that my DX7 is much more manageable.
The CX5M has four operators. These are used as carriers or modulators - the carrier determines the pitch of the note produced, and the modulator the shape of the waveform. The use of one of each will produce basic sounds; by using four, many subtle and complex sounds can be created. To show the full capability of this unit, 8 sounds can be generated simultaneously, making 32 operators in all - the mind boggles!
Now let's go for the 'Music Composer' cartridge - and remember to switch off before making the change. Two lines of manuscript appear on the screen, and at this must you must read the manual to understand how the Menu Display (which appears underneath the staves) works. The shows which particular note value you have chosen, accidentals, sound source and use of keyboard or computer keys for the writing of notes. The keyboard and computer keys work hand in hand to produce music on the screen, and after a short space of time the system becomes incredibly easy to use. A basic understanding of music notation is a must, however.
I found the best way to get to grips with the Music Composer is to dive straight in, using the manual for any problems that may arise, as most of it is common sense. The five Function keys at the top of the computer are time-saving commands for tempo, time, and tape dumping and loading. The 'Select' key switches between the 'Command' and 'Notes' modes. Be careful here, as I found that a mistake in Mode can cost time, especially if you're using the keyboard rather than the computer for the writing of notes, for in this Note Mode some of the keys on the computer become notes. Luckily, the Delete/Insert is also easy to get to grips with. For the first few weeks a swear-box could also prove lucrative!
Once the score is completed, check it and play it through to detect any errors, as if a note is held wrongly on the keyboard the Menu choice note means nothing. I tend to keep a close watch on the screen, as, at times, I find it hard to distinguish between eighth and sixteenth notes.
The next step for me was to link the CX5M to my DX7 for a really loverly bass sound I'd made, and to my RX15 for the drum tracks. This I found a bit more difficult, as (a) my DX7 had gone walkies, and (b) the Music Computer and RX15 manuals didn't seem to explain the procedure clearly - or perhaps I'm just thick. (who, YOU? Never! - Ed.) Well, onward we go. Firstly, I knew I should have been hearing the sounds of the DX7, but I wasn't. Luckily a client dropped by who said he'd had the same problem, but had overcome it by writing a couple of bars of the new part then running the song for a few bars, in which case it would work - and what d'you know, it did! Minutes later, part 2 was complete. Remember, you can write up to eight separate parts if you wish.
The next confusion with linking the RX15 was whether to use the clock or MIDI functions, and after several false starts I found that the clock set to MIDI was the answer. All that was now left was to put the whole thing on tape, and then it was cheers and celebrations all round and 'Hey, come and listen to this, folks!' time.
Of course, the great thing with the CX5M is that then the whole song can be dumped onto cassette for future use. I found it to be very fussy over the type of machine used for this process. I use a Sony TCM-737, the remote function being controlled by the computer, which makes it oh-so-simple. I do advise, however, that you check it's saved correctly, as - unlike the RX15 - the CX5M doesn't have a Verify facility.
When I first started writing songs (in the dark Middle Ages of the early 70s), my notepad was a Sony TC177 4-Track (two channels in each direction), which meant bouncing tracks till that unwanted session player Whitey Noise joined in. Nowadays, with the set-up I've been describing, I can put at least three tracks down in one, all mixed to my personal satisfaction with accents, loudness, softness, tempo changes all played with frightening accuracy.
Yamaha claim about 7 to 8 minutes' playback on average, 3 minutes if every click, vroom and whistle is going. I have found, however, that if the CX5M has a very complex part followed by a simple section, it speeds up, then returns to normal tempo when confronted with the complex part again. Luckily, most pieces are reasonably equal density - perhaps it gets bored with the simple bits?
In conclusion, I must say that I'm very satisfied with the CX5M's performance in the studio. I find it easy to explain to clients and to get them to use, especially in linking to other keyboards via MIDI. Of course we mustn't forget that it's MSX and therefore compatible with other programs - and if not being used for music it will do the accounts, play games and all the other computer pastimes!
I think I might soon find myself out of a job - replaced by a computer. Well, it doesn't drink, smoke or eat, never answers back, and it's never late for a session. Ah, but does it tell jokes...?
RRP from £534 (CX5M Computer & YK-01 Keyboard only)
More details from Yamaha Musical Instruments, (Contact Details).
User Report by Claudette Evans
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