Offering 240 FM sounds, with up to 8-voice polyphony, and control via MIDI mono mode, the FB-01 takes the crown as the cheapest expander on the market today. Martin Russ casts his vote.
Yamaha have finally woken up to the benefits MIDI's Mono Mode can bring in terms of flexibility to anyone working on a tight budget. Martin Russ reports.
Until recently Yamaha were not very well represented in the multi-timbral race. The DX21 could only generate two sounds at once and lots of people were very disappointed that the DX100 could only produce one sound at once, even via MIDI - I must admit that I too had been expecting more of a CZ-101/1000 lookalike. Even the CX5M, with its SFG-05 FM Generator upgrade, can only manage two sounds simultaneously (although I have seen demonstrations of prototype software from the DX Owner's Club which can have up to eight sounds at once, as well as four sound duophonic etc). But that is no longer the case...
If you were at the British Music Fair recently you may have seen a small, inoffensive little black box perched on a shelf in the Yamaha Village demo area, called the FB-01. This is Yamaha's answer to the requests for lots of FM sounds at once, and it looks like a winner! Not the catchiest of names, granted, but a very catchy unit, for inside that very small box is the capability for 8-note (last note priority) polyphony using one sound on either Omni or a single MIDI channel, right down to 8 different monophonic sounds on any 8 MIDI channels (MIDI Mode 4 at last!). And for those who are counting, that's twice as many sounds at once than you'll manage to squeeze out of a CZ-101!
Talking of CZ synths, I am sure that many people have tried using them as expanders to the currently in-vogue range of velocity-sensitive keyboards - not a very successful marriage is it? You seem to hear either just the CZ when you play quietly, and just the DX7 or whatever when you play loud. That's because the Casio CZ-101 synth is not velocity-sensitive. This is where Yamaha have certainly done their homework, for the FB-01 is not only velocity-sensitive for the FM parameters you would normally expect, like Operator Output Levels, but it also has a totally new parameter which lets you alter the Attack Rate of the Envelope Generators by changing the velocity - great for strings or flute type voices which have both slow, quiet attacks, and fast, loud attacks! The combination of the power of FM synthesis and velocity-sensitivity is one of the major reasons why the DX7 has been so popular, and this is now available on the best value-for-money package ever from Yamaha. If you were expecting a hefty price tag for this miracle of modern technology, you'd be wrong - the RRP is £299.
Technically, the FB-01 is very similar to Yamaha's SFG-05 FM Expander for the CX5M computer, but with added internal preset sounds as well as a controlling computer and user-definable configurations (of which more in a minute). The FM sound generation is of the 4 Operator, 64 Algorithm type as found in the DX100/DX27 etc, although remember that by selecting two sounds together you then have an 8 Operator, 64 Algorithm type which is more complex than the DX7's 6 Operators and more like the latest of Yamaha's FM sound generators.
There are 240 preset sounds in the FB-01, most of which should be very familiar to users of the DX100 or DX27, arranged in 5 banks of 48 voices. There are also 96 RAM voice memories for storage of your own voices, arranged in two banks of 48. Unfortunately, editing the FB-01's voices cannot be done from a DX100 or DX27 because of that extra velocity-sensitive envelope feature mentioned earlier, but you can use a CX5M and the FB-01 voicing program. I expect that the usual computer/MIDI interface suppliers will quickly produce FB-01 editing packages to satisfy demand as the FB-01 does seem ideally suited to use with computer-based sequencers. Yamaha can also supply a rack-mounting kit which holds two FB-01s - a sort of budget TX-816 rack! You can even configure two FB-01s for 16-note polyphony as well as quite a few other unusual stereo effects.
Controlling the FB-01 is not as difficult as you might imagine - even though there are only 8 buttons on the front panel. Yamaha say that the buttons are colour-coded but the coding is a bit subtle and so I am afraid that it is really just a question of spending a little time learning.
Two of the buttons are dedicated to +1/Yes and -1/No for Data Entry, a third button is used for System type functions, with another - Instrument Select - used to select which of the 8 sounds you are displaying, leaving just four buttons for the normal controlling options: Voice Select enables you to choose one of the 240 presets or one of the 96 user voices; Voice Function gives you control over things like pitch-bend range, portamento, modulation etc; Instrument Function gives you control over output levels, octave transpose, detune, stereo position and LFO on/off; and finally Instrument Assign lets you select the MIDI channel and the number of notes assigned to that channel, as well as the 'splits' - the FB-01 permits you to set an upper and lower note limit for the range over which a particular instrument will play, for as many as 8 different splits if you wish...
For overall control of the FB-01 you also get 4 preset and 16 user RAM configuration memories, which store things like which MIDI channels are used, how many notes are available to each and where the splits occur. The configuration memories do not store voice configurations, so you have to select the voices via MIDI or from the FB-01 itself - and there is also no facility to map out voices relative to incoming patch changes, as on an SPX-90 effects unit, which is a great pity.
The 4 preset configurations are the obvious ones:
Single - 8-note poly
Mono 8 - 8 mono sounds
Dual - two 4-note sounds
Split - two 4-note sounds
Using the user configuration memories you can set up much more complicated sounds - I had a combination which used a bass guitar sound in mono on the lower part of a DX100 keyboard, transposed down to an appropriate range; plus two 3-note detuned string sounds over the whole of the keyboard; with the DX100 and remaining FB-01 voice set to give a fat lead-line sound. It was easy enough to set up as long as you could keep a clear idea in your head of what you wanted (a bit of pencil and paper would not go amiss here). Hopefully that should give you some idea of this really very powerful and flexible piece of equipment.
MIDI-wise, the FB-01 has the usual In, Out and Thru sockets on the rear panel, and you can dump and load voices via MIDI as well as perform parameter editing - the User Manual which comes with the FB-01 is the best yet from Yamaha on the subject of MIDI, it gives plenty of details on exactly how to go about using MIDI to control the FB-01 - indispensible for an expander.
The internal memories etc have battery back-up, so you should have no trouble for five years or so... The Audio Output is via two quarter-inch jack sockets for the left and right channels, whilst the mains power supply is inside the unit, meaning there are no battery eliminators to break or lose here!
So there you have it - almost the perfect expander for any computer-based MIDI sequencing package and a very powerful addition to another DX synthesizer, at an amazing price - what next from Yamaha?
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Review by Martin Russ
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