One hundred 12-bit PCM sounds and comprehensive programmability make the latest addition to the Yamaha RX range of drum machines one to watch. Howard Massey is on the beat.
Yamaha's latest beat box offers both a lot more and a fair amount less than its predecessors, is it a winning compromise?
NUMEROLOGY: THE STUDY of numbers and of their supposed influence on human affairs. The numerologists on the Yamaha marketing team have obviously made a connection between the name of their best selling FM synthesiser and its massive sales. And so we have a new Yamaha drum machine called the RX7.
The general philosophy behind the RX7 seems to be to fill the gap between the low-priced, no-frills approach of the RX17 and the comprehensive features (and price) of the RX5. To a certain degree, it succeeds but, as we shall see, Yamaha have added so many new features - not to mention great sounds - to the new instrument that, despite the major limitation of having only stereo outputs, the RX7 seems to surpass the RX5 in many areas.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: what does it sound like? Well, put it this way: the RX7 has no less than 100 16-bit PCM sampled sounds to work with. Of these, there are around 50 sounds that will be familiar to RX5/RX17 users including electric bass, DX7 clavinet, marimba, brass and orchestra, and several reversed drum and cymbal sounds (because the RX7 doesn't have the "reverse" feature that the RX5 does). Then there are about another 10 that are, shall we say "expendable" - such gems as vocal "Ha"'s, "Uh"'s, and "Get funky"'s - and then another 40 or so that are nothing short of terrific.
This last group includes well-recorded ambient snare drums, bass drums, toms and tom flams, along with a crystal clear bell tree, a beautiful steel drum, power and muted electric guitar notes and chords, and, for all you Kraftwerk fans out there, a number of cheesy-but-wonderful "rhythm ace" samples, camera shutter clicks, car door slams, and a strange Euro-rock "Bon" vocal sample.
And if you intend to use the RX7 for standard drum kit sounds, you have lots of choices: nine different bass drum samples, 10 different snare samples, two rim shots, 17 toms, four cymbals, and four hi-hats.
The RX7 looks very much like a scaled-down RX5, with the same 20 dedicated command keys, 10-key keypad, and 24 instrument keys. While the instrument keys themselves are not velocity-sensitive, the RX7 voices do respond to velocity if it comes in the form of MIDI data. There's also a backlit two-line 32-character LCD, along with a series of status lights (for Pattern/Song mode, internal/external clock and so on). And, of course, there are the usual Stop/Continue, Start, and accent keys, along with four front-panel sliders for overall volume, click volume, tempo adjustment, and data entry.
On the rear panel, you'll find a single cartridge slot (for standard Yamaha RAM4 cartridges only; the RX7 doesn't accept ROM "waveform" cartridges), left/mono and right line audio outputs (on standard ¼" jacks), a headphone output, and a separate click output. There's also a footswitch input, MIDI In, Out, and Thru, and a cassette interface for data storage and retrieval. No input is available for external FSK clock signal because the RX7 can only be externally synchronised to MIDI timing signals.
FOR THOSE OF you used to programming Yamaha drum machines or sequencers, getting around on the RX7 is simple. For those of you who aren't, you'll have to learn the Yamaha approach of selecting a main function, and then selecting one of several sub-functions, called Jobs (these are all labelled clearly on the front panel, so you don't need to consult the manual constantly). At this point, data can usually be entered with either the Yes/No, Increment/Decrement keys or with the data entry slider, though occasionally you'll be asked to press Enter (which doubles as the Start switch). On displays which show more than one parameter, you move the cursor around with the accent keys.
"Sounds: Of the 100 16-hit PCM sampled sounds, 50 will be familiar to RX5/RX17 users and another 40 are nothing short of terrific."
It sounds a bit convoluted, and can be the first few times around, but it's easy to get used to and effective. Besides, once learned, it'll enable you to get around the programming of all the RX and QX instruments with a minimum of re-learning.
Like the RX5, the RX7 allows you to program in either real or step time. Events can be quantised to a resolution of within a 32nd note triplet, or, with quantisation off, within a 96th of a beat. You can store up to 100 patterns, with each being anywhere from 1-99 bars in length (though, obviously, you'd run out of memory long before you were able to store anything close to 100 patterns of 99 bars each). All the standard time signatures are supported, and quite a few weird ones as well (99/32, anyone?). Patterns can be edited extensively, with each individual event within a pattern completely adjustable in terms of level, pitch, decay, or pan position. A helpful Compare mode, along with an edit recall command, make life really simple here.
Once you've got the patterns sussed, you link them together into songs. Each RX7 Song can contain up to 999 patterns, played in any order you like. In Song Edit mode, you can insert, copy, or delete patterns at will, or you can enter in repeat signs (any number of patterns can be repeated up to 99 times, and you can "nest" repeat signs on up to 10 levels). Tempo change and/or volume change commands can also be entered here, allowing you to create accelerandi, ritardandi, fade-ins, and fade-outs within your song. Various points can be specified within the song with user-named markers, and a clever search function allows you to quickly locate any area of the song by marker name or by step number. Having completed all your song manipulations, you can store up to 20 songs in memory, and can create up to three Song Chains, allowing you to play various songs in succession - a useful feature for live work.
Simple programming operations allow you to assign any one of the hundred ROM voices to any one of the 24 instrument keys - or to more than one instrument key. Once you've set the voice assignments for a particular application, you can store them in any one of five user-created "drum sets". Five factory-created sets are also available in ROM. Individual voices can be extensively edited - you can, for example, adjust the pitch of any sample up and down over a ridiculous five-octave range, or you can use something called Multi-voice mode to put a single voice over the entire top row of (12) keys and then assign a different pitch, level, and/or pan position to each key. Because there are only stereo audio outputs, there are panning controls built into each instrument, and voices can even have different pan positions at different points within a single pattern. This allows you to create complex stereo images, with sounds changing position constantly - if that's the kind of thing you're into (I, for one, certainly am).
The RX7 also offers up to 16-note polyphony (depending upon specific voice assignments), as well as dynamic voice allocation, a feature not often found on drum machines. This allows you to play a sound repeatedly without incurring the abrupt cutoff normally associated with drum machine samples. You can actually assign up to eight-note polyphony for any one voice, so that you can have that sound appear up to eight times in rapid succession - and hear it cycle through its complete envelope eight times. Thus, only playing a ninth note would cause the abrupt ending to the sound that you experience with a static allocation.
If you specifically want those "choked" sounds, you still have the option of assigning a single note polyphony to any voice, or of using the Damp feature, which allows you to cut off any voice in real time during the programming of a pattern.
"Editing Individual events within a pattern are completely adjustable in terms of level pitch, decay and pan position."
Speaking of envelopes, the RX7 doesn't really provide much of an envelope at all for individual voices, just a variable decay time. On the other hand, there is an onboard LFO for each voice (an LFO on a drum machine? I love it). As you might imagine, this is useful more for the longer samples than for the percussive sounds. The LFO signal can be used for pitch or amplitude modulation or both, with variable depth control. What's more, the voices on the RX7 respond to external MIDI pitch-bend data as well as the onboard pitch envelope associated with each voice.
IN ADDITION TO being able to respond to pitch-bend data, the RX7 also works with external MIDI clock, Song Select and Song Position Pointers, and can perform bulk dumps of voice and sequence data, and also Setup data (like the MIDI configuration). Each individual sample can transmit on any MIDI channel - and this is very useful if you're using the RX7 as a quasi-sequencer.
There's also an ingenious system that allows you to reconfigure the MIDI reception of the RX7. It works like this: any incoming MIDI note number data on a specific channel can either control the pitch of the voices assigned to that channel or individual RX7 voices according to their note number assignments. Or reception can be turned off altogether. Any or all channels can be set for pitch control, but only one can be assigned for voice control. What this means is that, in the former instance, any RX7 voice can be played with varying pitch over a five-octave range (with eight-note polyphony) from an external controller or sequencer. In the latter instance, different keys played on a keyboard controller, or different note numbers issued by a sequencer, will play different RX7 voices according to their programmed assignments.
It's worth pointing out that two special MIDI features found on the RX5 are not available here. The first of these allowed for EG bias control of the amplitude and envelope characteristics of a voice. This made it possible, for example, to expressively "play" the RX5 voices from a wind controller like Yamaha's WX7. The second RX5 MIDI feature that's missing is the ability to selectively transmit MIDI note-off commands at specific time intervals following a voice's note-on. In other words, you could effectively assign a gate time for each voice, making the RX5 much more suitable for sequencing operations than is the RX7. Ah well, you can't have everything (wherever would you put it all?).
The limitation of stereo audio outputs is in the amount of outboard signal processing they allow you to do since any treatment will affect all voices panned to that output. However, Yamaha Giveth and Yamaha Taketh Away, so in partial compensation, the RX7 provides something called "effect" for each voice. Essentially, this is a built-in programmable digital delay. More specifically, this is a MIDI delay, meaning that it causes no signal degradation. Controls here allow you to specify the number of repeats (up to four), the delay time between repeats (10-500 milliseconds), the pitch difference between each repeat and the original sound (plus or minus six octaves), the level of each repeat, and, perhaps most impressively, the pan position of each repeat. For those of you out there who are stereo fanatics, this is a truly wonderful feature that allows you to really give each sound an unusual and individual image.
These pre-programmed "effects" can be brought in and out in real time with a dedicated effects on-off switch, and the use of this switch during real-time recording is memorised, too. Thus, voices played with the effect on during pattern recording will be played back that way regardless of the current status of the on-off switch during playback.
"Panning: Extensive panning controls allow voices to have changing pan positions at different repetitions within a single pattern."
As we mentioned earlier, there is only a single footswitch input on the rear panel of the instrument, but there's practically nothing that single footswitch can't do, thanks to a virtually open-ended footswitch assignment function. This allows you, quite literally, to link the footswitch to any front panel switch. In other words you can do the predictable thing and assign it to either the start or stop/continue switch, or you can get a little more adventurous. You could, for example, assign it to an instrument key, so that the voice assigned to that key will sound each time you step on the switch. Or you could assign it to the Damp control or the "effect" on-off switch, or the real-time or single step write switches. You could even assign it to the voice assignment job that assigns you to the voice assignment job that assigns it to the voice assignment job that... Talk about a hall of mirrors.
Finally, the RX7 comes with eight demo songs that show off the capabilities of the machine. These can be loaded into RAM from the internal ROM at any time. The Doo Wop demo, in particular, wins the MT Funniest Drum Machine Demo of the Century award hands down. Even if you never buy an RX7, make a point of listening to this one at a nearby music shop - you'll love it.
WHAT CONCLUSIONS CAN we come to? Clearly, the RX7 offers a number of unique and interesting features that, coupled with the overall quality of its voices and moderate price, make this a very attractive instrument. In fact, the RX7 is certainly one of the best stereo output drum machines currently available. On the other hand, having only stereo outputs is a major drawback especially in professional or studio applications.
Unfortunately, this also leads to a couple of annoying design features. For example, because you don't have a physical mixer onboard to balance individual voices, you need to go into Voice Edit mode to adjust them. The problem is, you can't get into that mode while a pattern or song is playing back, so you can't make real-time modifications to a mix. Similarly, you can't adjust pan positions while a pattern or song is playing back. Limitations like this can really get frustrating, especially if you're used to having the luxury of individual voice outputs, where both level and pan are readily adjusted in real time at the mixing desk.
Another major limitation is the fact that the RX7 will not accept ROM cartridges, meaning that unless Yamaha or a third party manufacturer gets into the sound chip business (and Yamaha have never done this in the past), the 100 voices you get when you buy this machine will be the same 100 voices that will be in the machine when either it or you eventually leaves this mortal plane. Moreover, there's a real lack of RAM space in the internal memory for the storage of voice data - an edited voice can only be saved over the original voice. True, you can always get the original unedited voice back with a simple initialisation command, but you can never have the original and the edited versions available to you simultaneously.
For the money there's no question that the RX7 delivers excellent sound and a number of exciting features but it also possesses several major limitations, so you'll need to deliberate carefully before disturbing the sleeping moths in your wallet.
Price To be announced
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Review by Howard Massey
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