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Yamaha SY85

Music Synthesiser

Article from Music Technology, November 1992

The appliance of SYience

When you've produced as many classic synths as Yamaha, it's easy to find yourself labouring under the weight of your own reputation. But it seems they still have a trick or two up their sleeves...

I sometimes think I'm the only muso in the world who has never owned a Korg M1. I can't tell you the exact reason why I didn't buy one - it probably had something to do with a pre-birth experience, but my analyst is having trouble digging that far into the past. Nevertheless, I did like the M1, yes indeed I did, and it is undoubtedly one of the most popular sample-based synthesisers ever.

By contrast, when Yamaha's SY77 came along it caught me at just the right time - musically and financially - and I bought one. It could virtually out-Korg the M1 itself and its combination of AWM and AFM sounds gave it an excellent sonic repertoire. I was glad I'd waited.

Then came the SY99 with its ability to load new samples (woweee!) but that was too expensive. The SY77 has now officially been dropped from Yamaha's catalogue and can be picked up for around a grand - nigh on half the original price (and making the SY99 seem even more expensive in comparison). There's nothing like the hi-tech music game for hammering your investments is there? Okay, perhaps the house-buying game or the used-car game or the...

Anyway, now there's a new instrument to discuss with our financial advisors - the SY85. It sits in the medium-to-upper price bracket and forsakes AFM altogether in favour of AWM2. But what it has lost on the swings (essentially, lots of 'orrible programming parameters) it has gained on the roundabouts with the addition of a wealth of goodies inside its sleek black casing. For example, it has 256 Voices (four times that of the SY77), 128 Performance memories which can consist of up to four layers of Voices (the SY77 can't directly layer Voices at all) and it's 30-note polyphonic (the SY77 has a maximum polyphony of 16 AFM plus 16 AWM voices, which in practice is usually far less than 32 notes).

The SY85 also has a pretty heavy set of digital filters and a spiffing DSP (Digital Signal Processor) with 90 types of effects which is similar to the DSP in the SY99. The built-in sequencer has only nine tracks, but it can store 10 Songs with a total capacity of 20,000 notes - which is quite a respectable amount for any stand-alone sequencer.

I suspect 99 percent of us select an instrument on the strength of its presets. Let's be honest, guys and gals, modern synths are just too bloody complicated to program. And why bother? Most synths come packed with excellent presets and there are always the musical anoraks who delight in creating new sounds which you can buy for a nominal sum 'off the shelf. To anyone who says that the only way to make real music is to create all the sounds yourself from scratch I say bollocks! The SY85 has some of the best 'play me' sounds I've ever heard. I was particularly impressed by the guitars: some of the electric voices out-Hendrix Jimi himself. The sounds are arranged in Banks by type so one Bank contains mostly acoustic pianos, another contains organs, another strings - and so on. The SY85 uses a two-letter prefix to identify the sounds - AP for Acoustic Piano, BR for Brass, GT for Guitar and so on. It's an excellent convention which has been catching on in various places. Wouldn't it be nice if all instruments used it?

Without running through a list of my fave sounds, let's just say that the presets are excellent and the instrument has a good sonic range. It has 6Mb of samples onboard which are a higher resolution than those in the SY77. They are divided into 16 categories - piano, keyboard, brass, wind, strings, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, folk (including dulcimer, harp and sitar), synth, choir, tuned percussion, drum, percussion (ethnic), sound effects and oscillators (a selection of waveforms).

But the best is yet to come: included are 128 Performances which can contain up to four Voices in layers or splits. These really are the creme de la creme as Miss Jean Brodie would say (did she own an SY85? - Ed). The sound at position one is a piano backed by a chorus which comes in after a short delay. Talk about moody!

Some of the layers are real works of art. You know when a certain sound inspires you, suggests riffs and simply makes you want to play? Well the Performances are like that. Okay, not all of them - but a helluva lot of them. Run through them for an hour (don't park on a meter), say you're not hooked and then go home to your Jason and Kylie records.

Anyway, having confessed to being impressed with the performance, I guess I'd better take a look at the dashboard...

The SY85 has a 61-note velocity-sensitive keyboard including aftertouch with pitchbend and modulation wheels to do your widdly-widdlies with. A 2 x 40-character LCD keeps you informed about what the synth is up to. There are Quick Edit keys below this, edit controls to the right and function buttons to the left. A nice touch is the Mode Matrix which tells you which buttons to press to select various, er, modes without stepping through an endless corridor of menus.

To the left of the Matrix are the seemingly sparse sequencer controls and to the left of these, a disk drive. There are slots for Waveform and data cards and on the back are two sets of stereo out sockets, a headphone socket, and jacks for foot volume, foot controller and sustain pedals plus MIDI In, Out and Thru ports.

The SY85 has half a Meg of RAM (volatile) which can be upgraded with two SYEMB06 RAM cards to add an extra 1Mb of non-volatile RAM. You can also use 1Mb SIMM chips to add a further 2Mb of volatile RAM; in fact, according to Yamaha-Kemble it should be possible to fit two 4Mb SIMMs, which would give a maximum memory of 9.5Mb. Into this area you can load your own samples via a MIDI Sample Dump and save them off to disk. The demos on the disk supplied with the instrument contain samples (they take quite a while to load, too) and show how they can truly transform a sequence.

You can have up to 64 samples in memory at once, RAM permitting, and there are basic - but useful - edit functions including looping, volume and pitch. Samples can be grouped together as a Waveform and mapped to the keyboard as a multi-sample. It's a great feature, although of course you need a sampler to get the most out of it. However, a budget computer-based sampler such as Replay 16 (to be reviewed) which supports MIDI Sample Dumps could prove a very cost-effective accessory.

The most impressive sample examples are vocal snatches which the demos use to the full. It's really strange to hear a keyboard doing vocal lines (even if they are more house than Pavarotti) - although this is more imposing and useful live than in a studio. The programmer can, of course, incorporate the samples into his or her own voices.

You get not one but two manuals with the SY85. The first is a 70-page Getting Started guide and it's really very good. I suspect many owners will prefer not to look at the second manual which is a Feature Reference manual written very much in feature-reference-manual style. It is a little daunting at over 300 pages, although you will certainly have to dip into it occasionally to look up the techie bits.

The indexes could have been more comprehensive. As all the features are dealt with individually (as opposed to explaining how to perform a particular procedure requiring a combination of functions) it's not always easy trying to discover the bits of the manual you need to refer to. But there's also a Job Table reference sheet for the user and a MIDI Data Format booklet for the boffins.

OK, let's get some niggly criticisms out of the way. For the sake of including an extra Bank button or two, you have to press the Internal buttons twice to access the second set of 128 sounds. Fine during recording, but I know from experience that live it's hard enough to hit three buttons to change a sound without worrying about whether or not you have to hit the Memory button twice!

I'm not a fan of built-in sequencers, although presumably someone's market research somewhere has shown that punters like all-in-one machines. My argument is that the majority of people buying a synth at this price will already have some sort of external sequencer whether they use it live or for recording. In such cases they are paying for something which they do not want and will rarely use.

However, I'm sure not everyone shares my opinion (and someone somewhere no doubt has some figures to prove how wrong I am). The sequencer on the SY85 does the job and it's fine when you know the arrangement you want to record, but I really wouldn't like to compose with it.

Finally, there's a General MIDI drum setup so why not include a GM setting as well? An increasing number of people are dabbling with pre-recorded MIDI files these days and most files are now configured to GM.

The SY85 is a mean machine. It has dozens of 'Buy Me' sounds, and the ability to load in your own samples lets you (or the dedicated programmer) greatly expand its sonic range. It has an excellent DSP with which to enhance the sounds and a Quick Edit system which really does make it easy to alter them all. Throw in a sequencer (for those who want one) and you have a wicked piece of kit. For the gigging musician fond of a twiddle, the SY85 also scores heavily in the real-time performance department.


Price: £1399 inc VAT

More from: Yamaha Kemble Music (UK) Ltd (Contact Details)

The SY85 is not a vast departure from the other SY synths but it has arranged the technology Yamaha is good at in a slightly different way. It's a step on from the SY77 in most departments and if you've been tempted by the 77's new low price, I'd urge you to save up a few more big ones and take a look at the SY85.

The Sequencer

The sequencer can store up to 10 Songs with a total capacity of 20,000 notes. It has eight 'Normal' tracks plus a Drum Track. Each Normal Track can control a separate instrument which is determined by the Multi Play setup and the sequencer track Transmit Channel assignments (it's easier to set up than it sounds). Normally, tracks one to eight will be assigned to MIDI channels one to eight and therefore control the Multi Play instruments assigned to channels one to eight - see, easy! Of course, you can alter the Track/Channel assignments if you want to. Each Song has its own Multi Play setup. You can assign a Voice or a Performance (great!) to each Track/Channel although if you use a lot of Performances you need to make sure you don't run out of polyphony.

There are four record modes - real-time overdub, real-time replace, real-time punch-in and step-time. Both real-time and step-time recording are straightforward. In step-time mode you select note durations from the voice select buttons and a display on the LCD shows you the position of the note in relation to the bar.

There is the usual selection of edit functions including Insert, Copy, Delete, Transpose, Quantise and Velocity & Gate Time modification plus a neat Crescendo function which applies a crescendo or decrescendo to a selected track over a specified number of bars. A really nice touch is the ability to use the eight Continuous Control sliders to control the volumes of the eight instruments, although there doesn't seem to be a way to record this into the sequence in real-time.

If eight tracks aren't enough for you, you can mix down two of them to a third track - although you then start to lose some control over your material.

Drums are recorded drum-machine style using 100 Patterns which can each be up to four bars long. There are 100 Patterns on one of the supplied discs to start you off and they cover a good range of modern styles with some Latin patterns included for good measure (...ha-ha). You can record your own Patterns in real-time or step-time and you can insert tempo changes into the drum track.

Incidentally, all Song and Pattern data is stored when you switch off.

Sonic Architecture

For all their good points, no one could accuse modern synths of being easy to program. The SY85 lacks the devious parameters of AFM - so that makes life and the art of noise a little easier. The character-based LCD, however, means envelope and filter shapes, for example, are shown numerically and not graphically as on the SY77. The SY85 sonic architecture follows traditional lines. Six parameters determine the fundamental sound of a Voice. These include the Waveform (one of the 244), Tuning, Note Range - and so on. You can also play the Waveform in reverse. Since each Voice only has one Element or Waveform (oscillator in analogue terms), programming is a little easier to understand than it is on the AFM machines, although there are still a lot of parameters to take on board.

The AEG (Amplitude Envelope Generator) has five programmable rates and two levels. You get a choice of two low-pass filters, a high-pass filter, a band-pass filter and a band-elimination fitter. The filter even has its own Envelope Generator. The filters are excellent, by the way! There are literally dozens of parameters for shaping the voice including a Pitch Envelope Generator, LFO and controller assignments.

Each Voice can also have an effect. The next step up the hierarchical ladder is a Performance which consists of up to four Voices in layers or splits. This is where the power and brilliance of the SY85 really shine. You can create your own drum maps by assigning any of the Waveforms and user samples across the keyboard. Each 'drum' can be given a pitch, tuned, panned and assigned an effects level. A drum Voice called GMIDI is the instrument's only nodding acknowledgement towards General MIDI, but at least it saves you setting up a GM drum map.

Driving It

Disk drives are an integral part of all modern instruments and allow easy, cheap and convenient storage of new sounds and - in the case of a workstation, sequences - too.

At the beginning of each new composition project, I usually run through the sounds I have (for whatever instruments I am using) and load those I think will be the most useful for the project. Oddly, the SY85 does not allow you to save or load individual Voices, which effectively makes it impossible to build up a collection of sounds from different disks. The only way around it is to use a RAM card for storage or else use a computer-based editor/librarian (I'm sure several will appear soon).

The system can't load or save individual Songs, either, although you can save them individually in MIDI File format. It's possibly something to do with the way the sounds are tied in with each other - four Voices making a Performance which can then be assigned to 10 Multis for use with the Songs. However, I don't think it unreasonable to be allowed to handle individual items. The synth could warn you that a Voice you are about to overwrite is being used in a Performance and then if you totalise your setup at least it's your own fault.

The sequencer can read Yamaha's custom NSEQ sequence format and you can save individual Songs in MIDI File Format 0, which is one way around the bulk Song save problem. The drive can also handle SysEx bulk dumps so you can store settings from other instruments on one disk (...don't forget to back it up, though!).

Finally, if you're thrilled by the prospect of a synth which can also handle samples (and a thrilling prospect it is. too) and are already considering a RAM upgrade, remember you won't be able to store 3.5Mb of sample data on a 713Kb floppy disk. A SCSI hard disk interface option would have been useful...

Quick Edit

The eight Continuous Sliders and function buttons beneath the LCD are used to edit the parameters during normal editing procedures. Having so many controllers does make editing easier, as you can in most instances access several parameters at the same time - far better than selecting a parameter with cursor keys and then using just one slider to alter it.

These controls form the heart of the SY85's Quick Edit system, which lets you change parameters 'on the fly'. Their effectiveness depends on what sound you are playing at the time but they can be used to alter the envelope, the filter cutoff point and resonance, and to control the effects. Two of the sliders are completely user-definable.

Typical uses - without overtaxing my imagination - include fading layers of sound in and out and performing manual filter sweeps. You could use the effects sliders to alter the distortion in a guitar sound or change the chorus in an electric piano. If you've ever had the desire to tweak some knobs during a gig (stand up those who still play their analogue synths!), then these let you do so in a totally legal, honest and decent manner.

The Effects

The SY85 has a dual processor with 90 digital effects. These can be connected in series or parallel and offer a very wide selection from reverbs and echoes to pitch changes, ring modulation, distortion, phasing and flanging. There's even an aural exciter which is actually credited to Aphex and manufactured under license from them!

Each effect has up to eight parameters which differ according to the type of effect it is - now isn't that handy? You can alter each parameter using one of the Continuous Sliders. All the effects and their parameters are listed in the Reference Manual, which is useful if you want to tweak any of them.

The effects are of a very high quality - higher, I venture to suggest, than you would typically expect to find in a workstation. The eight parameters will be more than enough for all but the most ardent FX freak and you can do some creative effecting with them.

Also featuring gear in this article

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Previous Article in this issue

Grid Patterns

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MIDI By Example

Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Nov 1992

Gear in this article:

Synthesizer > Yamaha > SY85

Gear Tags:

Digital Synth

Review by Ian Waugh

Previous article in this issue:

> Grid Patterns

Next article in this issue:

> MIDI By Example

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