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Yamaha SY85

AWM2 Workstation

Yamaha's new SY85 eschews FM technology and instead concentrates entirely on powerful sample-based synthesis. Derek Johnson finds that user sampling, powerful filters, and 'easy edit' sliders are just a few of the tricks that make this far more than just another sample-based workstation.

Yamaha's new workstation is the company's first serious synth for some time which does not feature FM synthesis in any form, perhaps signalling a break from the decade-old technology which made Yamaha a household name (well, in musicians' households, anyway!). This is no bad thing — times change, after all — but with so many of the current synths on the market being sample-based, it is to be hoped that the SY85 has some pretty good ammunition within its slinky black frame with which to set it apart from the pack and stake out its own territory in the marketplace. So has the '85 got the necessary fire power?

On the face of it, Yamaha's new baby appears to be yet another sampled waveform-based workstation synth — which is, in fact, what it is — but there are some great touches that give it a character of its own. Notable among these are the real-time control sliders under the central display, and the advanced digital filters; for the first time, Yamaha have provided digital filters with plenty of guts and resonance.


While still an attractive instrument, the styling of the SY85 is pretty standard — its sleek finish offers few surprises. The disk drive is located on the left hand side, the 40 character by 2-line LCD is in the middle, the data entry dial is to the right of the LCD, and the two rows of eight patch select buttons are a little further to the right. One stylistic departure is the 5x5 mode selection matrix next to the LCD. Otherwise, the layout is very traditional and reassuring.

The sound source of the SY85 is 6MB of AWM2 (second generation Advanced Wave Memory) ROM — that's 244 basic waveforms — with 30-note polyphony. A familiar range of waves is available, from acoustic and electric pianos, strings, brass and woodwind, strings, bass, guitars, through to tuned percussion and drums. Sound effects and oscillator waves are also available, the latter allowing you to treat the SY85 somewhat like a traditional analogue synth. These waveforms are arranged into 256 Voices (in four banks of 64) which in turn are used to make up 128 Performances (combinations or layers of up to four Voices). A recent and welcome trend amongst synths is the inclusion of RAM sample memory to allow you to download (via MIDI Sample Dump Standard) your own samples. The SY85 offers a basic 512k of sample RAM, expandable to a maximum of 3.5MB — a good chunk of this potential extra sample capacity will actually be non-volatile, since volatile and a non-volatile expansion slots cohabit side by side.

No workstation worth its salt would lack effects or sequencing, and Yamaha have done rather well in both areas. As with the SY99, there are two separate effects processors (called Effect 1 and Effect 2), and these can be used in parallel or serial configurations. There are 90 different effects, some of which are made up of two effects themselves; there are 30 single effects on offer, along with 30 cascaded effects and 30 dual effects. The sequencer is a fully functioning 9-track (track nine is devoted to drums), 10-song affair. Each Song also features a 16-part multi-timbral setup. The drum track is recorded separately, drum machine style, in a special pattern mode.

Apart from the familiar pitch bend and modulation wheels, extensive real-time control is available courtesy of the eight function buttons and eight sliders under the LCD, which allow you to control a variety of parameters while playing; for example, when playing a Voice, you can alter attack and release rates, as well as filter cutoff and resonance. There are two sliders expressly for effects parameters — it's up to you to decide which parameters, but they could include reverb decay time or chorus depth, for example. The remaining two sliders are completely user definable. In a Performance, the sliders again control a pair of effects parameters, attack and release characteristics (for all Voices in the Performance). The first four of these send out MIDI data, but the others don't; in any case, the important thing to note is they can't be used to tweak parameters in real time in a multi-timbral setup. There are also sockets at the back of the synth for volume and controller pedals. The disk drive stores all SY85 data (including user sample RAM) to 3.5" double density disks, and also functions as a MIDI data recorder. Additional waveform ROM and storage facilities are available through a pair of card slots.

The whole lot is controlled by a positive-feeling, 61-note velocity and aftertouch sensitive keyboard, and there are two sets of assignable stereo outputs. These are found at the rear, joining the MIDI sockets, the sustain switch and volume pedal and controller pedal sockets; the rear panel also hosts the metronome level control.

Two manuals are supplied with the SY85: a 320-page main manual, and a 68-page Getting Started book. Also supplied are a separate MIDI data format book and a quick reference sheet. The Getting Started volume offers the gentle approach, while the larger manual goes into greater depth. Unfortunately, there are occasional gaps in the explanations — important information appears either to be missing or be poorly explained. Experienced programmers will dig out what they need, but the newcomer may have problems. However, the Getting Started manual suffers less from these problems and is actually quite helpful; also, since the SY85 is pretty intuitive for a modern synth, you may well find that you can solve many problems without recourse to the manuals.


The hierarchy of the SY85 goes like this: one of the 244 basic waveforms is used to create a Voice, which has associated with it all the traditional parameters that you'd expect from a synth, plus an effects setting. Synthesis elements include: Amplitude Envelope Generator; Filter (with a second EG); Pitch EG; LEO; and so on. The next step up is a Performance, which can be made up of up to four Voices. A Performance can have a name and a separate effects setting, and the four Voices can be layered or key or velocity split as well as panned. Voices in a Performance can be edited without leaving the Performance. The highest level of sound organisation comes when you move over to the Sequencer; each Song has attached to it a Multi, or selection of eight Voices or Performances that correspond to each of the sequencer's tracks. Thus far, you don't have to worry about MIDI channel assignments; simply select a track, select a voice, and record it. However, there are a further eight tracks that complete the Multi; addressed externally, these 16 parts correspond to the 16 MIDI channels, for external control from a more sophisticated sequencer. There are 10 Songs available, hence 10 Multis. Note again that while a Multi has 16 parts, the on-board sequencer has only nine tracks (eight instruments plus rhythm).

The really interesting thing about Song parts and Multis is that a part can be either a Voice or a Performance. Obviously, you'll start to reach the limits of the SY85's polyphony pretty quickly should a Multi contain enough Performances, but you won't necessarily be playing 8-note chords with some of the complex sounds that you might create with a Performance.

The dedicated drum voice allows you to map any of the waveforms available in the SY85's ROM (and sample RAM) across the keyboard. Each sound can be pitched, tuned, panned, reversed, given an effects send level, and basic sustain parameters (short, long, or very long). This last feature allows a little more flexibility when using pitched sounds as part of a drum kit — elements of bass waveforms, for example, can be used to better effect. The one negative aspect of the drum voice is that individual sounds aren't affected by pitch bend; if you need to improvise a set of tablas, then you'll have to program a voice accordingly. (All waves respond to pitch bend when used in a non-drum kit Voice.)

For good or bad, General MIDI is making its way into a lot of instruments, even the SY85, but luckily the only adherence to the standard is the Drum Voice called 'GMIDI' — but this is an acceptable compromise, since the General MIDI/Roland drum map is probably the most familiar. In any case, it's a simple affair to map the drum sounds in custom kits of your own.

Programming the SY85 appears to be fairly simple and straightforward, belying the power within. Since a Voice only contains one 'oscillator', if you like, it's not difficult to keep track of what's happening during editing. Most modern digital synths that offer you two or four elements in a basic patch can be a bit confusing, since there are so many more parameters available while editing. If you find that complexity attractive, the ability to edit Voices from within a Performance will be right up your street.

The 5x5 matrix makes it easy to find your way around different areas of programming the SY85. Typically for Yamaha, the system is divided into straight editing functions and so-called Jobs. Voice Edit Jobs consist simply of Edit Recall and Initialise, while Song Edit Jobs consist of 17 major sequence editing functions.There are also Quick Edit options in Voices and Performances, which allow you to make changes quickly; oscillator types can be quickly changed, and typical envelopes (eg. piano, or slow attack strings, or synth pad etc.) or filter types selected. You can get good results quickly and easily in this way, then fine tune in the full edit mode.

The MIDI implementation of the SY85 is comprehensive, although those wishing to use the instrument as a master controller will have to do a little searching through the manual first. Using the SY85 as a 16-part multi-timbral sound source for an external sequencer is straightforward, although one part to one MIDI channel may be a little limiting.


The keyboard is in some ways an important adjunct to the synth section of a workstation. By this I mean that a poor keyboard will impede you, even if the synth's sounds are great, whilst a great keyboard will help you extract the best from a mediocre synth. With the SY85, Yamaha have struck a good balance: for me, it's a good keyboard attached to a good synth. It has none of the springiness of your average mid-priced synth, instead offering a really firm action. I get the impression that Yamaha have tried to capture something of the essence of a piano keyboard, although this is an unweighted action. Some may find it a little clattery — people in my immediate vicinity certainly did when I was wearing headphones, and so did I, at first; but then the pleasure of playing it with the wonderful sounds coming from the synth put such things out of my mind.


One of the most welcome trends amongst the recent crop of synths is the ability to use your own samples within the synth itself. First appearing on Korg's T1, refined with Peavey's DPM range of instruments and put to equally good use on Yamaha's own SY99, the ability to load samples over MIDI Sample Dump Standard and then use them as a basis for synthesis is very welcome. The first thing you'll notice is that the Wave Edit Mode, where you access the user sample area, doesn't have its own dedicated button; it's necessary to press Shift and Utility to get to it. A maximum of 64 samples can be held at a time, and several consecutive samples can be grouped together as a waveform and key-mapped as a multi-sample. This does take a little forethought on the user's part, but it is relatively painless. The SY85 offers basic sample editing facilities — looping (forward, backward and alternate), volume, and pitch. You can, of course, save samples to disk. As delivered, the SY85 has half a megabyte of RAM, although this can be expanded in two ways — two SYEMB06 modules, available from Yamaha, add 1MB of non-volatile memory (the contents are retained during power down), and an additional 2MB of volatile memory can be added in the shape of off-the-shelf (and relatively cheap) SIMM memory modules. Installation is a simple 5-minute job, involving only the removal of a plate on the underside of the SY85.

The sample RAM doesn't have to be used for waveforms; if you need more percussion, looped breakbeats, rave vocal snatches or whatever, the SY85 will take it — RAM permitting, of course. In fact, a number of the demos that come with the SY85 use the sample RAM in this way, with suitable samples on disk. The downside is that without a SCSI port to speed things up, all transfer of samples has to be done over MIDI, which isn't the fastest way of getting the job done. However, that's the fault of MIDI, not the SY85.


The effects section is very comprehensive, in a workstation kind of way. There are two processors, and each is able to draw from 90 different effects. Some individual effects are made of two effects (for example Delay into Reverb, Phaser into Reverb, Exciter & Delay, and Distortion & Reverb), and the two processors can be used in parallel or in series.

Of course, there are the inevitable Voices that use distortion to ape a freaked out electric guitar and, equally inevitably, with the effects turned off these sounds are useless, but this is not generally the case; an encouragingly high number of basic single waveform Voices sound great with the effects turned off. However, they still sound much better with the effects, which include warm (yes, warm!) reverbs, effective choruses, crisp delays, and usable EQs; Yamaha's famous Symphonic effect is present again, and the very effective Aural Exciter is, surprisingly perhaps, manufactured under license from, and credited to, Aphex Systems. All effects have a maximum of eight parameters; this may seem limiting, but it means that the eight sliders can easily be used during editing. Besides, eight parameters is plenty in real life. For example, Reverb Hall 1 has the following: Reverb Time; High (a sort of HF damping effect); Diffusion; Density; Low Gain; High Gain; and LPF. Quite comprehensive.

There are four audio outputs on the SY85 and, although it isn't immediately obvious from the manual, the way that sounds reach the outputs depends on how you use the effects section. Careful use of panning, assignment, and effects muting makes it possible to have four separate, effects-free outputs in Performances and Multis, which may be an attractive option to you; obviously, you could have internal effects treating several sounds through one stereo output, and pick out one or two sounds to go separately to the other stereo pair. The choice is always yours, once you've figured out how it all works; this is the tricky bit, and the manual isn't as helpful as it could be in this instance.


The sequencer comes in two sections — Song Mode, and an additional Pattern Mode, for drum machine style compilation of drum tracks, which can then be chained in the main sequencer. Basically, the sequencer has eight instrument tracks plus a ninth drum pattern track.

All the functions that you'd expect of a sequencer are here, although some may not be as flexible as on a dedicated hardware unit or good computer software. Real and step-time recording are both available, and re-organising sections of a sequence is easy. The Song Jobs include all the global editing features you may need, such as quantising, inserting, deleting, and erasing measures, removing events, transposition and note shift, velocity modification and a great facility called crescendo: this works both ways and can be used for creating custom fade-ins and fade-outs. Tracks can be individually edited, although this involves the relatively long-winded note list technique, one event at a time; inevitable given the size of the display. However, each step can be moved or have its pitch, velocity or length changed, simply by scrolling with the big wheel and changing values with the eight sliders under the LCD. Events can be freely inserted, and you select tracks to be edited by pressing the Group buttons labelled A to H; these buttons are also used, in conjunction with Shift, to mute and unmute tracks in real time.

The rhythm track is compiled drum machine style from patterns recorded in Pattern Mode. Patterns can be up to four bars long, and recorded in real or step time; in both cases, the pattern continuously loops around until you're finished. The supplied disk comes with a full complement of patterns (100 in all) to get you started.

There is no master track as such, but you'll find master track-style functions in Rhythm Track Edit, whereby tempo changes can be inserted into the track. These tempo changes are defined as a number of bpm (up to 99) faster or slower than the main tempo over a number of beats (again up to 99). Note that the Rhythm Track consists of 999 parts, and a part can be a drum pattern, or an event such as a tempo change or a repeat indicators (each part can be repeated up to 100 times).

While a Song can be looped (and consecutive Songs chained), the loop point jumps a bit, so it's only useful during editing. Incidentally, the sequencer memory is about 20,000 notes which is very creditable — Alesis' MMT8 stand-alone sequencer has about a 10,000 note capacity. Also, the Song and Pattern memory are retained when the power is turned off, although it's advisable to regularly save to disk in case of unforeseen mishap.


As with effects and a sequencer, a disk drive is an important addition to any instrument with any pretensions to workstation status. That provided with the SY85 is a double density type, and runs reasonably quietly. While all sounds, all sequences, or the entire memory can be saved to disk, individual Songs and sounds can't. This is a little irksome, especially since it makes it rather difficult to compile sets of Songs. However, the reason for this may be that the architecture is so complex, with Voices linked to Performances, which are then linked to the Multis that form part of a Song, that it just couldn't be done simply.

The drive can also read sequence disks from other Yamaha products (NSEQ format), as well as reading and writing MIDI Files (Format 0). Because the SY85 will let you save individual Songs as MIDI Song Files, this provides a way around the problem mentioned above (although the drum patterns seem to get lost in the process). Note that files must be in Format 0 only, and that you are advised to save your MIDI files to an SY85 formatted disk. Perhaps a high density drive option would have been attractive to those who will immediately upgrade their SY85 to 3.5MB of sample RAM.

The drive can also be used as a MIDI data recorder, so the memories of your other MIDI-equipped devices can be dumped to one central location — handy if you don't have a computer.


In the SY85 we find a mid-price keyboard of quality. From the word go, the pluses come thick and fast: great keyboard; rich, lush sound; great effects; flexible sequencer; potentially large user RAM; and plenty of real-time control courtesy of the eight real sliders under the LCD, which really do make a difference to the synth's accessibility and ease of use. As soon as you play the first Voice, you could well be smitten; it's hard to single out individual Voices or Performances as being worthy of note, since the vast majority are quite excellent, but the first eight pad sounds in bank one ('Makro' especially) will impress anyone. The strings are lively and drum sounds are solid and very usable, with a wide range of kit and latin sounds available Brasses are perhaps a little weak, but not unacceptably so. While this is definitely a synth capable of unreal textures in the traditional mode, the piano sound is perhaps worthy of mention — the basic sound isn't totally to my taste, but it is still a wonderfully playable and well-programmed sound. The keyboard strikes again, I think.

While the unadventurous will love the impressive, contemporary factory sounds, the dedicated programmer will find a lot on offer — the filters are excellent, and the basic waveforms have a depth and warmth to them that is a credit to Yamaha. The effects algorithms simply add to the richness. There may be those out there who will shed a tear at the loss of FM, but there will be many more who won't: the SY85 sounds all the better for the lack of FM. It may not be instantly recognisable as having a Yamaha sound — yet — but neither will it be easily confused with any of the other many sample-based synths on the market. It's a case of the same — only different. For someone on a restricted but not outrageously small budget, the SY85 could provide the ideal centre of a budding MIDI studio. You can dump the memory of any of your other MIDI-equipped hardware on to an SY85 disk — a useful feature — and if you have a sampler, you could maximise its memory and polyphony by dumping some samples over to an expanded '85.

Tradition dictates that I come up with a neat one-liner to sum up here, but Yamaha's newest workstation is a difficult beast to sum up in one line. Does the SY85 pack sufficient punch to win out in a crowded market? Let's just say it's a Very Serious Contender.

Further information

Yamaha SY85 £1,399 inc VAT.

Yamaha-Kemble Music UK, (Contact Details).

Also featuring gear in this article

Featuring related gear

Previous Article in this issue

Cubase MIDI Mixer

Next article in this issue

Drum Programming

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 - Oct 1992

Gear in this article:

Synthesizer > Yamaha > SY85

Gear Tags:

Digital Synth

Review by Derek Johnson

Previous article in this issue:

> Cubase MIDI Mixer

Next article in this issue:

> Drum Programming

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