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Yamaha Motif XF7

Workstation Synthesizer
Published January 2011
By Nick Magnus

Yamaha's long‑lived Motif range continues to go from strength to strength. Could the latest model be the best Motif yet?

The Motif product line has evolved considerably since its introduction in 2001. The jump from the ES to the XS designation in 2007 saw major changes to the synthesis engine, the most significant of which was the doubling of the number of elements that make up a Voice, from four to eight. The XF series is the fourth generation of Motif instruments, offering a number of attractive upgrades to the XS line — not least of which is the introduction of non‑volatile, rewritable Flash memory. As the XF could be described as an 'expanded' version of the XS, the synth architecture, concept and principal functions of the two models are essentially the same. (For an in‑depth description of these, a look at the Motif XS7 review of SOS October 2007 is highly recommended.) This review will, therefore, concentrate on the new features of the XF.

Hardware

The physical layout of the XF synths is identical to the XS models, with a change of livery from pale blue to black being the only obvious difference. Rear connectivity is also unchanged from the XS: the only difference is that the expansion slot that previously took the optional mLAN board on the XS now takes the new FW16E Firewire board (see the box opposite). As before, the XF comes in three varieties: XF8 88‑note weighted keyboard, and XF6 and XF7 61- and 76-note versions, both using the FSX synth‑type keyboard.

The Inner Motif

As with previous Motifs, the XF has its own editing program, seen here running as a stand-alone application from within Studio Manager.

First up in the expansion stakes is the XF's internal ROM, which has more than doubled in size to an impressive 741Mb. This brings many new and improved samples in most categories, including a 'Natural Grand S6' piano, Clavinet D6, Vox and Farfisa organs, string sections (including — at last — a proper tremolo section), various brass and saxes, orchestral percussion, basses, guitars, synths and drums. The number of user Voice Banks has been upped from three to four to accommodate this additional ROM content, giving a total of 512 user Voices, with user Bank 1 being the 'showroom area' for Voices featuring the new samples. Standout voices include the S6 piano, Clavinets, and the single-coil electric guitar Voices. Motif bass sounds in general are very solid and fruity; the new electric basses don't disappoint, particularly at the lowest end where other workstation basses sometimes seem to lose focus. User Drum Bank kit presets 1 to 8 feature the new drum waveforms: presets include custom oak and maple kits, with jazz, hip hop, general percussion, orchestral, Japanese and Turkish kits completing the roster. Of special note are the Yamaha Oak and Maple kits — unsurprising, given Yamaha's history of world-class drum manufacturing. These are vibrant and punchy, with a pleasingly 'live' quality. The XF user Performance Banks have also been given an additional fourth Bank, with Bank 1 making use of the new ROM content and the new arpeggios.

The Motifs' versatile Arpeggiator continues to entertain, amuse and potentially inspire the songwriting process with its 'automatic backing band' capabilities. Not content to leave things as they were, Yamaha have added 1248 new arpeggio types to the arsenal, bringing the total to 7881. Performance Bank 1 showcases many of the new arpeggios, and amongst these, a number of Performances feature a programming technique whereby control events within the arpeggios toggle the Voices' assignable AF1 and AF2 functions. These activate various elements in the Voices, so the five switchable arpeggio types vary not only the pattern, but the sound as well. To top it all off, a new Category Search function makes it easier to find the desired arpeggio type.

Thanks For The Memory

Unlike the XS, for which sample RAM was an optional extra, the XF ships with 128MB DIMM memory pre‑installed, so users can get straight into sampling right out of the box. This is volatile memory, so Voices, Performances and Songs using samples in RAM have to be saved somewhere — typically to an external USB device — before powering down. However, manufacturers are finally making the long-overdue move towards rewritable Flash memory, and this is the most significant new feature of the XF. Undoubtedly, it will hold great appeal for samplists, allowing users to truly customise their instruments. The advantage of Flash is that when you turn off the machine, the samples are retained in memory and are immediately available next time you power up. Flash memory boards are obtainable for the XF as an optional extra. Two Flash slots are provided, and any combination of Yamaha's proprietary 512MB or 1GB boards can be used (either singly or as a pair), up to the maximum of 2GB. Installation of the boards is a simple, five‑minute job. Simply remove a panel beneath the XF, insert the board(s), close up and you're done. The boards must be formatted on the XF once installed; this takes only seconds to do, and the memory is ready for use.

Writing individual samples (vocal clips, single audio events, and so on) directly to Flash is OK if you've prepared the data exactly as you want it beforehand — in your DAW system, for example. However, once they're in Flash, the samples can't be edited — for example, altering start/loop/end points, sample playback modes, or making tempo or time signature settings for rhythmic samples — directly. In particular, if you have a group of samples making up a keymap (which Motifs refer to as a Waveform), you cannot 'get into' the keymap to make adjustments. To do edits of this sort, the samples or Waveforms have to reside in the XF's internal RAM memory.

Let's assume some sample editing and keymapping is required, so our sample data needs to be loaded into the XF's onboard DIMM memory where it can be worked on, prior to copying across to the Flash board. One obvious method of sample acquisition is to sample sounds directly into the XF using either its analogue stereo inputs or via the optional Firewire board. Probably the most convenient sample acquisition method available to everyone is to import existing samples from a USB memory device, and I chose this method for my experiments. The import process is greatly simplified if the samples you wish to include in the final multisample are gathered into one folder on the USB device, as the XF can import all the samples within that folder in one fell swoop. Samples are imported in numerical/alphabetical order; the XF automatically creates a keymapped Waveform with the samples laid out chromatically upwards in that order, starting at a root key that you've specified. It's worth noting that, once onboard the XF, the individual samples that make up a keymapped Waveform are referred to only by number, so to avoid confusion and make identification easier, it's helpful to rename your samples with numerical prefixes (before importing) in the order you want them to appear in the keymap, starting at number 01. Once all the keymapping and sample adjustments are done, the multisample Waveform can be copied to Flash from the Sampling/Job/Other menu. If you later wish to make further sample edits to a Waveform on the Flash board, simply copy it to the XF's internal RAM, make the adjustments, and resave it to the Flash board, ticking the 'delete original' option.

Further Niceties

The Motif XF's rear panel is almost the same as that of its XS predecessor, the exception being that the mLAN card slot is now designed to host a Firewire board.

Improvements have been made to the Motif's LCD display, which offers not only a choice of eight different colour schemes to suit your mood, but also two alternative views for Voice, Performance and Master modes. Program names can be displayed either at the top or bottom of the screen — the latter being very handy if your view of the Motif's panel is partially obscured by another keyboard mounted above it.

Staying with the LCD display, another improvement is that arpeggio tempo can now be adjusted in real time using a new Tap Tempo feature, accessible from the Voice, Performance and Master main views via the SF6 soft button.

Finally, Part Voices that have been edited while in Pattern or Song mode can now be saved either to a user Voice or to a Mix Voice. Sixteen Mix Voice locations are available for each Song, and up to 128 for the entire instrument. Saving to a Mix Voice has the advantage that it's saved along with the Pattern or Song, leaving the original Voice unaffected. Drum Voices are now also fully editable in these modes, and saved either as Mix or User Voices. Individual drums can also be routed to any of the 16 separate Firewire outputs, either in mono or in stereo pairs.

Conclusion

If Yamaha had simply doubled the waveform ROM, included sample RAM as standard, enabled full Drum Voice editing within Songs, and added extra user memories and new arpeggios, that might have been reason enough to introduce a new Motif model. The introduction of Flash RAM, however, puts the XF in a totally different league. I'm sure that the XF's 2GB capacity will be considered laughably small in a couple years, but right now it seems huge, at around four to eight times more than its Flash‑equipped competitors.

On a mildly negative note, the shortened keys and overly lightweight action of the synth‑style FSX keyboard seem a tad inappropriate for a professional instrument of this calibre — it really deserves something a bit more butch to do it justice. Nevertheless, even to those not yet familiar with the Motif range, the XF is bound to look very appealing, offering the facility to customise the instrument with your own permanently installed favourite samples, combined with the Motif's own particular style of synthesis. A compelling case for trading up from the older models? I suspect credit card companies might soon notice an increase in activity from the existing Motif-owning community...  

Alternatives

There are more alternative workstations than you can shake a stick at, but so far precious few keyboards in general that feature Flash sample memory. With a potential 2GB maximum, the Motif XF currently offers the largest amount of Flash storage. The following alternatives all have Flash memory included in the design, rather than as an optional extra. Kurzweils' PC3K series keyboards provide 128MB, compatible with WAV, AIFF and legacy K‑series files. The Nord Stage and Stage EX have 128MB and 256MB respectively. However they are compatible only with Nord's proprietary (free) sample libraries. The Nord Electro 3 divides its RAM, having 185MB for the Nord libraries, and 68Mb for user samples. The Nord Wave has 180Mb, freely distributable between Nord library and user samples.

Sayonara mLAN, Konichiwa Firewire

Yamaha have apparently discontinued support for mLAN, possibly because of the lack of uptake as a standard by other manufacturers. The Motif XF now uses the optional FW16E Firewire board (£329$269) instead, which, like mLAN, can send 16 channels of digital audio directly to your computer. Steinberg DAW users (Cubase variations from version 5) can also install the downloadable Motif Extension application and Yamaha Steinberg FW Driver, which provides an enhanced level of integration between the XF and DAW.

A trip to the Motif forum revealed that although the older mLAN board can theoretically be fitted to the XF, it would need to be updated to IEEE 1394 firmware v1.08 to work properly. Also, a combination of XF and mLAN will not work with any legacy mLAN products, so there's no mileage in that. The best you could expect from mLAN is the same that the FW16E board is specifically designed to provide, but at a higher cost than the FW16E, and without the benefits provided by the Motif Extensions application.

Flash Fill

Some 480MB of free sample content, titled 'Inspiration In A Flash' and featuring three banks of new Voices and Waveforms can be downloaded from www.motifator.com. Bank 1 includes the S700 Piano from the S90ES, the Power Grand from the original Motif, and a wide variety of brass and woodwinds. Bank 2 concentrates on organs, vintage keys and analogue synths, while Bank 3 features a respectable selection of blown and plucked instruments from the Middle East. Third-party sample libraries are also growing in number, with such titles as Neo‑Soul Rhodes, Yamaha C7 Signature Piano, Symphonic Xstrings and Vocal Xpressions available to buy through the Motifator web site. For those itching to create their own multisampled XF instruments, it's well worth checking out Chicken Systems' Motif Creator and Translator Motif Edition software (www.chickensystems.com) or John Melas' Motif Waveform Editor (www.jmelas.gr/motif).

XS vs XF: The Major Changes

 Motif XSMotif XF
Onboard Sample RAMOptional, up to 1GB128MB fitted
Flash MemoryNoneOptional, up to 2GB
Internal Wave ROM355MB equivalent741MB equivalent
Number of waveforms26703977
mLAN/Firewire ConnectivityOptional mLAN board, fitted as standard on XF8Optional FW16E Firewire board (mLAN discontinued)
Preset Arpeggios66337781
User Voices384 (128 x 3 banks)512 (128 x 4 banks)
Performances384 (128 x 3 banks)512 (128 x 4 banks)
Published January 2011

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