The new Motif XS range is top of the pile when it comes to Yamaha synth workstation technology, and thus will be going head-to-head with flagship contenders from other big-name manufacturers. Does the XS have what it takes?
The evolution of synthesizers could be compared to characters in a soap opera: like soap characters, they often undergo dramatic personality transplants and extreme plastic surgery (remember Fallon in Dynasty?). In true soap tradition, the original Motif workstation disappeared upstairs in 2001 as a spotty teenager, only to reappear three years later as the village hunk with perfect teeth and a winning personality — the Motif ES. Three years on, our hero has re-emerged once more as the Motif XS, having acquired a PhD, a Porsche and a touch of sparkly bling.
The XS series comes in three varieties, the XS6, XS7 and XS8, having 61-note, 76-note and weighted 88-note keyboards respectively. Apart from the XS8, which offers mLAN connectivity as standard, all three models are otherwise identical in function and operation. This review primarily examines the essential differences between the XS and ES models, so those wishing to learn more about the general history of the Motif series may like to refer back to the following articles: Motif 6/7/8 (SOS September 2001) and Motif ES6/7/8 (SOS January 2004). The version on review here is the 76-note XS7.
Aside from the new pale duck-egg-blue livery, there are two immediately visible differences that distinguish the XS from the ES. Firstly, there's a new, large 320 x 240-pixel colour LCD display which, although not touch sensitive, is a very welcome improvement over the 240 x 60 monochrome displays of previous models. Secondly, the assignable knob and fader section has doubled in size, from four columns to eight, offering even more real-time control possibilities, and greater mixing and editing flexibility.
Further physical changes comprise the inclusion of an S/PDIF digital output as standard, and a new Ethernet connection that allows the XS to be directly integrated with a computer network. Connectivity otherwise remains as plentiful as on the ES, with a stereo output plus two more assignable outputs, headphone output, MIDI In/Out/Thru, USB-to-host and USB-to-device connectors, stereo analogue inputs, two assignable footpedal jacks, sustain pedal jack and an assignable footswitch jack.
A couple of things have gone missing, however: the XS has lost the input jack for a breath controller (what a shame!) and there is no Smart Media card slot. This latter exclusion is of little concern, as the USB-to-device connector allows the use of practically any type of inexpensive flash RAM device for data storage. Also excluded is any means of waveform/synthesis engine expansion using Yamaha's excellent range of PLG expansion boards, which offered virtual analogue, virtual acoustic and FM synthesis, amongst others.
The XS also benefits from some invisible yet important differences, namely a brand-new tone generator (the SWP51) that has more DSP power, a more powerful compression algorithm and faster envelopes. The new core CPU processor is faster, running a completely rewritten core operating system, apparently a Linux variant. Much of the wave ROM is also newly developed.
The XS has four modes of operation: Master, Performance, Voice and Sequencer. Master mode is essentially a collection of 128 user-definable programs, rather like a 'Favourites' compilation. Each program can be either a single Voice, a Performance, a Master keyboard setup or even a Sequencer Song or Pattern, making it easy to assemble the necessary content for a live gig. Performances themselves comprise up to four Parts that can be key-split, velocity-split or layered, all responding to the keyboard on one MIDI channel. Each Part can optionally be assigned its own Arpeggio (four different Arpeggios can be running together) and associated Voice insert effects.
Multitimbral setups are contained as part of a Sequencer Song and can be stored as 'Mixer' setups. A total of 32 Mixer setups can be stored for recall and use with Songs and Patterns, and additionally each Song's unique Mixer setup is stored along with the Song. If you want to use the XS as a multitimbral sound source for an external sequencer, the XS must therefore be in Sequencer mode.
As with the ES models, sampling can be integrated directly into Sequencer tracks, which we will examine in due course.
The AWM2 synth engine, while essentially working on the same principle as earlier models, has been given a significant makeover: each Motif XS Voice now comprises up to eight tonal elements instead of the traditional four on previous Motifs. That in itself would be a significant enhancement, but if that potential for complexity and detail of sound wasn't enough, Yamaha have implemented what they call XA, or Expanded Articulation. XA aims to add a greater sense of realism, by allowing the player real-time access to alternative instrument articulations, using methods not unlike those found in software samplers. Typical examples would be the fret slides and harmonics of a guitar, the 'overblown' sound of a wind instrument or the alternating up-and-down bowing movements of a stringed instrument. The means for producing these multiple-articulation Voices is provided by eight different element-triggering 'conditions':
1. Normal: Element plays under all conditions.
2. Legato: Element plays when set to mono mode and played legato.
3. Key Off: Element sounds when key is released.
4. Wave Cycle: Two or more elements set to this mode alternate in rotational sequence.
5. Wave Random: Two or more elements set to this mode alternate randomly.
6. All AF Off: Element sounds only when both Assignable Function (AF) panel buttons are off.
7. AF1 on: Element sounds only when AF1 button is held down.
8. AF2 on: Element sounds only when AF2 button is held down.
The two AF buttons' behaviour can also be specified as either momentary or latching. Not only are the AF buttons particularly handy for accessing different articulations — for example, pizzicato instead of arco strings, or guitar harmonics as opposed to normally fretted notes — but they can also be assigned to make temporary changes to many other Voice parameters, or even used to temporarily apply an insert effect to specified elements. Of course, you needn't be restricted to the pursuit of realism; you could just as easily use XA to create outlandish concoctions whereby a number of elements cycle through completely unrelated waveforms, for example. Unfortunately, neither of the AF buttons can be designated as a control destination for the assignable footswitch jack, which would have enabled two-handed playing at the same time as you applied an AF button's allotted functions.
The XS sequencer's note capacity is 130,000 notes, which is 96,000 fewer than the ES. This should still be more than enough for most songs, although the extra headroom would have been welcome. Songs are now storable to the XS' internal flash RAM, obviating the need to save them externally before powering down. New features of note (sorry!) include the ability to record your playing of any of the XS' four-part 'arpeggiator-and-drum-driven' Performances, live, to a Pattern or Song as a multi-part sequence — very useful for quick song construction, given that those Performances can be very inspirational. The Loop Remix facility from the ES, which jumbles up your recorded Pattern data to produce interesting variations, has also been improved, so that you can now choose the frequency at which the variations occur across an 8-bar range. Don't forget that it works with sample data too — just pop a 'sliced' drum loop into a Pattern and marvel as the XS comes up with countless new variations on the rhythm.
Four Quick Setup options are provided that configure the sequencer according to how you intend to use it. These preset configurations ensure that Local on/off, MIDI sync, arpeggio and track switches are set appropriately for either recording to the internal sequencer; recording the internal sequencer data to an external computer sequencer; recording your keyboard performance to a computer, using the XS as a multitimbral tone generator; or recording arpeggio data to an external computer.
|Feature||Motif ES||Motif XS7|
|Polyphony||128 + PLG voices||128|
|Sampling memory||Optional, up to 512Mb||Optional, up to 1Gb|
|Internal Wave ROM||175Mb equivalent||355Mb equivalent|
|Number of waveforms||1859||2670|
|Elements per Synth Voice||4||8|
|Breath Control Jack||Yes||No|
|Foot Control Jacks||2||2|
|SmartMedia Card Slot||Yes||No|
|External USB Storage||Yes||Yes|
|Audio Outputs||Stereo + 2 assignable||Stereo + 2 assignable|
|S/PDIF digital out||Optional||Yes|
|PLG Expansion Slots||3||None|
|mLAN Connectivity||Optional||XS6/7 optional; standard on XS8|
|Insert FX per Mixer/Multi||8||8|
|Filters||18 types||18 types|
|System Effects||20 reverb, 49 chorus||9 reverb, 22 chorus**|
|Insert Effects||116 types||53 types**|
|Master Effects||8 types||9 types|
|User Voices||256||128 x 3|
|User Performances||128||128 x 3|
|User Multis/Mixes||128 Mixes||32 Mixes for all Songs/Patterns|
|DAW Remote Control||Yes||Yes|
|Display||240 x 64 monochrome LCD||320 x 240 colour LCD|
|Sequencer||226,000 notes||130,000 notes|
|** Effects now consolidated into a smaller number of 'types': see effects section in main body of article for more.|
The number of global and insert effects listed on the XS has been reduced from that of the ES by over a half. That may sound like bad news, but actually it's not! Yamaha have sensibly consolidated some of the parameter variations of the same effect (listed on the ES as different 'types') into a smaller number of effect types. All the original effects are still there, as well as some new additions to the fold. A new Damper Resonance effect joins the Insert effect list, designed primarily for use with piano sounds. This is activated whenever the sustain pedal is pressed, adding a surprisingly convincing soundboard aura to the proceedings. The amount of this resonance is freely adjustable from nil to 100 percent within the effect's parameters. Also new is a 10-band Vocoder that includes formant-shift parameters capable of producing a wide variety of 'vocaloid' textures. This can be applied to a single Voice when in Voice mode, and can also be used in a Performance or Sequencer Mixer setup, albeit on Part 1 only.
Elsewhere, Yamaha take advantage of the XS' large LCD to provide some rather fetching stomp box-style graphical interfaces for a number of new Vintage Circuitry Modelled effects, while the REVX Reverb graphics bear more than a passing resemblance to the classic Lexicon 480 LARC remote! Although it's not, strictly speaking, an effect, the XS now supports half-damping, allowing for more realism and expression when you're using the sustain pedal for piano sounds. An optional FC3 foot controller is needed for this to work, and it connects to the sustain-pedal jack in place of the usual type of pedal. The FC3 is able to transmit continuous values of controller data for CC64, as opposed to values of just zero or 127. The XS (when half-damping is switched on) then varies the amount of 'sustain muting' according to the position of the pedal.
To use the XS' sampling facilities, you will need to purchase and install DIMM memory modules. Curiously, the XS has none as shipped, which strikes me as rather mean, given the present low price of memory. A basic 128Mb would be sufficient to whet the appetite — but as it is, new purchasers are denied instant gratification in that department! DIMM modules must be installed in matched pairs up to a capacious 1GB maximum. Yamaha kindly supplied two 128Mb DIMMs for the review model, so I was not left in the lurch. Samples can not only be imported from a USB device, but also using the new Ethernet connection (more later). Sample formats quoted as being supported by the XS are WAV, AIFF, Yamaha A-series (although I could not test this) and the XS' own native format. The ES could import Akai data, so it's strange that the XS doesn't include support for any third-party material.
Samples can, of course, be created from scratch using the XS' analogue stereo inputs, or digitally if you have the optional mLAN board installed. In common with the ES, you can either use your samples to create Voices that can be played from the keyboard (enter sampling mode from Voice or Performance mode) or you can sample into a sequencer track, by entering sampling mode from either Sequencer Song or Pattern mode — effectively using the XS rather like a hard disk recorder. Each sample made in this way is allotted a MIDI note number or keygroup, thus a number of samples which are part of the same 'parent' waveform (for example, several vocal clips) can all be triggered from the same track simply by giving them their own unique keygroup. The MIDI trigger notes allow you to 'slip' the samples around in time until they're spot on. The maximum sample RAM of 1GB equates to around 99 minutes of stereo recording at 44.1kHz, making the XS capable of some fairly audio-heavy productions! In practice, I found the input level to be rather low when sampling with a microphone, even with the XS input gain at maximum (yes, the input type was set to 'mic' not 'line'). This necessitated normalising the samples afterwards to make up the gain. To avoid this, I'd recommend connecting the mic via a suitable preamp or mixing desk, to provide the XS with sufficient level.
Sample data is volatile and needs to be saved externally before powering down the XS. If samples are solely used as audio clips within sequencer tracks, simply save to a USB device or computer, using the 'Song all' option. This saves all the XS Song data along with the audio data, as a single file. If you have created instrument Voices that use sample data, but not recorded any audio clips in the Sequencer, these should be saved using the 'Voice all' option. If you're using samples both in audio clips and for instrument voices, you can save the lot into a single file by choosing 'All' as the saving option. The advantage of saving all is that this file can be set to auto-load when the XS powers up, so you're ready to pick up your project from where you last left off.
Remaining as versatile and fun as ever, the XS Arpeggiator nevertheless benefits from a number of enhancements. The preset arpeggios have now more than tripled in number, to 6633! Many of these now include 'chordal intelligence', which, love the idea or loathe it, further blurs the distinction between arpeggiator and 'arranger workstation' functionality. Mega Voices — the heart of Yamaha's Tyros instruments and also featured on the ES — have been further enhanced, thanks to the XS' new Voice architecture and its potential for eight velocity layers, providing even more detailed levels of sonic and performance realism when used with the specifically designed guitar and bass Mega Voice arpeggio patterns. The whole arpeggio package is inspiring, loads of fun and guaranteed to immerse anyone in a time-dilated world of total absorption!
The XS series continues Yamaha's support of the Studio Connections concept, which integrates suitable DAW software (particularly Cubase 4) with compatible hardware devices, to provide a one-click 'total recall' environment. At the heart of this is the 'parent' application, Studio Manager, which acts as host for a range of software editing programs for compatible devices. Needless to say, the XS series has its own XS Editor program that facilitates detailed on-screen control and editing of the synth when it's connected via USB. The Studio Connections concept has been discussed in detail in previous Motif reviews, and further up-to-date information on compatible hardware and DAW applications can be found at www.studioconnections.org.
If your DAW software is not compatible with Studio Connections, Yamaha bundle Cubase AI (a cut-down version of Cubase 4) with the XS, so the full Studio Connections experience is a mere program installation away. The Studio Manager and XS Editor programs can alternatively be run as stand-alone applications, so anyone can use them, regardless of DAW platform — you would just have to manually start them up and manually save their settings, rather than having the one-click recall offered by Studio Connections. The Studio Manager and XS Editor programs, plus the latest Yamaha USB Driver and the AI driver for Cubase AI (needed for transferring audio/MIDI data to and from the XS and Cubase if you're using mLAN) can be downloaded free at www.yamahasynth.com/download/motif_xs.html.
In the case of the original Motif, Yamaha's bundled File Utility software handled the transfer of data to and from a computer via SCSI. That facility was removed from the ES, making the archiving of samples, in particular, a lengthy affair that entailed swapping USB flash RAM cards between the two devices. This inconvenience has been resolved on the XS by a built-in File Mode, which neatly manages all archiving, saving and loading procedures, using a simple directory system from which you can access a host computer on the same network via the new Ethernet port, as well as any connected USB storage device. All forms of XS data, including sample data, can be saved to and loaded from the computer's hard drive in the same way as when using a Flash RAM device. If you wish to use the Ethernet connection, you'll also need the latest version of the DME-N Network Driver which can be found at www.yamahaproaudio.com.
Although mLAN is fitted as standard only on the XS8, the XS6 and XS7 can have it optionally retrofitted. This allows the XS to bi-directionally transmit up to 16 channels of audio and the full complement of MIDI channels to and from your DAW, in real time, along a single Firewire cable. In order to use the mLAN interface, you'll need to install the mLAN Tools software — a suite of driver and applications for transferring audio and MIDI data — available from www.yamahasynth.com/download/.
All the above-mentioned support software is both Mac OS X and Windows XP compatible, but only the AI driver specifically acknowledges compatibility with Windows Vista.
If the Motif range's progress could be measured on a nursery-school growth chart, it would have shot up from 3ft to a sturdily adult 6ft in the last six years. The AWM2 synth engine's Expanded Articulation has added new potential for musical expression to the instrument, bringing it that much closer to the level of sophistication found in software samplers. Complex audio productions can be realised, thanks to the 1GB maximum sampling capability, and can be saved complete with all their associated samples in one simple operation. When you add this to double the number of control knobs and faders of the ES, a whopping waveform ROM and 1024 preset Voices for inspiration, what's not to like?
That said, I can't help feeling Yamaha may have missed a trick by removing the PLG expansion board option. The manual describes the XS as "perhaps the most versatile" and "most powerful synthesizer and total music production instrument on the planet" with "virtually all our synthesizer technology... into one instrument" — a bold claim that could be challenged in the light of competition such as Korg's M3 and Oasys synths, which are capable of offering several different forms of synthesis. Perhaps the PLG boards are no longer compatible with the XS' new operating system — an inevitable and unfortunate consequence of technological progress, if true! Nevertheless, the XS has a tremendous amount to offer, and may well tempt existing ES owners to trade up. It should certainly attract many new fans.
Appraising an instrument's sounds in a few words, particularly when the sounds are so many and varied, isn't easy. It's also a highly subjective opinion, and open to debate! I decided to rate the XS sounds using the classic SOS 'star rating' system from two to five stars (nothing on the XS deserves only one star.) So two respectable stars go to solo brass, sax, ensemble strings and other woodwinds. Three upstanding stars are awarded to ensemble brass, solo strings and tuned percussion. Looking well sexy with four stars are pianos, electric pianos, organs, orchestral flutes, oboes and drums. Finally, shining out with five stars are guitars of all kinds, basses, synth pads and textures and synth leads (which particularly benefit from the super-smooth mono legato mode).