Yamaha QY700

Music Sequencer

Published in SOS November 1996
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Reviews : Sequencing Workstation

PAUL WIFFEN, a ferocious advocate of hardware sequencers for many years, takes a look at Yamaha's new flagship sequencer and finds himself reminiscing about the way things were (and could be again).

 

Taking the new Yamaha QY700 out of its box, I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu. Fortunately for a cynical realist like myself, this was no suitable subject for a Mulder/Scully investigation but a simple case of mistaken identity. Over 10 years ago, a pair of Yamaha products entered my life and changed the way I thought about music recording forever: the TX816, a 3U rackmount module containing the equivalent of eight DX7 synths, and its companion product, the QX1 sequencer. The latter was a similar size and weight to the QY700 and also featured typewriter-style keys labelled with musical notes and expression marks like 'ff' and 'mp'. Small wonder, then, that it rang all sorts of bells in my head. I had used the QX1 throughout the mid-'80s on many of my most important sessions as a programmer, until Roland's MC500 came along and halved the weight I had to carry to each session. These were the halcyon days of MIDI sequencing, when nobody expected you to use a computer, when you were judged solely on the musical results you produced and not whether you arrived on a session with the right brand of word processor.

Of course, things have come a long way in 10 years. Software companies like Steinberg and Emagic have spent tens of thousands of man-hours creating sequencing packages which allow you to edit MIDI data (and latterly, digital audio) on large monitor screens in half a dozen ways, with all sorts of cycle modes for recording and overdubbing. Few people, it seems, notice the timing problems which can occur when using mass-market computers designed for DTP and business software for a timing-critical operation like replaying large amounts of MIDI data, especially with operating systems that prioritise screen redraws and system calls over the transmission of MIDI events. Occasionally, a courageous software programmer breaks cover to admit the problem (usually on the Internet, which his lords and masters haven't learned to use yet) but the normal response whenever you raise this problem is "buy a faster computer"!

As a result of the spread of this mindset, hardware sequencers have been in decline throughout the past decade, despite Roland and Yamaha continuing to produce cheaper and cheaper models offering more and more features. What has kept alive the hardware sequencer is the live performance MIDI File Player market. But unfortunately, as this market becomes ever more indistinguishable from karaoke, hardware sequencers have grown more and more simplistic, especially from the user's point of view. The addition of General MIDI sound capabilities within the units themselves may have made them more useful to cabaret/Top 40 musicians as well as ideal for MIDI karaoke, but it has done nothing to endear them to producers of original music or professional players.

ONE STEP BEYOND

A few years back, Yamaha discovered a new twist to the hardware sequencer in a neat little unit called the QY10. This allowed anyone with musical aspirations to create songs and try out arrangements on the move. By appealing to those whose primary criterion was portability, the QY beat the computer-based systems hands down. Suddenly Yamaha had a big hit on their hands and followed it up with increasingly larger units with more features, patterns, etc (and not surprisingly, bigger model numbers and price tags).

So you might be forgiven for deducing from the model number that the QY700 is a super-deluxe, portable Walkman-style arranger. Well, it might be if you are a Gladiator who works out three times a day and can carry around its 10lb+ weight, together with a car battery to provide power (no battery compartment, you see). But to dismiss the QY700 as just another model in a successful series would be to miss the most exciting side of the machine. In fact, I would like to suggest that Yamaha change the model number to 'QX700' to highlight its true pedigree and position it as the pinnacle of hardware sequencer design (or as Saddam Hussein might put it, 'the mother of all hardware sequencers').

EYE-CATCHING

Yamaha have played a trump card which might, just might, grab the attention of the majority of musicians who buy with their eyes not their ears -- namely the largest, brightest display screen I have ever seen on a musical instrument. In fact, I am pretty sure that it's the same blue screen Yamaha use on their highly desirable 02R digital mixer (because the screen dumps in this article are produced by the same method of downloading via MIDI to a Macintosh). It can be read under the most difficult of conditions and is large enough to feature the kind of editing displays normally found only on computer sequencers. This backlighting is almost certainly why the QY700 can't be used on batteries, as the current drawn would probably see off half a dozen Duracells in under five minutes. Nevertheless, the size and clarity of display makes the sacrifice of portability worthwhile. Certainly, with a display like this on the unit, no producer or engineer is going to make sarcastic comments about you being behind the times because you don't use a computer to sequence on (as happened to me many times in the late '80s).

 

"...there must be almost as many man-years of software in the QY700 as in the average computer-based software sequencer."

 

What this fantastic display means is that there is finally a hardware sequencer available which can depict the contents of your sequences as events in a piano-roll display, as a list of events with more than one or two visible simultaneously, and can even display an overview of tracks and the places where data is recorded on them in the manner of Cubase or Logic (although the closest comparison is the Passport Master Tracks main window, in that it shows complete bars with contents rather than smaller (or longer) subsections). The QY700's main Song Playback window looks a little like Creator/Notator turned on its side (more like Steinberg's Pro 16/24 actually, for those with long memories).

So does this spell the end for computer-based sequencers? Hardly! First of all, the QY700 can't access the Internet, run games software or act as a fax machine, so most musicians will probably reject it out of hand. But getting off my soapbox for a moment, there are several aspects of this machine which aficionados of computer-based systems will spot straight away (I don't necessarily consider these to be valid criticisms of the QY700, merely things it doesn't do). You have to decide for yourself whether you need these features or not.

WHERE AM I?

The most immediate thing you miss from recent software-based sequencers is a moving 'now' line in any of the edit or playback screens, continuously updating you on the position you have reached in the song. Of course, Creator, Notator and Pro 24 users will not miss this, because they have never had it, but I find it unlikely that the users of Cubase, Logic and other modern sequencers will be prepared to be weaned away from this reassuring line which shows you exactly were you are in the song/track. It is particularly useful when in piano roll-style edit to help you identify offending notes quickly and with confidence. Similarly, in the QY700's event list editor, the notes neither scroll through nor are highlighted as they pass.

Now it may be that these very features are what place the extra burden on computer-based systems. I have noticed that the playback timing of several Mac and PC sequencers goes awry when the screen needs constant redraws or re-listings. It may be that Yamaha found that the timing of the QY700 was affected by such features and wisely chose to omit them. Or it may just be that because a hardware sequencer has never had a moving 'now' line before, they didn't put one on the QY700 (although it seems odd to have taken so much other inspiration from software-based machines and not to have borrowed that concept as well).

Whatever the reason behind this omission, I think it will cause most people with any experience of '90s computer-based sequencer packages to baulk at the first fence. It is so much a part of modern sequencing that even I (who managed without it for so long) found myself disorientated for a while. It may be true that you don't miss what you have never had, but it is also the case that once you have grown used to a feature it is dashed difficult to manage without it.

So how good is the QY700's timing? The answer, you'll be pleased to hear, is 'too good for these ears to fault!' Whilst I would not claim to have the most sensitive ears to timing problems, I can certainly hear a difference between the solidity of the QY700 and that of most sequencing packages on the market. In fact, there was only one moment in the whole time I spent with the QY700 where I noticed something flaky, and that was a Phil Collins-style drum fill in one of the demo sequences provided on disk. On investigation, this turned out to be human frailty because it was programmed like this. In fact, the QY700's 1/480th of a quarter-note resolution had perfectly captured the inexactness of the original playing, and I was easily able to tighten this up with the Quantisation Strength parameter (see later).

Once used to the lack of a 'now' line, the experienced user of modern sequencing software will soon notice another difference. Whilst the QY700 is running, you cannot change edit screens, or even the track you are editing, using the Mode keys. To do this, you must first stop the transport, change screen or track and then press Play again. This may also be to conserve the integrity of the MIDI timing, as screen redraws and track selection can lead to timing errors on software-based systems (some more than others). Whatever the reason, I feel it may prove another major turn-off for those used to zipping around their software sequencer, tweaking a note on one track, opening an editor on another, all without the playback being interrupted (I remember this was what I found so impressive about Cubase when I first saw it demonstrated in an Anaheim hotel suite).

Those with a traditional musical education, perhaps attracted to the QY700 by the numerous keys labelled with musical notes, Italian abbreviations for MIDI velocity (ppp, mf, etc), might well expect there to be a screen which shows you musical notation, another standard feature in all but the cheapest of sequencing software. Sadly, this is not the case. The reason for this is more obvious; whilst the resolution of the QY700's screen is great for rectilinear objects (bars representing phrases and note lengths or velocities, for example), it is nowhere near fine enough for small rounded objects like the heads of musical notes. The most you would be able to see would be half a dozen bars of one track before a redraw would be necessary. Of course, there are those who would say this might be better than nothing.

SAFETY FIRST

Before I get too carried away with what features the QY700 doesn't have in comparison to computer software packages, let me point out something which might not only redress the balance for many users (it certainly ought to) but perhaps put the QY700 out in front by a length or two. Anyone who has ever used a computer for sequencing will almost certainly have lost work, either through a software crash, the power being disconnected, or another accident of computing. Well, the QY700 has non-volatile RAM for all its memory, so you don't lose any data when the power is off, and in the week I had it for review it never even glitched once, let alone crashed or hung up temporarily. What price do you put on the security of your data? How many times have you wished you had saved your work just before a major trauma? In the same week that I tested the QY700, I lost a couple of letters on my PowerBook through clicking 'No' absent-mindedly when asked if I wished to save before quitting, erased a rather nice sequence a colleague had done on the Falcon without saving, when I pulled out the power to show someone how to upgrade the memory, and suffered a PC hard disk corruption which lost tons of work (none of it of any lasting merit, fortunately). "All these moments lost like tears in rain" (to quote Rutger Hauer from Bladerunner) could have been saved with non-volatile RAM. Think about how much music you have lost or had to redo over the years before you dismiss this feature.

This is the kind of data security that professional programmers need. Believe me, there is nothing worse than having to explain to an uncomprehending client that the last three hours work has just been lost, especially if it was done in a £100+ per hour recording studio. Imagine, too, the extra peace of mind in a live context of knowing that even if there is a power cut, you can carry on from where you left off as soon as the power comes back. Not to mention the fact that the QY700's hefty external power supply is unlikely to be freaked out by the kind of spikes and surges which frequently occur in the antiquated electrical systems which abound in pubs, clubs and theatres -- the same spikes and surges which eat home computers and the contents of their volatile memory for breakfast!

Up to 110,000 notes of sequencing can be held in this non-volatile RAM, shared across 20 songs. For live work, this means you can probably keep your entire set in the machine and only use the QY700's floppy drive as a backup for real emergencies. Imagine not having to perform disk loads between each song or in the middle of the set. Wouldn't it be great if the sequencer became the least vulnerable thing in your setup and not the most prone to data loss and long re-boot times after accidental disconnection or crashing? With the QY700, this could actually become a reality.

MOVING AROUND

I have always hated the computer mouse because of the way it becomes tangled, runs out of room or clogs up at the most inconvenient moment (the tracker pad on my Apple PowerBook is the best substitute I have yet found). Nevertheless, at first it can feel a little strange not being able to instantly click on anything you want to change in the display, but the arrow keys Yamaha provide are also familiar from many computer systems and are a lot surer for navigating your way around the screens. Anyone who has ever tried to use a mouse on a live stage or in a cluttered studio will know how frustrating and unreliable they can be, so much so that I have always learnt to use any keyboard shortcuts in music software to speed things up.

 

"...there is no doubt in my mind that the QY700 is the best hardware sequencer ever made."

 

Objects in the display are highlighted to show they are selected, just as if you had clicked on them, and then they can be edited numerically using the QY keypad or the +1/-1 keys. The numerical keypad also features a Return key for selecting things, just like on a computer. Many edit functions are selected with the six soft function keys along the bottom of the display, and five to the right (their current label appears right next to them). Dedicated keys are provided for Track up/down, Mute and Solo, but like the Mode keys we saw earlier, they often don't work when the sequencer is running. This is obviously deliberate (unlike the unresponsiveness you sometimes get on a software program whenever it is busy doing something else) but it can slow down your working to have to keep stopping the sequencer to change tracks or edit screen and then restarting.

MICROKEYBOARD

Obviously, you can use a MIDI keyboard connected to either of the QY700's two MIDI Ins to input MIDI notes, controller information and so forth, but Yamaha haven't assumed that you will always have something suitable to hand when inspiration strikes. That's why they've included what they refer to as the Microkeyboard -- over two octaves (E-F) worth of rubber pads laid out and coloured exactly like the notes on a musical keyboard. Whilst these are not velocity sensitive (remember, the secondary function of the numerical keypad allows you to set dynamics from fff to ppp), they are surprisingly easy to play tunes or basslines on, unlike the horrendous clunky keys on the Roland MC303 (designed to take the heavy hand of DJs used to hitting pads, I suspect). At one point I was amazed to find myself drawn into an impromptu jam using the QY700's Microkeyboard. All the old 'hammer-on' style of playing, which you can only do on monophonic keyboards, came back and I was suddenly having more fun than anyone has a right to whilst engaged in the deadly serious work of reviewing.

All this was helped by the thoughtful provision of pitch and mod wheels on the back edge of the QY700. If you had told me that pitch/mod wheels placed like this could have been so comfortable and easy to use, I would have been sceptical, but they really are. In fact, they out-perform many of the new-fangled controllers which are cropping up on the latest generation of synthesizers.

The rubber keys are also used for step-time input of notes in conjunction with the third function of the numerical keyboard, note length (illustrated with normal and triplet versions of demi-semi-quavers through to minims and whole notes). Within minutes, the whole Yamaha step-programming technique which I used all those years ago had come flooding back (it's like riding a bike: you never forget!).

Of course, it is completely impractical for live polyphonic playing, but the solution to this on an unaccompanied QY700 is at hand in the secondary function of the Microkeyboard, that of inputting chord root and types. The lower octave covers from E up to D# while the upper one lets you decide chord type from Major (M) and Minor (m) through simple 7ths and then add flattened or sharpened 5ths, 9ths and 13ths. These are used in conjunction with a special Chord Track, which draws its inspiration from the auto-accompaniment school of keyboards. Before you sneer and dismiss this facility (as I was inclined to do), remember that as well as using the 3,876 phrases provided, you can enter 99 phrases of your own for each style you create. So you can impose your own musical personality on the auto-accompaniment section, rather than simply adopting the Yamaha programmers' styles (excellent though they are!).

The auto-accompaniment section also lets you increase the number of tracks the sequencer can generate from 32 to 48 as you create patterns from phrases which can cope with all manner of chord changes, even holding over pedal bass notes other than the chord's root note. In fact, the only criticism I have of this aspect of the machine is that the supplied demos occasionally display music theory inconsistencies like EM7 over Ab (surprising when the keys on the keyboard can input either G# or Ab). Surely it wouldn't be too difficult for the software to know that in E it is always G#?

Once you have created or selected the phrases for your 16 auto-accompaniment channels, all you have to do is record the Chord Track; this controls the transpositions and changes to the phrases, so that you don't end up with harmonic inconsistencies between your 32 recorded tracks and your 16 auto-accompaniment parts. You can then link all your patterns together into a song, complete with the ability to name sections for easy identification within the song structure.

 

"If you had told me that pitch/mod wheels placed like this could have been so comfortable and easy to use, I would have been sceptical, but they really are."

 

As far as recording the 32 normal sequencer tracks is concerned, there are four recording modes available: Replace, Overdub, Punch and Step. These terms are self-explanatory and allow as much variety in recording practice as any software-based sequencer I have come across. There is also a Tempo Track, which allows changes in BPM (beats per minute) to be recorded from numerical input or the data dial. This actually means that you can record smooth accelerandi and deccelerandi, something I have always struggled to create with Cubase. Each bar (or 'meter', as Yamaha call it) can have its own time signature. Quantisation features not only allow you to select the musical interval around which the quantisation is based (from 16th-triplet up to quarter-note) but also the Strength of the quantisation as a percentage (ie. how much the notes are moved towards the quantisation positions). 100% means all notes are moved onto the quantisation values, while 50% means that they will be moved halfway between their original positions. Whereas a lot of these features are fairly standard on many software sequencers, this is the fullest implementation of such editing capabilities I have ever come across on a hardware sequencer.

QY700 AS SOUND MODULE

We have only alluded so far to the fact that the QY700 Music Sequencer, despite its name, is also a GM/XG voice module. This side of the machine expands on the QY concept, allowing you to put together musical ideas even when you don't have the rest of your MIDI gear available.

By now most of us are familiar with the limitations of General MIDI (GM). Yamaha's own system, XG MIDI, is designed to expand the flexibility and expressiveness of General MIDI by offering increased voicing and extra parameter control. Whilst retaining backwards compatibility with GM (so you can play all MIDI Files on the QY700), it means you can achieve greater musicality in sequences with XG compatible modules. On the QY700, this extra subtlety of tone colour and control is available via the internal Tone Generator. Whilst we do not have the space here for a full review of the features and capabilities of XG, Yamaha supplied me with several pairs of comparative musical sequences, in both GM and XG formats, and the difference between the two was substantial. The XG versions had so much more life and feeling than their GM counterparts.

Such enhanced control is available on the QY700 via Voice Mode. This lets you access four different screens: Mixer, Tune, Voice Edit and Drum Setup Edit. Mixer lets you select the bank and program of the 32 available parts, their volume, pan, reverb, chorus and third effect amounts. Tune gives you tune and transpose amounts. Voice Edit is the most complex screen, packing a huge number of parameters into the screen, complete with envelope, filter and vibrato graphics to help you understand the way changes affect the voice. Parameters available include mono/poly switch, reserved polyphony, velocity sensitivity, portamento, LFO-pitch/filter/amp, filter cutoff and resonance, envelope attack/decay/release, vibrato rate/depth/delay, and pitch-bend amount.

Drum Setup Edit comes a close second to Voice Edit for packing a lot into one screen, allowing you to separately set the amount of reverb, chorus and third effect for each drum, as well as assigning its pan, level, pitch, key assignment, filter cutoff and resonance, envelope attack and decays 1 and 2. You can save a complete customised drum kit as part of each QY700 song.

A similar degree of complexity is available in the programming of the QY700's three onboard effects. With 11 reverb types, 11 chorus types and over 40 varied effects in the third unit (see sidebar), there is a huge amount of 'fairy dust' available in the QY700. Each effect has its own set of parameters, sometimes as many as seven or eight. Describing them all here would be impossible (even the manual doesn't attempt to do that!), but they are all of excellent sound quality and variability.

To round everything off, there is a full complement of what Yamaha refer to as Job functions for each Mode and utility function. These cover all manner of copy, shift and shortcuts, as well as more esoteric parameters like Time Stretch (adjusting phrases so they take more or less time to play back). All in all, there must be almost as many man-years of software in the QY700 as in the average computer-based software sequencer.

JUDGEMENT DAY

Offering 32-part multitimbral synthesis and three built-in effects, the QY700 packs an awful lot into its confines (far more than the 'dumb' QX1 which I remember so fondly), and is truly worthy of the title 'music sequencer'. The only thing it could perhaps have borrowed from its splendid ancestor is the eight MIDI Outs. The QY700 only has two, with no way to expand on that. It can generate up to 48 channels of MIDI data (when using patterns and sequencer tracks) but 16 of those have to utilise the internal sounds. This means it will never replace those computer setups with eight or more MIDI Outs, which are becoming more common. In these days when almost every synth you buy can respond on all 16 MIDI channels, it means that you have to spend a lot of time switching channels off on your target synths if you don't want to end up with parts being duplicated on different machines.

There is no doubt in my mind that the QY700 is the best hardware sequencer ever made. However, previous hardware sequencers are not the principal competition it faces. Musicians have to be wooed back from the seductive world of cheap and flexible computer-based sequencing. Maybe the lack of a 'now' line and real-time moving from edit screen to edit screen could be remedied in a software update, but the biggest hurdle the QY700 has to overcome is the refusal of most musicians to prioritise their audible needs over the safety net of visual feedback and more general computing. In the splendid 320x240 display, Yamaha have given it the best possible chance. But what would really help would be if those comparing it to their software sequencer would close their eyes momentarily and listen. The playback timing of the QY700 is superior to the majority of software-based systems, and wasn't that what this used to be all about?

There will always be a demand for reliable sequencing for live performance usage and with its fabulous display, non-volatile RAM and butch power supply, the QY700 will prove ideal for this. But this is a niche market at best, as is that for MIDI File Players. What Yamaha really need is for musicians to open their ears and listen to the timing accuracy. Then they may actually break the software stranglehold on sequencing.

 

QY700 FX FOUNDRY

REVERB TYPES
• Hall 1 & 2
• Room 1-3
• Stage 1 & 2
• Plate
• White Room
• Tunnel
• Basement

CHORUS TYPES
• Chorus 1-4
• Celeste 1-4
• Flanger 1-3

THIRD PROCESSOR EFFECTS
• Hall 1 & 2
• Room 1-3
• Stage 1 & 2
• Plate
• Delay L,C,R
• Delay L,R
• Echo
• Crossdelay
• ER1 & 2
• Gate Rev
• Revers Gate
• Karaoke 1-3
• Thru
• Chorus 1-4
• Celeste 1-4
• Flanger 1-3
• Symphonic
• Rotary Spker
• Tremolo
• Auto Pan
• Phaser 1 & 2
• Distortion
• Overdrive
• Amp Sim
• 3-band EQ
• 2-band EQ
• Auto Wah

 

pros & cons

YAMAHA QY700 £999

pros
• Rock-solid 480ppqn timing.
• Non-volatile memory.
• Biggest, brightest ever display on hardware sequencer.
• 110,000-note, 20-song memory (avoids onstage loading).
• Arrange window, piano roll and list editors.
• GM-compatibility with XG flexibility.
• Excellent reverb, chorus and third effects.

cons
• Inability to switch between edit screens during playback.
• Limited to two MIDI Outs.
• No Score Edit screen.

summary
Offering 32-part multitimbral sounds and three built-in effects, the QY700 is simply the best hardware sequencer ever made.

 

info

£ £999 inc VAT.

A Yamaha Kemble UK Ltd, Sherbourne Drive, Tilbrook, Milton Keynes MK7 8BL.

T Information line 01908 369269.

F 01908 368872.

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