Yamaha GX1 Synthesizer, Part 1

Exploration

Published in SOS February 2000
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Reviews : Keyboard

In the first part of a special two-part Retrozone, feature, Gordon Reid tells the amazing story of Yamaha's ultra-rare GX1 analogue megasynth -- and how it ended up in his living room...

When I was at University I lived with a Yorkshire lass who could say "Ayup lad, there'll be trouble at t'mill" with the best of them. She was also a talented psychiatrist who has since gone on to become one of the leading shrinks in the country (don't laugh, it's true!). And whenever we argued she would tell me that I was a compulsive/obsessive whose only redeeming feature was that -- most of the time -- I had my disfunctions under control. She was right, and her diagnosis lies at the core of this month's tale of lust, large synthesizers, and annoying my mum.

In The Beginning

My first synthesizer was a Korg 700. I bought this second-hand in 1974, partly funded by my Saturday job, and partly by contributions from my father and my long-departed gran. My concert-pianist mother was horrified. "Why did you have to buy him that thing? Why can't he play proper music?" became the precursor to many a marital altercation.

This was the year that Emerson, Lake and Palmer released their epic Welcome Back My Friends... triple LP. I would spend hours staring at the back of its three-part gatefold sleeve, trying to work out what Emerson's keyboards were, and which ones he used on each track. I would spend even more time trying to coax the same sounds from my little Korg, always failing utterly. So... I was a teenager, my mum hated electronic keyboards, and I couldn't get the sounds I wanted from the one I had. The solution was obvious. It was time to buy another synthesizer.

The following year, Emerson switched allegiances from Moog to Yamaha. And, by the time the next ELP album appeared, he was playing something that looked like the helm from the original Starship Enterprise. It was huge, it was white, it had three keyboards, and it sounded like nothing else had ever sounded. It was a Yamaha GX1, and I wanted one.

There were only three snags: the GX1 was incredibly rare, it weighed the best part of half a ton and, in a year when a middle-class home in Basingstoke cost no more than £10,000, it would have set me back about £40,000. It was never going to happen. Or was it? To find out, we're going to ignore Keith Emerson and his GX1s (see box), turn our backs on Led Zeppelin, and walk way from other GX fans such as Abba, Stevie Wonder, Rick Wright and Hans Zimmer. This is the strange story of GX1 Serial No. 5073, and it starts in 1975...

  The Most Famous GX1s Of Them All  
  In 1994, just two months after receiving my GX1, I met Keith Emerson. Inevitably, the discussion turned to the big synth, and this is what he told me: "The Polymoog design was partly the result of the very good relationship I had had with Bob Moog. Unfortunately, the production version came out at the time that Bob was becoming interested in digital synthesis and was considering leaving the company... and I felt that, if I couldn't deal with him, it was hardly worth continuing with the company.

"It was around this time that I heard of the GX1. It was the first true polyphonic, but even today it's a glorious synthesizer! There's still only one instrument that makes that sound. My first GX1 was a turning point for ELP. It looked great, and I always felt a certain confidence standing behind it. But it took eight roadies to move it, and it was such a burden on tour."

In 1995 Keith sold many of his synthesizers before emigrating to the USA (see SOS May '95). The sale included not one, but two GX1s. Chris Newman refurbished the equipment prior to this, and told me, "God only knows the condition the GXs are in, but we know that they don't work. The white one is flight-cased, but it's been shipped all over the world, and there's lots of work to be done there. Apparently, a gardener drove a tractor straight through the wall of Keith's home studio, running over it."

I wonder where Keith's GX1s eventually found their new homes? And what would they be worth in 2000AD? If anybody in SOS-land knows, I'd love to hear from you. Anyway, let's offer the last word to Keith: "Showmanship is a very important part of music -- even to the point of sitting at a grand piano and being twirled round in mid-air. Wrestling with an old synth has far more impact than simply pressing a button to select the next patch. Seeing someone leaping around is a show, and being theatrical makes playing much more enjoyable. Modern keyboards are not as impressive, and they don't involve the audience as much."

 

A Synth By Any Other Name Would Sound As Sweet

A long, long time ago, I can still remember when Yamaha held world-wide organ competitions. Each year, a bunch of starry-eyed hopefuls would congregate to impress a panel of adjudicators with their ability to sound like the Blackpool Tower Ballroom on a soggy October afternoon. Competitors were not allowed to supply their own instruments -- these were provided by Yamaha, and voiced identically to ensure that playing abilities were judged, not programming skills. In 1975 (or was it 1976?) the instrument of choice was Yamaha's newest and most imposing instrument to date -- a large, three-manual 'Electone Organ' -- and a small number of these were shipped out to the company's subsidiaries for use in the heats.

The one delivered to Australia spent the next few months on the road, before returning to the Sydney Opera House for the Australian final. The adjudicators deliberated, a winner emerged, and he or she duly flew off to Tokyo for the Grand Final. Who won? I haven't got the faintest idea.

Shortly thereafter, the 'Electone' disappeared back into the bowels of Yamaha Australia, where it remained unloved and unused for six years. Then, in 1981, the son of one of the aforementioned adjudicators found it buried under a pile of cardboard. Discarded and decaying, it was perceived as a huge lump of primitive analogue junk that nobody would ever want again, so he found Yamaha quite amenable to disposing of it for an attractively small sum of money.

This young man's mother was an organ teacher, so he bought the organ and arranged for Yamaha to deliver it to his parents' living room. To the company's great credit, Yamaha even flew a specialist from Tokyo to Australia specifically to overhaul and install it correctly. Consequently, in 1981 or thereabouts, the 1975 Electone ended up being banged, kicked, and generally abused by a bunch of kids who had no idea what they were playing.

Or, to put it another way, the world's most revered and possibly rarest synthesizer ended up being banged, kicked, and generally abused by a bunch of kids who had no idea what they were playing -- for the model at the top of the 1975 Yamaha Electone Organ range was, in fact, the GX1 synthesizer.

The Things One Does In Paradise

At this point it's time to slip forward more than a decade, to September 1993 -- a time which found me in Melbourne, Australia, presenting a paper on noise reduction to the Antipodean section of the Audio Engineering Society. I was due in Sydney two days after the AES Convention, leaving me with a free day in one of the most beautiful and interesting cities on Earth. So what did I do? Visit the museums? Take a day trip to the rainforests or the beaches? Hunt down the set of Neighbours and try my luck with Natalie Imbruglia? Of course not... I bought a copy of Trading Post, the Australian equivalent of Loot, and returned to my hotel room.

As I flicked through the keyboard section I found nothing of interest. It was the usual list: ARP, Crumar, Hammond, Korg, Roland, Yamaha... you know how it goes. But then, right at the end, I stumbled upon the following: Yamaha GX1, $xxxxx. (No, I'm not going to tell you how much!) Knowing that the advertisement couldn't possibly be right, I nevertheless found myself dialling the number. "Hello," I said, "I'm calling about the Yamaha. I'm sure that it's a misprint, and you must be selling a GS1 or maybe a DX1, but I thought that I'd call anyway."

"Oh," came the reply, "you must mean my mother's Yamaha organ. It's a GX1."

Thirty minutes and a lightning-quick car hire later, I found myself driving out of the city and into the suburbs at speeds that would undoubtedly have been considered inappropriate by the gentlemen of the local constabulary. That was also around the time that I remembered to breathe again. Arriving at the address I'd been given, I was then guided down the road to meet 'Mum', a very pleasant lady who explained that she was an organ teacher, and that this was the instrument she used for her pupils. So there I was, standing in front of a fully functional GX1. It was huge, white, gorgeous... and it worked perfectly. I had to have it. There was just one problem.

  Tales Of Wonder  
  Stevie Wonder is well known for having more keyboards than anyone else. This applied just as much to the Yamaha GX1, which he used extensively on Songs In The Key Of Life (check out the strings on 'Village Ghettoland'). Keith Emerson had a GX1, Rick Van Der Linden (brother of Focus drummer Pierre) had a GX1, so of course Stevie Wonder had to have... two GX1s.

This also meant that he was able to keep one working longer than most people. By the mid-'80s, however, he had so many new and exciting keyboards (not to mention the Synclavier and Waveframe) that he was no longer using the one he still kept at his Wonderland Studios near Downtown LA, and space for all this gear was getting tight. Stevie's equipment manager Mick, a Londoner who had joined Stevie's team in the '60s on a British tour and never left, decided that he would get the GX1 moved up to Stevie's storage warehouse in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley (north of the Hollywood sign). One day, other things were being moved around, and there was a big truck hanging around in the Wonderland car park, so he got the fork-lift truck kept for moving the GX1 around (a task which otherwise took half a dozen roadies), scooped it up, and disappeared out of the double doors that led into the car park.

Nothing more was heard from Mick for over an hour, until the phone at Wonderland rang. It was the Los Angeles Police Department, wanting to confirm Mick's identity and his claim that he worked for Stevie Wonder. Apparently, Mick had got the GX1 out into the car park on the fork-lift, but failed to find the driver of the truck to load it on. After waiting a few minutes, he decided that the GX1 was so stable on the fork-lift that he didn't need the truck. He turned the fork-lift left out of the car park onto Western Ave and headed up the street till he reached the 101 Freeway. He then turned North on 101 and headed through the pass in the hills -- which was where he had been stopped by the LAPD, doing five miles an hour on the hard shoulder with the GX1. Lord only knows how many traffic laws he had broken, but once it was established that he really did work for Stevie, the Wonder name worked its usual magic and Mick was given an escort the remaining mile or two to the warehouse. Paul Wiffen

 

A Slight Logistical Problem

The following day I flew to Sydney, where I was to be based for the next couple of weeks. Much of this time was spent on the phone to Yamaha Australia and Yamaha Japan, trying to find out how to ship the GX1 and its two huge speakers. I hit a brick wall. The problem, you see, was not the size of the beast, but the combination of its weight and fragility. The GX1 keyboard alone weighs 300kg, but you wouldn't want to see it dropped a couple of centimetres, let alone pushed off the back of a Boeing 747. The pedalboard and stand add 87kg to this, and each of its valve-powered speakers weighs in at 141kg -- not the kind of gear you would fling casually into the back of a Ford Transit, let alone ship 10,000 miles.

Undeterred, I contacted the seller again and promised that I would keep working on the problem when I got back to the UK. I had anticipated difficulties, but it then took me nearly a year to find a specialist shipping agent (thank you All Mode Forwarding) whom I could trust to bring the beast safely to England. The seller who, to his great credit, trusted me to make good my offer to buy the GX1, then offered to build three shipping crates. Using industrial pallets as foundations, he constructed one each around the GX1 and the two speakers, water-proofed them, and stuffed them with bags of hygroscopic crystals to protect the equipment against moisture on the long trip to England. I then contacted All Mode, wired some money to Australia, and waited for confirmation that the crates were in transit.

A couple of days later I received an alarmed call from Melbourne. Apparently the truckers who had collected the crates had tried to roll the largest one (the GX1 itself) onto the truck, and it was only through luck that the seller had intervened in time. He suggested that I contact All Mode to explain that rolling a crated GX1 through 180 degrees was probably not a good idea. I did this, and then suffered eight of the most nerve-racking weeks of my life.

In late December 1993, I was in Australia again (yes, I like Australia, but this was work, honest!). Knowing the Universe to be a spiteful entity at the best of times, I anticipated that the GX1 would arrive in my absence, so I gave my house keys to a friend, who offered to drive to my house and unlock the garage if the shippers contacted him to arrange delivery. Inevitably, this is exactly what happened and, on December 23rd, the friend in question, Clive Osborn, watched as a large truck rumbled into my front garden. The driver jumped down, looked confused, and asked, "Is it only you?"

"Yes," replied Clive.

After which exchange the two of them unloaded and stored three cases of incredibly delicate synthesizer, weighing a total of just a fraction under a tonne. Like I said... spiteful!

Now, if you know anything about large analogue synthesizers, you probably know that they don't like changes in temperature, they don't like changes in humidity, they don't like changes in the price of beer, and they certainly don't like to travel 10,000 miles. With 135 discrete circuit boards and what looks like 100 miles of point-to-point wiring, I wouldn't suggest that any sane person move a GX1 from the dining room to the living room. But there I was, just a few days later, jet-lagged out of my brain, and staring at three crates that had, firstly, spent the greater part of the past two months on a ship, secondly, experienced extremes of heat and humidity as they crossed the equator somewhere off the coast of Africa, thirdly, arrived in the England on a sub-zero day in mid-winter, and fourthly, spent Christmas, New Year, and early January in a garage.

I should now offer thanks to the man who probably saved my GX1's bacon, Mike Swain of the aptly named Panic Music. "Whatever you do," he told me, "don't switch anything on until the components have had time to acclimatise. Leave the thing alone for at least two weeks."

As it happened, I left it until mid-February, by which time snow lay on the ground. But my patience was at an end. It was time to indulge in a bit of gratuitous crate destruction and see if my mega-synth had survived.

  The GX1 Dynasty  
  Yamaha spent £2,000,000 developing the GX1. This means that, if they sold 50 units (which seems unlikely) they didn't even recoup their costs. But as far back as 1975, Yamaha's UK demonstrator, Len Rowle, speculated that the GX1 was the test bed for a number of new systems that "will eventually find themselves inside other quite modest Yamaha instruments". Mr Rowle was right, and three of these appeared just one year later.

THE CS50 & CS60
The CS50 was the baby of the family, but it was never a big hit with players despite offering 4-note polyphony (which was a big deal in 1976) and much of the GX1's voicing. Maybe it was the lightweight four-octave keyboard, which was pressure-sensitive but not velocity-sensitive. Maybe it was the tuning instability. Maybe it was the unrealistic presets and lack of memories. Maybe -- although nobody could have known this at the time -- it was its long-term unreliability. No: none of these would have been seen as deficiencies in 1976. Whatever the reason, and despite possessing the 'creamy' power that marks all the GX1's immediate descendants, the CS50 was, and has remained, a largely undiscovered gem.

The CS60 was the next step up. This offered a five-octave keyboard and, with eight voices, double the CS50's polyphony. It offered only 12 presets (compared to its little brother's 13) but the 13th had metamorphosed into a 'memory'. This used a duplicate control panel of tiny sliders on the top of the instrument, which you could use to recreate the basic parameters of a preset. Unfortunately, like the factory presets, this did not store any information regarding the modulation or performance controls -- but you have to realise that, in 1976, no synth offered even one patch memory that stored all the parameters of a sound.

THE CS80
If the CS50 and CS60 are barely desirable even in retrospect, their big bother was an instant success. The CS80 dominated the keyboard world for almost two years. When, in 1978, the Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX stole the analogue crown, it was probably because they were significantly cheaper and lighter, not because anyone thought that they sounded any better. Indeed, in 2000AD, the CS80 is far more sought-after than either of its erstwhile competitors.

The reason for this is simple. The CS80 is the 'son-of-GX1', with the same dual-voice architecture that made the mega-synth so remarkable. It even has four of the CS60's memories. With its beautifully weighted, velocity-sensitive and poly-pressure-sensitive keyboard, it remains an unsurpassed performance synthesizer.

So, if you're not prepared to devote half of your house to the bulk of a GX1 and its dedicated speakers, you can still get close to that sound. Even a CS80 weighs 105kg, and you won't find one going cheap in a car boot sale, but it's still hugely desirable. I would never sell mine, even though it's in the same studio as the GX1. There is no higher praise!

Instrument Year of launch Polyphony Memories Keyboard Price at launch
CS50 1976 4 0 49-note £1,390
CS60 1976 8 1 61-note £2,290
CS80 1976 8 4 61-note (weighted) £4,950
 

Just When You Think You've Done The Hard Bit...

At this point another friend came to my rescue (thanks, Frog) and, as gently as possible, we unscrewed, crow-barred, and generally hacked at the largest of the cases until it was dismantled. And there it was: the GX1, just as I had remembered it. We then repeated the operation for the cases holding the speakers,

  Waking Up The Neighbours: The Model TX-II Speaker System  
  Yamaha designed the TX-II speakers specifically to accompany the GX1. At 141kg each, these speakers are almost as unwieldy as the synth itself, but once you've used them, you'll never complain again. A TX-II has nine drivers -- a 15-inch woofer, four 8-inch mid-range units (which Yamaha call 'squawkers') and four 2-inch tweeters -- all driven by dual 120W valve amps. The drivers are arranged on three of the cabinet's eight sides, giving excellent dispersion, and eliminating dead-spots in the soundfield. The resulting sound is... well, let me explain it like this. A friend of mine recently compared my GX1 and twin TX-IIs to the latest digital workstation played through a high-quality monitoring system. She said that the GX1 sounded like a cathedral, whereas the modern equipment had the depth of a chapel in comparison. She was not wrong.

The GX1 will drive multiple TX-IIs simultaneously, and a selector switch on its base determines which combinations of manuals and pedals are directed to which speakers. Alternatively, you can use one or more Leslie speakers, but the GX1 will not control their rotation speeds without modification. Surprisingly, the GX1 has no conventional signal outputs, so it's not trivial to hook one up to a mixer. Your best hope is to use the 5-channel output. This uses an 8-pin Leslie-style connector that allows you to separate the sounds produced by each of the GX1's manuals and its pedals.

 
found the connecting cables, and plugged everything in...

I can still remember my overriding emotion as I turned the thing on: sheer, abject terror. And, for a few seconds, my worst fears were realised. Then the valve amps warmed up, the start-up mute circuit disengaged, and I pressed a key.

I suspect that everyone within a hundred-mile radius of Cambridge heard that first note. With the speakers' internal amps unwittingly set to maximum and the main output volume full up on the GX1 itself, I imagine that its foghorn blast raised the dead right across the East of England.

Finding that the GX1 still worked perfectly was one of the great surprises of my life. (Mind you, my CS80 has never drifted out of tune either, and analogue anoraks will tell you that that's impossible too.) But work it did, so it was time to move it into the house. This was when I discovered the next problem. The GX1 was too big. It was too big for the doors, too big for the windows, too big for the doors or the windows even if I removed their frames... It was simply TOO BIG.

Fortunately, the house had a patio with sliding doors, so all we had to do was get the GX1 into the back garden. Not surprisingly, it was too big to get down the side of the house, too. This is the point at which I must tell you that I had a river running through my back garden, and that, short of calling in the Royal Engineers, there was no way to get the synth across it. What was I to do? I sure as hell wasn't going to leave the thing in the garage, but no sensible solutions presented themselves. Many weird and wonderful schemes were discussed and discarded -- for a while, hiring a lifting helicopter was top of the list!

Fortunately, there was another route to the patio doors, but it meant demolishing the fences between my garden and my neighbours', and moving the GX1 across their property. If they agreed, I would simply need some wheels, some rails, and the eight or more people required to lift the GX1 itself.

In the end, we trashed the fences and lifted the GX1 onto a set of reinforced warehouse dollies. We then transferred these onto makeshift 'rails' that had, in a previous life, been the rear doors of a 32-ton refrigerated lorry. The next stage was almost fun: we rolled the GX1 forward 10 feet or so, lifted the used rails from be

  And Finally  
  Two years ago I moved house. This meant that I had to get the GX1 out of the old place by the same method that I had brought it in (destruction of neighbours' property included), load it onto a tail-lift truck, and deliver it into the new one. My friends and I must be getting old, because this time it took 11 of us rather than eight. But once it was in, I let it settle for a few days and abracadabra, it still worked perfectly. Of course, if I were reading this story, I wouldn't believe a word of it. And that would be a shame, because that's exactly how it happened.  
hind it, carried them the long way round the house so that we were back in front of the beast, and then relaid them before crawling forward another 10 feet or so. Since the total distance covered was probably 100 metres or thereabouts, it took nearly half a day to get the GX1 to the patio. We then lifted it through the doors (pausing only to bend a piece of the door frame through 90 degrees after we accidently rested the GX1 against it for a few seconds) and... it was in. My GX1 took up half the living room (the speakers occupied the other half) and it was home at last.

It was then necessary to wait a further two weeks to let the thing acclimatise again, but in March 1995 I finally sat down to play the instrument that I had dreamed of nearly 20 years before. And, when I told my mother what I had done (and how much I had spent) she thought that my head had come undone. Excellent! It was clearly the right thing to do.

Next month, we'll cast nostalgia aside and take a detailed look at the GX1 itself. Maybe we'll even discover what all the fuss is about...

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