Yamaha have taken their time in entering the market for all-in-one dance workstation sequencers, but their new RM1x looks set to be a heavyweight contender. Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser tweak their sequences.
The arrival of Yamaha's new RM1x Sequence Remixer set us musing on the recent rash of 'dance-in-a-box' units, including Quasimidi's 309 and Roland's MC303 and its big brother, the MC505. It occurred to us that while this new wave of instruments might seem like a gear subset of its own, these boxes are really just the hardware sequencer reinvented for the late '90s.
You might recall a period a few years ago when numbers of new hardware sequencers began to seriously dwindle: musicians were turning to computer sequencers in droves and almost the only manufacturers supporting the dedicated sequencer were Roland, with the MC50 MkII, and Yamaha, with the QY range. The latter began (with the miniature QY10 Walkstation) as another way of repackaging the hardware sequencer to do something the computer sequencer couldn't: fit in your pocket.
With the addition of contemporary paint jobs and styling, dance-oriented sounds and patterns, tactile, knobby front panels, and all sorts of on-the-fly jiggery-pokery potential, hardware sequencers once again look like escaping oblivion at the hands of the all-powerful PC. They've been re-christened 'Groovebox', 'Rave-O-Lution' or 'Sequence Remixer' and given the kind of spin that Peter Mandelson would be proud of, but they're still essentially doing the job that hardware sequencers have always done.
All this talk of hardware sequencers metamorphosing into boxes full of grooves is especially apposite in the case of Yamaha's late entry into the groove stakes, the RM1x, because while it might have a body for
YAMAHA RM1X £549
Powerful 16-track sequencing with linear as well as pattern-based operation
Lots of preset voices.
External and rather large PSU.
Voice edits have to be saved with Songs or Patterns, as there are no user voice memories.
Some pad sounds disappointing.
The RM1x is a very good value groove machine, but is genuinely usable for just about any other musical style you care to mention. The disk drive gives it a big head start too.
The RM1x adds an interchangeable alternative to the resolutely pattern-based approach of the likes of the MC505. The user can create a finished piece by simply chaining basic building blocks -- custom or preset patterns -- or by taking the more advanced and demanding linear sequencing route (through composing a piece of up to 999 measures), or by using a mixture of the two. At the risk of giving things away too soon, Yamaha have also accorded the RM1x a potentially killer advantage: they've maintained the QY700's 3.5-inch, HD, Standard MIDI File-compatible floppy drive, so that saving patterns, Songs or the entire memory is cheap and easy, and doesn't require any additional hardware.
In fact, Yamaha have retained most of the facilities of the QY700, with only a handful missing, as far as we can tell. For example: the QY had two MIDI outputs and could record data on 32 separate MIDI channels; it had a separate chord track, which played a further 16 onboard sounds; and it possessed a much larger display which provided almost computer-like graphics and editing options. It would have been nice to see the latter, especially, on the RM1x, but some omissions are inevitable to reach a lower price tag, and the RM's display as it stands is more than acceptable.
Back To Basics
Offering 16 tracks of sequencing, the RM1x immediately goes eight better than the competition, which has a maximum of eight (though in the case of Roland's MC505, this could be pushed higher when phrases are spun in over the top of a pattern). The other facts and figures don't look too bad either:
960 preset, up-to-the-minute, dance-slanted patterns (60 Styles with 16 Variations each).
Up to 800 User patterns
GM-compatible AWM2 sound source offering over 800 voices (including drum kits),
many specially programmed.
Maximum 32-note polyphony (though the sequencer can handle 64 simultaneous
notes when used with additional sound sources).
Eight real-time control knobs.
Four dials for changing parameters.
Micro-keyboard laid out like a piano keyboard (also doubling as a numeric keypad,
pattern selector, transpose tool and mute matrix).
Variable Low Boost parameter with a +/-24dB range for beefing up the bass end when required.
Effects are on board, of course, in the shape of three processors providing, respectively, reverb, chorus and flange-type effects, and variations In broad terms: the RM1x has better sequencer resolution, at 480ppqn, than the MC303 and 505, at 96. However, the MC505 can have more complex synth voices, using up to four elements, with a synth engine taken from the very tasty JV2080, whereas the RM1x has maximum 2-element voices. The RM1x has the universal and cost-effective floppy drive, while the 505 and 303 store data via relatively expensive Smart Media cards and over MIDI; however, the 505 has more physical controls, making it a bit more hands-on to use, plus the neat D-Beam light controller. The RM1x has a much better LCD and a more 'musical' mini-keyboard layout, but the 505 has six audio outputs to the RM1x's two. The RM1x has a better range of time signatures, but the 505 has dedicated slider envelope controls and useful Part Mix faders. The RM1x has more general-purpose sounds, but the 505's arpeggiator has more options. The RM1x has a proper linear sequencing mode, but the 505 has a built-in power supply. The RM1x's tone generator is 32-note polyphonic, whereas the MC505 offers 64 notes. The MC505 looks a shade cooler and more individual, but the RM1x costs less. Compared with the 505's little brother, the MC303, which is closer and currently lower in price, the RM1x has more of almost everything. As you can see, it's the usual children's playground hardware situation, and a buying decision will depend on what you need and which sounds you prefer -- always audition before parting with cash. It has to be said, though, that the RM1x offers an awful lot of bang for the buck.
RM1x In Context
Since it's fairly obvious that Yamaha have launched the RM1x to counter Roland's Grooveboxes (Quasimidi's 309 being rather a different kind of beast), we think it's reasonable to do a bit of comparing on the facilities front. This can never be entirely fair, since the MC505's list price is about 400 quid more than the RM1x's, and in any case there's no space to compare every little detail of these machines. However, potential purchasers will probably be considering the alternatives and will doubtless be trying to make similar comparisons themselves. SOS reviewed the 505 and 303 in April 1998 and August 1996 respectively.
In broad terms: the RM1x has better sequencer resolution, at 480ppqn, than the MC303 and 505, at 96. However, the MC505 can have more complex synth voices, using up to four elements, with a synth engine taken from the very tasty JV2080, whereas the RM1x has maximum 2-element voices. The RM1x has the universal and cost-effective floppy drive, while the 505 and 303 store data via relatively expensive Smart Media cards and over MIDI; however, the 505 has more physical controls, making it a bit more hands-on to use, plus the neat D-Beam light controller. The RM1x has a much better LCD and a more 'musical' mini-keyboard layout, but the 505 has six audio outputs to the RM1x's two. The RM1x has a better range of time signatures, but the 505 has dedicated slider envelope controls and useful Part Mix faders. The RM1x has more general-purpose sounds, but the 505's arpeggiator has more options. The RM1x has a proper linear sequencing mode, but the 505 has a built-in power supply. The RM1x's tone generator is 32-note polyphonic, whereas the MC505 offers 64 notes. The MC505 looks a shade cooler and more individual, but the RM1x costs less. Compared with the 505's little brother, the MC303, which is closer and currently lower in price, the RM1x has more of almost everything.
As you can see, it's the usual children's playground hardware situation, and a buying decision will depend on what you need and which sounds you prefer -- always audition before parting with cash. It has to be said, though, that the RM1x offers an awful lot of bang for the buck.
Physically, the RM1x has the obligatory metal casing, finished in deep blue-green. The whole package is a bit smaller than the MC505 and, though not quite as hip in appearance, is very attractive. The panel is dominated by the large, clear and informative backlit green LCD, borrowed from the 01V digital mixer, which is augmented by a 4-digit LED showing tempo or current song/pattern position. The MC505 has the edge when it comes to sheer numbers of dedicated knobs and hands-on controls, but there are enough on the RM1x to keep anyone happy for quite a while.
The back panel hosts MIDI In and Out (but no dedicated Thru), left (mono) and right jack outputs, a headphone out, power switch, contrast control for the LCD, and the DC input for the (huge!) external PSU.
As mentioned earlier, the RM1x's 16-track sequencer offers two ways of working: pattern mode, where patterns are recorded and chained together, and Song mode, where linear sequences can be recorded from start to finish, and edited with a variety of tools (though there are, surprisingly, no familiar operations such as cut and paste in this latter case). A linear Song can be chopped into patterns and, likewise, a pattern chain can be converted into a Song (which compensates somewhat for the lack of cut and paste facilities in Song mode). Work can be imported or exported as Standard MIDI Files, so you can easily move to a computer-based environment or take advantage of commercial MIDI song and building block files.
Cracking The Modes
Some of the terminology used in Yamaha's manual doesn't help much when it comes to describing the RM1x's sequencing capabilities. Pattern mode is where the confusion lies, but we'll try to sum it up fairly simply. The RM1x user encounters the following in pattern mode:
STYLES: 60 preset and 50 user.
SECTIONS: Each Style is made up of 16 Sections (each with 16 tracks) of up to 256 bars long. It's easier to think of a Section as a pattern, so that's the term we're going to use in the course of this review.
PHRASES: When a track is recorded into a pattern(Section), Yamaha call this single track a Phrase (a similar system operates in Quasimidi's Rave-O-Lution). There are "over 7000 preset Phrases" on board already, and these can be used to create new patterns, if you like. There are, despite what the manual might lead you to believe, 256 User Phrase memories per pattern, though this is all tempered by a 110,000 note limit for the sequencer.
PATTERN CHAINS: Up to 999 bars of patterns can be connected in a pattern chain.
Creating a composition is straightforward: if working in a pattern-based fashion, select an empty user Style
The grid option is a step-like mode that allows you to input notes using the 16 white keys of the micro-keyboard -- like the MC505 and older Roland drum machines. Real-time input is just as with any other sequencer, but though it's possible to quantise your work in a very sophisticated way after it's been recorded, there's no quantise while recording. One big difference between pattern and Song mode is that Songs have an additional tempo track. It's possible for each step of a pattern chain to have its own tempo, but Song mode's dedicated tempo track allows subtle (or not so subtle) tempo changes over time.
New patterns can also be created by mixing and matching the factory Phrases, though if you've recorded some Phrases of your own, naturally these could be used. Choosing Phrases is undertaken in a subset of pattern mode, dubbed, confusingly and with no further explanation, 'Patch'!
In the event of mistakes, or if a performance just needs tweaking, a huge list of editing options is available. The Event List is accessed via the Edit button, and here it's possible to alter, move, delete or insert individual notes and other MIDI events. The Job button accesses a list of general editing controls, including Undo/Redo, post-quantising, altering gate time, changing velocity, thinning controller data, inserting a crescendo, clock offset, and even time-stretching, as well as copying, pasting and otherwise moving Phrases, Tracks and patterns around. In a sequencing context, perhaps time-stretch, a concept familiar to anyone who uses a sampler or audio editor, needs a bit more explanation: the RM1x allows you to alter individual tracks to fit given spaces, or simply double or halve their tempo.
The Song mode editing options are slightly more restricted than the above. As mentioned earlier, there are no cut, copy and paste options when editing Songs, but all note and MIDI event Job options are identical to those available in pattern mode. New measures can be inserted into a Song and unwanted measures deleted, and a range of events can be copied or extracted from one track to another, but if you want to move sections of a Song around you could always split the Song into shorter patterns and re-chain them in pattern mode.
When chaining patterns, it's worth remembering that each step in a chain can have its own time signature, which should be matched to the time signature of the pattern being placed at that step. Any strange 1-bar 11/8 patterns you fancy inserting will be cut short if they appear at a 4/4 step! Note also that each chain step has a 1-bar value, so if you insert a 16-bar pattern you'll need to leave the 15 steps (measures) after the first step empty so that it can play in full. Measures can be muted, and a whole chain can be told to stop with an 'End' command.
As you'd expect from a unit dubbed a 'Sequence Remixer', the RM1x offers a number of useful tools for transforming patterns on the fly, creating a unique, extemporised performance.
While it lacks the sheer knobbage of the MC505, not to mention that instrument's Part Mix fader section, the RM1x still offers most of the facilities you could expect, though some are hidden behind a button push or
829 voices (128 GM Voices, 1 GM kit,
654 synth Voices, 46 drum kits).
32-voice polyphonic sound source.
60 preset Styles.
50 user Style memories.
8 real-time control knobs.
Large LCD with four associated
floppy disk drive.
Real-time Grid Grooves and control
of Play Effects.
Mute Group memory.
Real-time switching of patterns
Low boost with 24dB range.
Tap BPM entry using Tap
Footswitch functions: start, stop,
cycling through patterns in a Style;
sustain; duplicates function of Tap
The main job of the real-time controllers, however, is to alter various synth and sequencer parameters. 16 are preset in two banks of eight, but others can be assigned if the presets don't suit your method of working. Although ideal for real-time tweaking -- and as soon as something is tweaked it becomes part of whatever you're working on -- the controller knobs' movements can also be recorded into a pattern or Song.
Real-time control possibilities aren't just confined to the knobs: Styles can be changed, patterns selected and Tracks muted (or solo'd) on the fly, using the micro-keyboard and other front-panel controls. Five mute scene memories, which can be assigned during playback, facilitate switching between previously created 'mute groups' of tracks at the press of a button. Real-time transpose is available, and it seems to know which track or tracks contain drum parts and doesn't transpose them!
Funky playback parameters include Grid Groove, which Yamaha are particularly proud of. This feature is reminiscent of a cross between Logical Edit in Steinberg's Cubase VST and a standard 'groove quantise' facility. It applies note, velocity, gate time and clock position offsets to a part already recorded, or to arpeggiations. Making it work well can be tricky, but the results are satisfying -- and the graphic display, illustrating the offsets against a 16th-note grid, is very helpful. Simple effects include adding an arpeggio feel to incoming notes and recreating the slide-driven filter effects of a TB303. Some quite sophisticated groove quantise effects can also be achieved.
The so-called Play FX and MIDI Delay are also reminiscent of software sequencing. Both process MIDI
The results of the playback effects can be 'fixed' -- recorded into a pattern or Song. This would be a valuable option if you wanted to take the work elsewhere, as a MIDI file, but there's no real reason to do it otherwise. Besides, these features work without eating into sequence memory and once fixed, they would eat into it. It's worth noting that both Play FX and MIDI Delay can compromise overall polyphony, since they are generating new MIDI data to play alongside the notes already recorded.
On the MIDI front, the RM1X will transmit and respond to MIDI Song Position Pointer, and sync to MIDI Clock or MIDI Time Code (with control over MTC start offset). Additionally, most knob movements transmit over MIDI, and the RM1x will respond to a wide range of MIDI controllers.
Over 800 preset voices, including drums, is a pretty fair selection by anyone's standards -- and more than the competition offers. Though some are average GM fare, Yamaha have included plenty of the analogue-style techno and dance sounds currently in vogue, and there is apparently no duplication of voices with their other specifically dance-orientated synth, the CS1x. The GM set in the first sound bank makes the RM1x GM-compatible, which is good news for anyone who wants to use it as a MIDI file playback device, but it's not XG-compatible (XG being Yamaha's extended implementation of General MIDI). This is because Yamaha have filled the slots which would usually be occupied by XG variation sounds with themed banks, namely Synth Bass & Lead, Synth Pad & Synth EFX, Synth Material (raw analogue and The arpeggiator cannot be used on material that's already been recorded and can only be triggered by the RM1x's keyboard. True, it can be used while a sequence is playing, and its output can be recorded to a sequence track, but you can't record a series of held chords and have the arpeggiator do its job afterwards, which is a shame.
The Highs & The Lows
The RM1X's arpeggiator is a fairly simple device. Unlike that provided for the MC505 (and Yamaha's own CS1x), it doesn't offer 'style' or 'pattern' facilities -- it simply rhythmically breaks up whatever chord you input in one of a handful of ways. Exactly what you need in an arpeggiator! Note order can be defined as up, down, two types of up/down, or random. A Sort parameter allows notes to be arpeggiated in the same order in which they were played or rationalises them into a normal chord shape, while a Hold parameter determines if the arpeggio continues when you take your hands off the keyboard. A range of four octaves is available.
The arpeggiator cannot be used on material that's already been recorded and can only be triggered by the RM1x's keyboard. True, it can be used while a sequence is playing, and its output can be recorded to a sequence track, but you can't record a series of held chords and have the arpeggiator do its job afterwards, which is a shame.
Let's take a necessarily quick look at the synth-themed banks. For a start, there are more synth basses and leads than you could shake a stick at, mostly very usable, though some are obviously tweaked versions of the same sound. There's a lot of variety, ranging through all shades of warm and fuzzy to various types of sharp and cutting. We weren't so happy in the pad department, where we found a lot of weird and clever pads but perhaps not as many musically useful ones as you might prefer. Many of them have a rhythmic element, but other than changing LFO speed by ear, you can't get this to sync with tempo or MIDI clock. One or two of the pads had noticeable loops, and some were rather too FM-sounding -- even bearing in mind that FM is currently trendy. But overall the RM1x achieves the requisite percussive, aggressive, edgy sound character when required, as exemplified in many of the preset Styles.
A big plus for many will be the number of general-purpose voices on board, and all of the voices can be customised with editing. Speaking of editing, RM1x Voices have to be edited in terms of patterns or Songs. There's no space for user-modified voices to be saved in their own right, nor is there a real Voice Edit mode, in spite of there being a button labelled as such. Rather, voices are assigned to pattern or Song tracks, and if they're not quite right Voice Edit is used to apply an offset to a voice's parameters. These parameters are such as you might find on a Yamaha GM/XG module (basic envelope, portamento, LFO and resonant filter). The result becomes a part of the finished pattern or Song, though anything to do with a sequence track, including voice settings, can be copied to another pattern or Song, so favourite edits can be used repeatedly. This is not as good as having dedicated voice memories (as on the MC505), since it puts the onus on the user to remember where they used that great bass edit, for example (or to take
in the Garage
We really hope that not too many readers resort to preset patterns on any instrument, but those who do use them will find little to complain about in the case of the RM1x. There's a huge selection, most of which are extremely impressive. You could sound absolutely fab with no musical knowledge whatsoever. Oh dear!
Examples of preset Styles include: Psychedelic Trance, Gabba, Detroit Techno, Vintage Acid, Hardcore, Darkcore, Artcore, Hardstep, Ambient, Jazz Step, various flavours of House, Cyber Drum & Bass, and Ragga.
Time & Motion Study
In general, the RM1x is straightforward to use. Assembling new patterns from preset Phrases is simply a matter of assigning Phrases to tracks until you hear what you like -- but with nearly 8000 cryptically labelled presets (though you always know what instrument is playing, courtesy of a two-letter abbreviation), the going could get confusing. Recording from scratch, and editing, is also pretty painless, with the display helping to keep even the novice in the picture. The manual, while deficient in some ways, explains such basic procedures perfectly clearly, and the front panel offers a brief list of what the various mode and sub-mode buttons offer, which also helps.
There's a definite Yamaha feel to the proceedings, and some touches are even recognisable from the SY85 workstation, which was our main synth for several years. Many parameters can be accessed and altered in various ways, and though this can cause some initial confusion, users should quickly settle down into a pattern of key presses that suits their style. Working with the RM1x often seems quicker than with the MC505, since you're never waiting for the operating system to catch up with your last move. Pretty much every change you make on the RM1x is instantaneous, and backed up immediately, as its memory is dynamic and non-volatile. Nice touches include the Grid Groove and MIDI effects -- a pleasant surprise on a hardware unit. The screen is used to good advantage as well; it's not quite a computer monitor (or a QY700 LCD!), but it shows so much more than the average 2-line x 24-character display. The four display knobs, which line up with parameters in the LCD, also help make light work of editing.
Irritations are few: the on-screen cursor will usually reset to one corner of the display when you move from one mode to
At the start of this review, we said that, given its provenance, the RM1x should ideally not only work for people currently after a 'groove' machine, but should be able to stretch to fit different requirements. After using the instrument for a couple of weeks it becomes apparent that it will do just that. We've been gigging with acoustic material that doesn't remotely approach dance, but now that we're thinking about introducing some sequencing, the RM1x is under serious consideration -- for its powerful 16-track sequencing capabilities, its large range of sounds, its disk drive, its price tag, and the fact that its operating system doesn't get in the way. The RM1x also excels as a fast ideas machine -- the pattern-based sequencing that suits the contemporary dance scene would also suit anyone wanting to get songs finished quickly.
Though Yamaha have taken an existing technology and twisted it to fit a new market, they've done the job very well, and in some areas have actually improved on the competition, making the RM1x almost certainly the best value 'groove machine' on the market.
£549 including VAT.
Yamaha Brochure Line
+44 (0)1908 369269.
+44 (0)1908 368872.