When a musical giant like Yamaha start putting their name to daughter boards, you know something's up. Yet the DB50XG harnesses your PC soundcard's processing power as never before. Panicos Georghiades and GABRIEL JACOBS dig the new breed...
A few months ago, when we reviewed the Sound Edge — Yamaha's first multimedia PC soundcard — we noted that for all these years Yamaha had played a backstage role, by producing sound chips for other soundcard manufacturers without developing its own card. We also implied that the Sound Edge possibly heralded a quite new outlook on Yamaha's part.
Well, Yamaha has now clearly decided that the computer market is a fertile one, and they're going into PC soundcard production with a vengeance — to the point where they're making other manufacturers a bit nervous, to say the least. They may be worried; we're not. On the contrary; we're more than happy to have music companies, as opposed to computer companies providing hardware, since they should know what musicians want. Here's hoping that Yamaha's new soundcard — the DB50XG — is the first of many.
Any Port In A Storm
The DB50XG is not a full PC soundcard, in that it doesn't work on its own. Rather, it's meant to be used as an expansion to another PC card. There are three reasons why you may want to use it. The first is to provide good MIDI synthesizer sounds, if your existing soundcard doesn't have them. Most people nowadays buy multimedia PCs. But many soundcards which come pre‑installed in multimedia PCs, and many that are part of multimedia upgrade kits (bundles which usually include a soundcard, CD‑ROM drive, a few CDs and speakers), only include an OPL3 (or even the older OPL2) sound chip for providing MIDI synthesizer facilities.
It's worth noting that this has nothing to do with the external MIDI interface socket on the card, nor the fact that the card is capable of 16‑bit digital audio. What it does mean is that if you wish to play MIDI files or use the card with your sequencer as an internal synthesizer, you'll only get an 11‑note (or sometimes 22‑note) polyphonic synthesizer, using FM‑type sounds. If you're after the 'true sound' of instruments, this won't be good enough for you. And even if you're after synthesizer‑type sounds, the 2‑ or 4‑operator FM sounds on these cards are not as rich as you can get with more modern synthesis methods based on sampled sounds. FM synthesis is, after all, over 10 years old.
However, many of these soundcards provide a standard 26‑pin internal connector, to which you can attach a daughter board. This is officially known as a WaveBlaster expansion port, because it was trademarked by Creative Labs for the SoundBlaster 16. For reasons of price, the SoundBlaster 16 came as a basic model, providing only an FM synth on board, and a WaveBlaster expansion slot. WaveBlaster is a daughter board with a wavetable (sampled sounds) synthesizer on it. The bottom line to all this was that you didn't have to pay the extra £50 to £100 if you weren't really interested in good synth sounds.
Other manufacturers followed suit, and soon music companies (who weren't in the soundcard business, but who already had lots of good synthesizer sound chips) started producing daughter boards for soundcards — Korg, Roland, Kurzweil, Ensoniq ... and now Yamaha.
The second reason for considering the DB50XG is to provide an additional synthesizer with increased polyphony and multitimbrality. Even if your card does have a good synthesizer on board, and also includes a WaveBlaster expansion slot on it, you can still use the DB50XG to literally add a second synthesizer to it. What you get is another 16 MIDI channels and added polyphony. The audio outputs of the DB50XG are routed through the soundcard and mixed in parallel to the audio output of your card's internal synth. So if you have a card which already offers a 32‑note polyphonic synth (like the SoundBlaster AWE32), and you add a DB50XG, you can turn it into a 64‑note polyphonic synth — all on a single card!
The DB50XG offers greater control over sound expression than any other card on the market.
I should add, however, that the DB50XG's polyphony ranges between 16 and 32 notes, depending on the complexity of the sounds you use. Each DB50XG sound is made up of one or two elements, and there's an equal distribution between 1‑element and 2‑element sounds in the card's sound library. So you could say that an average of 24‑note polyphony is what's practically achievable on the DB50XG.
The third reason why you may wish to buy the DB50XG is because you already know and like its sounds. And there's a good chance you may know them, because they're based on the same synthesizer chips as those found in the Yamaha MU50 and MU80 sound modules, and the QS300 keyboard. They are indeed impressive.
The chip on the DB50XG contains 12Mb of sounds compressed to a 4Mb ROM. In fact, there are 676 sounds and 21 drum kits in total. The card works in two modes. In XG mode, it provides 480 melodic sounds and 11 drum kits. XG is Yamaha's answer to Roland's GS. Like GS, XG provides compatibility with General MIDI, but adds variations to existing sounds (in additional sound banks), as well as employing digital effects. In addition, the card can also be set to emulate a TG300B, where it provides 579 melodic sounds and 10 drum kits.
Although the individual sounds on this card are good, there are other cards on the market with equally good sounds (based on a Korg M1‑type chip, or the Roland Sound Canvas), and some with even better sounds (based on a Kurzweil chip). However — and we do stress this — the overall sound achieved with the Yamaha DB50XG is definitely better than anything else we have heard on a PC.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that the DB50XG offers greater control over sound expression than any other PC card on the market. Aftertouch, PitchBend, Modulation, Portamento, Pan, Volume, Expression, Hold, Sostenuto and SoftPedal can all be altered in real time. And that's not all. You can also edit sounds in real time and alter their harmonic content, their brightness, attack and release time using MIDI controllers. Individual drum sounds can be tuned, panned and have their sound characteristics altered, again in real time — including the amount of signal that is sent to the card's onboard effects.
This brings us to the second reason why this card sounds so good — those onboard effects. Imagine a mixer with three global effect sends, and insert points for every channel. This card has them all. Two of the global effects are Reverb (11 types) and Chorus (11 types). The third is Variation, and there are over 40 of them (including Delays, Echoes, Phasers, Distortion, Flangers, Wah Wah, EQ and more). The variation effects can also be used as insert effects, so that they only affect individual MIDI channels. And you can even route part of the signal from one effect to be processed into another, as well as edit effect parameters in real time.
All this control not only enables you to create more sound variations than on other cards, but you can also create a more clean and professional mix through a single stereo audio socket. We all know that the single stereo audio output is the death of most cheap music equipment, but in this case, we have the birth of good sound, because if you can process signals individually with their effects, you don't have to pass them through lots of mixer channels which add noise and distortion — and you end up with a much cleaner stereo signal.
The sonic quality of this Yamaha card is very good, though we must stress that since its audio output is routed through your existing soundcard, it will depend on which other manufacturer's card you are using. And here's a surprise: unfortunately, the DB50XG does not work with Yamaha's own Sound Edge card, because the Sound Edge doesn't have the necessary 26‑pin connector. But there's quite a choice of cards out there which do have this feature. The manual includes all the MIDI messages, and installation is painless. You also get a free CD containing demo MIDI files and some copyright‑free MIDI clip art files, which you can use in multimedia presentations. It all adds up to a quantum leap in the music‑making potential of your PC.
Who Shares Wins
There's no such thing as a free lunch — and there's a down side to the myriad control options of the DB50XG. You have to do everything by sending MIDI messages and controllers from your sequencer. That can be time‑consuming as well as intellectually demanding. In fact, if you're not good at maths, forget it: unfortunately, the MIDI language wasn't written for musicians, but for the manufacturers' technical personnel. Constructing MIDI System Exclusive messages is beyond most people's grasp.
However, Yamaha bundles a shareware XG Editor (you can upgrade to the registered copy for £25), and this is a must if you want to use all the card's interesting facilities without getting bogged down deciphering MIDI messages from the manual. The XG Editor can run in parallel with your sequencer software in Windows (or Windows 95), so you can record settings in real time, or use it to construct SysEx messages, save them and then import them into your sequencer. It certainly makes things easier, and in many cases — possible.
- Lots of sounds.
- Internal effects and processing can produce the perfect mix.
- Lots of instrument performance control.
- Accessing the card's full power without hassle requires the XG Editor.
Excellent quality, comparatively inexpensive synthesizer expansion daughter board that works with PC sound cards to add (MU50‑, MU80‑ and QS300‑compatible) sounds. Can be used to increase polyphony and multitimbrality. Three internal effects sends and channel‑insert effects provide a clean and versatile mix. In our view, the best PC sounds on the market at the moment.