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Yamaha MODX

Yamaha MODX

Yamaha's seriously capable MODX is a Montage for the masses.

As we roll towards the end of the decade, it's fair to say that synth players have never had it so good. Great-sounding, reliable, knobby analogues (and virtual analogues) are everywhere. The modular landscape grows ever more diverse and colourful. And lots of this stuff is surprisingly affordable (at least compared to the 'good old days').

It's notable, though, that Yamaha have been largely absent from the self-consciously retro, hip, analogue renaissance. Leaving aside the mini-key Reface series, their big thing of late has been the Montage: the flagship, phenomenally capable and flexible not-quite-workstation that has replaced the long-lived Motif range.

Now, just as the Motif spawned the more affordable MOXF, we have a trickle-down of Montage tech in the shape of the MODX. In typical Yamaha fashion it's another range of three models: the 61-note MODX6, 76-note MODX7, and 88-note hammer-action MODX8. Specifically it's the MODX7 that's on test here: for many players, me included, 76-note keyboards represent a sweet‑spot combo of flexibility without undue heft (MIDI controller keyboard manufacturers, are you listening?), and that's why I specifically opted to try it. But in fact all the models have exactly the same synthesis capabilities, identical front‑panel controls and rear‑panel I/O.

Names & Faces

A lot has already been made, on various synth forums, of the 'DX' part of the MODX model name. It's especially resonant with the MODX7, which, with the right application of black insulation tape on the rear‑panel graphics, could cause some real back-to-the-future moments. I'm referring of course to Yamaha's seminal 1983 FM synth, the DX7, which more or less killed off the big-money analogues of that era. You had to be there, really: I was, and I do distinctly remember my first time playing a DX7. It was thrilling, refreshing, almost transformative. More recent experiences with original DXs have been distinctly disappointing (nostalgia definitely not being what it was...) but that's not the point: Yamaha's resurrection of 'DX' is without doubt there to affirm their stature in synth history, as well as to call out the MODX's extensive FM capabilities, now that the Elektron Digitone and various Eurorack modules have made it cool again.

As to whether it's pronounced Mo' (ie. 'more') DX or Mod-Ex... Well, I suspect that could run and run, like a Japanese version of Moog and Mogue. I don't suppose the synth will mind either way.

One thing's for sure: the MODX doesn't look anything like a 1980s DX. The casework is mostly of a matte-finish, hollow-sounding plastic, with a recessed rear panel (whose sockets can be difficult to locate from above, I must say), and rather swish grey/silver angled and rounded corners. The colour LCD touchscreen is a generous seven inches across the diagonal, and on either side there are ranks of knobs and buttons: a long way from the DX7's minimalistic button strips and single data entry slider. The synth-action MODX6 and 7 are amazingly light: just 6.6 and 7.4 kg respectively. Even the hammer-action MODX8 is less than 14kg. Placement of pitch and mod wheels behind the keyboard keeps the cases narrow.

The keyboards and actions betray some of the Montage-on-the-cheap cost-cutting. There's no aftertouch, and the MODX8's GHS keybed is at the bottom of the pile of Yamaha's 88‑note hammer actions (for example, it's also used in the £350 P45 electronic piano). As for the semi-weighted MODX6 and 7, those keybeds are functional but quite flimsy in appearance and feel. Where the keys disappear under the front panel the moulded plastic construction reduces to only a few millimetres in height, leading to a ruler-on-desk twang when you release keys rapidly. Also, after only a couple of days of testing, the gaps between keys had become quite uneven, out by various tiny amounts. Whilst this doesn't really affect playing accuracy it doesn't look great. Playing acoustic piano sounds on these light actions is not a good experience, leading to all manner of unexpectedly quiet or accented notes. For synth duties they're absolutely fine though. They use the same slightly narrow octave width that Gordon Reid mentions in his April 2017 review of the Montage, which, personally, I don't notice. But the highest and lowest keys protrude above the casework and look vulnerable to passing traffic.

All the models in the MODX range feature the same back‑panel I/O: USB ports for host and device, MIDI I/O, and (all on quarter-inch jack sockets) footswitch inputs, stereo audio outputs, a headphone socket and stereo audio inputs. There's also a power button and a port for the external 12V power supply.All the models in the MODX range feature the same back‑panel I/O: USB ports for host and device, MIDI I/O, and (all on quarter-inch jack sockets) footswitch inputs, stereo audio outputs, a headphone socket and stereo audio inputs. There's also a power button and a port for the external 12V power supply.

MODX Matters

What's most surprising — and wonderful — about the MODX is just how much of the Montage's abilities it retains. Which is to say, you can in fact regard it as a Montage 'lite'. Everything that really matters is intact, to the point that a MODX can load Montage performances. It's a colossally capable machine.

Just like the Montage, there are two very different synthesis engines on offer. AWM2 is fundamentally a subtractive system, but with a vast 5.67GB (uncompressed equivalent) bank of — wait for it — 6347 ROM waveforms. That's not counting the additional 1GB available for imported content. These 'waveforms' are often not single-cycles, but sophisticated multi-sampled mini-presets. For instance, the very fine-sounding CF3 acoustic piano waveforms, along with many others, are in stereo, come with ready-done keyboard zone mapping, and settle to a static looped tone only after several seconds of a naturalistic attack and decay. It's worth noting, though, that there's no way to further 'explore' these waveforms, as you might on a sampler, changing playback start or loop points.

Then, like the Hyde to AWM2's Jekyll, FM-X is an eight‑operator (compared to the DX7's six‑operator) implementation with 88 algorithms and subtractive analogue-style filters available to refine the results.

Rather than have separate single patches and multis (or such like), the MODX's sound recall is exclusively about the Performance, of which over 2100 are supplied as presets, and which can have up to 16 AWM2 and FM-X parts (and specialist one-key-per-sound Drum parts) in any combination. Plus an external or USB audio input. You might layer or keyboard-split several parts, and having one multi-part performance loaded doesn't stop you loading others into any free slots left over. Even constructed in this way, performances are completely independent from one another, so what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Performances can then be organised into Live Sets, which are free-form subsets of the larger performance library. From the factory, various Live Sets showcase the MODX's abilities and range. A more practical use is to arrange your own favourite performances sequentially, in the order you might need to recall them for a show or a band's live set (hence the name), and then advance through them using a footswitch. As long as performances contain four parts or fewer you'll enjoy glitch-free Seamless Sound Switching too.

Digging a little further into AWM2, the potential for complexity is impressive and, sometimes, almost overwhelming. A single part (and remember, you can have 16 in total) can contain up to eight elements, each of which is a self-contained oscillator-filter-amp structure, with three envelope generators, an LFO and an EQ. The filter can load one of 18 single and dual filter configurations, consisting of low-, high-, band-pass and notch types with varying slopes. One element by itself can sound fantastic, and combining several could give you huge multi-oscillator monsters or interactive velocity switched ensembles (which is how a lot of the factory piano sounds are done). Or, via an Expanded Articulation (XA) scheme, results can be achieved that sound almost scripted, in the style of software samplers like Kontakt. Sophisticated legato facilities, cyclic and randomised round-robins, note-off release triggers, and options to switch elements in or out in response to user control (via Assign switches, etc.) are all there. In terms of modulation flexibility the usual suspects like envelope and LFO depth, velocity and key-scaling are there, but there's certainly no equivalent of a traditional modulation matrix, nor any innate ability for modulators to freely act on other modulators. However, this is mitigated by the number of concurrent elements available, by the provision of a user-programmable part-level LFO and envelope followers, and the fact that parts can come under the control of the Motion Sequencer and Super Knob, of which more in a minute.

FM-X parts have the same complement of filter types as their AWM2 counterparts, and that means you can go wild creating clangorous ear-shredders before reining in the worst excesses with nice familiar filters. Otherwise, FM-X pulls no punches. You do get six 'waveforms' (which include sawtooth- and pulse-like harmonic spectra) to play with for each operator in addition to the old-school sine, but notably not a full complement of analogue-type waveforms, and certainly not samples. Nor is there an equivalent of the hand-holding macros found in Native Instruments' FM8 virtual synth, for example. Thus FM-X will still, for the vast majority of users, be utterly incomprehensible, and most usable sounds will be stumbled upon rather than carefully honed. If it's your thing though, this is one of the most powerful implementations currently available. And if you can make it past all the schmaltzy pianos, Tina Turner harmonicas and slap basses there are a few preset FM-X performances that are jaw-droppingly impressive and show just what complexity and beauty is possible with this system, if you know what you're doing.

The MODX comes in 61- (pictured), 76- and 88-note versions.The MODX comes in 61- (pictured), 76- and 88-note versions.

As for effects, each of the 16 parts in a Performance gets two independent processors, which can be connected in series or parallel, with an EQ either end of the chain. Further, you get to choose which of an AWM2 part's eight elements feed the effects, and which don't. Multi-timbral effects on steroids! Even then, there's performance level reverb, 'Variation' and Master FX processors that all parts (and incoming external audio) can tap into via a Mixing screen's send/return topology. Even the list of effects types is as long as your arm, and includes everything you'd expect from a modern multi-effects unit: reverbs, delays, chorus/flanger/phasers, amp simulators and distortions, tremolos and rotary speakers, compressors, lo-fi treatments, ring mods, slicers, vinylizers, stereo tools, pitch changers... There's also a respectable and flexible vocoder, the modulator signal of which can come from the quarter-inch A‑D inputs (which have enough gain for a dynamic mic, though no XLR socket), the output of another part, or the master mix. The best reverb algorithms are only available in the send/return slot (and yes, the part-level reverbs do sound a little processing-starved), but otherwise there are very few restrictions, and almost all the effect types have a few presets provided as starting points.