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Yamaha MODX

Synthesizer
By Robin Bigwood

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.

Finally we get to the MODX's various performance-level playback and motion-related features. There's an arpeggiator. No, actually, make that eight arpeggiators that can run in parallel, and have access to 10,239 note patterns. That's a lot of patterns... Some reassuringly simple ones, akin to any normal synth's up, down, and up/down modes are available in slots 5972 to 6029. Many of the rest are full‑blown accompaniments that adapt to the harmonies you play, and generate bass lines, riffs, textural elements or drum patterns (and there are literally thousands of superb drum sounds on the MODX, arranged into over 150 pre-packaged kits). So not really arpeggios at all, but more the kind of thing we'd expect to find on an 'arranger' keyboard, albeit without any formal facilities for intros, endings and fills. 256 user slots allow you to store your own programmable patterns, should you exhaust the preset possibilities in this lifetime or the next.

Overlapping in functionality with the arpeggiator to some extent is the Motion Sequencer. This is essentially step-time, clock-sync'ed parameter automation that might be used to create pulsing/sliced pads, Sample & Hold-like filter effects, rhythmic crossfades between parts, and a lot else besides. Eight 16-step sequence lanes can be active simultaneously, with any one part capable of running four of those. Twenty‑four preset patterns are provided, and you can create and store your own.

The 76-note MODX.The 76-note MODX.Then, I can't ignore it any longer: MODX's big flashing knob, that is. This is an eye-popping feature of the front panel, as for many performances its backlight will flash in various funky colours, and sometimes the LEDs that surround it go shooting about too. Essentially, the Super Knob (for that's what it's called) is a macro. As you turn it (by hand, or remotely with a connected expression pedal), multiple parameters associated with its neighbour knobs may be tweaked, across different value ranges and with opposing polarities. Yamaha's performance presets use it extensively, and often have filter cutoff or layer volume levels controlled by it. But the knob position can also be automated with its own Motion Sequence, opening the door to automated trance-y builds and drops. Equally, two programmable static values can be recalled with dedicated Knob Position buttons.

Finally, Scenes. Each MODX performance has eight slots into which can be saved snapshots of arpeggiator, Motion Sequencer and more general part parameters, ready to be recalled while you play with the front‑panel Scene buttons. There's scope here for serving up straightforward variations of a sound, like perhaps enabling various effects combinations for an electric piano. But for arpeggiated auto-accompaniment-style performances they can recall different pattern combinations, or indeed offer sound variations with and without rhythmic accompaniment. A powerful real-time feature.

MODX Living

You won't need me to tell you, if you've been reading up to this point, that the MODX is phenomenally capable. Out of the box it serves up thousands of immediately usable, attractive and often very inspiring sounds, including all the expected pianos, organs, mallets, guitars, strings, brass, wind and synths, along with a vast selection of western and ethnic percussion. With its Motion Sequencer features, effects galore, and the mahoosive, multi-layered character of the thing, it's going to appeal to anyone working in trance, techno, EDM and other related fields. But I can equally see it as a great all-rounder, for gigging keyboard players, and, with its rapid seamless sound transitions, for theatre pit band players. In the studio, allied with a computer DAW, it's like having a massive, easily accessible sample library always ready and willing to instantaneously load the next sound. Performances can easily become epic, orchestral and cinematic in character, blending acoustic and synthetic elements. It's a pretty good controller keyboard too: a Zone Master mode lets you do multi-channel keyboard splits for playing external gear.

That mix of the more conventional subtractive AWM2, 1980s-retro (or much more experimental) FM-X, extensive effects processing, and almost inexhaustible arpeggio and Motion Sequencing potential is very, very persuasive. Really, what the MODX can pump out, at its relatively modest price, is nothing short of breathtaking. I can't help thinking back to when I was a nipper, when one synth was all you could afford after years of saving: a MODX would have been a mind-blowing prospect. (Still, I loved my ESQ-1, and thanks again mum and dad...)

As I mentioned, the MODX scores very highly indeed in the generous provision of high‑quality preset performances. And it's very possible (he says, adopting a slightly ironic tone) that the best user experience might be had not venturing too far beyond them. To put it another way, the inevitable consequence of all the complexity and power is that more ambitious programming of the MODX can be unbelievably fiddly, slow, confusing and just damned hard work.

The 88-note MODX.The 88-note MODX.The elephant in the room, actually, is the touchscreen, and the way deep-level programming features are accessed through it. Multiple finger-prods are required just to begin editing an AWM2 or FM-X part, and individual pages of parameters are accessed via nested tabs — masses of them, whose location and purpose take some learning. And then, once you've hunted down your parameter, the touchscreen offers no method of interaction beyond finger prods. Dragging virtual knobs or sliders, or even moving an envelope breakpoint, as we've become so accustomed to on the iPad (say) is just not a 'thing'. More often you're faced with visually undifferentiated boxes, either parameter labels or value fields, that have to be tapped and then manipulated with the value dial, +/- buttons or a virtual numeric keypad. It's strictly one parameter at a time, and the experience can be slow, sterile, and not very rock & roll.

Now, of course, power users will point out that parameters can be mapped to the front‑panel Assign knobs, or to the Super Knob. But that (which requires still more configuration) is clearly aimed at performance rather than creative sound sculpting, and has little in common with using a true analogue knobby synth.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. It's not that you can't get wonderful sounds from the MODX. But my beef with it is all about immediacy and transparency when creating sounds. Many (probably wiser) users will have less interest in this aspect, and may be more than happy to just tweak as necessary the thousands of instantly available, expertly programmed preset performances. And of course, it's quite exciting that Yamaha expose the synth architecture as comprehensively as they do: this absolutely is a full-blown synth, and not some kind of stage piano.

MO or less?

This is a synth with a staggering price/performance ratio. It's got a soundbank that's ready for serious use too, and will satisfy the needs of many different players. I wondered initially if it'd all be a bit too skewed towards the Super Knob and Motion Control features, but though they make a unique and characterful contribution to many factory sounds their use is by no means compulsory.

Though not a workstation, it comes from the workstation tradition, with vastness of feature-count clearly a big part of the identity. It really does carry the same flag as all those '00s Motifs, Tritons, and Fantoms. It's deep, labyrinthine, and traversing its hierarchies can be slow, sometimes bewildering. But the payback is immense versatility and ability. If you've no desire to go beyond the presets you may think you've died and gone to heaven.

There's little left for me to do now other than to strongly recommend the MODX to anyone looking for a big multi-timbral, multi-effect, multi-tasking all-rounder. For the most luxury version of this technology you'll still want the Montage. For the rest of us, there's the MODX.

Alternatives

Korg's Krome 61, 73 and 88 undercut the MODX range, and superficially there are similarities, including the touchscreen, a big factory soundbank, and pattern-play features. The architecture is simpler and less extensive though, not least in effects processing, and there's nothing close to FM-X. It's a similar story for Roland's FA range, which on balance is simpler still.

MODX vs Montage

The MODX, as we're discovering, really is a Montage on the cheap: the two synths' underlying architecture and operating system are essentially the same. But of course, you get what you pay for, and stumping up roughly double for the big sister doesn't only get you better build quality and nicer keyboard actions with aftertouch but quite a bit else besides.

You'll enjoy 128‑note polyphony for the FM-X engine, up from the MODX's 64, and a useful 1.75GB of user storage instead of 1GB. It'll also do seamless transitions for performances with up to eight parts, rather than four. The Montage has a ribbon controller, and a whole swathe of additional front‑panel buttons for directly accessing and enabling parts, elements/operators, motion sequences and arpeggiators. It also has double the number of faders, scene buttons and encoders, and associated LEDs to indicate current values of assigned parameters.

Other less obvious differences include the Montage's inclusion of a MIDI thru socket, an internal power supply, balanced audio outs, a more capable built-in USB interface that supports more channels and higher sample rates, and the 'Pure Analog Circuit'.

Simple Sequencing

A group of front‑panel transport controls suggest the inclusion of some kind of sequencing facilities. And whilst that is indeed the case, don't expect a full-blown DAW‑less-style workstation.

You can layer up tracks for all 16 parts of a performance if you want to, working with a click, a whole range of time signatures, and the option to quantise events on the way in. A dedicated recording page also gives access to track mutes and levels, and a little Song overview strip instantly locates the virtual playhead. But that, folks, is about it. Pretty much the only option for modifying recorded data, other than undoing your latest take, is to punch into it or overdub. There aren't any other editing facilities: no post‑recording quantising, no trim, copy, paste, and certainly no editing of individual notes or their velocities. Your only option, to develop a recording made on board, is to export it out of the MODX as a MIDI file, and get it into a DAW. A licence for Cubase AI is bundled.

Audio recording is similarly rudimentary, writing a stereo 44.1KHz 24-bit WAV sourced from the main internal mix, up to 74 minutes long, to an inserted USB flash drive. Imported audio files with the same audio specs can be played back.

Polyphony

Compared to most true analogue polysynths, and even many virtual analogues, the polyphony on offer here is impressive. But it's worth noting that the AWM2 polyphony provision is per element, not part. That means if you have two eight-element parts running, your MODX will be eight note polyphonic... and in practice it could be less. So maybe my OB6 isn't so bad after all. On the upside, it shouldn't make any difference if the oscillator waveform/samples are stereo or mono. Also, FM-X polyphony is per 'voice' (not that Yamaha uses that terminology) rather than per operator.

Manual Labour

One of the challenges of learning the MODX is navigating its user manuals. A printed Owner's Manual comes in the box, and whilst it is comprehensive in its way it does little more than skim the main features. There are frequent nods to a downloadable PDF Reference Manual, and that dense 217‑page tome further points to the 90‑page Synthesizer Parameter Manual. The 220‑page Data List is mightily useful to have around too, and of late they've been joined by a small Supplementary Manual for new features in firmware version 1.10.

It's a double-edged sword. I love it that the MODX is so well documented. But just don't expect to master it, or even read all about it, overnight. And if you're going to print out these manuals, have a few ink cartridges standing by.

USB, Utilities & User Memory

Like many synths these days, the MODX doubles as a computer audio interface. I tested it successfully with Studio One running in Mac OS 10.12, which sees the MODX as 10 input and four output channels. Used like this, with a DAW, some Quick Setup options on the synth allow for useful routing configurations of internal parts and even MIDI signal flow (ie. turning local control on and off). The front‑panel USB playback volume knob, next to the master volume, is a really nice touch.

A Windows/Mac OS application MODX Connect loads and saves Performances to and from the synth, for storage and recall etc. It'll also run as a VST or AU plug-in, and from its window you can drag an internally-recorded MODX Song and drop it directly into your DAW's arrange page as MIDI Note data. This worked beautifully with Studio One, splitting the MIDI data over multiple tracks.

Larger transfers, like loading Performance libraries, have to be done with via an inserted USB flash drive. I tried several freebies from the yamahamusicsoft.com website, including the large and rather splendid Montage Expanded, CS80 and Bösendorfer piano banks. All worked perfectly, but the speed at which the MODX ingests these sizeable libraries into the 1GB of non-volatile user memory is not fast: we're talking tens of minutes, during which you're locked out of normal use of the synth. After that, though, associated Performances are available as rapidly as the factory content, and presented alongside it. As to how you might get your own waveforms into the synth: that's much less obvious, but the free Montage Waveform Editor and Tools suite from www.jmelas.gr are brilliant third-party solutions.

Pros

  • An interesting combo of sample-based subtractive and FM-X sound engines.
  • Huge sound layering and effects processing potential.
  • Lavish provision of presets, covering many musical genres, and expandable too.
  • Working full-time with Performances does away with typical patch/multi confusion.
  • Multiple arpeggiators and Motion Sequences stray into 'arranger' territory.
  • Useful external audio handling and USB interface functionality.

Cons

  • Sound programming from scratch is laborious, often confusing, and the touchscreen doesn't help as much as you'd think. Direct access buttons and more 'soft' knobs are sorely missed.
  • AWM2 polyphony runs out quickly when you get ambitious.
  • On-board sequencer is too basic for anything much more than 'scratch-pad' use.
  • Basic, budget-level keybeds with no aftertouch.
  • Uses a wall-wart PSU.

Summary

The MODX sets a new features-for-money benchmark in the synth world, and while it lives in a different universe to today's in-vogue analogues and modulars, no-one should overlook what it might bring to their setup.

information

MODX6 £1049, MODX7 £1199, MODX8 £1399. Prices include VAT.

www.yamaha.com

MODX6 $1299.99, MODX7 $1499.99, MODX8 $1899.99.

www.yamaha.com

Published January 2019