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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...

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Published January 2019