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Yamaha MU100R

Yamaha have taken their MU90R, wired in a VL tone generator and put a three‑part harmoniser in the effects section. The result is the MU100R. Christopher Holder gets virtual.

Yamaha have again waded into the GM module market with — Hang on, wasn't this reviewed a couple of months back? No, no, no, pay attention, that was the MU90R. But it looks, feels and smells exactly the same, and it can't be an upgrade, given that the MU90R was only just released. Correct. So what the heck is it? If you'll let me finish...

Calling the MU100R a GM module is like calling a Ferrari a 'good little runner': it doesn't begin to explain what's on offer. There are even more sounds available than on the MU90R, more drum programs, and more effects and, most interestingly, the MU100R has an integrated VL tone generator utilising Yamaha's sophisticated (and processor‑intensive) Virtual Acoustic Synthesis system, as found on the likes of their VL70m tone module.

Stacks On

If you put an MU100R on top of a MU90R you would be hard pressed to spot any difference, save the pink lettering that boldly states MU100R. Elsewhere things are looking very familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I'm going to give you the dreaded 'refer to' cop out. In our May '97 issue, there appeared an incisive, hard‑hitting, take‑no‑prisoners, appraisal of the MU90R, written (coincidentally enough) by myself. My opinion of the user interface still holds true; it's been well thought out, even if it is a tad fiddly. The main screen is large and informative, with the main parameters in front of you for easy adjustment. Reverb, Pan, Chorus, Volume and Transpose are among the welcome 'home page' inclusions. The fiddly element is the tiny buttons, which require the sort of digital nimbleness normally only found on underworld figures called 'Fingers'.

Around the back of the unit the landscape also remains the same. The left and right outputs are joined by two individual outs; two MIDI Ins, an Out and a Thru round off the usual suspects. Like a lot of current GM modules, the MU100R gives you the ability to connect straight to your computer terminal via its serial interface, so there's no need to fit a MIDI interface; a Host Select switch allows you to switch between Mac and PC protocols. The only thing left to mention on the back panel is the cable clip, a very welcome inclusion — if manufacturers are going to lumber us with external power supplies, the least they can reasonably do is fit a clip to stop accidental unplugging of the flimsy cable.

Inside Out

Inside, the MU100R is a 64‑note polyphonic, 32‑part multitimbral sound module, compatible with General MIDI and Yamaha's own expanded version of GM, XG‑MIDI. The internal architecture of the module breaks up the memory of the sounds into 200 more sophisticated patches called Performances, with the remainder of the space devoted to the host of other GM and XG sounds.

I don't own a MU90R, but I remember enough about it to recall being pleasantly surprised by the consistently excellent sound quality, and there certainly hasn't been any degradation in the presets. Everything shimmers, wibbles, groans, bristles and parps when appropriate, and the sounds have a usable transparency that makes them cry out to be stuck in your mix somewhere.

The sounds have a usable transparency that makes them cry out to be stuck in your mix.

The Performance patches employ up to four of the XG/GM presets and are consequently more complex and impressive. Surprisingly, not many of the patches use all four of the available parts; mostly it's just one or two on display, which seems a waste. My favourites? Well, I like some of the choices for the split keyboard patches, such as the Two Flutish patch, which combines a haunting sine‑wave patch with one of the more expressive pan flute emulations you'll come across. Some of the rave effects are fantastic, if you've been commissioned to write music for a chat‑line commercial: Fancy Pad lives up to its name, and the analogue recreations are creditable. Most of the sounds are nicely responsive to your modulation wheel, not just giving you the stock tremolo effect, but sometimes filter effects and other surprises. What I remember mentioning in the MU90R review, and still holds true here, is my disappointment in not having the Performance sounds available in multitimbral mode. I know that the sounds are more complex and often rely on the individual manipulation of the effects, but this would have been nice, especially given that Yamaha's competitors have done it. Even if it meant having an option that halved the multitimbrality to 16 parts to achieve this, it would be worth it.

The effects section is incredibly well specified. Yamaha, in my view, have few peers in supplying top‑class effects for very little money, and the MU100R bears testament to this in volumes. There's the equivalent of least two stereo effects units in the MU100R: you have 12 different reverb types at your disposal, as well as 15 chorus effects, and 70 different Variation effects, all assignable to a part from the home page — no digging through multiple edit windows here. On top of that, two insert effects can be swung into action. Simply assign an insert effect to the part that requires it and scroll through the 43 different available options to give the sound the edge it needs — apply a rotary speaker to your organ, distort your guitar sound or flange your analogue lead without messing with any other elements of your mix.

Most of this, of course, you'll remember from the MU90R review. Let's take a look at what makes the MU100R worthy of its new serial number.


The most obvious souping‑up of the MU100R is the inclusion of a monophonic VL tone generator. This uses physical modelling synthesis, which of course is the flavour of the month, with the success of the Clavia Nord Lead and Korg's Prophecy, and the release of the new Korg Z1. Yamaha kicked off this revolution with the outlandishly priced VL1, and then followed it up with the scaled‑down budget version, the VL7. But even the VL7 was a purchase most musicians would find difficult to justify, and it wasn't until the VL70m half‑rack module version was released that Yamaha could give their take on physical modelling the sort of mass exposure they thought it deserved.

Rather than take a waveform or a sample and muck about with it as conventional S+S synths do, a physical modelling synth will simulate all the defining characteristics of an instrument and have a set of 'controllers' to realistically alter those characteristics. (If you want to know more about Yamaha's physical modelling synthesis, you could do worse than look at Martin Russ's VL70m review in our October '96 issue.)

The effects section is incredibly well specified.

When you play the VL sounds on the MU100R, your first impression is "Mmm, nice guitar/sax/clarinet/trumpet, but hardly eerie in its realism'. You only really begin to understand the expressive nature of the model when you start experimenting with the controllers. With a healthy degree of cynicism about the radical nature of this process, I embarked on the writing of a sax solo — an instrument notorious as the acoustic musician's favourite example of the hopeless inadequacies of synthesizers. I keyed in the notes and I played it back, to hear the customary synth sax stodginess. Then I jumped headlong into the edit pages of the VL part and didn't emerge for some time. I assigned various VL parameters controller numbers and went to work. Firstly came note pressure, and I used that instead of changing note velocities, which had the effect of altering the timbre of the instrument as well as the volume. Using the mod wheel on my controller keyboard and the Transform function in Cubase, I played about with various other controllers, such as growl and breath noise. Even as an ex‑saxophonist I couldn't help but be smug about the results. It sounded exactly like a complete novice blasting away on their first lesson, with the sax bending, squealing and parping like a bastard. Truly satisfying.

The attention to detail in other sounds is just as remarkable. For instance, when you pitch‑bend a trumpet sound upwards, it does so in that peculiar stepped portamento manner that a trumpet actually does. I think the lesson to learn here is that the MU100R has the capacity to imbue your VL phrasing with amazing instrumental virtuosity or with the mistakes and irritations of the rank beginner, but the key is that the level of control overall can give your work the character previously unheard in sample‑based synths.

Harmonious Relations

What I haven't recapped, as far as the MU100R's similarities to the MU90R are concerned, are the A/D inputs located on the front panel. The general idea is that you can plug any external audio source into the unit and enjoy all the benefits of the MU100R's effects, panning and so on. The applications are obvious: play along to an external CD source, play guitar to MIDI files, route a synth source through the MU100R when mixer inputs or effects are scarce, or plug a mic in and sing along to your compositions.

This last example gave rise to the next new inclusion, namely harmonising effects. Not only can you route vocals through the MU100R, you can enjoy up to four‑part harmonies. You can pre‑program the harmonies, or play them from your master keyboard. The MU100R recognises 34 different chords in any given key, so there's decent scope for experimentation.

In practice it works fine, but it does take a good deal of rehearsal to get the singing and the harmonies spot on. The Vocoder patch will probably be useful here — not really a true vocoder at all, what it does is let you effectively play along to the vocals, keying in chords to accompany the tune. This is particularly useful if you're singing and playing because, obviously, you can anticipate your own moves.

Another neat inclusion worth mentioning is an assignable controller for each patch. If you thought footpedals were for organists or sissies, then now's as good a time as any to rethink. Being able to continuously open and close the filter in real time with your foot (or hand, if you want the pedal on your desktop), is just another technique to get some life and movement into your music.

The Change Will Do You Good

I like the MU100R, mostly for the right reasons, namely the sounds. Constructing songs is as easy as working with Duplo: the sounds all seem to dovetail nicely together. The effects have a lot to do with this: they're as classy as they are plentiful. Because of the sophisticated nature of the sounds, it's sometimes easy to forget that this isn't a programmable synth as such (you can construct your own Performances, but the level of editability is not a sophisticated as on a 'true' synth). But don't think of the MU100R as a slightly inflexible synth; think of it as an exceedingly flexible GM/XG tone generator.

The new alterations to the MU lineage that have brought about the MU100R are impressive. The VL monophonic sound source is a real bonus and for many will be a cost‑effective introduction to physical modelling synthesis. It's not exactly a VL70m shunted into the MU100R chassis — it's a little more pruned down than that (although a software editor is included to give you the same access to the VL voicings as on the VL70m) — but it does offer enough sophistication for you to achieve something truly outstanding, whether it be acoustic or analogue synth emulation. A mini‑jack input for Yamaha's BC3 breath controller would have been nice (as would a socket for their WX wind controller) to get the most out of the VL sounds — especially given that my impression when the VL70m arrived on the scene was that Yamaha considered a breath controller virtually mandatory to tap into the true expressive nature of their sounds.

All this along with the two A‑D inputs and the new harmoniser effects section makes the MU100R an impressive studio tool. For those on a budget looking for the magical 'one‑box solution', the MU100R comes as close as anything on the market. If you were a guitarist‑cum‑vocalist with a MIDI keyboard and sequencer, the purchase of the MU100R and perhaps a 4‑track tape machine would turn your setup into a true recording studio for only around £1000 — you wouldn't even need a mixer. The MU100R would be equally powerful for live work, particularly for a one‑man band. If you are currently singing along to MIDI files on stage, this would expand your options tremendously — plug in a guitar, enjoy full barber shop/Bachelors/Spice Girl harmonies, and so on.

At some £300 extra, clearly the MU100R won't be superseding the MU90R, but it will make many think about reaching deeper into their pockets, and to my mind it would be £300 well spent.

Shop Around

At £849, the MU100R is considerably more expensive than any of the other GM modules on the market, but for obvious VL‑related reasons.

The main players continue to be Yamaha, Roland and Korg, with the MU90R, the SC88 and the NS5R respectively. All are well worth investigating to compare their relative strengths. The Yamaha MU90R was reviewed in May '97, the Roland SC88 was reviewed in March '97, and the Korg NS5R was reviewed in the February '97 issue of Sound On Sound.


  • Integral VL tone generator.
  • Harmoniser.
  • Classy and versatile effects section.
  • Two A/D inputs.
  • Great range of sounds.


  • Interface a little fiddly.
  • No breath‑controller input.
  • Multi setup memory volatile when switched between multi and performance.


A top‑quality 32‑part sound module, three stereo effects units, a VL sound module, and a harmoniser, for £849? You do the sums.