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Yamaha MU5

Tone Generator By Derek Johnson
Published June 1995

It's 28‑voice polyphonic, with 128 sounds and a computer interface — and comes in a box the size of a video tape. Derek Johnson finds out whether size matters after all...

We now take it for granted that each generation of synth technology will be packaged in a variety of formats. A recent phenomenon involves squeezing a full General MIDI synth onto a PC sound card or into a similarly small stand‑alone box — which is exactly what's happened with Yamaha's new MU5. With a package the size of a video tape — similar to Yamaha's QY10 and QY20 'walkstations' — the MU5 offers 128 TG100‑like sounds (plus eight drum kits), GM compatibility, 28‑voice polyphony, 16‑part multitimbrality, a computer interface for Mac or PC and battery (as well as mains) operation.

What's It Got?

The MU5 features a 2‑octave mini keyboard, which can be used for note entry with a MIDI sequencer; up to 10 octaves can be accessed by using two octave shift buttons. Apart from the keyboard, the MU5's most prominent feature is a large liquid crystal display. This is generally very clear, but a lack of backlighting means that visibility from some angles and in low‑light situations may not be ideal.

Editing the MU5 is as obvious as it gets: the white keyboard buttons double as global utility and individual part edit buttons (see box for list); the black keys double as a number‑pad. These functions are accessed by pressing both octave shift buttons together, followed by the button labelled with the parameter you wish to adjust; the parameter value is then altered with the keypad or 'Value' buttons.

Now you know what you're getting, I'll briefly mention some of the compromises that have been made to keep the MU5 compact and affordable. First of all, the sounds aren't editable (apart from very basic volume, pan and transposition values) and there are no on‑board effects. The keyboard isn't velocity sensitive, though its output velocity can be set to any fixed value you like (while I can't complain about the lack of modulation and pitch bend wheels, there are plenty of small drum machines which sport velocity sensitive pads), and audio is output through a stereo mini‑jack socket best suited to headphones, so you'll need some sort of adaptor to connect the MU5 to the outside world. Lastly, all custom settings are lost when you power down (unless you keep a set of batteries inside the machine even when you're using mains power).

In Use

Fiddliness aside, using the MU5 is fairly straightforward. The onboard keyboard is surprisingly useful and offers a novel way of getting notes into a sequencer, making this little box especially relevant to the mobile musician with a laptop computer. Selecting patches can be a bit fiddly, so if you can, it's probably best to choose patches and set volume levels and pan positions from within your sequencer.

Testing the MU5 with a variety of MIDI Files produced pleasing results, and I marvel that Yamaha are able to produce such a big sound from such a small box. Basic sample quality is good, if not stunning, and most deficiencies, including the occasional buzzy loop, background noise and noticeable crossover point, are masked during a performance.

Budgetary restraints show up in the waveform ROM, where several waveforms do double and triple duty. For example, programs 49: Strings 1, 50: Strings 2, 51: Syn Str1 and 52: Syn Str2, all appear to use the same basic waveform, with a little filtering to provide a different feel in each case. The same goes for 58: Trombone and 59: Tuba (the upper range of both is identical), 73: Piccolo and 74: Flute, and 79: Whistle and 80: Ocarina. Examples abound of the MU5's resources being stretched, but in general, Yamaha have been rather clever in producing 128 different programs from a limited collection of waveforms.


The market for the MU5 is potentially large, given its reasonable price. If you're on the move, adding a battery‑powered MU5 to a laptop computer equals instant music making, with sophistication limited only by your sequencer. The budding desktop musician will also appreciate the low price and small footprint, not to mention the built‑in computer interface and functional, if tiny, polyphonic keyboard. Still others wishing to add basic General MIDI capabilities to their system at minimal cost will also do well to cast a glance in the MU5's direction. It must be admitted that the MU5 is rather stripped‑down in terms of facilities, but at under £250, who's complaining?

MU5 Editable Parameters

UTILITY — global parameters.

  • Master Tune
  • Transpose
  • Mute Lock
  • Keyboard Velocity
  • Local On/Off)
  • Dump Out
  • Initialise All

PART EDIT — parameters available for each of the 16 parts.

  • Volume
  • Pan
  • MIDI Channel
  • Note Shift
  • Part Tune
  • Bend Range


  • Compact, portable and battery powered.
  • Computer interface.
  • 28‑voice polyphony.


  • A bit fiddly.
  • Sound set a little restricted.


If you don't mind the very limited editability of the MU5's sounds and the fiddliness of the buttons, whether you're on the road, on the desktop or in the studio, it offers an accessible collection of good‑quality GM sounds.