Could this be the ultimate one‑box solution to your sound generation needs? Kevin Earley finds out.
With 660 patches and 18 drum kits, General MIDI support, internal effects, 64‑note polyphony, 32‑part multitimbrality with two MIDI Ins, and direct serial connection to your Mac or PC, Yamaha's new MU80 tone module already looks like a winner at £699 inc VAT. Add to this heavyweight features list the fact that you can take external audio and feed it through the MU80's internal effects (that's right, you can sing or play guitar through it) and this may be the next 'must have' module for any self‑styled musician. I've lost count of the number of musicians who have dreamily said "wouldn't it be great if you could go to a gig with just one module and a microphone, and have all the effects and EQ under MIDI control". Well here it is...
The front panel display of this half‑rack unit is as good as, if not better than, the Roland SC88 Sound Canvas — the MU80's main competitor in this price band — with a bargraph showing MIDI activity for 32 channels, and mini graphics depicting the reverb, chorus, volume, expression, pan, and variation settings for the currently selected Part. The main bargraph display can also be selected to give information about other parameters for all channels at once, which makes it a doddle to set relative values. However, I would prefer the use of numbers for accurate setting of chorus/volume values, instead of the radar‑style graphics which are simply approximations.
To the right of the backlit, green LCD are 15 fingertip‑size buttons arranged in two groups. Those with an internal LED select from several main edit pages, while the plain black ones are used to move between parameters and change values; all are closely grouped, however, making it easy to hit the wrong button by accident, and difficult to push two together (necessary for certain functions). Special praise goes to the Mute/Solo button, which allows you to shut off all but one Part for selected listening during a busy song — very useful. Another clever little trick hides behind the Enter button; when changing parameters, a swift double‑click on Enter will display the correct System Exclusive (SysEx) message for the currently selected edit/value, making it simple to type this into your sequencer's SysEx editor. This makes for accurate and minimal use of SysEx only when necessary to set a particular edit in motion. No more 15 minute bulk dumps at the start of your songs!
On the left of the front panel is an input gain rotary control and a quarter‑inch jack socket with the modest label 'A/D Input' (essentially an analogue‑to‑digital converter). This facility has been done before on other units, but nowhere near this price! If you plug a microphone, guitar, or tape send into this socket, you can route it to any of the MU80's internal effects and control it all with MIDI commands from your sequencer. Several excellent applications for this feature spring to mind. For a solo artist, this means total simultaneous control of vocal effects and the sequence itself. The same applies to a guitarist who wants to play along to sequenced backing tracks for rehearsal. For the home studio, the MU80 allows ample sequencing polyphony and MIDI‑controlled effects for your mixer. In fact, if you're a good singer on a very tight budget, and don't require backing vocals, it should be feasible to record via the MU80 straight to a DAT or MiniDisc without using traditional tape at all.
The remaining front panel controls are a mini‑jack headphone socket and a combined power pushbutton/volume control.
Here we have two MIDI Ins, one Out and one Thru, Left and Right Audio Out, DC Power In, a 'To Host' serial connector (8‑pin mini DIN) and a switch to select Mac, PC, or MIDI input. All very obvious really.
The MU80 behaves like a standard 1MHz MIDI interface when connected to a Macintosh computer's serial port (Printer or Modem), saving you up to £50 for a separate unit. On a PC it also connects to the serial ports, and uses Yamaha's CBXT3 serial driver. It should be noted that the serial ports on a PC usually operate at a slower speed than MIDI, so you will not be able to send too much data before it chokes up. Still, the MU80 is dead handy if you are running your sequencer from a laptop, and saves the cost of a dedicated PC MIDI interface.
When the rear panel switch is set to 'MIDI' the unit behaves like two 16‑Part multitimbral sound modules, each having a separate MIDI input. The idea is that you can run 16 channels from your sequencer, and use the other input for a master keyboard for you to play along.
The MU80 offers four modes of operation, accessed from the front panel Mode button: XG, TG300, C/M or Performance. TG300 and C/M modes are included essentially to provide backwards compatibility with previous Yamaha and Roland equipment. XG is Yamaha's new 'General MIDI‑and‑a‑bit' equivalent to the Roland GS mode found on the Sound Canvas range. In addition to the standard features of General MIDI, XG offers control over many more parameters via Continuous Controllers or mini System Exclusive dumps (see 'Control Freaks' box for a list of the parameters available).
With the different modes there must be a reliable way to switch between them when using a sequencer, and this can be done by sending the MU80 a short SysEx message. However, I found that when the Roland SysEx message which makes a Sound Canvas go into GS mode was sent to the MU80, the unit jumped not into XG mode but into TG300 mode instead. I can see the advantage in having a Yamaha device respond to Roland SysEx for those people who use commercial MIDI Files with the messages already embedded for the Canvas, but it seems odd to select the TG300 mode. Strange, but only a minor niggle if you have the correct Yamaha SysEx handy (see 'SysEx Messages' box). In its favour though, when the MU80 receives a 'GM On' message it switches to XG mode, giving all the usual General MIDI options and all the extras. Just something to be aware of.
One of the best ways to check out a synth or tone module is to play the internal demo through a pair of good quality monitors; the overall clarity can be examined, and sounds can be heard in the context of a busy mix. Since this unit's main function in life is more likely to be as a GM style multitimbral sound source, the sounds will all be based on the GM set, but there are some nice variations available using a Bank Select message to access them.
Happily, the basic multitimbral sounds are strong and crisp but not harsh, and do not suffer from the muddiness which occurs when you start to load up the outputs with several channels running at once. Even when using soft strings and other analogue‑like timbres, the overall clarity was maintained. In Performance Mode the sounds ranged from "yummy" to "yukky", and I did feel that the manufacturer's range was fairly narrow considering the potential — but that's where your own knob‑twiddling edit finger comes into play.
The audio outputs were free from noise or hum and, although I couldn't find it stated in the manual, I would swear that the outputs were 18‑bit given the clarity.
While not in the same league as more expensive synths, the Performance Mode of the MU80 delivers reasonably powerful editing capabilities for the price, and there are 64 RAM memory locations in which to store your edited Performance sounds, which I actually think is plenty for a device of this type. Almost any aspect of the sound can be changed in real time, with filter cutoff controllable by the now standard MIDI Controller no.74 — so Techno dance fans can have plenty of fun here.
The general structure of sounds reminds me of the Korg M1 or Roland U220, where several Parts are combined on one MIDI channel to give the same effect as a more powerful synthesizer with several oscillators stacked up. A little editing work here would easily produce sounds that are far better than the presets.
If I was on a tight budget and looking for a GM‑compatible sound source with plenty of polyphony, the MU80 would currently have to come top of my shopping list.
In Multi Mode it is possible to edit most parameters via MIDI, so any changes made will stay with your song without permanently altering the original. I personally find this to be the best approach when using this type of module. Alternatively, it is possible to change any part of the sound on any channel, and then record the lot as a MIDI System Exclusive Bulk Dump and place it at the start of your song. Although this is simpler for some to understand, you may find yourself saving lots of unnecessary data. Still, it's good to have the choice.
As a final sweetener, Yamaha list a Librarian/Editor for Mac, PC and Atari as a coming attraction, hopefully in their generous tradition of 'freeware' software support. Let's hope so.
Let's return to what is probably the unique selling point of the MU80, the A/D Input. Any analogue source (mic, guitar, tape send etc) connected to this input jack is fed to one of two A/D Parts, and then mixed and processed as though it were a normal MIDI timbre. Several special effect programs are available from the internal effects for the guitarist, such as Tube Distortion and Amp Simulator, along with more general settings for keyboard or mixer effect sends, while for vocals we have Compression or Aural Exciter (for a full list of effect types, check out the 'Cause & Effect' box). These are known as the Variation or Insert effects, and are totally independent of the System effects (Reverb and Chorus, which are still available for all the Parts in a multitimbral setup). Reverb, Chorus, Volume, Pan and Variation effect levels are all remotely adjustable, via the standard MIDI Controllers, so once you set the correct A/D source input gain with the front panel control, the rest can be fully automated. This was all so easy to use that things become possible with the MU80 which, in the past, would have required a separate multi‑effects unit, such as a Quadraverb, and two Sound Canvas or TG100 modules to achieve the same result.
As with most Yamaha effects units, the sound quality is very good, with smooth reverbs and clear chorusing which still leave a solid bottom end to the sound. Obviously Yamaha are drawing on experience gained with their stand‑alone processors. The effects alone would probably cost you £200 in a separate unit, and I cannot fault them at this price.
The small niggles I have are firstly that the A/D Part defaults to 'off'. Considering the importance of this feature, this seems a little daft, but only a minor flaw in an otherwise superb design. Secondly, the owner's manual and the advertising implies that two separate inputs can be processed by the A/D Parts (yes, there are two of them) but the manual makes no mention of how you do this!
The MU80 seems to be aimed squarely at the musician on a tight budget, as a 'total solution' for all sound and processing needs, and while it is possible to obtain similar results from a combination of other equipment, it won't be possible at this price. For the gigging band or duo, professional effects control is now a mouse click away. Imagine turning off the reverb when you are speaking to the audience between songs, adding spot echo to a single word or phrase, and setting up the effects precisely how you want them for each song instead of using one general treatment. The best thing is that your selections will be stored as part of the song data, never to be forgotten again.
Basic effects setups for the A/D Parts can be chosen with SysEx messages and then fine tuned with a Controller message. It may sound complicated, but it is easy when you remember that a double‑click on the Enter button will tell you the SysEx message for that particular edit. Couldn't be much easier, could it?
Although obviously competent in general terms, the MU80 sounds initially didn't overwhelm me. Let's face it, with the generally high sonic quality available these days, it would take a miracle to give me the same buzz as I had from hearing my first Roland D50 or Yamaha SY77. However, the more I used it, the more the MU80 impressed me with its fundamental ease of use, its audio quality, and a feature list as long as your arm. In the past, the synth modules which took longest to impress me have been the ones I kept, while other 'instant hits' were soon forgotten or sold.
When I finally got around to hooking the effects send from my mixing desk into the A/D input, the MU80 began to really grow on me as a superb all‑rounder. Although powerful, it is easy to operate and offers enough depth to keep a real 'tech head' like me interested, while remaining accessible to a novice. If I was on a tight budget and looking for a GM‑compatible sound source with plenty of polyphony, the MU80 would currently have to come top of my shopping list — and the A/D effects section makes it great value for money.
There are many System Exclusive messages available on the MU80, and the Enter button makes them instantly available. Here are a couple of examples:
XG System On:
Plonk this at the start of your sequenced song to make sure you have access to all the good bits.
GM System On:
A/D Part set to active for Microphone input:
The 01 before the F7 is the actual data, so vary this for other types of input.
A/D Part set to receive MIDI Channel 1:
The 00 before the F7 is the receive channel‑minus‑one, so take a wild guess what to enter for channel 2... Yes, it really is that easy on the MU80.
Here is a list of the MIDI Controllers available on the MU80 for each MIDI channel, and their corresponding function in XG Multi Mode.
|CONTROLLER NUMBER||XG FUNCTION|
|64||Sustain (On or Off)|
|65||Portamento (On or Off)|
|66||Sostenuto (On or Off)|
|74||Brightness (Filter Cutoff)|
|94||Effect Send 4 (Variation or Separate effect)|
The MU80 offers enough effect types to cope with almost any musical style.
- Hall 1 & 2
- Room 1, 2 & 3
- Stage 1 & 2
- Delay L/C/R
- Delay L/R
- Gross Delay
- Early Reflection 1 & 2
- Gate Reverb
- Reverse Gate
- Karaoke 1, 2 & 3
- Chorus 1 & 2
- Flanger 1 & 2
- Rotary Speaker
- Auto Pan
- Amp Simulator
- 3‑band EQ
- 2‑band EQ
- Auto Wah
- Pitch Change
- Aural Exciter
- Touch Wah
- Noise Gate
There, is that enough for you?
- 64 note polyphony
- 32 part multitimbral
- 660 AWM2 voices
- 18 drum kits
- 1 x quarter‑inch jack A/D Input
- 192 Performances
- Direct Mac/PC connection
- 4 independent multi‑effects processors
- 5‑band EQ
- Easy to use.
- High quality sounds.
- A great workhorse.
- Makes SysEx control easy.
- Those effects!
- Odd SysEx anomaly.
- Slightly bland.
- Yet another 'wall wart' PSU.
At this price, there's nothing to touch the MU80 for features.