Fruit continues to fall from Yamaha's Motif tree and the latest and cheapest example is the MX range...
Yamaha were once the masters of the low-cost but surprisingly impressive synthesizer. From the CE20 and CE25 to the DX21, DX27 and DX11, then the likes of the SY22 and SY55... these were all inexpensive descendents of more powerful parents. But for the past dozen years or so, Yamaha have been locked into its Motif product range, spinning off mid-range instruments, but with no obvious equivalent to any of the above. Happily, that's now changed with the introduction of the MX49 and MX61, a pair of low-cost synths that come packaged with Steinberg's Cubase AI6 sequencer and Prologue soft synth, as well as Yamaha's own YC3B organ emulator. That's a lot of stuff for such a low price. I wonder whether there's a catch?
Based upon Yamaha's AWM2 engine, the MX49 that I have here (which, henceforth, I'll just call 'the MX' because any comments are equally relevant to the MX61) is the baby of Yamaha's Motif-derived synths. It looks rather basic but, as I was to discover, appearances can be deceptive.
Trying one for the first time, you'll find a wide range of patches (which Yamaha call 'Voices') each allocated to one of 16 categories: pianos, organs, strings, brass and so on. You can't overwrite these, but there are 128 user memories for normal Voices and another eight for drum kits. Nevertheless, there's no 'patch mode' as such; you access and play patches by inserting them into Performances, at which point they are referred to as Parts. There are 128 of these Performances, all of which can be edited and overwritten by the user, and each is 16-part multi-timbral, with Parts 1 and 2 accessible from the keyboard, either one at a time, layered or either side of a user-defined split point. The other 14 Parts are accessible via MIDI in the usual fashion. Interestingly, you can edit some important aspects of Parts 1 and 2 simultaneously — for example, adjusting the filters in both sounds — so they can act as a composite patch when they're layered. I liked this a lot.
The edit map for the Parts appears to be straightforward. All the expected things are there: detune, pan, volume, mono/poly modes and so on, as well as an extensive set of options that determine how the MX will respond to MIDI messages and controllers. However, since there's no patch mode, this is where you'll also find the editing functions for the Voice's filter, amplifier, contours and LFO. What you won't find, however, is a menu for the oscillators, which meant that my first few days with the MX were spent in an agony of uncertainty. Despite reading the manuals from cover to cover, I couldn't find any waveform parameters!
I turned to the web and found two MX software editors, the Vycro MXPerformance Editor (a free download from www.vycromx.com) and John Melas's MX Tools (€49 from www.jmelas.gr). I downloaded these, and there in front of me were the waveform parameters for which I'd been searching. The MX is indeed capable of powerful synthesis, but only when hooked up to a computer. I asked Yamaha why the designers had made this decision. I was told, "The MX was designed for ease of operation, and we decided that synthesis editing would be best handled by a separate editor. Traditionally Yamaha has produced the editor and provided it as a free download, but the development cost would have had to have been built into the product somewhere. It was important to keep it affordable, so the decision was made that third parties would develop the editor and supply it to the customer as they saw fit.” That's all very well, but I still can't see why they left the waveform parameters out of the on-board menus.
Having placed your chosen Voices into a Performance, you can allocate a separate Insert Effect to up to four Parts. In addition, all 16 Parts have access to a global chorus, reverb and EQ. A wide range of Insert Effects types with myriad factory presets are provided, and although it's not the most sophisticated effects structure (in particular, you can't cascade Insert Effects) the quality of the results can belie the low cost of the instrument.
The MX also offers an extensive range of arpeggios and rhythm patterns. The arpeggios are divided into 15 categories such as guitar, bass, brass, percussion and so on and, within these, there are three arpeggio types: those developed for normal Voices (which are further divided into Note and Chord types), those for drum kits, and those that contain primarily controller data. There's also a sub-subset of 'accented' arpeggios that are activated only by high MIDI velocities. Unfortunately, there's nothing on screen to tell you which type any given arpeggio may be, so you'll need the data manual to hand or to experiment to discover which is which. Accessing the arpeggios is a bit laborious; you have to squirrel down to the appropriate menu and then step through them because there's no numeric keypad. But, for many people, it could be worth the effort because there are some useful phrases here. What's more, you can output the arpeggios as MIDI data, which suggests all sorts of possibilities for songwriters.
You can't edit the preset patterns or load new arpeggios into the synth itself, but this can be overcome using the MX's Song play capabilities. Just record the desired arpeggios into an external sequencer, modify them if you wish, compile them into a song, and then save the results to a USB stick as a MIDI file. Shoving the stick into the back of the MX then allows you to replay the results. Strangely, the rhythm patterns — 208 preset drum patterns playable by any of the 61 factory drum kits — lack the arpeggiator's MIDI Out parameter, which is a shame.
Connecting the MX to a computer is trivial; a single USB cable carries MIDI and audio information. No USB cable is supplied, which seems to be a rather harsh piece of cost-cutting but, as already noted, the synth is supplied with a Mac/PC copy of Cubase AI6 which, given that Yamaha own Steinberg, is not a surprising choice.
Unfortunately, licensing AI6 was a bit laborious. I'm no novice, but jumping backward and forward between two web sites to create an account, obtain a passcode, and then register the software was not what I had expected. Having done so, I was instructed by the MX's manual to download the latest versions of the Yamaha/Steinberg USB Driver, the MX49/MX61 Remote Tools package (which contains the Remote Editor and the Extension that allows you to integrate the synth with Cubase) and the MX Voice List from the Yamaha web site. So I did, and installed each of these. However, I still wasn't finished because I then had to install the Prologue and YC3B. I couldn't find these on the supplied CDs, so I downloaded them from Yamaha's web site and installed them. Or, rather, I didn't. I found and installed the YC3B but, when I downloaded and tried to install the Prologue, the software told me that I required Cubase AI5. This was my fault and I later found some small print that told me that the Prologue is pre-installed within AI6 and just requires activation. So now I had to authorise both packages. This was trivial after the nice chaps at Yamaha pointed out that the sheet of yellow paper in the MX's box (which I must admit that I had overlooked) contained the authorisation codes.
I was now ready to test the MX's integration, but I wasted more time because I didn't realise that I couldn't send audio from the MX to Cubase and monitor it from the Mac's outputs (or, at least, I never found out how to do so). Audio communication with the MX appears to be bi-directional, or not at all. Once I had gotten to grips with this, I recorded some MIDI and audio tracks into Cubase using the MX as the sole source for both and then, using the MX as the system's USB/audio converter, replayed everything. However, this was when I realised what a significant shortcoming it is that the MX's audio inputs (analogue via the 3.5mm aux input or digital replay of 16-bit 44.1kHz WAV files) can't be directed to its USB/computer bus, only to its analogue outputs. This means that you can't use the MX as an audio/USB converter. If you could, it would have been possible to record guide vocals and rough guitar parts as well, without requiring additional hardware and without having to switch between devices within Cubase.
On taking delivery of the MX49, I was amazed to find how light the box was. Had somebody forgotten to put the synth inside? No, it's just incredibly light. This has been achieved by using a plastic chassis, lightweight controls and perhaps the lightest, unweighted keyboard that I've encountered on a modern polysynth. Of course, these have all contributed to its low price and all the knobs and switches (with the exception of the Knob Function button, which was a bit uncooperative) worked well. But, if you're planning to play classical piano on the MX, don't. Let me explain. Many years ago, I acquired a Yamaha HX1 organ and found that I was mis-hitting keys on it. It took a friend to point out that Yamaha has two 'full-sized' keyboard widths, the second of which is narrower than standard. Consequently, I found myself playing ninths when I reached for octaves. The MX uses this reduced scale, and is therefore narrower than your fingers will expect. So I plugged the MX into my favourite 88-note workstation. What an improvement! Many of its sounds sprung to life in a manner that had seemed unlikely a few moments before, and this was particularly evident when playing patches that respond to aftertouch, which the MX receives over MIDI, but fails to generate from its own keyboard.
A lot of fuss is made nowadays about real-time controllers, and the MX's four knobs allow you to tweak sounds as you play. The default settings can be directed to a single Part or to the joint Part 1&2 composite, and they are: filter cut-off frequency and resonance, chorus and reverb send levels, the four ADSR parameters, volume, pan, and two assignable functions called Assign1 and Assign2. It was while investigating the last two of these that I discovered unexpected references to things such as pitch envelopes and element levels. I searched all the menus and both manuals but could find no mention of either of these. So I turned back to the Melos MX Voice Editor to see whether this could shed some light on things. Blimey O'Reilly! All manner of parameters exist in the MX that Yamaha hasn't even bothered to mention, not least of which is the ability to create and modify complex multi-element sounds comprising up to eight separate patches in a single Voice. It turns out that a single MX Voice can be built from up to eight elements, each of which is a complete synthesizer patch with its own waveform generator, filter selection, amplifier, contours and modulation, and each of which can be mapped to the keyboard as desired. If you layer Parts 1 and 2, that means that you can have up to 16 separate elements under each note. The sonic complexity that's possible with this architecture is mind-boggling. I wonder what else remains to be discovered?
The MX has many other goodies up its electronic sleeves, such as the ability to control aspects of Cubase itself. On the other hand, the limitations of low-cost keyboards can reveal themselves in the strangest ways. When I first set up the MX, I plugged in a Kurzweil sustain pedal, whereupon every note tried to last indefinitely. No problem, I thought, and went in search of its polarity parameter. After a few minutes, I had to conclude that there wasn't one, and eventually swapped the Kurzweil pedal for a Roland, which worked correctly. This seems a strange omission.
At first sight, it would seem wrong to compare the MX with the PCM-based synthesis sections of higher-priced workstations but, once you've discovered what can be achieved using the editor, it's not unreasonable to do so. However you judge it, I found the acoustic pianos to be far more usable than I had anticipated, and the underlying tones of some of the electric pianos are excellent, even though the velocity layers in the factory sounds are often too apparent. The organs are also surprisingly useful, although, with no overdriven Leslie effect, you'll have to turn to the YC3B to obtain the best in this area. The guitars maintain the high standard, and I also liked the basses a lot. It's a horrible cliché, but it really did cause my speakers to rattle.
The strings — solo, ensemble and synthesizer — are a high-point, and I would have no hesitation using these if the need arose. The orchestral brass is also fine, although I was more impressed by the synth-brass sounds which, when tweaked using nothing more than the four performance knobs, produced some luscious pads and carpets. The woodwind then completes the orchestral side of things.
I have seen the MX's monosynth sounds come in for criticism, but this is unjustified; the MX is not a VA synth (the Prologue is supplied for this) but it's nonetheless very capable. Sure, there's zipper noise if you sweep the filter using the performance knob, but sweeping it with contours and other modulators is much smoother and, with up to eight elements drawing upon four low-pass filter options, you can build monstrously powerful patches.
Moving on, I found some of the Pad/Choirs and Syn patches a little uninspiring but, once I started editing these, I realised that there was no underlying incapability, I just didn't like some of the presets. The next two banks include all the percussion — chromatic and kits — and, again, there's much here that is very useful, as there is in the two banks of effects patches. Finally, there's the Ethnic bank, which is excellent. There's so much to discover here that I would be very late submitting this review if I allowed myself the luxury.
Turning to the bundled VSTis, the YC3B organ is a Hammond emulator with an overdriven Leslie speaker emulator included within its Effects page. It doesn't scream at the top end as I would like, so perhaps it isn't as good as the very best of the rest but, after a few minutes tweaking, I had it purring beautifully in the lower and mid registers. In years past, it would have commanded its own review and would have received a 'thumbs up' at the end of it, so the fact that it comes free with the MX is remarkable. Unfortunately, you can't save your own presets within YC3B itself, you have to save any edits within a VST preset that you can recall from the host. What's more, it's written in VST3 format, so it doesn't appear within some other software environments. But, as a freebie, it's stonkingly good value.
One thing that analogue anoraks hate about many PCM-based workstations is their inability to create a smooth filter sweep when they twiddle a knob, so maybe that's why Yamaha also included the Prologue within the MX package. This is a three-oscillator virtual analogue soft synth, with (take a deep breath) a wide range of initial waveforms, cross-modulation, oscillator sync and waveshaping, ring modulation, a complex resonant multi-mode filter, two MIDI-sync'able modulation generators and four contour generators (all six of which offer 16 assignable destinations, eight of which are velocity sensitive), modulation matrices for each of the mod wheel, velocity, aftertouch and key position, and 10 distortion, delay and modulation effects, all of which are sync'able where appropriate. (Now breathe.) Some things, such as the obvious aliasing in the upper octaves, mark the Prologue as less than top of the range. I'm also not a fan of the 'medium/dark grey on a black background' GUI, which may be cool, but it's not ideal for finding your way around. Nonetheless, if you work within its limitations, it's a capable and flexible soft synth.
Yamaha have obviously decided that it's time to place the Motif sound within the reach of a wider market. Inevitably, this means cutting costs, so the lightweight construction, the unweighted keyboard, the tiny screens and even the lack of a numeric keypad make sense; using a narrow keyboard and eliminating some of the fundamental voicing parameters from the on-board menus do not. If you're prepared to hook it up to a computer and dig below its surface, you'll find that it's a hugely powerful synthesizer/software package. I actually find myself rather impressed. Given its price, I have a sneaky feeling that I should be very impressed. The MX delivered to an extent far beyond my original expectations.
John Melas was kind enough to supply full licences for his four MX editors so that I could carry out some of the more detailed tests for this review. I noticed that his Total Librarian allows you to import Voices, Performances and drum kits from Motif XF and XS files, converting between models as best it can, so I asked him how this was possible. He explained, "The MX is a cut-down Motif without the sampler, with fewer waveforms, fewer filters and fewer effects and inferior A/D converters. But Yamaha's engineers chose very carefully which waveforms to omit and, although the MX lacks the variations and many of the velocity layers possible on a Motif, I was still able to write a conversion mechanism which maps the Motif waveforms to the equivalent substitutes in the MX and redefines the other parameters as best it can.”
The MX Remote Editor allows you to assign the MX's knobs to control the VSTi functions of your choice. You can load factory templates or design your own, so I created new templates for the G-Media M-Tron Pro and Arturia's SEM V. The first did not work correctly; anti-clockwise movements affected the selected parameters as expected, but clockwise movements did not. The second worked perfectly. Bugs notwithstanding, this could be a valuable addition, especially if you like to tweak parameters while playing synths and, in particular, soft synths.