The Walkstation grows up! After causing a stir with their 'pocket‑sized' QY10 and QY20, Yamaha have produced the 'Big Brother' of the range, the QY300. Martin Russ discovers to his delight that it's not just the size that's increased...
After the QY10's runaway success had been quickly followed and equalled by the much‑improved QY20, the scene in the design team headquarters at Yamaha must have been tense. Exactly how do you follow the 'Walkman' of portable music sequencers? Some people might have tried to shrink it still further, but making it much smaller than a VHS video cassette would have forced the consumer to suffer a smaller display or less controls, neither of which would have been a good idea. However, instead of leaving it the same size, and presumably following the notion that life often takes the opposite direction from the one you expect, someone at Yamaha decided bravely to make the new QY larger. Fortunately, the QY300 shows that larger really can be better.
In case you haven't been exposed to a QY10 or QY20 yet, the basic idea behind the range is worth explaining, so that the QY300 can be seen in context. The QY10 and 20 are 'pocket' MIDI recording studios, for those people with large pockets but not too much money. For a couple of hundred pounds you get a sequencer, synthesizer, drums and auto‑accompaniment in a small VHS video cassette‑sized box. It's designed to be listened to on headphones, and is often used to work out the basic structure of songs, although I have heard of people doing live cabaret work using one as the backing band! You could also use one as a basic drum machine or a simple sequencer. The equivalent in separate boxes is much larger, needs connecting together, is not anything like as portable, and costs many times more to purchase. The catch has been the restricted functions: not many sounds, not much in the way of note storage, and only a few rhythms.
Given a list of minor weaknesses in the first two QYs, Yamaha have now produced a 'professional QY20'. It is about the same size as a notebook computer, and has lots of proper keyswitches, although a few rubbery buttons remain. The LCD is the same size as you find on an SY99 — which is large for a product in this price range. Furthermore, it has a disk drive, General MIDI (GM) and Standard MIDI File (SMF) compatibility, loads of functions, and is even easy to use! It also looks serious and expensive — this is no battery‑powered toy for the train or aeroplane!
Basically, the QY300 is a musician in a box. There is a 16‑track, 53,000‑event sequencer, combined with a flexible auto‑accompaniment section and GM‑compatible sound generator. The idea of a sound module with a sequencer is already well established, but the whole subject of auto‑accompaniment is much more unusual. It has long been the tradition that 'professional' musical equipment has no presets — I have even used this myself as a rough definition of the word. But the QY300 takes on the formidable task of impersonating a real musician, and largely succeeds. It does this by its innovative use of the technology — there may be preset rhythms, riffs, and phrases in the QY300, but the way that they are put together gives the user much more creative control over what happens. And best of all, you can record your own accompaniments and incorporate them with the preset ones. This unit will happily play all the boring bass‑lines, rhythm guitar chops, keyboard arpeggios and repetitive drum patterns you can throw at it. And it frees you to play along with it without any of the personality conflicts, drug problems, body odour no‑go zones, bad moods or fits of artistic temperament that you might get with another real person!
If you think you know what a Pattern or Style is, think again. The QY300 may look like it has preset drum patterns with choppy guitar chords and chugging bass parts, but this is not actually the case. All the patterns are made up out of much smaller parts which Yamaha call Phrases: almost 3,100 of them in total. There are eight types of phrase: Drums, Bass, Guitar Chord, Guitar Riff, Keyboard Chord, Keyboard Riff, and the user programmable ones. A Pattern (or Style, the boundary is somewhat vague) consists of eight tracks of phrases. A basic pattern could be just one drum phrase on one track, but a more complex one could have several drum phrases using different drum kits, a bass line, and other rhythm accompaniment tracks too. The tracks within the pattern editor have a 'mixer'‑type user interface, so you can set the volume, pan, effects level, sound selection, and so on. Orchestration of patterns in this way is quite unusual — you normally get a fixed arrangement, because the pattern's style is determined by the phrases and the instruments. However, because none of the patterns are fixed in the QY300, you can change things in any way you wish. It is quite fascinating, for example, to take a jazz‑oriented fusion style and replace the instruments with ones from a different musical style — or even to mix phrases from different types of music.
The eight types of phrase are available in three versions: 8‑beat, 16‑beat, and a 3/4 version. The time signature can be set to anything from 1/16 to 16/16, 1/8 to 16/8, or 1/4 to 8/4. Patterns are truncated if the time signature is shorter than the pattern phrases. You can sequence time signatures on a 'per measure' basis, if you want to. Phrases also come in seven types, depending on their intended use: Main, Fill Loop, Fill Cross, Intro, Ending, Specific, and General. All the phrase information is shown in a compact 8‑character format, and a name for the phrase is usually shown on the LCD display as well.
Patterns have similar sections to phrases. There are eight different types of section: Intro; Main A; Main B; Fill AA; Fill BB; Fill AB; Fill BA; and Ending. You do not need to use phrases of a specific type in a section, nor do you need to use all of the sections. I produced one song by producing an Intro pattern, and then editing it slightly to form a main (Main A) and a chorus (Main B) — all of which used just a few phrases in different orders, and with different mixer settings.
Patterns form Songs by chaining them together on a 'Pattern Track' in the Song sequencer. There is also a 'Chord Track', which lets you record chords (any of 28 preset ones) seemingly only at quarter note intervals. However, this option also incorporates a neat syncopation facility, which lets you begin a chord either an eighth or a sixteenth note before the beat on which it should play. There is also a 'Tempo Track', which allows you to control the playback tempo with very fine resolution — down to 96 ppqn (pulses per quarter note) if you want! The rest of the song is recorded on the 16 main tracks. Adding up, that's 16 tracks plus eight pattern tracks, plus the chord and tempo tracks — so the whole thing is really a 27 'track' recorder.
The song creation facilities of the QY300 are quite complex, and very hierarchical. The basic unit is the Phrase, of which there are 3093 preset and 100 user memories. Phrases are combined into Patterns, and the combination of pattern, volume, pan, instrumentation, effects send and so on produces a Style. Patterns are then assembled into a Song, and further accompaniment can be recorded on the 16 tracks in the song sequencer, again using mixer‑type controls to fine‑tune the mix (of course, you aren't forced to use patterns — you can just record directly into the song sequencer, and use it as a 'conventional' 16‑track sequencer, and in fact, one of the demo songs does exactly this). Finally, any of the songs can be chained together into a Performance.
There are six mode buttons with associated green LEDs, and these show you the major mode of operation for the QY300:
- Song Mode: The Song mode has a display of the 16 tracks of the song sequencer, as well as the pattern, chord, and tempo tracks. There is 'per event' editing as well as the usual features: Quantise, Copy Track, Copy Measure, Change Velocity, Transpose, Erase, Insert Measure, and Thin. Recording of songs can be in real or step time, on a 'track number = MIDI channel' default setting, with a 'multi' channel record for all 16 MIDI channels (for recording the output of other sequencers), and punch‑in facilities to re‑record specific sections.
- Pattern Mode: The Pattern mode shows the eight tracks for the pattern's phrases, but this time the editing is based around measures — each phrase is placed on an 8‑measure grid. You can 'solo' individual phrases during playback, which is very useful for checking how they sound as you select new ones. One point initially caused me some irritation, and is only superficially mentioned in the manual — there are two modes for pattern playing. Pattern mode lets you edit the instrumentation, whilst Phrase mode resets the instruments back to the preset settings each time the pattern repeats. User patterns can be entered in real or step time.
- Phrase Mode: The Phrase mode lets you set up the instrument used for a phrase. If it is one of the hundred user phrases, then you can also set up how it behaves if the chord changes whilst notes are playing (called 'Retrigger'), and also the type of Phrase used for harmonisation purposes: Melody, Chord, Bass, or Drum. Recording of phrases can be real‑time or step‑time, and there are lots of edit jobs to fine‑tune the results. Bass notes can be set up so that they are different to the root of the chord, or specify a different chord for the bass harmonisation. The 'End of Song' marker is also set in the phrase mode, rather than in the song mode, where you might expect it to be.
- Chain Mode: The Chain mode is just a display of the order in which the songs will play. Plain, simple and easy to understand.
- Utility Mode: This lets you change miscellaneous System, MIDI Filtering and Auto‑accompaniment settings.
- Disk Mode: This is used to load and save Standard MIDI Files. Separate 'Save' and 'Load' softkey buttons appear in the phrase, pattern, song and chain modes, which allows you to store and recall particular parts of a song quickly and easily. But the disk mode also contains the all important 'All Data' save and load functions — useful for when you aren't sure if you've saved everything in all the other modes!
Hardware has much the same requirements for a user interface as a computer program. It still needs to be intuitive, easy to use, and fast too. Although the QY300 has softkeys underneath its LCD display, they are not always the main focus of attention, since many operations have direct buttons. The transport controls, ('Rewind', 'Stop', 'Play' and so on), are on the left‑hand side, next to the volume control — more or less exactly where my left hand expected them. The numeric keypad on the right felt correct too, and the combined data wheel and shuttle control on the top right of the unit was well placed. Overall, the QY300 felt comfortable almost from the beginning. It did not take very long for my fingers to know where the buttons were without too much conscious thought. The clustering of buttons around the display works well, although because the display is not backlit, it does need careful positioning and lighting to aid viewing.
The use of graphics is superb. Clear diagrams show exactly what you are copying/erasing/moving from one track or all of them. The grids showing the chord and phrase progressions are a little inconsistent; for chords and song edits time moves down the display, whilst for phrases it moves across! Otherwise, though, the display is OK. Some of the operations are a little strange — like using edit to edit almost everything except chord progressions, which require you to go into Record instead. And some functions require you to use the 'Enter' button, but there is no indication as to which ones on the display. Despite these minor points, using the QY300 is mostly intuitive, and I had few problems with figuring out how things worked.
The manual is a mix of tutorials and lists of jobs. There are quite a few 'how to do...' hints scattered through the text, but I would have preferred a few more in‑depth examples, a better index, and more detail. 130 A4 pages of large type does not seem enough to cover a piece of complex equipment like the QY300. The listing of the phrases is brief — nothing more than a list of how many there are in each category. I suspect that most serious users will be forced to spend quite a lot of time becoming familiar with each of the phrases.
Playing back songs involves the mixer sections, and here the graphics are well utilised, with rotating pan pots and sliders moving up and down as you change the values. The usual facilities you would expect to find on a mixing desk, like muting, effects sends, pan, and channel activity lights are all present, but there are lots of other extras too. You can change the instrumentation, the coarse and fine tuning of voices (this is disabled for Drum sounds), the pitch bend range, and the channel assignments.
Further controls over the on‑board GM sound generator include a set of what Yamaha call 'Playback Effects'. These are not connected to the built‑in reverb and echo effects, but instead alter how the sound generator responds to the data recorded on the tracks. Quantisation, swing, transpose, clock (time) shift, gate time and velocity scaling can all be altered. A special 'per track' view shows you all these settings for one track at a time, rather than spreading them out across several pages. The combination of global or specific views is very useful for setting up sounds in the right context. The sounds are AWM‑based (i.e. based on sample playback), and of good quality, although with the inbuilt limitations of a GM sound set — for example, you can clearly hear note stealing happening in one of the Yamaha Demo Songs. By driving an external sound module using MIDI, the potential is there for much more timbral variation.
As a replacement for a computer‑based sequencer on stage, the QY300 almost wins the battle with its GM and SMF compatibility. But it fails because of one minor omission — the LCD is not backlit! This must be a mistake by Yamaha — I can't imagine anyone designing a product like this without considering stage (or dimly‑lit studio) use. I strongly suggest that Yamaha produce a backlight kit as soon as possible — this omission devalues the product severely.
Apart from the display, the QY300 is a worthy successor to the QX1 flagship of old. The sequencer section has enough features to make putting together a song relatively simple, and the accompaniment section has almost all the cliches you can think of available instantly — and with room for your own stylistic quirks if you want to add them. A little more event memory and a 'chain songs from disk drive' would have been nice, but this would probably have increased the price considerably.
The more I used the QY300, the more I liked it. The idea of using phrases for specific parts of a pattern works beautifully, and enables you to tweak patterns quickly and easily. At the price, it is much, much better than two QY20s, and is well worth a detailed look if you are considering buying a sequencer — whether hardware or computer‑based. The software sequencer may have some serious competition at last!
The Drum phrases contain drum patterns, as you might expect, but what do the rest hold? Well, the Percussion phrases give you instant access to those annoyingly busy shaker/triangle/conga polyrhythms that are a pain to program yourself manually. The bass phrases have all those walking bass lines that bass players use to move things along in a rhythm, while the guitar chords incorporate choppy rhythms and string muting with judicious amounts of pitch bend. The guitar riffs provide frenetic plucking and strumming, and the keyboard chords chop and stab their way through all manner of backings. The keyboard riffs arpeggiate, flam and pitch bend their way through a range of rhythms.
What you really get, of course, are all those dreadful cliches that you know instantly when they are played in the right musical style on the right instrument. But this is no intelligent backing band — you have to tell them what to do. Yamaha have tried to make the names as suggestive as possible, but you still need to audition them yourself, even if only to hear what you no longer have to record manually! Of course, if you know a rhythm guitarist who is a little lacklustre, you could always have the QY300 give them a few lessons...
Yamaha's Auto Bass Chord (ABC) system automatically harmonises the patterns to the chord changes. You can enter chords by specifying either the root and the type of chord, or by 'fingering' the chord you want on an external MIDI keyboard. A special type of chord '‑‑‑' is provided to switch off the auto‑accompaniment feature if you so desire. The 'Voice Lists & MIDI Data' manual supplement contains a chart which details the fingering for each of the 28 types of chord: 3‑, 4‑ and 5‑note chords can all be interpreted.
The power of the ABC system comes from the fact that it contains a lot of musical knowledge in a simple‑to‑use system — you select a chord, and it does the rest. For beginners, this speeds up the process of creating a song, whilst for those with more musical knowledge, the chord accompaniment can be enhanced by using the other tracks to add further material.
As you might have guessed, the ABC system comes from home organ technology, where it was intended to provide an easy route to learning to play the organ. Some of the buttons on the front of the QY300 show the interactive roots of the system, and let you choose the section of the pattern that is playing — so you can start a pattern playing with the Intro section, and then nudge it into Main A to start playing the melody, and the nudge it again into Main B to play the chorus. Don't be put off by the ancestry of the system — in skilled hands, it can be a powerful way of enhancing a live performance.
Products like the QY300 have a wide appeal. Although the looks may be hi‑tech, this is not the only potential market. To see how it fared under the critical eyes of more conventional musical minds, I lent the QY300 to a family where the father was once a touring jazz musician, and the son (in his late teens) has a strong interest in music, although both have had very little exposure to MIDI, sequencers and hi‑tech. After a couple of days, I dragged them away from the QY300 and found out what they thought of it. Like me, they were impressed, felt that the user interface was 'very intuitive', liked 'the tremendous range of options' and thought that the sounds were 'amazing'. The son had been working his way through the book, and had created several songs from sections of various patterns, chained them together, saved them on disk, and re‑orchestrated the results. The father had concentrated on using it without looking at the manual, and had figured out a lot of the auto‑accompaniment features just by interpreting the display and the buttons.
They said that it provided a 'studio environment', but that it was noticeably biased towards providing backing for vocal, guitar or keyboard use. For instruments which do not normally have a keyboard (like a saxophone), they liked the rubber on‑board keyboard, precisely because it did not look like the usual black and white keys of a conventional keyboard.
Their major criticism was the LCD display: they made comments like 'poor contrast', 'too small', 'not suitable for use on the road', 'why no backlighting?', and 'why does it not flip up at an adjustable angle like a lap‑top PC?'. They reported problems with understanding and using the MIDI In, the Octave Switching and the muting, although with more time and a better manual they felt they would have got further.
The crucial test of something like this is the perceived value. They guessed that it was worth something around seven or eight hundred pounds, without any real reference points to measure it against, apart from knowing what a PC sound card costs. When I told them the price, the father said that had it cost a few hundred pounds less, they would have gone out and bought one straight away! So I told him about the QY20...
- The QY20 [reviewed SOS May 1991] has a slimmed‑down specification, with less user‑programmability compared to the QY300, but offers battery‑powered portability with a price of £449.
- The QY10 [reviewed SOS Jan 93] is no longer available from Yamaha, but some retailers still have them in stock. This is much more of a preset drum machine and auto‑accompaniment device, and now costs (where available) about £220. Prices given here include VAT.
- Songs: 16 'Music' Tracks, plus Pattern, Chord and Tempo Tracks.
- Patterns: 8 Tracks.
- Phrases: 1 Track.
- 10 Songs: 53,000 note capacity.
- 100 Styles x 8 Sections = 800 Patterns.
- Chaining of up to ten songs.
- 28 Preset Chords.
- 96 pulses per quarter note tempo resolution.
- 64‑note polyphony.
- Realtime, Step, Punch‑In and Step Insert recording modes.
- 3093 Preset Phrases:
865 Drum phrases.
290 Percussion phrases.
582 Bass phrases.
412 Guitar Chord phrases.
117 Guitar Riff phrases.
655 Keyboard Chord phrases.
172 Keyboard Riff phrases.
- 100 User Phrases.
TONE GENERATOR SECTION
- AWM (Sample & Synthesis) synthesizer.
- 128 preset voices.
- 8 drum kits (compliant with General MIDI System Level 1).
- 28‑note polyphonic.
- Songs: 24‑part multitimbral (16 sequence parts plus 8 pattern parts).
- Patterns: 8‑part multitimbral.
- Phrases: monotimbral.
- Mains‑powered via external PSU — no battery provision.
- Neat phrase‑based patterns and style system.
- GM and SMF compatible. Well thought out choice and layout of controls, with lots of single function buttons and a host of features.
- Disk drive for storage.
- No backlighting for the LCD (makes stage use almost impossible).
- Some inconsistency in the user interface.
- Limited (and fixed) note capacity.
- Fixed (and non‑expandable) GM sounds.
This is a flexible hi‑tech musical companion — almost a 'musician in a box'. The complex user customisation and sophisticated playback controls make it an excellent aid for songwriting and accompaniment.