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Yamaha QY70

Music Sequencer By Martin Russ
Published September 1997

Like The Doctor's TARDIS, Yamaha's newest Walkstation sequencer is small but deceptively spacious. Martin Russ dons his floppy hat, winds his stripey scarf a little tighter, fortifies himself with another jelly baby, and enters a different dimension...

Back in 1991, Yamaha released the QY10 — a video cassette‑sized case containing a simple battery‑powered 8‑track sequencer and a crude sound generator. With its ability to let you compose music anywhere, this musical notepad was immediately popular, and started off a whole series of similarly sized portable music‑makers. In 1994, they combined the ideas from their QY22 with the much older and well‑loved QX series of hardware sequencers, and came up with the QY300 — a full‑sized, and very powerful, 'keyboardless' workstation. More recently, the even better‑equipped QY700 has become Yamaha's flagship hardware sequencer — see Paul Wiffen's excellent review in the November 1996 issue of Sound On Sound for more details.

Yamaha always innovate. Having redefined the word 'sequencer' so that it meant a combination of a hardware sequencer and a sound generator, they've now taken the QY700 and squashed it into as small a case as possible. That, more or less, is exactly what the QY70 is — a smaller version of the QY700, albeit with a little trimming of specifications here and there. Paul's review concentrated on the 'pure' sequencer functions of the QY700, so here I'll also attempt to discuss some of the more unusual functions of its smaller cousin — its arranging and composing tools.

Don't Be Fooled

The QY70 is small. About the same size as two video cassettes, or a hefty paperback. Because of the limited capabilities of the previous members of the QY series, especially the 'fun‑but‑fiddly' QY8, you might assume that this is just an expanded QY22. To overcome this preconception, take a close look at the specification box elsewhere in this review. Despite appearances, the QY70 is no toy. It's a serious music‑making machine. And it's so much fun to use that many hi‑tech musicians will surely find it hard to resist, so beware when you take one for a test drive!

As with all 'WalkStations', the QY70 is actually three different pieces of equipment interlinked in the same box. Two of them are probably familiar to most hi‑tech musicians: the sequencer and the sound generator. But the third is normally associated with domestic 'fun' keyboards rather than serious professional equipment: an auto‑accompaniment generator. Before you turn the page in disgust, it's worth noting that Yamaha have taken a lot of trouble over making the accompaniment section work as more of a general‑purpose tool than for merely playing back hackneyed and dull preset songs.

Sequencer

In isolation, the sequencer is a 20‑song, 16‑track, 32,000‑event capacity model with the now usual battery backup so that you don't lose all of your work when you power it down. Alongside the expected real‑ and step‑time recording modes, there's a 'Multi' mode, which allows you to capture multiple MIDI channels at once, rather than one at a time. If you were sceptical about the power lurking inside the QY70, here is your first tangible indication that this is something out of the ordinary. But then the 480ppqn (pulses per quarter note) resolution is more in line with a top‑notch computer‑based sequencer as well! Scrolling event lists with user‑settable view filters are also present, and the only niggle is the lack of a piano‑roll view for us graphics‑dependents — you'll have to buy the QY700 for that.

No Yamaha sequencer would be complete without a 'Job' menu, and the QY70 adds a few very useful additional facilities to the ordinary Copy, Transpose, Modify and Erase jobs. How about a job that flams chords, or one that sorts the notes in a chord so that they are either in highest‑to‑lowest, or lowest‑to‑highest order in the event list? A cynic might say that this is because the pico (it is too small to describe as 'micro') keyboard scanning rate is so slow that chords need quantising or flamming afterwards because you can't play them correctly. Personally, I think anything that lets me manipulate events other than by tediously moving them by hand has to be a good move. There's also a job that 'expands' the accompaniment information into tracks, so you can edit it to suit your own preferences — of which more later.

Despite the small size (and lack of back‑lighting), on the main 'Song' screen, eight tracks can be shown, and the display can indicate the activity on the track with a five‑segment 'meter', as well as showing which tracks are empty, and the mute/solo status (see screen on p.230). There's the usual 'Mixer' view, showing which sound is allocated to which track, the pan position, and volume. A 'Play Effects' screen also enables control of the Effects Thru, the use of any of the 100 groove templates on selected tracks, and the adjustment of the effect of the template on timing or velocity. There's also a screen for setting up the three DSP effects processors, which allows precise placement of effects because of its mix of global and 'insertion' effects routing — again, this is very much the norm on current Yamaha equipment. For drum tracks, there is a screen which allows individual drums to be replaced by alternative drum sounds.

The sequencer has the familiar 'tape transport'‑type buttons that you associate with a sequencer, but also has the ability to set a 'jump' location for the 'Stop' button or 'Top' button to return to. Almost all of the major operations are either assigned to buttons, or are controlled by moving a cursor around the screen — it's only some of the editing and job functions that require the use of the menu button and the associated soft‑keys. As with any piece of equipment, it can take a while for your fingers to become familiar with using it, but the ergonomic design (it just snuggles into your hands!), consistency and intuitive operations meant that I managed quite well even before I read the manual.

Sounds

The QY70 is GM compatible, but it also uses Yamaha's own XG extensions, which provide for extra sounds and more detailed real‑time control over those sounds. As usual with any sample replay‑based synthesizer, the best sounds are those which use two sounds in parallel, but this also eats up polyphony.

Whilst the QY70 doesn't boast the most earth‑shattering sounds I've ever heard, its GM sounds are fine, and the XG extension sounds include some very nice additions. For composing and arranging, the selection is good, and the familiar grouping of sounds, plus their variations, makes it easy to find a specific timbre.

One thing you definitely don't expect to find on a portable music‑making machine is sound editing. With only six parameters the editing is primitive, but it enables effective changes to be made to the timbres. The available controls are: Pitch Bend range; Filter Cutoff and Resonance; Attack, Decay and Release for the envelope. All of these follow the now‑standard Yamaha convention of being alterable away from a default setting, which allows changes to be made intuitively, and then easily undone if required. Although it's only window‑dressing, I thought that the change of filter response and envelope shape was a nice graphics touch.

The output volume into my standard 'Walkman' headphones was good, but an unexpected bonus was the mini stereo‑jack‑to‑twin‑phone converter lead which was supplied. If you've ever tried to hook anything with a mini stereo headphone jack into the rest of a studio environment, you'll know that this is a valuable accessory.

Auto

If, like me, you normally avoid anything with even a hint of automatic accompaniment, on the grounds that it is too 'home organ'‑like, the QY70's extensive facilities may not initially appear that attractive. But Yamaha have taken the trouble to include enough user customisation to make the accompaniment a useful feature rather than something which you will never use. In fact, the QY70 may well turn out to be an indispensable ideas generator.

The key to understanding how the auto features work is the hierarchical structure of the accompaniments. At the highest level is a Style. There are 128 of these, with room for 64 user Styles as well. The Styles cover the usual drum‑machine clichés, although there are rather more 'world' and unashamedly 'current' types than is usual. Styles come in six different sections: Intro, Main A, Fill AB, Main B, Fill BA and Ending. At the most basic, you can string a song together by choosing a Style, then placing these sections in sequence. The individual sections occupy eight tracks (separate from the 16 sequencer tracks), and each of these section groups is known as a Pattern. There's nothing to stop you mixing and matching Patterns from different Styles in a Song. Deeper still, the tracks in a Pattern are made up of individual Phrases. There are over 4000 of these in the QY70, and they're little snippets of useful basslines, drum patterns, chord arpeggios, and so on. You can choose the playback speed, time signature and other parameters, and you're free to put any Phrase into a track.

You can record your own Phrases (in C major, of course, otherwise the auto‑accompaniment harmonisation goes awry!), combine these into Patterns, and even make your own Styles — but there are plenty to be going on with if you don't want to produce your own. The Pattern screens provide mixing console‑type control over the Pattern tracks, with pan, volume, muting, soloing and effects. The one thing you can't do is change the instrumentation of the preset Phrases — although you can copy them into a sequencer track and then tweak them.

But the most important element of the auto‑accompaniment is back in the Song sequencer. There are three extra tracks — Pattern, Chord and Tempo — and these allow you to control the Style and the Pattern or Phrases which play at any time in the song. The Pattern track sets the Style and the accompaniment section, while the Chord track lets you set the chord and accompanying bass note. There are 26 types of chord, including one which allows you to disable the auto‑harmonisation. Blocking out a song with chords and sections is quick and easy, and it's surprising how fragments of familiar songs crop up when you start working this way.

Constructing a fake sheet for a song isn't usually that onerous, but the QY70 also includes a very neat feature called Chord Template, which provides 99 sets of chord sequences, plus one user‑definable one. There are Templates intended for Ballads, Pops and Blues, a set of jazz‑orientated ones which use tension chords, and a set called 'Cliché' which are exactly that — instant clichéd chord sequences. I defy anyone to choose a Style, set a Cliché Chord Template in force, and then not want to sing or play along with it. Again, there's nothing to stop you producing your own chord sequences — the preset chord templates are just a neat way of providing something else to play with and perhaps inspiring a song. I can see immediate applications for Eurovision Song Contest hopefuls.

Conclusion

I'm not normally given to playing around with auto‑accompaniment devices, but the ability to delve deep into the component phrases, plus the 'instant' gratification of those chord templates, makes this one of the first automatics I've felt really comfortable with. In the past, I've always felt that you couldn't control things enough; with the QY70 you may find the task of programming a complete style from scratch a challenge, but at least you're in charge.

There's a lot to fit onto the display, with only a limited number of buttons, and this does mean that some of the ease of use of the QY700 is lost. But at half the price, and with only slightly diminished specifications, the QY70 is a marvellous piece of hi‑tech gadgetry. And don't be misled ito thinking it's a toy: this is a very useable piece of creative equipment — especially when you consider the cost of a piece of sequencer software, the computer to run it on, and a GM/XG sound generator to make the sounds. Given the considerably more limited functionality of previous members of the QY70 family, the new addition looks more and more like a bargain purchase.

When I looked at the QY8, I could see that it had some scope for being misused and cajoled into generating some ideas, but it was mostly a sophisticated piece of amusement. The QY300 looked much more like a serious composition tool, but you would need to make it the centre of a studio, and the display was not ideal for that. The QY70 feels much more like a useful addition to a studio that is based around a computer, where it is used as an ideas generator and musical notepad — but it could also be the centre of a budget home studio setup. With the QY70 and 700, the 'WalkStation' finally comes of age. A very difficult act to follow, and maybe even a potential classic.

Documentation & Software

The 246‑page A5 manual is reasonable, but not particularly inspired. The 68‑page 'List' book gives you some idea of the complexity of the sounds, drums, patterns, phrases, and MIDI implementation details. But the most innovative manual is the one for the QY Data Filer, a piece of software which is included with the QY70 package. Over the years, Yamaha have gradually ramped up their software support, and with recent products like the AN1x the software has been available from the Yamaha web site as soon as the equipment has been released. With the QY Data Filer, this practice has taken the next step, because now the Mac/PC storage utility software is provided with the equipment. You can move QY or MIDI File data back and forth between your computer and the QY70, which means that the lack of a disk drive is far less significant. Having dedicated software means that you don't have to mess about with recording SysEx data into a sequencer, or waiting for a module for a generic editor. Full marks to Yamaha for including software with the QY70.

Specifications

SEQUENCER

  • 20 songs
  • 32,000‑event capacity
  • 32‑note polyphony
  • 480ppqn resolution
  • 16 sequencer tracks
  • 8 pattern phrase tracks
  • 6 sections: Intro; Main A; Main B; Fill AB; Fill BA; Ending
  • 768 preset patterns
  • 384 user patterns (64 per section)
  • 4,167 preset phrases
  • 48 user phrases per style
  • 26 chord types
  • 99 chord progressions
  • Groove quantisation
  • Drum mapping
  • Multi‑channel recording

SOUND GENERATOR

  • S&S (AWM2)
  • 32‑note polyphonic
  • 24‑part multitimbral
  • 519 instrumental sounds
  • 20 drum kits
  • 3 DSP effects
  • 25‑key pico‑keyboard
  • MIDI In and Out
  • Stereo mini‑jack output
  • Computer connector (Mac or PC)
  • Six AA batteries or mains adaptor

Pros

  • Compact and portable.
  • Powerful composing and arranging tool.
  • Musical notepad with accompaniment.
  • Software support included.
  • Cursor‑driven operation.
  • Software supplied.

Cons

  • No backlight for display.
  • Small display.
  • Limited sound editing.
  • External power supply.

Summary

A deceptively capable workstation‑like device, comprising a powerful sequencer, sophisticated auto‑accompaniment and a GM/XG expander.