Paul White returns from the land of the rising Sterling with tidings of a whole new range of Yamaha hi‑tech and pro audio products.
I've just returned from a week's tour of Yamaha's design and manufacturing facility in Hamamatsu, Japan, where I learned a surprising amount about the way the company works and how they go about designing new products. I was also able to speak to the engineers behind such products as the AN1x and VL70m synths, and was impressed by their genuine enthusiasm and inventiveness. Over a traditional Japanese meal, I enquired as to how new synthesizers are developed and asked whether computer simulations are used before the hardware is built. I was told that Yamaha do indeed have a computer‑based development platform that allows new ideas to be developed and verified before anything has to be built at all.
Being a traditional Yorkshireman who likes all his food cooked to a uniform brown throughout (including curry), I was less convinced by the local cuisine, some of which looked more like the cover of an HP Lovecraft novel than the food I'm normally used to, but the hospitality was faultless, right down to hotels with electrically heated toilet seats! Best of all, I got an early preview of the instruments and studio gear due to be launched at the forthcoming American NAMM show.
Yamaha never stand still when it comes to developing synthesizers, and with FM and physical modelling on their list of firsts, it came as no surprise to me that they had something else up their corporate sleeves. New for '98 is the EX range of instruments which, with their blue casings and marriage of technologies, definitely qualify as 'something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue'.
The EX synthesizers are clearly intended to appeal to the same market sector as the Korg Trinity, and there are parallels in that the EX series employs a number of different synthesis types in the same machine. Available in two keyboard formats (EX5 and EX7) and as a rackmount module, the EX5R, the new machines feature both a sequencer, that can also replay Standard MIDI Files direct from disk, and a 4‑track arpeggiator with 50 presets and 50 user memories. A feature common to both the EX5 and 5R models is a massive 126‑voice polyphony, using 16Mb of internal AWM2 (Advanced) sounds, plus two further two voices of AN (AN1x‑style) analogue modelling and one voice of VL modelling, similar to that offered by the VL70m. The cheaper and slightly smaller EX7 has just one voice of analogue modelling, no VL modelling, and 64‑voice polyphony.
If that were as far as it went, these would still be impressive instruments, but they also feature six real‑time control knobs and a ribbon controller, as well as a brand‑new sound‑shaping system known as FDSP — see the 'FDSP' box for details. On top of all that, the EX machines can sample, and the internal 1Mb sample memory may be expanded up to 64Mb using standard SIMMs; up to 8Mb of non‑volatile flash RAM may also be added. With the optional SCSI interface fitted, the machines can access standard sample CD‑ROMs (Akai, AIFF and WAV formats), with the EX7 offering mono sampling and the EX5 and EX5R stereo sampling. Samples may also be resampled via the on‑board effects if required.
In addition to the SCSI interface, other options include an individual output board to add four further outputs, and a digital output board with word clock input. The brief demonstration proved the EX instruments to be capable of a wide range of sonic styles, from conventional additive sounds and responsive pianos, to raw techno and abstract effects. With their friendly user interface, these machines should prove popular across a wide range of musical styles.
P200 Electronic Piano
For those of a more traditional disposition, the P200 is an 88‑note electronic piano featuring a newly developed weighted keyboard action, with four keyboard zones; the low notes have a heavier action than the high notes, just like the real thing. The sound‑generating system is based on 16Mb of AWM sounds and has 64‑voice polyphony. Twelve different voices are available, and there's a built‑in speaker system for practice or low‑level performance. There are two independent MIDI transmission channels for driving external MIDI equipment, a panel‑lock mode to prevent inadvertent program change during performance, and a choice of two stand types for road or home operation. The usual line outs, pedal connections, foot controller and MIDI connections are provided.
MiniDisc has proven to be a convenient and cost effective alternative to the analogue cassette for use in all‑in‑one 4‑track multitrackers, but four tracks doesn't seem that generous when compared with 16‑track hard disk systems. To take the concept further, Yamaha have developed an 8‑track MD system that uses data MDs, running at double speed, to provide 18 minutes of recording time (in 8‑track mode) at a sample rate of 44.1kHz, using ATRAC data compression. The MD8 (covered briefly in last month's news pages) features 8‑track, 4‑track, 2‑track and mono modes, but can also work in 2‑track and mono modes using standard audio MDs, rather than the data MDs required for multitrack work. All eight tracks may be bounced down to one or more tracks, and the machine comes with a comprehensive set of locate, search and auto‑punch‑in/out functions, as well as varispeed.
A jog/shuttle wheel is used for song location and editing, and the mixer section is a traditionally laid‑out, 8‑channel analogue design, with 3‑band EQ (swept mid), and two aux sends per channel, as well as in‑line monitoring. Channels 1 and 2 also feature balanced XLR mic inputs with phantom power and insert points, though all channels will work with mic as well as line levels. The machine supports MTC (MIDI Time Code), MIDI clock and MMC (MIDI Machine Control), with the ability to store a tempo map containing up to 26 tempo changes per song. A new feature is the ability to record up to 99 alternate takes per track and then pick the best one later, though you have to keep in mind that each take uses a corresponding amount of disc space.
...common to both the EX5 and 5R models is a massive 126‑voice polyphony...
Yamaha are one of the few music equipment manufacturers to have their own semiconductor design and manufacturing facility, and their custom DSPs are one of the reasons the company has maintained its lead in low‑cost digital mixers. Now the design team have turned their attention to the PC plug‑in card market, by building a low‑cost, 32‑bit, DSP‑based mixer, with effects, onto a single PCI card. The DS2416 card is at the heart of the DSP Factory system and employs five of Yamaha's own mixer DSPs (as used in their 02R stand‑alone mixer) to provide a 24‑input, 16‑buss mixer, with two digital effects based on the same chips used in the REV500 effects processor and 03D mixer. All internal processing is at 32‑bit resolution, with 44 bits used for the EQ. The card supports multitrack hard disk recording via the PCI buss, with up to eight simultaneous record tracks and 16 playback tracks. Stereo 20‑bit inputs and outputs are included on the card, as well as co‑axial digital I/O, which can work at up to 24‑bit resolution.
The system was demonstrated running with Cubase VST via an on‑screen mixer map, though other sequencer manufacturers are also working with Yamaha to provide support — more news on exactly who after NAMM. Those requiring more sophisticated I/O options will be pleased to note that the AX44 expansion unit provides four more analogue ins and outs, and up to two of these units may be used with a single DS2416 card. The AX44s fit into a standard computer drive bay and claim a noise figure of better than 100dB. At the moment, only the PC/Windows 95 platform is supported, though Mac support is under development.
WX5 Wind Controller
With the advent of the low‑cost VL70m module, using a wind controller effectively has suddenly become more affordable, so Yamaha have produced a new 16‑key wind controller with a switchable fingering system, enabling it to use WX11, flute‑style or sax‑style fingering. Two new high keys, similar to those on a sax, have been added, and there's a direct MIDI output as well as the more usual WX output. Controller information is generated by both breath and lip sensors, and there's also a traditional pitch‑bend wheel set in the underside. Improvements have been made to the electronics to reduce false triggering, and the system comes complete with mouthpiece cover, strap, WX cable, an additional recorder‑type, reedless mouthpiece, and a soft case.
FDSP — or Formulated Digital Signal Processing, to give it its full title — is Yamaha's new system for adding note‑dependent processing to AWM sounds, to give them greater realism. If the VL system was modelling, FDSP might be thought of as re‑modelling, and in some ways it seems similar to Roland's V‑Guitar process, which starts off with a raw, vibrating guitar string as the source, and then uses DSP to shape that sound. The EX series of synths features powerful effects processors, and the same elements that are used in conventional effects may also be used in FDSP, the main difference being that the effects parameters are note dependent. In effect, this means generating polyphonic signal processing; by using effects such as delay and equalisation it's possible to model the behaviour of such things as electric piano or electric guitar pickup types and positions. Because of the processing power needed to run FDSP, polyphony is reduced when FDSP is used.
FDSP comes with a set of preset configurations, which may be applied to an AWM sound and then adjusted to change the sound or to create more natural dynamics. For example, the electric piano configuration emulates the effects of changing pickup position and distance relative to the end of the piano tine. Not only does this produce timbral changes, but as the pickup is brought close to the tine, distortion may also be introduced. The electric guitar configuration emulates picking position, pickup position and so on. Up to four AWM elements, or three AWM elements plus one AN element, may be fed through the FDSP process, after which the sound may be treated using normal effects. Though I only heard a few examples of FDSP, the fact that chorus rates or delay times can be optimised for each note on the keyboard suggests that some interesting resonant effects should be possible.