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Yamaha RY9

Drum Machine By Nicholas Rowland
Published October 1999

Yamaha RY9

Despite its size, this diminutive drum machine packs in a decent sound set and some interesting guitar‑oriented features.

Although Yamaha's RY9 is supposed to be filed under 'budget drum machine', it offers a complete 'band‑in‑a‑box' facility courtesy of its onboard bass and melodic sounds and ability to play auto‑accompaniment‑style backing tracks. The unit is billed as 'a 1999 reworking of the RY8' (the RY9's predecessor — see SOS September '95). The RY9 is at least different in that it sports a gold paint job and is emblazoned with the moniker Big Jam.

What you will find inside are 128 drum samples, 50 melodic voices, 200 preset and 50 user patterns, 200 auto‑accompaniment backings, 50 preset and 50 user songs, plus extensive programming and MIDI capabilities, all of which is shoehorned into a casing about the size of a VHS video cassette. The front panel sports a useful‑looking LCD, tape recorder‑style buttons for the recording and playback of patterns and songs, a set of function buttons and 12 drum pads which also double as function‑select buttons. While the drum pads are not velocity sensitive, the unit is velocity sensitive over MIDI. For the record, polyphony is a perfectly respectable 28 notes.

Designed primarily with an eye to busking guitarists in need of a portable backing band, the RY9 can run on six 1.5V AA‑sized batteries, though it will also take a 12V wall‑wart power supply. Connections comprise MIDI In and Out, right and left/mono outputs on quarter‑inch jacks, a headphone output on mini stereo plug, a master volume slider and a mono external input. This enables you to plug in a guitar so that if you've got limited mixing facilities, you can mix the signal in with the RY9's voices. The jack also allows you to use the RY9 as a guitar synthesizer (see 'Guitar Features' box).

The unit offers a healthy complement of 128 different drum sounds — 14 kicks, 20 snares, 4 brush sounds, 3 rimshot sounds, 8 hi‑hat sounds, 7 cymbals, 30 tom sounds, 34 Latin/handheld percussion sounds and a handful of utility 'click' sounds. This last group includes four 'count' sounds, Count1, Count2, and so on. However, all drum names have been abbreviated to a five‑letter format so that they will fit into the available space on the LCD — and in this case, someone clearly unaware of the vulgar extremities of the English language decided it would be a good idea to drop the 'o'...

On a more serious note, the sounds are up to the usual Yamaha standards — my only criticism is that they are, if anything, a little bland. There are 12 preset kits, covering the usual style territories: Standard, Dry, Ballad, Rock (two variations), Power, Hiphop, Analog (aka TR808), Jazz, Brush, Latin and 'Click'. Each kit consists of 24 different sounds arranged in two banks. Unusually for a budget drum machine, the RY9 offers the facility to assemble your own kits of sounds — four in all — and offers a fair amount of control over how they are mixed, with output, pan and tuning (plus or minus seven steps either side of the true pitch) all user‑tweakable. Note that these values apply to each pad, so they will affect whatever sound you subsequently assign to that pad.

Patterns And Songs

Programming your own patterns can be done in real or step time. Available time signatures run quite a large range from 1/16 to 15/16 — useful if you're a busking prog‑rock one‑man band — and tempos can be set between 40 and 250bpm. There are also programmable swing and accent features to make your rhythms go with extra bang.

The 200 preset patterns cover the expected rock, pop, rock and roll, jazz, dance and Latin variations, with A, B, C and D sections for each style giving you main and fill‑in type rhythms. Each pattern consists of a drum track, bass line and two 'melodic' accompaniment parts. You can tweak the volume of each part separately, or simply mute separate parts. Even to my jaded ears, the rock, pop and jazz preset patterns, though very predictable, were perfectly acceptable, and I only started to get a strong whiff of over‑ripe Camembert when we strayed into 'dance' and 'house' territory. The 50 melodic voices offer a smattering of pianos, vibes, organ, various guitars, basses, strings, a dreadful sax and a handful of synth leads — think of a cut‑down General MIDI soundset and you'll get the gist.

Alongside the 50 preset songs, the RY9 allows you to create up to 50 user songs (memory permitting) by chaining together various patterns. Chord changes are recorded on a separate track, which means that once your song structure is set up, you can insert and delete new patterns without having to reprogram the chord sequence. There is a very generous complement of 23 different chord variations (anyone for a minor seventh eleventh?) which really does make Big Jam suitable for the prog rockers out there.

The RY9 also has some useful MIDI features. In System Mode, you can set the RY9 to sync and swim to MIDI as master or slave, assign MIDI transmit and receive channel for the drum voices, assign the MIDI channel for receiving program change messages, activate bulk dump functions and designate the note table and assign MIDI note numbers for the drum kit. What you can't do is play the melodic voices from an external device, so you can forget using the RY9 as a mini MIDI expander (boo!).


The RY9 packs a mean set of features for all its 'budget' pretensions. While you'll be stirred rather than shaken by the RY9's capabilities, it offers a level of functionality that is not to be trifled with.

Guitar Features

The RY9's guitar input offers both a standard mix function and a guitar synthesizer function. The synth facility operates in four different modes. The first simply triggers whatever note you are playing on the guitar (incidentally, the RY9 can only recognise single notes — so you can forget trying to translate a bunch of power chords into a full orchestral onslaught...). Octave mode gives you the same pitch as the guitar and a note an octave lower. The three 'Harm' modes give you the original pitch plus a harmony note determined by the currently selected chord. In Chord mode, any note you play on the guitar will trigger a full chord of notes, again determined by the current selection as displayed in the upper left area of the LCD. Any notes triggered externally can be transmitted via MIDI, so you could potentially use the RY9 as a pitch‑to‑MIDI converter and play an external module.

I was hoping for great things from the guitar synth, but sadly the tracking of the guitar pitch is simply too slow to generate reliable results. To be fair, the manual does warn you that some experimentation is likely to be in order, with the quality of results depending on the type of guitar used, its volume and tone settings, and how the pickups are set up. Another factor is the sensitivity level assigned to the External In, which is user‑programmable between 00 and 19. However, after an hour or so playing around with a couple of guitars, I still couldn't get the synth notes to trigger in any meaningful way. Even when playing single‑note riffs fairly slowly, the RY9 would only trigger in about 75 percent of cases, and if you bend strings accidentally, this throws the machine out completely.

The RY9 also features an onboard guitar tuner. While it's very accurate, and also offers the ability to change the basic pitch within a 440Hz to 445Hz range, the drawback is that the graphics (a series of dashes) are really quite tiny, making it very fiddly to use, especially at low light levels.


  • Offers a reasonable complement of drum sounds and then some.
  • Drum mix/tune/pan functions.
  • It's an unusual colour.
  • Bonus guitar synth options (but see below).


  • A few cheesy patterns.
  • Difficult to program the melodic side using fiddly onboard buttons.
  • It's an unusual colour.
  • Guitar synth very poor at tracking.


The RY9 may not be the sexiest piece of equipment ever made, but it does give you access to killer rhythms at a budget price.