With their latest workstation, Yamaha have clearly taken the view that the difference between a 'dance' instrument and a general‑purpose one is more to do with control facilities than sounds. Nick Magnus tries out the S80.
Despite its completely different appearance, Yamaha's S80 bears a close under‑the‑bonnet similarity to their CS6x, reviewed in last month's SOS. The S80 has, amongst other things, an identical synth engine and architecture to the CS6x, but has been packaged to appeal more to the all‑round stage/studio musician, whereas the CS6x has the dance market squarely in its sights.
The S80 falls within the 'performance workstation' category which also contains such instruments as the Korg Triton, Korg Trinity and Roland XP80. At the basic level, it employs Yamaha's AWM2 sample‑based subtractive synthesis plus a host of inbuilt effects, it gives you a fistful/footful/lungful of controllers with which to modify those sounds in real time, and lashes the whole lot together into a 64 note polyphonic, 16‑part multitimbral package which can be driven either by the sequencer of your choice, or by standard MIDI files replayed from a SmartMedia card. A comprehensive set of master‑keyboard capabilities rounds off the package. Like the CS6x, the S80 has provision for adding up to two plug‑in boards that not only extend the total polyphony of the instrument, but offer alternative forms of synthesis such as Analogue modelling, Virtual Acoustic synthesis and FM amongst others: Martin Walker reviewed the PLG150AN Analogue Modelling and PLG150PF Piano daughterboards in the January 2000 issue of SOS.
The most obvious difference between the S80 and the CS6x is their physical appearance. The S80 has an 88‑note weighted keyboard for starters, and lives in a solid, black case with wooden end‑cheeks. Despite the keyboard, it's just about manageable weightwise, tipping the scales at 24.3kg. The S80 has a less busy control surface than the CS6x: clearly there are other differences between the two. Connections with the outside world are very comprehensive — stereo output plus two individual outs, phones, audio input (mono, assignable as a Performance Part), volume pedal, foot controller, foot switch, sustain, breath controller input, MIDI In, Out, and Thru, and a serial connector to a host computer. The S80 also ships with the same suite of software on CD‑ROM as the CS6x, which includes XG Works and Card Filer, for organising your S80 Voice libraries.
There are 384 Voice memories, a quota which increases by an extra 64 Voice memories for each plug‑in board installed. Of these, the 128 internal Voices are user‑programmable, and the addition of a SmartMedia card provides another 128 programmable memory locations. In the drum department, the S80 provides eight preset kits and two user‑programmable kits, with facility for two more which can be written to a SmartMedia card. Synth and drum Voices are created in exactly the same way as on the CS6x: for a more detailed description of the AWM2 synthesis features, please refer to the review of the CS6x in last month's issue.
What exactly, then, are the differences between the S80 and the CS6x? Let's start by discussing the features of the S80 not found on the CS6x. Most obvious, and already mentioned, is the 88‑note weighted keyboard: the CS6x has but a 64 note synth variety.
The S80 sports four assignable sliders, which augment its master‑keyboard functions. When switched to Master Keyboard Mode, the S80 not only addresses its own internal sounds, but can transmit MIDI data on up to four external Zones as well. Up to six Controller Sets can be programmed, enabling the user to assign those four sliders, as well as the host of soft knobs, breath and foot controllers, pitch and modulation wheels, to send a dizzying variety of controller information to both internal sounds and external MIDI devices. One S80 controller is thus capable of sending up to six totally different messages to various destinations simultaneously. Who said synthesizers don't offer electronic musicians the opportunity to interact with their sounds?
Specific to the S80 is a dedicated 'Quick Access' mode which enables the user to search for sounds by category. Eight categories are available: Acoustic Piano, Electric Piano, Organ, Guitar/Bass, Strings, Brass, Synth, and Others. Each category has its own panel button — simply select the category, then use the Program select buttons or data dial to select from 16 variations. It is possible to assign your own favourites to the last four in each category.
The S80's waveform list is longer than that of the CS6x: all 479 of the CS6x waveforms are present and in the same relative locations, but the S80 offers a further 74. These extra waves cover piano, organ and vocal sounds in much more detail than the CS6x, many of the waves being left and right halves of a stereo pair.
...And The Roundabouts
The CS6x is clearly targetted at the dance market, and a number of its hardware controls are absent on the S80, along with one or two operational features. Firstly, the S80 has no ribbon controller — though curiously, this feature is still referred to in the owner's manual, despite its having 'S80' clearly emblazoned on the front cover! Gone, too, are the hardware Quick Edit knobs of the CS6x: Quick Edit is to be found nestling within the S80's edit menus. Continuing the hardware theme, the S80 has no panel switches for control of portamento, octave shift or the arpeggiator. The absence of an Arpeggiator On/Off switch is rather disadvantageous, as many of the Performances use this feature set on 'Hold' — ie. with the Arpeggiator set to keep running when you release a key. The on/off switch does not appear to be available as a controller destination, so the only way to stop it seems to be to delve through the edit menus to find the software switch, or to reselect the Voice in question (or a different one), which is not an ideal solution.
Phrase Clip Sampling is not present on the S80, which again points to Yamaha's intention to aim it away from the dance market. The Scene Morphing of the CS6x also didn't make it across to the S80; I'd say this is a great shame. Although Yamaha have seem fit to bless the S80 with the extra assignable sliders to enhance the controllability of the instrument, it seems they have given with one hand and taken away with the other.
The absence of the Phrase Clip Sampler means that the S80 has 19 available parts (1‑16, A‑D, Plug‑ins 1 & 2), as opposed to the claimed 20 parts of the CS6x. As is the case with its silver sibling, however, this doesn't mean 19 simultaneous parts can be played; rather, there are 19 available parts (assuming the presence of Plug‑in boards) across 16 MIDI channels.
A few personal observations (which presumably would also apply to the CS6x) about editing the S80 should be mentioned. Firstly, there seems to be no way to edit two or more elements of a Voice simultaneously. This means a lot of to‑ing and fro‑ing around the menus (in a fairly small display) to get anywhere. Yes, you can apply global Quick Edits to the overall Voice, but personally I miss the ability (as found on the Roland JV/XP synths, for example) to instantly link any combination of elements together for simultaneous editing. It is also not possible to perform detailed editing of Voices once they are in a Performance — again, one of the JV/XPs' strong points.
I found the specifications of the LFOs to be curious: the LFOs for each element in a Voice are fairly basic, offering three waveforms, three destinations and two key‑sync options, whereas the LFOs that are applied globally to a complete Voice are superbly equipped, offering 12 waveforms, three key‑sync options, phase, delay and fade parameters, and two lots of six destinations. As a keen synthesist, I'd have preferred the better‑specified LFOs to be available to the individual elements of a Voice.
The Big Picture
As a tool for general recording or live performance, the S80 offers an excellent range of lively sounds that cover just about any musical genre. There are sonic strengths and weaknesses, but that is to be expected; personal taste also comes into the equation. Particularly noteworthy are the electric pianos and electric guitars, which include some of the best examples I've heard in a synth. Basses are generally solid, pianos and organs are well catered for, and even without the Virtual Analogue plug‑in board, the S80 is well capable of producing a massive variety of fat, warm, squelchy analogue‑style sounds thanks to its excellent range of multi‑mode filters. Meanwhile, the superb range of Insert Effects adds a rich icing to an already succulent cake. The drum samples also deserve special mention, being very full, solid and punchy, without the 'data‑reduced' thinness that lets down some other synthesizers. As a master keyboard the S80 delivers the goods, offering plentiful ways and means of taking control over both internal sounds and external synths.
At £1399, the S80 comes in at £100 more than the CS6x. For that, you are effectively trading in the Scene Morphing, Phrase Clip Sampling and some front‑panel hardware for an 88‑note weighted keyboard, 74 extra waveforms, four very versatile sliders and the Quick Access facility. While the absence of certain features enjoyed by the CS6x might, on the surface, make the S80 seem a lesser instrument, it is in fact no less capable as a synthesizer and musical tool — it would simply appear that Yamaha have chosen to play down the dance angle of the CS6x in favour of a more rounded approach. If dance is your bag (baby) then the CS6x would seem the logical choice, but if dance is just one of your bags, then the S80 still delivers: all of the CS6x's principal facilities are here. If the idea of an 88‑note weighted keyboard with the CS6x's sound‑generation capabilities appeals, then the S80 is well worth checking out.
Principal Differences Between S80 & CS6x
|Keyboard||88‑note weighted||64‑note synth‑type|
|Quick Edit control panel||No||Yes|
|Four assignable sliders||Yes||No|
|MIDI file sequence playback||Yes||Yes|
|Phrase Clip Sampler||No||Yes|
|Arpeggiator panel controls||No||Yes|
|Octave shift panel controls||No||Yes|
|Portamento panel controls||No||Yes|
- Good all‑rounder with a lively, versatile sound set.
- Great range of filters.
- Masses of assignable controllers available.
- Love that arpeggiator!
- Very capable 88‑note master keyboard.
- Editing procedures could be better thought out.
- Arpeggiator on/off/hold and Portamento on/off/speed controls should be on the front panel, not hidden in the edit menus.
- No Phrase Clip Sampling.
- No Scene morphing!
- No dedicated Quick Edit hardware on the front panel.
A versatile instrument for the studio and also on the stage where a capable master keyboard is required. The S80 should find favour with many people who work within a wide range of musical styles.