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Yamaha SU10

Stereo sampler By Derek Johnson
Published March 1996

After a hiatus of several years, Yamaha return to sampling with the cheapest, most portable dedicated sampler yet. Derek Johnson coins a phrase...

Take a look at the history of Yamaha hi‑tech music product development over the past seven or eight years, and you'll notice a significant gap in the company's range. Despite the rise and rise of sampling as a popular music tool, Yamaha have had no sampler to their name since the TX16W, released in early 1988.

Though the TX16W offered sophisticated sampling facilities and good sound quality, its relatively high selling price and complicated operating system relegated it to an also‑ran, with cheaper and more accessible samplers from companies such as Akai leading the field. Yamaha have taken their time about it, but they seem to have benefited from the lesson of the TX16W: for what could be cheaper or more accessible than a £299, pocket‑sized phrase sampler, with an operating system that could be mastered by a child? Enter the SU10.

News of the SU10 caused quite a stir, not least because of its projected price. The preliminary specification also appeared to offer a decent set of features, crammed into a video cassette‑sized package similar to that used by Yamaha's QY Walkstation sequencers, MU5 sound module and RY8 rhythm programmer. Perhaps the success of this portable range has provided Yamaha with the perfect opportunity to reintroduce sampling without having to slug it out in the competitive high‑end arena. At this price, the SU10 stands alone.


Before taking a closer look at the SU10, I should correct an earlier news item published in SOS, which gave the impression that the SU10 was to offer completely uncompressed sampling. The first basic information released by Yamaha stated that the SU10 could send samples to compatible devices via MIDI Sample Dump Standard, leading to the assumption that the SU10 must be recording uncompressed samples — but I'd reckoned without some cleverness on the part of Yamaha engineers, who managed to make SDS work with compressed samples. So, in common with Roland's MS1 sampler (see SOS March 1995), the SU10 uses data compression to bring maximum sample time, at a minimum expenditure of RAM and money.

That sample time varies between 17.8 and 67.4 seconds, which is halved for stereo samples. The time can be divided between up to 48 locations, accessed via 12 pads, and arranged in four switchable banks (a 'scale' function lets all 12 pads play one sample chromatically). Four sampling rates (called 'grades' by Yamaha) are selectable on a global basis: High, Standard, Long and Extra Long. There is also a global 'pitch' function (of ‑20% to +10%), which, as well as altering the tuning of all samples, affects sampling rate. The High sampling grade, with a +10% pitch bias, produces the shortest sampling time, but offers a genuine 44.1kHz sample rate. The Extra Long grade, with ‑20% pitch bias, offers a real‑world sample rate of 11.64kHz.

Sample editing is basic: simply set loop points and discard the unused bits of sample. You have a choice of one‑shot, reversed, looped from the beginning, looped from some other location within the sample, and reverse‑looped samples. You can also set a level for each pad, and assign it to one of three 'alternate groups': any two samples assigned to an alternate group will not sound together.

In common with Roland's MS1, the SU10 features a miniature sample sequencer, whose functionality is compromised by a number of factors: polyphony is never terribly generous (a maximum of four notes), sample rates can't be mixed, you can't overdub, and individual samples can't have their pitch altered. Otherwise, this is a great feature for simply knocking together a track. It's basically a real‑time recorder, with no tempo or time signature: you simply record the desired pad presses (up to about 1000, shared dynamically between four songs) in the order you want them, and they'll play back in exactly the same order. If you want anything more sophisticated, you'll have to use an external sequencer to trigger the sampler.

Sampling & Editing

The SU10 is about sampling, and you'll be relieved to know that the process is as painless as it comes: press the red Record button, select a pad, and hit Enter. A look at the display reveals a list of parameters to scroll through, allowing you to select the sample rate, loop mode of the finished sample (this can be changed later), input level and trigger mode. Press the Play button, and sampling starts immediately (if you've selected manual trigger) or when the input threshold is reached (if you've chosen one of the seven trigger levels). Hit Stop, and you're finished.

The SU10 will teach you plenty about fundamental sampling techniques that will serve you well, if and when you upgrade to something more sophisticated.

Setting up loop points is done largely by ear, with help from a numeric display. But if you're looping a drum rhythm or something similar, the SU10 extrapolates a tempo, which is shown on the LCD next to the sample start or end positions. So, if you know your drum loop's or break's tempo, getting a perfect loop point is easy: set the start point as accurately as you can, then go to the end point, and change its value until the tempo in the display matches your loop's tempo. When you play it back, the loop is spot on. The only drawback on the looping front — and I say this knowing that Yamaha are pitching the SU10 as a phrase sampler — is that when working with single instrumental notes (piano, oboe or whatever), it's tricky to get smooth loops. There is definitely no crossfade looping or smoothing function available.

There are one or two compromises. First, both sample rate and pitch control are global: you can't mix sample rates or have individual pitch settings for each pad. Secondly, polyphony and ribbon controller functions (see 'Mostly MIDI') are compromised by your chosen sample rate. Polyphony at the High grade is two mono or one stereo sample, and you can't use the ribbon controller to create scratch, scale, crossfade, filter or pitch shift effects. The Standard grade allows four‑sample polyphony (ie. two stereo samples), but loses the scale and filter functions. The two lower grades give you access to all facilities.

Ribbon Controller

The most intriguing feature of the SU10 must be its ribbon controller, to the right of the large LCD. When used with onboard samples, it can create real‑time scratch effects, pitch changes and filter effects. It can be surprisingly effective, and is great fun: you simply wiggle your finger across the strip. The SU10's filter, by the way, is simple, but effective: there's a choice of high‑pass, low‑pass and band‑pass, with 'flat', 'weak' or 'strong' resonance.

The ribbon controller can also be used to apply scratch and filter effects to incoming signals, which is an excellent feature. The scratch effect is similar to that obtained by manhandling vinyl records on a turntable. The SU10 achieves it by constantly sampling the input signal. When you touch the ribbon controller, it mutes the input signal and lets you scratch the latest sample held in the buffer. There is also a crossfade function that allows you to fade between a sample or SU10 song, and the signal coming in at the input. This could be just the thing for the organised DJ: up to 48 link samples could be used to cover up the seams while swapping records.


For me, Yamaha's new little sampler is one of the most exciting instruments to come along for some time. Its immediacy, size and price all mitigate any shortcomings. Though it feels similar to Roland's MS1 — which pioneered the simple, low‑priced, data‑compressed sampling approach — the SU10 is different enough in its own right, not to mention cheaper. And it's straightforward to operate, with only the display causing any problems: although large, it uses some very small text sizes and lacks both backlighting and contrast control, which can make readability a problem.

Sound quality is a totally subjective area, but I was generally impressed. High grade samples are very clean, showing little in the way of unwanted artefacts and hiss — transferred to my SY85, they sounded great. The lower grades get progressively less bright and more hissy, but are never unusable. In fact, it's quite possible to use Long or Extra Long grade samples in a track and not really notice the hiss. The sound has a certain character to it, and you get much more sample time to play with.

The so‑called 4‑bit ADPCM data compression does have an effect on the samples; the audible difference between an original sound and a High grade sample is difficult to describe (the closest I can come is 'slightly boxy and compressed'!) and is only really noticeable in an A/B comparison. In the context in which the SU10 is likely to be used, this is unlikely to be a problem for most people.

While hardly likely to upset the pro sampling apple cart, the SU10 fits snugly into the current market. For a start, it's the ideal companion for synths with sample RAM. It fitted perfectly on top of my SY85's disk drive housing, and it was almost as good as having a sampler built into the synth. The only cloud on the horizon is the sluggishness of SDS, but that's hardly Yamaha's fault.

If you're a financially‑challenged hi‑tech novice, you'll also welcome the SU10: it allows you to dabble with loops, sound effects and found sounds for minimum outlay. The SU10 will teach you plenty about fundamental sampling techniques that will serve you well, if and when you upgrade to something more sophisticated. More advanced musicians and DJs should also welcome such a price revolution. The only problem at a gig would possibly be losing the damn thing!

Brief Specification

  • RAM: 384Kb of non‑volatile Flash RAM, 8Kb of song RAM (approx 1000 events)
  • Sampling Time: minimum 17.8, maximum 67.4 seconds
  • Sample Rates: High, Standard, Long, Extra Long (44.1kHz to 11.64kHz)
  • Sample Locations: 48
  • Audio Connections: Line In, Mic In, Line Out, Headphones Out, all stereo mini jacks
  • Power: 6 x AA batteries or optional KPA3 power supply

Mostly MIDI

The SU10 is quite at home in the MIDI‑equipped '90s. For example, all 48 samples can be played, with full velocity response, with their own individual note numbers; the preset note table is logical (starting at the bottom C of a 61‑note keyboard), or you can define your own. You can even play samples in reverse over MIDI: first send Program Change 2, and any note hit with a velocity of greater than 110 will play its particular sample backwards.

The SU10 does not respond to any pitch bend, mod wheel or sustain pedal controllers you send to it — although its ribbon controller can be set to transmit a range of MIDI controllers. The pads can also play external instruments.

I mentioned that samples can be sent over MIDI via SDS, so you could collect your samples in the field using an SU10 and bring them back to your sampler at home, or, even more usefully, use the SU10 to generate samples for synthesizers that have sample RAM — Yamaha's own SY85 and TG500 are prime examples. Note that samples can't be dumped to the SU10.

If you're wondering about backing up samples and songs once the SU10's memory is full, you'll be pleased to hear that memory contents can be dumped via System Exclusive. Full instructions are given for doing so to Yamaha's MDF2 data filer, QS300 workstation and QY300 sequencer/sound module, although it should be possible to adapt the manoeuvres to other SysEx‑compatible devices. The operation is most straightforward with the MDF2, but since a dump can be quite large and is transmitted in four sections, it can be quite long‑winded with other machines; my Yamaha SY85 doesn't seem to have a large enough buffer to do it properly.

See These CDS...

Included in the SU10 package are a pair of sample CDs to get you going. One is a Yamaha CD full of animal and environmental noises, plus a beginner's selection of drum loops and other contemporary sounds. The other disc is a taster CD from Time & Space, who must have the largest range of sample CDs in this corner of the galaxy. For recording quality and breadth of choice, Time & Space's catalogue is unrivalled, and the hour‑long CD reflects this.


  • Cheapest stand‑alone sampler currently available.
  • Lengthy sample time, with plenty of sample locations.
  • Can run from batteries.
  • Flash RAM means samples aren't lost on power‑down.
  • Handy sample sequencer.


  • Display's visibility suffers in some conditions.
  • Mini jack audio connections.
  • Some features unavailable at High grade sample rate.
  • Global sample rate and pitch values.


Nothing comes close in price. Luckily, it also sounds good, is easy to use, and is a lot of fun. Yamaha deserve to do well with this sampler — and I think they will.