A new shape? A large LCD? Martin Russ finds out what Yamaha are up to with their latest expander, which aims to give GM compatibility and a whole lot more...
When it comes to unexpected designs and innovative shapes, Yamaha have always led the field. The TX7 expander module could hardly have looked less DX7‑like, while the TG33 succeeded in mixing drum machine design rules with vector synth functionality to produce an unforgettable shape! The TG300 takes the basic idea behind the 1U high, half‑rack width TG100 expander, but 'expands' it, so to speak, into a 2U‑high, half‑rack width box, and gives it an LCD half the size of the ones on the SY99 or VL1 flagship synthesizers. This is a box that makes an impression on you straight away.
The name is a giveaway. The TG100 is a budget‑priced, computer‑compatible expander, while the TG500 has the synthesis power of the SY85 in a much smaller box for around £1000. The TG300 lies somewhere in between, in both price and power. As with almost every other expander these days, it is a 16‑part multitimbral, 32‑note polyphonic (for single‑element sounds, 16 for dual‑element sounds) Tone Generator with on‑board digital effects processor and General MIDI (GM) compatibility.
The TG300 is the latest in Yamaha's current series of AWM2‑based Sample & Synthesis (S&S) instruments. It has many similarities to the SY85 and TG500 — you get a selection of raw samples which can then be processed with a powerful resonant digital filter, volume and pitch envelopes, and an effects unit offering three simultaneous effects to finish. The basic arrangement of sound source, envelope control and filtering is called an Element, and sounds can use one or two Elements, although using lots of 2‑Element sounds will seriously reduce your polyphony — down to only 16 notes with all 2‑Element sounds.
Yamaha's AWM2 synthesis technology provides comprehensive control over the sound‑making process. There are more than 70 parameters to tweak — plenty of scope for mangling the presets. The user interface warns you that in order to edit a preset, you first need to save it in one of the 128 user memories, after which your edited sound is held in battery‑backed memory. The raw samples are often recorded very bright (so much so that some of them 'alias' at the top of the keyboard range), which means that you need to use the filter to mellow them. Yamaha have provided relatively long, often well‑looped samples, but with some clicks and glitches — listen to 044: BA_Slap2 (overload?) or 056: FI_BgPip (awful transition between multisamples) for examples of samples with problems!
While editing, you may notice that some parameters have quite restricted ranges: the keyboard pitch scaling only has 100%, 50%, 20%, 10%, 5% and 0% settings, so slight adjustments of the scale are out, but quarter tones, almost fixed and fixed pitches are available. This usually only applies to parameters where additional resolution is probably wasted anyway.
Only being able to combine two sounds together (a 2‑Element sound) is restricting in synthesis terms, but it does allow you to mix the attack of one sound with the decay or sustain of another, and combining two contrasting or complementary sounds together can also be useful. Two easily overlooked parameters (the Velocity High and Low Limits) allow you to do velocity switching — arguably more creatively useful than the similar Note Limits, which merely allows basic splitting. There is none of the layering that some GM expanders provide, but then copying a track and assigning it to another channel inside a sequencer is much more flexible.
The digital filters take the TG300 out of the realm of sample playback, and put it into Sample & Synthesis territory, where the raw sample can be processed before emerging into the real world. The GM sounds force manufacturers into providing a specific set of samples, and this restricts the creative opportunities. Even so, the filters provide some lively sweeps and movement within pads, and this livens up the sound set quite well. Hidden away in the deeper recesses of the Single Preset bank are some more 'off the wall' sounds like 'Electronic', 'Java' or 'Mali', and these show what can be done with a little imagination (and programming!). My favourite sound has to be 'PadBass', which strongly reminds me of my old friend the ARP Odyssey!
One 'game' which GM‑compatible synthesizer owners might like to play involves trying to award points for sounds which have the same basic character, yet manage to be different too. D50 classic sounds like the 'Atmosphere' guitar with pad, or the 'SoundTrack' evolving string pad are especially hard to suggest without copying, but Yamaha get a very high score on my game card. The special effects sounds are more variable — the 'Car Start/Pass/Stop' sounds are superb, but the 'Woman Screams' sounds too much like all the other cliched GM screams, and the 'Footsteps' are too clicky and light for my taste.
Drums are often almost forgotten, but Yamaha's RY30 experience has filtered through to the TG300, which offers individual editing of each drum within a kit. You have control over the tuning, pan and effects sends, as you might expect, but you can also change the filtering and enveloping of the drum sound, which lets you make much more effective changes to the sound.
There are four operating 'modes'. Single mode is probably the easiest to understand, since it gives you a single channel synthesizer — effectively just one Part of a multitimbral instrument. Because of this, the sounds used here are 2‑Element, non‑GM ones designed to show off the power of the instrument. GM‑A and GM‑B are the two General MIDI modes; the 'A' variant is designed to take advantage of Yamaha‑specific GM features, while the 'B' variant is compatible with basic GM music software.
The C/M mode provides what Yamaha call 'semi‑compatibility' with computer music software, and is their way of describing a set of presets which match those in the CM32L/MT32 and similar pre‑GM expanders, although the quality is somewhat better than the distinctively buzzy noises you might expect for a perfect emulation! There are a few exceptions: the 'Shakuhachi', where Yamaha and Roland have very different ideas of what one sounds like; and the 'MalletTwin', which is much more Gamelan than I expected.
That takes care of 128 of the extra presets — so where are the rest? The answer is tied up in GM banks. Bank 127 holds those C/M presets, and some of them are very good, so don't dismiss them because of their ancestry. The rest of the 456 preset sounds are in Banks 126, 80 (the sounds used in Single Mode), 32, 24, 16, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and 0 — Yamaha supply several charts showing you exactly where they are, but it is hardly a case of flicking through 456 preset sounds to find the one you want.
Yamaha's chip‑making skills have always been good, and their custom Digital Signal Processing (DSP) chips have formed the basis of many classic effects units — the SPX90 and 900, for example. The TG300 has the equivalent of three DSPs providing separate effects: one specialises in Reverb‑type effects, the second deals with Chorus effects, while the third (called the 'Variation' effect) can be any of a wide selection of effects types. As with almost every multitimbral expander, the TG300 is not 16‑part 'multi‑effectual', with 16 individual effects sections, one for each part. But you do get one set of three effects at once, and there are three separate inputs, three DSPs and three separate outputs to play with, so perhaps it can be described as '3‑part multi‑effectual'.
The Reverb section actually has two parts: the first offers a choice of distortion, chorus, flanging, EQ or delay, while the subsequent part has the various types of reverb algorithm: Hall, Room, Stage, Plate, Tunnel, Canyon and so forth. The same set of first part options appear in the Variation section, whose second section offers effects such as reverb, chorus, pitch changer, distortion, compression, rotary speaker simulation, auto wah, early reflections and even an exciter.
I am not the world's greatest fan of the uniformity that almost inevitably seems to arise from General MIDI, but the TG300 has enough programming possibilities to create sounds well outside the basic GM set of 128 'tones'.
You can send the outputs of the Chorus and Variation sections to the input of the Reverb section, which means that you can do things like 'early reflections followed by reverb', which is normally the exclusive province of big and expensive rack‑mount effects boxes. Unlike some built‑in effects, there are lots of parameters to play about with, and this is one area where the hierarchical editing system using the navigation buttons really works well.
General MIDI was supposed to make using MIDI easier for the casual user, and the use of defined sounds for specific Program Change numbers makes sense, even if the use of Banks then makes it complicated again. But much of the programming of the TG300 to make the most of all its features involves getting your hands much dirtier than GM ever intended, so Yamaha have included a few functions which make things easier for the programmer.
The first is the MIDI Channel Message Monitor, which appears as a pop‑up window in the display, showing the current status of parameter values for any part while in the mixing desk view. You just press the 'Show' button, and then scroll up and down the parameters. A similar pop‑up works for the edit pages, except that this time it shows the SysEx message associated with changing the selected parameter. The final special function is the 'MIDI Slider' which allows you to change the value of a selection of MIDI Controller numbers using the data wheel. You choose the parts you want to affect in the main mixer overview, and then use the data wheel to adjust all of the selected parts at once. You need to have the 'Echo/Thru' set on your sequencer to make this work, but it is very useful for changing something like Cutoff Frequency on lots of parts quickly. There are also SysEx messages which will display letters or bitmaps on the LCD, and these are presumably intended for use by software programmers so that messages can be put on the TG300's display.
The TG300 shares the same computer compatibility hardware as the TG100: a mini DIN socket on the rear panel allows you to connect the unit directly to a PC or Macintosh computer. The TG300 then behaves as the MIDI Interface that just happens to produce sounds as well. With MIDI Interfaces costing anything from £50 upwards, this has to be a bargain. The cable you need is probably easiest to obtain from an Apple Macintosh dealer: for Mac interconnection you need the old standard Mac peripheral cable, the M0197, while for the PC you need a mini DIN to 25‑way (or 9‑way) D‑type — a Mac serial port cable. Yamaha give details of the cabling in the manual.
Of course, if you intend to buy the TG300 as the MIDI interface for your computer, you should remember to buy the correct cable at the same time, because no cables are included with the unit, not even a MIDI cable! I can think of at least one competitor whose products always come with nice little adverts disguised as MIDI cables! Yamaha hi‑tech dealers should be able to get the appropriate cable for you.
In these multimedia‑obsessed times, the TG300 also provides two front panel audio inputs which allow any other sounds produced by the computer (a CD‑ROM, or sound card, perhaps) to be mixed with the TG's output and fed to a separate amplifier or hi‑fi midi system.
Yamaha manuals are normally quite good, and the depth of detail included in the three manuals is excellent. But where it is not so good is in the overview and introductions. So the 'Getting Started' guide makes a lot of assumptions about your knowledge of MIDI, General and otherwise, while the 'Reference Guide' lacks any really clear diagrams or even an explanation of exactly what you have bought. This is particularly relevant if you know very little about the jargon, which is exactly the position many prospective purchasers will find themselves in.
I got the feeling there should be another manual part‑way between the 'Getting Started' and the 'Reference' guides — a 'How To Do...' guide, with some practical examples of using the unit, instead of the raw descriptions of what each function does and the lists of functions. A few more diagrams to show exactly what a 16‑part multitimbral tone generator is, and what it can do for you (especially in a GM context) would also help enormously. There should also be a warning about the three Demo songs — they are much, much louder than single instruments on their own.
(Apparently, some people only read the conclusion section of reviews, so I have deliberately made it long, especially for them.)
The TG300 is a mix of contrasts. The large LCD is a good idea, and is great for the day‑to‑day tasks of arranging mixes, but it is not so user‑friendly to anyone intending to do any deeper programming. The sounds are excellent — lots of multisamples, and an overall good quality to make it stand out from the cheaper 'minimal spec' boxes, although the range of raw timbres is still limited to a GM‑friendly set, which restricts the possibilities for customising your own sounds. But the addition of the digital filtering (and the effects section!) offsets this, and makes the TG300 quite a lot more than just another GM box. I am not the world's greatest fan of the uniformity that almost inevitably seems to arise from General MIDI, but the TG300 has enough programming possibilities to create sounds well outside the basic GM set of 128 'tones'.
As an introduction to the world of MIDI music, the TG300 has one major advantage over many lower‑priced GM boxes — the front‑panel controls. Now I know that today's computer users are supposed to be able to cope with the complexities of having a sequencer running and then using an editor to remotely change the settings on the 'sound box with only a volume control'. But going to the TG300 and tweaking the volume or reverb with a few button presses and a twist of the data wheel is much more immediate. The 'mixing desk' metaphor is ideally suited to this purpose.
For the GM‑literate user, the TG300 offers much more programmability and effects sophistication than the 'entry‑level', with the 'pop‑up' SysEx and Channel message displays, and the MIDI 'Slider' allowing on‑the‑fly parameter edits to groups of parts. Yamaha have certainly made the most of all those front‑panel buttons, although I am not so sure that I like 'hidden' expert features that are revealed only in the manual and not obvious at all from the front panel or the display — perhaps Yamaha programmers use Unix!
Overall, the TG300 provides a comprehensive and high quality set of GM tone generation features. Having several different operating and compatibility modes produces some unwanted and often confusing complexity, but there are the benefits of being able to use it in a GM setup, as a stand‑alone synthesizer, and as a MIDI Interface. The TG300 is probably going to appeal to a serious professional — and that could be a musician, a computer programmer or a multimedia producer — but it could also be well suited to anyone who wants GM spiced with an AWM2 synthesizer.
Yamaha have obviously put a lot of effort into the Graphical User Interface (GUI, pronounced 'gooey'!) on the TG300. There seems to have been quite a bit of QY10/20 influence, because the display shows the same sort of 'mixing desk' idea. This makes the inner workings of a 16‑part/channel device much easier for the beginner to understand, and avoids the problems of trying to visualise what is happening when you can only display one part at a time. There are two display modes. One shows eight channels at once, with details of all the useful parameters: Program Number, Volume, Reverb, Chorus and Variation effect level settings, as well as the Expression and Modulation controls. The left and right cursor buttons move you across the parts, while the up and down buttons move you through the parameters. The other display mode shows a summary of all 16 parts, with an activity bar‑graph showing audio level, and volume and expression settings, too. For beginner or experienced user, this is an intuitive and easy to use graphical front end for a multitimbral expander.
But beyond the control of the mixing functions, things are not so wonderful. You might have expected graphical envelope editing, but there isn't any — just a list of the envelope parameters. Trying to sort out what an envelope is doing by visualising it in my mind is nowhere near as effective as seeing a representation of the shape on a screen. The complex routing of signals in the effects processor is another possible location for a helpful bit of graphics, but you just get long lists of parameter values again. Hmm.
There are one or two shortcuts intended to help you use the front panel controls: for example, pressing any button while spinning the data wheel makes the values change lots faster. Even so, changing the echo delay time can be quite taxing. It takes over 400 turns of the data wheel to go from 0.1 ms to 1040 ms, and still takes over 30 turns in 'fast' mode. There are 74 items in the 'long' version of the Synthesizer editing menu — and they are arranged in a vertical list. Holding another cursor button down while holding the up or down button does help speed up moving up and down, but it still seems to take too long to home in on the value you want to change.
If the synthesizer editing is poor, then the effects editing could not be more different. A simple set of hierarchical menus quickly takes you as far into the effects parameters as you want, and getting back out again is just a few navigation button presses away. The 'right arrow' button takes you deeper into the editing, while the 'left arrow' button takes you out again. If only the synthesizer editing was designed this way! As it is, the free computer software looks like an essential bargain for any prospective TG300 programmers...
MIDI Quest computer editors have already been written for the TG300, and are supplied as part of the Yamaha support software arrangement. You send Yamaha a blank High Density (HD) disk, and they send you back the same disk with software on it. Alternatively, most Yamaha hi‑tech dealers will have the software, which is probably faster than the post and more immediate when you are buying a TG300! Of course, the software is a cunningly disguised advert for MIDI Quest's universal editor/librarian product, which gives you a chance to try it out by controlling the TG300. Versions are available for the Macintosh, PC (using Windows 3.1) and Atari platforms (DD disk for the ST version, of course).
Since the Solo Quest software is just a 'one instrument at once' version of the universal MIDI Quest editor/librarian package, you do not get quite the immediacy of a dedicated TG300 editor/librarian. Instead, you need to load up a TG300 setup file and then set it up to suit your MIDI Interface. Once set up, the program remembers the settings, so you should only need to do it once. There is lots of 'pop‑up' help built into the program, although the tiny 'Question mark' near the top of the vertical slider is easily overlooked — but I've now given that secret away, so you should have few problems. Once you get used to the technique of selecting something, and then clicking on a button to make something happen, you should be able to master it quite quickly.
Some of the editing pages suffer from being designed to cope with any instrument, but the graphical editing is still far easier than using the TG300's own front panel. If you do try out your hand at programming, then the librarian facilities will help you keep your masterpiece, instead of losing it the next time you accidentally initialise the unit. For something which is free, the Solo Quest software is certainly astounding value for money, and may enable you to make a decision about going for the full universal package. Software is not all about features and fancy screen displays — how it works for you is often much more important. If it feels right and does what you want, then this is worth much more than a state‑of‑the‑art program that you can't stand.
- 16‑part multitimbral
- 32‑note polyphonic for single‑element sounds.
- 16‑note polyphonic for double‑element sounds.
- 456 preset sounds and 128 user memories.
- 3‑part 'multi‑effectual'.
- 32 preset effect programs and 16 user memories.
- 6Mb of 16‑bit linear PCM sample ROM.
- 195 AWM2 PCM samples (waves).
- General MIDI Level 1 conformance, with additional compatibility modes.
- Serial Port computer interface.
- 21‑character, 8‑line backlit LCD display.
- External power supply.
Specmanship has reared its ugly head in the GM world. Despite the intention of the GM specification writers to define a polyphony of at least 24 notes, by which I mean 24 simultaneously sounding notes, this has been interpreted very differently by some manufacturers. With claims like "16‑note polyphony, but eight drum sounds at the same time — which makes 24!", you may be well advised to view some GM expanders with a healthy degree of scepticism. Unfortunately, the acid test only happens when notes start dropping out because of inadequate polyphony!
- High quality sounds and effects.
- Easy‑to‑use, 'mixing desk' Graphical User Interface.
- GM‑technical features.
- Complex synth editing system.
- Loud demo volume!
A GM expander for the serious professional musician or multimedia user who also wants a powerful AWM2 synthesizer.