Yamaha's Virtual Acoustics technology has begun the march toward affordability with the release of the VL7, at little more than half the cost of the flagship VL1. Is this a DX7 for the '90s? David Crombie finds out.
By now most of you will be aware of Yamaha's Virtual Acoustic Synthesizers. Regular readers will have digested Martin Russ' excellent piece on the VL1 in the July '94 issue of SOS, and you will also have encountered regular News pieces on this revolutionary technology. Now Yamaha are starting to make Virtual Acoustics synthesis more easily affordable, with the introduction of the VL7, and are no doubt hoping to recreate the stampede of sales that the DX7 generated some 12 years ago.
The VL7 is a monophonic synthesizer with a four‑octave keyboard, using a host of presets, mostly woodwind, brass and string, as the basic source for sounds — oh yes, and to get the best out of it, you need to use a breath controller. Does that make you want to rush out and get £2199 out of your Abbey account? If you were actually trying to make an instrument sound unattractive, you could do worse than to assemble just such a collection of phrases. But things aren't always as they appear and to my mind, the VL7, along with the VL1, exhibits the most important development in synthesis since FM itself.
And that development in synthesis is known as VA — or, more accurately, S/VA (Self‑oscillating Virtual Acoustic), Synthesis. It's a system that uses digital signal processing to mathematically simulate actual acoustic instruments. No oscillators, samples, and so on — just a digital signal processor and digital to analogue convertors... well, you do get a bit more than that for your two grand!
The VL7 is attractively designed, and with the exception of the walnut control panel, which has been replaced by a matt‑black one, it looks identical to the 2‑voice VL1 (which costs £3999). The control panel is cleanly laid out with a minimalist feel to it. Memory locations are selected using buttons 1‑16 and Bank buttons A‑D, found on the right hand side of the panel. An alpha dial, Increment/Decrement, Enter/Exit and four cursor buttons are located to the right of the display, beneath which are eight soft keys. Mode and Write buttons are located to the left of the display above the volume and two continuous slider controls. The performance control panel has three wheels and octave Up/Down momentary switches which are designed to extend the range of the slightly limiting 4‑octave keyboard.
The only really negative aspect of the physical design of the VL7 is the positioning of the disk drive — rear left, and hidden by the stylised gold ABS panel extrusion, which is rather awkward. It would have been better along the front, next to the headphone out and breath controller sockets.
Graphically, a model of how the VL7 works looks something like the diagram to the left. When you play an acoustic instrument, you are using many different control elements — more than can be transmitted from the simple playing of a note on a keyboard. Consider the clarinet: you can produce an adequate clarinet sound using a simple monosynth set to a square wave, a little low‑pass filtering and judicious use of the modulation wheel. Play a few fast notes monophonically, and... well it's not too bad. But when you actually get out an old jazz record and really listen to a good player soloing on clarinet, you discover how lame your square wave patch actually sounds.
Why? Because you can't modify the sound in the way a clarinet player can. But with the VL7 you have that potential, because all the playing characteristics with which the clarinetist feeds his instrument form part of the VL7's model, and the various controllers can thus be used to specify every nuance of the sound.
Here are the physical controllers that can be used to shape the VL7's physical model:
- Breath Controller: (see box).
- Breath Attack: a control signal proportional to the rate of change in breath pressure, not the amount.
- Pitch Wheel: rubber coated with centre‑detent.
- Modulation Wheel 1: rubber coated, zero to maximum.
- Modulation Wheel 2: rubber coated with centre‑detent.
- Foot Controller 1
- Foot Controller 2
- Foot Switches 1 and 2: usually for sustain/portamento on/off control.
- Keyboard Aftertouch
- Keyboard Velocity
- MIDI: external MIDI devices can be assigned to VL7 control parameters.
The controllers can then be assigned to control any of a selection of parameters, which equate to the various elements of an acoustic instrument. Parameters include Pressure (the breath pressure applied to reed/mouthpiece (wind); or speed of bow (stringed); affects volume and timbre); Embouchure (the tightness of the lips on the reed/mouthpiece (wind); or pressure of bow on strings (stringed); affects pitch and timbre); Vibrato (pitch modulation);Tonguing (simulates effect of changing the 'slit' in the reed (wind) using the tongue); and Scream (triggers a 'chaotic oscillation' rather like an overblown effect). For a full list of parameters and what they do, see Martin Russ's review of the VL1 in the July '94 issue of SOS.
As you can see, the control parameters are biased towards producing wind and string effects (like the VL1). Each of the parameters also has a range of control elements associated with it. For the Tonguing parameter, for example, you can select the controller, the depth, and the curve (which determines the way in which the control signal corresponds to the controller input).
The Modifiers act after the physical model, and consist of five 'modules' that allow you to shape the overall sound. You can't change the fundamental instrument model but you can re‑shape it.
- Harmonic Enhancer: consists of modulator and carrier and can be used to radically realign the harmonic content of a sound.
- Dynamic Filter: offers multi‑band filtering (low‑, high‑ and band‑pass).
- Frequency Equaliser consists of two sections run in series: the first is an auxiliary equaliser with programmable low‑ and band‑pass filter with key scaling; the second is a 5‑band parametric.
- Impulse Expander: works in conjunction with the Resonator to simulate the effect of an acoustic instrument's resonant cavity or sound box/board. The former consists of a frequency‑dependent delay line which works best on sounds which have some form of frequency modulation. The Resonator consists of five parallel delay lines which provide extra depth to the sound.
The final link in the chain is the obligatory, but in this case pretty damn good, Effects section. It features a Modulation Block providing Flanger, Pitch Change and Distortion effects; a Feedback/Delay Block for delays and echo effects; and finally a Reverb Effect Block, which offers eight preset reverb algorithms, each with four different 'Feels'.
The process of actually editing and programming the VL7 is straightforward. It helps having such an uncluttered control panel, as this gives you the impression that it's a simple instrument to program. Everything is menu driven and changes are made with reference to the large backlit display and the related soft keys.
The VL7 comes supplied with a floppy disk containing four files:
- VL7 NOBREATH:ALL
- VL7 FULLCNT1:ALL
- VL7 FULLCNT2:ALL
- VL7 EXAMPLE:ALL
Three of these files contain 64 sounds each. Sets FULLCNT1 and 2 utilise the breath controller. If you're using sounds from these sets and no pressure is applied to the controller, no sound will be heard. For this reason, the set NOBREATH:ALL is included, which re‑aligns the controller routings so that the sounds can be played without using the breath controller. The VL7 will play all voices programmed for the VL1, and in addition Yamaha have additional voice data disks (Plucked; Syncoustic; and Freaky Lead), as well as some other sound banks available free of charge from main dealers.
At this stage there's little point in saying which sounds are good and which aren't because it's all down to playing style, and how good you are at using the controllers. But consider the worst sound you've ever had to synthesize; in my opinion, when it comes to awkward buggers, the saxophone is surely the most difficult instrument to simulate. So let's see how the VL7 takes on this challenge.
There are at least eight different imitative saxes supplied with the VL7 (Tenor Sax*; Alto Sax 1*; Alto Sax 2; Breath Sax*; Soprano 1*; Soprano 2; BellMiked*; Loose Bari*; plus an impressionistic sax called Altish). Those starred are available pre‑programmed for use both with and without the breath controller
Immediately you compare the two Tenor Saxes, one programmed with the Breath Controller and one without, you realise the power of this controller. One sings, it is a tenor — simply hold a low note, gently blow and add a bit of modulation from the wheel, and you have that deep, rich, unmistakable sound that nothing save the real instrument can touch. The other? Well, it's OK — as good as any you'll hear from another synth or sampler — but it sounds a bit flat and lifeless by comparison.
And this is the case with virtually all of the imitative sounds. The breath controller brings the sound alive and turns an inanimate artifact into a living instrument. I really am knocked out by the realism of it all.
As Martin Russ stated in his VL1 review, you can modify instruments to produce hybrids. Yamaha have included several such sounds — for example, 'Breath Bow' is a string sound that is blown with a reed‑like mouthpiece — and that's exactly what it sounds like. 'BowBamBoo' is a bowed bamboo flute. The question is: is this a useful sound? To be honest, I don't think that these two are, and that's the case for quite a few of the other instrument hybrids. Some, however, such as 'Mouthkeys' (a cute reed instrument that sounds as though it could be fitted with a keyboard and is a great, clear solo‑ing voice), are very usable.
To illustrate the kind of instrument sounds supplied, I've listed the full set of voices supplied in the VL7:FULLCNT1 bank in a box ('VL7 Example Voices').
Do you want or need a VL7? This synth is obviously a lead‑line instrument, with a bias towards producing solo wind and string sounds. Not everyone is in the market for such an instrument. But once you accept what the VL7 is for, you have to admit that it does the job without equal (save for the VL1).
What about the fact that this is a monophonic instrument? Well, as it's designed to produce solo instruments, there's little point in making it polyphonic, as you can't effectively control the nuances of more than one note at a time, and if you're not going to animate the sound, you might as well stick to a more traditional type of instrument — and save yourself a few bob into the bargain. Having said that, it's inevitable that this technology will appear in a polyphonic instrument, or at least as a multi‑timbral module.
This is the first imitative instrument that really works. If it's played well (and that's the key), I feel that in most instances there is no way that even an experienced orchestral musician could tell the difference between a recording of a VL7 and one of an acoustic instrument. The physical modelling process eliminates the problems encountered when other synthesizing techniques are used to recreate acoustic instruments; sampling and other forms of synthesis are good for abstract sounds, but pale when compared to the VL7 and VL1 for imitative and impressionistic synthesis.
It all looks good, but — and here's the big 'but' ‑‑, you really have to learn how to play it. The VL7 cannot simply be hooked up to a sequencer and 'fiddled with' (or rather, it can but it won't fulfil its potential). To even half utilise the power of this instrument you need to spend a lot of time practising. Are you prepared for that?
The technology is great, and I'm sure it will find favour with a large number of pro musicians, but Yamaha do have a track record of developing a technology then evolving it and bringing out more and more instruments at lower prices and with more features. VA Synthesis is undoubtedly the major advance in synthesis so far this decade, but is the VL7 the instrument with which to embrace this technology? I'm not sure, but if you do go to check out this instrument, do not go away without having tried it with the breath controller, or at least having heard it being used with this remarkable expressive tool — it'll take your breath away.
The VL7 is supplied with a BC2 Breath Controller. This is a vast improvement on the BC1 that Yamaha used with their DX range. Firstly, it is worn like a pair of headphones — the only problem with this is that when you've got the BC2 on, there's no room for headphones — earpieces only. The old BC1 had a little hole in it that let the air out, and the first thing any non‑wind player would do would be to block up this hole so that they wouldn't run out of puff halfway through the first number. The BC2 has a 'drain cap' which can be used to control the flow of air, thus at least giving you the chance to get into the second song of the set.
Why is a breath controller so desirable? It's a true real‑time controller that is extremely expressive (and doesn't tie up one of your hands). In effect, the breath controller is an infinitely variable envelope generator, and in most instances you use it to control the amplitude and timbre of the sound. OK, it looks a bit weird — dribble is involved, you may be loath to pass your breath controller around, and you may (as I was by the end of doing this review) end up feeling completely out of puff and a bit giddy, but this little controller literally breathes life into any sound, and is an essential part of the VL7.
- Keyboard: 49 Key C‑C keyboard, Velocity Sensitive, Channel Aftertouch
- Performance Controls: Pitchbend Wheel, Modulation Wheel (x2), Octave Shift up/down momentary buttons
- Controller Ports: Breath Control, Foot Pedal (x2), Foot Switches (x2)
- Display: 240x64 dot LCD (B&W type), fluorescent back‑light
- Memory: Internal RAM (64 voices)
- Disk Drive: 3.5" 2DD or 2HD floppy
- Synthesis: S/VA (Self‑oscillating Virtual Acoustic Synthesis)
- Polyphony: Monophonic
- Modifiers: Harmonic Enhancer, Dynamic Filter, Equalizer, Impulse Expander, Resonator
- Effects: Modulation: Flanger, Pitch Change, Distortion, Feedback/Delay, Reverberation
- DSP: 32‑bit
- DACs: 20‑bit (x2)
- Other Ports: MIDI In/Out/Thru, Power (mains)
- Accessories: BC2 Breath Controller, FC7 Foot Controller, Power Cable, Floppy Disk
- Dimensions (mm): 914 x 380 x 105
- Weight: 11kg
- Tenor Sax
- Trumpet 1
- Andean (quena)
- Squeezebox (accordion)
- Alto Sax 1
- Mute Trumpet
- C Flute
- Thai Reed (Thai flute)
- Soprano 1
- BellMiked (close‑miked sax)
- Ocarina (metal wind instrument)
- Alto Flute
- Loose Bari (baritone sax)
- Oboe 1
- Contraire (contrabass)
IMPRESSIONISTIC: IN THE STYLE OF...
- Guitar Hero
- Mr Mogue
- Jazz Guitar
- Viol Inn
- Rock Pigs
- Slap Bass
- Mad Tube
- Mizu Horne
I've grouped the sounds for guidance, to show what kind of things are available. Changes to sounds can be stored in the memory and/or on disk.
Overall, imitative sounds are stunning, as are impressionistic ones. The effects are interesting, as are the hybrids. It seems that the VL7 is most at home simulating acoustic instruments, which is what it was designed to do. The range of sounds is limited, but the VL7 doesn't claim to cover all bases.
The situation with S/VA is quite similar to that in the early days of FM synthesis. Initially the first FM synth, the GS1, appeared at some outrageous five‑figure sum, and then (after a flirtation with the CE20, a preset FM machine), the DX7 hit the streets and the crowd went crazy. We've had the VL1, which at £3999 wasn't that extreme, and now the VL7 appears at £2199, around two‑thirds of the original price of the DX7 ( in real terms) when it was introduced.
There are, however, certain differences. The DX7 arrived to fill a massive gap in the market, that of a reasonably‑priced, programmable, polyphonic synthesizer that sounded great. The VL7 arrives to find no obvious gap in the market, and so has to carve one out for itself by virtue of its remarkable timbral quality. Incidentally in the product literature I received from Yamaha, they state in a chart comparing different types of synthesis (VA, FM and AWM2), that FM synthesis is "somewhat lacking in realism" — draw your own conclusions!
- Unbelievably good imitations of wind instruments and extremely high fidelity renditions of other sounds.
- Stunning real‑time control.
- Nice layout, clean lines, relatively easy to program.
- 4‑octave keyboard with octave shift buttons.
- Limited range of voices.
- The breath controller is an essential element — some may find this annoying, cumbersome, "un‑cool" or hard work.
A truly revolutionary step in terms of synthesis. The technology requires considerable dexterity to utilise to best effect, so you'll need to spend time learning these skills. This is a true musical instrument.