Martin Russ sidles up to an innocent‑looking phone‑box, receives his instructions, and sets to work decoding Yamaha's affordable new Virtual Acoustic synth. This preview will self‑destruct in five seconds..."Your mission, Martin, is to review Yamaha's new VL70m Virtual Acoustic synth module...
"I knew that the task would be difficult when the unit arrived just days before this magazine was due to go to press. Still, I managed to write up just a few of my preliminary impressions — and here they are. For the full story and analysis, you'll need next month's in‑depth review.
When I looked at the Yamaha VL1 — Yamaha's flagship physical‑modelling instrument — just over two years ago (see review in SOS July 1994), the question on everyone's lips was when this form of synthesis would become affordable. Well, that time is now, with the launch of the VL70m module — a cut‑down physical‑modelling instrument for us mere mortals.
The VL70m is packaged in an MU80‑style, 1U half‑rack case, using the gold and dark brown colours of the VL1 to provide family continuity. In a world still full of black front panels, it looks expensive. But it isn't — at £499, it costs about an eighth of the launch price of its famous predecessor.
For the money, you get a minimal spec, but lots of sound — this is no ordinary synth. It's monophonic, and thus definitely not General MIDI compatible, and uses Yamaha's proprietary Virtual Acoustic technology to give synthesists the sort of expressive capability normally associated with real‑world acoustic instruments. The VL1 has found wide applications from jazz to techno, and its strength is in its flexibility and astonishingly 'real' sound — even for instruments which don't and can't exist. Strings blown flute‑fashion, or flutes played using a brass mouthpiece, as well as many other reality/virtuality hybrids, are possible.
The choice of presets in the VL70m seems to include more instrumental emulations and fewer 'off the wall' or weird sounds than the VL1, which probably results from the two extra years of development by the sound programmers. If you've never heard a VL1, and have a chance to check out the VL70m, listen for the distinctive way that sounds stutter and then lock onto the note as you increase the breath pressure/expression controller, or the way that some sounds can only be pitch bent so far before they jump to another note, or the way that isolated notes sound different to smoothly‑flowing runs of notes. The more you play with VA instruments, the more depth of control and expression you discover — these are sounds to perform with.
There are 256 preset (ROM) sounds, of which 137 are intended for use with Yamaha's XG MIDI format, which has been specially extended — the 'VL for XG' extension provides easy control of the VL70m's many MIDI controller inputs. Sixty‑four edited versions of controller and effects settings for the presets can be stored, and there will be free editor software for this type of editing. Six 'Custom' memories hold complete new sounds rather than merely changing effects or controller options. Again, a freeware editor will be available from Yamaha dealers.
The VL70m is the first of the VL series to have a direct input for a WX‑series wind controller (a WX7 or WX11), as well as a Breath Controller input. Yamaha have reworked the BC2 Breath Controller supplied with the VL1, and the resulting (optional) BC3 has a much sturdier mouth‑tube mount (rather like a miniature goose‑neck, in fact) and easy‑to‑tweak controls. For keyboard die‑hards, setting a pedal or wheel to control Expression (MIDI Controller number 11) avoids any need to blow at all.
In common with many expander modules these days, the VL70m is also a Mac/IBM PC‑compatible MIDI interface — although for a monophonic instrument this is an unusual concept. It may be a legacy of the MU80 interface design — indeed, the backlit custom LCD has the same bit‑mapped graphics area, and a similar organisation to the MU80's display. The user interface is easy to learn, and includes the neat 'double‑click to see MIDI messages/SysEx' feature that first appeared in the TG300. Also in common with other MIDI modules is the on‑board effects processing, with four distinct types simultaneously available: Reverb, Chorus, Variation (miscellaneous effects like rotary speaker and auto‑wah), and Distortion.
If the obvious question when the VL1 was launched was "when will I be able to afford one?", the obvious question on the launch of the VL70m is "so what's missing?" In sonic terms, the effects processing is not as sophisticated as the VL1, but the underlying sounds are very, very similar, if not identical, at least to my ears. There is no disk drive, and only six full user memories, plus the LCD is not the sophisticated CFL type found in the earlier and more expensive models. Which all amounts to this: the VL70M delivers the sound without the extras.
If you've been waiting for physical modelling to become affordable and editable, your dreams may be about to come true.