Yamaha's new Virtual Acoustics instruments provide the cutting edge of sophisticated synthesis technology — at a price. But what is the company doing for the mere mortal musicians amongst us? Martin Russ assesses their answer, the new W‑series workstations.
The Yamaha DX7 was released over 10 years ago, and it changed the rules of the synthesis game. Forever. It was the first widely available all‑digital synthesizer which had MIDI, and the quirks of its implementation live on, firmly embedded in the MIDI specification. It was hugely successful — so good that Yamaha had quite a hard time following it up (please don't ask them about the V80). The SY77 and the much better SY99 were the eventual result — slightly awkward mixtures of FM and S&S technologies which were flexible and powerful, but very complex to program. And then the final nail in the coffin for FM was hammered in by the launch of the SY85 — pure S&S and no FM in sight.
Ten years on from its launch, MIDI has evolved into a ubiquitous music‑making tool. General MIDI offers a predictable way to produce music from disks, and has opened up computers and MIDI to the mass‑market consumer. And the immensely popular SY85 workstation has been joined by a pair of GM‑compatible workstations: the 76‑key W5 and the 61‑key W7. Apart from the length of the keyboard, the two instruments are identical. It was a W7 that I had for review — but note that when I write W7, I also mean W5.
Keyboards have changed. The DX7's mono‑timbrality, 16‑note polyphony and 32 memories would not impress anyone nowadays. Instead, the W7 oozes specifications — you'll have to look in the 'Specifications' box to see them all, but as a rough approximation, take a TG300 and expand it, then add a keyboard and a sequencer and you begin to get the flavour. Yamaha seem to be determined to simplify even the most complex of workstations, so each new release shows incremental improvements in the way that they operate. The W7 certainly tries very hard to make a sophisticated workstation really easy to use.
Workstations combine a sound source with a sequencer, so that you can put together the instrumental basis of a complete song; the gradual evolution of the synthesizer workstation has produced instruments like the W7, where a single package works as a complete musical unit. The basic unit of storage in the W7 is a 'Song', which can hold information about the sequence, the multitimbral parts, and the sounds used — all inside a single file on disk. To emphasise the linking of the Song information with the performance and multitimbral information, Yamaha call the 'store everything required for a complete song' a 'Song Multi', which is an awkward term, but I can't think of anything better either.
There are several banks of sounds available (Yamaha call sounds 'voices'). These are:
- GM voices (G).
- Preset voices (P).
- Internal voices (I) Battery backed RAM.
- Song voices (S) Volatile (save to disk!).
- External voices (E). Available only with ROM expansion module fitted.
There is a similar set of Drum sound banks, with a 'D' added to the identification letter, so 'GD' is the GM drum sound bank.
Voices are categorised into different groupings, dependent on sound type. These are based around the system that Yamaha have been using for some years, and greatly simplify the selection of sounds and use of the sequencer. The categories are:
- Pf: Piano
- Cp: Chromatic Percussion
- Or: Organ
- Gt: Guitar
- Ba: Bass
- St: Strings/Orchestral
- En: Ensemble
- Br: Brass
- Rd: Reed
- Pi: Pipe
- Ld: Lead Synth
- Pd: Synth Pad
- Fx: Synth Sound Effects
- Et: Ethnic
- Pc: Percussive
- Se: Sound Effect
- Dr: Drums
- Sc: Synth Accompaniment
- Vo: Voice
- Co: Combination
Because the categories are now part of the operating system, you have 10 characters available to name the sound, and there is no need to type in the category — you just scroll through the list.
W7 'Voices' are made up of between one and four Elements. Each Element is a complete S&S synthesizer consisting of an oscillator, filter and amplifier, each with its own dedicated envelope generator, plus an LFO and other Common facilities. There are 500 named Elements in two banks, plus any additional ones which are loaded from disk into the Internal or Song element memories. If you're familiar with previous Yamaha keyboards like the SY85 and SY77, a W7 Voice is equivalent to a Performance — a complete snapshot of a layered or split arrangement of up to four separate sounds. It took me a while to realise exactly what was going on. Of course, if you're new to all this, the W7 will just seem remarkably simple to use, because it works as you would expect.
Two notable modifications to the voice editing are the new envelopes and the Templates. The new envelopes do not have the familiar ADSR format, but instead introduce a new variation on the sustain portion. The Envelope is now zeroed on the sustain level, rather than the start level, and a second Decay time parameter now sets how long it takes for the envelope to reach zero. If you give this a very long value, then there is no appreciable decay and the envelope behaves as an ADSR type. But shorter Decay 2 times produce new types of envelope where the 'sustain' can gradually die away (like on a real piano, for example).
The Templates allow you to quickly set up several parameters in one go — so there are lists of templates that set how the filter responds to velocity, with names like 'VeloHard' and 'Sweep', and Envelopes with names like 'Pluck 1' and 'Brass'. The basic idea behind editing has also changed: instead of editing parameters directly, you now make changes to attack or filter cut‑off, for example, relative to the existing value in the element you are editing. Although this sounds radical, it's wonderful once you're used to it because you always know where a sound started, and you can decide how far from that you want to go in your editing. You also get more graphical feedback on what you're doing, such as filter response curves that change as you edit.
To summarise, the sound synthesis facilities offer plenty of scope for making lots of interesting sounds. Initially I was going to say that there's nothing really innovative here, just improvements on previous products. But I would have been wrong; the architecture looks familiar, but having the all‑encompassing 'Voice' as the basic unit of sound‑making really does simplify things compared to the older 'Voice and Performance' system. It makes the W7 deceptively straightforward — you may have trouble convincing people that workstations can be hard to use if you show them a W7.
Although you can use the 'Voice' mode to play individual sounds, the 'native' mode of the W7 is probably 'Song' mode, where you assign sounds to the 16 tracks of the sequencer — arguably the focus of the whole instrument. In comparison to my own workstation (the SY99), I was intrigued to discover that I spent most of my time looking at the sequencer track controls — the 'virtual' mixing desk — whereas on the SY99, I spend most of my time working with sounds or patterns, and almost never tweak the sequencer track controls.
The W7's LCD provides you with graphical representations of the sort of controls associated with a real‑world mixing desk, such as level, pan, and effects sends, as well as some that are exclusive to workstations, such as tune, note shift and pitch‑bend range. The large LCD lets you see all 16 tracks at once, although you need to scroll up and down to see all the controls on each 'mixing desk' channel. Sixteen buttons underneath the LCD serve as track selectors, and the LCD even displays the voice category for each track, rather like a tiny scribble strip. This makes identifying a drum track or a lead instrument ridiculously easy.
Which brings us neatly to the sequencer. The W7 blurs the boundaries between parts, so it is very easy to jump back and forth between voice editing, mixing and sequencing. 'Song' mode actually includes that inescapably useful mixing desk display, which turns out to be the 'Multi' page of 'Song' mode. The idea is that you choose your sounds, assign them to tracks to produce a 'Multi' setup (and save the 'Multi', of course!), and then record some music into the sequencer, track by track, with adjustments to playback mixing as you hone the track contents. Finally, you save the 'Song Multi', which then stores the complete voice, multi and sequencer information onto disk.
The sequencer behaves like a multitrack tape recorder, but with the now familiar advantages of editing data rather than tape. The track selection buttons double as playback mute/solo buttons, and you can record in real‑ or step‑time, with a wide variety of time signatures, at tempos from 30 to 250 bpm. The W7 has 416kb of sequence memory, which apparently translates to a generous 100,000 events — an on‑screen thermometer‑type display shows you how much room is left in memory.
Few of us can record everything flawlessly first time. I tend to be a frequent visitor to the editing pages of sequencers, and I have always had reservations about the small LCDs and limited editing facilities on workstations. The W7 is different. With the large display devoted to showing events in a vertical time sequence, you can clearly see an event in context, and a graphical time line display shows a keyboard with a horizontal time‑line and dots where note events occurred. Of course, having located the place where you want to make changes, you can then edit individual events, add program changes, tempos, tweak velocity, and so on. Overall, it's a great way of editing even quite complex musical material — I preferred it to the sequence editing on my SY99. A range of 'jobs' allow you to make changes to tracks on a larger scale; copying tracks, measures and phrases, quantising, modifying, moving and other editing features are all possible — too many to list here. The only weak area is that it can't display an overview of events at the 'phrase' level, which is where most people would use a computer sequencer anyway.
With a sequence recorded using a rough mix, it is probably time to return to the mixing desk and have a look at the effects. Most workstations have an annoying lack of effects capability — or rather, their effects are fine for single sounds, but can't cope with multitimbrality. The traditional solution has been to allow an effect to be linked to a sound whilst you are only playing mono‑timbrally, but then to choose a separate 'global' effect when playing back multitimbrally from the sequencer, which usually destroys the sound and restricts you to reverb or chorus as 'the effect'. The W7 is not like this at all.
Yamaha's own TG300 showed the way. It offered three separate effects, which meant that the three effects sends on the 'mixing desk' display were exactly that — you could have gated reverb on drums, chorus on the pads, and a flange on the lead line. The W7 takes this idea one stage further. Using studio terminology, it allows you to insert effects into the output of any three of the tracks. For example, if you had a track with a thin 12‑string guitar sound, you could add a strong chorus to just that track, and still have the three global effects available, as well as the two other Insertion Effects. With careful effects send and insert assignment, this means that the W7 can use six different effects at once. This is definitely the best solution so far to a very thorny problem.
I can't leave the subject of effects without mentioning how good they are. Personally, the weak spot of Yamaha effects for me has always been the phasing and flanging, but the W7 corrects this with powerful phasing and resonant flanging, amongst many others. But don't take my word for it — go and listen.
For an instrument from the same stable as the VL1, the W7 only has a minor family resemblance — the slightly chamfered surfaces, perhaps. The colour is interesting — a dark grey/brown 'gun‑metal' colour with a sparkly metal flake finish. The user controls are clustered around the display in the centre of the top surface. The LCD is a blue backlit display with a good range of viewing angles, and there are eight softkey buttons, roughly aligned to the display — I would have preferred stronger visual cues to link the buttons with the on‑screen labels.
Directly underneath the display, and directly in front of the user's hands, are the 16 track select/mute/solo buttons, which also act as Element selectors/mutes and page selectors when editing a voice. But don't panic, because these are not ordinary buttons — they are clear, textured plastic with LEDs underneath. They flash green to show track data during playback, turn red to show a record enabled track, and turn orange/yellow when you are editing. Neat and unmistakable.
The Operating Mode buttons are to the left of the display, whilst the numeric keypad and cursor controls are all to the right. The data wheel is actually two concentric controls: the outer dial is used to shuttle back and forth through a sequence or song, whilst the inner dial can be used to change data values or move the cursor — a thumb‑activated switch selects which job the centre wheel does, making for very fast operation once you are used to it.
The keyboard performance controls have the same rubber non‑slip coating as the VL1, and are a little forward of where you might expect to find them on most instruments — though in practice, I almost prefer them in this position. The keyboard itself has a light feel, and uses conductive rubber sensors instead of the more expensive wiping contacts, so it doesn't have the springy (and noisy) feel of older (and more expensive) Yamahas.
All the live performance sliders of the SY85 have been replaced with a single 'CS' slider, next to the volume control, which seems to emphasise that this is a workstation first, and a performance keyboard second. Another point which reinforces this is the method of bank selection, which uses two softkeys: pressing them blanks out the display of the current bank for a second or so, just when you need to see it, which makes changing banks a little difficult, especially on a busy, darkened stage. I also have to deduct marks for the lack of labelling of the socket positions on the top surface, for mounting the headphone socket at the rear and for not providing a breath controller socket.
In some ways, it looks as though Yamaha are saying 'The synthesizer is dead: long live the workstation.' The SY (SYnthesizer?) series seems to have been replaced by the W (Workstation?) series. Certainly, the VL1 and VP1 synthesizers are well outside the purchasing power of most keyboard players. With the demise of the SY99, this leaves the W7 and W5 at the top of the 'affordable' Yamaha keyboard tree. And look at what they represent: GM compatibility, sequencer‑oriented design and user‑friendliness. The contrast with the DX7 synthesizer could hardly be more total.
If I was starting out in music today with a W7, I'm not so sure that I would feel quite the same desire to use a computer‑based sequencer. But having a workstation as capable as this does mean that it is consequently less suited to other uses — I would not rate it too highly for live performance or as a master keyboard.
Although I preferred it to the SY85, I didn't get quite the same warm buzz of 'buy me' excitement with the W7 as I did with the VL1. But then I have always preferred synthesizers to workstations: the W7 is definitely designed for GM and sequencing first. Of course, if you want General MIDI, some very nice sounds and a capable sequencer, then the W7 could be exactly the keyboard to buy — it's probably one of the most 'musical', and least technically frightening, workstations I have yet seen.
- AWM2 (S&S) synthesis
- 16‑bit linear samples, at 48kHz
- 8Mb ROM samples (optional 4Mb expansion socket)
- 128 GM sounds
- Eight GM drum kits
- 128 Preset sounds
- 128 Internal (RAM) voices
- Two Preset drum kits
- Two Internal (RAM) drum kits
- 128 Song sounds (volatile RAM)
- Two Song drum kits (volatile RAM)
- 32‑note polyphonic
- 16‑part multitimbral
- 16‑track sequencer
- 16 songs
- 96ppqn resolution
- 100,000 event capacity
- SMF and ESEQ compatible
- 76‑ (W5) or 61‑(W7) note keyboard, velocity and aftertouch sensitive
- 720kb DD disk drive
- Three Global effects processors (40 effects)
- Three Voice‑specific effects processors (35 effects)
The first question that many people will ask is: "How does it compare with the SY85?" So here's a quick comparison of the main differences. The architecture is different — on the W7 you work with Elements within a Voice, and this roughly corresponds to Voices within a Performance on the SY85. By doing this, Yamaha have avoided lots of the lower‑level complexity of sound editing, which makes it much easier for the user. The underlying Elements can be edited with computer editor programs via MIDI SysEx messages.
The W7's graphics‑based LCD display, with six rows of characters, is much clearer than the SY85's two rows of characters. Effects are much more advanced in the W7; the ability to use three Insertion Effects on selected voices, as well as the three global effects, is a marked improvement over the SY85's two effects.
Having 16 tracks available in the sequencer instead of eight is a definite improvement, and having 100,000 events (rather than 20,000), with the strong linking of everything into a Song Multi, makes the W7 much easier to use. The W7 has a ROM expansion socket, which lets you add an additional 4Mb of new elements and 128 voices. Unlike the SY85's volatile user RAM, these extra sounds are immediately available, and do not have to be loaded from floppy disk. Although you can get GM‑mapped sounds for the SY85, the W7 is fully GM Level 1 compliant.
It may also be worth noting what has been lost from the SY85. The MIDI Data Recorder functions are no longer provided (a great pity). The wealth of quick access sliders has been replaced by templates for quick editing. The data and waveform card slots have made way for a single expansion socket — so presumably SY series‑cards will be incompatible. The SY85 started out at £1499 (although it currently lists at £1099), and the W7 costs £1399. Neither instrument is provided with alternate tuning tables — shame.
Yamaha try very hard to provide purchasers with software support; already announced for the W7 are six disks containing Voices and Elements — the names probably explain the content:
- Session Player (EMS SYW7D001)
- HipHop & Techno (EMS SYW7D002)
- Top 40 (EMS SYW7D003)
- Ambient & New Age (EMS SYW7D004)
- Analog & Vintage (EMS SYW7D005)
- SuperSynth (EMS SYW7D006)
Prices haven't been set as of press time, but Yamaha hope that they will retail for less than £30. What is known is that Mac and Windows editing software for the W7 will be available free of charge, as will a W7 demo CD. Contact your Yamaha Hi‑Tech dealer for more details on any of these supporting items.
Underneath the W7 is an access plate which allows you to install a 4Mb expansion module. Price is still to be confirmed, but should be about £100. Details of the first three modules emerged as we went to press, with availablity by January 1995:
- Concert Grand (WEMB01): a wide variety of high quality piano sounds.
- Vintage Sounds (WEMB02): samples of vintage instrument sounds from the '70s.
- Rhythm Section (WEMB03): melodic and percussion sounds for producing rhythm backings.
As anyone who has heard the musical examples in my recent lectures will know, I don't like GM mediocrity. The W7's GM voices sounded much like those on the TG300 and have the high audio quality and compatibility with other GM sound sources that you would expect. The Preset sounds were more interesting. As usual, here's some to try out for yourself when you audition the W7:
- P040: Gt:Switch Gtr. A velocity switched, muted, slightly distorted guitar. Instant rhythm chops!
- P044: Gt:Pinch, and P045: Gt:Feedback. These both show how it is now possible to get good, screaming guitar sounds from a synthesizer. The hard bit is learning to play them so that it sounds right!
- P053: BA:FLOG. A superb anti‑aliased bass sound.
- P074: EN:TEN CC. I'm (not) in love with this one...
- P081: BR:JUMP. Annoy music shop assistants by doing Van Halen impressions!
- P117: SC:CRISP. Pure sequencer/vamping territory.
- P128: CO:MCKINLEY. Very OTT.
The 'factory' Internal RAM sounds from the supplied Yamaha demo disk cover a very wide range — with some very off‑the‑wall sounds. There's something here for most purposes, but be prepared to reject quite a few!
Overall, the Yamaha programmers seem to have made quite a lot of the wave resources inside the W7. The Presets provide a good contrast to the GM sounds, and the factory Internals must have been fun to program — they were certainly fun to play.
- Song‑based storage makes it very easy to use.
- GM and SMF compatibility.
- Friendly user interface.
- Flexible effects.
- Expandable ROM storage.
- Everything stops for the disk drive — especially the sequencer.
- No user RAM sample storage.
- Softkey alignment with on‑screen labels could be better.
- Some song setup information is retained after power‑down, whilst the song sequence itself is lost — could be confusing.
Yamaha have put a great deal of effort into making this a very easy to use and powerful workstation.