Yamaha's EXperimental Phase

US Montage M's 1998 forebear had sampling, FM & VA!      02/02/24

Yamaha's EXperimental Phase


I'd like to discuss a total oddball today. Many of you will be familiar with products like the CS6x and Motif synthesizers, PLG expansion cards (featuring An1x, DX7 & VL70m-based engines, among others) and perhaps even their samplers - the well regarded A4000 & A5000, for instance.

But what if I told you there was an instrument that straddled all of this territory, and a bunch of weird stuff besides? Let's take a look at the Yamaha EX5 & EX7, weird, capable synths (that fell down a hole based on DSP limitations and the requirements of 90's musicians) and ask the question: Do they make sense now, in a modern studio? Being the world's loudest advocate of the EX7, I think you can guess my answer!

Hardware

The EX5 keyboard (there's also a rack version) comes in a huge 76 note package, with a luxurious FS-E76 keybed. Available for about £400 on the used market, it's a lot of keyboard for the money. It's smaller 61-key cousin, often available for around half the price, is no slouch either. It retains the 3 wheels, ribbon controller and encoders of the premium version. There are plenty of optional extras like SCSI and assignable outputs, too.

DSP Woes

It's definitely fair to point out the EX's shortcomings first. Billed as having multiple exciting engines: AWM (Samples & ROM Waveforms), AN, VL and FDSP (???) the thrill fades when you realise that sure, you have 128 voices in AWM mode (64 on EX7), but the other engines range from an "ok" 16 notes (FDSP) to a measly 2(!) notes in AN mode. The EX7's AN mode is actually monophonic, meaning that you'd have to resample sounds to play them polyphonically. This IS possible, and can sometimes create cool results, but pro's in the 90's wanted as much polyphony as possible, driving instruments multi-timbrally; only mixing down when they really needed to. The sequencer/MIDI timing of the instrument was also called into question early on - Yamaha released an update, but not everyone was happy with it.

Of course, we now live in a world of infinite, pristine, digital tracking. This may cause some to reevaluate the blue beast. Used as a monotimbral (or at most, bitimbral) digital synthesizer with a bunch of weird algorithms and effects, some never visited again, the EX can definitely deliver the goods for soundtrack work.

Yamaha EX5

Romplerin' & Samplerin'

I'd put the EX's slightly below the SY77 & SY85 when it comes to the built in waveforms. Don't get me wrong, the piano is miles better, but some of the waves within the 16MB ROM have an "uncanny valley" effect - too retro to be realistic, but too modern to have that naive, crusty, late 80's "obviously canned" quality. Itopia is there though, alongside some other quite nice synthesizer waveforms. There's plenty of filter options, so you could spend quite a while just building lush, AWM patches if you wanted to.

With 4 elements and LFO phase offset, you can totally achieve moving Vector patches, by the way!

Don't like the ROM waves? Add you own! The EX has basically a whole Yamaha A3000 sampler on board. It loses one noticeable thing - crossfade looping; but I tend to loop my samples beforehand anyway. I like to pop WAV files on a floppy disk, but you can also sample into the machine. RAM is upgradable to 64MB, PLUS an optional 16MB flash expansion, usually available from Sector 101.

https://sector101.co.uk/exflm.html

AN Engine

Yamaha EX AN Engine

As I own the EX7 (£119, a few years back!) I can't give a fair appraisal of the VL engine, but I will say that the AN engine is a lovely added bonus. My main focus has always been the AWM & FDSP sections, but the AN engine sounds really lovely and is pretty capable. Two girthy oscillators with multiple waveforms, edge (brightness), width, FM, Sync & bunch of modulators really give you quite a bit to work with, just don't expect chords without lots of overdubbing!

FDSP Engine

Here's my favourite part of the machine. If you use FDSP on any of the 4 "elements" (AKA partials), your polyphony drops down from 128 notes, to 16 (or 8 notes on the EX7 - which is workable). The FDSP algorithms are per-note effects and whilst some of them are pretty basic (modelled guitar & EP pickups), some of them are wonderfully strange and clearly the work of an eccentric genius. My favourites include "Water", which makes your input sound like it's dripping out of a tap (listen for the "water cello" in my demo below), "Flange" which is essentially a Karplus Strong delay line with some wonderful control possibilities, "Self FM" where the input FM's itself; with an optional filter in between the identical modulator & carrier - use a sine wave & you get standard 2OP FM, use anything else and all bets are off!

Finally, I really like the self-explanatory "Ring Mod" for dissonant tonalities and "Tornado", which is a waveshaper akin to the Korg 01/W. Anything evil in the demo below is Tornado!

Odds & Ends

The EX is blessed with a very configurable Arpeggiator. It's possible to generate all sorts of harmonic & percussive ideas by layering up some waveforms and holding down a few keys.

Finally, I'd like to talk about the instrument's effects. These come after the synthesis stage and are pretty wild in their own right. The reverbs are nothing to write home about, but some of the algorithms like beat-changer, tech modulation, low resolution & digital turntable still create pretty original sounds with the right sample input.

I also rate the talking modulator alongside some ensemble detune for synthetic choir sounds.

Anyhow, please enjoy the demo. I believe that the Yamaha EX series still have plenty of life in them. The UI isn't the sleekest but the screen is quite large and clear, and those unique sounds can still turn heads.

Posted by MagicalSynthAdventure an expert in synthesis technology from last Century and Amiga enthusiast.


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