(From "The Complete DX7 by Howard Massey", Amsco Publications 1986)
In 1983 the Yamaha Corporation released upon a largely unsuspecting public a synthesizer that would change the course of modern music. This machine, of course, was the model DX7, and, for the first time ever, digital audio synthesis was made available to the musician at a reasonable price.
Prior to the unveiling of the DX7, the only two digital synthesizers commonly in use were the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument and the Synclavier – and both of these formidable machines had list prices in excess of $30,000 and were obviously out of the financial reach of most musicians. Furthermore, both of these systems offered literally thousands of controls, commands, and configurations, making them far too complicated and not nearly enough "user-friendly" for most of their intended market.
The DX7 changed all that. Its list price was a very modest $1,995, and when you bought the machine you also received, as a bonus, data cartridges containing no less than 128 very attractive and usable sounds. Contemporary musicians took to this device like the proverbial ducks took to water. In no time at all it seemed as if every keyboard player owned one despite the fact that for nearly a year in most major cities you couldn't find one for love or money (in an industry where list price rarely has any real meaning, the DX7 was actually sold everywhere at its list price, NONDISCOUNTED, for more than a year after its introduction). In New York City, for example, only one of the major music retailers was able to get DX7s at all, and the waiting list at one time was actually more than eight months!
In any event, by hook or by crook (or, much to Yamaha's dismay, by gray market), in what seemed to be no time at all, DX7s abounded, in every recording studio, in every rehearsal hall, in every keyboardist's living room... if the machines reproduced themselves, they couldn't have done much better.
There was a problem, however. Due to the very sketchy documentation originally provided by Yamaha, combined with the fact that the DX7 used a synthesis system never before seen, nobody seemed to know how to actually work the darned things! Oh, people found the on/off switch and the output jack, alright, but short of endlessly using the 128 cartridge sounds (the "presets"), people were not generally using the machine to anywhere near its actually vast capabilities.
As of this writing, some three years later, the situation has not really improved appreciably. An up-graded version of the preliminary manual has bee released by Yamaha, and a book or two have made appearances, but all of tese seem to be of limited value to the average user. The difficulty lies in the fact that, first of all the DX7 at first glance seems unassuming and many people have trouble accepting the idea that so very many controls and parameters are actually available to the user. Secondly, the system used by the DX7 and its later cousins (the DX9, DX1, DX5, DX21, DX27, DX100, TX7, and TX rack), called digital FM, is so radically different from previously used systems, that people have had problems assimilating and utilizing its many unique features. Digital FM (short for "frequency modulation") demands that you analyze the sounds you work with to a far greater degree than was previously required. It is difficult, if not impossible, to use by musicians who have not taken the time and trouble to familiarize themselves with basic acoustic principles and audio theory. Thirdly, because this is a purely digital systems, some small degree of computer literacy is required in order to fully understand the workings of the system. And, lastly, those 128 presets, for the most part, really do sound good, reducing the incentives for people to learn to make their own sounds or even modify pre-existing ones. Commercial enterprises have sprung up, allowing users who don't feel confident programming their own machines to purchase ready-made sounds. The sum of all of the above means that, even today, most DX7 owners are no closer to knowing how to use their machines then they were three years ago when the instrument first appeared.
And that's where this tutorial comes in. This book is dedicated to the principle that it makes no sense to spend $2,000 on a machine that you basically only know how to turn on and off! Computers such as the DX7 have become a big part of most people's lives but it's important not to lose sight of the fact that we are still the computer's master. Yamaha has taken the time and trouble to provide DX7 owners with a phenomenally large array of tools to control the actions of the machine, and we are wasting a lot of the instrument's potential if we don't thoroughly familiarize ourselves with them.
Like most musicians, my first exposure to synthesizers came with the MiniMoog back in the early 1970's. It seemed to me that the only way to really master that machine (which was absolutely primitive compared to the DX7), was to lock myself in a room with it for a month or so and wrestle with it (all of this figuratively, of course – for those of you with a mental picture of a man with a beard emerging from a room with a MiniMoog in a headlock, forget it!). Ten years later, with a decade of experience as a session synthesist, session programmer, clinician, consultant, salesman, and teacher behind me, this seemed again the only way to master the DX7. And that's pretty much what I did, with the advantage that by now I knew enough people in the industry to annoy with endless questions and to receive invaluable feedback and instruction from. When I felt confident enough to actually impart this information to others, the opportunity arose to organize and teach a course in the operation of this machine at the Public Access Synthesizer Studio in New York (PASS), where I am currently serving as Project Director. At the urging of several students, I began in late 1985 to put the full course curriculum in writing, and this book is the ultimate result of that effort.
Here then, is the plan of action: We will begin, first of all, with a grounding in basic audio theory. I strongly recommend that all readers at least peruse, if not digest Chapter One thoroughly. Even if you feel knowledgable in this topic, you should read this chapter anyway, as the terminology and jargon covered therein will be used thoroughly the entire book. Secondly, we will cover in depth the actual digital FM system used by the DX7, including a description of ALL the switches and controls available on the machine, with practical exercises in their use offered throughout. Next, we will offer a discussion of MIDI, the standardized digital interface used by the DX7 and all other modern synthesizers. Following the MIDI chapter, we will cover several advanced DX7 programming techniques, and offer an examination of other DX7-like devices made by Yamaha. Finally the Appendices will provide several important references and listings of DX7-compatible MIDI devices.
Most of the time while reading this book you will probably find it necessary to have a DX7 within easy reach. The enclosed sound sheet contains examples of sounds you should be hearing at various points as you do the exercises included here. We recommend that you immediately copy this onto a cassette for ease of use, and so it will also be helpful to have a cassette player handy. As this book is based upon the actual course taught at the Public Access Synthesizer School, it is meant to be very much a "hands-on" experience. It suggest you therefore prepare your hands for some serious synthesizer tweaking!
Throughout, I have attempted to make things as non-technical as possible. The emphasis is on use of the machine above all. It is the author's sincere hope that the information gleaned here will spark the creation of many, many sounds never before heard on this planet of ours!
Howard Massey, June 1986