DX7 Mark II unveiled in Tokyo
(From "Keyboard Mag", February 1987)
Dateline Tokyo, Nov.30. 1986. We're here at the first gathering of the American Association of Samurai Editors (AASE), better known to Japan as Yamaha’s X-Days. In attendance are Keyboard editor Dominic Milano (alias Samurai Sam—yours truly), Electronic Musician editor Craig Anderton (Bonzai Bill to you), and AfterTouch editor Tom Darter (sake kudasai!), not to mention the silent hordes, i.e., thousands of Japanese musicians who've come to see the latest barrage of products unleashed by the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments (that’s Yamaha, in case you hadn’t guessed).
Why all the excitement at this particular X-Days? Why has it attracted the AASE’s attention? Perhaps you noticed it in the Japan section of Keyboard's World View column last month — "Yamaha Discontinues DX7." Shocking news. The best-selling synthesizer in history is no more. We'd actually been hearIng rumors for months that the next generation of FM products was coming. Just what that meant was anybody's guess. Was it sampling? Was it more operators? Was it something completely new? The World View report from Keyboard’s esteemed Japanese correspondents at Rittor Press was fairly specific in its details, but there were still a lot of unanswered questions. What to do? Hop on a plane, that’s what, and catch the unveiling of the new DX at X-Days.
X-Days took place Nov. 29 and 30, 1986, in Tokyo and again a week later on a smaller scale in Osaka. The AASE caught the second day of the Tokyo show. Those silent hordes mentioned above, to our surprise and astonishment, amounted according to Yamaha officials to some 10 or 15 thousand people per day! By comparison, an American consumer show like those held by Sam Ash and Gand Music might attract a quarter of that. Of course, the Ash and Gand shows don’t normally feature pop group headliners (X-Days included Japanese groups TM Network and Akira Inoue) in concert. Nor do American consumer shows typically employ a staff of 200. That’s not to say Gand and Ash don’t put on worthwhile consumer shows. We’re just trying to give you some idea of the relative scale.
As the AASE gets its private tour of the show an hour before the doors open to the public, one thing becomes evident: We ain’t in the States. The first wave of attendees are assembled down the hall. There are hundreds of young people (teenagers and older), but they’re all respectfully quiet and orderly. We're told that some of them camped out, but there’s no evidence of their having done so. Whatever mess they made has been cleaned up already, probably by themselves—not at all like an American audience. And then there’s the exhibit facility itself. It's above a shopping center, on the sixth floor or something like that. Again, nothing like what you’d expect in America. But we could go on all day talking about cultural differences. Let’s talk about the real topic at hand—the new instruments.
The New DX
The first apparent difference between the old machines and the new is the casing. The new units are black instead of that old puke gray-brown. The front panel switches are actually raised off the panel — no more pseudo membrane switches. There are two different models: The DX7IID (258,000 yen) and the DX7II-FD (298,000 yen). D stands for dual: FD stands for floppy disk and dual. Dual refers to the ability to split and layer the keyboard. Floppy refers to the built-in 1 Meg 3.5” microfloppy disk drive. The only difference between the two new models is the floppy disk drive in the FD, which leaves us wondering why anyone would want to buy the model without the floppy, especially since the difference in price is currently only a couple of hundred bucks. For simplicity, we'll refer to both new models as the new DX. In addition to internal voices, the floppy can be used as a general MIDI system-exclusive storage device. It remains to be seen how road-worthy the drive will be, but there's no doubt that it's going to be a major boon to players who feel uneasy about bringing a computer onstage. In retrospect we re surprised it took so long for floppies to make the leap from computers to samplers to synthesizers.
Does that mean the end of data cartridges? Nope. Both of the new instruments still have slots for them. However, the new carts have more pins than the old RAM carts, so you'll need a special adapter from Yamaha in order to use the old carts. And Yamaha has gone to great lengths to make sure that voice data from the old machines is 100% compatible with the new machines, so you won’t lose your old voices if you decide to upgrade to a new DX. Better yet, the output of the new machines has been significantly improved. The DACs (digital-to-analog converters) in the original DX were 12-bit resolution, which left the machine somewhat noisy. Aliasing and modulation noise were sources of constant complaint among DX users. Those complaints should disappear with the new machines, which feature 16-bit DACs, improving signal-t-onoise by something like 30dB.
Why both cartridges and a floppy disk? Cartridges can be used to store user-programmed non-traditional tunings, fractional scalings, or voices. A cartridge must be formatted for one and only one of these functions. So you can't store tunings and voices on the same RAM cart. The idea, then, is to store tunings and scalings on RAM carts while you store voices on the floppy. Apparently, the machine looks for the tuning and scaling as part of the voice data, but doesn't save that data as part of the voice. Therefore you need both the floppy and the RAM cart to make efficient use of memory. But we've just gotten ahead of ourselves. What’s all this about user-programmable tunings and fractional scaling?
The new DX features 11 non-12-tone-equal-tempered tunings stored in ROM. The user can also specify his or her own tuning scheme, two of which can be stored in the machine itself. Carl Hirano, spokesman for the team that designed the DX, tells us that the pitch resolution is accurate to within 1.17 cents. Alternate tunings can also be transposed, although the exact procedure for doing so wasn't quite clear to us, so you'll have to wait for our full report when we get our hands on the machine for a product test a month or two from now. If you’re not into Just intonation, you can always use the microtonal tuning capabilities of the machine to create stretch-tuned FM pianos.
Fractional scaling is a feature that expands on the idea of scaling curves and break points found in the original DX. Fractional scaling allows you to set different operator levels and rate scalings every three keys, which enables you to get some pretty drastic key-split effects if that’s what you’re after. Product specialist Gary Leuenberger showed this effect off nicely by programming a different drum sound on every third note of the keyboard.
Other new functions on the DX include the ability to layer and split the keyboard (stereo outs), two real-time parameter controls called CS-1 and 2, a multiplexed LFO, and random detuning for creating a better ensemble feel. Like the TX and TF modules, the new DX stores performance parameters per voice instead of globally. Velocity, key number, and an envelope can be used to control panning. CS-1 and 2 can be used to change any parameter you assign to them in real time (hurrah!). CS-1’s function can also be assigned to a pedal controller.
Having a multiplexed LFO means that each voice will appear to have independent vibrato.
There are also some functions that improve the DX’s ability to function as a master keyboard controller — CS-1 and 2 can be used to affect external instruments, and the 32 program switches can be assigned to send out different program change commands over MIDI. We could go on, but this is starting to read like a full-blown Keyboard Report, when all it really is is our first impressions of a new instrument. In fact, the new DXs that were at X-Days weren't 100% operational, so it’s impossible to comment fully on these new instruments now. What's apparent is that Yamaha hasn't thrown away the mold for what has become the world’s first “standard” electronic musical instrument. Instead, they very consciously took the original idea to the next logical step. Now it’s time to see if the world is ready for it. Stay tuned for more details.
One of the biggest surprises tor us was seeing not one or two killer new products, but six at X-Days. The RX5, new big brother to the RX11/15/21 drum machines, features individual voice tuning, 24 internal sounds with more available on cartridge, 12 individual outputs, voice editing capability (6-stage envelope and gate time), and the ability to memorize pitch and velocity data via MIDI. It also supports MIDI Song Position Pointer and will lock to an FSK sync-to-tape signal. Price in Japan is 158,000 yen. It will go for around $1,100 in the States.
No, this isn’t some new version of the TX816. It’s a professional version of the FB-01 [see Keyboard Report, Oct. ’86], with 16 multi-timbral voices, the ability to edit parameters from the front panel, stereo outputs, 11 preset microtonal scales, two user-programmable alternate scales, and four-operator FM. “‘Only four operators?’ you ask. Yeah, but there’s a twist: The oscillators produce eight waveforms besides sine. Just how FM sounds with more complex waveforms is anyone's guess at this point, but where it would take two or three operators to create a sawtooth wave in an all-sine-wave FM system, the TX81Z will need only one operator, so it may well be possible to create very complex sounds with this new system. Where the FB-01 had a 10-bit DAC, the TX81Z has a 12-bit DAC. The unit is rack-mountable, and its front panel resembles an SPX-90. Price in Japan is 59,800 yen. We’re told it will be about $500 in the States.
The Piano Player
Off in a corner at X-Days was a machine that many people have been dreaming about since the advent of MIDI — an acoustic grand piano that would not only send MIDI but receive it too. When MIDI data came in, the keys would go up and down. The unit can also be built into an upright. No price was available.
A number of other products were on display that will be of much interest; however, we re running out of space, so we'll just mention them briefly. The MDF1 is a stand-alone floppy disk drive/system-exclusive storage device (39,800 yen), The MV802 is a rack-mount eight-channel mixer that would function quite well as a submixer for a TX816 (56,000 yen). The DMP7 blew us away. It's an eight-channel digital mixer with digital EQ and reverb built-in (!). All parameters can be controlled via MIDI; i.e., note data can be used to change EQ settings, panning, and so on. And for those of you into impressing your friends, the faders are motorized — they move on their own during mixdowns. But the real reason we were blown away was the price: around $4,000.
After X-Days, the AASE dropped by a couple of Yamaha’s manufacturing facilities. We were amazed to see so much automation — all initial testing is performed automatically, and robots (made by Yamaha) are used whenever possible to test keyboards, insert screws, plug in MIDI jacks, and more. The number of new DXs coming off the production line daily is stunning in and of itself (Yamaha asked that we not reveal this number), but even so, Yamaha fears that they won t be able to keep up with consumer demand. They may well be right.
After our tour of the Yamaha factory, this Keyboard editor broke off from the AASE group and went exploring on his own. Stay tuned to these pages in coming months for further insights into the Japanese way of making musical instruments.
By Dominic Milano