Friday, October 09, 2009

Yamaha FS1R: Finally, a Synth Worth Learning (Updated)

UPDATE: Vintage Synth Explorer is back up today, so here are some links to the synthesizers mentioned below:

1] NED Synclavier
2] Yamaha TX816
3] Yamaha TX802
4] Yamaha TX81Z
5] Yamaha DX1
6] Yamaha FS1R

These are better than the Wikipedia articles, for the most part, though there are no external links.

As I've mentioned here previously, I was a pioneer in guitar synths and MIDI guitar back in the 80's and 90's - I was into guitar synths before MIDI was invented, actually - and the Synclavier II was the first guitar synth that interested me, because it was, IMO, a real musical instrument as opposed to a gimmick or toy. What I mean by that is, the Synclavier had enough depth that I could explore it for years and constantly have it follow me as I evolved, versus the Roland GR series synths and the like (Notably, the Arp Avatar, which ended up bankrupting the company).*

Though it cost me a fortune to get a toe in the game, $14,500.00 for an 8-voice mono guitar system, if memory serves, this turned out to be a very wise decision, as not only was I right about the Synclavier being a real musical instrument, but the combination of additive and FM synthesis in the Synclavier's voicing architecture allowed me to figure out why music works (Yes, I'm still working on the book that is outlined in the sidebar series). Not only that, but being part of an exclusive club, I got to meet a lot of interesting musicians: Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Laurie Anderson, and many more.

I got so good at programming timbres on the Synclavier, that a lot of my "imaginary instrument" and sound effects patches were actually distributed by New England Digital with the Synclavier. For an idea of where this lead me over the course of ten years, here's a 1994 Synclavier electronic music composition I did that has bunches of my sound effects in a no-holds-barred- tour de force.

Electronic Nightmare

This was my "digital calling card" whenever anyone asked what I could do with a Synclavier: It's just a 32-voice stereo FM/Additive system recorded directly into a DAT deck - no external effects at all/nothing but the Synclavier's balanced outputs into a Sony DAT recorder (Hey, that was high tech in 1994). I still hear some of these sounds and their derivatives (A timbre programmer can always tell) in sci-fi soundtracks to this day.

*Sorry for the lame Wikipedia links, but Vintage Synth Explorer was offline as of the writing of this post. For better info, look there.


I have provided this background so you'll understand where I'm coming from as I get back into MIDI guitar: I have impossibly high standards, and am a ruthless perfectionist (For some reason, my perfectionism ticks off a lot of manufacturers when I point out deficiencies in their products, which is exactly the wrong response: They should hire me as a consultant! LOL!).

Back in the Synclavier era, I paired it up with a Yamaha TX-816 via MIDI when MIDI became available, because I also thought the TX-816 was a real musical instrument. It amounted to eight DX-7's in a 4U rackmount chassis, and I programmed it with a program I can't remember the name of that ran on a Commodore 64 (That program was the first primitive GUI I ever worked with, btw, because the then-new Macs were not really interesting to me... yet). So, when I began to look for a synth to get back into the game with, the TX-816 was the first thing to cross my mind. I soon ruled that out because of the size and weight of the thing, and the old memory backup batteries are no longer made, so I'd have to modify one for newer batteries or get one already modded. Nope.

Well, the later DX-7 II based TX-802 was only two spaces, had eight-part multi-timbral capabilities, and so that was a better possibility, but I really wanted a 1U devide. That left only the 4-operator TX-81Z. Not bad, but, meh. Know what I mean? It just didn't float my boat.

Well, it turns out that just after I got entirely out of the synth thing in 1997, Yamaha introduced a super-synth in a 1U chassis called the FS1R: 8 operators, like the original DX-1, real actual onboard digital effects processing, and formant sequences which are a lot like the Synclavier's timbre frames. Perfect!

Well, just try to find one. After looking at several beaters and 220v foreign units on eBay, I caught a brand new one that had never even been in a rack! Bought it immediately, so here's the newly completed guitar synth/MIDI rack:

Top to bottom: Bryston 2B-LP, Behringer BTR-2000 RackTuner, Lexicon MPX-G2, Axon AX 100 Mk II, Steinberg MIDEX 8, the Yamaha FS1R, a Behringer EuroRack RX 1602 mixer, and a Furman PS-PRO Series II power monitor. Yeah, yeah: 8U! Because re-tuning the electronic devices to the A=432Hz tuning standard I like is such a monumental PITA (Easy for the Axon, actually, but not for the Yamaha), I'm thinking about going back to A=440Hz. If I do that and put the Steinberg USB MIDI interface into another rack, I could get it down to 6U. I'll have to wait and see, but right now I need the Steinberg by the FS1R to program it, because operating from the faceplate is an exercise in self-flagellation.


As with all of these Yamaha rackmount FM synths, the only practical way to program them is from a computer. Well, this being a pre-OS X device, the old Yamaha program is for OS 9. Though Unisyn will work for most features, it won't allow for editing the formant sequences, which is the most powerful feature the FS1R offers. Fortunately, a Japanese programmer and code jockey has a freeware solution for OS X that allows full control over all of the FS1R's features.

This is going to be a long term project - just like learning to play a new instrument - so I'm going to dive in and spend most of my late night and post-practice time on this. So, don't expect any test recordings anytime soon: When I get to the critical mass point, I'll record something, but not until then. First thing I need to do is, you know, figure out how to scroll through all of the unit's presets. Seriously, it is not at all obvious how you do that from the faceplate controls! LOL!


Blogger Rob said...

There is simply no such thing as a synth that isn't worth, 'learning'..

Just love them all:

Vintage Synths

9:53 PM  

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