Hey – don’t forget Yamaha.
For all the buzz about Roland and KORG (and American makers like Moog), the titan Japanese maker surely deserves its own enormous claim to synthesizer history. This is the company that made one the most influential polyphonic synths of all time (the CS-80), and introduced the world to FM synthesis (DX series) and physical modeling (VP series). You can still make DX and VP sounds that seem like they fell out of the future.
And Yamaha are no newcomer, either. This year will mark the 40th anniversary since the firm first entered the synth market with its SY-1. (That’s an SY-1 at top; the SY-2 follow-up offers more synth controls.)
Now, lovers of those synths will have good reason to spend some time in the cathedral of Yamaha at Anaheim’s NAMM trade show. They’re bringing an SY-2, CS-30, GS-1, DX7, and even the ultra-rare polyphonic VP1-a physical modeling synth – many of these to be playable.
You’re forgiven for some quick Googling here. Despite popular belief, the DX-7 wasn’t the first FM synth: the GS-1 was an 88-key, 8-operator, 16-note polyphonic concert grand of a synth that preceded the DX by two full years. No MIDI, 90 kg – so there’s a reason you haven’t spotted one lying around. This might be your only chance to see one. (See a 2010 write-up on Synthtopia.) The Yamaha CS-30, for its part, may be monophonic unlike its polyphonic sibling, but is one of the best hands-on synthesizers ever made, with copious controls for getting your fingers all over the sound. (In fact, I might nominate the CS-30 for Yamaha Synth I Most Want To See On An iPad – or inspiring some new hardware.)
It’s great to see Yamaha recognize its rich heritage in this way. But I do wonder: will we see any new take on that legacy?
Even the Yamaha press release on the vintage showcase segues neatly from these synths to workstations – a shift that Yamaha led at the end of the 1980s. So, since then? Well, the company quickly mentions the Motif series as the final evolution of all these years of synths.
That’s in contrast to its rivals. After making a similar argument about workstations, and even earning some ire by cramming synth models into the Jupiter, Roland’s biggest buzz last year came from new spins on its past with AIRA – standalone instruments that had more in common with the company’s early-80s designs. KORG, of course, haven’t been even remotely shy about their past. They’ve reissued the MS-20 in full size, in mini size, on iOS, as a desktop plug-in, and on Nintendo DS, are making new analog synths (volca), and have even moved onto the legacy of other companies (ARP).
So, where’s Yamaha? It’s left modeling the CS and DX to other companies, while new instruments remain solidly in the 90s workstation mold. (One notable exception was the brilliant if ahead-of-its-time Tenori-On, but we haven’t seen anything as adventurous since.) Now, I don’t expect companies to chase trends, but it does make you wonder: what could a new synthesizer from Yamaha look like?
For now, the company is adding content to a USB drive for its Motif XF and changing the paint job to white. And they have a Website for synth enthusiasts:
Earlier this year, the company launched www.yamahasynth.com, a new community for Yamaha synthesizer users. The site features a forum where members can interact with Yamaha’s product experts including the legendary Phil “Bad Mister” Clendeninn, Yamaha Synthesizer artists and other enthusiasts, along with resources to help all players get the most out of their instrument and download sounds directly into their synthesizers.
Amazingly, you can get a used SY for a song – I’d strongly consider it over something like a Minimoog simply because it’s different and you get more bang for your buck. The absence of hype around Yamaha’s instruments has kept a lot of the used prices – sorry, I have to say it – more realistic. (Am I saying some other vintage gear is overrated? You betcha. Have you seen some of the insanely-inflated eBay pricetags lately?)
But I do wonder: what if Yamaha’s engineering forces put their minds to a new spiritual successor to the SY or (even better) a new take on physical modeling? Could we even yet see a surprise at this year’s NAMM or Messe?
I can tell you this: for those in the know, the lineup above will certainly inspire, and I know some synth designers will find a way to go on an extended “lunch break” to play them.
I want a studio somewhere in the woods in Sweden and a GS-1. Watch: