Yamaha voice of the customer

The Yamaha synthesizer site has come to life, again. The site has resources for current Yamaha synthesizer products, blogs and a forum. One the forums is seeking input for future Yamaha synthesizer products. Here is my post to that forum. It’s kind of terse, but the Yamaha marketing people already have so many long messages to read through and analyze! On to the re-post…

Hi —

Thanks for listening to our feedback! To keep things short and specific, I’ve listed the likes and areas for improvement in my two current Yamaha keyboards. I understand that Tyros/PSR is made by a different product division.

My first Yamaha keyboard was a pre-MIDI CE-20, so I’ve been into electronic instruments for quite a while…

MOX6: 95% performance, 5% production

  • + Great voices and performances in contemporary genres
  • + Deep editing everywhere
  • + 16 voices/performances/etc. available with one button push
  • + Ability to add new waveforms (MOXF)

Opportunities for improvement:

  • – Workflow
  • – Needs drawbar mode and improved rotary speaker effect
  • – SMF must be scrubbed clean in order to import without issue or error

PSR-S950: 70% production, 30% performance

  • + Super Articulation sounds great and is intuitive to play live
  • + INFO button displays performance tips for voices including articulations
  • + Drawbar mode
  • + Reliably imports and plays SMF regardless of meta-events, etc.
  • + Immediate one-man-band playability; high fun factor

Opportunities for improvement:

  • – Voice editing is superficial
  • – Needs more contemporary content (my genres: funk, jazz, rock/pop)
  • – Effects lag synthesizer products (need VCM)
  • – Needs B-3 chorus/vibrato sim and improved rotary speaker effect
  • – Convert WAV to MP3
  • – New waveforms only through expansion pack; No expansion pack editor

Production vs. performance: MOX6 is my go-to ax for playing out. S950 is now mostly used to produce backing tracks/styles. S950 production/performance mix will shift toward performance.

Workflow: DAWs have many established, immediately visible UI metaphors (e.g., piano roll, staff view, waveform view). MOX6 has rows and rows of buttons with few cues about how to use them.

Superarticulation: Real-time note analysis triggers articulations. Don’t have to think about which button to push (MOX XA). SA 2 voices are terrific. I’ve been reading the Yamaha patents on AEM and realize that SA 2 is non-trivial.

Immediacy: People want immediate results. Turn a knob, get a response. That’s one reason why people are knocked out by SA/SA2. Nothing kills a buzz like waiting for your computer to boot or fixing a driver problem.

Content: MOX players want more arpeggios; S950 players want more styles. This is a fundamental human need. Need to be able to create or import own phrases/content. Be able to play and sync both audio and MIDI clips. Import and convert PSR styles to arpeggios?

Updates: Need to provide updates for mid-range products, too. Competitor is making “updatable OS” a sales point. Example: Update MOX to control element level through knobs (now a standard MOXF feature).

Community: Community is very important. Share riffs, voices, whatever. Community builds excitement and loyalty. Yamaha must participate. (Yamaha is already perceived as too aloof.) Publish specs for file formats and let open source development loose. Provide an open garden and let thousands of flowers bloom.

How to import new MIDI phrases into MMS

The Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS) app for iPad is a fun tool, but it cannot import MIDI files or new musical phrases. This limits its real-world usefulness. One way to import MIDI is to slave MMS to another sequencer and play MIDI track by track into MMS. If your goal is new phrases for remixing or composition, you then face the laborious task of cutting, pasting and editing new phrases. Overall, this process involves a lot of manual work!

I just finished experimenting with a backdoor method for importing new MIDI-based musical phrases into MMS. See this page for all of the gory details.

MMS phrases are stored in Apple binary property list files (plist) with the “yms2” extension. The Apple plutil tool prints plist file contents and converts a plist file between XML and binary form. The XML provides a way into the guts of a phrase file and lets you change phrase properties or, ta da!, replace the MIDI data with your own MIDI data. The MIDI data in the binary yms2 file is a Standard MIDI File (SMF). The MIDI data must be encoded in base64 text format when working with XML. Fortunately, there are plenty of base64 conversion tools available on the web.

Once you have a new yms2 file in hand, use Apple iCloud or iTunes file sharing to transfer the yms2 file to your iPad and MMS. Be patient, though. Sync’ing is not instantaneous and it may take several minutes for the phrase file to make its way into MMS.

As a test, I converted the main and fill sections of the PSR-S950 “Jazz Funk” style to 60 (!) new MMS phrases in yms2 format. As Lou would say, here’s your sweet taste. The ZIP file decompresses into 60 phrase files with the “yms2” extension. Through iCloud, you’ll need to transfer these files to the mobile documents folder belonging to MMS. When you launch MMS, it will import the new files and update its internal catalog of phrases.

MOX internal architecture

Curiosity finally overcame inertia and I ordered the service manual for the Yamaha MOX6 and MOX8 workstations. (The Yamaha 24×7 part number is “S M MOX6/MOX8”.)

If you remember from my previous discussion about workstation internal architecture, the Motif XS synthesizer is Linux-based and has a 400MHz Toshiba TX4939 RISC CPU as its main processor. The TX4939 uses the MIPS instruction set and controls two SWP51L tone generator integrated circuits. Since the MOX is advertised as descendent of the Motif XS, I fully expected a MIPS architecture processor with only one SWP51L.

Check out the Yamaha MOX block diagram.

Surprise! The main processor in the MOX is the Yamaha SWX02 with an internal clock speed of 135.4725MHz. The SWX02 has an SH-2A CPU core and probably does not run Linux. The SWX02 is also used in the Yamaha PSR-S650 arranger workstation where it is clocked at the same rate. This processor seems to be Yamaha’s choice for cost-sensitive, mid-range products.

The MOX has one SWP51L tone generator IC clocked at 90.3168MHz. The SWP51L is fed by two 64MByte wave ROM ICs. The wave ROM components are Lapis Semiconductor MR26V51252R 512Mbit P2ROM devices in 32Mx16-bit configuration. One device provides a 16-bit high (H) channel and the other device provides a 16-bit low (L) channel into the SWP51L. The high and low wave ROMs communicate with the SWP51L over a 32-bit wave memory bus. The SWP51L has a separate 16MByte SDRAM on a dedicated interface to support digital signal processing (DSP). The DAC and ADC are also connected directly to the SWP51L.

The SWX02 functions primarily as a control processor. This is quite different from the PSR-S650 where the SWX02 performs tone generation as well as performing control duties. The SWX02 has its own wave memory interface and this interface is not used in the MOX. The S650 has a separate LCD controller IC. The MOX does not have a separate LCD controller and the LCD is connected to the SWX02 through its parallel general purpose I/O (GPIO) pins.

The MOX specifications describe the wave capacity as “355MB (when converted to 16-bit linear format)”. The physical wave ROM is 128MBytes total. Thus, Yamaha achieve overall wave compression of 2.78 to 1, or better.

The most interesting thing about the MOX is what it does not have. The MOX main logic board (DM) has unpopulated positions for:

  • A second SWP51L tone generator IC
  • Two additional wave ROM ICs (size unspecified) on the wave memory bus
  • An interface for a flash expansion module
  • A second WM8740 digital-to-analog converter (DAC)

Yep, Yamaha laid the ground for the MOXF. These positions are labeled “For future model” in the detailed circuit diagrams. One way to feel about that is cheated. A more rational way to view this situation is that Yamaha tries to lower cost through volume production (eventually) giving us more product for less money.

The MOX polyphony is 64 notes. The MOXF polyphony is 128 notes due, presumably, to a second SWP51L. A Motif/MOX note may use up to eight voice elements. Therefore, I infer that an SWP51L has a total tone generation capacity of 512 voice elements. Switching context to workstation arrangers for a momemnt, both the PSR-S950 and Tyros3 have 128 note polyphony. The S950 has one SWP51L and the Tyros3 has two SWP51B integrated circuits. I now believe that the S950 is a four element per voice synthesizer while the Tyros3 is known to be an eight element per voice synthesizer. (The S950 is voice compatible with the A2000, which is known to be four elements per voice.) Thus, I don’t think Super Articulation 2 (SA2) voices based on Articulation Element Modeling (AEM) technology are coming to the S950 or a new mid-range arranger workstation. Not without a second SWP51L, anyway. I’m guessing that AEM requires an eight element per voice engine.

It’s interesting to see how and where Yamaha shaved cost in order to produce a value-oriented mid-range product. It also provides geater justification for the higher cost in the upper end Motif and Tyros products.

See this article for an architectural overview of the Yamaha arranger product families.

Finally, Yamaha releases the source code for GPL’ed parts of the Motif XS, Motif XF, and S90 XS/S70 XS. See the Yamaha source code page. The MOX and MOXF are not mentioned on this page, giving further evidence that these products are not Linux-based.

Ancient weapons and tools

Back in the mid- to late-1990s, Yamaha developed and manufactured a wide range of plug-in cards and modules. In many cases, the technology is unique and is still useful today. I have two old Yamaha modules:

  • The VL70m analog modeling synthesizer module and
  • The AN200 desktop beatbox and analog modeling synthesizer.

Both are based on Yamaha’s analog/physical modeling techniques. The VL70m, which has a native WX11 breath controller interface, models string- and pipe-based instruments both acoustic and “virtual.” The AN200 models a 5 voice Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 analog synthesizer. The AN200 also has patterns, a sequencer and a three channel AWM (sample-based) rhythm section.

Although you can program either one of these boxes through the front panel, you really need software tools for deep editing. Yamaha provided editors for both the AN200 and the VL70m. There are also editors for the PLG100 and PLG150 line of hardware plug-in boards that are the module’s cousins. The PLG series use the same analog modeling, FM, AWM, and XG technology as Yamaha modules and synthesizers of that era. The PLG boards can be plugged into a PLG-compatible synthesizer thereby expanding the synth’s sonic capability. The first models in the Motif product family, for example, accepted PLG boards. Unfortunately, the PLG boards and the analog modeling technology was phased out in the early 2000s.

The software tools of that era never advanced beyond Windows 2000 or Windows XP. So, if a guy or gal wants to use these tools today on Windows 7, they better strap in.

Yamaha provided three kinds of tools and plug-ins over the years:

  • Plug-ins hosted by XGWorks or XGWorks Lite (up to version 3.x).
  • OPT tool plug-ins hosted by SQ01, Studio Manager or XGWorks version 4 and later.
  • Standalone tools.

A few of these tool names may not be familiar to you. XGWorks (version 3.x and earlier) is a standalone sequencer that initially ran on Windows 95/98. A patch makes XGWorks (version 3.0.7) run under Windows XP. XGWorks was replaced by Yamaha’s Open Plug-in Technology or “OPT.” OPT is a Microsoft OLE-based standard for plug-in tools. Yamaha dropped the early version of XGWorks and substituted the OPT-compatible SQ01 sequencer in its place. Yamaha also released XGWorks 4 and XGWorks ST in Japan; both are OPT-based. SQ01 and XGWorks 4/ST are OPT plug-in hosts. Old-time users today lament these changes because SQ01 and XGWorks 4/ST do not have some of the features of the early XGWorks. The arranger-like style features, for example, were lost.

It’s worth noting that a few other manufacturers adopted the OPT standard. Cakewalk SONAR can host OPT-based plug-ins. So, if you have a VL or AN editor in OPT plug-in form, then SONAR can find and launch the plug-in editor! Functionality may be limited depending upon the OPT level supported by the host and plug-in.

Well, as if that history isn’t complicated enough, Yamaha eventually bought Steinberg and its Cubase DAW. Support for SQ01 and XGWorks 4/ST was dropped. Studio management is handled by the Yamaha Studio Manager which can host OPT plug-ins among other things. Studio Manager v2.3.1 runs on Windows 7 and Windows 8 (with a minor caveat). This is a modern era host!

Unfortunately, OPT-based plug-ins for the VL70m and AN200 are not readily available for download. The Yamaha web site only has standalone editors or editors which work with the very old XGWorks 3.x. It is possible to get XGworks 3.0.7 running on 32- and 64-bit Windows 7 with persistence and patience. The following produced worked on 64-bit Win 7:

  • Install XGWorks or XGWorks Lite v3.0. You must run the installer in Windows XP compatibility mode.
  • Immediately install the v3.0.7 update also known as the “XP patch.” Again, run the installer in Windows XP compatibility mode.
  • Immediately, restart your machine.

With any luck, XGWorks will now run on Win 7. Of course, this assumes that you even found a copy of the original XGWorks installer or the update! I suggest looking on a Yamaha tools CD-ROM from the late 1990s such as the AN200 tools disk where I found my copy. Then download the appropriate AN or VL editor for XGWorks and install them into the XGWorks directory. Again, you should run these installers in XP compatibility mode.

After a lot of searching and browsing, I did manage to locate the latest version (v1.2.2 released in 2003) of the AN Expert Editor for the PLG-150AN board. This version is OPT-compatible. OPT plug-ins, by the way, are stored in “C:\Program Files (x86)\YAMAHA\OPT Tools” just in case you want to double check the installation. I installed the AN Expert Editor and thought I was home free. Indeed, you can launch the editor via Studio Manager and tweak voices. The editor in standalone mode does not detect the MIDI interface and does not communicate with the AN200. Thank you, Studio Manager.

Version 1.2.2 of the AN Expert Editor, however, really wants to communicate with an AN1x synthesizer and does not handle MIDI bulk dumps from the AN200! The editor refers specifically to “AN1x” bulk dump, not “AN200” like the earlier XGWorks AN200 plug-in. One can still perform a bulk dump/receive through the AN200 front panel and the MIDI-OX utility. Although this is an adequate work around for back-ups, lack of AN200 bulk support may hinder voice management through the editor.

I still need to experiment with the VL editors. At least I have backed up the AN200 voices that I created years ago.

So, there you have it. Some successes, some failures. The old tech is great as long as you don’t let expectations about software support get too high. A deep breath or two along the way definitely helps!