Whither XG?

Once upon a time, the hardware tone module was king of “desktop music production.” A wide range of options were available from pro-level tone modules to desktop tone generators to ISA/PCI cards. The General MIDI (GM) standard came about in this era because people wanted to have consistent playback across hardware platforms.

Every manufacturer offered one or more modules. Two players — Roland and Yamaha — jumped in big. Each company offered desktop tone modules adhering to their own semi-proprietary extensions of the General MIDI standard. Roland had its GS while Yamaha had its XG.

Then, software plug-ins killed the tone module.

Native, computer-based signal processing became fast enough that hardware tone generation was no longer required.

Roland GS, meanwhile, has gone on relatively hard times. Today, Roland offers two products that are up-front GS: Mobile Studio Canvas and Sound Canvas for iOS. The Mobile Studio Canvas is a pricey little number that streets out at $429 USD. Not exactly cheap. Sound Canvas for iOS is an iOS app supporting Inter-App Audio and Audiobus. Roland claim that the app and its host can act as a tone module through a suitable Core MIDI compatible interface. Mobile Studio Canvas is $19.99 through the Apple App Store.

The Virtual Sound Canvas was a VST- and DXi-compatible, multi-timbral soft synth. Unfortunately, for desktop users, the Roland Virtual Sound Canvas (VSC-MP1) was discontinued.

Yamaha XG is battered, but is still breathing. XG-based hardware tone modules are nearly extinct. (Check ebay…) However, current arrangers from Yamaha offers XG compatibility, even if it’s only the XGlite subset. In fact, XG is the de facto voice architecture on arranger keyboards. Edit a voice on an arranger and you are tweaking XG parameters. Of course, this means that you must have space for an arranger on your desktop. A half-rack 1U tone module is far more compact and desktop-friendly.

“Pro” keyboardists still turn up their noses at GS, XG and arrangers. A large part of this is guilt by association with General MIDI. Beneath it all in Yamaha-land, the synths and the arrangers share hardware technology such as CPUs and tone generation circuits. XG is essentially a wrapper around pro-level samples and tone generation.

XG also lives at the heart of the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS) app. MMS has a software-based XG engine inside. It supports 9 reverb, 4 chorus and 26 variation effects. Yamaha cut down the XGlite sound set to just 42 GM voices plus 42 or so synth voices. In case you’re interested, I’ve documented many of the XG features in MMS here:

Mobile Music Sequencer Reference
Make music with MMS on PSR/TYROS

MMS demonstrates that it’s possible to host XG on an iPad with an ARM processor. Will Yamaha answer Roland’s Sound Canvas for iOS?

Needing an XG-compatible VST soft synth on Windows, I went in search of one and stumbled onto a retro cult. Turns out, there are a whole lot of other people who would like an XG-compatible VSTi on Windows, too.

First, there are enthusiasts who are trying to resurrect the S-YXG50 soft synthesizer on Windows 7 (and earlier). The S-YXG50 uses either a 2MByte or 4MByte wave table, so we’re not talking stellar sound quality. I experimented with S-YXG50 on Windows 7 with no success.

Then, there are enthusiasts who take old daughter boards (DB50XG or DB60XG) and fashion standalone tone modules from them. (Just add a power supply and a MIDI interface.) These daughter boards have a 4MByte wave table. Like XG tone modules, XG daughter boards are scarce as hen’s teeth.

The issue that always rears its head with this old tech is the availability of drivers. You can find the occasional Yamaha-based sound card or SW1000XG, but driver support usually stops with Windows XP (at best).

Finally, another sub-cult has discovered the joys of Yamaha MidRadio. MidRadio is a MIDI player application for Windows 8 (and earlier). It is XGlite compatible with 361 regular voices, 10 drum kits and 2 SFX kits. A few of the regular voices are so-called “panel voices” in the PSR E-series — an added bonus! Wave table size is about 11MBytes. And, guess what? It sounds pretty darned good. Here are links to the list of voices and effects in MidRadio version 7:

List of MidRadio voices and effects

If you try MidRadio, be prepared to use Google translate and be prepared to wade through a Japanese-only user interface.

A few intrepid souls discovered that the MidRadio sound engine (SGP2.DLL) is just a few bricks short of being a VST software instrument (VSTi). They developed a patch which turns the DLL into a VSTi. Yes, the patch works and I can send XG-compliant MIDI from Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live and VSTHost to SGP2. It plays rather nicely.

In general, I do not recommend this approach. Anytime you download a patch from the Web and execute it, you put the privacy and security of your computer and its information at risk.

Given this enormous red flag, I wish that Yamaha would sell an XG-compatible VSTi for Windows and Mac. There are users waiting for properly a supported, street legal XG plug-in soft synth at a reasonable price. And certainly, we wouldn’t turn down a free one.

DigiTech Trio needs a quick upgrade

The DigiTech TRIO is one of those product that I want to love. The basic idea is commercially viable — an assistant that learns a simple song then adds bass and drum parts. There is some smart technology and smart people behind the TRIO. It is truly innovative. (Does the world really need another distortion pedal?)

DigiTech needs to improve both the product and the customer retail experience in order to make the TRIO successful.

Here’s my experience. I read a few on-line reviews beforehand and knew that it was important to “keep it simple” when starting out with the TRIO. I did not, however, read the operations manual. A mistake, perhaps, but most potential customers do not read the manual ahead of time. Heck, they frequently do not read the manual at all.

The Guitar Center staff did not know that there is a DigiTech TRIO. They needed to look up the TRIO in the inventory database. The clerk struggled to provide power to the TRIO. No help with actual operations here.

Left alone with the TRIO, it took me several moments to suss out LEARN mode and PLAY mode. I didn’t immediately realize that I needed to hold the footswitch in order to switch modes. Even a simple graphic or hint on the front panel — “Hold to change between PLAY and LEARN mode” — would have been enormously helpful.

I’m not the greatest guitar and barely know half-a-dozen chords. I decided to start out slow and simple in LEARN mode by playing single notes in time on the low E string. I also went Ramone and played power chords. Not only didn’t the TRIO learn or add a simple bass/drum pattern in E, there was no feedback other than a blinking LED. The TRIO should at least learn the tempo and add a simple beat ASAP, even if it’s just snare taps. A simple beat would help the user to play in time and provide a measure of positive feedback. Many players are pretty bad like me and they need help.

Eventually, I gave up on LEARN mode and switched to PLAY mode. At least I was able to audition some of the backing tracks. Then, I drove home.

DigiTech need to develop and release a Mark II update — and soon. First off, the TRIO needs to store and recall songs. If a user invests a lot of effort in teaching the TRIO a song, they will want to save it for later. More importantly, storage should be preloaded with songs in the most common keys and chord progressions. For example, there should be a few simple blues I-IV-V patterns in E, A and D. There should be funk patterns like a simple ii-V (Dm-G7) or I7(#9) (E7(#9)).

Yeah, everybody hates presets. However, pre-stored songs would really help the retail experience. Lame players like me can listen to and play to sample songs even if we can’t figure out LEARN mode. Also, one common complaint in on-line forums comes from blues players who can’t wring a simple blues backing out of the TRIO. Pre-stored songs would give the end user value while they learn LEARN mode and develop backing tracks of their own.

The big insight from this experience is the need for instant gratification, most preferably without reading the manual. A musical device or instrument should do something satisfying immediately, right out of the box. That’s where the Yamaha Reface CP is such a kick. It has a live panel and the Reface CP is instant musical fun. Guitarists expect to plug in and make noise. Instant gratification in the store converts to impulse sales. The TRIO, unfortunately, is a complicated lump and the retail staff are no help.

I hope that DigiTech takes these suggestions to heart. The TRIO concept has a lot of musical and sales potential. It just needs to provide a better, immediate user experience in the store and in the studio.

Reface CP: Yes, I played one!

Finally got a chance to try a Yamaha Reface CP and a Reface DX. Given the genres of music that I play, I’m the most interested in the Reface CP and YC models. The CP and DX were on the floor at Guitar Center, so I decided to try the DX, too. I’ll catch the YC another day when it’s in stock.

As we all know, Guitar Center on Saturday afternoon is not the ideal environment for a trial. I demo’d through headphones mainly to cut out the din from the rug-rats randomly pounding on keyboards and the sonic self-stimulation from the guitar department.

Even under these degraded conditions, the CP sounds excellent. The sound is the stuff, if you know what I mean. (This is a family web site.) Quick impressions of the main sounds:

  • Rhodes I: Nice, mellow, laid back, smooth.
  • Rhodes II: Bright, snarky, barks like a dog (in the good way).
  • Wurli: Solid performer, not too polite, more Ray than Supertramp.
  • Clav: Solid performer, good body.
  • CP: Bright knife, brings make the old days without the back ache.

The effects are excellent. Dial in the drive and/or the appropriate effect and you’re good to cover:

  • Smooth Operator
  • Do It Again
  • What’d I Say
  • Higher Ground

and a whole lot more! Max out the drive and it doesn’t get that annoying digital fizziness. The wah needs to be tuned into the appropriate frequency range, but that’s SOP. The wah can be made so bright that it cuts glass and pokes holes in the eardrums. (Not a recommended practice.)

One part of Yamaha’s marketing pitch truly rings right. The CP is a “live panel” instrument. Be ready to dial everything in with no presets. Very old school and a nice change from menu diving. This kind of interactivity bodes well for the YC organ, when I finally find one.

Mini keys. Sigh. If you’re a player, then expect to MIDI the CP to a real keyboard. That said, Yamaha are right to be proud of these mini-keys. They are very responsive. I didn’t have too much trouble laying down block chords or noodling a solo line. However, three octaves is at least one octave too short for stretching out or laying down full right hand jazz chords while holding down any kind of bass. My chief adjustment problem with the mini-keys is playing left hand stride or arpeggios. You probably saw this coming, too.

Build quality is reasonably good for a small, light-weight instrument. The knobs have a solid feel. I’m somewhat less enamored of the volume slider and octave switch. They feel a little bit cheap. The toggle switches are retro in a Home Depot kind of way. Yamaha had better mind their Chinese suppliers because this board could easily degrade to trash if someone sneaks cut-rate components into it.

The built-in speakers are just OK. You’re probably going to connect the CP to a decent amp and speakers anyway.

Bottom line, the CP sound is nicely crafted. I hope to hear these sounds with this kind of interactivity in a new full-size ax soon.

I had to give the DX a try especially since I had a DX-21 back in the day. Turn on the DX and soon you’re back in 4 OP FM yesteryear. Folks in electronic genres (EDM, etc.) dig FM, but for the kind of music that I play today, I’m not ready to return to FM. If you are into FM, then you really should give the DX a try. It, too, is the real stuff.

Extra credit

It is a long drive to GC, so I tried a few other instruments, too.

I had a discussion with one of the salepeople about the CP, mentioning electric piano, jazz chords, etc. This guy was so desperate to make a sale that he insisted on trying the Roland JD-Xi. Only a Carpathian would recommend a JD-Xi to a retro-jazzer. Well, it turns out, the guys was a Carpathian — a guitar player trying to make sales in the keyboard department. Cheesh.

I did try the JD-Xi. Definitely not my cup of tea. Plus, the Yamaha HQ mini-keys really are much better than the JD-Xi.

The keyboard department had a used Tyros for sale. Yes, the original Mark I. I tried it just for grins and to see how much Tyros and mid-range PSRs have progressed over the years. Needless to say, the PSR-S950 — and definitely the newer S970/S770 — are light-years beyond the Tyros Mark I.

Finally, I gave the DigiTech Trio a try. The Trio is a stomp box accompanist. You put it in learn mode, play a rhythm pattern on guitar, and the Trio identifies the tempo and key. Then, in play mode, the Trio adds a bass and drum backing track selected from one of several genres. The Trio is based on musIQ® technology licensed from 3dB Research Ltd. Some of the backing tracks are provided by PG Music, developers of Band-In-A-Box (BIAB). (There’s quite a music technology mafia in Victoria, BC.) Harman, who own DigiTech, liked MusIQ so much that they bought 3dB Research, too.

I couldn’t teach the Trio a thing. I am a lousy guitarist, I was hungry and I definitely was tired of the sonic assault in the guitar department. The backing tracks that I heard were OK although I think BIAB itself sounds better. If you intend to try one in a store, be sure to read the manual ahead of time…

Serial memory and tone generation

Ah, September. Soon it will be time to speculate about new products at the Winter 2016 NAMM!

Every now and again, I take a pass through recent patent filings from Yamaha to get an idea about future product developments. Of course, the tech in a filing may never make it to product. However, a few common threads begin to appear over time.

This post starts with a patent application having the inauspicious title, “Sound Generation Apparatus.” This US application 2014/0123835 was filed on November 5, 2013 and is based on Japanese patent -244002, which was filed November 5, 2012.

First, a little background about the Yamaha tone generation architecture. Yamaha has used the same overall architecture for mid- and high-end workstations and tone modules since the mid-1990s. (TG-500, anyone?) These products employ one or more large scale integrated circuits for tone generation. Current versions of the tone generator IC, the SWP51L, has two dedicated memory channels for waveform data. Each channel has a 16-bit parallel data bus and a parallel address bus (24 or more bits wide). The parallel interface takes at least 40 pins per channel.

That’s a lot of incoming and outgoing connections (80 plus pins for both channels). IC packaging costs are in the range of $2.50 USD to $4.50 per pin. So, there is a direct relationship between the number of IC pins and manufacturing cost. Ultimately, this cost has a real effect on profit and the final price of the product.

The Yamaha patent application describes a serial interface for waveform memory in place of a parallel interface. The serial interface requires six pins per channel. Instead of 80 pins, the serial interface approach uses only 12, providing an 8 to 1 savings in packaging costs alone.

The application cites the Winbond 25Q series as the kind of flash memory to be supported by the serial interface. The largest 25Q device has a 64MByte capacity and can sustain a 40MByte/second transfer rate (quad SPI mode). This is nearly sufficient bandwidth to drive 128 44,100Hz stereo polyphonic voices (about 45MBytes/sec).

If you do the math that’s 128 times 44,100Hz times eight bytes. Two successive samples are required in order to perform interpolation although the oldest sample could be cached.

The product implications are interesting. At the low end of the scale (one or two channels), the device footprint is much smaller. The small size allows a corresponding decrease in the size of the product. Maybe a guitar pedal stomp box?

The high end of the scale is more intriguing. It becomes possible to build a tone generator IC with four or even eight independent channels of tone generation where each channel is driven by its own memory stream. We’re talking 1,024 polyphonic voices in the same LSI footprint as today’s SWP51L.

There are design implications for entry-level keyboard products, too. The SWL01 system on a chip (SOC) integrates both CPU and tone generator onto the same IC. Waveform data (samples) travel on the same bus as CPU instructions and data. A serial SPI interface requires only six pins and might let designers shift waveform storage from ROM on the system bus to a dedicated memory bus and channel. Software might be able to perform new tasks such as variation effects with more bandwidth available to the CPU on the system bus.

I feel confident to predict that the next generation of Standard Wave Processor (SWP) is in development. The SWP51L has been around for a while (including Tyros5). Here are a few key products and members of the SWP50 family:

    Product   Year  TG chip
    --------  ----  -------
    Tyros     2002  SWP50
    Motif XS  2007  SWP51
    Tyros 3   2008  SWP51B
    Tyros 5   2013  SWP51L

It is definitely time for a new design, not an incremental refresh.

Yamaha sees its internal integrated circuit capability as a strategic advantage. Up to this point, Yamaha have both designed and fabricated its own ICs. Last year, Yamaha transferred its fabrication line to Phenitec Semiconductor. Yep, Yamaha has gone fabless. This gets a huge capital expense off its balance sheet. It also means that Yamaha is under less pressure to reuse the same parts across product lines in order to get its IC manufacturing volume up. This is one reason why the SWP51 has had such long legs and why the SWL01 is used across all of the E-series arrangers. Volume, volume, volume! The pressure to (re)use Yamaha’s own IC solutions has been reduced.

We’ll see if Johnny can read (defenses) against Dick LeBeau. Go Browns!

Scat voices the newest Yamaha arrangers

The original Jazz Scat voices expansion pack for the Yamaha PSR-S950 arranger workstation remains a popular part of the site. With the Tyros5, Yamaha took a different direction and format for expansion packs. The new approach to expansion pack development and use is embodied in the Yamaha Expansion Manager, or “YEM” for short. Up to now, Tyros5 users have not been able to load and use the original Jazz Scat voices expansion pack.

That’s all changed! I’m pleased to announce the alpha test version of the Jazz Scat voices expansion pack for YEM-compatible Yamaha arranger workstations. The list of YEM-compatible arrangers include the Tyros5, PSR-S670, PSR-S770 and PSR-S970 workstations.

Why “alpha test?” At this time, I do not have access to a YEM-compatible workstation in order to do my own testing. (I’m happy with the S950, thanks.) In response to requests, however, I have produced a new YEM-compatible expansion pack. I’ve done as much testing as I can in YEM. Now, it’s your turn!

The expansion pack is in YEM project file format, sometimes called a “PPF file” because of its file extension. The PPF file must first be loaded into YEM. Once it is in YEM, you can send it to your keyboard, generate an install file (PPI format), copy voices to your own custom pack and even edit the voices themselves. That’s a lot of flexibility!

If you encounter problems, please post your issues to the PSR Tutorial Forum . If you are a PSR/Tyros user, you really should participate at the forum anyway. It’s a great place to meet other PSR/Tyros users and to learn new techniques.

Here is a link to the expansion pack. You need to download and UNZIP this file, read the README_PACK_YEM.TXT file, and then load the pack into the Yamaha Expansion Manager.

Both the scat voice expansion pack and the scat voice samples are released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License
ScatVoices and ScatVoice samples by Paul J. Drongowski are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

You are free to use the expansion pack voice or samples (even for commercial purposes) as long as you provide a link to http://sandsoftwaresound.net from your own web site AND/OR explicitly credit me in your creative work, e.g., “Scat samples/voice by Paul J. Drongowski”.

If you would like to know more about the sampling and voice design process, please read this post. The original S750/S950 compatible pack is here. Or, feel free to listen to the MP3 demo.