Arrangers need respect!

Sometimes I like to kick back and jam to a simple chord progression and a groove. It’s a lot more fun to play to a groove than it is to practice to a boring old metronome.

The Yamaha MOX workstation is full of delicious factory performances where you can play a progression with the left hand and let the right hand roam where it wants to. I’m always impressed by the creativity and talent of professional sound designers and programmers, especially those cats that have a deep understanding of the keyboard architecture and its “content” like samples and musical phrases. It was initially hard to imagine, as a new user, getting my mind around 6,720 phrases (arpeggios) in the MOX let alone making them work for me!

The MOX needs to appeal to a wide range of musical tastes in order to be a successful product. Thus, it has a wide range of factory performances for demo purposes and for getting people started with the ax. I really dig the rock, funk, soul and jazz performances, but I just don’t work in rap, hip-hop or EDM. (Although, chill is interesting…) So, I set out to program my own performances and to overwrite some of the factory performances that didn’t work for me.

I browsed through the list of arpeggios in the data list PDF just trying to find a place to start with 6,720 phrases! Even a casual reader would notice certain names like “Unplugged,” “Pop Shuffle,” or “Slow Blues” showing up again and again. Well, I quickly realized that there is a full back line (drum, bass, guitar) for “Unplugged” or whatever, and that several main, fill and break phrases are available for each instrument. The construction kit idea was born and I programmed 90+ new performances where each performance is based on a construction kit. I wrote about my experience here.

Hmmm, main, fill and break arpeggios look and sound like phrases that were lifted from an arranger like the old Yamaha QY-70. However, unlike the old QY from 1997, the MOX arpeggios sound good. Some of the improvement comes from the MOX samples and sound engine, but the phrases themselves had much better musical groove and style.

So, I took a little time to investigate and audition Yamaha’s current generation of arranger keyboards from the inexpensive PSR-E433 ($249 street) up to the Tyros 4 (now about $4,000 street). Yamaha has recently released the new top-of-the-line Tyros 5, but I haven’t had a chance to try one yet. Sure enough, many of the MOX arpeggios were lifted from Yamaha arranger keyboards circa 2006.

Are the arpeggios better than the old QY-70? You betcha! Even the PSR-E433 outshines the QY and for less than half of what I originally paid for the QY. I wouldn’t hesitate to use some of the sounds and styles in the PSR-E433 at a gig. The Tyros Super Articulation 2 (SA2) voices are amazingly playable. The Tyros tracks your playing in real time and drops in the little nuances which enhance a solo performance. You don’t need to consciously think about switching articulations — just play. The Tyros styles are very realistic and maybe sound too much like a studio recording, if one regards that as a criticism.

Best of all, playing these keyboards is terrific fun! BTW, Korg, Roland, and Ketron make pretty darned good arranger keyboards, too.

So, why did I feel guilty — almost dirty — auditioning arrangers in public, especially at the infamous store which shall not be mentioned? I think arranger keyboards still suffer from the stigma of the dreaded “home organ” with a cheesy rhythm box. These organs were designed for (gasp!) the home musician including the one finger wonder (usually dad) in the family.

First off, we run into the musical class system of professional vs. amateur. I respect the talent, training, practice and skill of the pros. However, since when should amateurs be reduced to the play button on an iPod in order to experience music? Bosh! An amateur is a person who pursues music for pleasure and is most likely to support the arts and artists.

Next, I think arrangers are misperceived as instruments for the home (or the nursing home) even when they have essentially the same sound set and effects as “professional” workstations. Tyros SA2 voices are still way ahead of professional workstations in out-of-the-box playability.

Finally, there is the lingering aftertaste of cheese from a 1960s fallout shelter. The QY and its home organ predecessors really did sound cheesy. This is where contemporary arranger keyboards unfairly take the bad rap. Get thee to a music store! Try one! Don’t forget to feel love, again, and have fun.