Getting started with the Yamaha MOX workstation

The MOX is a music production synthesizer designed and manufactured by Yamaha. The MOX is part of the Motif line of keyboard workstations. It has the same voices and performances as the Yamaha Motif XS and they sound terrific. It has a sequencer that records notes and other aspects of your performance into patterns and/or songs. Naturally, you can edit performances to fix mistakes, to change song structure, and so forth. The MOX has the same built-in library of musical phrases as the Motif XS. Yamaha calls these phrases “arpeggios” because you need to strike some keys to play the phrases. Arpeggios are quite powerful and can follow the chords that you play, making them a good compositional tool.

The MOX is a deep instrument and let’s you edit even the most minute detail of your sound and music. Therefore, many musicians have trouble diving into the MOX and learning about it. For sure, there are the owner’s and reference manuals, but the best resource is the DVD titled “Discovering the Yamaha MOX.” In the DVD, Phil Clendeninn of Yamaha takes you through many aspects of the MOX and lowers the learning curve. The next best resource for learning about the MOX is the Motifator web site sponsored by Yamaha. MOX and Motif users freely swap tips and techniques on Motifator. Phil, who is know as bad_mister, answers questions from a musician’s point of view.

This page describes my approach to learning about the MOX. I hope you will find the information to be helpful.


Fortunately, I owned a Yamaha TG-500 tone module many years ago and learned how to program it! Yamaha’s basic voice architecture has not changed that much over the years. A basic patch is called a voice and a voice is composed of one to eight elements. Each element is a like a mini, one oscillator synthesizer where the oscillator plays back a sample-driven waveform. The struck note determines the pitch of normal, non-drum instruments. The waveform is sent to a filter stage which sends the filtered sound to the amplitude stage. The filter and amplitude stages can be modulated by separate envelope generators, LFOs and other control sources. Literally, every thing is tweakable.

The eight elements may be combined in a number of useful ways. The most obvious way is to layer sound. With eight elements, you can create some pretty fat sounds! Another interesting way to use elements is Expanded Articulation (XA). XA let’s you create voices that respond to your playing style (detached/legato), assignable function buttons (AF1, AF2), and more. XA conditionally turns on elements to play different waveforms, attacks, etc.

The best way to get started with voice programming is to modify an existing voice. I play orchestral music at my church gig and love woodwinds. So, I studied the “2 Oboes & Bassoon” and “WoodWind Quartet” voices to learn how to layer and split instruments in a voice. (You can layer and split using MOX performances, too.) Start simple. Maybe you just need to take a little reverb off a voice for live performance or maybe take off a little high-frequency edge. By making simple edits, you can learn how to navigate the menu system and to save your voices in user memory. Then, move on to bigger game.

If you want to learn about XA, study a voice like “Oboe 1 AF1” or “Sweet Oboe Legato.” These are monophonic voices that use XA. The “AF1” means that the assignable function button 1 brings in one or more elements. The “Legato” means that XA will a detached or legato playing style in real time and bring in one or more elements with a legato-like transition between notes. Study, tweak, save and experiment.


As mentioned above, MOX arpeggios are powerful. First, learn how to play and control arpeggios from the front panel. Voices and Performances have arpeggios assigned to them right out of the box. Turn on arpeggio playback (See “Using the Arpeggio function” in the owner’s manual) and start playing. I recommend doing this in Performance mode. Choose a performance like “Funky Jump” or whatever shakes your booty and start jamming. Try the different arpeggios by pressing the SF1-SF6 buttons under the display. Some arpeggios are suitable for main sections and some arpeggios are suitable as fills or breaks. You’ll hear it.

Playing arpeggios in Performance mode is fun. Go for it!

Compositional process

Eventually, you may want to write a song or two using the internal MOX sequencer. This process at first glance is daunting. I read the owner’s manual and still had trouble getting started. Yamaha’s documentation is often written from the point of view of a software engineer, namely, “What is this button or menu item supposed to do?” This doesn’t help musicians who are approaching the MOX as a musical instrument.

My writing process is very lead sheet oriented. I usually have a particular song structure in mind (e.g., AABA) and have a chord progression for each section of the song. I don’t really write original music as much as lay down a groove and progression so I can practice a melody or improvisation, AKA a lead sheet.

The MOX sequencer has concepts that are compatible with my process. The MOX has a recording mode called Pattern mode. A pattern is actually a collection of sections, where each section is a set of measures in the overall composition. In a song (pattern) with the AABA form, A and B are sections. Pattern mode lets you:

  • Record individual sections belonging to a pattern.
  • Chain the sections together into an arrangement called a pattern chain.
  • Convert the chained sections into an MOX song.

Fortunately, there are a few chapters in the owner’s manual to lead you through this process.

I suggest starting out with a I-IV-V like “Louie, Louie” or a straight 12-bar blues. Again, starting simple takes some of the complexity out of the overall learning process. Don’t start writing a symphony or a rock opera! Write down a simple lead sheet for the song so that you know the song structure right up front.

Next, check out “Recording in the performance mode” in the owner’s manual. This approach uses arpeggios to lay down basic tracks in an MOX section. MOX sections have one character names (A through P, sixteen sections maximum). Don’t hesitate to give your pattern a real name, though. I usually give the MOX song and MOX pattern the same name so I can relate the pieces and parts in the pattern with the final song. Also, don’t forget to change the section name (letter) when recording a new section or you will overwrite your earlier work.

You will probably need to break down your song structure to a finer level than AABA due to the nature of the available arpeggios. At least, you will want some sections to end in fills and some sections to be straight (no fill or break). Write down these changes on your lead sheet because the visual reference will be handy.

Once you have all of the sections in the pattern, it’s time to chain them together. Check out “Creating a Pattern Chain for converting to a Song” in the owner’s manual. This part of the manual gives a step-by-step method for recording the sections in the pattern chain. It also tells you how to convert the pattern chain to an MOX Song.

If you make a mistake while playing back the sections, don’t worry. You can easily edit the Pattern Chain. I don’t particularly like playing back the sections for an entire song. So, I play in a few sections to start the Pattern Chain, then stop and enter the rest of the chain using Pattern Chain Edit mode. I know the song structure from the lead sheet and it is usually faster and more accurate for me to enter the chain through edit mode. I add measure numbers to the lead sheet so that I can correlate the lead sheet with the measure numbers in the edit mode display.

Some people wish that the MOX had features like a so-called “arranger workstation.” (More about this later.) One way to play the MOX like an arranger workstation is to record pattern sections before a gig then play back the sections during performance. If you have a lot of songs (in MOX patterns), you will probably need some kind of naming method or documentation to remember which section to play when. Unlike an arranger, though, you won’t be able to change the chord progression on-the-fly. The specific chords and notes are recorded into the sections and don’t follow chord changes in real time.

Construction kits

When I first dove into arpeggios, I had trouble assimilating all of the arpeggio types in the built-in library of MOX phrases. There are several thousand arpeggio types and I tried to find some order or pattern to help me relate to all of those musical phrases. Here is my approach.

If you browse through the list of arpeggio types in the MOX data list, you will see certain names like “8Beat Basic”, “ContempRock”, or “Guitar Ballad” appear in the drum, bass and guitar categories. This is not an accident! The arpeggios have a definite organization. Three or four instruments have arpeggios types with the same base name (“ContempRock”). The arpeggio types for each instrument have 3 (possibly 4) main types:

MA_ContempRock, _XS MB_ContempRock _XS, MC_ContempRock _XS

three fill types:

FA_ContempRock _XS, FB_ContempRock _XS, FC_ContempRock _XS

and one break type:

BA_ContempRock _XS

The _XS in the name indicates that the arpeggio uses XS arpeggio features (i.e., follows the played chord).

If you are familiar with arranger keyboards, you should be saying “Hmmm.” And you would be right. Many of the MOX arpeggio types are borrowed from the Yamaha PSR/Tyros series of arranger workstations. The Motif XS was release in 2007 and the arpeggio types are similar to arranger phrases of that era, even the names.

Related arpeggio types can be grouped together into construction kits and each kit can be programmed into an MOX performance. For example, “ContempRock” has arpeggio types for four instruments: drum, two guitars, and bass:

DrPc Rock 3883 MA_ContempRock 4 / 4 4 126 "Power Standard Kit 2"
GtMG Rock 1435 MA_ContempRock _XS 4 / 4 4 126 "Mega 1coil Slap Dist"
BaMG Rock 3026 MA_ContempRock _XS 4 / 4 4 126 "Mega Pick Open Mute"
GtPl Rock 742 MA_ContempRock _XS 4 / 4 4 126 Od/Dist Guitar

These descriptors are taken from the MOX data list manual. Only the first of the arpeggio types for each instrument is shown; the entire construction kit consists of 28 different phrases. One of the guitars (GtMG) and the bass (BaMG) are Megavoice patches. The second guitar (GtPl) is a regular voice. These four arpeggio types are in 4/4 time, are four measures in length and have a suggested 126 BPM tempo. The number in the third field is the arpeggio’s numeric identifier.

What is a Megavoice? In Yamaha-speak, a Megavoice is a cleverly programmed voice that uses velocity switching to produce a musical sound or effect. For example, a Megavoice guitar played with low note velocity sounds a normal plucked string. Played at a high note velocity, the same voice sounds a pitched harmonic. Megavoices provide greater realism and nuance than simple voices.

These four arpeggio types work together as a rhythmic and harmonic team. An arranger keyboard person might call them collectively a “style.” I call them a “construction kit” in the same way EDM people might refer to a group of related loops.

Given my propensity for OCD behavior, I identified and programmed 90+ construction kit performances. On the up side, I learned a lot about arpeggio behavior and programming, and have a great set of construction kits for jamming and composition. On the down side, after programming 10 or so performances, you feel like a full-time software developer. The Yamaha Performance Editor Essential is an iPad app that real speeds up arpeggio programming. It is aptly named and is truly essential. It saves a lot of button clicking and dial spinning on the MOX. I highly recommend all of the Yamaha apps for the Motif/MOX.

I kept lists of all of the construction kits. Here are links to the text files in case you want to program a few construction kits of your own. It’s a good learning experience and soon you will start intermixing arpeggio types just like loops. Performance Editor Essential makes it quite easy to browse and mix.

Rock Megavoice kits
Rock XS kits
Rock ES kits
R & B kits
Jazz kits
World kits

Here is a file with the MOX construction kits and then some. The ZIP file contains an MOX X4A file (a Yamaha MOX ALL file) which is a complete copy of the data on my MOX. You can — and should! — load individual performances from the X4A file. Please see “File Mode” in the MOX reference manual. Be sure to back up the data on your instrument before loading anything. I can’t and won’t be responsible for any slip ups! I have also uploaded a text file with a list of the performances in the USR1 and USR2 performance banks. Find a construction kit that you would like to try and load it into an available slot in your MOX. I do not recommend loading entire performance banks because the opportunity for error is just too great.

Performances named “Dead beef” are empty and available to be overwritten. It’s a crazy name that’s left over from my system programming days. (“Dead beef” can be spelled in hex.)

If you’re an EDM DJ or rap artist, I’m sorry. I don’t work in those styles and didn’t make any construction kits in those genres. All music is good to my ears. Please don’t take offense.

Is the MOX an arranger workstation?

In a word, no. You can surely write and arrange songs on the MOX, but the MOX (and Motif) lack certain arranger features.

First and foremost, the MOX does not have pattern or chord tracks like an arranger keyboard. Chords and other notes produced by the MOX arpeggiator are written directly into sections. Once a section is recorded, its content is fixed. Arranger keyboards typically have an accompaniment track that records the chord and style information which the arranger expands on play back. Often, a musician can step record the chord and style (structure) information into the accompaniment track thereby manually entering a lead sheet. This is very handy for musicians who need to cover tunes at a gig.

The MOX arpeggiator does follow your chords from the keyboard like an arranger. However, the SF1-SF6 buttons are not as well-placed as the section control buttons on an arranger. Further, the MOX lacks an auto-fill capability that adds a fill at the end of a main section in a synchronized way. It takes a fair bit of skill to switch MOX arpeggios on the fly and I extensively rehearse a section before recording. Fortunately, the MOX lets you quickly discard and overwrite a pattern section if you don’t like it.

The MOX provides more depth of editing than an arranger workstation. You can edit voices down to the finest detail, change arpeggio characteristics, create new arpeggios, and edit notes and controller data. Many arranger users wish that they, too, had this level of editing available.

The MOX and Yamaha arrangers share some common technology. Both use Megavoice technology. However, they use the technology differently. Megavoices on each kind of keyboard have much different velocity/sample maps even for voices with the same name. MOX Megavoices are generally simpler and can be played through the keyboard with practice. Arranger Megavoices have more velocity zones and cannot be played manually. They are only appropriate for style playback and are there to make styles as realistic as possible.

Both the MOX and arrangers take advantage of specialized articulation: Expanded Articulation on the MOX and Super Articulation (SA) on higher end arrangers. Both provide greater nuance and legato expression. Many MOX voices are similar to SA voices. XA on the MOX is more flexible and programmable than SA. A musician can use XA to shape and control sound in ways that SA cannot such as key off (release) samples.

Super Articulation 2 (SA2) found on the Tyros workstations is another animal altogether and the MOX (or Motif) does not have an equivalent. SA2 implements the kind of nuanced expression found in expensive sample libraries (VSTs). It used Yamaha’s Articulated Element Modeling (AEM) to stitch samples and sounds together in real time. SA2 requires far more content than SA/XA and greater computing horsepower. Thus, the Tyros workstations are much more expensive.

Copyright © 2014 Paul J. Drongowski