New Yamaha workstation at NAMM 2016?

True gearheads are already making predictions and plans for 2016 Winter NAMM, January 21-24, 2016. Winter NAMM rumors abound including “Montage,” the rumored name for the rumored new Yamaha synthesizer workstation.

See the list of new waveforms in the Montage and read my initial review of the Montage8. Update: May 10, 2016.

Find the latest links, pictures, rumors and facts here . Update: January 21, 2016.

Check out some new thoughts about the rumored workstation and preliminary comments . Update: January 18, 2016.

Many folks — myself included — anticipate the release of a new Yamaha synthesizer workstation at the next NAMM. Much has been made of the registered trademark “Montage.” I don’t really care too much about what they call it, as I care about what it will do.

Last month, I posted two articles about the new Yamaha tone generation chip called “SWP70”:

This chip made its first appearance in the new PSR-S770 and PSR-S970 arranger workstations. Lest anyone scoff, the S770 and S970 produce Motif-caliber sounds including the REAL DISTORTION effects added to the Motif XF by the v1.5 update. The previous tone generator (SWP51L) is used throughout the mid- and upper-range Yamaha keyboard products including Clavinova, MOX/MOXF, Motif XS/XF, and Tyros 4/5. The number of tone generator chips varies by product specification and, most notably, sets the maximum available polyphony. A new tone generator chip is a pretty big deal since it will have an impact on all mid- and high-grade electronic instruments across product lines.

My earlier article about the SWP70 is written from the perspective of a computer architect and is way too nerdy for normal people. 🙂 Let me break it down.

Musicians using VST plug-ins within a PC-based DAW are familiar with the concept of sample streaming. In the quest for greater realism and articulation, sample libraries have become huge. These libraries simply cannot fit into fast random access memory (RAM) for playback. As a work-around, a software instrument reads samples from a drive-based library on demand and only a small part of the entire library is resident in RAM at any given time. The process is often called “sample streaming” because the software instrument streams in the samples on demand from a large fast secondary memory like a Solid-State Drive (SSD). The Korg Kronos workstation caught everyone’s attention because it incorporates an x86-based software system that streams samples from an SSD. (For Kronos-related articles, look here and here.)

The SWP70 combines streaming with tone generation. It does not, however, use an SSD for storage. Rather, it subsumes the functionality of the SSD. A moment to explain…

An SSD consists of three major subsystems: SATA controller, temporary storage cache (RAM) and one or more NAND flash memory chips. The NAND flash memory chips typically adhere to the Open NAND Flash Interface (ONFI) standard. This allows expansion and standardized configurability. The SATA controller exchanges commands and data with a computer using the SATA bus protocol. The temporary storage cache holds data which is pre-read (cached) from the NAND flash chips. Caching is required because random access read to NAND flash is too slow; sequential paged access is much faster. Data must be prefetched in order to achieve anything like SATA 1 (2 or 3) transfer speed.

The SWP70 subsumes the SSD functionality. It has its own memory controller and has a side memory port to its own RAM for caching samples. The SWP70 reads samples from its ONFI-compatible NAND flash memory bus and stores the samples in its cache. The tone generation circuitry reads the samples from the cache when it needs them. The SWP70 solution is, effectively, sample streaming without the added cost and latency of SATA bus transfers. The samples coming into the SWP70 from flash are compressed, by the way, and the SWP70 decompresses them.

The SWP70 will very likely make an appearance in the new Yamaha synthesizer workstation. The S770 and S970 do not make full use of the SWP70, so we have yet to see what this chip is fully capable of. We can definitely expect:

  • Much larger wave memory (4GBytes minimum)
  • Greater polyphony (256 voices or more)
  • More simultaneous DSP effects (32 units or more)
  • The demise of the expensive expansion flash DIMMs

I would simply love it if the new workstation implemented some form of Super Articulation 2 voices (now supported by Tyros 5). The raw resources are there.

User-installed expansion memory may be a thing of the past. The current DIMMs plug into a two channel, full parallel memory interface. That interface is gone and the SWP70 communicates with flash NAND through an ONFI-compatible interface. The Motif and Tyros follow-ons will likely reserve space for user samples and expansion packs in built-in flash memory just like the new mid-range PSRs.

What does Yamaha intend to do with all of this polyphony? Current high-end models like the Tyros 5 use two tone generation chips. Yamaha could replace both chips with a single SWP70 and pocket the savings.

Another possibility is to provide advanced features for musical composition that combine MIDI and audio phrases. Here is a list of technologies covered by recent Yamaha patents and patent applications:

  • Beat detection and tracking
  • Chord detection
  • Synchronized playback of MIDI and audio
  • Combined audio/MIDI accompaniment (time-stretch and pitch-shift)
  • Object-oriented phrase-based composition on a time-line
  • Accompaniment generation from chord chart
  • Display musical score synchronized with audio accompaniment
  • Phrase analysis and selection (via similarity index)
  • Near ultra-sonic communication of control information
  • Search for rhythm pattern similar to reference pattern

A few of these technologies are covered by more than one patent — recurring themes, if you will. I could imagine a screen-based composition system that combines audio and MIDI phrases which are automatically selected from a database. The phrases are transparently time-stretched and pitch-shifted. Some of the compositional aids may be implemented in the workstation while others are tablet-based. The tablet communicates with the workstation over near ultra-sonic sound (no wires, no Bluetooth, no wi-fi, no time lag).

Sample-based tone generators already perform pitch-shifting. That’s how a single sample is stretched across multiple keys. A musical phrase can be pitch-shifted in the same way. As to time-stretching, stay tuned.

Some of these features, like accompaniment generation from a textual chord chart, are more likely to appear in a future arranger workstation product. Making product-specific predictions is a risky business, especially if you want to get it right!

Yamaha — the business — is keenly interested in growth and expanding markets. Management sees opportunity in growth markets like China. The need to combine audio phrases with MIDI is driven by non-Western music: time signatures other than 3/4 or 4/4, different scales, different playing techniques and articulations. These concerns are perhaps more relevant to the arranger product lines. However, phrase-based composition that manipulates and warps audio and MIDI transparently is a basic feature of many DAWs. (Think “Ableton Live.”)

One final theme seems to recur. Yamaha appear to be interested in analyzing and accompanying non-keyboard instruments. The market for guitar-driven accompaniment is much wider and deeper than today’s arranger workstations and is a lucrative target.

Here are links to a few earlier articles, including speculation about the new Yamaha synthesizer workstation:

These articles link to further background information. Of course, we’ll know a lot more once Winter NAMM 2016 is underway!

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