(Re)take the stage

A good show starts in the dressing room
And work its way to the stage
— “Get Dressed” by George Clinton

With Winter NAMM 2016 just a few weeks away, I started thinking about how Yamaha might position a new synthesizer workstation (rumored to have the name “Montage”).

Motif has had a long run as a stage instrument favored by many professional touring musicians. It makes a good master controller for a backstage rig and has a wealth of great native sounds. The synth- and piano-key actions are extremely playable with good key-to-sound response.

Over the last few years, Nord and more recently Korg have been taking the stage away from Yamaha. The Nord Stage and Electro series are firmly established as gig boards and the Korg Kronos is coming on strong. Korg products seem to be sprouting everywhere on The Late Night with Stephen Colbert thanks to John Batiste — who can really rock ’em.

I doubt if Yamaha is willing to surrender the stage. This news may disappoint those players who are hoping for a mind-blowing (virtual) analog synthesizer. As a business-person, I would say, “Hmm, we made good money on the stage and in the studio with Motif. Let’s build on that success. Besides, there are plenty of ’boutique’ vendors who make great instruments, like Dave Smith.” Yamaha even granted the name “Sequential” back to Dave Smith.

Yamaha may see the Nord Stage and Korg Kronos as their primary competition for the stage in the synth workstation space. Both instruments combine multiple synthesis techniques into a single integrated package:

  • Wavetable synthesis including sample playback
  • Analog synthesis
  • Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis
  • Acoustic and electric piano emulation
  • B3 and combo organ emulation

So, which pieces are missing in the current Motif XF? Are you thinking “Reface” yet?

Let’s look at these aspects in turn.

Wavetable synthesis and sample playback

More than a few Internet posters slag AWM (Advanced Wave Memory). I suspect that many of these people would like real analog or modeled analog instead. That’s OK by me because they probably need those sounds for their music. However, there is a wide customer base who need “traditional” instruments (brass, strings, woodwinds, etc.) where sample-playback still rules. AWM is a very successful sample-playback engine and I don’t see Yamaha abandoning AWM.

Yamaha have a new tone generation engine, the SWP70 . The SWP70 is already at work in the PSR-S970 and PSR-S770 arranger workstations . The SWP70 is more than a sample-playback engine as it also performs programmable digital signal processing for effects and more. The S970 implements Motif-quality sounds and effects including Virtual Circuit Modeling (VCM) and the Real Distortion effects that were added to Motif XF in the v1.5 update.

Other posters feel that an SSD is essential for sample streaming. SSD is only one approach, however, and that approach requires a SATA interface for sample I/O. SSD is not necessarily the cheapest design nor does it minimize latency. Yamaha deconstructed the SSD functionality, threw away the SATA interface cost and latency, implemented an Open NAND Flash Interface (ONFI), and embedded sample data caching into the SWP70. The SWP70 has all of the extensibility of NAND flash without the cost of the SATA controller and without SATA bus latency.

As demonstrated by the S970 and S770, the SWP70 is ready to roll for sample-playback and effects processing.

Analog synthesis and FM synthesis

I contend that the Reface products are a field test for SWP70-based synthesis methods that are not tested by the S970 and S770. I have not yet seen absolute evidence that Reface keyboards use the SWP70, but my suspicion is strong.

The Reface CS and Reface DX demonstrate analog physical modeling and 4-operator FM sound synthesis, probably using the SWP70. Please remember that the SWP70 is not just sample-playback; there are digital signal processors in there. These DSP units can be programmed for effects (reverb, etc.) or sound generation. A computer is a computer whether it is an x86 architecture machine or an embedded DSP. Both the Reface CS and Reface DX implement VCM effects, too.

Two more general points about the Reface line. First, the Reface keyboards use an ARM architecture (FM3) processor for control and user interface. This is a major departure from past Yamaha practice. Next, all four keyboards operate on battery power (six “AA” batteries). Low power operation is a significant engineering accomplishment and means that the SWP70 could be deployed in a wide range of portable products — not true of the previous generation SWP51L tone generator.

Acoustic and electric piano emulation

Yamaha demonstrated its commitment to the stage when it introduced the CP1 stage piano and its siblings. The CP1 was well-received.

The CP1 is a bit of a breakthrough product technically. The acoustic piano is implemented mainly through sample-playback. The CP1 physical wave memory is only 128 MBytes. Yamaha eventually released the CP1 acoustic piano samples for Motif XF as part of the Motif XF Premium Collection. We should expect a CP1-level piano or better in the new workstation.

Yamaha “got away” with so few samples overall because the CP1 electric pianos are implemented using Spectral Component Modeling (SCM). “SCM” covers a family of technologies including spectral modeling synthesis (SMS). SMS replaces gobs of samples with computation (AKA “modeling”). SMS eliminates the nasty sonic artifacts due to velocity switched sample-playback because, well, there aren’t any samples, just lots of computations to be performed very quickly.

The Reface CP uses SCM to implement its electric pianos. The Reface CP sounds great. (See my Reface CP snap review.) The Reface CP re-introduces Formulated Digital Sound Processing (FDSP) to model the electric piano pickup. I expect to see SCM electric pianos and a subset of FDSP in the new workstation.

B3 and combo organ emulation

B3 emulation has never been Motif’s strong suit. Nord, in particular, excel at B3 and rotary speaker emulation. Hopefully, Yamaha have addressed this defficiency by incorporating the Reface YC technology into their new workstation.

The Reface YC provides a live front panel that lets a player control the B3 drawbars, percussion, vibrato and rotary speaker on the fly. The ability to play the bars, etc. is essential to B3 technique. A few important improvements include a rotary speaker brake (STOP) position as well as SLOW and FAST, a vibrato/chorus section, and a full percussion section. Hopefully, the vibrato/chorus section emulates the Hammond vibrato/chorus scanner — an effect that is lacking in the Motif (and Tyros/PSR, for that matter).

The Reface YC implements B3 tonewheels through AWM. Is sample-playback better than Nord’s modeling? Of course, a lot rides on rotary speaker simulation, too. I can’t wait to find out. So far, I haven’t been able to find a Reface YC to try one out! If Yamaha wants to take the stage, again, it needs to nail this one.

The bottom line

Yamaha surely have the basic technology to make a machine for stage performers. Hopefully, they have implemented a user interface that is easy to learn, responsive and fun to play — kind of like the live front panels in the Reface series.

The Tyros and the new S770/S970 arrangers sport large displays. The S770 and S970 wide-screens are really nice. Lately, Yamaha have placed greater emphasis on skeuomorphic user interfaces with virtual knobs, sliders, etc. Whether Yamaha goes for a touch panel, only Yamaha knows at this point. It would be kind of cool to have virtual Reface front panels with finger-tweaking controls. But, would it be playable?

Sixteen days to go to Winter NAMM 2016 …

If you liked this article, you might enjoy:

New Yamaha workstation at NAMM 2016?
Reface YC and DX teardowns
The SWP70 tone generator
PSR-S770 and S970 internal architecture
Reface CP: Yes, I played one!

Copyright (c) 2016 Paul J. Drongowski