Way back in ’97…

Way back in the 1990s, Yamaha developed and sold the QY series of ultra-portable MIDI sequencers. The penultimate model in the QY series is my pal the QY-70 (purchased in 1997). I still occasionally use the QY today and this post is my mini-shrine.

The QY-70 combines a MIDI sequencer, a tone module, a Chiclet keyboard, and arranger-like chord recognition, styles and controls. The QY is about the size of a chunky video game controller and that’s a lot of functionality for a small box of that size! The tone module is a complete XG-compatible sound generator which still interoperates with XG-compatible software and hardware (like the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer iPad app). The QY can be attached to a standard MIDI keyboard (or computer) through 5-pin DIN plugs. This makes it easier to enter notes and controller data. You can also split the keyboard and play the QY like an arranger with chord recognition in the left hand.

The QY-70 has a lot of content: 128 styles based upon an internal library of 4,167 phrases. A musician can create new phrases from MIDI data and can create new styles from the built-in phrases and user phrases. The QY-70 can import and export Standard MIDI Files (SMF) through the PC-/Mac-based QY Filer program.

Of course, in many ways, the QY-70 shows its age. The XG sounds suffer from short loops and the effects are not up to the quality of modern day algorithms. Chord recognition is a little bit rocky although one can split the keyboard into three zones such that “On Bass” (slash chords) can be played. The QY lacks a true auto-fill, auto-start and auto-stop which are essential for live performance. The QY styles also sound dated. Certain styles (rock and pop) were pretty lame back in 1997 and probably did a lot to give arranger keyboards a bad name.

However, the QY does a great job integrating the sequencer, tone module, arranger functions and content. Workflow is smooth. If necessary, the musician can drill down and edit MIDI event and controller data in scrollable “event list” format. In fact, the QY’s editing support was comparable to computer-based sequencing programs of its day such as Opcode Musicshop or MOTU Freestyle. The editing facilities exceed those of some contemporary, high-end arranger keyboards such as the Yamaha Tyros.

I still use the QY-70 from time to time because its workflow is compatible with my musical process. I don’t really write original tunes, but quite often, I have the lead sheet for a new song that I need to learn. This is where the QY’s pattern and chord tracks come into play. I first annotate the lead sheet with measure numbers, main sections (A or B) and fills. Then I enter the chords, choice of style and style sections (main A, fill-AB, etc.) into the QY. The editor is simple and easy to use although it forces one to scroll linearly through the song. In literally ten minutes, I have a basic accompaniment and then can play (and possibly record) the melody against the backing track.

This is the kind of process that I wish I could use on the Yamaha MOX. The MOX is not an arranger keyboard and does not have the same notion of pattern and chord tracks. The QY’s pattern and chord tracks are independent such that I can easily change the choice of style or style section. This capability is great for trying out a tune with a whole different style/attitude. The style and chords are cooked into a MOX pattern section when the section is recorded and experimenting with style means re-recording entire sections.

You can see QY-like technology at work in modern arranger keyboards and the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer. The Motif, MOX, PSRs, and Tyros all have a built-in library of musical phrases although they use these phrases quite differently. The Motif/MOX expose the phrases as playable arpeggios while the PSR/Tyros keyboards embed the phrases into styles. It’s fun to MIDI the QY to the MOX and play the QY styles through the MOX sound engine. It’s amazing how much better some of those old styles sound when played through a decent sound engine! Unfortunately, you lose the power of an integrated tone module and sequencer.

The Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS) strips away the concept of a style and is 100% phrase-oriented. Songs are broken into sections where each section is a group of phrases that play concurrently. MMS follows the chord progression that is programmed into a song section and harmonizes the phrases in the section. The musician arranges the sections into a full song arrangement. Sounds are produced through software virtual instruments that are better than the QY, but not as good as the MOX.

MMS comes with a library of rock and pop phrases. Yamaha sells the QYPACK that, holy smokes, is a subset of the old QY-70 phrases! Thus, a small part of the QY-70 lives on. The QY phrases get a sonic bump from the virtual instruments. The MOX phrases (arpeggios) are vastly superior since they are derived from later, better-played arranger styles (circa 2007) and the superb MOX sound engine.

All in all, the QY-70 is still a fun, useful tool for song writing and arranging. If there’s a computer science lesson in all of this, it’s the power of good standards like 5-pin MIDI, XG and General MIDI. 5-pin MIDI lets musicians mix and match hardware and software — something which is lost with MIDI-over-USB.

I’ll have more to say about MMS and arranger keyboards in future posts.