New Yamaha patents

Raining like crazy today, so it’s a good chance to look for new patents and patent applications.

First, here are a few new technical patents assigned to Yamaha. US Patent 9,536,508 titled “Accompaniment data generating apparatus,” awarded on January 3, 2017, describes accompaniment generation using a combination of MIDI and audio waveforms. The accompaniment generator follows chord changes, etc. just like today’s arrangers except that it also plays back melodic (pitched) audio phrases as well as MIDI. This is very likely the nexus of the next generation of Yamaha arrangers (flagship “GENOS“).

US Patent 9,514,728 titled “Musical performance apparatus that emits musical performance tones and control tones for controlling an apparatus,” awarded December 6, 2016, describes a system for near ultrasonic communication between a tablet and a keyboard. Software on the tablet controls tone generation on the keyboard, allowing an app to play back a musical performance (e.g., MIDI over near ultra sonic sound). I suspect that some future Yamaha patent will use this technology for wireless tablet to keyboard communication in place of Bluetooth or WiFi.

The third patent, number 9,489,938 is titled “Sound synthesis method and sound synthesis apparatus” and was awarded on November 8, 2016. The patent abstract says it best:

A sound synthesis apparatus connected to a display device, includes a processor configured to: display a lyric on a screen of the display device; input a pitch based on an operation of a user, after the lyric has been displayed on the screen; and output a piece of waveform data representing a singing sound of the displayed lyric based on the inputted pitch.

Yamaha have a stellar technology base in VOCALOID. I believe they are working toward a real-time system to sing lyrics. This would be a real breakthrough especially for pitch-challenged vocalists like me!

Finally, Yamaha was awarded several design patents covering the external industrial design of synth and arranger keyboards:

    D772,974   PSR-S670   November 29, 2016
    D776,189   Montage    January 10, 2017
    D778,347   YPT-255    February 7, 2017
    D778,346   Reface YC  February 7, 2017
    D778,345   Reface CP  February 7, 2017
    D778,344   Reface DX  February 7, 2017
    D778,343   Reface CS  February 7, 2017
    D778,342   ????       February 7, 2017

The final design patent, D778,342, is perplexing. I haven’t been able to associate it with a product in the North American market. A future product perhaps? It shows a 26-key keyboard with a four way, cursor-like pad. The keyboard design is E-to-F! I/O is on the left side panel.

Reface CP: Yes, I played one!

Finally got a chance to try a Yamaha Reface CP and a Reface DX. Given the genres of music that I play, I’m the most interested in the Reface CP and YC models. The CP and DX were on the floor at Guitar Center, so I decided to try the DX, too. I’ll catch the YC another day when it’s in stock.

As we all know, Guitar Center on Saturday afternoon is not the ideal environment for a trial. I demo’d through headphones mainly to cut out the din from the rug-rats randomly pounding on keyboards and the sonic self-stimulation from the guitar department.

Even under these degraded conditions, the CP sounds excellent. The sound is the stuff, if you know what I mean. (This is a family web site.) Quick impressions of the main sounds:

  • Rhodes I: Nice, mellow, laid back, smooth.
  • Rhodes II: Bright, snarky, barks like a dog (in the good way).
  • Wurli: Solid performer, not too polite, more Ray than Supertramp.
  • Clav: Solid performer, good body.
  • CP: Bright knife, brings make the old days without the back ache.

The effects are excellent. Dial in the drive and/or the appropriate effect and you’re good to cover:

  • Smooth Operator
  • Do It Again
  • What’d I Say
  • Higher Ground

and a whole lot more! Max out the drive and it doesn’t get that annoying digital fizziness. The wah needs to be tuned into the appropriate frequency range, but that’s SOP. The wah can be made so bright that it cuts glass and pokes holes in the eardrums. (Not a recommended practice.)

One part of Yamaha’s marketing pitch truly rings right. The CP is a “live panel” instrument. Be ready to dial everything in with no presets. Very old school and a nice change from menu diving. This kind of interactivity bodes well for the YC organ, when I finally find one.

Mini keys. Sigh. If you’re a player, then expect to MIDI the CP to a real keyboard. That said, Yamaha are right to be proud of these mini-keys. They are very responsive. I didn’t have too much trouble laying down block chords or noodling a solo line. However, three octaves is at least one octave too short for stretching out or laying down full right hand jazz chords while holding down any kind of bass. My chief adjustment problem with the mini-keys is playing left hand stride or arpeggios. You probably saw this coming, too.

Build quality is reasonably good for a small, light-weight instrument. The knobs have a solid feel. I’m somewhat less enamored of the volume slider and octave switch. They feel a little bit cheap. The toggle switches are retro in a Home Depot kind of way. Yamaha had better mind their Chinese suppliers because this board could easily degrade to trash if someone sneaks cut-rate components into it.

The built-in speakers are just OK. You’re probably going to connect the CP to a decent amp and speakers anyway.

Bottom line, the CP sound is nicely crafted. I hope to hear these sounds with this kind of interactivity in a new full-size ax soon.

I had to give the DX a try especially since I had a DX-21 back in the day. Turn on the DX and soon you’re back in 4 OP FM yesteryear. Folks in electronic genres (EDM, etc.) dig FM, but for the kind of music that I play today, I’m not ready to return to FM. If you are into FM, then you really should give the DX a try. It, too, is the real stuff.

Extra credit

It is a long drive to GC, so I tried a few other instruments, too.

I had a discussion with one of the salepeople about the CP, mentioning electric piano, jazz chords, etc. This guy was so desperate to make a sale that he insisted on trying the Roland JD-Xi. Only a Carpathian would recommend a JD-Xi to a retro-jazzer. Well, it turns out, the guys was a Carpathian — a guitar player trying to make sales in the keyboard department. Cheesh.

I did try the JD-Xi. Definitely not my cup of tea. Plus, the Yamaha HQ mini-keys really are much better than the JD-Xi.

The keyboard department had a used Tyros for sale. Yes, the original Mark I. I tried it just for grins and to see how much Tyros and mid-range PSRs have progressed over the years. Needless to say, the PSR-S950 — and definitely the newer S970/S770 — are light-years beyond the Tyros Mark I.

Finally, I gave the DigiTech Trio a try. The Trio is a stomp box accompanist. You put it in learn mode, play a rhythm pattern on guitar, and the Trio identifies the tempo and key. Then, in play mode, the Trio adds a bass and drum backing track selected from one of several genres. The Trio is based on musIQ® technology licensed from 3dB Research Ltd. Some of the backing tracks are provided by PG Music, developers of Band-In-A-Box (BIAB). (There’s quite a music technology mafia in Victoria, BC.) Harman, who own DigiTech, liked MusIQ so much that they bought 3dB Research, too.

I couldn’t teach the Trio a thing. I am a lousy guitarist, I was hungry and I definitely was tired of the sonic assault in the guitar department. The backing tracks that I heard were OK although I think BIAB itself sounds better. If you intend to try one in a store, be sure to read the manual ahead of time…

Yamaha Reface (No, I haven’t played it)

It’s Internet de rigueur to comment on the new Yamaha Reface keyboards — whether you’ve played them or not! So, here goes…

I’m in fat city with an original AN-200 (Prophet-5 plus beat machine in a box), a P-50m (pianos in a box), a CS-01 (monophonic analog synthesizer) and a Nord Electro 2. Although a few of these pieces are gathering dust, they pretty much cover the sonic territory of Reface. DX-wise, I had more than enough FM in the 80’s, thank you, and could always get my old CE-20 repaired, if the urge to frequency modulate should ever overcome me again. Overall, I’m unlikely to take the plunge and buy a Reface keyboard just out of necessity.

First off, I genuinely wish Yamaha all the success in the world with these products. This is the first time that Yamaha have strayed from the AWM2 mainstream in some years. I would hate to see this innovative product line tank and make Yamaha risk-averse. The Reface product line started out as an after-hours skunk works engineering project. The fact that Yamaha committed to manufacturing and marketing Reface is significant and shows real effort to shift their corporate culture. Further, if Reface makes scads of money for Yamaha, then its profits will lift other boats within Yamaha.

Sonically, Reface sounds pretty darned good. The CP and YC are my favorites because they fit with the musical genres that I work in. I hope that some of this technology will migrate into future synthesizer and arranger workstation products. Spectral Component Modeling (which includes Virtual Circuit Modeling) grew from VL technology. The VCM effects in the MOX/Motif are quite good, so please give me more of that! I am pleased to see Yamaha work on organ emulation and would like to see the drawbar control, vibrato/chorus and rotary speaker effects in a new workstation. Both the Motif/MOX and higher-end arrangers are missing the Hammond “vibrato scanner” effect — a significant omission.

So, why am I not buying? Apparently, “mini” keyboard sales are making money for Novation and others, and Yamaha wants a piece of this market. The decision to use mini-keys strongly bifurcates the marketplace — you either like (accept, tolerate) mini-keys or you don’t. I’m a “don’t.” I have tried mini-keys in the past and, well, no thanks. This is not an “anti-Yamaha” position — I lost all interest in the Korg Odyssey, for example, when I learned that it had mini-keys.

The Reface is touted as a portable, take-it-anywhere keyboard. If you’ve been reading this blog, then you know that I’ve put together a portable rig based on the Korg Triton Taktile (TT.) The TT has 49 full-size keys and is not much bigger or heavier than a Reface. The TT key bed is excellent and four octaves is enough room to roam. Although the TT is missing the up-to-date tone generation and effects technology in Reface, it’s a very playable alternative to Reface.

Finally, there is the issue of the $500 street price. I suspect that Yamaha is looking to make a few extra bucks from the early adopters. Korg may have pursued the same strategy with the TT. They brought the TT out at a higher street price and then eventually reduced the price to the current $350 USD. The TT comes with a superb bundle of software plug-ins and offers, making it a terrific bargain. Unfortunately, for Yamaha, this is the competition facing Reface (pun intended) and a $500 street price looks mighty steep for an ax with mini-keys and no free software incentives.

Internet reaction from Reface detractors has been vehement — far over the top, in my opinion. It seems like some people have taken Reface as a personal affront! Please, settle down. Yamaha is a big company and they will surely roll out new products for the rest of us. The Motif refresh is overdue, for example, and must be in the works. It’s good to see Yamaha releasing new products that are out of its mainstream offerings. All the best!