Montage tidbits

Martin Harris. Now, there’s a person who loves his job!

Even though the camera work is a little shaky, I recommend the Montage demonstration by Martin Harris of Yamaha.

Martin’s demo concentrates on acoustic and electric pianos, section and solo strings, brass, Irish whistle and pads — all from a cinematic perspective. Not much EDM here.

I like Martin’s demonstrations because he adds information about sample and voice development. Even though he calls it a “whistle stop tour,” it’s more like a tour of the world. Yamaha have traveled the world to sample the best instruments and players. Here are a few examples as mentioned by Martin:

  • Section and solo strings: Seattle
  • Brass: Los Angeles (L.A. horns)
  • Classical men’s choir: Germany
  • Classical boy’s choir: Estonia
  • Flamenco guitar: Madrid
  • Brazilian percussion: Sao Paulo
  • Turkish percussion: Istanbul
  • Iranian percussion: Tehran
  • Middle Eastern percussion: Bahrain
  • Irish whistle: Ireland

Before people complain about the cost of a top-of-the-line keyboard like the Montage or Tyros, they really should take the cost and time of sampling and voice development into account!

The Montage CFX grand piano is all new sampling. Martin stated the compressed total waveform size as 300 Mbytes, approaching 1 GBytes uncompressed. At demo time (April 2016), the Montage CFX was the biggest sampled piano in the Yamaha line. The Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos are also new sampling.

Guitars also got an update. Martin and Gibson steel guitars were sampled. The sampled Telecaster is a $60,000, 1957 vintage Tele. Martin mention how, in the past, Yamaha removed the dirt from samples. Today they leave in some of the idiosynracies, charm and character.

If you enjoyed Martin’s demo, here are a few blog posts to check out. Last April, I made a list of new waveforms in the Montage vs. the Motif XF. I also wrote a thought piece about waveform memory size and sample development.

New sound development, including sampling, is a continual, on-going process at Yamaha. In an era when waveform memory is relatively big and inexpensive, sound developers need to work overtime in order to fill available memory space. I think the limiting factor now is the amount of time and human resources available to produce new samples and to program new expressive voices.

Copyright © 2017 Paul J. Drongowski

Montage: The hardware platform

The Yamaha Montage is one heck of a fine keyboard! Let’s take a quick look inside.

The Montage hardware is a new platform. Sure, there are a few things borrowed from older products, but that’s like blaming Apple for reusing a USB controller. The digital and analog electronics are all new.

There are several printed circuit boards and I will only cover the main PCBs.

  • PNL/PNR: Handles the front panel buttons, knobs, sliders, master volume and gain.
  • LCD: Bridge between the LCD controller in the main CPU and the 7inch TFT WVGA LCD touch panel.
  • DJK: Digital jacks (foot controllers, foot switch, sustain, MIDI)
  • AJK: Analog electronics and jacks (DACs, ADC, balanced/unbalanced outputs, analog input, phones).
  • DM: Digital electronics (main CPU, tone generators, external USB and Ethernet interfaces).

A few ports and connections are “Debug only” and are not populated or used in normal operation. The Ethernet port to the main CPU is debug only, for example.

The separation of the digital and analog electronics and jacks is significant. When the Montage was first introduced, I mentioned that “Pure Analog Circuit (PAC)” appeared to be an exercise in old school engineering that pays careful attention to board layout, component selection and clean power. The AJK board bears this out. The AJK board contains the stereo DAC and ADC components:

  • Audio ADC: Asahi Kasei AK5381VT-E2 24-bit ADC (96KHz max)
  • Audio DAC assignable output: Asahi Kasei AK4393VM-E2 24-bit DAC (96KHz max)
  • Audio DAC main output and phones: Asahi Kasei AK4393VM-E2 24-bit DAC

The ADC and DACs communicate with the DM board over an audio backbone. Physical separation keeps digital circuits (with fast rise/fall times) away from analog signal paths. The AJK board also has its own voltage regulators. They ain’t kiddin’ about PAC!

Yamaha adopted ARM architecture processors for the first time in the Reface series. (See my article about the Reface CS and Reface DX internals). Montage continues this trend.

  • The PNL board contains an MB9AF141NA ARM microcontroller with a 40MHz internal clock. The ARM microcontroller is assisted by a Toshiba TMP89FW24AFG microcontroller (SOC) operating at 10MHz. In Yamaha’s terminology, this ARM is a “sub CPU.”
  • The main CPU is an AM3352BZCZ80 ARM microprocessor with an 800MHz CPU clock. It is a Texas Instruments Sitara ARM Cortex-A8 single core MPU.

The ARM Cortex-A8 is a major departure from the Motif line which employed MIPS architecture microprocessors (such as the Toshiba TX4939C) as the main CPU.

We first saw the new SWP70 tone generator in the Yamaha PSR-S970 arranger workstation. The SWP70 replaces the SWP51L which has been the mainstay in mid- to upper-tier Yamaha products for several years. Top-tier products (e.g., Motif XF and Tyros 5) have two SWP51L tone generator chips which together share a common wave memory. The two SWP51Ls split AWM2 voice and DSP duties.

So, it isn’t any surprise to see two SWP70s in the Montage. What is suprising, however, is how the Montage’s two SWP70s are deployed. The two SWP70s are not connected in the “classic” structure. Instead, the microarchitecture is assymetric.

  • TG Master: The TG Master is connected to wave ROM (flash), wave RAM (SDRAM), and DSP RAM (SDRAM).
  • TG Slave: The TG Slave is connected to DSP RAM (SDRAM) and an SSP2 processor (through an ASIC gate array bridge).

I’ll have more to say about the SSP2 in a moment. The bridge connects the TG Slave’s serial audio interface to the SSP2 and the bridge carries several channels of digital audio (I2S format) to/from the TG Slave and the SSP2.

Of course, one’s first thought is to presume that the TG Master handles AWM2 voices and the TG Slave handles FM-X voices. There’s a lot of generation and DSP resources within an SWP70, so I doubt if they are left idle in the TG Slave even though the TG Slave does not have memory memory! There is a sixteen bit wide bus between the TG Master and Slave — not really sufficient to carry the sample bandwidth needed for AWM2 tone generation, however.

Each SWP70 has 16MBytes of SDRAM for DSP working memory. The TG Master has 32MB of Wave RAM. The Wave RAM is a cache for samples that are read from wave flash. (See my earlier article about the SWP70 and U.S. Patent 9,040,800.) Commodity NAND flash (as one would find in an SSD) favors sequential access; random access is horribly slow. The Wave RAM caches samples that are read from NAND flash.

Now, the big question: How much wave memory? The Montage wave memory consists of four Spansion (Cypress) S34ML08G101TFI000 8Gbit, ONFI-compliant devices with a total physical capacity of 4GBytes. In classic fashion, the memory is separated into upper and lower bytes. The Yamaha specifications state wave size as, “Preset: 5.67 GB (when converted to 16 bit linear format), User: 1.75 GB.” Assuming a 2.52 aggregate compression factor, the arithmetic works out in the following way:

    4GB physical = (5.67GB / 2.52) preset + 1.75GB user

The Motif series has an aggregate compression factor in this ballpark.

The Montage has a common multi-channel serial audio bus (I2S format) that interconnects the main CPU, TG Master, TG Slave, SSP2, ADC and audio DACs. This is the digital audio backbone. The bus conveys digital audio from the generators and effects on the DM board to (from) the converters on the AJK board.

The SSP2 is a Yamaha proprietary processor which is used in many products: Reface CS, Reface DX, PSR-S950 workstation, etc. The SSP2 integrates signal processing, USB, serial audio, and more. It is the “designated hitter” for Yamaha designs. When Yamaha needs a flexible chip with DSP and interfacing skills, it calls on the SSP2. (Roland have a similar jack of all trades called the “ESC2.”)

The Montage’s SSP2 has only 2MBytes of NOR flash memory on its CPU bus. That’s not a lot of program space! The SSP2’s USB port is connected to the external “USB TO HOST” interface. The SSP’s other interfaces convey digital audio to/from the digital audio backbone and the TG Slave. Thus, the SSP2’s main role is to route digital audio. The Montage can send 16 channels and receive 3 channels of stereo 24 bit/44.1 kHz digital audio to/from an external computer or iOS device

Commentary and opinion

I hope you find this quick overview to be informative and helpful. I try to present the system structure objectively without too much speculation.

Please discuss the Montage responsibly! Yamaha have a definite design style which exploits their expertise in very large scale integration (VLSI) as a strategic advantage. When Yamaha specify maximum polyphony as “128 AWM2 and 128 FM-X”, that’s 128 each all day long without any dependencies on the number of effects in use, etc. Some people lament this approach and wish that Yamaha would base their systems on x86 even though x86 is not always the best choice for embedded systems. Yamaha are no strangers to x86 having obtained many patents covering x86-based tone generation back in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Before anyone carries on about SSDs and SATA, please study the design of the SWP70. The SWP70 memory interface has all of the power, flexibility and Open NAND Flash Interface (ONFI) compatibility as an SSD without the need for SATA bus protocol.

Users may rightfully be disappointed at the lack of user-installable expansion memory. Yamaha are not evil; they simply do not have a convenient way to provide user-installable memory at the chip level. I think users should lobby for more built-in expansion memory, but they shouldn’t delve into conspiracy theories about Yamaha’s engineering or managerial practice.

Some wag will undoubtably complain about “memory parts cost only $10,” “my jump drive is 32GBytes,” “the need to stream 100s of gigabytes,” etc. Fine. But, an instrument design is a just one design. It is what it is is. One should listen to the Montage with their ears, then question whether gobs of samples would improve the playability, sound or expression of the Montage. Also, if you really believe that you can build a better instrument at the same price point, by all means, line up the VCs and engineers, go to work, and compete.

The final result is what we hear with our ears. The hardware is important, but it is simply a platform for the “soft content” — the algorithms, code, waveforms and sound design. In the long run, the soft content is the biggest development expense and is the most important element in a successful digital musical instrument product.

Perspective. Chill. Peace.

Here are links to related articles on this site:

All site content is Copyright © Paul J. Drongowski

Montage review: Yes, I’ve played one!

The Yamaha Montage synthesizer is now hitting stores in North America. One of the local retailers (GC in Natick) have a Montage set up for demo. Let’s go!

The demo unit is a Montage8 with the 88-key balanced hammer effect keyboard. I have always liked Yamaha’s upper-end “piano” actions and the Montage8 is no exception. I primarily play lighter “synth” action keyboards like the MOX and the PSR-S950. Fortunately, I spent the previous week working out on the Nord Elecro 2 waterfall keyboard, which requires a slightly heavier touch. I played the Montage8 for a little bit more than an hour without my hands wilting — a good sign.

First off, the demo unit was plugged into two Yamaha HS7 monitors and a Yamaha HS8S subwoofer. GC usually patches keyboards through grotty keyboard amplifiers, so I suspect that Yamaha provided the monitors in order to create the best impression of the Montage. I was dismayed when I started off with a few B-3 organ patches and could not contain the low end. The front panel EQ simply didn’t do the job. Time to check the monitor settings. The HS7s were flat, but the HS8S subwoofer level was cranked. After backing off the sub, all was right with the world.

Yes, some people like to simulate small earthquakes with subsonic frequencies. This, however, is not conducive for acoustic music. It’s not conducive for peaceful co-existence with your bass player either. If you encounter a Montage in the wild, check the EQ before proceeding!

So, as you may have gathered already, this is not a review of Montage for EDM. I took along my church audition folder (covering gospel to contemporary Christian to traditional and semi-classical music) and a small binder of rock, jazz, soul and everything in between. I’d like to think that this is the first time anyone has played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the Montage, however poorly.

The electric pianos are terrific. I had a fine old time playing soul jazz and what not. Great connection between keys and sound. Comparing against Nord Stage, I would say that the Montage is top notch in this department and definitely a cut above the old Nord Electro 2. Yamaha did not put the Reface CP (Spectral Component Modeling) technology into Montage; they didn’t need to.

Tonewheel organ is still Yamaha’s Achilles’ heel. There is some modest improvement, but the Montage is not in clone territory. In this area, I would say, “Advantage Nord.” If I can cover B-3 with the MOX on Sunday, I’m sure that the Montage is up for medium duty. However, the tonewheel organs lack the visceral thrill of the EPs. I will say that the 88-key action did not inhibit my playing style too much. (If I was going to buy a Montage, tho’, it would be a 6.)

The pipe organs got some tweaks, mainly by enhancing the Motif pipe organ sounds via FM. There are a few lovely patches, but I will still look to the Tyros (and the PSR expansion pack) for true realism. The Nord Electro 5d has modeled principal organ pipes where the drawbars change the registration. Ummm, here, I would give the edge to Nord. Plus, the pipe organs in the Nord sample library are more on par with the Tyros and PSR expansion pack. Hate to say it: Montage pipe organs are good “synthesizer pipe organs,” and that ain’t entirely a compliment.

The new strings are wonderfully realistic, especially for solo/melody lines. I really enjoyed bringing sections in and out dynamically. (The expression pedal was sync’ed to the SuperKnob.) With the changes in our music ministry group, I’ve been playing more melodic and exposed parts. I could really dig playing a reflective improvisation for meditation using the strings and woodwinds under Motion Control.

The classical woodwinds got a boost in Montage, too. The woodwinds are all excellent although the sonic delta above Motif XF (MOXF and MOX, too) was not as “Wow” as the strings. Most likely, my ears were getting tired at that point…

Since I was losing objectivity, I just briefly touched on brass. I need good French horns and Montage did not disappoint. I wish that I had spent time with the solo trumpets and trombones, but my ears were telling me to knock it off.

The new Telecaster (TC) is quite a treat. The “Real Distortion” effects (Motif XF update 1.50) are now standard and the programmers made good use of them. I wish that the Montage had the voice INFO screen from the PSR/Tyros series. The INFO screen displays playing tips and articulations for each voice. This makes it a lot easier to find and exploit the sonic “Easter eggs” in the patches. (“Play AF1 to get a slide. Play AF2 to get a hammer on.”)

Fortunately, it was a rainy Saturday afternoon and the store was empty — disturbed only by the occasional uncontrolled rugrat pounding on some poor defenseless keyboard. Overall, I felt like I really heard the Montage and could make a fair evaluation.

I did not dive into editing, arpeggios, motion sequencing, recording, etc., so this is surely not a comprehensive review. Anyone spending less than one month with this ax cannot claim “comprehensive.” It just ain’t possible, so I would call my initial opinion, “first impressions.” That said, I can see why the Live Sets are important. I mainly dove in through Category Search where some of the touch buttons are a wee too small. Punching up a sound in full combat requires BIG buttons.

Montage looks, feels and sounds like a luxury good. Montage is also priced like a luxury good. The Montage8 MAP is $4000 USD. It is quite a beast physically and I would most likely go for the Montage6 at a “mere” 33 pounds and $3000 USD. None of the Montage line would be an easy schlep, especially when I have to buzz in and out of my church gig fast.

Would I buy one? Tough call. On the same field trip, I got to sit in a Tesla Model S ($71,000 USD) — a luxury car built around a computer monitor or two. I just recently bought a Scion iM (AKA Toyota Auris, Levin, Blade, whatever) for about $20,000 USD. Both cars could get me to the gym and back. I like my iM. What does that say about me as a customer? Do you think I would buy a Montage? Enigmatic.

See the list of new waveforms in the Montage. Also, check out the latest blog posts! Update: May 10, 2016.

Montage: New waveforms

Well, well. Interesting times, again. Yamaha have now released the Montage Reference Manual and the Data List Manual. Download them from your local support site.

At the same time, the Motif XF is being blown out. Not only have retailers dropped prices, Yamaha itself is saying “Sayonara” with a promotional rebate of its own. If you want a Motif XF, now is a terrific time to buy!

I started the decision making process last weekend by comparing the MOX waveforms against the Motif XF waveforms. To me, new waveforms represent true value — true sonic potential — over a keyboard’s predecessor. Unless MOXF owners want all of the bells and whistles of the Motif XF (e.g., big color display, on-borad sampling, sliders, version 1.5 Real Distortion effects, etc.), they already have the XF waveforms. MOX owners have the older Motif XS factory set, so they might be interested in upgrading to Motif XF. Here is a list of Motif XF waveforms that are not in the MOX:

    CF3 4 layer (vs. MOX 3 layer)
    S6
    Clav4
    Harpsichord2
    Farfisa (Fr)
    Vox (Vx)
    Accordion2
    Accordion3
    Tango Accordian2
    Mussete Accordion
    Steirisch Accordion
    1Coil
    Jazz Guitar
    Pick Rndwound2
    Pick FlatWound
    Finger Rndwound
    Sect Strngs
    Tremolo Strings
    Live Pizzct
    Soft Trumpet
    Trumpet Vib
    Trumpet Shake
    Flugelhorn2
    French Horn Sft
    French Horn Med
    Soprano Sax3
    Alto Sax3
    Tenor Sax2 Soft
    Tenor Sax2 Falls
    Sax Breath
    Piccolo2

After looking over the list, frankly, I’m not motivated (bad pun) to buy an XF. My PSR-S950 does a great job covering these sounds. Plus, at 33.3 pounds (XF) vs. 15.4 pounds (MOX), a Motif XF is likely to remain in the studio, not at the gig.

The Yamaha Montage offers a bigger upgrade thanks to the large built-in waveform memory. Here is my first pass list of new Montage waveforms. I’ll leave it to you to comb through synth and percussion waveforms.

    CFX 9 layer
    S700 3 layer
    EP4 5 layer
    Rd Soft 5 layer
    Rd Hard 4 layer
    Rd73 5 layer
    Rd78 5 layer
    Rd KeyNoise
    Wr1 3 layer
    Wr2 4 layer
    Wr3 5 layer
    Wr KeyNoise
    Clav5 3 layer
    Clav KeyNoise
    CP80 5 layer
    CP80 KeyOff
    Vibraphone3
    Motor Vibes
    Tonewheel1 Fast/Slow
    Tonewheel2 Fast/Slow
    Tonewheel3 Fast/Slow St
    Tonewheel4 Fast
    Tonewheel5 Fast
    Tonewheel6 Fast
    SctAcc Mussete
    SctAcc
    Acc Key On/Off
    Nylon2
    Flamenco
    Steel2
    Steel3
    TC Cln Pick
    TC Cln Fing
    Acoustic2 (bass)
    Violin2 1st St
    Violin2 2nd St
    Viola2 St
    Cello2 St
    Celtic Violin
    US Strings
    Violins 1st
    Violins 2nd
    Violas
    Cellos
    ContBasses
    CelticHarp
    Trumpet 3
    Piccolo Tp
    Trombone 3
    Bass Trombone
    French Horn2
    Euphonium
    BrassSect3
    BrassSect3 Acc/Doits/Shake/Falls
    Trumpets1
    Trumpets2
    Trombones1
    Trombones2
    FrHorns2
    FrHorns3
    Clarinet2
    Clarinet3
    Oboe3
    Oboe4 NV/Stac
    Bassoon2
    Bassoon3
    Flute3
    Flute4 NV/Stac/Flutter
    Piccolo3
    Piccolo4 NV/Stac
    Low Whistle
    High Whistle
    Boys Choir
    Gospel Choir
    Syllables
    ScatCycle
    LatinCycle

Yamaha really upped the ante with new acoustic and electric piano samples. Yamaha have been promoting these improvements and rightfully so. I can’t wait to try these out. Jazzers will be glad to see the new vibraphone samples, too.

Tonewheel organ got a modest upgrade. I’ll reserve judgement until I can hear and play the Montage. The tonewheel samples have fast and slow variants, so the Leslie is probably sampled in. Not always a good sign, but, hey, I’m listening. A couple of more accordions round out the keyboard additions.

Guitars also got a modest upgrade. There are a few more acoustic guitars and two Telecaster variants (pick and finger). At this point, I must mention that all of the new waveforms have 3, 4, 5 or more layers and many articulations. So, even if the list looks short, the new voices should be quite rich and appealing.

Orchestral instruments got a major, major upgrade. As a liturgical musician who relies on these voices heavily, I’m excited. I called out only a few of the available articulations. Musicians who mock up orchestral scores or cover orchestral parts live should definitely take note of the Montage! Surprisingly, there aren’t new pipe organ waveforms. (Is an expansion pack in the works?)

Finally, there are a slew of choir and vocal samples from the Tyros 5. “Syllables” in the list above are all of the zillion duhs, doos, etc. ScatCycle includes the (infamous) scat syllables, but cycles through the syllables for variety. This is already a feature of the Tyros 5.

Given the boost in the orchestra department, I’m interested. I just wish that the Montage weighed about 20 pounds or less. Perhaps I need to wait for the MOXF follow-on in the light weight, mid-price category.

That’s it for now. I might have missed something during the first pass and will correct the list as I learn more about the Montage. At some point, I’ll take a look at Montage effects, too.

Read my initial review of the Montage8. Update: May 10, 2016.

All site content is Copyright © Paul J. Drongowski unless indicated otherwise.

Nord Stage 2 ex: Test Drive

The Yamaha Montage announcement got me thinking about the kind of “all-in-one” keyboard that I would like to play. I still enjoy playing my Nord Electro 2, but the NE2 falls short as an all-in-one. My all-in-one needs to be strong in B3 organ, pipe organ, acoustic sounds, and to a lesser extent, electric pianos. Ideally, the action would be a waterfall keyboard or a good quality “synth action” keyboard. I do not need the weight or expense of a hammer action keyboard. And speaking of weight, the all-in-one should be as far under 20 pounds (about 10 kg) as possible.

The current Nord Electro 5d has gotten very favorable reviews. As one would expect of Nord, it is one of the leading clonewheels, has very good electric pianos, and plays back sampled acoustic instruments from the Nord Sample Library. The 5d has a waterfall keyboard, sliding drawbars, and a nice clear OLED display. The 5d can layer and split voices with a few limitations. Finally, musicians can create sample-based voices of their own using the Nord Sample Editor.

Looks great and the on-line demos sound good! Now, where can I find one to try? This is a dilemma faced by many musicians today and it’s not only trying to find Nord products on display in store. Brick and mortar stores cannot afford to keep a wide spectrum of keyboards on the floor just in case someone feels the urge to try out a new ax. Keyboard sales are not that hot — guitars out-sell keyboards by 5 to 1 when measured in dollar sales volume. Plus, pro-level keyboards are expensive and that’s a lot of money to tie up in inventory.

Fortunately, the nearest GC (the store whose name I dare not speak) had a Nord Stage 2 ex 88 on the floor. So, I grabbed my audition folder and took a drive. I’m glad that I did. (Wednesday night at 8PM is a good time. No shredders and head cases.)

Most NE5 reviews focus on the clonewheel and electric piano sounds. Nord Stage reviews put the synthesizer section to the test, too. My review is different because I decided to concentrate on the quality of the sampled acoustic instruments. One leap of faith is needed: the acoustic instruments on the Stage are not doctored up by the synthesizer when compared to the NE5. Still, a favorable response to the Stage has encouraged me to look for an NE5d to try, possibly by going to the downtown Boston store. (A day trip for me.)

I scrolled through the Stage’s presets and pulled an appropriate lead sheet from my audition folder whenever I found a voice that I wanted to try. I played mainly hymns and liturgical service music from our repetoire: contemporary hymns, traditional hymns, gospel hymns, etc. Yeah, some B3 got in there. I’m weak.

Without being long-winded, here’s a quick rundown.

  • The handfull of pipe organ sounds (big church and chapel) are pleasing and useful. The big cathedral sounds are not overdone, one of my biggest complaints with typical synth “church organs.”
  • Strings? You got ’em. Big, small, sections, solo. The majority of the string voices are very playable. Big strings that are rich without getting screechy in the high end.
  • The orchestra brass ensembles are generally darned good. The trombone section is too loud and brash for church. Softer French horn voices are needed, too. The few horn voices are borderline bright and loud — I need mellow. The pop brass ensembles sound terrific. (“Knock On Wood,” anyone?)
  • Woodwinds, too, are a mixed bag. The woodwind sections are good and playable. The orchestra solo winds (except the flute) are terrible. If I bought an NE5d today, I would cobble together my own solo oboe and clarinet. Although it wasn’t a focus, I played one sax patch that was pretty decent and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to play it in public.
  • B3. Nord groovy as usual. The B sounded darker compared to my memory of the NE2. The Stage has the fast/slow switch on the left where it should be. Nord needs to make the switch BIGGER as it is really difficult to find and hit. (I switch speeds via foot pedal normally, so this is a minor niggle.)
  • Electric pianos, thumbs up.

The Nord Stage 2 ex 88 has a hammer action keyboard. I was pleasantly surprised to find it easy to play organ with this action. The keys did not cut my hand when doing palm swipes and I didn’t have too much trouble playing with a legato touch. Nice work, Nord.

You might reasonable ask, “Why use sampled pipe organ when the NE5d has modeled pipe organ?” The modeled organ solely consists of principal pipes. I think I could use the modeled organ to lead congregational singing as principals are a clear, supportive voice. However, after listening to the demos, the principal pipes alone get “same-y, same-y” fast. I hope Nord continues their work on modeled pipes as the current implementation needs a more varied sound (e.g., reed voices, and so forth).

Overall, the Nord Stage 2 88 left me with a very favorable impression. Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, the acoustic instruments are pro-quality and suitable for liturgical music. I will seek and find a Nord Electro 5d for trial. It’s worth the effort. The Nord Stage 2 ex Compact (73-key waterfall) has a street price around $3,600 USD. The Yamaha Montage 7 (FSX action) has a street price around $3,500 USD. I see a shoot-out on the horizon…

What you might have missed…

Here’s a few small items that you may have missed in the deluge of Montage-related videos and forum comments.

Stephen Fortner — former editor of Keyboard Magazine — shot an interview and demo with Yamaha’s Nate Nate Tschetter back in December 2015. It’s a sneak peak. Here’s the link:

Montage sneak peak with Keyboard Magazine

Dave Polich is a sound programmer and musician who has contributed voices to many keyboards including the Motif series and now Montage. Dave made an interesting post to the Gearslutz.com site:

I’ve had one in my studio since January of 2015 (because I’m on the Yamaha sound design team).

It sounds great. It does not sound “thin”. You can make it sound thin with EQ or filters if you want. It’s very loud, about twice as loud as the Motif XF. Bottom end is warm, full, midrange is punchy and present, highs are detailed and clear. It’s the only true 8-operator FM synth on the market now. it is not the old DX7 style of FM sound, but very high-definition, the engine is similar to the FS1R but no formants, however, you do have more than just sine-waves as carriers/modulators, every operator can have resonance and its own amplitude envelope, plus you have global filter and amplitude envelopes available for an FM “part” (which is the same as a “voice”, or single sound, in the old Motif series), as well as DSP effects. There are loads of new samples. Effects are the usual superior Yamaha quality. The motion control features are insane. It has an envelope follower that works. Do I care about the lack of sequencer? Absolutely not. I just like a synth that sounds good. Montage is a true synthesizer (FM) with sample playback…great combination.

The factory sounds are a good balance between bread-and-butter and EDM. The electric pianos feature adjustable balance between the main tine sound and the mechanical noise. The organs feature adjustable overdrive, leakage, chorus/vibrato and percussion. Yes there is a 9-drawbar B3. Many of the sounds are hybrids of FM and sample playback, including string and brass sounds. There are FM bell and percussion sounds, guitars, sitars, dulcimers, basses, electric pianos, clavs, and tons of FM pads, soundscapes, and edgy EDM sounds too.

Don’t judge anything based on YouTube audio, that audio sucks. SoundCloud audio sucks. The only way you should hear it is in person.

I hope that Dave doesn’t mind that I quoted him here. He is a knowledgable, reliable guy.

In a separate comment, Dave mentioned that the sounds have not yet been finalized. I guess we won’t see the Data List any time soon! That might also explain why the Yamaha demonstrators seem to rely on the same Performances…

A Montage of quick thoughts

Video demos

Finally had a chance to watch a few of the longer video demos and interviews with Blake Angelos (Yamaha). He’s got that nice guy from the Midwest charm and is a heck of a player.

I’m beginning to get the idea of macro control and the Super Knob. One needs to understand the flow of values from the physical controllers, through the Super Knob, to the destination parameters within the synthesis engines. (That’s what the complicated looking flow diagram is all about.) From Blake’s comments, up to four parameters can be assigned per knob or slider. The eight knobs/sliders are routed through the Super Knob — the macro controller — to the synthesis engines. When Blake spun the Super Knob, the knob and slider indicators changed, too. This is going to require some study.

montage_mc_diagram

The developers simpified the user interface by removing SONG, PATTERN, VOICE and MASTER modes from the Motif. Now there is just Performance mode. (“Don’t mode me in.” Larry Tesler) You can still edit the voices within the context of a Performance. It’s possible to operate the entire instrument from either the touch screen or buttons. The latter is an important capability for vision-impaired players.

Much has been made about the sequencer. This is part of the simplification, too. The Montage sequencer is similar to Performance Record in Motif/MOX. It’s good enough to lay down a basic 16-track song. Then, transfer the song to a DAW for the real micro-editing. This is my workflow already, so I’m not complaining. I presume that arpeggios operate and record in the same manner as Motif. More to study now that the Montage Owner’s Manual is available.

Blake mentioned improved strings, organs, pianos, and choirs. He played a really nice FM-X voice — American Garage — that sounds like a natural jazz guitar. If this is the new age of FM, then count me in!

The Montage8 is physically ginormous and weighs 63 pounds. I cannot possibly move such a large instrument by myself anymore. I’m more interested in the Montage6 which tips the scale at 33 pounds. Still kinda heavy for me…

Sound-wise, I’m still forming a preliminary opinion. The acoustic piano has terrific dynamics from soft to loud. (Producers who compress the snot out of a song in search of “loudness” probably don’t care.) The motion control examples are appealing: changing between string section size, orchestral brass swells and morphing through choir, string and organ layers.

For people complaining about “thin sound” or whatever, please give it a rest until you have a chance to play a Montage in person through decent monitors. The videos, etc. all suffer from crap compression. Kind of ironic because…

Pure Analog Circuit (PAC)

PAC seems to be the least understood and appreciated feature. Essentially, Yamaha paid careful attention to the design of the post-DAC circuitry. Here is a quote from the PAC developers:

During the development of the MONTAGE hardware we focused on improving the performance of the audio output circuitry. We devoted a great deal of time and effort to its design, seeking advice from a variety of people as we built prototypes and conducted audio tests in a repeating cycle that let us establish the direction we wanted to take. The resulting circuitry delivers more natural harmonic content and a greater clarity in the mid- to high- frequencies, allowing us to realize a distinctively crisp, clear tone. Reviewing the pattern used on the printed circuit board produced enhancements that led to a better signal-to noise ratio, which, in combination with the low noise connections from the MONTAGE (made possible with a TRS balanced audio output circuit) improves the sound conveyed to the listener still more.

PAC demonstrates considerable attention to detail and analog audio quality.

The PAC engineers in the developer interviews mentioned that the “analog power supply for the DAC was the real key to the sound quality.” A clean signal begins with clean power. From the quote above, they carefully designed and analyzed the signal traces (wires) on the printed circuit board to eliminate stray signal effects like crosstalk. The engineers also specified high-grade capacitors (“condensers.”) This is old school engieering!

I’ve heard and seen a lot of schmutz at the outputs of various keyboards. Manufacturers, you know who you are. Higher-end Yamaha products are dead quiet. (PSR-E443 needs help, tho’.) I hope Yamaha keeps an eye on its suppliers, especially if they contract with China. Vendors get tempted to replace high-grade components with cheaper components of dubious quality. Apple got burned this way with the first batch of iMac G5s. Vigilance.

Platform

One simply cannot forget that there are real breathing human beings behind these products. Please be kind.

The developer video gives the impression that the engineers were given the time to make the instrument right. The engineers may disagree with this perception, of course. 🙂 Viewed through the lense (mine) of an engineering manager, the group seemed a little too “ponderous.” I doubt if an American manager would have had the patience to give the group time.

Given the relatively long time between product releases, Yamaha needs to view its flagship products as platforms which evolve via periodic updates. The Motif XF version 1.5 update, for example, was a good product extender. I recommend annual updates at the very least. These products are enormously expensive and Yamaha cannot risk good will by making customers wait for major product generations (e.g., XS to XF) to get improved functionality and by making customers buy a whole new keyboard on top of it! Many customers want Montage to step up to the Kronos, for example, and an evolving platform strategy might let Yamaha get there with modest resources.

Peace

I’m continually shocked by some of the negativity in Web forums. Debate over features is acceptable; personal, derogatory comments are not. How can we address war, poverty, hunger, homelessness and disease if we cannot even accept another person’s style of music? Or merely their age?

Please, let’s strive for peace.

Site content is Copyright © Paul J. Drongowski unless otherwise indicated.

Yamaha Montage: It’s here

Here are a few links to start your day and mine. The best new resource on the Montage is the latest issue of the Yamaha Music Production Guide.

Well, we have to get the question of money out of the way sometime:

    Montage 6    $3,499.00  USD MSRP
    Montage 7    $3,999.00  USD MSRP
    Montage 8    $4,499.00  USD MSRP

One major on-line retailer is listing $2999.99, $3499.99 and $3999.99, respectively. The street price will probably remain high until the current Motif XF inventory clears. The Motif Fully Loaded offer is good to the end of March 2016. Yamaha is bundling the Bösendorfer Imperial Premium Grand Piano sound library as an introductory promotion to drive early adopters. Oh, Montage will ship in May 2016.

But, wait! There’s more! “Be a Montage Early Adopter and get a Free Montage Motion Control Pedal Pack!” All of the details are on this page at the US Yamaha site.

Yamaha also announced a Bösendorfer 280 VC concert grand piano (MSRP: $219,999). I don’t think Yamaha is bundling one of those with the Montage. They better fix up some of the ambiguous language on their Web pages.

Sud Claviers post some of the best demo videos around and were the first ones out of the blocks this morning.

Operational Overview
Acoustic sounds
Synthesizer sounds

Hope you understand French!

The demo’ed acoustic sounds are named: CFX Concert, Seattle Section, Seattle Violin, Organ AMP, B3 Curved, Folk Guitar, Electric Guitar, Modern Guitar, Choir Ensemble, Drum & Bass, Trumpet (muted), and saxophone (untitled). The synthesizer sounds are named: Side Chain, Journey Within, EP Goes, Tech FM, FM Lead, Universe, Couleur Life, 4 Pads, Soft Pads, FM Pads and Astral. A little French might have slipped in here.

There are now tons of Yamaha sponsored YouTube videos, too. One of these videos is the “Montage Development Story.” It’s about eighteen minutes long, showing the developers while they talk about their creation. There is not a lot of technical content, but the video does provide a back story on motion control and motion sequencing. The idea is to sync control to the beat. Control changes are synchronized with the Super Knob and they are synchronized with keyboard performance. The idea is to set up motion sequences that are triggered by whatever the musician plays on the keys such that the sound is transformed and evolves. The goal is to “rhythmically change tone.” Thus, it’s possible to play tones from the keyboard that would ordinarilly be created by tediously drawing the controller information into a DAW.

The Montage can sync to an external, live performance. It derives the beat from an incoming audio signal. Remember all that stuff about patents on beat detection algorithms? We’re going to see more of this from Yamaha.

The segment with the industrial design guy was a stitch. Our son started out as a graphic artist and views the world as an artist like this gentleman. The Yamaha designer spoke about the concave shape along the part of the keyboard that faces the audience. He spoke about the energy of the audience pushing against the concave shape. It reminded my of Kev. It also reminded me of why we would fight like cats and dogs about certain concepts and ideas! “You left, just as you were becoming interesting.” 🙂

Part of the retail price goes into non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs. The NRE cost needs to be recovered sometime or Yamaha would eventually go broke! There are other non-recurring costs such as set-up for manufacturing and test, and pre-launch promotion. The per-unit, recurring cost is the money spent on parts, manufacturing, quality assurance, distribution, promotion and support for a single keyboard.

I counted 50 people in the group photo of developers at the end of the video. A typical engineer’s salary in Japan is ¥ 5,500,000. The estimated annual burn rate for the Montage development group is ¥ 275,000,000 or about $2,340,000 USD, not including overhead for capital, benefits, etc. The so-called “burdened” cost of a developer is higher depending upon the overhead.

Let’s assume a $3,000 average selling price (ASP) per unit and that 10 percent of a retail sale ($300) covers NRE. Yamaha knows this number; we don’t. If development took four years, then Yamaha needs to sell:

    (4 years * $2,340,000) / $300 = $9,360,000 / $300 = 31,200 units

to cover NRE. Due to the assumptions made, this is a lower bound on the break-even point! For sure, it does not include costs incurred by the international members of the team (USA, UK, etc.)

If you read my cost analysis yesterday, that was a first draft of a first draft. (Updated: January 22)

AC Hamilton and Anderton’s — who are also European retailers — posted a few hi-rez product shots. Please click on the images below for higher resolution.

montage_tilt

montage_top

montage_rear

And, finally, a short list of specifications. Please click the image to display in full size.

montage_specs

I’m sure the debate and discussion is already underway! I will update this post with further thoughts and comments.

BTW, I noticed that the Yamaha UK site is advertising the following promotion: “For a limited time only, purchase a state-of-the-art Tyros5 (61 or 76 key model) and receive a free sensational Yamaha MCR-B043D HI-FI.” Hmm, guess what’s next?

Dessert topping? Floor wax?

Ah, we’re starting to hit the silly phase of keyboard micro-analysis and Web discussion vis a vis the not yet, not quite announced Yamaha Montage.

So, is it a floor wax or a dessert topping? Should we follow the holy sandal or the holy gourd?

Any other comedy bits I can rip off? 🙂

Frankly, I will probably never touch the bits which are touted to be for “EDM.” I’m not angry or even mildly perturbed that Yamaha would put such “useless” features on my keyboard. It’s a big world. Thank heaven for those features because more people will buy the Montage making it easier for Yamaha to offer this product at a lower street price. And gasp, I may even come to learn, use and love some of those “EDM” features. At the same time, I want to thank all those guys doing covers at the Holiday Inn…

I’ve been drawing up a shopping list of sounds and features which I would like to see in the Montage or whatever keyboard that replaces/upgrades my MOX6. What are those sounds and features? They’re personal. Not secret — personal. Even the Motif XF6 is a candidate, because heck, the discount is only going to get sweeter after the Montage drops. So, I also drew up a list comparing the MOX6 against the XF based on the desired feature set.

After a day of God (gig) and football (play-offs), I took a fresh glance at the high rez screen shots. Some these pictures are making more sense to me now. (Click on any of these images to get full resolution.)

montage_motion

The Motion Control Synthesis Engine concept is a more concise and powerful way to think about all of those control assignments and parameters in the current Motif/MOX UI. The Super Knob, Motion SEQ and Envelope Follower sections twitch and tweeze parameters in the AWM2 and FM-X tone generators. The Motion SEQ and Envelope Follower add a dynamic aspect to the twitching and tweezing. The Motion SEQ can sync these changes to tempo — something that you don’t always get in Motif/MOX.

This afternoon, I was busy deconstructing the programming behind a few of the drawbar organ patches on the MOX. On the current products, you can tweak individual parameters using the mod wheel, assignable function buttons or assignable knobs. Conceivably, one could control a group of parameters from the mod wheeel, for example, but setting this up through the current UI is an exercise in tedious menu diving. If Yamaha got the Montage UI right, then it should be easier to assign multiple parameters to the Super Knob (or Motion SEQ or Envelope Follower).

montage_superknob

Further, the Super Knob appears to support morphing between two scenes where a scene is a particular configuration of one or more parameters, kind of like the old AN200/DX200. Let’s say you want to be able to morph from one organ drawbar setting to another. (Thanks, Bad Mister, for this idea.) If my interpetation is correct, then it should be possible to set up the first drawbar setting as scene 1, set up the second drawbar setting as scene 2, and then morph the drawbars between the two scenes. Cool. Maybe not as flexible as moving individual bars, but workable and low stress during the gig.

Ew, did I just use one of those “EDM” features? 🙂

BTW, parts of the screenshot to the right of the Super Knob should look familiar to Motif/MOX users. The Motif/MOX UI separates Voice and Performance editing into COMMON and per-PART (or per-ELEMENT) tabbed pages. This screenshot shows the COMMON page. The first vertical column of six touch buttons on the left-hand side of the screen replace the physical function buttons that selected tabs. The second vertical column of six touch buttons replace the old physical sub-function buttons. The sub-functions in the second column depend on the what’s selected in the first column. It’s all contextual. If you know how to navigate the Motif/MOX, this should be a breeze. It looks like this page edits the knob control assignment for an FM-X voice.

montage_best_of

The Performance selection screenshot started to make more sense, too. The touch button in the upper left corner let’s us select the Performance bank. The touch button in the lower left does category search. No surprises. Each voice is tagged with up to four icons: AWM2, FM-X, MC, and SSS. The icons indicate the kind of Performance, that is, the tone generation method, Motion Control and SSS (Seamless Sound Switching).

On Saturday, I was trying to figure out the meaning of “All 9 Bars!” and how individual drawbars might be controlled. Given what I’ve inferred about the Motion Control Synthesis Engine, this Performance most likely morphs from one drawbar setting to another via the Super Knob. SSS comes into play when switching from one drawbar setting to the next such that the sound is not interrupted. Of course, this means that the number of parts is limited to eight maximum. Current Motif/MOX voices make use of waveforms like “Draw 1+3” and “Draw 2+4” to cover more than one tonewheel footage per tone generation element. It may be necessary to exploit such waveforms on the Montage, too. We’ll see.

The Seattle Sections Performance might be fun, too. Maybe it morphs from quiet strings to fortissimo? The crescendo could be gradual and tempo sync’ed — a musical effect that is difficult to play live through velocity (key dynamics).

montage_sequence

I’m rather surprised that folks are debating whether the Montage has a sequencer or not. Or whether the Montage has arpeggios or not. These features appear quite clearly in the screenshoots. There is even a physical “ARP ON/OFF” button on the front panel. Good thing it’s physical because you wouldn’t want to dig for that switch in a menu somewhere! The “lane” notion is just a way of dealing with limited vertical screen space. The UI probably uses lanes that fold up and hide rather than displaying all horizontal lanes and endlessly scrolling up and down. I’ll bet that the UI designers drew from Steinberg’s experience with Cubasis on iPad.

If one assumes that the screen captures are one-to-one, then the Montage native screen resolution is 800H by 480V pixels.

In closing, I must say that the graphic design is clean, modern and inviting. Yamaha have definitely been applying their experience with Cubasis and Mobile Music Sequencer.

Well, that’s it, folks! Like you, I’m waiting for the demo videos, manuals and a test drive. In the meantime, put on whatever moves you and chill. Maybe “Wicked Game” by Groovy Waters. Or “Lean On Me” from 20 Feet From Stardom and listen to Darlene Love testify. Peace.

Extra! Extra!

Here’s a blast from the past — quotes from the old AN200 manual about its Scene and FreeEG features.


AN200 Scene

While playing back a Pattern, turn the [SCENE] knob slowly, back and forth. Notice how the sound gradually “morphs” between 1 and 2 — in real time as you work the knob! Do this in sync with the rhythm and create your own shifting textures!

an200_scene

The exciting and powerful Scene feature lets you create and use two different Voices within a single Pattern. Most importantly, it lets you instantly switch between them or gradually “morph” from one to the other — all in real time. Now, it’s time for you to create a Scene or two of your own.


  1. Press SCENE button [1]. This is the Scene you’ll be working on first.

  2. Work the controls and get the sound you want for Scene 1. Any and all of the Synth knobs can be used.

  3. While holding down [STORE], press SCENE button [1].

  4. Do the same operation for Scene 2 — repeating Steps 1 – 3 above with SCENE button [2] this time.

AN200 FreeEG

The AN200 has so many real-time control features, it’s hard to get a grip on them all. Feel you need an extra pair of hands? Or maybe an extra two? No problem. Just use the amazing Free EG feature. The AN200 is packed with a lot of powerful recording functions — but none are quite as impressive as this. Free EG gives you up to four tracks for recording your knob moves — letting you incorporate real-time sound changes and knob moves as a part of the Pattern. So every time you play the Pattern, your knob changes play right along with it — just as you recorded them. We call this “Free EG” because it allows you to create unique, complex, continuous parameter changes that would be impossible to achieve with conventional EGs.


  1. Call up the desired Pattern, and press the red Record button.

  2. Select the Free EG track you want to record.

  3. Start the Pattern, and make your moves.

  4. To stop recording, press the Start/Stop button.

  5. To hear your Free EG recording, make sure that the appropriate track buttons are on, then press the Start/Stop button to play the Pattern.


So much better in hi-rez

Ahhhh, those folks at motifator.com! They have managed to access the high resolution images that accompanied the briefly revealed information on the Yamaha music production synthesizer pages. Thanks, folks. I’m sure that you will cruise over there to see all of the images. However, here are a few things that struck me.

The Motion Seq image is quite informative. As I suspected, the sequencer user interface has undergone a substantial revision. It is more “DAW-like” in appearance and operation. (Click on the images below to get full resolution.)

montage_sequence

It’s also clear — from the other images at motifator.com — that arpeggios (ARPs) have not gone away. I’m sure that Yamaha wants us to focus on the new product features first, rather than reading about old news.

Seamless Sound Switching (SSS) effectively switches between two Performances (eight part maximum per Performance). The eight part limitation comes from the need to keep the currently playing voice and effects chain live in the tone generator while the second Performance parts are enabled. The elements and effect units assigned to the first Performance have to remain active and processing while the second Performance spins up.

montage_sss

I am very glad to see SSS as I often hold a chord at the end of a verse or refrain while bringing up a new patch. It’s hard to transition around the current sound cut-off while keeping a congregation in sync. (Worship musicians everywhere will rejoice.)

The snapshot of the voice selection page shows “Best of Montage” voices. Yamaha are clearly proud enough of the Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos to include them in “The Best.” There is also an organ voice called “All 9 Bars!”. Oh, oh, this bodes well for those of us in need of good bread and butter sounds! Plus, I have got to play the bars. Still need to hear the rotary speaker effect…

montage_best_of

It will be interesting to discover if Yamaha have continued to mine the SuperArticulation voices and technology in the Tyros and upper-end PSR arranger workstations. The Motif XF added an SA-inspired tenor sax and hopefully, the improved wooodwinds will offer more treats. Bring me an SA jazz flute, Santa. Please?! 🙂

I can’t wait to play this machine! Looking better all the time.

We shouldn’t forget about the software side. Steinberg have not been sitting on their hands. Plus, the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS) has only seen bug fixes in the last few releases. Shall we see a new version of MMS? What do Cubase and Cubasis have in store for us? Any new and cool apps?