From Oct 95 issue
There was a time when everyone seemed to own a Yamaha DX7. Jon Bates explains the reasons for its legendary status in synth history...
I first Demonstrated Yamaha's new DX7, in November 1983, to a hungry crowd of aghast synth freaks. A justified reaction to a very sleek-looking and slick-sounding beast: no twiddly knobs, a couple of sliders, a small LCD and lots of cunning flat buttons. This synth needed to be shown off not as a hands-on tonal creator but as a storehouse of superbly finished sounds; not too hot on strings or drums but a killer for virtually everything else. It was the first of its kind and marked a new dawn in synth development and hi-tech music creation.
Forget all that VCO stuff of analogue machines. Back in 83, Frequency Modulation, as a concept, was the way forward. Sounds are created by interacting units known as 'operators', which can act as 'carriers' or 'modulators'. Each one is a sine wave that can be shaped and given its own pitch. When connected, one modulates the sound of the other to produce a new pitch and tone. The arrangement of operators and their relative pitches determines the final timbre produced. The DX7 has six operators that can be placed in 32 arrangements ('algorithms'). There's a also host of other parameters and a complex envelope that has two values for each point.
Seriously unfriendly after using knobs and sliders, all sound parameters are adjusted numerically on the small LCD. It quickly became apparent that creating sounds was a job for specialists: very few owners came anywhere near to plumbing the depths of FM sound programming, so a whole new sound card/cartridge voice programming industry was born. Some of its best sounds came from the likes of Riuichi Sakamoto and Mr Fukada, who also wrote the DX7 sound programmer's bible.
The DX7 was one of the first synths with a full complement of MIDI ports, although early models transmitted Aftertouch information as Control Data 3, which was rather confusing. It also has a breath controller port. This device clamps between your teeth and when blown in the manner of a wind instrument affects the timbre, adding a tremendous amount of expression. The DX7 has 16-note polyphony, a 61-note velocity and an aftertouch-sensing keyboard, 32 onboard memories, additional cartridge memory and monophonic output.
The DX7 does have some drawbacks: it is not multitimbral, it only responds to Channel 1 and it has some degree of background noise. The best upgrade is E! from Grey Matter Response*. This board provides 320 memories; layers sounds, providing some degree of multi-timbrality; upgrades the MIDI specifications and adds filter controls for easier sound editing. The DX7 was one of the first purely digital commercial synths and sold over 180,000 units, simply because it blew every other synth away with its natural and realistic sounds. There were modular versions: the TX7 and also the extremely powerful and unfathomable TX816, which is literally eight rack-mounted DX7 modules slung together. As a working tool, the DX7 is incredibly versatile, very usable and has the largest sound library available for any synth. It has stood the test of time better than most - a 'classic' synth that still has the flexibility to be contemporary. FM
* Grey Matter Response, 1119 Pacific Avenue, Suite 300, Santa Cruz, CA 65060, USA. Tel: (001) 408 423 9361, Fax (001) 408 423 7324.