Yamaha Motif ES7
Tue, 24 May 2011
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When we reviewed Yamaha’s original Motif workstation in the November 2001 issue, some readers felt we liked it too much. They pointed out limitations like sparse sample RAM, limited orchestral sounds, and an often-audible polyphony ceiling. motif es

Valid gripes, all, and from the looks of the recently-released Motif ES, Yamaha was listening. Far from merely boasting better Vital Stats, the ES enjoys so many qualitative improvements that the name “Motif” is really a double-edged sword; keeping the same name doesn’t telegraph how thoroughly new the ES is.

User Interface
The ES retains the utilitarian layout and navigation conventions of the original Motif, with a few notable improvements. There are still four each of knobs and faders, though more chunky than before. Ditto for the sequencer buttons, which have a solid, springy feel like those on studio recorders. To select pages of knob functions, you also get four direct-access buttons instead of the old step-through toggle, making it much easier to grab filter resonance or whatever else you want. Short version: Tweaking and sequencing are now a pleasure.

The now-recessed, angled display is more readable, and to my eyes even a hair more contrast-y. It’s still smallish compared to some of the competition.

A fair generalization is that while working with this machine is not difficult per se, it doesn’t insult your intelligence. A good read of the well-written manual will reveal the ES’s often-elegant thinking a lot quicker than going, “What does this button do?”

Sounds
When I first get to know a synth, I prefer to turn off all its effects and play with the dry voices. On some workstations this exposes samples that are over-compressed or spread over too many pitches. On the ES, it generally revealed lots of dynamic range and more meat than the Atkins diet. This is due in part to the new tone generator chip at the ES’s heart, and partly to the most generous base ROM set on any workstation I’m aware of at this time: 175MB.

“Full Grand,” the main three-layer piano voice, mops the floor with the old “PowerGrand,” and with its transparent loop points and natural decay, it’s the Big Kahuna on a beach crowded with silver surfboards. The ES also has the best sample-based organ programs I’ve ever played, nailing just about every B-3-ism on the head, including staccato-triggered percussion.

Thanks to stunning new filters and envelopes, the ES kicks butt on synth sounds. “Mini Three” is a great example whose elements (layers) correspond to a Minimoog’s oscillators, and there are tons of addicting basses, comps, leads, and pads. With 18 filter types, you can get any classic-synth flavor that ever existed, and a few that didn’t.

The guitars deserve special mention. I need a stronger word than “realism” — where’s my thesaurus? Some of them, along with a few electric and acoustic basses, are “Mega-Voices,” a feature borrowed from the Tyros arranger keyboard, comprising up to 127 specially mapped and velocity-switched samples per voice. These go much further than other multi-sampled attempts I’ve heard at getting the nuances of playing the real thing: noises from the neck, harmonics, bends, muted strums, and so on. The velocity ranges are playable, too: You don’t need the sequencer to get at something mapped to a single value, though the arpeggiator really is best at showcasing all the sample variations. With a little practice, I was convincingly aping the intro on Dave Matthews’ “What Would You Say?” Two words for the various overdriven guitars: Yeah, baby. Two more for the drum kits: Above reproach. motif es back

Enhancements
? Sampling. Big news: The integrated sampler now supports up to 1GB of RAM, bringing it into the league of heavy-duty hardware. Some keyboards come with a nominal amount of base RAM (the original Mo’ had 4MB); on the ES it’s an option, period. Though it’s a drag to have to pay for DIMMs in a separate transaction, it’s an understandable marketing choice: If you want sample RAM, you probably want a significant amount. With this much memory, linear recording of, say, a scratch vocal into a sequencer track is now a possibility.

? Arpeggiator. The old one was radical, the new one is mind-boggling. There are over 1,700 preset patterns (not a misprint) optimized for all types of styles and instruments, and 256 places to store your own creations, which you originate in the sequencer, then export using the clever “Put Track To Arp” function. A pattern can contain four tracks of polyphonic information. In addition, five patterns can be accessed randomly, while you play, via the sub-function buttons, and many of the ES’s Voices and Performances have useful arpeggios pre-assigned.

? Effects. The inserts process individual voices in whatever context you’re using them: playing one all by itself, playing a multi-voiced Performance, or creating a song or pattern in the sequencer. You can apply inserts to just eight of the sequencer’s tracks, of course, but this comes closer than any other ’board I can think of to delivering a long-standing keyboardists’ wish list item: songs where the programs sound the same as when played in single-voice mode. For Performances, which have a maximum of four voices, it’s all the way there. Then, the system effects process the sum of those parts, and on most keyboards, that’s it. Not with the ES. The Master effect is more global still, married to the audio outputs and bypassed by default. Most of the eight choices here are club-oriented: Distortion, ring mod, etc., but there’s a multiband compressor useful for a little desktop mastering. How does it all sound, you ask, especially the reverbs? Really good — I’d say they’re comparable to mid-priced outboard multi-effects as well as the selections found in finer digital mixers.

In Use
I took the ES to two live gigs with different bands. Area 51, a disco-funk salad bar, requires every sound one would normally demand of a keyboard. The smoldering original soul outfit Café R&B is all about traditional timbres in the keyboard department: piano, Rhodes, Wurly, Clav, B-3. I also brought a K2600 to both shows, mainly because I’m so familiar with its sound as a reference point, and left RAM-based samples for both boards at home. I found myself going to the Yamaha for acoustic pianos, Clavinets, some synth pads and leads, and anything that needed to act as glue, filling space without intruding on it. I preferred the Kurzweil’s strings, and its KB-3 organ model edged out the ES when I needed to get nasty, as well as for that midrange presence that puts the organ out front without getting into volume wars with one’s bandmates. I loved the electric pianos in both (the Kurz has an expansion ROM of these), but couldn’t make a value judgment in the loud nightclub environs. Compared to many synths and workstations, the ES has a manicured, contemporary sound that still manages not to come off as over-produced. I’d use it anywhere, and if my hot-air balloon was sinking because the K-2600 and Motif ES jointly weighed too much . . . I’d jump.

The ES saw more mileage at home, where I put the onboard sequencer through its paces and explored the various options for computer connectivity and external storage. USB drives aren’t just for samples; they can store anything for which you’d use the internal SmartMedia card reader. Got a bunch of Compact Flash cards from your digital camera lying around? Jack in an external card reader to the “USB to device” port and save your money. Like the original, the ES can connect to a computer directly via USB. Making Digital Performer 3 see the keyboard under OS 9 involved typical OMS headaches, but I eventually got there.

Neither USB port can be used to directly shuttle samples to and from a computer: The workaround is to swap an outboard drive between your host and the ES’s device port. If repatching cables is a pain, there are now USB switchers that can let one machine see a drive when the other isn’t using it. We could also hope the optional mLAN upgrade provides a more direct means in the future.
I need to call attention to a feature that would have its own section but for space considerations: The original Motif took a stab at using its knobs and faders for basic DAW control via MIDI. On the ES, this much more fully realized. It only works via the onboard USB connection, but emulators of Mackie- and Logic-Control surfaces are built-in for both Mac and PC-based apps. This is no half-hearted imitation: Four non-moving faders is virtually the only difference.

Wanting to use audio as the rhythmic kernel for a tune, I considered resampling one of the internal drum Patterns. Instead, I opted to create a loop by vocally “beat-boxing.” The ES’s audio gain is sufficient for a dynamic mic, but better results are achieved by sending it a line-level signal from your preferred vocal chain, even if that’s just an SM57 into a compact mixer. Unfamiliar with certain procedures, I lost a couple of good takes, then got the hang of it, saving successive results of the Loop remix job. (The “Job” button performs a variety of destructive or otherwise committal tasks pertinent to the mode you’re in.) I picked up another bit of word weirdness here: Yamaha refers to a basic mapping of samples across the keyboard as a “waveform.”

Working in the sequencer, it was a hoot to hear my guttural faking of the funk mutate into a drum track for a concoction of a vintage phased Rhodes chords, mellow sawtooth lead, pompous brass swells, one of the “Mega” slap bass voices, and the arpeggiator playing muted rhythm guitar. It may have been an aural cartoon wherein Shaft teams up with the Powerpuff Girls to rescue Donald Fagen (not the Motif’s fault), but if I can do this at 3AM, you can do anything.

Conclusions
For every “What the…?” in my learning process, an “Oh!” was not far behind, and the instant-grat factor in many of the Performances was always ready to provide a frustration break. Tops of my wish list are integrated CD burning and better use of all knobs and faders in various edit modes. In 2001, Motif’s goal was to bridge the MIDI-audio gap, removing barriers to creativity. With its much-improved sonics and specs, Motif ES is well-equipped to pursue this goal in 2003’s technology marketplace. I haven’t even mentioned the price, below that of Triton and Fantom-S. We’re talking profound bang-for-buck here — so much so that the ES may well signal the death of the death of the keyboard workstation. One thing’s for sure: It’s a Key Buy.

****

In middle school, Steve Fortner used to write pretend Keyboard articles instead of doing his homework. Now, he writes real ones instead of finishing his philosophy Ph.D. dissertation.

Pros: Even better sound quality than the original Motif. Dangerous filters. Sequencer is even deeper than before. Sampling horsepower competes with dedicated hardware. Saves data to any external USB device. Emulates Mackie Control and Logic Control for DAWs. Ribbon controller on all models.
Cons: Relatively small LCD display. Connecting to Mac via USB currently requires OMS. Digital I/O optional. Sample data can’t be transferred directly to a computer via USB.

Yamaha, 714-522-9011, www.yamahasynth.com, www.motifator.com
$2,350 (Motif ES6), $2,850 (Motif ES7), $3,350 (Motif ES8)

Vital Stats
OS version reviewed: 1.03
Synthesis type: Yamaha AWM2 (sample-playback) plus subtractive
Polyphony: 128 voices (at element level)
Multitimbral parts: 16 internal, plus 1 or more per installed plug-in board (see below), plus stereo part from A/D input
Wave ROM: 175MB
Keyboard: 76 keys, E to C, synth action
Controllers: pitch and modulation wheels, octave up/down buttons, four sliders, four assignable knobs, two optional footswitches (sustain and assignable), two optional CC pedals, optional breath controller
Display: backlit LCD, 240 x 64 pixels

SEQUENCER
    Record methods: pattern-, song-, and step-based modes
    Capacity: 896 KB (approx. 226,000 notes)
    Resolution: 480 ppq
    Tracks: 16 (32 with optional PLG100-XG board, see below)
    Groove quantize: applies groove templates on playback of sequences
Arpeggiator: 1,787 preset patters, 256 user patterns, MIDI sync, transmit, and receive; up to 4 tracks per voice or performance
Sampling: stereo 16-bit linear, up to 44.1kHz rate (48kHz via digital input or mLAN options)
Sample RAM: option only, up to 1GB via DIMMs (matched pairs only)
Supported formats: read: proprietary, WAV, AIFF, Yamaha A3/4/5000 and SU700, Akai S1000/3000; write: proprietary, WAV, AIFF
DSP and editing: trim, loop, extract, slice, normalize, time-stretch and compress, pitch shift, convert frequency, fade-in/out, stereo-to-mono, loop remix
Effects: insert: program-based, 8 stereo pairs; system: 49 types of global chorus, 20 types of reverb; master: (on audio outputs) 8 types
Storage: SmartMedia card reader (up to 128MB), USB port for connecting external drives
Audio I/O: main and assignable pairs (both L/R 1/4" unbalanced); A/D inputs: 20-bit, adjustable gain L/R 1/4" unbalanced
MIDI connectors: in, out, thru; USB port for direct connection to computer
Expansion slots: 3 slots for PLG sound boards; one bay for either AIEB2 (output expansion, digital I/O) or mLAN16E board
Options: mLAN 16E network board ($TBA); AIEB2 output and digital I/O ($269); PLG150-DR drum board ($249.95); PLG150-PC percussion board ($249.95)
Dimensions/weight: 49.5" W x 15.5" D x 5.4" H, 42.3 lbs.

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