Yamaha MX61 Studio and Performance Synthesizer
By Brian Ho
Wed, 1 May 2013
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The ultra-light Yamaha MX synths are anything but featherweights when it comes to performance. The biggest deal is that the MX series’ sounds are taken from the Motif XS, and to our ears sound every bit as lush, rich, and detailed. Whatever Yamaha did to get the price of these synths so low, it seems not to have involved the sounds, converters, or output stage. The MX can also act as a basic stereo USB audio interface, and has respectable control surface functionality for popular DAW software. It’s not a workstation in itself, i.e., you won’t find the Motif family’s multitrack sequencing, but as we’ll see, there’s an app for that. On-the-gig use is our focus in this issue, so let’s dig in. 


 

Keys and Controls

Our test unit was an MX61; the MX49 is identical except for its four-octave keyboard. Speaking of the keyboard, both the white and black keys were balanced, smooth, and extremely playable. While I would’ve preferred to be able to choose velocity curves, I had no problem playing acoustic piano sounds across the full dynamic range, and I could get a nice bark from Rhodes and Clavinet sounds. Since I’m mainly an organ player, I find it easier to play non-organ sounds on a semi-weighted keyboard than organs on a weighted one, so the MX certainly agreed with me in that respect. Aftertouch would be nice, but at this price no one should be surprised at its omission.

The MX is extremely easy to navigate. If you’re familiar with the Motif family, think of the MX as being in “category search” mode by default. Voices (Yamaha’s term for single sound programs) are logically organized in 16 categories, and you find them by hitting a category button and spinning the comfortable jog wheel. 

One cannot overstate how simple the MX is to split and layer. Holding the Split button and pressing a key sets the split point. Layering is a similar one-touch operation. The upper/main Voice is shown on the top row of the LCD and the lower/layered Voice is on the bottom. Cursoring to one row or the other lets you change the Voice for the corresponding keyboard zone.

Unlike the Motif, there’s no distinction between Voice (single) and Performance (multitimbral) modes; the MX is effectively always in multitimbral mode. The 16 category buttons double as part selectors, letting you rack up a Performance of 16 favorite sounds and switch between them with one touch. Doing so will not cut off sustained notes from the previous sound—kudos! The MX is 16-part multitimbral, but using the front panel, you can play a maximum of two parts at once, i.e. the aforementioned split or layer, plus a drum pattern if desired. Using an external DAW or the Vycro MX software editor (see page XX), you can stack more layers. While this might be a drawback for some, the quality of the Voices was such that I never wanted for more layering.

The four knobs have three rows of functions with the usual button to switch them. Filter cutoff, resonance, and chorus and reverb send are on top; attack, decay, sustain, and release are in the middle; and part volume, pan, and two assignable slots are on the bottom. There are also dedicated transpose and octave shift buttons. In a live situation, this is far better than “soft” or assignable buttons for these important functions.


Sounds

When playing, I had to keep reminding myself how affordable the MX was. I also never hit the ceiling of 128 voices of polyphony—at least not that I could hear. I was impressed at the sheer number of quality pianos, organs, electric pianos, Clavs, strings, synths, and much more. The acoustic piano sounds were rich, and there’s a piano optimized for running monaurally. Some of my favorite vintage sounds were “Early 70’s EP,” “Vintage Case,” and “Natural Wurli.”

Like any do-it-all keyboard based on PCM samples, the MX won’t rival a dedicated organ clone when it comes to B-3 sounds. However, while you don’t have individual drawbar control, the organ patches are surprisingly soulful and realistic, and a Leslie effect that has separately discernible upper and lower rotors is on the mod wheel. The selection of expressive acoustic and electric basses was great for gigs where I played left-hand bass. The synth Voices ran the gamut from leads to pads to comping sounds that had a crisp attack. “Things that are supposed to sound analog are really smooth, especially for sample-based sounds,” commented editor Stephen Fortner. “Sweep the filter cutoff, for instance, and you really hear the care.” At a private party, I even plugged the MX into the DJ’s mixer and did an impromptu trance number. Very cool!

Yamaha’s Virtual Circuit Modeling effects have made the trip over from the Motif XS. As the name suggests, VCM simulates vintage hardware effects (including flanger, phaser, wah, EQ, and more) at the circuit level, with excellent sonic results. Choices include EQ, flanger, phaser, wah, and more. You get one insert effect per Voice, send-based chorus and reverb, and a five-band master EQ that you access from a menu—I’d prefer another row of knob functions for this, as I often make quick adjustments based on room acoustics.

 
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