Yamaha MX61 Studio and Performance Synthesizer

May 1, 2013
share
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.

 
 
Phrases and Rhythms

Like all Motifs, the MX has a vocabulary of musical phrases, each appropriate to the selected Voice, that aren’t done justice by the term “arpeggiator.” They track the chords you play, and range from traditional up-down fare on synths to expertly played acoustic guitar strumming patterns. Another useful feature of the MX is the collection of drum patterns. A tap tempo button affects drums and phrases alike (crucial for syncing with bandmates in a live setting), and I found the drum sounds very realistic. I used the rhythms on a musical I played in, and they worked flawlessly. They also made practicing jazz tunes at home a lot more fun. 


DAW Control

With one button press, the MX turns into a surprisingly capable DAW control surface. Yamaha offers templates for Cubase, Logic, Sonar, and Digital Performer. (The MX comes with Steinberg Cubase AI.) Dedicated functions are shown right on the panel below the category buttons, and you can also retask six buttons to your liking. Everything works much like on the Motif XS or XF; the only real limitation you feel is that the MX has fewer physical controls. I tried laying down some tunes in Cubase, and it was easy for me to record while away from the computer, controlling the transport and other vital functions right from the MX. 


In Use

I brought the MX into several musical situations and was always happy with the results. My first gig was with a cover band. We were using the house-supplied P.A. and monitors and the MX Voices had no problem cutting through the mix of bass, guitar, drums, and a singer. I was able to make my own Performance “rack” of voices that included acoustic piano, Rhodes, Wurly, the “Super Clav,” organs, strings, and some synths. With the Part Select button on, the sound category buttons retasked to let me pick any of the 16 Voices in my “rack” with one touch—again, without cutting off any sustained notes. At one point, I had a synth going in the background, I pressed the sustain pedal, and was able to play a little piano solo over it. I was continuously amazed with how big a sound such a portable and inexpensive keyboard was giving me.

  Though you can edit most MX parameters on the two-line LCD, the Vycro MX software editor lets you dig a lot deeper a lot quicker. I found it extremely helpful in the studio. It’s available for Mac and PC as a free download from vycromx.com, where you’ll also find a user forum. (Click for larger image.
 

Another gig was in a jazz-funk quartet, where the MX supplemented a Hammond XK-3C organ. I usually play left-hand and pedal bass on the Hammond, but was excited to see how the MX might expand the bass (and other) sounds of a typical organ group. I did a quick split with bass on the bottom and Clav on top and enjoyed the VCM “Auto Wah” effect—there’s also a pedal-controlled wah. I did notice that compared to my XK-3C, I had to set both the MX’s master volume and the gain on my amp much higher. On acoustic piano sounds at this gig, I wanted more midrange—this is where I would’ve liked knob functions to access the MX’s master EQ. Later in the gig I played some Rhodes and Wurly sounds, and I was truly inspired. While I normally wouldn’t bring a second keyboard to a gig such as this, but the negligible weight and ease of use of the MX has me reconsidering. 

 
 Mobile Music Sequencer: Yamaha’s eight-track sequencer for iPad lets you build songs out of phrases and sections. The app has its own sounds and effects, with in-app purchase of sound/phrase expansion packs. Via MIDI file export, you can do further work in Cubase or on a Yamaha synth—the MX supports 16-part MIDI playback from a USB stick. One of the more ingenious functions is that you can dial in different chords per section, effectively creating a chord guide track. As seen in the bottom picture, chord alterations are plentiful. The same isn’t true for time signatures, which are currently limited to 4/4 and 3/4. In-app mixdown and upload of the resulting audio file to iTunes or SoundCloud are also supported. Via MIDI or USB, you can directly sequence current Yamaha synths, and presets for Motif XF and XS, MOX, S70SX/S90XS, and the MX series ensure that program changes call up appropriate Voices. Yamaha’s marketing doesn’t really call this out, focusing instead on the app’s standalone abilities, but you can do it. If you have an MX, an iPad 2 or newer, and this app, you have a workstation. This is one of the most comprehensive mobile music production apps we’ve yet seen, and we intend to give it a full review soon.

Conclusions

The MX61 is truly a do-it-all keyboard that breaks new ground for affordability and portability. Given the price, it not being a self-contained multitrack workstation should hardly bother anyone, but add the Mobile Music Sequencer to the iPad you probably already own, and it becomes quite a useful one. Its biggest appeal, though, is in the quality and diversity of its sounds, not to mention how quick and intuitive it is to split, layer, and order them right at the gig. If it did that and nothing else, it would still be a clear Key Buy winner.


img

PROS

Sound quality and variety virtually identical to Motif XS, including VCM effects. One-touch split and layer. Very easy to use. Works as a control surface for most DAWs. Weighs under 11 pounds.

CONS

Two-line LCD makes changes on the fly harder to do quickly. Splits and layers limited to two parts in the absence of an external sequencer or software editor. No user-selectable velocity curves. 

Bottom Line

Rewrites the rules for what you can expect from a do-it-all gig keyboard at an entry-level price. An outstanding value.

MX61: $999 list | $799 street

MX49: $799 list | $599 street

yamaha.com

 
 

You Might Also Like...

Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

Are any of your gigging synths analog?




See results without voting »