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.
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.
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
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.|
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.
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.
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
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