Review: Yamaha MX88

October 23, 2017

Yamaha’s MX series debuted in late 2012, impressing us by packing high-quality sounds from the then-flagship Motif XS into a super-light and compact form factor at a very affordable price. Recognizing that many musicians wanted an all-purpose machine mainly for live gigs, and if they did studio recording, they did so using DAW software, Yamaha chose not to put in an onboard sequencer (a decision echoed on the now-flagship Montage), instead opting for DAW control that was surprisingly powerful given that the unit has only four knobs. What does an 88-key weighted model add to the value proposition?

ACTION, BUILD, GETTING AROUND

The MX88 tips the scales at just 30.6 lbs., a nontrivial accomplishment given that you can’t spell “weighted” without “weight.” While its GHS (Graded Hammer Standard) action is not the most premium I’ve played in terms of piano-snob purism, it’s consistent, non-fatiguing and perfect for use across multiple sounds in a multitimbral gigging situation; if you need splits, you’d put sounds you want to dig into more heartily toward the bottom of the keyboard and things calling for fast solos toward the top—and the upper half of the range responds pretty darned quickly.

On the MX88, the keymaps and velocity curves of the piano multisamples have been fine-tuned for the keyboard’s Graded Hammer Standard action.

Creating two-way layers and splits is easy. Hit the Split or Layer button and a little triangle in the display points to which part has the panel’s attention in terms of sound selection and editing. To set the split point, simply strike a key while holding the Split button. Because the MX88 is 16-part multitimbral, more complex multizone setups are achievable. The most significant workflow issue arises when assigning one of its four knobs to part volume. You can’t mix parts quickly and at the same time: Rather, you select a part, adjust its volume, select the next part, adjust its volume, and so on.

SOUNDS

When it comes to quality and realism across just about every sound category, the MX88 shines. What we have here is, essentially, the factory ROM from the Motif XS/XF, not to mention the complete underlying synth engine and 128 voices of polyphony. These are sounds I’ve done probably two or three hundred gigs with and, thanks to newer components such as the D/A converters, the MX88 sounds better.

The category-based sound hunting you can opt for on Motif-series keyboards is the default way of thinking on the MX88, with Yamaha’s multisample of their CF-IIIS concert grand leading off the Piano bank as the “CncrtGrand” voice. For lengthy solo-piano repertoire I might want something more premium (for example, the more recent CFX and Bösendorfer samples Yamaha put into the Montage), but this piano will fit any rock, pop, or cocktail-jazz gig.

Brighter and darker variations abound, as do CP electric grand samples for Peter Gabriel covers and chorused stacks that affirm you should not, in fact, stop believin’. The bank named Keyboard is where you’ll find all the vintage electro-mechanical and electronic piano sounds, and these stand their ground next to the best EP patches out there.

Blake Angelos of Yamaha told me that compared to the MX49 and MX61, the keymaps and velocity curves of the acoustic and electro-mechanical piano multisamples have been tweaked to take advantage of the MX88’s weighted action. If the organic instrument had a hammer hitting some object meant to vibrate, the MX88 positively sings when re-creating that sound.

Its tonewheel organs and Leslie effect are as good as it gets on a sample-based instrument. Using the assignable layer of the MX88’s four knobs, you can achieve a modicum of drawbar-like timbral control. The behavior of harmonic percussion is even correct, and I don’t mean just a monophonic layer leading off a key-strike: The “ping” happens on as many notes as you hit, and then dies out until you release all notes and strike again. Although the organ voices won’t match a dedicated clonewheel, they are realistic enough to make you consider leaving that extra keyboard at home so you can tote a simpler setup.

Acoustic and electric guitars and basses have been a Yamaha strong suit since the original Motif (as well as precursor ROMplers such as the S80), and the MX88 is no exception. There’s an integrity and expressiveness to these sounds that you don’t normally hear in keyboards at this price point.

The synth sounds are subdivided into leads, pads, and comps, and if there’s an ear-worm in your memory from a favorite song, you’ll find it excellently portrayed in the MX88. If I sweep the filter cutoff knob, I do hear a bit more stair-stepping compared to the Montage and Motif XS/XF, which are perceptibly smoother. But the synth categories are fantastically flexible whether you’re after analog grease, digital sparkle, or anything in between.

The orchestral strings, brass, and tuned percussion are no less than what you’d expect from a strong, current ROM bank; they’ll work in live arrangements and MIDI score mockups with aplomb and respond expressively to your playing. Some of the MX88’s best synthesized string and brass sounds are hiding out in these banks alongside their acoustic counterparts. Moreover, the instrument includes 208 rhythm patterns, and the drum kits sound tasty. Out of the box, they’re tempo-synced with any internal motion that is programmed into the factory Voices (patches).

DAW CONTROL AND SOFTWARE GOODIES

The MX88 offers the most generous DAW control-surface ability a manufacturer could conceivably squeeze out of just four knobs and a bank of buttons. Launch-and-go templates are included for Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, Apple Logic Pro X, and MOTU Digital Performer. Not surprisingly, the integration is tightest with the Yamaha-parented Cubase, but perhaps more surprisingly, there’s a great deal of functionality here across the board.

For example, the buttons that normally select sounds perform such tasks as assigning the MX88’s data dial to scrub through tracks, adding a new track, controlling read/write automation, and more. If you’re on a budget and a keyboard rather than a mixer needs to occupy that position between your studio speakers, there’s a serious case here for giving the MX88 the space.

Cubase AI is included with an MX88 purchase, as well as free downloads such as Yamaha’s Mobile Music Sequencer for iOS (essentially giving you multi-track workstation functionality a la Motif ) and the FM Essential soft synth (also for iOS), which snuggles up right alongside the MX88 sounds as though a DX7-like synth engine were residing inside the machine. Rounding out the connectivity, the MX88 provides a 2-in/2-out USB audio and MIDI interface.

CONCLUSIONS

In many reviews over the years, I’ve talked about the ubiquitous presence of the two-tier keyboard stand, as well as the different roles musicians expect from the keyboards placed in the top and bottom positions on that stand. Where the MX49 and MX61 presented themselves as highly competent “tops” (synths, strings, organs) that happened to have considerable “bottom” sound and functionality (stage-piano fare), the MX88’s full-piano form factor flips that script.

For sounds that are more satisfyingly played on something with a weighted action, such as electric and acoustic pianos, you can now play it as hard as the gig demands. That said, there’s so much going on in the MX88 that it is more than a bottom-tier-dwelling “stage piano with benefits.” It can be your only keyboard for many gigs, provided you explore its capabilities enough to maximize them.

In a studio context, it’s hard to imagine something giving you more for the money if what you’re after is “my first pro synthesizer keyboard.” Keep in mind that there’s a full Motif-level synth engine inside, where any patch has up to eight Elements, each of which, in turn, is a complete synthesis chain comprising a PCM-based “oscillator,” filters, envelopes, and modulation options.

The Yamaha MX88 is perhaps the best “basic” do-it-all keyboard I’ve tried yet, and there’s a reason I’m putting “basic” in quotes. The combination of premium sounds, weighted action a Juilliard student could take seriously, and studio-friendly features adds up to something that will beckon those new to electronic keyboards. Yet, it’s sonically solid enough that pros might want one to take to gigs and studio dates.

STRENGTHS
High-fidelity, realistic, playable sounds. Plug-and-play control surface for many DAWs. Action feels great. Lighter weight than expected.

LIMITATIONS
Keys do not sense aftertouch (though synth engine does via MIDI). Wall-wart external power supply. You can only adjust one volume layer at a time in a multi-timbral sound setup.

$999 street
yamahasynth.com

Stephen Fortner was editor-in-chief of Keyboard magazine from 2009 through 2015. He currently consults in the music, automotive, and film/TV industries and helms the website synth-expert.com.

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