Yamaha MOTIF XF

June 1, 2011
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MOTIF_XF7_MAINby Stephen Fortner

The trend towards non-volatile Flash memory in keyboards is a nascent one, and it’s long overdue. The wait can’t have been good for sample-based workstations—which are powerful and great-sounding machines when done properly. Until recently, your only option for getting beyond factory ROM as raw material was sample RAM, which loses its contents when you turn the power off. I’ve heard my share of pros dismiss hardware workstations along these lines: “If I have to reload samples at the start of every gig or session anyway, I may as well do that on a computer and get the other benefits of soft synths in the bargain.” Well, we don’t have to anymore. The ability to store up to 2GB of waves in non-volatile Flash memory is the major difference between the new Motif XF and its predecessor, the XS (reviewed Aug. ’07). How big a difference is that? When coupled with all the other music creation features that make the Motif what it is, the answer I arrived at after a month of extensive testing was, “Huge.”

Overview

Name_on_bottomThe Motif has gotten so deep that we mainly have room to focus on what’s new, but we’ve reposted our reviews of the Motif XS and ES at keyboardmag.com/june2011. As the XF is nearly identical in structure to the XS, start there if you need a refresher. We do need to go over Motif vocabulary, since I’ll have to speak it throughout this review, so that’ll give us a primer on how the thing works.

A Voice (not to be confused with voices of polyphony) is a single patch or sound program. A Voice can have up to eight Elements, each of which is a complete synthesis chain of oscillator, pitch envelope, multimode filter with envelope, volume envelope, and an LFO that can affect pitch, filter cutoff , and/or volume in any combination. Each Element takes a Waveform—Yamaha’s unusual choice of word for a multisample—as its sonic building block.

It’s the real-time musical phrases in the “arpeggiator”—and how flexibly you can use them— that make a Motif a Motif, and the XS has more factory phrases than ever: 7,881. Up to five of these, not to mention all your controller and effects settings, are saved at the Voice level, and triggered from the SF (sub-function) buttons under the LCD. So before getting into sequencing or anything multitimbral, you’ve got fleshed-out musical motifs (get it?) suited to whatever sound you’re playing.

A Performance is what you’d call a combi or multi, with up to four Voices that can each have their own effects and arpeggiator settings, e.g., what phrase is used and whether it keeps playing if you lift your fingers up. Five scenes save these settings, and you can switch these with the SF buttons. Stumble on something you like, and hitting the Record button captures it, mapping each part to a sequencer track. You can also specify snippets of sequencer patterns to turn into arpeggiator phrases using the “Put Track to Arpeggio” function. This exemplifies the Motif’s approach to workflow since the first model: Any musical idea that begins life in one area of the synth can, with minimal operations, move to another, based on how you prefer to interact with that idea.

New Factory Sounds

The Motif XF’s Preset banks are identical to the Motif XS. The User 1 Voice bank is where you’ll find 128 new creations based on the expanded factory ROM. Unlike sounds in Preset banks, these can be overwritten, so back them up if you like them . . . and you will like them. Just a few highlights: “Natural Grand S6” is a rounder, woodier alternative to the “Full Concert Grand” sample that leads off the first Preset bank, the two having been recorded from Yamaha S6B and CFIIIS concert pianos, respectively. A very funky new Clavinet multisample forms the basis of fivenew Voices (including guitar-amped, phaser, and touch-wah varieties), and uses roundrobin programming at the Element level to craft a totally convincing illusion of hammers hitting strings. The Motif has had great Clavs since 2001, but this is a new high.

Fig1_CORRECTFig. 1. Here’s how the File screen should look when you’ve filled your first Flash board and want to load new stuff to the second. “None” next to FL1 is crucial, as it prevents any duplicate data from being rewritten to the first board.

 

“Prayer Call” sounds like a band of replicants decided to spend their four-year lifespans as Tibetan monks, and “Fat PWM Synth Vel” applies velocity to filter cutoff with highly playable results. “Bass n’ Gate” uses the arpeggiator for chopped-up repetitions on a trancey synth. Several woodwinds, horns, and string sections audibly improve upon the Motif XS’ orchestral offerings. Finally, the Motif still easily leads the workstation pack when it comes to acoustic and electric guitar sounds.

Flash Memory

You can fill this with your own samples (WAV or AIFF format, 16-bit/44.1kHz) or an ever-growing collection of third-party packs by such respected sound designers as Gary Garritan, Dave Polich, Sonic Reality, KSounds, and others. These guys honed their chops working within the limited memory of the keyboards of ten to 20 years ago, and you should hear what they do with a comparatively palatial ceiling of 2GB.

You can’t edit or reorder Waveforms or samples once they’re in Flash—but you can copy them to the 128MB of conventional RAM to apply the integrated sampler’s audio processing, loop remixing, ReCycle-style slicing, and other functions. If you make something cool, burn it back to Flash for safekeeping.

Once you’ve got those Flash boards populated, you can move Voices around in the User banks, and use them in Songs and Performances with happy abandon, without them ever losing track of their underlying Waveforms and sample data. The only way to screw this up is to go into Voice Edit mode and manually direct an Element to a different Wave Bank or Waveform—something you’d do only if programming your own sounds. On that topic, it’s fine to combine factory ROM and Flash-dwelling Waves in the same Voice.

Fig2_LibrarianFig. 2. Total Librarian by John Melas is the quickest, easiest way to organize all the Voices that’ll pile up as you acquire Flash libraries for the Motif XF. Get it at jmelas.gr/motif.

 

Reaping these benefits requires some planning. First of all, the nature of Flash makes for a long initial write time. Plan on about 20 minutes per 512MB you want to fill. Second, even though you’re loading just one file, the XF puts the Waveforms, keybanks, and raw samples from that file into Flash (or sample RAM at your option), and Voice, Performance, and sequencer data into User program memory—which has always been non-volatile, but since it contains just synth settings and no audio data, there doesn’t need to be nearly as much of it. All the related file management action happens on one screen (see Figure 1) that directs traffic between all the relevant memory blocks at once.

While this does make the above benefits possible, there’s a reasonable but definite learning curve to setting all the fields on this screen to match your intentions before clicking that final “yes” in response to “Are you sure?” Make a mistake, and you risk writing duplicate samples (or more likely, just Waveform data that points to the actual samples) to Flash. Fortunately, you can’t overwrite anything already in Flash—you have to delete it on purpose in the Utility area. Better still, Yamaha and Motifator.com made a helpful video on managing the XF’s Flash, which we’ve linked to at keyboardmag.com/ june2011. Motifator’s Julian Colbeck has also written a how-to just for Keyboard, which will appear in next month’s issue.

All this memory makes it more likely than ever that you’ll want to fill all four User banks with Voices. Using the onboard tools, the Motif can load Voices only in large blocks: either all the User banks at once if you select “all voice” as the file type, or one User bank of 128 Voices if you select “1 bank Voice.” Third-party libraries load their Voice settings to User bank 4 by default, but you can redirect them using this file type. You can also copy single Voices from one location to another.

A far easier route is to plunk down the equivalent of 35 euros for John Melas’ excellent XF Total Librarian for Mac or Windows (see Figure 2 ), available at jmelas.gr/motif. Each time I completed an initial load into Flash, I did a “receive all” in Total Librarian, then saved the results as a new file. Once everything I wanted was in Flash, I created a new Voice Library file, opened the saved files, then dragged Voices into the new file and ordered them how I wanted. This also let me eliminate the multiple “Initialized Voices” I found in libraries that didn’t use all 128 slots of a bank. Then, I did a “transmit all” back to the XF and saved the whole thing from the XF to a USB drive for good measure. Again, all the Voices, in their new order, played their correct wave data with no problems.

The boards aren’t cheap: $150 street price for 512MB or $300 for 1GB, and you have room for two. Yamaha cites performance as the reason they didn’t go with a consumer format—say, high-speed SD cards. Unlike a camcorder, or a laptop that boasts an SSD drive, the Motif XF doesn’t treat its Flash like a storage drive; it’s live memory that’s fully accessible to the sound engine, just like factory ROM. If a song or Performance maxes out the XF’s polyphony, and all the Voices are pulling their waves off the Flash boards, that’s a possible 128 audio streams, each consisting of 16- bit words of data whizzing by 44,100 times every second. (While factory ROM is data-compressed, samples you’d put in Flash aren’t; they’re at 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution.) So, 128 x 16 x 44,100 = 90.3 megabits per second and change. By contrast, the maximum bit rate of the popular AVCHD camcorder format is 28 megabits per second. The math seems to make Yamaha’s case for custom hardware.

Computer Connectivity

Remote_LogicTo date, Yamaha has done more than anyone to get their synth workstation and your computer to work as an organic whole. Since the ES, the Motif has offered two USB ports: one for MIDI and one for devices. The device port works well with USB hubs—I had two 4GB thumb drives and a WiFi stick going without plugging in the hub’s AC adaptor for extra juice. Here are the other ways you can hook up.

FireWire. The optional FW16E board can pipe 16 audio channels from XF to computer and carries three MIDI ports. This lets you pump a 16-track sequence you’ve created in the XF into your DAW digitally. It also makes the XF an ideal audio interface/controller for soft synths onstage—especially since you’ve got all the Motif sounds on hand in the event of computer problems. Though it supports sample rates up to 96kHz, this has no direct benefit for recording external sources, as the converters on the XF’s audio inputs and outputs max out at 44.1kHz (though they’re 24-bit and sound very smooth). What it does do is let you match Motif sounds to tracks in your DAW that you’ve already recorded at a higher sample rate, while monitoring everything through the Motif’s audio outputs with no glitches. Yes, we’re talking real-time sample rate conversion. In two directions at once. From a synth.

DAW control. In the Utility settings, you can select Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer, or Sonar as the DAW, then hit the Remote button to turn your XF (or XS) into a control surface. I tested it with the first three of these on my Mac Pro, and once appropriate preferences were set, it worked great. Transport control, the faders and knobs doing volume and pan, and bank/Voice buttons selecting, muting, and soloing tracks were just a few of the niceties. Will this replace my Euphonix MC Mix and MC Control? No. But this is some of the most thorough DAW control you’ll find in a keyboard—short of MIDI controllers that don’t make any sounds of their own.

Ethernet and WiFi. Since the XS, the Motif has been able to interact with a network just as though it were a computer, but Yamaha took some heat over connection problems with certain versions of Mac OS X, Windows 7, and Vista. Since firmware 1.2 for the XF (1.6 for the XS), they’ve really cleaned things up. Using either a Cat-5 cable to my router or a USB WiFi antenna plugged into the XF, I accessed public folders from every computer on my home network. Direct Motif-to-computer connections also work. Loading Voice files from a shared folder into the Motif was more convenient than shuttling a USB drive between computer and synth, especially since the XF’s Flash memory made me want to surf the Web for libraries and fi re them up right away. What’s more, the wireless audio streaming Yamaha’s Athan Billias describes on page 34 works in the other direction, letting you audition WAV and AIFF audio files (but not the AAC or MP3 files likely to be in your iTunes library) right from the XF.

Between the XF’s network settings and your computer’s account, file sharing, and network preferences, there is some setup involved. Basic familiarity with network concepts (IP addresses, folder permissions, etc.) and a willingness to RTFM will put an end to the “can’t access host” messages more quickly. One avoidable pitfall: Even with a Mac, the Motif XF wants to see Windows SMB file sharing turned on. Bottom line: It’s harder than GarageBand, but if you’ve ever gotten a Mac and a PC to talk to each other, you can handle this, and it does work.

Conclusions

On top of everything else the Motif is, the XF is the return of the high-end hardware sampler. Th at optional 2GB of Flash may not sound like a big deal to some, but it has transformed the Motif from a workstation people think of largely in terms of factory sounds (albeit excellent ones) to an ecosystem where premium third-party libraries are flourishing. That you can have so much waiting for you with no load time really is a new lease on life, especially if you want to set up ultra-realistic sounds at home and then take them to gigs. In places, it feels like the Motif ’s depth has outgrown its user interface, but put in some time, and you’ll hit a tipping point where you start fl ying on it. The computer integration is unparalleled, but the onboard workflow makes it a creativitybooster without a computer. Also, in ten years of using every Motif model in the studio and on all kinds of gigs (many of them beery, smoky, and elbow-y), I’ve never had one freeze, crash, or make bad noises. If you need a thoroughly professional music production machine that fi ts into any work environment and can do positively anything with sample-based sounds, you owe it to yourself to check out why the industry standard is now even more so.

Specifications

PROS
Virtually bottomless well of stellar acoustic and synthetic sounds of every type. Generous and powerful modeled effects. Onboard sequencing and phrase generation is as fun as it is productive. Up to 2GB of non-volatile Flash memory retains user or third-party samples with power off.

CONS
Optional Flash memory is not cheap. Proper use of Flash memory takes some time to learn, as does setting up Ethernet if you want it.

CONCEPT Synth workstation with multitrack sequencer, sampling, preset and programmable musical phrases, and comprehensive computer integration.
SYNTHESIS TYPE Sample playback.
POLYPHONY 128 voices.
SEQUENCER 16 tracks, song and pattern-based modes.
SAMPLING Up to 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution, 128MB RAM, with full editing, wave slicing, and loop remixing.
ARPEGGIATOR 7,881 polyphonic phrases. Record your own phrases via sequencer.
WEIGHT XF6: 33.3 lbs., XF7: 37.9 lbs., XF8: 63.7 lbs.
yamahasynth.com

PRICE
XF6 (61 FSX keys) list: $2,999 | Approx. street: $2,400
XF7 (76 FSX keys) list: $3,539 | Approx. street: $3,100
XF8 (88 Balanced Hammer Action keys) list: $4,039 | Approx.
street: $3,500

Motif_iPad_appsFour new iPad apps give you wireless control of the Motif XF. Clockwise from top left: Voice Editor Essential focuses on effects and EQ of Voices. Multi Editor Essential is a basic remote mixer and transport control for the sequencer. Keyboard Arp & Drum Pad includes 342 of its own phrases (it’s not remotely triggering phrases already in the XF) as well as 16 pads you can further divide into two zones each—with each zone able to trigger a single note, a chord, or drum hit. Finally, Faders & XY Pad is the most fun. It lets you assign up to three synth parameters to each of eight faders, allowing macro-style tweaking in real time. Then, you can patch each fader to either axis of an X/Y touchpad in direct or inverse relation. The touchpad’s cursor ball has adjustable momentum, from a dead stop when you lift your fi nger to literally bouncing off the walls, taking all the faders—and wild changes to your sound—along for the ride. Read our full reviews of these apps at keyboardmag.com/june2011.


*Click here if player below doesn't load correctly.
06-2011 Yamaha Motif XF hi-res by KeyboardMag

*Learn about the Motif by reading our past reviews: Motif ES (originally from November 2003), Motif XS (originally from August 2007)
*De-mystifying and mastering the Motif XF's Flash memory.

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