Yamaha S70XS New Standard in Performance Keyboards

January 1, 2010

0110 Yamaha S70XS Web AnnotatedHANDS-ON

1. Performance Creator lets you roll your own splits, layers, and drum performance setups with minimum button pushing.

2. Dedicated octave-shift and transpose buttons are placed so you could hit them with a free finger of a hand that’s playing a chord.

3. These backlit buttons select parts of splits and layers, and turn them on or off.

4. Just below, these buttons activate and latch the arpeggiator for each of the four independent parts.

5. These toggle buttons select which four parameters the knobs control (filter/envelope, EQ, etc.), so you’re never more than one click away from the function you want.

6. Faders have four pages of functions: volume and panning for parts, and sends for the master chorus and reverb.

7. There’s enough real estate here to park a small laptop or a tabletop synth module.

8. DAW Remote button turns the S70XS into a control surface for DP, Logic, or Sonar — or the included Cubase AI software, for which the integration goes especially deep.

PROS

Great sounds including stellar new S6 piano. Super-easy to create splits and layers on the fly. Expanded control surface functionality for DAWs.

CONS

Nearly as wide as some 88-note keyboards. Small display. Deep sound editing requires computer software.

INFO

S70XS (76 keys): $3,699 list/approx. $2,300 street; S90XS (88 keys): $3,799 list/approx. $2,400 street, yamahasynth.com

 

 

NEED TO KNOW

What are the best sounds in the S70XS? The new S6 piano and the entire Motif XS ROM, particularly keyboard sounds like EPs, Clavs, and analog synths.

What does it have that previous S-series synths didn’t? That S6 piano, much easier creation of splits and layers, better realtime arpeggiator control, and more control surface ability.

Why would I get this instead of a workstation or other ROMpler? Because it’s focused on features that really make live gigging easier — and that piano sound we keep mentioning just kills.

What’s the big deal with 76 keys? Don’t other keyboards come in that size? Yes, but the S70XS is the only deeply editable, do-it-all synth (as opposed to a vintage-keys clone, stage piano, or MIDI controller) we know that has 76 fully-weighted keys.

How many effects can it do at once? Eight inserts, send-based reverb and chorus, last-in-the-chain master effect and EQ, plus EQ per multitimbral part. In other words, you won’t run out, even with complex setups
 

I’ve had an S90 “classic” in my gig rig since 2003, so I’m very familiar with the interface, sounds, and features of this original S90 (reviewed Jan. ’03), which was based on the original Motif but focused on live use. Then, the S90ES came on the heels of the Motif ES — both had double the polyphony and greatly improved sounds. Now, the XS generation of the S series offers not just the full Motif XS sound set, but a gorgeous main piano sound you won’t find in the Motif XS. Also, Yamaha is consciously addressing a couple of trends gleaned from user buzz: First, a perception that the S was just “a Motif without a sequencer.” In response, Yamaha revamped the user interface with a focus on the most common gig tasks, especially setting up splits and layers quickly. Second, musicians have wanted the action, sounds, and performance control of the S series in a 76-key size for years — with fully weighted keys, not the springier semi-weighted sort usually found on 76ers.

USER INTERFACE


Even at first glance, you notice a lot of new things. Lots of backlit buttons and four new knobs augment the four faders of the S-class ancestors. The knobs open up more possibilities for realtime control, with virtually all the preset sounds thoughtfully programmed to use these knobs in musical ways. The two toggle buttons that select knob functions were a piece of cake at gigs, and the knobs quickly became an extension of my brain. The only drawback is that the knobs are mounted close to the back edge of the panel, making them harder to access if a second keyboard is stacked above.

At first glance, the LCD seems tiny compared to the large color screen on the Motif XS. However, once I got into the greater number of controls and more intuitive menu structure (compared to the S90 classic and ES), I didn’t feel at all inhibited. There’s even a hidden feature that super-sizes the fonts, which is most welcome at gigs. Like the knobs, the display could be mounted a little closer to the keys to make it more visible in multikeyboard rigs

New backlit red buttons turn individual Voices (Yamaha’s term for single sound programs, not to be confused with voices of polyphony) in a Performance (a multitimbral split or layer) on or off. You get separate buttons for engaging the arpeggiator, and for keeping it playing when you release the keys, for each Performance part. I saw this kind of attention to hardware control throughout the instrument, and it inspired me to a new level of performance.


FORM FACTOR

Yamaha opted to put the pitch and mod wheels to the left of the keys. This adds about five inches of width as compared with putting them on the top panel, which is where they were on the S80 and S90 classic. Many users might prefer the latter position and a smaller size — being able to buy a smaller case, especially if you drive something smaller than a minivan or SUV, is one of the main value propositions of a 76-key keyboard. Yamaha says they made a conscious decision based on playability. That’s true — most players are trained to reach here, and there’s no problem accessing the wheels if another full-length keyboard is above the S70XS on a stand. But this does make the S70XS only two inches narrower than my 88-key S90 classic. Nonetheless, it’s a managable 44.2 pounds, well-balanced to carry, and surprisingly easy to hoist onto a keyboard stand.

SOUNDS

The S70XS has the complete factory ROM (and synth engine and effects) of the Motif XS (reviewed July ’07), and this is one deep sound set. Just about anything you could possibly need is on hand. What you won’t find in any Motif, though, are certain new grand piano Voices in the S70XS and S90XS. They’re based on the prestigious Yamaha S6 concert grand, and have a nice brightness that cuts through a mix while remaining realistic and warm. Among the presets, you get many variations of classical, jazz, and pop pianos. My favorite for live rock use is “Piano Rock S6,” which has lots of expressive ability, but also enough brightness to drive it through the mix. On all the new S6-based Voices, you can really hear that realism and attention to detail has been kicked up quite a few notches from the Motif. Keyboard’s Stephen Fortner chimed in, “I loved the main piano sound in the CP-300, which was several cuts above the Motif XS main piano. But this new S6 sample is a whole other level still.”

The rest of the sonic landscape covers a broad base: meaty, funky electric pianos and Clavs, B-3 organs that sound darned good for sampled sounds, dozens of analog leads and lush pads, gorgeous orchestral strings, breathtakingly realistic woodwinds, edgy modern synth tones, and still the most realistic acoustic guitars you’ll find in any hardware synth. Using the Favorites feature, I could simply tag Voices I liked (signified by a heart icon in the display) for quick call-up later. This also works with Performances.

AT THE GIGS

The S70XS action is balanced, meaning the keys are the same weight across the whole range. I could tell very little difference between it and my careworn S90 Classic, aside from the older keyboard being broken in. This action is a joy to play, and given that it has aftertouch, about the best combination I’ve played for digging into acoustic and electric pianos as well as ripping synth and organ leads.

I played the S70XS for several gigs and rehearsals with my soul/dance band SoulerCoaster, as well as ’80s cover band Flat Elvis. Having used the S90 classic for years was a great primer, but the sound quality and realtime control of the S70XS were breaths of fresh air. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the S70XS and S90XS load files from the Motif XS. Since I’d previously owned a Motif XS7, I had a USB drive with all my gig sounds, which loaded right into the S70XS with nary a complaint, aside from a few differences in the Voice pointers.

In previous S-series keyboards, creating new splits and layers was time-consuming, because for each one, you had to edit together a Performance preset containing the sounds and key ranges. The S70XS has a one-touch approach: Simply press the Split or Layer button, and the current sound is automatically coupled with another, which you can set as the default “second sound” or quickly change by scrolling through sound categories. This act seamlessly creates a Performance, which you then save into an initialized memory spot. Having blank memory to store edited Voices and Performances felt a lot more logical than overwriting duplicates of factory sounds in the User bank, which is what you did on Motifs and previous S synths.

The front panel and menus can edit common settings such as key range, filter cutoff, resonance, and effects, but deeper edits at the Element level require connection to a computer. (An Element is like an “oscillator” in a patch, but it’s really an entire synth chain with waveform, filter, modulation, etc.) While the included software editor is pretty slick (see facing page), some players will miss being able to dive into every parameter from the keyboard itself

PERFORMANCES VS. MULTIS

Worth noting on the S70XS is the “Multi/Seq Play” mode, selectable by a button under the Voice, Performance, and Master buttons. Not to be confused with Yamaha’s usual Performance mode, which splits and layers up to four Voices, Multi mode allows access to 16 Voices via MIDI. Helpful Multi templates contain popular combinations of drums, bass, piano, strings, and so on. You can address these from your DAW or sequencer — or use Multis as speedy-access sound banks at gigs. It’s similar to the Motif’s Pattern or Song mode in how it lines up Voices side by side, and what’s especially cool is that you can switch sounds while holding keys or a sustain pedal, and the S70XS will actually do “patch remain” — sustained notes on the old Voice won’t be cut off by the patch change. I’d like to see this work in plain old single-patch mode as well (as it has on Kurzweil synths since K2000 days) but it’s good that Yamaha gives you a way to hold a chord and sound-hunt at the gig. You can also execute a “Job > Copy” command that imports a full Performance into your Multi, including four-part arpeggios — very cool!

ARPEGGIATOR

In the studio, I explored the S70XS’ immense selection (over 6,000) of up to four-part arpeggios, though as Motif and S users know, “arpeggios” is an understatement. Though there are classic up/down synth patterns aplenty, most of the content is musical phrases of the sort you’d expect from better loopware libraries. It runs the gamut from country to heavy metal to smooth jazz to urban to Latin to film score — almost any style you can imagine. Need to sound like Herbie Hancock during the Headhunters era? There’s an arp for that. “Rosanna”-era Toto? There’s an arp for that. Caliente piano montuno? There’s an arp for that. I could write an entire review on this hypnotic capability that, with some preparation, can turn you into a one-musician band.

COMPUTER CONNECTION

[Keyboard Corner forum regular and S70XS/Cubase power user Dan Stecko (“DanS” on the forum) provided insights on the S70XS’ software editing and DAW capabilities. –Ed.]

0110 Yamaha S70XS EditorWith Steinberg Cubase booted up and the S70XS connected to a Mac or PC via USB, pressing the DAW Remote button turns the arpeggio select/effect toggle buttons into transport controls. The S70XS’ scroll wheel scrubs through tracks, the arrow buttons change tracks, and of course, the faders do track volume. Via Mackie Control Universal protocol, you get similar functionality in Digital Performer, Logic, and Sonar.

In Cubase, if I selected a soft synth’s track, the synth’s name appeared in the XS’ display, and some of its settings became editable with the knobs and faders. If your soft synth has a “MIDI learn” function, you can make these controls edit whatever you want. In the editor software, you can create up to 50 control assignment templates for your soft synths. Very cool.

Exclusive to Cubase, the editor software also lets you automate the S70XS as though it were a VSTi. Select “External S70XS VST” in a Device slot, click “Auto Sync” once the editor opens to get Cubase and the S70XS talking, and you’re in business. Once you create a setup you like, you can send it back to the XS as a Multi, or store it with your Cubase song for recall. Of course, the editor also works in standalone mode. --Dan Stecko


CONCLUSIONS

The S70XS is a true performer’s instrument with killer sounds sourced from the Motif XS, along with a new acoustic piano that, frankly, rocks harder than anything else I’ve played in a digital stage piano anywhere near this price. Only, the S70XS isn’t just a stage piano — it’s a full-on synth that does every sound well and many sounds exceptionally well. None of the competition combines these capabilities with fully-weighted keys. The Kurzweil PC3 [reviewed Dec. ’08] is the most similar, but with a semi-weighted action — fully-weighted keys are on the 88-note PC3X only. The Nord Stage EX has 76 weighted keys, but because it’s primarily a vintage clone, it lacks the huge variety of sounds and deep synthesizer engine of the Yamaha. I would have made the unit a bit smaller, but this is hardly a dealbreaker. The S70XS is an outstanding and game-changing entry in the “goto gig keyboard” field.

Editor's note: We also have a review coming up of Yamaha's new CP-1 stage piano. For exclusive preview video, click this link:

http://keyboardmag.com/article/yamaha-cp-1-stage/January-2010/105619
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