Yamaha Motif XS

May 24, 2011
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Since the original Motif arrived in 2001, followed by the ES (reviewed Nov. ’03), Yamaha’s vision has been about integration — of audio samples and MIDI sequences, of hardware synth and computer-based studio, and most importantly, of all the musical building blocks that live under a keyboard’s various buttons: sounds, sequencer patterns, arpeggio phrases, songs, samples, and the like. With the highly-anticipated Motif XS, Yamaha extends this integration even further, and makes major sonic improvements in the bargain. With software music tools growing ever more powerful and affordable, how compelling can a keyboard workstation still be? Let’s find out.motifxs8

WHAT’S NEW
If you’re upgrading from the Motif “classic” or ES, you’ll feel right at home browsing voices in the XS’ Category Search mode. Even though the distribution of sounds isn’t a radical departure from Motifs past, there’s a lot more to like here, beginning with how many layers a single sound program is capable of: Four has been a sort of glass ceiling for keyboards, and the XS crashes through it with eight elements per voice. For starters, this allows thorough drawbar control of organ sounds, resulting in some of the most realistic B-3 patches I’ve ever heard via a sample-playback method.

Another vastly expanded area is the arpeggiator, although calling it that is an understatement, which is why Yamaha also calls it “Phrase Factory.” It’s populated with beats and musical phrases suitable to every sound the XS makes, and to every role in an arrangement, whether that’s lead, rhythm, comping, or anything else. On the ES, you could vary some arpeggiator settings for each voice in a performance setup, but not play separate phrases for each voice. On the XS you can, because the arpeggiator is four-part multitimbral. As before, you can turn anything you create in the sequencer into an arpeggio, or go in the other direction and drop arpeggiated phrases into a track, either by playing the keyboard or with a command. There is one way Yamaha could improve things: Since the arpeggiator has over 6,000 preset phrases, it needs a Category Search feature like the one that’s so useful in Voice and Performance modes. The phrases are organized by instrument groups such as drums, bass, and guitar, though.

Surprisingly, the XS has no slots for PLG sound expansion boards. If you’d hoped to use boards you bought for an earlier-model Yamaha synth, this is a real bummer.

SOUND
The Motif XS’ sonic power lies not just in more elements per voice, but in a new way they can respond to your playing, which Yamaha calls Expanded Articulation (XA). Each element has an “XA Control” parameter that decides when and how that element makes sound. Options include playing only when either (or neither) AF button is lit, switching to an alternate waveform when you play legato, and cycling through other waveforms in order or randomly as notes are played. There’s even a setting to make the element sound on key-up.xs articulation

Many factory sounds have great XA programming: Most piano, electric piano, and Clav sounds now include key-release samples to enhance their realism. Solo synths, strings, saxes, and trumpets make good use of the legato function, and some orchestral section voices bring in more players via the AF buttons. Guitar Voices use these buttons to alternate between picked notes, harmonics, mutes, and slides. Sounding like someone is moving the drawbars as you play organ, a voice called “Alternator” is one example of how waveform-cycling can create timbral changes in real time.

Clever sample-switching isn’t a new idea; it’s been the bread and butter of orchestral sample libraries for some time. What is new, and remarkable, is how musically the Motif XS realizes the concept in hardware form. No other workstation or ROMpler has gone this far, and given that each voice element sits on the front end of its own synth engine (including a filter with just about every mode imaginable), XA makes possible some truly mind-stretching sound design.

Fancy footwork aside, what about basic sound quality? Among the most audible improvements are the brass, strings, and woodwinds, which contain more wave data and sound richer. Yamaha also reworked the entire ES wave set with longer sample loops. I especially noticed this on the XS’ main three-layer piano voice, which decays more smoothly and realistically than its ES counterpart. Due to the entirely new sound engine and improved outputs, even largely unchanged sounds seem more open, sweet, and hi-fi.

SAMPLING
Motifs have always been context-sensitive, meaning that what some buttons do can work differently depending on the last button you’d pressed. Enter the sampler from Voice mode, and the XS assumes you want to record something for later use as the basis of one or more elements in a voice. Come in from Song or Pattern mode, and the XS is ready to drop whatever you sample into the track and measure you specified. This could be a single hit, a short phrase, or a full linear recording of a vocal or instrument connected to the audio inputs.xs play fx

The Job button brings up typical audio processing functions, including great-sounding time stretching and pitch shifting. The two real stars are the Loop Remix and Slice jobs. Loop Remix turns one drum loop into many by re-arranging or even reversing various hits. Slicing chops up any sample, and maps slices to a series of keys so you can trigger them while recording a sequence. It won’t make you throw away your copy of ReCycle, but it’s as good as anything I’ve heard a keyboard do, and perfect for laying one-shot sounds and vocal hits (“Uh-huh . . . yeah.”) on top of a groove. Don’t like what you hear? Both processes are undo-able.

IN USE
The new, large color screen gave Yamaha enough room for graphics that make the XS much more intuitive to operate than the ES, and I got my head around the way the entire Motif line “thinks” more than I ever had. On many pages, a useful “list” soft button displays a pop-up menu of all possible settings for the highlighted parameter. Nice.

Though the sequencer works similarly to previous Motifs, that big screen made using it feel more like creating music in a studio, and less like building a ship in a bottle. One of the XS’ best new features is its “Performance-Record Setup.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve been noodling through multitimbral presets in a keyboard’s performance or combi mode, found something with a cool beat or arpeggio that inspired an idea, and eagerly entered sequencer mode . . . only to have my idea evaporate by the time I’d found all the sounds from the combi and assigned them to tracks. On the XS, when I found something I liked in Performance mode, I just hit the Record button. A setup screen came up, with the performance’s four voices assigned to the first four tracks in the sequence. Settings on this screen include a “syncro start” toggle so that recording will begin the instant a key is struck. When I did this, all the phrases I’d heard in Performance mode played in exactly the same fashion. To change them up, Loop Remix worked the same as in the sampler.

Most sequencers have some kind of “swing” function to help humanize your groove, but the XS’ PlayFX screen takes this to new heights — moving backbeats a little behind or ahead of the beat is just the beginning. I don’t have room for a setting-by-setting rundown, so I’ll have to settle for assuring you that this is the most flexible, fine-grained quantizing and velocity-tweaking I’ve ever seen a hardware keyboard perform.

I wanted to record a vocal track over a song I’d sequenced, directly into the keyboard as Yamaha suggested I try. I pressed the Integrated Sampling button while in Song mode, and since I was going to try a beginning-to-end take as my song played back, I set the Recording Type to “sample + note,” which puts a MIDI note-on in the track to cue the audio at the right time. I then set the record trigger threshold so that the XS would start grabbing audio when it heard my voice, hit Play, and started crowin’. Since anything in sample RAM goes away when the power is turned off, I saved the song-plus-sample-data as an “all” file to a USB flash drive, and when I reloaded the file the next day, the audio was right where it was supposed to be.

I do think the XS should have at least one XLR mic input with phantom power. In the studio, I’d sample through an external preamp or compact mixer anyway, but that said, the XS’ input stage is nice and clean, with ample gain for dynamic mics.

Though I’ve focused on its standalone abilities, the XS gets even more formidable when used with a computer. A peer-to-peer Firewire driver for Windows XP and Vista is already available from www.yamahasynth.com; the Mac OS X driver should be out by the time you read this. After installing a special set of AI (Advanced Integration) extensions (also from that web site) on my XP machine, I was able to import the song I’d recorded on the XS as a project into Cubase AI, a version of Steinberg’s audio/sequencing software that comes with the XS. Cubase automatically created MIDI tracks for all my sequenced parts, and an audio track for my vocal, and flawlessly imported both MIDI and audio data — wow! AI extensions also install into other current versions like Cubase 4 and Cubase Studio. Since the FireWire connection streams multitrack audio and MIDI, but doesn’t transfer files, I did that via the Ethernet port. In fact, if you plug in a standard cable, the XS can load from or save to any shared folder of any computer on a local area network. The only tedious part of the process was naming files using the character mode and data wheel.

CONCLUSIONS
The other major new workstation now out is the Korg M3, which editor-in-chief Ernie Rideout reviewed just last month, so a little comparison is in order. Both have superb sounds in all categories, and killer sequencers. Both let you overdub audio onto your sequence, though with 1GB maximum sample RAM as compared with Korg’s 320MB, the XS records hella more of it. The M3’s synth action has an edge on the XS6 and XS7, and Korg has the touchscreen thing cornered, but in my opinion, the Yamaha’s display is easier to understand at a glance. From there, it’s a personality difference — the M3 is 60 percent muse and 40 percent loyal assistant, and the XS flips that ratio. Let me make that more concrete. Both Korg’s KARMA and Yamaha’s arpeggiator generate musical phrases that jumpstart my composing, but where the M3 is a little quicker on the draw with the unpredictable sort of inspiration, the XS is what I reach for when I know what I want and need it quick . . . but still want to be open to alternatives.

Filling every page in this issue might scratch the surface of why the Motif XS is such a thorough and deep songwriting and performance tool. But for all its depth, it never sacrifices immediacy, the kind that I still don’t quite experience by booting up a DAW and loading soft synths. Sure, it’d be slicker if it had track-based audio recording, but for adding live parts to a sequenced tune, the XS’ sampler-centric method yields great results, and once you learn your way around a few parameters, it’s quick and fun. For gigging, its piano, vintage keys, and synth sounds are best-in-class. Bottom line: I want one. Bad.

PROS: Outstanding sounds and effects. Expanded Articulation greatly increases realism of instrument sounds, and can make unheard-of sounds as well. Powerful sequencer with live audio recording. PlayFX offers deep quantizing and groove options. Tight computer integration, especially with Cubase AI, which is included.
CONS: Does not accept Yamaha PLG sound expansion boards. No tap tempo button.

XS6 (61 keys), $2,799; XS7 (76 keys), $3,539; XS8 (88 weighted keys), $3,999
Yamaha, www.yamahasynth.com
Motif user community, www.motifator.com

GORY DETAILS
FACTORY SOUNDS: 1,024 plus 64 drum kits; 128 General MIDI sounds plus 1 GM drum kit.
SAMPLE MEMORY: Up to 1GB, requires 2 168-pin DIMMs of same size, PC-100 or PC-133 speed (not included).
SAMPLE FORMATS: Yamaha, WAV, AIFF. Imported files must be in 16-bit format.
SAMPLE EDITING: Cut/copy/move, normalize, time- and pitch-convert, fade, bit-reduce, stereo-to-mono, slice, loop remix.
EFFECTS: 8 insert (53 types), global reverb (9 types), global chorus (22 types), master effect (9 types), 5-band master EQ, 3-band EQ per multitimbral part.

GIMME SOME ACTION
I got to play both available actions extensively. The XS6 and XS7 use Yamaha’s best semi-weighted action, called the FSX. I thought it was tangible improvement over the ES for three reasons. First, it’s quieter. Second, it feels less springy and more fluid. Third, for many gigs, my fingers want weight, my back doesn’t, and my back wins. So, I set a hard velocity curve so that my playing accesses a sound’s full dynamic range, not just the top portion. The results were acceptable on the ES, but more even-handed on the XS.

The XS8’s “Balanced Hammer” action is identical to the ES8’s. It’s weighty enough for serious piano practice, but fast enough for synths and other instruments. Its aftertouch affects the sound gradually, in steady proportion to finger pressure, in contrast to the “on or off” feel on many keyboard I’ve tried.

EFFECTS IN EXCESSxs vcm
The Motif XS has the same quantity of effects blocks as the ES: up to eight inserts at once, additional chorus and reverb, and a final “Master” effect. The quality of what’s in those blocks is vastly improved, though. Heading up the new roster are “Virtual Circuit Modeling” effects that look like vintage analog gear and sound like . . . vintage analog gear. Really. This compressor (shown) is really tasty on bass sounds; try the VCM Phaser on electric piano or strings. Also new, the “Rev-X” algorithm is the best reverb I’ve ever heard from a keyboard. It might not strike out dedicated software plug-ins, but it sure pitches in the same league.

CLAIM CHECK
Yamaha’s Athan Billias says, “The Motif series has always focused on three main areas. The first is high quality sounds. The Motif XS features 355MB of wave ROM, twice that of the Motif ES, and more than any other hardware keyboard. Its voices now have eight elements, Expanded Articulation mode for more realistic, expressive playing, and Virtual Circuit Modeling effects from our high-end digital mixers.

“The second area is easy song creation. The XS features direct performance recording using four simultaneous arpeggios. Having over 6,000 musically intelligent arpeggios really takes the XS to another level. Third, we have computer integration. The Motif XS comes with Steinberg Cubase AI, and offers connectivity via USB2, FireWire, and Ethernet. So, not only does the XS’ Integrated Sampling Sequencer let you create complete songs with guitars and vocals recorded right into the keyboard, but you can import those songs directly into Cubase AI. Add the DAW remote control functions and included Studio Connections software, and you have a production studio in which hardware and software are seamlessly integrated.”

VITAL STATS
SYNTHESIS TYPE: Sample playback plus subtractive.
KEYBOARD: XS6: 61 keys, semi-weighted synth action. XS7: 76 keys, semi-weighted synth action. XS8: 88 keys, fully-weighted, balanced action. All are velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive.
DISPLAY: 320 x 240 pixel, 5.7" backlit color LCD.
POLYPHONY: 128 voices.
SEQUENCER: 16 tracks, pattern- and song-based recording, event-list editing, approx. 130,000 notes.
AUDIO OUTPUTS: L/mono and R main outs plus L and R assignable outs, all 1/4" unbal.; stereo coaxial S/PDIF out (24-bit/44.1kHz).
AUDIO INPUTS: L/mono and R w/ gain control, both 1/4" unbal.
PEDAL INPUTS: 2 footswitch (sustain, assignable), 2 assignable sweep/expression.
MIDI CONNECTORS: In, thru, out.
USB CONNECTORS: USB-to-device (type A) for storage devices, USB-to-host (type B) for MIDI connection to computer.
INCLUDED SOFTWARE: Steinberg Cubase AI.
OPTIONAL ACCESSORIES: mLAN16E2 I/O expansion card, $299.
DIMENSIONS/WEIGHT: XS6: 41.1" W x 15.4" D x 4.8" H; 32.6 lbs. XS7: 49.3" W x 15.4" D x 4.8" H; 37.5 lbs. XS8: 57.4" W x 18.3" D x 6.6" H; 63 lbs.

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