A Decade of Motif

With more than $100 million in sales, the Yamaha Motif series has become one of the best-selling keyboard lines in the history of hardware synths.
Publish date:
Updated on

Anatomy of a Synth Success Story

With more than $100 million in sales, the Yamaha Motif series has become one of the best-selling keyboard lines in the history of hardware synths. In 2001, when the Motif was first introduced, it was a different time for workstations—virtual instruments were in their infancy, and though the computer had made significant inroads into how we make music, it hadn’t yet redefined it. Over the past decade, we’ve seen computer-based music production eclipse traditional hardware, and as a result, there has been a significant decline in hardware instrument sales.

Still, the Motif series has remained a go-to choice for countless musicians. So we thought it would be interesting to rewind to the late ’90s, when the Motif was just an idea in the minds of a few musicians and developers, to find out how it came to be and what we can hope for in its future. We rounded up the key players who conceived, designed, and ultimately delivered the Motif to market (see “Motif Chiefs” on page 34). What follows is the inside story of one of the most successful keyboard instruments of all time.

Early Concepts

“As soon as I joined Yamaha in 1999, we started work on the Motif,” recalls marketing director Athan Billias. “I came in toward the end of development of the S80, and one of the first big challenges was convincing Yamaha Japan to make an 88-note keyboard. They didn’t understand why Americans like big keyboards because in Japan, they can’t fit them in their homes. But we had the S80, which became Yamaha’s first successful 88-note weighted synth, and this helped pave the way for the Motif internally.”

“We spent a lot of time and travel talking to dealers who told us what we already knew: that the market wanted an 88-note synth workstation,” adds product manager Avery Burdette. “We eventually made our case to Yamaha, but not without racking up a lot of frequent flyer miles.”

“We knew we wanted to make a sequencer workstation, and for the original Motif we focused on three areas,” Billias explains. “First was the sound, the most important aspect of any keyboard. Second, we wanted to make it easy to get your music down. Th e original tagline for the Motif was, ‘The Shortest Distance Between Inspiration and Creation.’

“Third, we wanted computer integration. We’ve always believed that it’s not about soft ware versus hardware, but soft ware and hardware working together to make music creation more intuitive. Those three points still drive us today—if you look at each Motif generation, you can see specific features that were added in each of those areas.

“In some ways, the idea for the Motif was already in place at Yamaha from all the research projects going on. But prior to this, I was a product planning manager at Korg for seven years, and during that time I worked with Stephen Kay, who developed the Korg KARMA [an interactive synth that generated musical phrases in real time]. In fact, I gave Stephen his first copy of Cycling ’74 Max, which he used to develop KARMA. Aft er I left Korg, I was working for IVL Technology in Canada. During that time, I did product plans for the Electrix effects processors: the Filter Factory and Warp Factory. Stephen Kay and I were working on plans to develop a hardware version of KARMA in a small box with no built-in sounds, but that could take MIDI input from a keyboard and output KARMA data to a tone generator. Th at product was tentatively called ‘Motif.’ I even registered the name for a trademark. But I left IVL before that project ever started, and when we started work on the new Yamaha synth and added the intelligent arpeggios, the name ‘Motif ’ seemed to fit perfectly. Fortunately, IVL didn’t have any plans for the name and let us use it,” Billias says.

The Art and War of Voicing

Having solidified the basic concept of the Motif, Yamaha turned to a combination of in-house and outside sound designers to craft the preset sounds. According to Billias, “We knew there were areas where we needed to start from scratch, where we couldn’t use what we’d done for earlier keyboards. We put together a team of musicians and programmers that included Dave Polich and Scott Plunkett. Th ey were part of our core team of U.S. sound designers, and contributed a big part of the Motif sound set.”

“We had a lot of sampling and voicing sessions when we started work on the original Motif,” recounts Plunkett. “Early sessions concentrated on what acceptable wave data we had, and what was missing. If we were missing something, we had to either sample it or create it from other sources. For instance, for one of the string sections, I sampled wave data from a TX16W [a 1988 Yamaha sampler] with sounds from an SY99, tweaked it, then recorded it into a DAW.”

“Voicing sessions took place well aft er the sample-selection sessions,” Polich explains. (Voicing is programming the synth downstream of the sampled sounds; as contrasted with sampling the sounds in the first place.) “It took months for new sampling sessions to be completed, as well as for data to be processed to fi t the Motif ’s ROM. [In 2000], we were doing pre-voicing for the first Motif in our own studios and submitting our work via servers.

“We collected the voicing from all the other design centers—England, Japan, Germany—then we’d have voting sessions where we’d rate every voice that was submitted,” says Dave Polich. “Following that, Yamaha Japan would coordinate the results, and we’d meet at their headquarters in Hamamatsu for a face-to-face session with all the sound designers to make final selections. Although these were never completely final because someone always came up with something they ‘forgot they wanted to do,’” Polich laughs.

“The early wave sessions were a challenge because the ROM wasn’t very big,” Plunkett adds. “It was an international team, so there were disagreements about what was important for different markets. For example, the Americans wanted more acoustic instrument sounds, and the Germans wanted specialized synth samples for techno stuff . We’d try to tell them they could make their über-detuned sawtooth wave with voicing, and they’d insist that it wasn’t the same and that they needed it sampled that way. They were probably right, but we weren’t going to admit it! [Laughs.]

“All of us had a lot of respect for one another, but we were also proud of our work and competitive. Of course, some people are naturally, how can I say this delicately . . . less abrasive than others. [Laughs.] Some voicers would grade everyone pretty high and make constructive comments, but others would go for blunt, dismissive comments and low scores. Since we’d all have to listen to something like 500 to 1,000 sounds, at some point even the nice guys would get tired. They’d eventually crack and then write or say something unintentionally hilarious, and everyone knew that was the point in the day when somebody had had enough. Th e crack-ups were my favorite part of the whole process. They put everything back in perspective,” Plunkett says.

“Competition is a great thing,” Billias adds. “We have three main sound design centers: Japan, the U.S., and Europe. When we did the Motif, Scott and Arne Shulze, two of our U.S. guys, had come up with a cool power-chord guitar sample that had eff ects like slides, chunks, even 60-cycle amp hum, and we mapped all of that at the top of the keyboard. Johannes Wehldnacht from our Europe team hated it. We had a big argument—he thought the noises were silly and no one would use them. Remember, this was before it was commonplace for hardware instruments to offer fret noise, release samples, and alternate performance techniques. So we programmed some arpeggiator phrases to drive the noises, sort of as a proof-of-concept, and we got to keep the sound! We further exploited that approach of combining different types of samples with custom arpeggios in the Motif ES, which gave us more ROM to work with, so we could include more specialized samples.

“I believe making a keyboard is a work of art, not engineering,” reflects Billias. “Th e engineering part is done when they bring the prototype. Th at prototype is a lifeless thing. It doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t say anything, it doesn’t speak to anybody. It’s the people who design the sounds that breathe life into the keyboard. When you’re working on an artistic project, people get passionate about it; they’ll have differences of opinion—even threaten to come to blows! At the end of the day, they go out and drink sake together, and the next day everything is fine.” [Laughs.]

The Phrase Factory Factor

In addition to its fresh and globally infused sound set, the Motif introduced keyboard players to arpeggiator patterns that added realism and musical interest to sequences and live performances. “Arpeggiator” is an understatement, as the word makes us think of robotic up-anddown synth patterns. By contrast, even the original Motif off ered tons of musical phrases suitable for its myriad instrument sounds, and made it fairly straightforward to drop those phrases into a sequence or Performance setup—or to go in the other direction, recording your own phrases in the sequencer, then triggering them from the keys as arpeggiator patterns.

Yamaha called this approach “Phrase Factory,” and it gave the Motif an edge over workstations whose sequencers worked in linear, tape machine fashion. It also offered a degree of instant inspiration that won favor among many musicians. Originally, the arpeggiator patterns onboard came courtesy of Keyfax founder Julian Colbeck and his Twiddly Bits MIDI phrase libraries, which Yamaha licensed.

“I was originally brought onboard by Athan, whom I’d met a few years earlier when he was with Korg,” Colbeck remembers. “I’d been playing with Yes off shoot Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe, and we’d met in Japan on tour since Rick Wakeman was a big Korg endorser. A few years later, Athan had moved to Yamaha and I’d moved to California from the U.K. to promote Twiddly Bits. We re-established contact when I approached Yamaha about doing new sounds for the RM1X groove box.

“The Motif, code named ‘Kangaroo,’ was in development, and Yamaha was looking for people to provide some of the musical ‘motifs’ that were part of the whole concept. Two engineers brought a prototype to our offices in Santa Cruz, and we talked about how people could harness the arpeggios as musical performances to add to their playing and recording. Philosophically, it was very similar to Twiddly Bits. Where Kangaroo differed, of course, was in being able to use these performances in real time.”

Building a Community

“Everyone knew that the Motif, while extremely cool, was going to take some extra-special support in order for people to feel comfortable with it,” Colbeck continues. “Long before it was released, Yamaha and Keyfax discussed ways to provide help, and Athan and I came up with the idea of an independent website.” Th is site, of course, would become Motifator.com.

“Originally, this was just a launch website,” recalls Colbeck. “After the first few months it became very clear that the Motif and Motifator were huge hits. Yamaha came back to us and asked, ‘What will it take to keep this site going?’ I knew I wanted a place for people to speak, shop, and get inside knowledge and tutorials. I wanted the site to be personal and for people to feel engaged, comfortable, and special. It needed to be mainly for musicians who owned or were thinking about owning a Motif, not just a general synth forum.

“The site has changed a little with each successive Motif model,” Colbeck sums up. “In fact, a number of key features on subsequent models grew out of requests from Motifator forum members. Motifator has given Yamaha a ‘shop window’ into the mindset of its customers: what they like, don’t like, understand, and don’t understand. Even if every forum post can’t be answered personally, [Yamaha] Japan has been looking at these million-plus posts over the past ten years.”

Thanks in a large part to Phil Clendeninn, Yamaha has done a lot more than just look. His title is “Technical Sales Specialist,” but seeing him play and work a Motif shows why his screen name, “Bad_Mister,” is more appropriate. Newbies and advanced Motif owners alike will learn a lot from browsing his nearly 27,000 (at last count) posts on Motifator.

Into the Future

“We recognize that the computer has become the center of music production,” says Athan Billias. “So we’ve focused a great deal on computer integration, starting with the original Motif, which included the Tiny Wave Editor soft ware for working with user samples. It also featured a multichannel FireWire audio interface card [optional], MIDI over USB, and a SmartMedia slot. With the XS, things really opened up for two reasons. First, we included Ethernet,” letting musicians connect computer and Motif by plugging both into the same network. “Second, the Motif XS and the new XF are Linux-based systems, so we can take advantage of Linux’s networking functionality. Th is is what let us add wireless MIDI with an iPad to the Motif XF. The newest operating system also lets you store and load files using a wireless network. You can even record stereo audio wirelessly from your XF to a computer or shared hard drive that’s sitting on your network.

“On the soft ware side, all of the recent Motifs come with VST3 editors, so you can treat the Motif as a soft synth in any VST3-compatible host. Save your DAW project, and the Motif ’s settings get stored with it. Re-open the project, and your DAW will set the Motif to the state it was in when you last saved.”

Why not just make all your music in the computer? Aside from the usual benefits of hardware synths—they’re stable and roadworthy, you don’t have to carry a separate keyboard controller and audio interface— Billias touts the Motif ’s immediacy.

“I did a clinic recently where someone asked me if hardware synths were still relevant, and I said, ‘Let’s see who can write a song faster.’ We both started with the computer and Motif XF turned off . I was finished with a verse and working on the chorus before the computer and DAW had fully booted up.” Granted, the Motif is Billias’ baby and he knows how to operate it better than anyone, but DAW soft ware has to be learned and mastered, too. “If the workflow has the immediacy to flesh out a song idea more quickly than anything else, then hardware is still extremely valuable,” he qualifies, “and if it inspires you to write music you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of, then absolutely.”

Motif Evolution


Yamaha Motif “classic:” 61-, 76-, 88-key, and rack models; 62-voice polyphony; 84MB ROM; 1,309 waveforms. Reviewed Nov. ’01.


Motif ES increased polyphony to 128 voices; 175MB ROM; 1,859 waveforms, more than double the internal presets. Reviewed Nov. ’03.


MO offers affordable entry point into the Motif series; two models were the 61-key MO6 and 88-key MO8; 64-voice polyphony; 175MB wave ROM, 1,859 waveforms. Reviewed Sept. ’06.


Motif XS doubles wave ROM to 355MB ROM; 128-voice polyphony; 2,670 waveforms; Ethernet added. Reviewed Aug. ’07.


Motif XF ups wave ROM to 741MB; 128-voice polyphony, up to 2GB non-volatile Flash memory; 3,977 factory waveforms. Reviewed on page 42 of this issue.


MOX: see “New Gear”


Athan Billias

Yamaha Director of Marketing, Pro Audio and Combo Division
Gifted pianist and multi-keyboardist. Was product planning manager at Korg during the era of the groundbreaking M1 workstation.

Avery Burdette

Yamaha Product Manager, Music Production
Played keyboards with the Burrito Brothers and country star Tanya Tucker. Currently plays in Jimmy Buffett and Bruce Springsteen tribute bands.

Scott Plunkett

Sound Designer
Played with Boz Scaggs, Don Henley, Michael McDonald, Peter Cetera, and Stevie Nicks. Tours with Chris Isaak. Has programmed sounds for Yamaha since the DX7-II, as well as for E-mu, M-Audio, and Steinberg.

David Polich

Sound Designer
Has designed sounds for every Yamaha synth since 1991, and programmed for Roland, Korg, Native Instruments, Arturia, and Dave Smith. Programmed keyboard rigs for Michael Jackson’s This Is It tour—see our Sept. ’09 issue for more.

Julian Colbeck

Founder and CEO, Keyfax NewMedia
Created Twiddly Bits MIDI phrases, some of which were ported into the Motif. Recently produced Alan Parsons’ encyclopedic Art and Science of Sound Recording video series.