In 2016, the Yamaha MONTAGE represented both a major upgrade and radical departure from the company’s time-tested MOTIF family of synthesizer workstations. It paired dual synth engines — sample-playback and FM — with scads of real-time performance control and deep modulation possibilities. It does offer sequencing of a different sort: Motion Sequences can manipulate its sound parameters in a way that’s sort of a hybrid of modular synth patching and DAW automation. In lieu of the onboard multi-track sequencer keyboard players use little if at all anymore, the MONTAGE gave us amenities such as a snappy color touchscreen and LED-encircled rotary encoders. The mother of all those encoders, the Super Knob, is a macro that can control a great many settings at a time. Now, the MODX line marches downstage as “MONTAGE lite,” but that term hardly does it justice. It’s more like “MONTAGE concentrate” in that it crystallizes everything desirable about the MONTAGE into a much more affordable and portable package.

Overview

I reviewed the middle size of the line, the MODX7, which features 76 semi-weighted, synth-action keys. The 61-key MODX6 has same action while the MODX8 features an 88-key graded hammer action. For the uninitiated, that means that keys are weighted more heavily towards the bass range and lighter towards the treble, making for a more piano-like playing experience. As is the usually case with midrange companions to keyboard makers’ flagship instruments, none of the MODX synths sense aftertouch, though they will of course interpret channel aftertouch if something else — like your DAW or an external controller — sends it as a MIDI message.

It has to be said: “DX” in the name evokes the world-changing line of FM synths Yamaha introduced in the 1980s, and that’s intentional. The marketing team was trying to think of a name that was consistent with the extensive MO line of past MOTIF-lite keyboards, and Nate Tschetter, product marketing manager extraordinaire at Yamaha Synthesizers in the U.S., sold the Japanese brass on “MODX,” especially so geeks like me and him could wink at the DX7 reference. (By the way, it’s pronounced “mo-dee-ex,” not “mod-ex.”)

Like the MONTAGE, the MODX is an incredibly deep instrument and it’s conceptually different from other “workstation” synths. The two are so alike in architecture that I’m going to start by asking you to read my MONTAGE review from May 2016. Then, we can focus on the important differences in this article. You may also want to check out the news on the recent MONTAGE 2.5 firmware update, most of which applies to the MODX as well. Last but not least, my first impressions and video of the MODX from the Yamaha launch event this past September.

Like the MONTAGE, the MODX is in Performance mode all the time. Within a Performance, you can freely combine parts that use either the AWM2 or FM-X synth engines. AWM2 (Advanced Wave Memory 2) is Yamaha’s take on multi-sampling and has an architecture in which a single sound can have up to eight Elements — an Element being a full subtractive synthesis chain in itself. FM-X is a highly sophisticated form of FM synthesis. It features eight operators (waveform generators) and 100 algorithms in which those operators can be arranged in various modulator-carrier relationships. FM-X can create timbres ranging from the most strident stereotypes hurled at DX synths to stuff so smooth you’d swear it was analog. If you remember the Yamaha FS-1R rackmount module, this side of the MODX’s personality is like that — only with the polish, user interface, and exposure to modulation we all wish the FS-1R had.

Also like the MONTAGE, Motion Control rules the day. This is an umbrella term for the fact that anything in the synth can modulate or be modulated by anything else — under control of how the Super Knob, other physical controllers, and the aforementioned Motion Sequences. Of course, it can all sync to tempo. How many things can modulate how many other things at the same time, and how flexible are the relationships between single sources and multiple destinations (and vice-versa)? Let’s put it this way: If the MODX were a Eurorack modular system, the combined studios of Martin Gore and Richard Devine might not have enough wall space to map this out.

Up to eight parts in a Performance can take advantage of Motion Control. Performances of up to four parts enjoy Seamless Sound Switching, in which previously sustained notes (along with their effects) are not cut off when you change Performances. Being in multi-timbral mode all the time is not as complicated as you might initially think. Simpler performances might have just one part. More importantly, Performances dedicated nominally to one typeof sound might use multiple parts to nail the realism.

Screen Shot 2018-12-13 at 5.45.59 AM

MODX Versus MONTAGE

It’s no surprise that to cut costs, the MODX offers a slimmer controls complement than the MONTAGE. You get four each of sliders and endless rotary encoders instead of eight, and they lack the LED position indicators of their big sister. The Super Knob retains its LED collar, just outside its color-pulsing areola. The encoders control five rows worth of settings in total, selectable by adjacent buttons and giving you real-time command of grab-worthy parameters like common filter cutoff and resonance, envelope attack and release, reverb return, EQ, an assignable row, and more. Commonly used to balance the levels of different parts in a Performance, the sliders can access eight parts thanks to a 1-4/5-8 toggle button. Point being, you’re losing nothing in terms of what the MODX can actually let you tweak in performance, just a modicum of luxury in how many physical widgets you can grab at once.

In terms of the sound engines themselves, the MODX gives up very little. The AWM2 engine still offers 128 voices of polyphony; the FM-X engine is halved at 64 voices compared to 128 in the MONTAGE. The MODX can run 13 stereo insert effect blocks (each block can host two different effects, so it’s really 26) at once where the MONTAGE runs 16. The MODX has 1GB of internal Flash memory for loading user wave data or sound expansions originally designed for the MOTIF XF; the MONTAGE has 1.5GB. That’s about it.

The various Performance, bank, category, and other selection buttons on the right side of the MONTAGE’s panel are gone, though essentials such as increment, cursor, and mode buttons are still there. This makes the touchscreen itself the primary means of selecting things. On the upside, the screen is bright, crisp, and responsive. The downside? “If I were playing in direct sunlight or with sweaty fingers,” said a friend of mine who gigs near-daily with various cover bands, “I might worry about the screen being my only way to choose patches.” I pointed out the increment and cursor buttons (still there, still hardware) can navigate around a pre-ordered Live Set page pretty quickly. I did notice that since the onscreen Bank down arrow is right next to the Live Set up arrow, my fat fingers sometimes hit one when I meant to hit the other, but that’s my only complaint about this interface.

Since we all play for free but get paid to move our gear, an obvious advantage of the MODX over the MONTAGE is portability. The MODX8, weighted keys and all, is lighter than the MONTAGE 6. The MODX6, 7, and 8 brush the scales at 14.9, 16.5, and 30.7 pounds, respectively. Taking any of these to any gig in a soft case really ain’t no thang. I could even hook a couple of fingers into the recesses under the end cheeks of my MODX7 review unit and lift it off the ground without much effort. The plastic construction may not scream “serious” like the MONTAGE’s aluminum, but it’s as if Yamaha has broken some law of nature by putting this much synthesis power in an instrument this easy to carry.

Sounds

The star piano in the MODX is multi-sampled from a Yamaha CFX concert grand. When the CFX came out in 2010, it made several famous makers of even-more-expensive grands go, “Uh, we’d better up our game.” Able to handle every dynamic and harmonic variation of even the most nuanced classical music, it slayed any legacy perceptions that Yamaha grands skewed bright and poppy — but could certainly go full Elton if asked. Because the MODX (and MONTAGE) are effectively in a multi-timbral Performance mode all the time, different layers within the Performance are used to capture different aspects of the CFX such as resonances and mechanical sounds. This is most purely exemplified in the Performance “CFX Concert.” I’ll make no bones about it: This is the finest main piano sound you’ll hear in any hardware synth, and to have it in a do-it-all keyboard at this price is a genuine big deal.

Any workhorse also needs a bevy of inspiring vintage keys sounds, and the MODX has them for days. The “RD Gallery” Performances establish a pattern of the scene buttons calling up variants on the same classic electric piano; “Wr Gallery” does so for the otherclassic electric piano. I’m notoriously snobby when it comes to B-3 organ sounds, and those in the MODX are the best that one can expect from an instrument that covers all bases. Sliders offer individual drawbar control on “All 9 Bars!” and several other Performances, and the Leslie simulation is decent enough to make you consider whether the organ needs of a gig demand you bring your dedicated “clonewheel” — which I guarantee you is heavier than your MODX. On several organ Performances, the Super Knob is tasked to morph multiple drawbars at once.

As on the MONTAGE, orchestral sounds represent Yamaha’s most comprehensive sampling efforts to date, and the results speak for themselves. Among the most impressive Performances are those that use the Super Knob to balance two section types, e.g.strings and brass.

We could go on forever about sounds one might call “intentionally electronic.” Straight-up emulations of classic analog synth leads, pads, and comps are as impeccable as they are many. However, the Performances where a good amount of Motion Control is baked in are what showcase the unique abilities of the MODX. One on hand, you have your slowly evolving soundscapes that evoke Eno or Boards of Canada. On the other, raucous electronica jams use the Scene buttons to choose between arrangements with different densities, the Super Knob creates whooshes and drops, and Motion Sequences make the whole thing more interesting still. Is it hyperbole to say that with some tweaking and planning, you could perform a set of house, trance, or techno that would please the ears of more discerning electronica fans? Only a little.

That observation leads to another. Since the original MOTIF debuted in 2001, Yamaha has focused on making bite-sized musical phrases useful and interactive in the context of a synth. Usually they have unassumingly called the part of the machine that does this an “arpeggiator.” It is — like a Tesla Model S is a hatchback. Even the first MOTIF could be compared to a needle-drop loop library, only with much more control over how the loops behave. Add the variation of Motion Control, and this aesthetic reaches incredible heights in the MODX and MONTAGE. One of its personalities is very much, “What if Ableton Live were a keyboard?” Another is your go-to piano-Rhodes-organ-Clav-synths-strings machine. What’s remarkable is that it does both equally well — and when you want to focus on one personality, the other gets out of your way.

Quality and articulation of guitars, basses, drums, and pitched percussion deserves a nod as much as on any recent Yamaha synth. Acoustic guitars in particular are the most realistic in the hardware keyboard landscape, period.

mod

External Audio, USB, and Other Connectivity

The A/D (external audio) input features dual 1/4-inch jacks. The left/mono input can accommodate a microphone or Hi-Z instrument. As on the MONTAGE, external signals can be processed through the MODX’s effects, and you can use incoming audio to key a vocoder, sidechain-pump a compressor effect, or even sync the synth’s internal tempo to anything with a discernible beat. However, there’s a more mundane application that gigging keyboardists will appreciate: Since the A/D input has its own gain knob right below the master volume, you could patch in a second keyboard, mix it through the MODX’s outputs, and not need to carry a compact mixer for your two-keyboard weekend warrior rig. Given what many gigs pay these days, less setup time is always a bonus. For external recording purposes, the A/D input can indeed send audio out via the USB port.

Which brings us to the fact that the MODX is also an audio interface. The USB-to-host connection can send ten channels to your computer, return five, and handle the entire machine’s worth of MIDI. The USB return gets its own volume knob. This is a huge convenience if your rig includes software synths or backing tracks from a laptop or iOS device, if you work on projects in hotel rooms while on tour, and especially if you’re putting together your first home studio.

This begs the question: Does the MODX have the DAW control functionality of the MONTAGE? “Not yet but soon” is the takeaway from the user forums at . The MODX does come with a license for Steinberg Cubase AI, which is the version optimized for seamless integration with Yamaha synths, so it’s likely in the offing.

Also, the MODX is supported on Soundmondo, an online Yamaha community where musicians can share Voices and Performances for it, the MONTAGE, and the reface line of compact synths. It’s browsable by genre and instrument tags and has grown a lot since its inception. There really is a lot there, as if the MONTAGE, MOTIF, and DX7 libraries with which the MODX is compatible weren’t already enough.

Spiralizer

A page of Live Sets in the MODX is devoted to Performances that showcase the new Spiralizer effect, originally introduced in a September 2017 firmware update to the MONTAGE. This is an audio effect, so it doesn’t involve Motion Control even though it can certainly sound like it does. The Spiralizer uses a principle called Shepard’s Tone, which is a powerful auditory illusion. This is a series of octave harmonics that sounds like it’s eternally rising or falling while in fact the overall pitch is going nowhere. It has been used to dramatic and sometimes unsettling effect by film composers such as Hans Zimmer, and it really is uncanny. An internet search will reveal more about its mechanics but basically, think of it as the audio equivalent of that famous M.C. Escher staircase. In the MODX, Performances like “Iceworld,” “Spirals,” and “Creeping Voltage” show what it can do most blatantly.

Conclusions

Never before has so much synthesis power, sound quality and variety, and “slide the food under the door” interactive fun been packed into a keyboard instrument this affordable and this lightweight. The worst thing I heard people say about the MONTAGE was that it was weird, and since it’s priced like a flagship ($2,999 and up), pros who just need to get through a gig or studio session may have needed some convincing of the power of the weird side. Given the MODX’s very aggressive pricing, its different approach is unquestionably an invitation. In fact, the interface is so well thought out, and the correspondence between the hardware controls, what’s onscreen, and what you hear so tight, that after living with the MODX for a couple of months, it was my other workstations that began feeling weird to me.

The MODX is a stage synth on steroids. It’s a producer’s beat-making machine. It’s the nerve center of a songwriter’s studio. It’s a sound designer’s spouse’s worst nightmare. It excels in all of these applications without compromising any of them. It is simply a new standard for the performance and flexibility any type of musician can expect in the hotly contested midrange price bracket — and unless you reallyneed a full multi-track song sequencer onboard, it stands head and shoulders above all its competition.

PROS

Dual synth engines. Incredible range of inspiring sounds. Main piano sound punches way above its weight. Very portable. Motion Control offers modulation possibilities on par with a large modular synth system.

CONS

No aftertouch. No hardware buttons for random-access sound selection — touchscreen only. Wall-wart power supply.

BOTTOM LINE

The best sounding and most sophisticated do-it-all synth in the mid-priced range — by miles. 

Yamaha MODX6 61-key Synthesizer - $1,299 street

Yamaha MODX7 76-key Synthesizer - $1,499 street

Yamaha MODX7 88-key Synthesizer - $1,899 street

www.yamaha.com