Review: Yamaha Montage

Impressive sound quality and unheard-of performance control put the Montage in a class by itself
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The Yamaha Motif is a tough act to follow. Throughout its 15-year run and four generations, it became the synth workstation you’d find in a majority of studios, weekend gig rigs, and professional touring backlines. With the most recent Motif now over five years old (the XF—our June 2011 review is available at keyboardmag.com), the question that has fueled much speculation is: What sort of flagship, pro-level synth will Yamaha create next? At this year’s NAMM show, the company declared the new Montage to be at once a worthy successor, a massive upgrade, and a complete departure; and not only is that all true, but also the Montage's sound quality is so good, and its real-time performance control so engaging, that it may well be one of the most influential synthesizers of the next 15 years.

True to Its Name

For starters, the Montage is two synths in one, each with 128 stereo voices of polyphony. AWM2 (sample playback-based synthesis) has been expanded with about ten times the factory waveform ROM as the Motif XS and XF. Though there’s a good deal of legacy sonic DNA, there’s also plenty of material from new sampling sessions, including the Yamaha CFX piano, and a bevy of orchestral sounds recorded by Seattle Symphony members. In addition, 1.75 GB of non-volatile Flash memory is built in for loading, programming and wave data. The Montage is fully backward-compatible with the Motif XF, so if you’ve invested in XF expansions such as the Chick Corea Rhodes, you’re in luck. They’ll load much faster, too.

Then there’s the FM-X engine, Yamaha’s most sophisticated implementation of FM synthesis to date. If you remember the once-misunderstood but now coveted FS1R synth, it’s like that on steroids.

Compared to any Motif, the front panel is a spaceship, with backlit buttons, the pulsating SuperKnob, rotary encoders with LED positionindicator collars, LED “ladders” for the faders, and a color touchscreen that, in a big improvement over the Motif XS/XF, refreshes instantly when you change something.

Central to the Montage’s story is Motion Control, which just may be the most sophisticated and interactive approach to modulation and animation we’ve seen on any self-contained hardware synth. It comprises a number of things: The SuperKnob (or an attached pedal) is a highly programmable “macro” that can sweep multiple settings at the same time. Then, Motion Sequences can automate settings, including the SuperKnob itself, in sync with internal or external tempo. Still another dimension of control involves Scenes, which recall eight snapshots of virtually all settings including the states of the SuperKnob, Motion Sequences, and arpeggiator.

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Also under the Motion Control umbrella is a sidechain/envelope follower, which you could use for anything from keying sounds to an internal kick drum for a dance-floor pumping effect, to making external audio (such as a mic or drum loop) a modulation source for a vocoder effect. What’s more, “live” incoming audio can drive the Montage’s tempo.

Speaking of the arpeggiator, it offers eight switchable slots for phrases, and different parts in a multi-timbral Performance can each use their own sets of eight. As on the Motif series, the term arpeggiator is an understatement not only because of the number of simultaneous tracks but also because a huge variety of polyphonic musical phrases are on hand and labeled for the sort of sound they’re best at playing. Currently, however, you cannot create your own phrases onboard (though you can import phrase data from the Motif XF).

Effect slots have been expanded to 16 stereo dual inserts plus bus-based (System) and overall (Master) effect paths, and they employ Yamaha’s Virtual Circuit Modeling for realistic emulation of vintage compressors, EQ, reverbs, and such. The takeaway is that you could have dual insert effects on every part of a multitimbral Performance without having touched your common downstream effects.

The Montage functions as a USB2 audio/MIDI interface sending 32 (16 stereo) audio channels to your computer at 24-bit/44.1kHz resolution or eight (four stereo) channels at up to 192 kHz, plus whatever is plugged into the stereo audio input—which now has a dedicated gain knob and is switchable in a menu between mic and line level.

Yamaha touts improved converters and analog output circuitry, and I have to agree that the Montage sounds smoother and more hi-fi overall than the Motif XF—and the difference is more than subtle.

As for that departure I mentioned, you won’t find a multitrack song or pattern sequencer in the Montage. There are transport buttons, but these control a real-time recorder that simply captures everything your fingers and the machine are playing. It’s quite adept at this, but feature-wise it’s bare bones, lacking any sort of track editing or even a loop-record mode as of the firmware version (1.00.2) in my review unit. That’s not to say the Montage can’t sound like a bunch of tracks are playing; many factory Performances work the arpeggiator and Motion Control to create highly interactive musical arrangements.[BREAK]

Architecture

Fig. 1: Here’s what the Montage’s new Performance homescreen looks like. To drill deeper in and edit an individual Part, simply touch it. The Montage is effectively always in multitimbral mode, so the mixer-like Performance screen is the new “home” (see Figure 1). Motif users might be shocked to find there’s no longer any such thing as Voice mode. Don’t worry, though, about “How do I just play a piano?” Many Performances are devoted to a single instrument sound, and the Category Search function makes it easy to find what you want.

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A Performance can host up to 16 Parts. A given Part can use either the AWM2 or the FM-X sound engine, and you can mix and match these freely in a Performance. Touch the sound name on a Performance’s mixer strip, and you can immediately look for Part starters that, for purposes of building things like splits and layers, might as well be Voices.

With AWM2, a Part is further composed of eight Elements. An Element is really an entire subtractive synthesis chain, consisting of a sample-playback oscillator, a multi-mode filter, pitch and volume envelopes, its own LFO, and even a dedicated multi-mode EQ. The Expanded Articulation from the Motif XS/XF is on hand as well. In a nutshell, this lets you apply conditions for when and how an Element “speaks,” such as if you play legato or press an assignable button. Just one of many uses is making acoustic and orchestral sounds more realistic.

An FM-X Part can employ eight operators, arrangeable according to 88 algorithms. Each operator has its own envelope and a variety of waveforms. FM-X Parts also have their own filter and pitch envelope. [BREAK]

I know—we need to get into playing this thing, but I really wanted to call attention to how much editing depth is under the hood, not to mention power to play lots of sounds at once without hitting an audible polyphony ceiling. And all that is even before realizing you can modulate it all via Motion Control. Nearly every parameter, from the deepest sound edits to effects to the Motion Control settings themselves, is saved at the Performance level. You can’t overwrite factory Performances, but the ample user memory for storing your own is retained with the power off. One gripe: There is still no “are you sure?” dialogue to prevent you from losing your edits when switching sounds from the main Performance screen: So don’t do that.

There’s also a level above Performances called the Live Set, which is similar to Quick Access on a Kurzweil or Set Lists on a Kronos. This lets you select Performances from a grid and step through that grid with a footswitch: You can see an example on the screen of the opening Montage photo.

Sounds

Here’s where the rubber really meets the road. The Montage sounds extremely good across all sound categories. As always, we have room to highlight just a few standouts, but their realism and musicality are representative of nearly every sound in the instrument.

In spite of the “all Performances all the time” approach, nothing forces them to sound “multitrack.” In fact, multiple Parts can work together to craft a single instrument sound, which is precisely what the new pianos do. CFX Concert, for example, uses four AWM2 parts, which means it can draw on up to 32 Elements for different velocity layers, alternate samples, and the like. It’s really a new zenith in how realistic and playable a “workstation piano” can be. I’d say the CFX is more contemporary and focused whereas the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand is more woody and classic, inasmuch as such adjectives aren’t hopelessly subjective.

In the vintage keys department, the Gallery Performances use the Scene buttons to call up variations based on different electric piano decades, Clavinet pickup settings, and so forth. There’s tons of attitude and funk here, not to mention a Part devoted to mechanical noises. Tonewheel organs are generally long on vintage character, and All 9 Bars! offers full drawbar control on the faders. I do wish the accompanying Leslie effect were as happening as the rest of the Montage, but the organ sounds themselves are good enough that with the aid of a better rotary pedal (or real Leslie), you could use it as your main source of B-3 sounds all night. In fact, you could program your organ Performances to use the alternate audio outputs for just this purpose. [BREAK]

The orchestral sounds blew me away. As mentioned, these are home to a sizable chunk of the new sample content, and the recording quality is impeccable. Throughout, the SuperKnob and other controllers are assigned in musically useful ways, such as morphing the Seattle Sections strings from diffuse to focused, fading in ensemble support behind a solo oboe, or smoothly changing the Cathedral pipe organ from sparse flutes to a wall-shaking tutti. With extra octaves on the SuperKnob and trills and fall-offs on the assignable buttons, Pop Horns Bright is as apt as anything I’ve tried at helping the keyboard player nail horn-band covers. Everywhere, the usual giveaways that you’re playing bowed-or blown-instrument sounds on a keyboard are virtually non-existent. True, there are things only high-end orchestral software libraries can do, but the Montage comes the closest of any hardware synth yet to providing that feel—and in a way that’s more immediately playable.

Anyone who still thinks FM synthesis sounds harsh should be won over by the Montage’s FM-X engine. While there are plenty of examples of the crystalline harmonic landscapes FM originally grabbed attention for (some using Motion Control to PPG Wave-like effect), you also have sounds like FM CS80 Brass, which has warmth you’d swear was analog. Of course, if harsh is what you want, FM-X can oblige.

As for synth sounds in general, the Montage can sound as analog—or not—as you please. The huge complement of leads, comping sounds, basses, and pads runs the gamut from decidedly retro to aggressively experimental, with no shortage of hybrid Performances that combine these moods.

A big improvement over the Motif is Seamless Sound Selection, known more generically as patch remain. Sustained notes from your current Performance won’t be cut off when you switch. Some other brands, notably Kurzweil, have had this for years, but Yamaha’s execution is the smoothest I’ve yet heard in terms of not hearing bumps in the audio due to effects changes. [BREAK]

Motion Control

Here’s the thing about Motion Control: It’s insane. Just about every parameter in the machine, from something as obvious as the volume of Parts in a Performance to deep Element-level edits can be a modulation target for the SuperKnob and Motion Sequences. And you can do a heck of a lot of this at once, with broad strokes or fine.

Fig. 2: This is an overview of what the SuperKnob (far right) and other controllers are doing. Selecting a number instead of Common shows mappings for individual Parts in a Performance. The SuperKnob directly controls the eight other knobs when they’re in assignable mode. Like on the Motifs, these also have dedicated rows of buttons for things like overall filter and envelope, arpeggiator behavior, global effects sends, and the like. Switching to one of these won’t disrupt what the SuperKnob is doing. You can set the range and polarity for each knob, so one gesture of the SuperKnob could sweep one knob up its full value range while taking another down through the middle third of it. In turn, each assignable knob can affect multiple parameters. So what we have here are eight control buses or macros, all under the control of the “meta-macro” SuperKnob, which can be mirrored from a continuous pedal if you want to keep both hands on the keys (see Figure 2).

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Musical uses range from the very simple, such as crossfading instruments on the delightful Two Acoustics guitar, to the very complex, such as genre-bending an arpeggiator-driven EDM Performance from chill and minimal to glitchy, postdubstep mayhem. In fact, reverse-engineering some of the dance-oriented Performances, such as DJ Montage, is a great way to get your head around everything SuperKnob programming can do at once.

As an aside, although I doubt that EDM producers are the target market for a synth like the Montage, a lot of the Performances in this area have surprising street cred, marshaling the Scene buttons and SuperKnob to generate song sections, rises, and whooshes, and bass drops. In fact, in a blind test in a roomful of candy kids, I’ll bet most of them would guess that behind the curtain was someone rocking Ableton Live.

Creating animation that’s more fine-grained still, and that doesn’t even require any manual controller moves, is where Motion Sequences come in. They’re sort of a hybrid of how you’d automate plug-in settings in a DAW, and patching a step sequencer to multiple destinations at once in a modular synth—but that’s oversimplifying things a bit. Sequencing things other than notes isn’t a new idea in synthesis, of course, but the Montage’s implementation is mind-bendingly deep. [BREAK]

Again, multiple settings at any level in the machine can be a destination. One way this can happen is simply to automate the SuperKnob with a Motion Sequence. You can deploy up to nine lanes in a Performance. Lanes are the containers that have the most direct relationship to whatever the sequence is controlling. A sequence has up to 16 steps (yes, prog rockers, you can set odd lengths), and a lane can host up to eight alternate sequences, which you can switch from the front panel while playing. And while each step can simply hold its controller value until the next step (exactly how you’d think it would be done), it can also travel between two values according to a curve, which Yamaha calls a Pulse.

Fig. 3: Motion Sequences provide complex automation of multiple sound settings at once. This is a visual representation of how fine-grained the step-by-step control can get. Here’s how it works: Imagine an invisible hand riding whatever parameter the sequence lane controls. Within the time-slice of one step, that hand could move smoothly and linearly, or be jerky and abrupt, or hit its high value mid-step and then retreat, or behave in other ways depending on which of the 18 preset Pulses you choose. You get two pulse shapes (A and B) per sequence, and to change things up, you can select which one each step uses and, of course, set the step’s maximum and minimum value (see Figure 3). Of course, lots of useful factory sequences are pre-programmed.

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In musical terms, a Motion Sequence could do something as simple as rhythmically stair-stepping a filter like in the organ intro to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Sample-and-hold or wave sequencing effects? No problem. If you start thinking of Pulses as building blocks to create a larger shape, Motion Sequences can act as highly customizable LFOs or envelopes. Sequences can loop or not, and free-run or sync to tempo, in the latter case partaking of the same swing and time-unit multiply settings as the arpeggiator.

Now ponder how many Motion Sequences you can use at once and how they can interact with the SuperKnob, Scenes, and arpeggiator. As complex as the underlying sound engine is, I can’t overstate how hands-on playable the results are. These range from some of the most fun “instant soundtrack” fare I’ve heard in a keyboard to evolving counterpoints whose voices seem to waft around and pass through each other. Check out the Performances in the Live Set labeled Motion Control for examples. I’ll leave you a case of protein bars and check on you in a month. [BREAK]

More than the Sum

Just wow. In terms of sound quality and authenticity, across the board but especially with acoustic instruments, there are two other times in my life I’ve experienced this kind of saucer-eyed awe playing a hardware synth: when I bought my first Kurzweil K2000 in 1995, and when I got to spend an hour with a full-spec Synclavier around 1986. As for 2016-level expectations, the Montage exceeded mine.

It’s hard to find a comparison for Motion Control. Other things certainly use the same concepts, like macros and automation, but the way the Montage puts modulation and animation right at your fingertips is unique. Maybe it’s closest to running multiple instances of Omnisphere, only with shoulder-devil versions of Brian Eno, Deadmau5, and John Williams weighing in on what to do next.

One could argue that Yamaha missed an opportunity by not building in even more sound engines, Kronos-style, because their back catalogue has great fodder such as the VL-1 modeling synth and the virtual analog AN-1X. It’s a valid thought, but Motion Control lets you interact with the sound in a way nothing else currently does, and the AWM2 and FM-X engines are both so deep as to generate any sound you might need, with fidelity that just may edge the Kronos a few feet down the bench at this point.

Overall, the Montage does so many things so well, and combines them in a way that’s not merely novel but musically inspiring, that it really amounts to a new category of synthesizer. While the industry ponders what to call that, we’ll call the Montage an obvious Key Buy winner [BREAK]

Snap Judgment

PROS Stellar sounds, especially new concert pianos and orchestral instruments. Hi-fi audio quality. Motion Control offers unprecedented modulation possibilities, all in a way that’s incredibly musical and playable. Highly interactive, multi-timbral Performances.

CONS No way to create user arpeggiator phrases onboard. Some Motif users may miss song and pattern sequencing. Needs a Save prompt if you’re about to switch sounds and lose your edits.

Bottom Line

Impressive sound quality and unheard-of performance control put the Montage in a class by itself.

All prices are MSRP.
Montage6: $3,499
Montage7: $3,999
Montage8: $4,499
yamahasynth.com