For about a week now, rumors have leaked about a new FM synthesizer from Yamaha. On Friday, September 14, they proved to be true … and then some. I got to attend the launch of the new MODX synthesizer, held at Yamaha Artist Services in midtown Manhattan. By the way, it’s pronounced “mo-dee-ex,” which means that the 76-key model contains the phoneme “DX7.” Yes, that’s intentional.
Much like some version of “MO” synthesizer has been the historical little brother to the time-tested Motif family, the MODX is “Montage Junior,” and as such is much more than an FM synth. Oh, it’s that for sure: Its FM-X engine features eight operators and 64 voices of polyphony, Next to that, it has a 128-voice AWM2 (Yamaha’s term for sample-playback) engine, with the ability to combine FM-X parts and AWM2 parts freely in a performance.
As on the Montage, the SuperKnob functions as a “macro” that can control multiple parameters in real time, with different polarity and scaling for each parameter — so you could sweep some things up a little bit while sweeping other things down a lot with one knob twist (or an assignable pedal), for example.
If you’re at all familiar with the Montage (which I reviewed in the May 2016 issue of Keyboard), you know that the AWM2 samples are pristine and high-definition, with Yamaha CFX and Bösendorfer Imperial concert grands taking center stage alongside fantastic Rhodes, Clavinet, organ, strings, brass, guitars, synths, percussion, and … well, sounds are pretty much uniformly excellent in all categories.
The FM-X engine is the deepest implementation of FM synthesis yet in hardware. In addition to sounds whose articulation and percussive character evokes the heyday of Yamaha DX-series synths, it serves up some surprisingly warm pads and brass that you’d swear came from at least a very good virtual analog synth, if not a real analog one.
Yamaha wished to bring most of the Montage features that matter in at a more affordable price and more portable package. This they did, by cutting corners where musicians were least likely to feel it. The 7” touchscreen is retained, and is every bit as crisp and responsive as on the Montage. You have to rely on this screen more, as there are fewer category, bank, and other navigation buttons on the right side of the panel. On 76- and 88-key models, this creates real estate for an iPad, effects pedals, or small mixer.
You get four each of rotary encoders and sliders (instead of eight), and both lack the LED position indicators of the Montage. However, both types of control are capable of eight functions thanks to buttons that toggle between 1-4 and 5-8. Likewise for Scenes, which are useful for flipping between variants of a given type of sound.
Motion sequences — essentially multi-track stepped automation of multiple synth parameters at the same time — are every bit as deep as on the Montage. There’s the A/D (audio) input, with its sidechaining function and the ability to sync the machine’s tempo to that of an audio drum loop.
Seamless sound switching (“patch remain” by a more familiar name), in which sustained notes won’t get cut off if you change patches, is possible with Performances of up to four parts; it’s eight on the Montage. On both, Performances can hold up to 16 parts maximum, and the MODX also reflects Yamaha’s new-school thinking of “all multi-timbral, all the time” as it’s always in Performance mode. Single-instruments sounds such as the CFX piano make use of multiple parts in a Performance to capture resonances, different tonal ranges, and other nuances.
Having seen the livestreamed demos by DOMi, Richard Devine, and Nicholas Semrad (which you can revisit on the Yamaha Synths Facebook page), then filmed my own demo with Dom Sigalas of Yamaha, then played the MODX for half an hour, I can say this: Unless you absolutely need the extra real-time control and DSP of the “pro” level Montage, the MODX is the synth to prefer for live gigging. This is partially because it’s ultra-light, ranging from about 16 pounds for the 61-key MODX6 to a hair over 30 pounds for the MODX8, which features an 88-key graded hammer action. One other thing you sacrifice for the savings compared to the Montage: aftertouch.
Yamaha made good on affordability as well. Minimum advertised prices (MAP) for each model are:
- MODX6 (61 synth-action keys): $1,299
- MODX7 (76 synth-action keys): $1,499
- MODX8 (88 graded hammer-action keys): $1,899
I’m looking forward to more quality time with a review unit soon, but my overall first impression is that even if I had both a MODX and a Montage, I’d leave the latter in the studio and prefer the MODX be what I throw around at gigs. Something about the simplified package, not to mention the lighter schlep factor, brings the live performance aspect of the MODX to the forefront and makes the whole experience of working with one more immediate and less, dare I say, esoteric. It even risks stealing a bit of big brother Montage’s thunder. As synth design legend Dave Smith once told me, “If you’re going to compete with someone, it might as well be yourself.”
On the other hand, the price and giggability of the MODX could well shine a brighter spotlight on the Montage’s philosophy of “samples next to FM synthesis, both swimming in batshit-crazy modulation possibilities.” In fact, the MODX does so much so well that it proves that philosophy can be the foundation of both a mainstream workhorse keyboard and an experimental inspiration station, all in one.
To learn more about the MODX, visit www.yamahasynth.com.