By Tony Orant
With the MOX, Yamaha has come up with an affordable yet powerful synth workstation predominantly aimed at home enthusiasts and weekend professionals. You can think of the MOX as a Motif XS with a smaller, non-color display, no user sampling or Ethernet port, fewer simultaneous effects, and a maximum polyphony of 64 voices as opposed to 128. They also added a built-in USB audio interface, which makes it a cool master keyboard if your live rig also includes soft synths.
In virtually all other respects—sounds, sequencing, and all the ways you can create and interact with the onboard musical phrases and rhythm patterns—it works identically to the Motif XS. While this provides plenty of compositional inspiration, the portability and price make it an especially good live performance keyboard. As we’ve extensively covered Yamaha’s sequencing and phrase-based music creation in previous Motif reviews, we’ll focus on the virtues of the 88- key MOX8 for gigging.
With over 1,200 very impressive presets, it won’t be hard to find sounds that appeal and inspire. As a long time user of the Yamaha S90ES, I’m quite familiar with Yamaha’s sound sets, and had no trouble filling up the Favorites slots with everything I needed. My favorite pianos are the “Full Concert Grand” and “Monaural Grand,” though I have to admit that I still prefer the 700MB piano in my S90ES. Th at said, I found the “Piano Back” voice inspiring to play, and the “Tacky Piano” was very reminiscent of the Kawai Electric Grand (which had a harder, slightly thinner sound than the Yamaha CP70), and really cut through the twin guitar assault of the ’80s “hair band” I perform with, especially on songs like “Once Bitten Twice Shy” and “All Summer Long.”
Speaking of electric grands, the MOX’s “CP70 Chorus” sound finally delivers: Previous attempts at that sound from earlier Motifs never really inspired me, but this one had me riffing on Peter Gabriel. A quick twist of the Chorus send knob, and you’re there!
Yamaha has always kept it real when it comes to electric pianos, and two of my favorites are the straightforward “Vintage 74” and “Phaser Vintage,” which has just enough effect to sound like an old Mark I pumped through an MXR Phase 90. I use the “Early Fusion” EP patches on my Motif Rack and S90ES all the time, but the updated version here is even more happening, and a little more subtle. “1983” will get you playing in the same vein; hitting the AS1 button kicks in a little extra reverb for as long as you hold it down (you can reprogram the buttons for latched or momentary behavior on a per-patch basis), which really helps a well chosen lick to stand out. Fans of transistor pianos will recognize “Ahr Am I” and find themselves digging into Doctor John’s “Right Place Wrong Time” if not some vintage Genesis. “DX5 Zero” is one of the few FM electric piano sounds I’ve ever liked; “Vintage Clav” has a killer touch-responsive wah.
In the orchestral area, I fell in love with “French Horn” and have been a sucker for the “Sweet Flute” sound since I first bought my Motif 8 “classic.” Since then, Yamaha has really upped the ante with many of their vintage synth sounds, and I found myself gravitating to the Moog-like “Feeling” and “DetunedVintage” patches a lot.
“Space Lead” evokes Wakeman-esque Minimoog leads, and “Vintage Saw” is a ripping lead sound with an added fourth interval—totally fun! If your synth tastes veer away from prog rock and towards electronic dance music, you won’t be disappointed. Many of the Performances (multitimbral setups) will get you going in that direction with the press of the first key.
On the Gigs
I played the MOX8 with a classic rock cover band whose repertoire runs the gamut from Joe Cocker to Deep Purple, and just about anything you can think of from 1965 to 1995. So I need everything from horns to B-3 organs, electric guitars to Mellotrons. While I’ve always preferred dedicated “clonewheel” organs to sample-based sounds from any allpurpose workstation, I used a few from the MOX very enthusiastically, especially “Crunchy.” It worked great for Deep Purple and Tony Kaye-era Yes sounds, and I also used it for playing parts that might otherwise be played by a rhythm guitar.
Many of the MOX8 presets have “AS1” or “AS2” in their names, indicating that some sonic or performance enhancement happens when you hit the corresponding Assignable Function switch located just above the second G key from the bottom. With the “Crunchy” organ, AS2 added the harmonic percussion you’d expect, and AS1 was the fast/slow toggle for the rotary effect. Though the MOX8 (like many keyboards) also used the modulation wheel for rotary speed, I preferred the button. On the MOX8, I found the placement of the pitch and mod wheels at the left rear corner of the panel to be an awkward reach—a small tradeoff for the compact size and portability.
On a couple of the acoustic guitar sounds, the AS button replaced the full tone of the guitar strings with harmonics. I then lost ten minutes of my life pretending to be Steve Howe and playing the intros to “The Fish” and “Roundabout.”
In my four-piece Pink Floyd tribute band, we have only one guitarist, so I cover secondary guitar parts live. “Big 12 Strings” was a nice fit for “Wish You Were Here” and “Hey You,” and I’m still a huge fan of “Voodoo Man,” a distorted wah guitar that dates back to Yamaha’s 88-key S80 synth. While a little over the top, it found its way into things like “Another Brick in the Wall” for the three-note lick that doubles the vocal hook, and the reprise of that lick underneath the guitar solo in “Hey You,” where it harmonizes with the bass. Yes, I was having too much fun.
As I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare the MOX8 for gigs, I was very pleased at how quickly I was able to put the stock presets to use. Given a little time, I could easily have tweaked them to recreate sounds for all these cover songs more accurately.
As to keyboard feel, the MOX8 keybed was very playable for piano and synth parts, never seemed like it was bottoming out, and felt quite expressive for most everything I played on it. One thing you get on the S90/S70 series but not here, though, is aftertouch.
Navigation and Programming
I’ve done a lot of programming for my S90ES, Motif 8, and Motif Rack over the years, and it would’ve been nice to load those sounds, Performances, and Master mode setups from a USB stick, but the MOX8 was not directly backward compatible with these older synths. However, editors available from developer John Melas (jmelas.gr/motif) support conversion and loading of Voices, Performances, and Masters into the MOX from the Motif XS/XF and S90XS synths. Luckily, the MOX8’s “Performance Creator” split and layer functions were a snap to use, and I put together two sets of the band’s repertoire quickly and painlessly. For example, to cover some Jethro Tull classics, I started in Voice mode and grabbed “Concert Grand.” I then hit the Split button and the display immediately let me search sounds by category, so I chose “Sweet Flute” from the Brass/Winds category. Aft er assigning the split point, naming the Performance and saving it, I now had a setup good for three songs. It took me less than two minutes, and I hadn’t even cracked the manual.
Master mode is a Motif and S-family feature that lets you put single sounds, Performance multis, and sequencer songs in the same bank, in whatever order your set list demands. Recreating Master setups to control my Motif Rack was also a breeze, as Yamaha has kept the same work style in place.
I must confess that had I not done this work at home, I would’ve been unpleasantly surprised at the gig when I had a hard time reading the MOX8’s panel on a darkened stage. While I can navigate the S90ES in the dark easily thanks to its glossy panel with white lettering, I found the matte texture of the MOX8’s body combined with the grayed-out lettering required a flashlight. I’m sure that once I learned the instrument panel, it’d become second nature, but Yamaha should rethink the color choices for live performance. I had no trouble reading the panel at home in my lit rehearsal space, and most functions were where I expected them to be based on my S90ES. On the plus side, the LCD is very easy to read, and retains the big lettering and layout of my S90ES. As on that synth, when changing presets, you get a preview of what else is in that bank. In fact, the MOX8 was so easy to use that I only cracked the manual after I’d done the first gig with it.
Being a workstation, the MOX8 is geared toward music production in the home studio. We’ve seen what a great all-purpose gig keyboard it also is, especially if you’re looking for all the sound and most of the features of the Motif XS on a budget. While it has half the polyphony of a current Motif or Yamaha S-series synth, it’s dramatically less expensive than either of those—go online and look up the difference yourself.
The sound set is spectacular at any price, and at just over 32 pounds— seriously light for a weighted 88—you won’t be reluctant to take it to any gig regardless of what the load-in is like. While I wish all companies would do away with the “wall wart” AC supply (though this saves on cost and weight) and that the MOX used a different color scheme, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the MOX to any gig. It’s the Motif XS for the rest of us, and wins our Key Buy for pure bang-for-buck.
PROS Most of the Motif XS sound engine at a far lower price. Very lightweight and compact for a weighted 88. Split/layer function is more intuitive than on full Motifs, and lets you make gig setups very quickly.
CONS No aftertouch. Silk-screening on panel is very hard to read on dark stages. Pitch and mod wheel placement at upper left corner feels awkward.
CONCEPT Compact, affordable synth workstation derived from Motif XS, with built-in audio interface.
POLYPHONY 64 voices.
MULTITIMBRAL PARTS 16 plus A/D input (external audio).
SEQUENCER Approximately 226,000-note capacity, 16 tracks, linear pattern and song modes as well as step recording, stores up to 64 songs.
KEYBOARD 88 weighted keys, Yamaha Graded Hammer Standard action.
INCLUDED SOFTWARE Cubase AI5, YC-3B drawbar organ and Prologue virtual analog VST synths, and MOX editors.
WEIGHT 64 voices.
POLYPHONY 32.6 lbs.
PRICE List: $1,999
Approx. street: $1,700
Other Motifs have done audio interfacing, but the built-in interface on the MOX has the best hands-on factor yet. Via USB, it streams four channels of audio—whatever is plugged into the stereo audio inputs, plus the main L/R mix from the synth itself—to your computer. Right on the front panel, you can adjust the gain (mics, line-level signals, and guitars are supported), switch between hearing your overall mix and direct monitoring of the audio inputs, and separately adjust the volume that's coming back from your DAW. Combined with the onboard software control surface features, that makes the MOX an attractive hub for songwriters on the go. Check out our tests of the MOX interface, and hear a demo song that the very funky Ellis Hall recorded through it, at keyboardmag.com/september2011.
A Yamaha Clonewheel?
Yes—in plug-in form, and it’s included with the MOX. It’s Mac or PC compatible, but Mac users should note that you need a VST3-compatible host such as Cubase AI5. Fortunately, that also comes with the MOX, as does Prologue, a very cool virtual analog soft synth with three oscillators. There’s some real attention to detail here: separate settings for both speeds of both rotors, transition time, mic angle, and rotor balance. On the main page (shown), you get three drawbars for harmonic percussion volume, adjustable percussion decay, and a toggle for whether the percussion triggers on the initial notes only (as on a real B-3) or fully polyphonically. You can decide whether turning on percussion cancels the 1' drawbar, and set separate click levels for key-on and keyoff. Everything to do with the emulation of the organ itself sounds great, though the rotary effect is not as realistic as what we’ve heard from today’s leading clones. No biggie, as you can always add your plug-in rotary effect of choice as an insert.