Computer-Music.com contains articles and product reviews related to making music using computers and creating 3D computer animation in sync with music. Computer-Music.com is also the home page of  Donald S. Griffin, an experienced professional composer, sound effects designer and audio consultant with an emphasis on computer games,  video games and internet music and sound effects. For pricing and contract availability send email to: DGriffin (@) Computer-Music (.) com

Computer-Music.com  contains articles and product reviews related to making music using computers and creating 3D computer animation in sync with music.
Computer-Music.com is also the home page of  Donald S. Griffin, an experienced professional composer, sound effects designer and audio consultant with an emphasis on computer games,  video games and internet music and sound effects. For pricing and contract availability send email to: DGriffin (@) Computer-Music (.) com

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Yamaha CS6X

   

The Yamaha CS6X is a MIDI master keyboard (also known as a controller keyboard) with a nice variety of useful bells and whistles. It is also a synthesizer and has sequencing and sampling capability. The CS6X lists for $1,795 and the street price is about $1,400. I realize that is quite a bit of money solely for a MIDI controller but many of the controller-type features found in the CS6X can not be found in less expensive controller-only type keyboards. In general a controller-only keyboard is just too expensive for its list of features considering it will have no sound generation capability at all. Even though I recommend choosing your controller using different criteria than you would use to pick a synth, it is a good economical compromise to try to find a really good controller you will be happy with for many years that also has synth features you may be happy with for the next 4-8 years. Keep in mind it is rare to find a synthesizer you will be happy with for longer than that. Things just change too much. But controller features change on a much slower time scale. This kind of reasoning and a search for my own next generation controller is what lead me to the CS6X. I am using this review process to determine whether it will be the next controller keyboard in my own studio. For those of you who flat-out can not afford this keyboard or who don't need any additional synth, sequencing or sampling capabilities I have my eye on a couple other, smaller keyboards that may better fit your situation. I am currently in the process of determining which of these seems most likely to pass a the review process with good marks based on is specifications. Check back here every few weeks. I may have a review of a product that is more appropriate for you. In the mean time you may learn something about what features you should be looking for by reading this review.

The CS6X's 61 keys feature after touch as well as velocity. It has the classic pitch bend wheel as well as an assignable mod wheel and a touch ribbon just below the two wheels. There are 256 onboard patches that lean toward various kinds of dance music but this only give a hint as to who Yamaha was targeting in their marketing. As with any good tool it can be used as you see fit. The onboard instruments are only a starting point. For you statistics freaks (like me) the sample ROM is about 30 megabytes before compression. However pure comparison of ROM size is not a strong indicator if the value of a synth unless you take into account the quality of the samples and the features of the synthesizer that allow it to manipulate those samples in meaningful ways.

The CS6X also features a nifty playback-only sequencer. At first I was disappointed that it was not a full-blown sequencer but I would probably never have used such a feature except to review it. I have always said the worst computer based sequencer was better than the best sequencer built into a keyboard. Mostly this is because of the tiny screen and limited memory. So I was ready to write off the CS6X's playback-sequencer as just a feature to play back whole tunes. But when I started to study it and drew some conclusions of my own I quickly realized it would be very handy for a performer or song writer. First of all it allows sequence chains so that you can designate a series of sequences to be played from first to last but it also allows a playback method for each sequence so you can, for example, skip a sequence then later change that so it is included back into the chain and you can do this without actually removing its playback step from the chain. If you laid things out so that each sequence was a verse or chorus from a song then you could use this to try swapping in and out different versions of the verse or chorus either to try them over time or maybe to have longer and shorter versions of a tune ready for live performance. You can actually change the sequence chain while the chain is playing so long as you are not trying to change the step that is currently playing. This means that, even though you may be playing along with a MIDI sequence, you can make changes to the song while the song is being performed such as lengthening it for an appreciative audience, a guitar solo, or an overdue MC. Usually playing a series of sequences can be problematic because the setup parameters take time to set up the synth at the start of the sequence. You could leave out these parameters such as initial patch and pitch bend settings but then you would not be able to guarantee that the song would play correctly because the synth could have been left in a very different state by the last song played. However the CS6X has performance patches which contain all the information for which instrument is set to what channel and other related parameters such as relative volume. Sequence chains have a place for you to designate which performance patch will be used to play back the sequence so by designing MIDI sequences with no setup or patch data and relying on a performance patch to set that up you can have MIDI sequences that play end to end with no hesitation. This also has a benefit that you can make an instrumentation change to all the sequences related to a song just by altering the performance patch that they use or pointing them to a different performance patch. One could go so far as to break their tune into one measure segments and play around with creating chains that each use the one measure sequences in a different order. A long time ago I did something like this that went so far as to use 1 beat sequences chained together this way. It was for 12 bar blues with a walking bass line and it worked pretty well. With other styles the 1 beat method would probably not work well at all. But the point is that this simple playback sequencer is pretty flexible if you let your imagination have free reign.

There is also an arpeggiator which uses pre-defined patterns which are then selected on a per-patch basis so when you load the patch the arpeggiator is ready with the arpeggio you selected to be appropriate for that patch. These arpeggios can be turned off or on or set to 'hold' while playing with two dedicated buttons. You can not create your own arpeggios. 

Simple sampling is available via the Phrase Clip feature however I can not yet see a way to export the samples in a format usable by any other software. You can import samples as .WAV or .AIFF files but, so far as I have yet found, there is not way to get the samples out of the CS6X besides saving the Phrase-Clip file which saves all of the Phrase-Clip data in a Yamaha proprietary format. I have not yet experimented to see if the raw sound data is present in the file in a non-compressed form. If so then you could laboriously load the Phrase-Clip file into you audio editor and designate it as raw data then trim off the non-audio data by looking at the shape of the waveform non-audio data usually looks very different from audio data. I have not yet tried this with the CS6X but this type of process is usually not very fun or convenient. You can sample the instruments or your own samples with effects added back into the CS6X as fresh Phrase Clips without resorting to using external audio cables. If Yamaha intentionally tried to keep you from exporting Phrase-Clip data then maybe this is why. It would make it easier for someone to export samples and re-sell them as their own. This is illegal. The design of the Phrase-Clip feature does not make the CS6X a full-blown sampler. It seems to be designed primarily to allow users to include clips from other music, a practice common in rap, hence the term Phrase-Clip. A clipping of a phrase from another song. Another interpretation of the name is that you might clip a whole guitar solo or a series of licks or riffs that you could then place in the song wherever you wanted them, even starting on a second beat instead of the first. You could also map a series of doo-wahs and baby-baby's ;-) across the keyboard as a single phrase clip patch so that each key you strike plays a different one. A sort of vocal drum set. For video production you could use this to map all of you sound effects for a scene across the keyboard and use MIDI to control the timing and volume of the sound effects so you could easily and precisely alter them very quickly without a complete remix.

There are a variety of dedicated knobs for various patch parameters common to Yamaha's XG synths such as filter, effects, and envelope generator. But below the short but wide screen there are also a row of multi-purpose dials. Nearly any parameter can be adjusted quickly via some dial somewhere. Some of the parameters can even be accessed in two ways such as via buttons or shift key and page dial. The presence of so many buttons and dials is a nice return to the days when you could tweak something simply by turning the right dial. Later, in the early days of digitally controlled synths, manufacturers realized they could reduce the cost of a synth by reducing the control panel to just a few duals and buttons while requiring the user to navigate layer after layer of menus in order to perform even the simplest operations. Yamaha seems to have struck a nice balance between too many and too few knobs and buttons. Their layout knob and button clusters are laid out in such a way as to make it easier to quickly find the one you want. For example the page and data dials are light gray while the row of multi-purpose entry dials between them are dark gray. The patch adjustment dials on the left are all against a light background whereas the nearby performance mode controls you might need more often while performing are against a dark background to set them apart. They are also closer to the center of the action. While the display is not terrible detailed it is not terribly complicated either. It is also very crisp and brightly lit. A big contrast with my old K2000 display that was always too dim. In fact used a brighter display on later K2000 units. On a stage, with bright lights in your eyes it seems a display can never be bright enough. In a studio the monitor qualifies as a bright light in your eyes in terms of deciding how bright you might need your keyboard's display.

Terms:

Velocity is the measure of how fast the key is moving when you press it. This is MIDI's substitute for measuring how hard you press the keys.
After Touch means the key is sensitive to a zone of extra pressure applied at the bottom of the key stroke. The classic use of after touch is adding a little wiggle in the sound of a synth solo in funk or hip-hop. But after touch can be assigned to control any parameter you prefer. 
The Pitch Bend Wheel is for causing the pitch of a note to glide up or down smoothly. This is usually used to bend a note just a bit for sax solos just as you would by biting harder or softer on the reed. To some extent it can be used to produce a manually controlled vibrato but only with a bit of practice. Both wheels are wide and have a bit of rubbery grip. Naturally slipping off the pitch wheel is not good. Of course there is also the typical indentation.
In addition to the classic pitch bend wheel the second wheel is assignable. The second wheel is typically used for modulation. Modulation is usually defined as the depth of some kind of wavering in the pitch or amplitude of the sound so the 'Mod Wheel' is usually used to control the depth of the waveform controlling that wavering whether it bit pitch modulation, amplitude (volume) modulation or something else. The effect assigned to the mod wheel is usually used to simulate vibrato. The nice thing about the second wheel on the CS6X is that it can be assigned to almost any parameter, not just the parameter called 'modulation'.

 The keys are synth action (not weighted like those of a piano) but they offer a moderate resistance with a clear sensation of hitting the bottom of the stroke. I am not really a keyboardist though I use it a lot in the studio for composing. So my opinion of the feel of the keyboard is best taken with a grain of salt. I have almost never really liked the feel of any keyboard I do remember being quite happy with the action on the old Roland JD800 so maybe you can take that as a comparison. This keyboard is pretty good as synth keyboards but did not quite give me the pleasant experience I got playing the JD800. On the other hand the JD800 is several generations behind this synth in every other way so buying the JD800 just for its keyboard might be a bit extreme even assuming you agree with my judgment.

If you are a pianist and unfamiliar with synthesizers you may be concerned about not having a full 88 keys. Synthesizers are typically played differently than a regular piano. The CS6X has a pair of buttons, just above the wheels, that shift the whole keyboard up or down a whole octave each time they are pressed. These two factors should keep you from needing a full 88 keys.

If you think you really need that many keys at the same time and/or you think you really need the heavy weighted action of a real piano you can either buy a piano controller from a company like Yamaha, Kurzweil or Roland or you can take a look into the controller-only keyboards sold built by Fatar. Fatar is supposed to be the company that produces a lot of the keyboards used in other manufacturer's synths but I am rarely impressed by the action of synth keyboards and for dedicated controllers Fatar's entire product line seems to be very lean on controller type features. This is one reason I look to keyboards like the CS6X for a controller. Even though it has other features It is more capable as a controller partly because of the larger number of ways you can control your MIDI data all from a single keyboard.

All of the different types of data the CS6X stores can be saved to 3.3V (3V) SmartMedia cards. Since storage and retrieval of files is so important to this keyboard I thought it important to address the type and cost of the media. The 4MB card is really tiny. About the thickness of a credit card and maybe 1/3 the size, square. I have not seen any others yet. The slot is on the back face of the keyboard but they seem to have tried to make the shape of the receptacle easy to find and use while just feeling with your hand.  Smart Media cards such as are used for digital cameras. The CS6X comes with one 4 megabyte card which contains demos but can be re-used. The manual says "The Memory Cards formatted with this instrument may become unusable with other instruments." I assume you could make them usable again for those other devices if they have their own formatting routine like the CS6X does but don't hold me to this. Yamaha says "Yamaha uses a standard DOS format for SmartMedia. It will be compatible with all devices that use DOS". Their manual says that cards of 2MB/4MB/8MB/16MB and 32 MB are available and that "A Memory Card with the memory capacity exceeding 32 MB can also be used if it conforms to the standards of SSFDC (Solid State Memory Card Card: another name of SmartMedia) Forum."  Note: there are no typos in the preceding quote. The manuals does say Card Card and the apparent explanation of the acronym does not explain the acronym. Go figure. Subsequent to writing the previous section I discovered online that SSFDC stands for "Solid State Floppy Disc Card". I tried using their Card Filer utility to pass files back and forth between the SmartMedia card in the CS6X and my computer via the MIDI cable. The demo files, on the card that came with the keyboard, took roughly 25 minutes to send to the PC and they were just under 3 megabytes. So another way to pass the data back and forth may be necessary if you plan to either use a lot of large audio samples and back them up to your PC or if you plan to import lots of audio samples from your PC as .WAV or .AIFF files. But if they are small files then then using the MIDI cable method will probably work fine if you have a few free minutes here and there. After checking around I found that SmartMedia cards are used in quite a few digital cameras. You might want to search under both "SmartMedia" (no space) and "Smart Media" (with a space) as well as SSFDC. You can even purchase a PCMCIA card adapter so you can place the SmartMedia card into the PCMCIA adapter and your computer will read the SmartMedia card just like any other PCMCIA card. This is handy if you have purchased a PCMCIA card reader for your PC or the Epson printer that has in integrated PCMCIA card reader. I think this adapter goes for around $80. You can also purchase a USB SmartMedia card reader for about $50. I found these cards available at CompUSA for about $25, $50 and $80 for the 8MB, 16MB and 32 MB cards respectively. Further searching showed that you can often beat these prices on the web by as much as 5 to 20 dollars so you should search around. I also found a $64MB card at Buy.com for $124.95. Many sites and even stores do not know or do not tell you whether their cards are 3.3V (3V) or 5V so be sure you know what you are ordering. The 3.3V Yamaha card that came with the CS6X was clearly marked as such by being indented in the plastic if the card itself.

One nice feature is that every socket along the back of the CS6X is clearly labeled along the top surface along the back edge so you don't need a flashlight and a mechanics mirror to plug things in. Naming all the sockets is the kind of thing you should be able to find easily at Yamaha's web site but it is important to point out that there is a breath controller socket. This is yet one more common controller device that can not be found on most controller keyboards. Another nice touch is how the audio inputs are handled. They are numbered Line1 and Mic/Line2 FROM RIGHT TO LEFT. This would make sense if you were supposed to view them from the back of the device but that is not the case. Yamaha, appropriately laid them out so the one on your left as you sit at the keyboard is the one for the left channel when you are recording a stereo signal. So the left channel is called Mic/Line2. This means they are numbered in the opposite order from what you would expect but so long as the left channel is to my left I am happy. Mic/Line2 is labeled as such because you plug a mic. (microphone) level signal into that socket whereas a line level signal should be plugged into Line 1. (the one on the right). If you have a stereo line level signal you can use both of them as Left and Right line level inputs but they will be merged to mono when recorded.

Note: Microphones produce a stronger signal than line level equipment like tape decks so when you plug a microphone into any recording device you should take steps to make sure you can attenuate (adjust the power of) the signal at that location so you do not send too much power to the recording device causing distortion.

The CS6X has a space (accessible from underneath via a removable bottom panel) to plug in 1 or 2 accessory cards of the PLG series. Some of the cards needed to be upgraded from PLG100 to PLG150 to be compatible with the circuitry of the CS6X so if you have an old PLG100 series card it may or may not be compatible with the CS6X. The back of the manual shows the following cards so if a card shows a 150 is probably means you need a 150 version to operate in the CS6X whereas a 100 version probably means you can use an old 100 you may have currently installed in another Yamaha synth.

PLG150-AN
Analog Physical Modeling Plug-in Board

The idea of this device is that it uses physical modeling technology to reproduce the sound and continuous controllability of analog synthesizers. I have not tried it but the theory is sound.

PLG150-PF
Piano Plug-in Board

This is a synthesizer totally dedicated to piano. It has 64 notes of polyphony which can be doubled by installing two of them. Of course, then you might need to install 54 more fingers. But seriously, there is no reason you can't make use of several different piano sounds each playing ten to twenty notes at a time. At least in portions of a composition. Don't forget that ringing of notes you have already played continues to take one voice per note so a long run with the pedal down can quickly use up 64 notes. I am still gathering data on this one but I would assume that dedicating all of the ROM to a single type of instrument would allow it to be sampled more thoroughly across the length keyboard and at more velocity levels. This generally yields a much richer and more satisfying piano sound.

PLG150-VL
Virtual Acoustic Plug-in Board

This is a single voice physical modeling synthesizer pretty much the same thing as a VL-70m on a card. It only produces a single voice because good physical modeling synthesis takes a whole lot of computer power. So why bother with a synth that only produces one voice when others may produce well over 100 voices at a time? It kicks butt. It sounds GREAT! But it only sounds great when played with a controller that allows you to make use of the control parameters that allow you to make the sound change from moment to moment such as a the WX-11 MIDI Sax controller I have. It takes the breath and bite pressure and feeds it to the VL synthesizer which uses these parameters to calculate how that virtual instrument would sound at that exact moment given those exact inputs from the musician. The results can be astounding. Yamaha's first VL synth was the VL-1 which produced a whopping 2 voices so keyboardists could play legato which requires notes to overlap for a fraction of a second as the keyboardist presses the next key before lifting his finger off the previous key. This synth cost about $6,000 and while it sounded great I am told by music store salesmen it did not sell well because a customer would typically walk up to it, see the price tag, then the number of voices, then twiddle the keys a bit and not be impressed by the sound and leave. The problem is the power of VL in how it constantly changes the sound from moment to moment in response to the inputs from the musician. These inputs are typically fed to the VL synth via a breath controller and bite pressure or after touch. Without those inputs the notes sound relatively unimpressive just like if you played a flat, steady, lifeless note on any wind instrument. But if you every get a chance to play a VL synth using something appropriate such as a MIDI wind controller then get ready to fall in love. Playing a WX-11 Sax controller into a VL-70m is the only time I ever felt like a MIDI instrument provided anywhere near the responsiveness and artistic satisfaction similar to the trumpet I played for many thousands of hours from early elementary school to well after college. The problem with a trumpet is that it only sounds like a trumpet. Nothing else. Pathetic isn't it?  ;-)

PLG150-DX
Advanced DX/TX Plug-in Board

This is essentially the classic DX-7 6 operator FM synthesizer on a card. There was a time when everybody had a DX-7, at least every studio. And nearly every song on the radio featured one.

PLG100-VH
Vocal Harmony Plug-in Board

This is a vocal harmonizer and vocoder on a card. I may be reviewing it separately in the coming weeks. If you are using the CS6X for a style of music that often uses short sampled sounds or phrases then it seems a natural choice. I hope to learn much more about its practical application and use via the review process.

PLG100-XG
XG Tone Generator Plug-In Board

Last night I was thinking the I should point out to you folks that every studio should have some sort of General MIDI based synthesizer. (Yamaha's XG and Roland's GS are two flavors of General MIDI Plus.) The ability to simply reach out and grab a patch from a standardized list is really helpful when you have an idea and can't take the time to go rummaging for patches for fear of losing the the idea. Today I found out that this card existed. I am waiting to find out what Yamaha XG synth module it is most similar to but it has 40 voices and 21 drum kits so my guess is that is is similar to the MU50. Consider that this one card adds 32 notes of polyphony and a few more drum kits in addition to the power of the CS6X and there's your backup band. Of course if you install one of these then you only have one slot left for the vocal harmonizer, VL synth, Piano board, DX board and Analog board and you are left with a pretty tough choice. For many of you the decision will be made by what other devices you already own that make some of these cards redundant.

 

You can link to Yamaha's web site at http://www.yamaha.com

(more specific links will be added soon)

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