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electronic MUSICIAN

Yamaha Motif XS

By Jim Aikin | January 1, 2008

BONUS MATERIAL
Web Clips: Hear audio examples played from the Motif XS
Online Exclusive Material: Learn more about the Motif XS's presets and computer connections

photo of Motif XS keyboard

FIG. 1: The Motif XS''s front panel just screams “user control.” The eight sliders let you control the volume of various sound elements. The knobs have multiple assignments, and the buttons on the right choose tracks, Voices, or other objects, depending on the current mode.

For years I've been an enthusiastic proponent of the software studio. But the Yamaha Motif XS has forced me to rethink my philosophy. The convenience of having everything in one box that I can take to a gig is a powerful enticement — but the key difference for me is how easy the Motif makes it to sketch out good-sounding song ideas quickly. The Motif integrates beautifully with my computer setup, too; it's the best of both worlds.

The Motif in God's Eye

The Motif XS is a full-featured workstation featuring sample-playback synthesis, optional user sampling (just add RAM), complex keyboard layouts for gigging, two types of sequencing, a multitrack arpeggiator, and computer interfacing. A full list of comparisons between the various Motif models would take pages, so this review will focus strictly on the XS. It's available in three models: the XS6 (61 keys), XS7 (76 keys), and XS8 (88 weighted keys).

I received an XS6 for review. It's heavy and solidly built. The large, high-resolution color LCD is not easy to read at oblique viewing angles, but it's wonderful if you're sitting in a normal position. Located beneath it are a dozen function buttons for selecting onscreen menu tabs. The OS is quite complex, but it's clearly and logically laid out, and I had no trouble navigating.

The front panel is studded with almost 100 buttons, most of which have built-in LEDs (see Fig. 1). A bank of eight knobs can be switched to six different groups of clearly labeled functions. Beneath the knobs are eight sliders for controlling the volume of various sound components. Mounted below the pitch-bend and modulation wheels is a short ribbon controller. You can't assign the eight sliders to send MIDI CC messages, but two of the knobs, two of the buttons, and the ribbon controller are assignable. The keyboard transmits both Velocity and Channel Aftertouch.

Around the back are pairs of main and assignable audio outputs, a headphone output, and stereo audio inputs — all on ¼-inch jacks (see Fig. 2). In addition to a coaxial S/PDIF output and MIDI In, Out, and Thru jacks, you'll find a trim pot for the audio inputs, two footswitch inputs, two expression-pedal inputs, an Ethernet port, and two USB ports (one for the host and one for a storage device). By removing a blank panel on the XS6 or XS7, you can install an optional mLAN16E2 card ($259), which provides two FireWire ports; the mLAN board is included in the XS8.

The XS ships with no sample RAM, but you can install up to 1 GB. Installation of RAM and the mLAN card were painless. The most significant feature missing from the hardware spec is compatibility with Yamaha's line of PLG add-on synthesis boards, which can be installed in older Motif models. The XS is strictly a sample-playback synth.

Hearing Voices

The XS's factory sound set is huge, and the presets are excellent (for details, see Web Clips 1 and 2 and the online bonus material at www.emusician.com). Yamaha says that the XS has the losslessly compressed equivalent of 355 MB of waveform ROM.

The Voice ROM provides 8 banks of 128 presets each, as well as a General MIDI bank and 64 drum kits. A Category Search utility makes it easy to find the type of Voice you're looking for. The XS also supplies 3 banks of 128 user-programmable Voice memory slots, along with 32 user drum kits.

The XS is capable of 128-voice polyphony, but the actual number of simultaneous voices you'll be able to hear depends on how many Elements are used in the Voices you're playing. The XS uses as many as eight Elements per Voice, and they can be split and layered across the keyboard. Each Element contains its own oscillator, filter, envelopes, and LFO. The Voice as a whole has another LFO, modulation routings, settings for the effects and arpeggiator, and a few other functions.

New in the XS are Expanded Articulation (XA) switches for the Elements. These allow any Element to respond to your keyboard performance in various ways. An Element can play release noises by responding to key up rather than key down, for example, or it can play only when one of the assignable function buttons is pressed, be part of a random or cycling Element group, and so on.

photo of rear of Yamaha Motif XS

FIG. 2: The XS6''s rear-panel audio and footpedal control jacks are not unusual, but the Ethernet port is a luxury item that provides direct access to your computer''s hard drive. The blank plate at lower left is for the optional mLAN board, which adds real-time digital audio I/O.

The resonant filter has 18 modes ranging from a 4-pole analog emulation to a response that combines a 1-pole lowpass with a 1-pole highpass. In addition to reverb and chorus, a Voice can have two insert effects routed in series or parallel. Each of the 53 insert-effects types has a handful of useful presets to get you started. The Voice's common LFO has a user-designable 16-step waveform.

Certain essential modulation routings, such as Velocity to amplitude and to filter cutoff frequency, are hardwired. The Element LFO has three dedicated outputs — one each for pitch, cutoff, and amplitude. The common LFO has a switching matrix that allows it to modulate the pitch, cutoff, or amplitude of any Element. Beyond that, the XS provides a modulation matrix with six routings.

The matrix has 12 possible inputs, including the 2 wheels, the ribbon, Channel Aftertouch, 2 assignable knobs, 2 assignable buttons, and the 2 expression-pedal inputs. Each routing can be switched on or off for each Element, and the list of possible destinations is long. Because you can control certain parameters — including filter cutoff and resonance, envelope ADSR values, and reverb and chorus depth — directly from dedicated front-panel knobs, the matrix isn't needed for them. Even so, six routings is just not enough; having to choose between using Aftertouch, the ribbon, or an assignable knob, for instance, is frustrating.

Command Performance

The XS provides 384 Performance memory slots and 128 Master slots, all of them user programmable. In a Performance, you can split, layer, or both split and layer four Parts across the keyboard, with each Part containing a Voice. You can assign a separate arpeggio to each Part, and all four arpeggiators can run simultaneously and in sync.

Many of the factory Performances put drums, bass, and a chording instrument on the left half of the keyboard, all three with active arpeggios, while the right hand can play a separate lead sound. If you play lounge gigs and need to play requests, you're going to love this feature. Just dial up a Performance in some appropriate style (many pop styles are well represented), and you're ready to go. Each Performance stores settings for the audio input, allowing you to route a mic through the chorus and delay effects, assuming you have a separate mixer or a mic with a ¼-inch plug. A mono XLR input would have been useful.

In Performance mode, you can press the Record button and record a 4-Part keyboard performance into a Song or Pattern Section. This capability is one of my favorite XS features. For sketching a song into the sequencer, it can save days of work.

Like Performance mode, the Master section is intended mainly for gigging. Each Master can call up a Voice, a Performance, a Pattern, or a Song. Each can also map keyboard zones to the MIDI Out port for controlling external modules. Master mode is useful for gigging with backing tracks in the sequencer, because a Master lets you layer two or more internal Voices within a single keyboard zone.

Arp Me Up

The XS's arpeggiator gives the synth a second identity as an auto-accompaniment keyboard. The styles are much more modern than what you'd find in a mall organ — hip-hop, dance, reggae, and '80s guitar rock are all on call. The XS's implementation of fills, intros, and endings is less comprehensive or convenient than in a home keyboard, however. You can switch among five arpeggios selected in advance. Most factory presets are set up so that the ARP5 button is a fill.

More than 6,000 arpeggio patterns are stored in the XS, and if you can't find what you need, you can add more of your own by transferring data from the sequencer. The manual lacks a dedicated chapter describing arpeggiator operations, but you can download a PDF document listing 46 pages of factory patterns. Additionally, you can view the 17 arpeggio categories in the LCD by pressing the handy List button.

Some of the arpeggios respond intelligently to chord voicings on the keyboard. A bass line may sketch out a dominant seventh chord for you, locking in on the root on the downbeat even if you played the voicing in the third inversion (with the seventh on the bottom). The drum arpeggios always sound identical no matter what key you play, so you'll get a reliable beat.

Because a legato overlap can cause the arpeggiator to misunderstand what chord you intended to play, it's essential that you lift all your left-hand fingers between chords when controlling the arpeggiator. If you're planning to use the arpeggiator at gigs, you should practice until you can do it smoothly.

BONUS MATERIAL
Web Clips: Hear audio examples played from the Motif XS
Online Exclusive Material: Learn more about the Motif XS's presets and computer connections

BONUS MATERIAL
Web Clips: Hear audio examples played from the Motif XS
Online Exclusive Material: Learn more about the Motif XS's presets and computer connections

software screen shot image

FIG. 3: Pattern mode furnishes a graphical grid layout for arranging musical phrases.

The Song of Solo Man

The XS's sequencer can operate in either Song or Pattern mode. Both modes provide 16 tracks for MIDI and audio data. Voices assigned to eight of the MIDI tracks can retain their own insert effects, greatly increasing the sequencer's sonic versatility. Songs and Patterns remain in memory even when you power the instrument down and back up again; no loading is required unless you have audio tracks.

In Song mode, track data is continuous from the beginning of the song to the end. Pattern mode is more versatile, with each Pattern containing 16 independent Sections. You can interact with the Sections onstage, improvising an arrangement to allow a soloist to take as many choruses as desired, for example. Switching from Section to Section is a 1-button operation. Alternatively, the Sections can be joined in a Chain, which will play back seamlessly from start to finish. Chains can include tempo changes and track mute and unmute data.

A Phrase is the data played by a single track within a single Section, and each Pattern includes up to 256 Phrases. The grid layout shown in the LCD in Pattern Play mode makes the setup instantly clear (see Fig. 3). You can name Phrases, but the Motif's method for entering alphanumeric characters is rather laborious.

The editing functions in Songs and Patterns are fairly comprehensive. You'll find options for copying, quantizing, modifying Velocities or controller data, shifting blocks of data forward or backward in time, and so on. All regions can be defined with bar:beat:tick precision. If you need to drill deeper, you can open a MIDI event list. The event list is well implemented, with a view filter, keyboard entry of note numbers and Velocities, and even a numeric keypad. Sequence editing is undeniably easier on a computer, but the XS makes editing easier than you might expect.

You can edit Voices freely within a Song or Pattern and store them as Mix Voices. Voices stored in this way don't overwrite anything in the normal Voice memory, and that's extremely handy. You can edit a Voice to fit a particular song without worrying about whether some other song uses the same Voice. However, for some reason, Drumkit Voices can't be stored as Mix Voices.

Audio Excursions

With optional sample RAM installed, the XS can sample from its external inputs (including mLAN, if your XS has it) or resample your real-time performance. Your songs can include RAM-based audio tracks. You can divide drum-loop samples into eighth-note or 16th-note slices, allowing you to rearrange the loops or change their tempo.

The XS supplies all the expected audio-editing utilities. Sampling is always 16-bit mono or stereo; the XS can't load 24-bit audio files. It supports sampling rates of 44.1, 22.05, and even 11.025 kHz.

All Together Now

The Motif XS is an extremely powerful workstation and a significant step forward in the Motif line. Add some RAM for audio and an external USB hard drive for storage, and you'll have a system capable of producing pro-quality demos and more. The live-performance possibilities are brilliant, and the mLAN computer hookup makes the XS a studio champ.

The XS's only significant drawback is its lack of compatibility with PLG add-on boards. Otherwise, the items on my wish list are trivial. If you're shopping for a does-it-all keyboard, the Motif XS is simply not an instrument you can afford to ignore.

When not writing about music technology, Jim Aikin plays electric cello in a band. You can download his latest text-based computer game, Lydia's Heart, from www.musicwords.net.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

YAMAHA
Motif XS

synthesizer workstation
XS6, $2,199
XS7, $2,799
XS8, $3,199

FEATURES 4
EASE OF USE 4
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4
VALUE 4

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Powerful voice design. Huge memory. Capable sequencing. Excellent arpeggiator accompaniment. Great effects. Interactive front panel. Effective computer interfacing.

CONS: Not compatible with Yamaha's PLG expansion boards. Only six routings in voice modulation matrix. No internal hard drive. Audio input is not XLR.

MANUFACTURER

Yamaha
www.yamaha.com

BONUS MATERIAL
Web Clips: Hear audio examples played from the Motif XS
Online Exclusive Material: Learn more about the Motif XS's presets and computer connections

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