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YAMAHA A5000

10/1/2000

If at first you don't succeed, build a better mousetrap.

Three years ago, Yamaha reentered the sampler wars, going up against the likes of Akai, E-mu, and Kurzweil with the A3000, the company's first new sampler in almost a decade. A formidable contender, the A3000 offered superior effects and easy user sampling, but it used an entirely new sampler format. In a world already crowded with competitors, the A-series format was poorly supported by third-party sample providers. As a result, A3000 sales suffered. Even though the sampler could import Akai, AIFF, and WAV samples right from the start, turning imported samples into usable programs took some effort.

Instead of throwing in the towel, Yamaha recently introduced two new models: the A4000 and A5000. By including nine CD-ROMs of Samples and Programs in the A-series format, Yamaha successfully took matters into its own hands. Yamaha has also instituted a third-party-sample program. Native CD-ROMs from East West, Sampleheads, Q Up Arts, and other companies are under way.

An extensive feature set and a 32-bit processor make the A5000 Yamaha's most impressive digital instrument ever. With 126 monophonic voices, 32 multitimbral parts, up to 128 MB of waveform memory, and six simultaneous effects blocks, the A5000 is one of the most powerful RAM-based samplers on the planet. (The A4000 is identical to the A5000, except that it has about half as many voices, multitimbral parts, and effects blocks. You can't upgrade an A4000 to an A5000.)

Providing 96 types of effects, 16 types of filters, Loop Divide, Loop Remix functions, and LFOs that can sync to MIDI, the A5000 doesn't run short on new music-making tools. Its ability to alter a Sample's playback rate and pitch independently in real time is a creative time-saver. By connecting a CD burner to the unit, you can even create your own Sample discs and audio CDs directly from the A5000. In addition to the nine aforementioned Sample CD-ROMs, it also comes with a CD-ROM containing a full-fledged sampler editor for both Mac and Windows.

FIRST GLANCEThe front-panel display is large, bright, and easy to read. Sporting 320-by-80-pixel resolution, it displays plenty of text and graphics, and an LCD contrast control lets you adjust for changing lighting conditions. The knobs and buttons (see Fig. 1) mirror those of the A3000; five infinite-spin rotary encoders double as buttons, five mode buttons with green LEDs within them, and six function buttons with red LEDs above them. The names of the pages corresponding to each mode's six functions are silk-screened where the mode and function buttons intersect.

Three buttons lie below the mode and function buttons. The Command/ Exit button opens and closes the Command menu, a screenful of instructions executed by turning and pressing the knobs. The Assignable button can perform one of six utility functions, such as turning off all notes. The Audition button plays the currently selected Sample.

A floppy drive is standard, and you can install a SCSI or IDE hard disk. Instructions for replacing the floppy drive with a Zip drive are spelled out in the owner's manual. The 2U case doesn't leave room for an internal CD-ROM or CD-R drive, but you can connect these externally via the standard SCSI port. Playback and track selection for a CD in an external drive are controllable from the A5000's front panel, a wonderful convenience when you're sampling from audio CDs. Unfortunately, the audio connection between the A5000 and a CD-ROM driver comes through the analog inputs.

On the back panel are two sets of MIDI In and Thru ports for 32-channel reception, and one MIDI Out port (see Fig. 2). SCSI devices can be connected to a half-pitch 50-pin connector. A pair of assignable, unbalanced 11/44-inch audio-output jacks supplements the two main unbalanced 11/44-inch outputs. The two 11/44-inch balanced inputs on the front panel have gain knobs that run from mic to line level. Finally, a bay on the back of the unit makes room for the optional AIEB1 expansion board ($249.95), which provides six assignable analog outputs and S/PDIF digital I/O on both RCA coaxial and optical ports.

ARCHITECTUREThe A5000's Program hierarchy is identical to the A3000's - which is to say it's very straightforward. Many samplers' voice structures prove difficult to comprehend. If you're accustomed to instruments with Samples organized into keymaps organized into layers organized into Programs, you'll appreciate Yamaha's strategy. Samples are organized into Programs - it's as simple as that. Multisamples or drum kits can be combined into Sample banks and share sound-shaping parameters.

Of course, the Sample remains the basic building block. On most samplers, Samples are nothing more than waveform data. On the A5000, Samples include parameters usually left to Programs, such as looping, key assignment, Velocity range, and MIDI-channel assignment. You can also apply filtering, envelope shaping, and LFO modulation to individual Samples. Most samplers let you apply such sound-shaping parameters only to Programs, but the A5000 affords greater control over the details that make sounds more musical.

The next level in the hierarchy is the Program. Samples must be contained in a Program before you play them under MIDI control. Within a Program, any Sample loaded into memory can be enabled or disabled. With up to 960 Samples in RAM, scrolling and selecting the ones you want might take a while. You enable Samples by assigning them to MIDI channels, so any Program can receive data on up to 16 simultaneous MIDI channels.

Sample parameters can be overridden in Programs using the Easy Edit functions. These functions include all the tweaks you'll likely need on the Program level, such as panning, filter cutoff and resonance, key range, Velocity range, portamento, and amplitude envelope. Easy Edits are made separately for each Program and only affect the sample data temporarily while a Program is called up.

You can play Programs one at a time by calling up each on a single MIDI channel. In Multi mode, the A5000 functions like a multitimbral synthesizer that receives Program changes on up to 32 independent MIDI channels.

IF MEMORY SERVESBecause the A5000's memory is volatile, all data must reside on internal or external disk drives, which hold up to 8 GB. Large disks can be divided into partitions. Data is stored on disk as Volumes, which contain Samples, Programs, and sequences. A Volume always contains 128 Programs, regardless of whether they contain any data. Everything in RAM can be saved in a Volume, and loading a Volume completely replaces all the data in RAM. Individual Samples and Programs can be loaded into RAM without affecting the rest of the data in memory.

The A5000's single-track, 16-channel MIDI sequencer can record all 16 channels in a single pass, but it can't record one channel at a time. You can also import Standard MIDI Files.

The unit's SCSI transfers aren't the fastest I've ever seen, but they're acceptable. Loading 60 MB from the internal hard disk takes almost ten minutes, and loading takes even longer from an external SCSI drive. That's still two or three times faster than SCSI transfers on a Yamaha EX5 synthesizer and 25 to 30 percent faster than transfers on a A3000. The A5000 copies data from CD-ROM to hard disk much faster than from CD-ROM to RAM, so it's better to load a Volume from CD-ROM to the hard disk before loading it into RAM.

The A5000 ships with 4 MB of RAM, upgradable to 128 MB via four 72-pin SIMM slots.

SAMPLES IN A HURRYThe A5000's best multisample feature is consecutive sampling. First seen on the A3000, this function automates recording and mapping new Samples as much as possible. It works perfectly with the way I like to sample synthesizers, and it performs equally well when I'm sampling from audio CDs.

The A5000 makes my synthesizer-sampling technique easier than ever. If you follow these instructions, you can sample any synth timbre over any pitch range at three different Velocities. First, create a sequence in an external sequencer that plays either every key or all the white keys at a low Velocity. Be sure to leave some silence between each note. Next, copy the note data, paste it into a new sequence, and change the Velocity to medium. Repeat the copying and pasting and set the Velocity to high.

Now set up the sampler's record parameters. In the setup display, define the Record Type as New+, which instructs the sampler to record a series of Samples consecutively. Specify the key range and whether you want the Samples mapped to all keys or only the white keys. Set the Map parameter to Auto and indicate the first pitch. Next go to the Trigger page and choose the Edge/Manual trigger type, set the threshold level, and specify the start and stop thresholds. Then go to the Record page, press Go, and start playing the sequence. As the A5000 records, it gives each Sample the same name but a different number, according to its place in the recording sequence.

When the sequence has finished playing, every note has been sampled at a fixed Velocity. The new Samples can be automatically assigned to the currently selected Program or a new Sample bank. Save your work, change the sequence to the next Velocity level, and return to the Setup display to specify the first pitch of the next series of Samples. Pretty cool, huh?

I really enjoy sampling with the A5000. You can set all the recording parameters in advance, so you don't have to concentrate too hard on button pushing when capturing new Samples. A pretrigger function ensures you'll never miss the beginning of a sound you're recording. A click track acts as a guide for recording or for matching the tempo of your source material, and the tempo is remembered as part of the Sample data. Waveforms are drawn on the display as you record.

The A5000 even lets you record Samples directly to disk, bypassing RAM, so you can record and burn CDs. A CD will hold only 650 MB, but the A5000's maximum Sample size is 1 GB (if your hard disk partition can handle it).

OF GREAT IMPORTIf you don't want to do your own sampling, the world is chock full of Sample discs, which the A5000 reads with varying degrees of success. Any Sample data created for the A3000 works with the A5000. It imports Samples in the Akai S1000 and S3000 formats, AIFF files, and WAV files, and it reads Sample data for the E-mu EIIIx, the Roland S-760, the Yamaha SU700, the antiquated Yamaha TX16W, and the Yamaha EX5, EX5R, and EX7 synthesizers.

Imported data includes keymapping and looping if they're part of the original Program. With the exception of E-mu and Roland Samples, the A5000 can read Samples from floppy and hard disks and most CD-ROMs. Oddly, the A5000 can't read CD-ROMs for the Yamaha EX series unless you first copy the data to a hard disk.

AND THE ENVELOPES, PLEASEThe A5000's multimode filters sound extraordinary; they're so smooth, they mimic analog. The unit has three types of lowpass filters, two types of highpass filters, one bandpass filter, one band-eliminate filter, and two peak filters. These combine into seven dual-filter combinations. For dual filters, the Distance parameter determines the cutoff frequency of one filter relative to the other. The three lowpass and two highpass filters differ in depth of resonance instead of cutoff slope.

As you adjust filter parameters, a graphic representation of filter response is shown. The filter's resonance and cutoff frequency are Velocity-sensitive. When you hit the keyboard hard enough with the resonance cranked up, the filters really bark.

Each filter includes one band of parametric equalization, which can be peak/dip, low shelving, or high shelving. You specify the EQ frequency, gain or cut, and bandwidth. Again, the response is displayed graphically. Having individual EQ for each Sample is quite useful for balancing a series of Samples to get better-sounding multisamples.

Each Sample has three envelope generators and only one LFO. Amplitude, filter, and pitch envelopes are all basic ADSR types. The low-frequency oscillator offers sawtooth, triangle, square, and sample-and-hold waveforms and can control filter cutoff, amplitude modulation, or pitch-modulation depth. The LFO's phase can be inverted to reverse the direction of modulation.

Each Program also has an LFO, which can sync to MIDI Clock and has two waveforms: sine and stepped. The StepWave LFO is a 16-stage envelope generator for which you determine the value of each step (see Fig. 3). When applied to pitch, the StepWave LFO is essentially a step sequencer. Many years ago, I modified an analog synth so that I could route its step sequencer to its filter, which you can do with the A5000. This useful function can generate some very cool resonant-filter sounds.

THE DIGITAL DIVIDEIn techno and hip-hop, manipulating loops and breakbeats remains one of the most popular uses for sampling. The Yamaha A-series is probably better than any other sampler for this kind of creative work. The Loop Remix and Loop Divide functions generate new material from existing loops. Both techniques work best with a steady beat, and might yield unusable results if any noticeable shuffle is in the source loop.

Loop Divide slices a loop into beat-based segments and automatically maps each segment to a MIDI note. The segments are assigned to a Sample bank, but because they're nothing more than playback pointers, they don't use any extra Sample memory. Like Steinberg's loop editor ReCycle, Loop Divide isolates the individual hits in a loop. Triggering the slices in a different order generates new loops.

Loop Remix slices a sampled loop into beat-based segments and randomly rearranges those segments (see Fig. 4). You determine whether the whole loop or part of the loop will be affected. Five preset and five user-defined remix types give you some degree of control over the results. You get eight variations per type, including Normal 1 and 2, Reverse 1 and 2, Break, LoFi, Pitch, and Gate. Some of the variations, for example, change the segments' playback speed and order.

Every time you press the Remix button, the segments shuffle into a new variation. Sometimes the result is useless, but when you hear something you like, you can add it to your Sample list. Once you complete the list, the A5000 automatically maps the Samples to different MIDI keys. You can save up to five algorithms and apply them to other sampled loops for similar results.

EFFECTIVE EFFECTSThe A5000's six independent, stereo effects processors offer 96 algorithms and lots of flexibility. Some of the algorithms are single effects; others are combinations. The processors are organized into two blocks of three. You can configure each block in series or in parallel, or two in series can be parallel to the third (see Fig. 5). In a parallel configuration, each block can apply totally different effects to different Samples. In a series setup, the output of the first effects block feeds the second, and the second feeds the third to produce really complex, original multi-effects. Thanks to the A5000's 32-bit processor, no bandwidth or processing-speed problems restrict the number of power-hungry effects you can apply simultaneously.

A Program includes up to six distinct effects. Each Sample and Sample bank in the Program can have any or all of the six effects. In Multi mode, the basic MIDI channel's effects settings override those of individual Programs.

The effects can process sounds as the sounds are being recorded; the A5000 can even be used as a stand-alone effects processor. To use the A5000 as a stand-alone effects processor, simply route the input to the effects and route the effects to the stereo output. (Make sure the Monitor function is enabled.) Because the output can be internally routed to the input, you can resample sounds while applying effects to the signal.

As many as 16 user-programmable parameters are available for each effect. When editing effects, you can view all of an effect's editable parameters or only your four favorite ones. This is very convenient because you don't have to wade through an extensive list of possibilities to adjust the most basic parameters. Up to four effects parameters per Program are controllable in real time via external MIDI Control Change messages.

The A5000 definitely has a wider range of effects processing than any other sampler to date. All the standards are here, including reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, compressor, amp simulator, and rotating speaker. The A5000 also offers unconventional effects such as Beat Change, Low Resolution, Scratch, Voice Cancel, and Auto Synth. Many of these are downright bizarre and sure to be a hit with cutting-edge sound designers. All time-based effects can sync to MIDI Clock, so modulating LFOs and delays can play in time with the tempo of sequenced music.

An effect called Total EQ is applied to the stereo outputs and headphone jack. This 4-band equalizer lets you set frequency and gain for four bands and width for three of those bands. Total EQ has no effect on the assignable outputs or the optional digital outputs.

SOUND SUPPORTThe Samples and Programs on the CD-ROMs that ship with the A5000 are pretty impressively diverse, and predominantly of high quality. To use all the Volumes provided, you'll need at least 64 MB of RAM.

I especially like the two discs of orchestral instruments, Strings/Choir and Brass/Wind Instruments, which also include tuned percussion. Both discs contain various ensembles and solo instruments. Another of my favorites is Real Drums, which has five complete kits ranging in size from 8 MB to 32 MB, as well as loops and individual drums and cymbals. World/Latin Instruments offers a varied collection of loops, percussion, and acoustic instruments from Latin America, Arabia, Indonesia, China, and Japan.

Piano/Keyboards contains 4, 5, and 6 MB Yamaha grand piano selections. Among the keyboards represented are Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos, a clavinet, FM synths, analog synths, a 12 MB harpsichord, various Hammond B-3s, and a 17 MB pipe organ. Guitar/Bass is the most disappointing disc; some of the basses sound decent, but the guitars suffer from short Samples and not enough variety.

Two discs are oriented toward modern dance music. DJ/Producer Tool Kit is full of synth basses and pads, edgy drum kits, and techno effects. Because the A5000 is so adept at dealing with loops, you'll find more than two dozen loops at three tempos on the Syntraxx/Loops disc, along with some great synth timbres. Most of the Syntraxx/Loops sounds make good use of the A5000's programming features.

EDITORIAL ASSISTANTSYamaha also includes a CD-ROM with Sample editors for both Mac and Windows. TWE, an audio editor that's been around for years, handles basic digital and audio-editing duties for Yamaha A-series samplers and EX-series synthesizers. The A5000 doesn't offer cut, copy, and paste operations, so turn to TWE if needed. TWE communicates with the sampler via SCSI. This can be problematic, because SCSI doesn't like two controllers on the same bus.

More specific to the A5000 is A5000 Editor. It displays all the A5000's parameters on your computer screen and controls the sampler remotely via MIDI. The Windows version is actually a plug-in for a Yamaha editing program called XGWorks lite. The Mac version requires OMS, a serious problem if you've upgraded to Mac OS 9.

SYNTH OR SAMPLER?A sampler enables you to create a timbral palette that is yours alone. Unlike a ROM-based synthesizer, it lets you specify the raw Samples. Rather than selecting from a synthesizer's fixed set of waveforms, you choose the basic building blocks to load into the sampler's memory. With an enormous variety of unique effects and filter types, combined with the ability to sculpt sound down to the individual Sample level, the A5000 provides an extensive sound manipulation toolbox.

Three years ago, Yamaha introduced a wealth of great sampling ideas with its A3000. Despite the exciting new technology, it never caught on, mostly because it lacked a comprehensive Sample library. The A5000 improves on the A3000's technology and comes bundled with two computer-based editors and a library of CD-ROMs. Unless your life savings is tied up in a competitor, you have no excuse for not checking out the A5000.

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