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Yamaha Motif 8 Music Productions Synthesizer

3/1/2002

The dream is tantalizing: a single keyboard that can handle all yourmusic-production needs, providing great sounds and effects and anintuitive sequencer to arrange and record them. I bought into theworkstation concept years ago, but eventually, each of my workstationsbegan to feel confining. To get the sound and features I wanted, I hadto combine my underpowered instruments into an unholy alliance withvarious computers, sound modules, drum machines, mixers, andeffects.

Just when I'd decided to start over with a single keyboard and amass of software (admittedly still a trade-off), along comes Yamahawith a fresh take on the workstation concept. Not only does the Motifhave compelling sound and features, including a sequencer thatbrilliantly combines digital audio and MIDI, but it's enormouslyexpandable. Best of all, Yamaha designed the Motif to complement othergear (particularly computers) rather than replace it.

MEET THE FAMILY

The Motif family has three keyboards, differing only in the numberand type of keys (and in price). The Motif 6 ($2,250) and the Motif 7($2,750) have 61 and 76 keys, respectively, and use the venerableYamaha FS action, which has a snappy feel I've always liked. It's thesame action found in two previous EM Editors' Choice winners, theYamaha EX5 and the Korg Triton, the latter of which is the Motif'sclosest competitor.

The 88-key Motif 8 features a new hammer action derived fromYamaha's Clavinova digital pianos. To optimize the keys for playing therange of sounds that a synthesizer can generate, Yamaha addedAftertouch and made the weighting consistent across the keyboard ratherthan progressively lighter as on the Clavinova. Simply put, the Motif8's keyboard feels fantastic. Coupled with its superb acoustic-pianosound and MIDI features, the Motif 8 is worth considering solely as adigital piano or a controller keyboard.

The Motif 8's construction quality is very good; the bulk of thecase is made of metal, and the bottom is composed of thick pressboard.The Motif 6 and 7 — the light Motifs, as it were — havesheet-metal undersides. From here on, I'll refer to all modelscollectively as the Motif.

MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME

Contrasting with its angular lines and cold silver finish, the Motifhas a friendly control layout. The buttons feel substantial, and theones that toggle values (muting and unmuting sequencer tracks, forexample) have integrated LEDs — a welcome feature. At the left ofthe front panel are four multifunction knobs, four sliders, and a bankof sequencer transport controls. By pressing the Remote Control buttonabove them, you can assign those controls to operate a computer-basedsequencer instead of the Motif's onboard sequencer. The front panelalso provides handy bypass buttons for global and insert effects.

Moving to the right, you'll find the 240-by-64-pixel backlit LCD andits 11 page buttons that map clearly to tabs on the screen. AnInformation button lists settings such as the current pitch-bend range,but I wish it had gone further. Many parameters in the Motif havebaffling names; it would be great if you could point to a term such asNormalize Play Effect or INS1P10, click on the Info button, and readwhat it means. The Akai MPC60 had that feature more than a decade ago,and it sure beats digging through the manual.

Still, I like the layout of the cursor buttons and Data wheel, andsomeone put a lot of thought into the matrix of buttons at the farright.

SOCKET TO ME

All of the Motif's connectors are on its back. I would havepreferred the headphone and breath-controller jacks on the front, underthe wheels. I'm also disappointed that the Motif accepts only normallyclosed footswitches rather than detecting pedal polarity onstartup.

In addition to stereo analog outputs, the Motif has two individualanalog outs and an optical S/PDIF output that duplicates the mainstereo outs. (The digital output can be set to 20- or 24-bit format,and the analog outputs use 24-bit digital-to-analog converters.) Stereoanalog inputs are available for sampling or real-time effectsprocessing. You can plug a microphone, a guitar, or another electronicinstrument in to the Motif and sing or play along; you can add as manyas three effects to the input signal and record the performance (up toabout six minutes) as a stereo sample.

One of the Motif's best features is its connectivity. The keyboardcomes standard with SCSI, USB, and SmartMedia ports for transferringdata (see forbackground about SmartMedia). For additional audio I/O, you can installan AIEB2 or an mLAN8E expander. The AIEB2 ($269.95) provides six¼-inch analog outputs (configured as three stereo pairs) as wellas stereo S/PDIF I/O. Coaxial and optical S/PDIF connectors areincluded, but you can use only one stereo input at a time.

The mLAN8E ($699.95) offers three FireWire connectors that supportYamaha's Music Local Area Network (mLAN) specification. It adds sixassignable outputs, another stereo I/O, and a three-port (48-channel)MIDI I/O on a single cable; the extra two jacks facilitate networkingwith other mLAN gear. It's not possible to use the mLAN8E's stereoinput at the same time as the Motif's built-in analog inputs, but the8E does offer another feature: it can be used to route an additionaleight audio channels from external mLAN devices, each with EQ anddynamics processing.

Perhaps the most exciting Motif upgrade option is Yamaha's PLGseries of synthesizer and effects plug-in boards ($170 to $350); youcan install three of them in the Motif. Unlike typical expansionboards, which simply add new waveforms, the instrumental PLG boards arecomplete synthesizers. For less than $350, you can add the equivalentof a DX7, a five-note AN1x, a VL70m, a digital piano, or an XG soundmodule to your Motif, simultaneously increasing the instrument'spolyphony and multitimbral capability. A sixth PLG board, thePLG100-VH, adds an additional effects bus and vocal-harmony effects.More boards are in the works. EM reviewed five PLG boards in theNovember 2000 issue, which you can read online.

SYNTH CITY

The Motif is a sample-playback instrument; the basic structure inits synthesis architecture is an Element. An Element consists of anoscillator, a filter, and an amplifier, each with a five- or six-stageenvelope generator, and a common LFO and EQ. The oscillators play monoor stereo samples with a corresponding impact on polyphony. As many asfour Elements can be combined to form a Voice, which is the primaryobject you select and play from the keyboard. A four-Element Voice withtwo stereo and two mono oscillators, therefore, consumes six notes ofthe Motif's 62-note polyphony. For each Element in a Voice, you canspecify the Velocity and note range to create layers and splits.

Multiple filter and LFO types provide a great deal of flexibility.With the included computer-based Voice Editor (Mac/Win), you caneven change the filter and LFO shapes. The “analog” andbandpass filters have a satisfying moistness. You can sync LFOs to thesequencer or arpeggiator for a propulsive rhythmic effect. Check outsome MP3 examples at .

Each Element can be routed through one or both insertion effectsconfigured in series or parallel. You can then bus the composite signalto global effects (reverb and chorus, again in series or parallel) anda 5-band EQ. You could spend days exploring the effects (which soundgreat) and not just because they are woefully undocumented in themanual.

You can also layer and split multiple Voices to form Performances.Performances can also contain Voices from PLG cards and live signalsfrom the Motif's stereo inputs. At some point, you could hold down twokeys and use your entire polyphony, but it would be glorious. Anotherbonus of the Performance structure is that you gain an additionalglobal effect called Variation, which offers algorithms designed to addan edge to the sound, including distortion, compression, wah, andEQ.

A second Voice type, the Drum Voice, is designed for constructingdrum kits. For each key, you can configure panning (including dynamicpanning), three effects, the physical output jack, highpass- andlowpass-filter cutoff and resonance, the amount of pitch change inresponse to Velocity, and even a three-stage amplitude envelope. Whenit's paired with the Motif's gargantuan supply of high-quality drumsamples and its ability to play back user samples, the instrument isespecially strong for drum parts.

The Motif also features the innovative Master mode, which lets youselect Voices, Performances, Patterns, Songs, and four-zone MIDIcontroller setups from a single bank. For example, you could set Masterpreset 1 to call up Performance A15, preset 2 to select Voice D2,preset 3 to select Song 2, and so on. That is a terrific feature forlive performance, when you just want to grab a sound or a backing trackwithout having to worry about what type it is or its location.

SOUNDS ABOUND

Note the text under the top two rows of buttons of the Motif's32-button grid. Voices and Performances on the Motif are organized into16 categories, such as brass, strings, and organ. Finding the sound youwant is simple; just press the Category Search button and then acategory button. A menu will appear, and you can scroll down it to tryeach sound. Amazingly, this feature even works while the sequencer isrunning, though the Voice's effects settings will be replaced by thesettings for the current track. If you find more than one sound youlike, just click on the Set tab, and it will be marked as a Favorite.The sound will then be accessible from the Favorites menu.

My first impression of the presets was that many are piercinglybright. I suppose it's better to be shrill than dull, especially withthe EQ knobs right at hand. As I started sequencing, the sounds blendedwell, which is the point on a workstation. The raw samples were oftenquite rich, in contrast to some synthesizers in which the samples needeffects to sound good. Here's an overview of the presets in the 16categories:

Acoustic pianos are excellent; I felt as though I was playing apiano, not a synth. Several presets exploit stereo samples, and thereare some expansive layers, as well.

Keyboard presets include a heaping smorgasbord of tasty electricpianos and clavinets. Velocity switching and a juicy touch-wah are usedto expressive effect. Organ sounds also cover a wide, usable range. Iespecially liked the thunderous Sunday, a layered church organ thatshowcases the Motif's reverb.

Guitar presets are especially strong, with many benefiting from theMotif's musical distortion effects. It's surprisingly easy to“play” the virtual amps with Velocity. Basses are wellrepresented. You get a big palette of detailed acoustics and electrics— several with a top octave of performance effects such as thumpsand slides — along with subsonic synth rumblers and succulentfilter effects.

Strings often have built-in vibrato, which isn't very effective tomy ears, but many samples feature an organic rasp that makes them quiteevocative. Brass didn't thrill me, but I'm a former French horn player.The Motif's solo brass seems bland, and its ensembles lack depth. Youcan overcome such shortcomings by adding a few sampled licks or theexpressive leads on a VL plug-in board.

Reed and pipe sounds offer more character than the brass. Someinclude an appealing bit of growl or controlled breathiness, but theystill don't scream “Buy me.”

Synth leads ooze attitude and class. However, some, such as theluscious Singleline, exhibited gritty stair-stepping artifacts when Imoved the pitch-bend wheel. Synth pad and choir sounds are satisfyinglydeep and clear. Several exploit the Motif's fine-sounding filters foranimation. Synth comps rate only a handful of presets, and chromaticpercussion resembles an upscale General MIDI (GM) bank. The bell soundsare hampered by aliasing.

Drums and percussion are outstanding and extensive. From jazzbrushes and stereo rock drums to crunchy hip-hop kits and grunts, it'shard to imagine that you won't find what you need. Sound effects andmusical effects were included mostly to show off the Motif's synthesisprowess, I assume. A few might be useful as ambient backdrops, but manyhave a harsh quality that made me pass them by.

Combi patches offer the most instant gratification; many of them aresplits and layers with arpeggios that play drum grooves. The cheerfullyobnoxious GuitarRox, for example, plays a two-bar rock beat and splitsthe keyboard into one-finger power chords at the bottom, guitar chunksand noises in the middle, and a distorted lead sound at the top.

ARPEGGIATE EVERYTHING

Because I reviewed the Korg Karma shortly before receiving the Motif(see the August 2001 issue), I was intrigued by this line in the Motifpress release: “On top of an extensive range of rhythmicsequences, [the Motif] also features ‘human’ patterns suchas the strumming of a guitar or the trilling of a flute. Instead oftrying to duplicate these performances with complicated algorithms,Motif creates them by using real MIDI data recorded by realmusicians.”

A motif is a short musical phrase. When I learned that many of theMotif's arpeggios were derived from Keyfax Software's excellent TwiddlyBits MIDI Samples, I expected the arpeggiator to be the highlight ofthe instrument. The Motif's preset phrases are handy, but they hardlycompare with the Karma's “complicated” algorithms, whichevolve as you play and respond in inspiring ways to numerousperformance gestures. In contrast, the Motif's arpeggios just lopealong. You can alter the pattern by changing the number of keys you'reholding down, and you can trigger new arpeggios (such as the flutetrill) with Velocity, but that's all.

However, the Motif's arpeggiator has one feature the Karma doesn'thave yet: the ability to load user-created arpeggios. You can evenexport licks from the sequencer, though it was hard to predict theresults. Keyfax plans to offer new arpeggios — including naturalinstrument articulations and synth effects (gating, portamento, andother gestures) — so it's worthwhile keeping an eye on theprogrammable-arpeggio feature.

IT PAYS TO RECYCLE

The true highlight of the Motif is its sampler, which works intandem with the onboard sequencer to create a music-productionenvironment that rivals a computer. As a sequence plays, you can singor play another instrument into the Motif's inputs, recording onto anyone of its 16 tracks in mono or stereo. New samples are saved alongwith the sequence, and the Motif records a single MIDI note on thattrack to trigger it at the right moment during playback.

Now suppose that, after refining your song, you decide it should befaster or slower. You don't need to mess with time-stretchingalgorithms, but if you prefer to use them, the Motif offers them inboth real-time and file-based varieties. Instead, invoke the Slicecommand, and your sample will be chopped into individual beats andsubbeats — each mapped to an adjacent MIDI note — while theMotif stealthily updates the MIDI sequence with the new notes. You canthen change the tempo over an astonishing range (sometimes as wide as100 bpm), and the sample stays in sync, without watery artifacts. Youcan also choose to have the Motif slice the sample as it's recordingit.

The beat-dicing technique, pioneered in PropellerheadReCycle, works best with rhythmic samples, though it does impartan interesting pulse to sustained tones. A related function calledLoop-Remix can shuffle and reverse random slices, which is handy forturnarounds. For straight vocals and acoustic overdubs, you can simplyuse single-note sampling as you would use tape or a hard-diskrecorder.

The Motif's stock 4 MB of RAM provides about 24 seconds of stereorecording time at the maximum audio quality of 16 bits and 44.1 kHz.You can increase that to a bit more than six minutes by installing two32 MB SIMM boards. The 64 MB maximum might seem skimpy, but rememberthat the Motif already has 48 MB of sounds onboard. It can alsoresample its own output, so you can load up a lavish multisampledinstrument (the Motif reads Akai and Yamaha sampler CD-ROMs, includingprogram parameters) and resample your performance. Most likely, theperformance will use far less RAM than the source multisample.Resampling is also a good way to overcome the Motif's relatively smallnumber of effects sends. You can keep altering the effects andresampling a track until you get the sound you want.

The Motif is not designed to replace a high-end sampler. Creatingcomplex multisampled instrument voices is cumbersome; it lackscrossfade looping, and even adjusting loop points or trimming samplesis frustratingly difficult. Fortunately, the Motif's computerconnectivity makes it simple to blast samples over to a softwareeditor, massage them, and dump them back. Yamaha provides Tiny WaveEditor (Mac/Win) for just that purpose. I wish the Motif supportedmore loop types than just forward looping and that it had the option toplay material after the loop-end point when the key was released.

HIDING SEQUENCER

If sounds are the heart of a workstation, the sequencer is thebrain. Unfortunately, it took me quite a while to learn to think likethe Motif. On the surface, the sequencer provides Song and Patternrecorders, each containing 16 tracks. The idea is that you string asequence of patterns into a song, and the manual claims you can do thatin real time by pressing a single button corresponding to eachpattern.

In reality, there is no object called a Pattern, though many screensuse that word. Instead, you have Styles, which are 256-bar, 16-tracksequences. Each Style has 16 variations called Sections, which you'dtypically use to hold a verse, chorus, or fill. Each track of a Styleor Section that contains data is called a Phrase. Each Phrase can be aPreset Phrase (meaning a drum pattern) or a User Phrase, which previousgenerations might have simply called a track, as it contains editablenote and Control Change data. (If you wish, you can convert a PresetPhrase into a User Phrase.)

Once you've sorted that out and recorded some music, you can useChain mode to sequence your Styles or Sections into a Song. Like agroove box, the Motif has you do that in real time by sequentiallypressing the 16 corresponding buttons in the grid as the sequenceplays. That is a slick way to arrange songs, because you can weaveindividual multitrack sequences in and out on every 16th note if youwant to. What the manual doesn't mention is that switching betweenStyles rather than Sections will create substantial glitches becausethe mix parameters have to be reprogrammed on the fly. That was a realhair puller until I stumbled onto a tutorial at Motifator.com thatexplained how to disable mix changes (see the sidebar, “GettingMotifated”).

In general, the Motif's sequence editing is unwieldy. One savinggrace is that the keyboard can export and import Standard MIDI Files,enabling you to do more involved editing on a computer. In fact, theMotif plays especially well with external sequencers, thanks tobuilt-in support for Emagic Logic Audio, SteinbergCubase, Digidesign Pro Tools, and Cakewalk ProAudio and Sonar. Connect the Motif to your computer withMIDI or USB and configure the host program, and then you can use thekeyboard's knobs, sliders, and buttons to control panning, effects-sendlevel, EQ, volume, and muting for each of 16 tracks on the remotesequencer. The Motif's Track Select buttons determine which of fourchannels (1, 5, 9, or 13, for example) a given slider will control atany moment.

MORE FILING, TASTES GREAT

In addition to Tiny Wave Editor and Voice Editor, theMotif comes with a utility that lets you transfer files between acomputer and a SmartMedia card in the Motif or a SCSI drive that'sconnected to the Motif. Although I had no problem (other than a longwait) loading Akai samples from a SCSI CD drive to the Motif, myelderly SyQuest SCSI cartridge drive crashed the instrument in endlessways. (The Motif officially supports only Zip, 640 MB magneto-optical[MO], and 2 GB Jaz drives. Yamaha does not recommend SyQuest drives,and the Motif can render 1 GB Jaz cartridges permanently unusable.)Consequently, I mainly used the file utility with the SmartMedia card,which involved connecting the computer to the Motif with a USB cable,manipulating Open Music System (OMS), as well as toggling the Motifbetween MIDI and USB mode — sometimes repeatedly — untilcommunication was established.

The Motif's USB connection is configured as an eight-port MIDIinterface, not a standard USB bus, so file transfers are about thespeed of a 33.6 kbps modem. It's more efficient to whip out the memorycard and plug it in to a SmartMedia reader connected to your computer.But the file utility also lets you rename and delete files on the card,and for that it's far faster than using the Motif's front panel. Ifyou're using the Motif with a Mac, be sure to upgrade to the latestMotif firmware (currently 1.4 for the OS and 1.1 for the internal USBcontroller). You can update the Motif's firmware from a SmartMedia cardonly, which is a good reason to buy a computer card reader, which costsless than $20.

GO THEME, GO!

Feature creep is a dangerous thing. The more functions you pack intoa device, the more difficult it becomes to use; by their very nature,workstations are prone to that problem. By building on the features ofother groundbreaking instruments, the Motif could have become aFrankenstein's monster — big and powerful but also awkward andugly. Fortunately, Yamaha's bionics team did a bang-up job, implantinga killer voice box in a compact body that's far more affordable thancompeting instruments. The team supercharged the Motif's creativepotential by cleverly melding MIDI and audio, even leaving sockets toattach additional limbs.

Getting the Motif to do exactly what you want requires patience andexperimentation, and a computer is nearly essential for high-poweredsampling and sequencing. The Motif is highly conversant with computersand remarkably powerful on its own, however. Learning to use theinstrument is worth the effort.

I doubt that I'd feel as positive about the Motif if Keyfax'ssupport site (www.motifator.com) didn't exist, though. Theowner's manual, while well organized and bursting with illustrations,is short on application tips and glosses over significant areas. Forexample, effects are only listed, not described, and the sequencingsection neglects to mention some obscure settings you have to tweak toavoid playback glitches. I spent a lot of time with the manual tryingto decipher the terms I saw on the screen and even more time onlineattempting to make sense of the manual.

If you're searching for a portable, great-sounding means to producemusic, follow your theme to the Motif. It doesn't take the“work” out of “workstation,” but it doesdeliver the sound, features, and flexibility you need to get the jobdone in style.

Motif 8 Music Production SynthesizerSpecifications

Sound Engine

AWM2 (sample playback)

Keyboard

88-key; transmits Velocity, Channel Pressure

Polyphony

62 notes + polyphony of any plug-in boards

Multitimbral Parts

16 plus maximum of 18 from plug-in boards

Voice Memory

ROM: 384 preset + 48 preset drum kits; 128 GM + 1 GM drum kit RAM:128 user + 16 user drum kits

Performance Memory

RAM: 128 user

Master Memory

RAM: 128 user

Waveform ROM

48 MB, Linear Predictive Coding (LPC) compressed; 1,309 totalmultisamples and drum samples

Sample RAM

4 MB standard; 64 MB max.

Sample Rates

5.5125, 11.025, 22.05, 44.1, and 48 kHz; 16-bit stereo

Sample Import Formats

Akai S1000/3000; Yamaha A3000/4000/5000 and SU700; AIFF; WAV

Filters

(1) 4-pole resonant multimode; 21 types

Effects Processing

(2) insert effects (104 types); (3) global effects; (1) global5-band EQ

Arpeggiator

256 ROM patterns; 128 user patterns

Sequencer

(16) tracks; (110,000) notes; (64) songs; (1,024) patterns; 128ROM/256 user phrases; 480 ppqn resolution; SMF import/export

Real-Time Controllers

(1) pitch-bend wheel; (1) mod wheel; (4) assignable knobs; (4)assignable sliders; (1) rotary encoder

Audio Outputs

(4) unbalanced ¼" TS; (1) optical S/PDIF; (1) ¼" stereoheadphone

Audio Inputs

(2) unbalanced ¼" TS

MIDI Ports

In, Out, Thru

Additional Inputs

(1) SCSI; (1) USB; (1) sustain pedal; (1) assignable footswitch; (2)assignable footpedal; (1) breath controller

Expansion Board Slots

(3) Modular Synthesis Plug-In System (PLG series)

External Memory

SmartMedia (128 MB max.)

Display

240 × 64-pixel backlit LCD

Dimensions

57.4" (L) × 6.5" (H) × 18.3" (D)

Weight

59.4 lb.

GETTING MOTIFATED

One of the best reasons to consider the Motif isn't packed in itsoblong cardboard box. To complement the instrument, Yamaha hired KeyfaxSoftware to create Motifator.com, an outstanding information resourcefor the Motif series. Along with the expected audio demos, you'll finddownloadable patterns and patches, detailed tutorials, a schedule ofupcoming clinics, and MotifMart, a comprehensive collection of Motifaccessories and upgrades. Although the prices for some items (notablyRAM) are higher than elsewhere on the Web, all products are guaranteedto work with the Motif.

What makes Motifator.com essential viewing, though, is the livelyMotiforum, a categorized discussion area with thousands of opinions,answers, and tips from Motif owners. Want to know how others think theMotif stacks up against the Korg Triton, how to prevent parts fromcutting out in dense sequences, or how to configure Cakewalk Sonar forremote control? Punch up www.motifator.com.

Keyfax President (and EM “Vintage Page” columnist)Julian Colbeck and I spoke at length about Motifator.com. Colbeck wasbrought in to consult on the Motif when it was still code-namedKangaroo. In the midst of wrapping up a two-hour tutorial video to bedistributed free through the site, Colbeck noted that what Keyfax andYamaha are doing isn't rocket science. The forum and the e-commercesections of Motifator.com are built on publicly available templates.What's surprising, he said, is that synthesizer manufacturers havehistorically treated their instruments as disposable, churning them outand then moving on to the next model.

Surfing through Motifator.com, it's easy to see how seriously Yamahais taking its customers. As I completed this review, Yamaharepresentatives had contributed more than 1,000 authoritative postingson the inner workings of the Motif and were even soliciting ideas fornew sound banks — to be distributed free. That level of supportis virtually unprecedented, but for an instrument as powerful andcomplex as the Motif, it's welcome.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Yamaha
Motif 8 Music Production Synthesizer keyboard workstation
$3,250

FEATURES

4.5

EASE OF USE

3.0

AUDIO QUALITY

4.5

VALUE

4.5

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Excellent sounds and search feature. Tightly integratedsampling and sequencing. Highly expandable. Outstanding onlinesupport.

CONS: Only two insertion effects. Baffling nomenclature. Convolutedsequencer. Slow file transfers. Rudimentary sample editing.

Manufacturer

Yamaha Corporation of America
tel. (714) 522-9011
e-mail info@yamaha.com
Web www.yamahasynth.com

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