PxPixel
Review: Yamaha Montage - EMusician

Review: Yamaha Montage

New flagship workstation reveals new worlds for musicians
Author:
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

For 15 years, no other synth workstations have been as successful and enduring as Yamaha’s Motif series, ranging from the original Motif (2001) to the ES (2003), XS (2007), and XF (2010). Today, you see them almost everywhere you see working musicians. Leveraging the creative potential of recent music technology, Yamaha now has a new and improved flagship synth, the Montage.

Yamaha has fused two of its most successful synthesis technologies in a single instrument—or rather, a trio of instruments with different-sized keyboards: the Montage6, 7, and 8. Each of these incorporates a new generation of the AWM2 (Advanced Wave Memory) sample-playback engine alongside a new generation of frequency-modulation synthesis called FM-X. Integrated into those two sound engines is a novel approach to hands-on, real-time techniques for animating sound, a bundle of features collectively called Motion Control.

LAY IT OUT FOR ME

The Montage delivers 128 stereo voices of AWM2 and 128 of FM-X for a total of 256 voices of polyphony. Moreover, its front panel strikes a visually pleasing balance of abundant controls and just enough blank space to make the controls easy to view and reach. In most ways its layout resembles the Motif XF’s but sporting a sleeker, updated look. The Montage’s most distinguishing physical characteristics are a color touch panel LCD measuring 7" diagonally, and a multicolored rotary encoder called the SuperKnob.

A bank of eight multifunction knobs, level sliders, and Scene buttons dominate the front panel’s left side. A grid of illuminated buttons for accessing sounds and bringing them to life dominates the right. Buttons on the far left determine exactly which functions the eight knobs control. The LED ladder displays that are adjacent to every slider and collars that encircle every knob indicating their positions are very handy when you want quick visual feedback, especially on a dark stage. Flanking the very responsive, high-resolution display are a data dial and buttons for controlling sequencer transport, transposing octaves, maneuvering through parameter settings, and performing similar functions. Notably, there are no controls beneath the LCD, making it perfect for resting your palm while using the touch panel.

The keyboard senses velocity and channel Aftertouch, both of which are freely assignable to a variety of destinations. To its left are pitch-bend and mod wheels, a short horizontal ribbon controller, two assignable buttons, and two more for controlling the Motion Sequencer. Having all those controls under your left hand enhances the Montage’s expressive capabilities, and the bank of knobs and sliders is just inches away.

[BREAK]

Fig. 1. You’ll appreciate the stereo inputs on the well-endowed back panel for processing external audio, modulating the onboard vocoder, or driving the internal envelope follower. Along with balanced stereo main and assignable stereo outputs on TRS jacks, a 1/4" jack for stereo headphones is located around back (see Figure 1). Two unbalanced 1/4" analog-to-digital inputs accommodate line levels or a single microphone. Two more jacks accept a sustain pedal and an assignable footswitch, and the two expression pedal jacks are also assignable. Three 5-pin DIN connectors handle MIDI In, Out, and Thru. A type-B USB connector lets you exchange MIDI and audio data with your computer, and a type-A USB connector accommodates a flash drive for saving and loading data.

Image placeholder title

Flip the power switch, and the Montage is ready to play in about 20 seconds. If a user-definable period of inactivity passes (30 minutes is the default), the power switch toggles itself off with a snap!

ONCE AROUND THE BLOCK

Fig. 2. The touch panel LCD affords ample opportunity to dig deep into Montage parameters, including Motion Sequences. Unlike the Motif, the Montage is always in Performance mode. It has no individual Voice, Master, Mixing, or Sequencer modes. A Performance can host as many as 16 Parts. Many factory Performances comprise a single instrument, such as piano, synth, or kalimba, while many more layer several Parts. Each Part can contain an AWM2 sound, an FM-X sound, or a Drum sound, depending on its sound engine (see Figure 2). You can assign separate outputs to independent tracks in your computer’s DAW.

Image placeholder title

[BREAK]

When the Montage powers up, it displays a bank of 16 Performances called a Live Set, giving you immediate access to all 16. Scroll through a number of Live Sets and instantly select any Performance by touching the screen. You can easily register and arrange any Performances to create your own Live Sets, too. When you switch from one Performance to another, notes sustained from the previous Performance are not truncated abruptly as they are with most electronic instruments, which is helpful when you’re changing presets on-the-fly. Pressing the control panel’s Performance button opens the Performance Play screen, displaying the Parts that make up the current Performance in a mixer-like configuration. Here you can add or delete Parts, change their levels, mute or solo them, define splits and layers, apply arpeggiation and Motion Sequencing, and the like. For more precise control over the mix, you can control most of the same parameters using buttons on the panel’s right side and sliders on the left.

Touch the Performance name to edit Performance parameters and search for Performances arranged by category. Press the Category Search button to see Performances divided into pianos, bass, strings, chromatic percussion, ethnic instruments, sound effects, and ten other categories. Each category has eight subcategories. Subcategories for keyboards, for example, include clavi, FM piano, synth, and so on. You can also search for Performances by attribute, such as sound engine type, or by name, using an onscreen QWERTY keyboard. Although you can’t search by keyword as you can with many soft synths, some subcategories have descriptive names like Bright, Plucked, and Analog.

Pressing the Audition button plays a musical passage that’s individually tailored to show off any Performance you select. Some are excellent, and the keyboard and front-panel controls are active during audition.

[BREAK]

START YOUR ENGINES

The Montage’s sample-playback engine is essentially similar to the 8-Element AWM2 in the previous generation but with expanded ROM content. If it were uncompressed as 16-bit linear data, according to Yamaha, it would be 5.67 GB—more than seven times the size of the Motif XF’s. You also get 1.75 GB of flash memory for storing user data. Still, with flash RAM so cheap, I’d hope for more, especially when it competes with the massive content of computer-based sample players. All the Montage’s AWM2 samples sound remarkably better than the Motif’s, presumably because of more detailed multisampling and superior digital- to-analog conversion.

Although their sonic quality is uniformly higher, the architecture of AWM2 voices is almost identical to those in the Motif. (Among the differences are the way Motion Control is implemented as well as the insertion effects.) In fact, the Montage can load sample libraries designed for the Motif XF. The biggest differences are that the Montage allows two insert effects on every Part, and Motion Control can modulate dozens of voice parameters independently. Some of the onboard acoustic samples are among the best I’ve heard on any synth, and many of the more electronic sounds are strikingly original. The CFX grand pianos are real standouts, though I feel many other instruments are too limited by the memory constraints.

FM-X is the Yamaha’s classic frequency modulation synthesis engine extended and updated for the 21st century. It has up to eight operators per voice rather than the DX7’s six, delivering potentially more complex and lifelike timbres. It more closely resembles the sound engine in Yamaha’s rare but legendary FS1R than the DX7’s. Whereas the DX7 offered 32 configurations of operators called algorithms, the Montage gives you 88. Operators can be any of seven waveform types called Spectral Forms. You can vary the harmonic content of most Spectral Forms using the Spectral Skirt parameter and modulate harmonics by applying velocity to the Spectral Resonance parameter.

The Montage offers some relatively intuitive real-time FM editing capabilities. If you’ve ever tried to edit DX7 sounds on-the-fly, you’ll appreciate the vast difference. Although not all FM-based factory presets leverage its advantages, FM-X sounds are capable of greater nuance and animation than in previous generations, and Motion Control ups the ante considerably.

Using the FM Converter Web app running in Google Chrome, you can convert any voice created for the DX7, DX7s, DX7II, TX816, or TX802 to FM-X format. The Montage’s implementation goes way, way beyond anything the DX7 could do, and its superior D-to-A conversion means better sound all around.

[BREAK]

ANIMATION SUBSTATION

Because any electronic keyboard is a collection of on/off switches, enabling the most expressive playing possible is always a challenge for synth designers. Yamaha makes it possible to articulate the Montage’s sounds as you play using an interactive system of performance controllers and techniques it calls Motion Control. The Montage’s Motion Control comprises the SuperKnob, Motion Sequencer, and envelope follower. Just as important for animating your music, though, are the arpeggiator, Scene buttons, and corresponding sliders.

The SuperKnob is a morphing macro controller that can assigned as many as 16 parameters per Part, as well as 16 parameters to the top Performance level. (Yamaha notes that the direct parameter control aspect, as opposed to channel CC messages alone, is one of the big improvements provided by the Montage.) Most factory Performances have some kind of SuperKnob function, generating multiple timbral identities from a single Performance as you twist the knob from one extreme to the other. As you twist and turn it, the partially translucent SuperKnob morphs from one color to another.

It can crossfade sounds, transpose pitch, alter effects settings, change operator frequencies, and affect almost any combination of control signals simultaneously, raising some parameter values while lowering others. Some changes sound sub tle, and others sound extreme. Morph a gentle pad into a throbbing beat, or an acoustic piano into an electromechanical one. For hands-free operation, you can control parameters assigned to the Super- Knob with an expression pedal, too.

Unlike a traditional sequencer, the Motion Sequencer streams control signals rather than notes and beats. Rather than record parameter changes you make as you play, the Motion Sequencer lets you enter steps graphically, one at a time. You set up sequences in advance and, as you perform, automatically step through whatever changes you’ve programmed in sync with an internal or external clock. You can even change the modulation depth of each step using the sliders during a performance.

Motion sequences can be as long as 16 steps. You can change each step’s shape, so that its audible effect is abrupt or gradual. Create smooth transitions between steps or trigger random values, and control these changes in real time using Motion Sequencer knobs labeled Shape, Smooth, and Random. Each Performance can have up to eight motion sequencer lanes, with as many as four lanes assigned to any one Part.

[BREAK]

External audio can also be a Motion Control source. When you route audio to the Montage’s envelope follower, its signal can control parameters in real time. For example, the sound of live drums or rhythm guitar could modulate tempo, filter frequency, operator levels, or any other parameter or complex combination of parameters you choose.

The Montage’s remarkably sophisticated arpeggiator is another essential ingredient. If you’re accustomed to arpeggiators offering up, down, and a handful of other patterns, this is a very different beast. The arpeggio function makes the Montage an auto-accompaniment keyboard that plays backing tracks. It supplies more than 10,000 musical phrases and rhythm patterns in many specific musical styles. It divides phrases and rhythms into 18 categories, mostly instrument types, and 25 subcategories, either music genres or modulation destinations. A future update will allow you to create your own arpeggios.

The Montage can store complete parameter sets, including arpeggios and Motion Sequences, as Scenes within each Performance. Instantly load them on-the-fly by pressing any of the eight Scene buttons below the sliders. Scenes recall snapshots of practically every setting. Selecting different Scenes can dramatically change which Parts (including Drum Parts) you’ll hear in a Performance. Assembling Scenes allows you to organize sounds within a Performance in real time, as you play.

NOTHING ELSE LIKE IT

One definition of the word montage is “a composite picture made by juxtaposing or superimposing separate pictures,” and that’s an apt description of Yamaha’s new flagship synth. It combines two very different timbre-production techniques with a multifaceted approach to manipulating sound, delivering a multidimensional whole greater than the sum of its parts. The Montage’s musical personality is as defined by what happens when you engage the Motion Sequencer or SuperKnob as by its sample-based AWM2 and suped-up FM synthesis sound engines. With the Montage, you can more easily make more animated music than previously possible, even if you don’t often know exactly what parameters you’re modulating. And its timbral content is dependably excellent, with more genuinely useful sounds than its predecessors.

Just about any synthesist or keyboard player has something to gain by using the Montage. It offers a tremendous assortment of instrumental colors and signature sounds no other synth can duplicate. It’s absolutely killer for improvisational electronic music, too, because it invites you to explore the places it takes you musically and sonically. The Montage is superior to the Motif in every way, and I have no doubt Yamaha will sell a lot of them.

STRENGTHS

A storehouse of superb sounds. Advanced, interactive articulation via Motion Control. The best FM implementation yet. Lots of assignable controllers. Excellent ergonomics.

LIMITATIONS

Limited waveform memory (like all hardware synths). No wavetable or physical modeling synthesis. Montage6, $3,000 Montage7, $3,500 Montage8, $4,000 usa.yamaha.com

Writer, synthesist, and former Electronic Musician senior editor Geary Yelton lives in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.