Despite the heated competition in the synth-and-sequencer-combo world, Yamaha has added yet another litter of dance machines into its Loop Factory family: the AN200 and DX200. While the dynamic duo add to an already crowded market, they offer an enticing combination of efficiency, power, and enough unique traits to make them the funkiest siblings since the Chemical Brothers. DJs who are serious about production and want to get crazy with their live P.A.s will appreciate the full-featured synths and live performance options residing within the diminutive boxes.
The AN200 and DX200 offer identical composition and playback features, effects sections, and drum sound selections. What sets them apart are their synthesizer sound engines and some of their editing controls. Anyone familiar with Yamaha should recognize the DX signposting as a reference to the digital frequency modulation (FM) synthesis featured in instruments like the classic DX7 synthesizer. Also a complete FM synthesizer, the DX200 offers the bonus of hands-on editing controls not found on the DX synths from the Reagan era. The AN200's AN stands for analog — the machine is a fully digital synth with analog physical-modeling synthesis descended from the Yamaha AN1x synth.
TWO OF A KIND
Each box contains a sequencer with one track for a synthesizer part and three rhythm tracks to use with the additional 121 PCM sample-playback sounds. The synth part provides five-note polyphony, which is ideal for playing chords or stacking sounds in unison for fattening basses and leads. You can lay down sequences using either step recording or real-time recording with quantization. Because twiddling lots of knobs during step recording can be a slow, cumbersome process, I prefer real-time recording with the aid of a MIDI keyboard.
You form songs by stringing patterns together. However, I was disappointed that each pattern is limited to 16 steps — just one measure. If you put a lot of changes or fills in your music, you will quickly go through the 128 user patterns. To solve that problem, you can always store any number of patterns, as well as song and patch data, to an external sequencer as a MIDI dump.
The units include four effects — delay, flanger, phaser, and overdrive — and each effect offers three options. The effects are impressive for multipurpose instruments at this price. The overdrive sounds particularly warm. The one exception is the reverb option, which seems to have been thrown in for the hell of it, but it's better than nothing.
The PCM rhythm sounds are the same on the AN200 and the DX200: several samples of staple drum kit sounds, a few octaves of bass notes, and several stabs and sound effects. Many of the sounds are thin and lack bite. It helps that you can pitch the PCM sounds up or down and gate them, and it's nice being able to process them with the built-in effects, but it's a shame that they don't pass through the filter. Considering that the PCM sounds occupy three of the four sequencer tracks, it would be better if they could be modified more significantly.
WHAT A POSEUR: THE AN200
The AN200's physical modeling synthesis, which digitally emulates the signal path from analog synthesis oscillator to filter to amplifier, sounds excellent. Although the AN200's analog emulation is not the most mind-blowing version of such technology, it nonetheless delivers rich simulations of analog classics: deep polyphonic pads, fat oscillator-stacked bass buzzes, hypnotic pulse-width — modulated arpeggios, and even a convincing TB-303 emulation.
At the synth engine's core are two oscillators, which provide saw, multisaw, pulse, square, sine, and triangle waves. The crucial oscillator sync function and an independent noise source add a host of extra sound-programming possibilities. Front-panel knobs for frequency modulation, oscillator mix, sync pitch, noise, and portamento (glide) amount offer plenty of options for immediate control in live performance. Too bad the pulse-width modulation — a key fattening ingredient in any analog synth — is accessible only through the included software editor, but then again the AN200's compact surface can't provide knobs to control every function.
The filter and envelope controls more than make up for that inconvenience. The quality of the six filters borders on stunning. There are three ranges of lowpass filtering and particularly impressive bandpass, band-eliminate, and highpass filters. A slick filter-envelope-depth knob (FEG Depth) complements the standard cutoff and resonance controls. I created dynamic bubbly and chirpy bursts simply by finding a sweet spot for the resonance, then subtly tweaking the cutoff and FEG Depth knobs together. The filter and amplitude envelopes share a set of ADSR controls to round out the ample hands-on sound-shaping features.
Despite a powerful LFO section, only one knob is available to control it. The AN200's menu lets you choose from 21 variations of 5 LFO shapes: sine, triangle, square, saw, and sample and hold. With those, you can modulate the oscillators, filter, or amplitude, so there's no excuse for not coming up with a few wacky ray gun noises during your sonic explorations.
EZ FM? HELL YEAH!
Will FM synthesis make its triumphant return? FM synthesis came into prominence during the ‘80s with the release of Yamaha's DX7. Yamaha sold zillions of them, and their harsh, brittle rings and bells became hallmarks of new wave synth pop and smooth R&B (remember that inescapable DX “Rhodes” sound?). Unfortunately, DX synthesizers were damn near impossible to program, which frustrated cutting-edge producers like Kraftwerk — whose productivity reportedly slowed to a halt as a result of a DX7.
Eventually, FM fell by the wayside and user-friendliness returned to fashion. However, the DX200 proves that raw, compelling, and beautiful FM sounds definitely have a place in dance music. Because the instrument lets you program FM sounds easily, it could very well kick off a renewed interest in FM synthesis.
The DX200's filter, envelope, and LFO sections are basically identical to those of the AN200, except the LFO provides only six wave shapes: sine, triangle, saw up, saw down, sample and hold, and square. What's radically different is the method of sound generation. Instead of oscillators, FM uses operators and algorithms to generate sound. A series of 32 algorithms configure the DX200's six operators. The other major parameters of FM synthesis are FM depth, decay, harmonic, and modulator.
Although the manual goes into greater explanation of FM programming, it suggests that beginners simply mix and match. Try different modulator settings, scroll through the algorithms, then tweak the Harmonic knob; use the FM Depth knob in tandem with the Harmonic knob. Although the methods may sound haphazard, they are infinitely more beginner-friendly than the menu system of early FM synths — take it from someone whose first keyboard was a DX21.
Still, certain parts of the DX200 can be tricky. For example, the Decay knob controls the time it takes for the modulator's signal to die out. But because FM depth controls the modulator's level, it should be set fairly high before you even mess with decay, and you must find a decent modulator setting in the first place. Decay is best for making short, percussive sounds. The sound source's final ingredients are 16 types of noise, with a knob for controlling the level.
With some patience and a good ear, it's easy to stumble upon great sounds — basic and bizarre — using the DX200. If your efforts fail, however, there are also plenty of usable onboard preset sounds.
The AN200 and DX200 have four Free EG tracks, which are similar to computer-style automation. The tracks record knob movements over a pattern's length, letting you perform complicated automated sonic manipulation of the synth parameters. You can record knob movements while a pattern loops several times, giving you extra mileage from a one-measure pattern.
Almost as cool as the Free EG tracks are the two Scenes provided for each pattern. Essentially, each Scene is an entirely separate patch for the synthesizer voices, so you can switch or morph between two synth patches in the same pattern — another great opportunity for keeping patterns fresh during live playback.
ALL THE WAY LIVE
If you don't take your DX200 or AN200 with you when performing live, you're just not milking it for all it's worth. Yamaha really went all out to make the tools performance-oriented. To start, you can assign as many as 36 patterns to trigger off the bottom two rows of keys for easy live mixing. From there, you can trigger the pattern from its beginning with a button and create stuttering rhythms. You can loop just a few notes from the synthesizer part to create tension and quick improvised variations using the Re-Trig/Roll button. You can also reverse the pattern, add swing, change the gate time, or temporarily double or half the tempo — all on the fly. You can even mute each of the four sequenced tracks as they play.
The AN200 and DX200 offer potential for serious sonic destruction in a live P.A. setup. The two units can easily lock tempos with each other over MIDI, and the manual recommends more elaborate setups.
However, it's a hassle having to hold a shift button to mute tracks — busy performers would rather twist knobs with one hand while muting tracks with the other. Another cool performance feature that is missing is a switch for rapidly bypassing effects.
Written for the beginner, the manual won't intimidate novices, which demonstrates Yamaha's hope to get young blood hooked on music production. Experienced synthesists will also be jonesing after discovering the patch-editing software that comes with the machines. The AN200 editing software reveals a ring modulator, a 3-band EQ, and a second LFO that can't be accessed from the hardware. Similarly, the DX200 editing software will help anyone get deep into programming sounds with FM synthesis.
ONE MORE TIME
These little beasts fit somewhere between innovative boundary pushers and tepid bandwagon products. Although an already crowded market makes it tough to get excited about groove boxes, the AN200 and DX200's pure synthesis techniques, quality sounds, and tweakable patterns make it easy to get in the zone. The boxes are perfect for DJs who want to add a personal signature to their sets and create original club tracks.
Markkus Rovito is a senior editor of E-Gear magazine and a bedroom tweaker. He'd like to thank caffeine, without which this review would not be possible. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Desktop control synthesizer
PROS: Wide variety of analog-style sounds. Sequencer records four knob movements per pattern. Deep sound-editing software included.
CONS: Lackluster drum sounds. Only one synth track per pattern.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 3.5
Desktop control synthesizer
PROS: Relatively easy FM synthesis programming. Sequencer records four knob movements per pattern. Deep sound-editing software included.
CONS: Lackluster drum sounds. Only one synth track per pattern.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4