It's a fact: Full-size keyboard workstations are a serious size and space investment. Justifying the sticker price of a new all-in-one behemoth is sometimes not as hard as finding the space to use one of these things. Thus, creating rackmount versions of popular gear makes plenty of sense in terms of maintaining the vibrancy of the brand while giving space-conscious studio owners a way to acquire more new gear with a minimum amount of fuss. (Witness how Line 6 elegantly moved its hyperpopular Pod series of amp modelers into rackmount units.) Even large studios that have the budgets to amass tons of equipment have finite amounts of space to work with.
With the Yamaha Motif-Rack, however, going with the keyless version has some added benefits, including increased polyphony (raised to 128), beefed-up effects and normal voices (both preset and user). The Motif-Rack is less of a workstation than its older siblings (it lacks the onboard sequencing and sampling of the other models), but that shouldn't be a deterrent for computer-based producers who are looking for an ultraflexible tone-generator to add to their range of sounds.
IT'S STILL SILVER
Set up as a 1U rack module, the Motif-Rack comes with all of the connection points that you would expect: the standard MIDI In/Out/Thru, one USB port, digital and optical outs and three pairs of ¼-inch outs (two assignable pairs, one standard). The Motif-Rack is (sadly) powered by another external DC power pack, but the headphone jack, the power switch and the master volume knob are on the unit's faceplate, amid the myriad buttons lining the front panel. A welcome feature is the rotary dial, which will step you through the info packed into the LCD. You can always complain about the size of these things (particularly when a tighter configuration of buttons might have made for a larger field of vision), but the modest 164×64 backlit display that the Motif-Rack sports is little to no trouble to use.
In addition to the tremendous array of preset sounds that come onboard the Motif-Rack, users with sufficient cash can add two more plug-in boards to increase the available sonic palette. Currently, Yamaha has eight plug-in boards (single-part and multipart) available, covering everything from additional drum sounds to analog physical modeling to a plug-in board based on Q Up Arts' Latin Groove Factory sample library. Installation of the boards occurs through the top panel of the synth, which, once removed, exposes two keyed plug cables. The boards are simply connected to the cabling and seated with hooks that keep the board level.
The sounds that come standard with the unit are nothing to be taken lightly. It seemed that every time I went poking through the functions on the Motif-Rack, I was often distracted by the stellar presets. The sounds, based on the already established Motif sample-based engine (Advanced Wave Memory 2, as Yamaha calls it), will be familiar to users who have come across the full-blown keyboard version before. Those who have not are sure to get a positive jolt from running through the selection. A voice has four sample elements, which are broken down into two categories (normal pitched-musical-instrument types and drum/percussion). As restricted as the LCD real estate may be, each patch is clearly laid out in terms of category and assigned functions.
Some of the most impressive presets are the array of acoustic piano and bass sounds. Purists might look down their collective noses at a digitally generated grand, but the sounds are quite rich at various volume settings. The basses (particularly patches such as Bobby Bass) are really full and bottom-heavy. The included drum kits cover a more-than-suitable range of styles. Although all of the samples in the percussion range are more than well-appointed (the Latin Perc kit in particular), the DistrtdKit and other fun stuff are ear-catching collections that could have multiple applications. Equally entertaining are some of the preprogrammed keyboard splits. For those who have yet to take advantage of splits, you may want to investigate the possibilities of having some Indian percussion along the bass end of the keyboard and a swarmandal-like sound on the top end. Specific combinations that feature two sounds per patch key (for example, a bass drum tied to a ride cymbal) are also possible.
In Multi mode, the Motif-Rack can go mulitimbral so that several parts can be played back at once via the different MIDI channels on your sequencer of choice. Access to the Multi mode is as easy as pressing the Multi button on the front panel. In the two banks that make up the Multi library (one dedicated to performance Multis and the other to presets), you can choose between 124 prefab options. The 59 included performance Multis use a mix of various complementary sounds across the keyboard; the other 65 are made up of canned 16-part collections. To get inside the Multis, the Motif-Rack is equipped with an onscreen mixer with virtual faders and knobs. From there, you can play or probe the preset Multis, change the individual output and effects of individual parts and save any changes into one of the 128 user banks.
Navigating through the patches with either the rotary dial or the Bank buttons is a simple-enough six-step affair. The unit even comes with a handy Compare function that allows users to A/B their tweaks against an original patch or a Multi. Voice editing of a preset is accomplished by selecting a particular voice, pressing the Edit button and then moving through the various parameters with the rotary dial and front-panel buttons. Effects edits happen in essentially the same manner, with only subtle differences between the tweaks for effects parameters tied to all parts and for those related to specific individual sounds. Although none of this is difficult to undertake, once you get further inside the guts of a sound or an effects setting, you may prefer to use the software editor supplied with the Motif-Rack.
DOWN TO SAMPLE LEVEL
In addition to editors specific to the assorted plug-in boards, Yamaha has bundled a Voice Editor and the SQ01 sequencer on the included CD-ROM. They're not very fancy applications, but they're incredibly useful: The ability to let you work at a distance from your Motif-Rack alone can't be overstated.
When the Editor is initially launched, it takes a bulk dump from the Motif-Rack of existing presets. From there, a tabbed view of all of the voices can be seen. Double-clicking on a voice opens up an Edit window that allows you to visually adjust any of the associated parameters in a fairly straightforward fashion. In the Amp/Filter section, a collection of 12 knobs exists to tweak the ADSR, as well as the cutoff/resonance (Filter) and volume/pan (Amp). Most intriguing, of course, is the ability to open specific voice elements and experiment with switching out specific waveforms and their associated velocity limits. There, you can also use the mouse to draw in changes to the individual filters, EQs and pitch/filter/amplitude envelope generators. Both the insertion and system effects parameters can also be fine-tuned to minute levels.
It's not apparent, though, whether users can make note-specific changes to the excellent Motif-Rack Arpeggio function (which features arpeggio MIDI output for single voices and Multis, four separate playback categories and arpeggio on/off settings when used with an external sequencer). From inside the Voice Editor, users can change, among other options, bpm, note and velocity limits (high and low) and key modes. The addition of a way to graphically shift the notes within an arpeggio preset (à la the Roland MC-909, for example) would be a welcome add-on to this otherwise perfectly suitable editor.
Voices can be dragged in any order you please once you complete your editing tasks. For Cakewalk Sonar 2.0 and Sonic Foundry Acid 4.0 users, OPT (Open Plug-In Technology, which is based on the Microsoft Component Object Model, or COM) gives plug-in-like powers to the Motif-Rack editor — a handy and attractive feature, no doubt, for those oriented toward those products.
The SQ01 is a full-fledged multitrack MIDI/audio sequencer that comes complete with wave editing, looping functionality and a virtual MIDI mixer. Without going too deep into its features, just a cursory look seems to indicate that the integration between the SQ01 and the Motif-Rack is solid. (I noticed no dropouts or jitters when playing with multiple audio tracks.)
Although not too easy on the wallet, the Motif-Rack currently runs less than $800 below the cost of the 61-key workstation version. I haven't laid hands on the full-blown model, but I can't imagine that the Motif-Rack is so lacking in terms of sheer functionality that computer-based musicians would hem and haw about which model to go with. Other rackmount synths might be more suited for specific tasks or styles, but with great sounds and a robust software interface, the Motif-Rack is a smart, well-rounded device that would make an enticing addition to any personal studio or professional rig.
MOTIF-RACK > $1,000
Pros: Superb sounds and effects. Tremendous flexibility. Well-integrated software packages.
Cons: Parameter adjustments without software editor can be time-consuming. Expensive.
Contact: tel. (714) 522-9011; Web www.yamahasynth.com