Yamaha Motif XS (Bonus)

Jim Aikin reviews the Yamaha Motif XS, a synthesizer workstation that incorporates sample-playback synthesis, user sampling, multitrack audio and MIDI sequencing, effects processing, and more.
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This online bonus material supplements the Yamaha Motif XS review in the January 2008 issue of Electronic Musician.

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FIG. A: The free, downloadable Motif XS Editor (Mac/Win) lets you edit setups and Voices and operates from within your digital audio sequencer.

Motif Presets

The Motif XS provides more than a thousand factory preset Voices (8 banks of 128 Voices each), as well as General MIDI sounds and 64 Drumkit presets. All of the user Voices (3 banks of 128 Voices each and 64 Drumkit Voices) are duplicates of the presets, so you can freely overwrite the user Voice memory without losing anything.

A number of guitar and bass presets exploit Yamaha''s Mega Voice technology. These presets map performance noises such as fretboard slides and pick chunk sounds to high-Velocity notes, making it possible to record more-realistic-sounding tracks. Many of the arpeggiator presets make use of the Mega Voices.

The Full Concert Grand preset is very satisfying to play, but perhaps a bit too smooth. It sounds compressed and lacks the sparkle of a dedicated electric grand. The Motif''s Expanded Articulation (XA) switching provides a key up sound at the end of each note. In normal-to-rapid playing, this system adds realism in a subtle but effective way. However, I happened to be trying out the Full Concert Grand by playing the first movement of Bach''s First French Suite, which begins with a very long note on the D below middle C. I found that when I reached the end of this note, the key release was much too loud, because the Motif lacks a controller routing that would lower the amplitude of a release layer based on the length of the note. If you''re planning to play long notes, choose a preset such as Rock Grand Piano, which is very similar to Full Concert Grand but has no key-release sound.

If you have a sustain or damper pedal that transmits half-pedal messages, you''ll find that some of the XS''s pianos respond to them. My Yamaha footswitch does indeed transmit the data, but I found it impossible to find the half-pedal sweet spot using my foot. I had to record and edit sequencer data to verify that the feature worked.

The Motif XS provides dozens of variations on the piano theme: acoustic, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, DX7 EP, CP-70 (one of my favorites), and numerous layered presets. Skip past the Clavinets, and you''ll find yourself in drawbar organ territory. The organs are excellent. Many of them use the Motif''s eight sliders as drawbars, though this feature is not implemented in any systematic way. A single slider may bring in two or three drawbars.

I''ve been using a lot of the Motif''s lead synth sounds in a sequencing project. I can generally find something that will work, but on the whole, they''re a bit bland. The solo violin and cello are—well, I''m a string player—let''s just say they''re way above average for a sample-playback synth. The solo sax and muted trumpet are very serviceable, though they work best when you avoid playing them legato. The dry Paul Desmond sax style will come across better than a smoothly connected Charlie Parker line.

The Computer Connection

The Motif XS can interface with your PC or Mac in several ways. It has two USB ports, one To Host and the other To Device. The latter is for an external hard drive, and you can use the former to send MIDI data back and forth between the XS and a computer. You can then use MIDI for sequencing, for live performance, or to control DAW software.

You accomplish the latter hookup in the XS''s Remote Control mode. The keyboard will still be active, but the front-panel knobs, sliders, and buttons will function much the way other remote devices, such as a Mackie Control, operate. The XS ships with a free copy of Steinberg Cubase AI 4 (Mac/Win).

To go the other direction, you can run Yamaha''s Studio Manager software and the separate editor-librarian software (Mac/Win). When installed, this combination allows the Motif XS Editor to operate inside your computer''s sequencer (see Fig. A). When you load a song into the sequencer, only a few clicks are needed to get the Motif ready to play back your current MIDI sequence with the correct Voices and mix. The Editor supports full Voice editing.

The XS has an Ethernet port, which allows you to connect it to an Ethernet router. The instrument''s file utilities can then access a public folder on a computer hard drive when the computer is connected to the same router. This provides a handy way to back up your Motif files, and also a direct way to transfer audio files into the Motif''s sample RAM. Logging on to the computer every time is a bit of a chore; I couldn''t figure out how to get the Motif to store the name of my computer and my user name, so I had to enter them every time using the Motif''s somewhat cumbersome alphanumeric data-entry setup.

The mLAN board (which is optional on the XS6 and XS7, and included in the XS8) connects to your computer via FireWire. It provides eight bidirectional MIDI buses and three stereo audio buses. In mLAN mode, you can transfer audio from the XS directly to your recording software in real time, and you can also use the XS as a low-latency ASIO output device for your computer. The nice thing about this setup is that it just works. The only issues I encountered happened because I had three FireWire devices connected to one PCI board, and the board could see only two of them at a time. But that was a problem with my computer, not with the Motif or the mLAN.