Upgrade with new (and old) synthesis technologies.
In past years, Yamaha has offered many ways to synthesize sound and music. In the '80s, it introduced FM synthesis to the masses with the DX family of products, and in the '90s, Yamaha unveiled expressive physical modeling of horns and strings with the VL1. Yamaha also gave us the analog-modeling AN1x, along with a host of sample-based devices.
All these technologies are now available on circuit boards not much larger than a 3-by-5-inch index card. Up to two of these modular-synthesis plug-in cards can be installed in the Yamaha CS6x, CS6R, and S80 synthesizers. Some work in the MU128 sound module and SW1000XG sound card, but they operate slightly differently in these older products. In this review, I'll cover the cards as they apply to the Yamaha CS6x.
Yamaha sent me five plug-in cards: the PLG150-AN provides analog-modeling synthesis, the PLG150-VL contains a virtual acoustic-synthesis engine, and the PLG150-DX offers the FM-based power of a Yamaha DX7 synth. The remaining two cards are sample based: the PLG150-PF is for piano sounds, and the PLG100-XG brings XG compatibility to the CS6x. (XG is Yamaha's superset of the General MIDI specification.)
PLUG IT INAlthough installing these cards in the CS6x is easy, removing them is hard. You remove eight screws from the bottom of the unit, plug in a wiring harness, and clip the board into place. In addition, the tiny locking tabs on the wiring harnesses make it very difficult to unplug the boards once they're installed. This arrangement doesn't allow quick and easy board swapping, so pick your two favorite boards and leave them there. Some sort of easily swapped cartridge system would be much better.
Except for the PLG100-XG, all the boards are single-Part boards. (In Yamaha-speak, a Part plays a single program, or Voice, on one MIDI channel. A collection of Parts makes up a Performance.) In other words, these boards can play only one sound at a time. After installation, you can use the sounds on it from the PLG1 or PLG2's memory areas. Again, the XG board behaves differently, but I'll get to that later.
To play a single program from the first plug-in card, put the CS6x in Voice mode, select the PLG1 memory area, choose the program you want, and play away. The CS6x has dedicated real-time controller knobs for commonly used parameters such as panning, filter cutoff, and the strength of the amplitude envelope generator. All of these work as you'd expect on the plug-in Voices, provided the parameter is relevant to the card's underlying synthesis technology.
Editing the plug-in Voices is equally straightforward. You put the CS6x into Voice Edit mode and then change the settings just as you would for a Voice on the CS6x. Parameters not shared with the CS6x Voice architecture appear on separate plug-in pages within the Voice Edit screens. The CS6x has 128 memory locations for user-edited plug-in Voices (64 for each board). Yamaha calls these the Plug-In memory banks, and you can select these from the CS6x or with MIDI Bank Select messages (the same way you select from the banks of sounds built into the plug-in cards).
In Performance mode, one Voice from each plug-in can appear among the other CS6x Voices for multitimbral operation. The plug-in's volume, pan, and other Performance settings seamlessly integrate with those for the native CS6x Voices. If a plug-in board has system-level parameters (that is, parameters that apply to all the Voices on the board), these appear on separate pages among the CS6x Utility screens.
SOFT GOODSEach plug-in board comes with Windows-based editing software that can be accessed from Yamaha's XGWorks or XGWorks Lite sequencers. (XGWorks Lite comes with the CS6x.) More extensive for some boards than for others, the software lets you make basic edits to a single Voice. You can also save the edited Voice data to disk or paste the system exclusive data into an XGWorks sequence.
While a nice bonus, the editing software shouldn't come as XGWorks plug-ins. I already have a favorite sequencer, but I had to run XGWorks to edit plug-in Voices. The editors would be better if they were stand-alone programs.
Along with the cards, Yamaha provides Standard MIDI Files as System Exclusive dumps. You can use XGWorks to send the dumps to your synth. Once played, the new sounds appear in the CS6x Plug-in memory banks.
WONDERFUL WINDSThe PLG150-VL provides a monophonic, physical-modeling synthesizer useful for highly expressive lead instrument sounds. This card uses Yamaha's Virtual Acoustic Synthesis architecture, which is particularly well suited for woodwind and brass sounds.
The PLG150-VL has the same Voice architecture as the VL70-m tone module, using only one Element per Voice. An Element is roughly equivalent to an oscillator and its routing through the synthesis engine. As with oscillators, if more Elements per Voice are available, the sound can be fatter or richer. I own a Yamaha VL1-m, which uses two Elements per Voice; by comparison, the single-Element PLG150-VL sounds a little thin.
Nonetheless, good sounds are plentiful. The board boasts excellent saxes, lots of expressive bass programs, and good lead sounds reminiscent of analog synths. In all, you get 390 VL Voices; 128 are preconfigured for use with a Yamaha BC-3 breath controller or a wind controller such as Yamaha's WX5.
The plug-in ships with VL Visual Editor (see Fig. 1), which lets you create or edit VL Voices from within XGWorks. Using this software, you can match a driver (for example, a reed or bow) with a particular pipe shape or string. You can tweak other parameters, and the edited Voice can be stored in one of the six available slots in the PLG150-VL's Custom bank. Unfortunately, the contents of the Custom bank are erased when you turn the power off, but you can save the bank to a CS6x memory card. The Voices will automatically load upon power-up if the file is named according to the instructions in the owner's manual.
VL Visual Editor dramatically simplifies the complex process of creating a Virtual Acoustic Voice from scratch. If you just want to make some changes to an existing Voice, you can do that from the CS6x Voice Edit screens. You can't create entirely new Elements here, but you can make radical changes to the sound. The Voice Edit screens include all sorts of wind-related parameters, such as Embouchure, Growl, and Throat Formant. If you need to dig a little deeper into the architecture, you can download Yamaha's VL Expert Editor.
PURELY PIANOThe PLG150-PF features all sorts of acoustic, electric, and electronic piano sounds. In addition, the card has its own EQ, reverb, chorus, and insertion effects. The effects enhance the card's sounds without monopolizing the processing capabilities of the host device.
I like the variety of pianos on this card; it has some really nice Rhodes and Wurlitzer specimens. I'm a fan of old Genesis, so the CP electric grand piano programs are among my favorites. The PLG150-PF has plenty of FM-sounding electronic pianos from the DX7 era, some nice pads, and lots of electric pianos that were sampled with effects, including phase shift, flange, chorus, tremolo, and wah-wah.
Interestingly, the acoustic pianos lack the clarity and realism I've heard in other sampled pianos. What's more, the sustain and decay just didn't feel right when I played these sounds. Nevertheless, I usually achieved good results by tweaking the EQ or envelope settings a bit.
The PLG150-PF ships with PF Easy Editor (see Fig. 2). This software allows you to tweak the onboard EQ, pitch- and amplitude-envelope, vibrato, and filter settings. More extensive editing is possible from the CS6x Voice Edit screen; for example, you can change the effects settings and the relative levels of the individual Voice Elements.
SINFUL SYNTHSThe PLG150-AN uses Yamaha's AN1x analog-modeling synthesis engine to create all sorts of sounds from the world of analog synthesizers. The card comes with 256 Voices, 5-note polyphony, an arpeggiator (which is completely separate from the one in the CS6x), a 16-note step sequencer, and a host of other goodies.
A complete description of this synthesis architecture would fill an entire review on its own. (In fact, it did; see the Yamaha AN1x review in the January 1998 issue of EM.) Suffice it to say that there is plenty of sound-making potential here. The four Free EGs (envelope generators) let you draw any envelope shape imaginable and apply it to nearly any synth parameter. A way-cool morphing feature also lets you use Aftertouch or MIDI Control Change messages (1 to 95) to gradually shift from the parameters of one Voice to the parameters of another.
The board includes a wide variety of synth programs. While running through the presets, I found mellow Moog sounds (think Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Lucky Man"), punchy brass, and raunchy leads. There are plenty of synth basses, lots of great special effects, sequenced techno riffs, filter sweeps, strings, and pads. While the PLG150-AN sports analog percussion sounds, it's most useful for its lead sounds. Despite some nice pads, the 5-note polyphony is a little restrictive. (The AN1x has 10-note polyphony.)
You can edit a number of parameters using the CS6x Voice Edit screens, but for most Voice-editing tasks, you'll certainly want to fire up one of the two XGWorks-based editors that come with the card. AN Expert Editor (see Fig. 3) provides graphical access to all of the card's features, including the step sequencer and Free EG curves. Yamaha also bundles AN Easy Editor, which has keyboard shortcuts for most of the controls but offers fewer editing parameters than Expert Editor.
These editors can store your changes in the PLG150-AN's User bank. You lose your changes when you turn the power off, but you can save the User bank to a memory card on the synth, and both editors let you save sounds to disk. As with the PLG150-VL, you can make a memory card's sounds automatically load upon power-up.
DELIGHTFUL DXThe PLG150-DX is a 6-operator FM-synthesis engine with 16-note polyphony. In short, it's like having a DX7 on a card. The plug-in card contains 912 preset Voices and accepts additional voices over MIDI from other DX-series instruments or from your favorite DX editor. The card also has onboard EQ and filters. Even though the original FM synths didn't employ filters, you can route your FM Voice through a lowpass or highpass filter, which you can tweak on the fly with a CS6x knob or with Control Change messages. However, the filter is not a part of the synth architecture; you can't, for example, control filter cutoff frequency with an envelope generator.
The PLG150-DX board was one of the last boards I installed in the CS6x. I figured the DX board would be old news; after all, the original DX7 was shipping back in the early '80s (when MIDI itself was still a new idea). I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the card's sound; I had forgotten just how expressive FM can be. Even with today's sample-based wonders, nothing sounds exactly like a DX7 electric piano, a funky FM clav, or a punchy FM brass sound.
Like the PLG150-AN, the DX board ships with two editors that you can launch from XGWorks. DX Simulator (see Fig. 4) is a full-fledged Voice editor that provides the look and feel of an original DX7. If DX Simulator is more than you want, DX Easy Editor gives you access to the most commonly edited settings.
EXCELLENT XGRounding out our deck of plug-in cards is the PLG100-XG, which provides a full XG (and by extension, GM) sound set for the CS6x, S80, and CS6R. It contains 480 instrument Voices and 12 drum kits, all with 32-note polyphony.
Unlike the single-Part cards described so far, this card offers 16-Part multitimbral operation. As a result, it behaves a little differently in the CS6x. In Voice mode, you see no new Voices available for use from the plug-in card.
Instead of providing Voices that you can use in the Parts of a Performance, this card simply adds 16 extra Parts to the CS6x. In Performance mode, you see Parts numbered 1 through 32. (The unexpanded CS6x offers Parts numbered 1 through 16.) Parts 17 through 32 belong to the PLG100-XG. You can choose Voices and edit these Parts, just as you would the native CS6x Parts. For more extensive editing, you can use XG Editor within XGWorks Lite (see Fig. 5).
SHUFFLE THE DECKEach of these cards offers a powerful upgrade to your existing rig. Easy to install and use, the cards come with printed documentation that tells you all you need to know. (Documentation for the accompanying software is provided only in online-help format.)
Working with so many different synthesis technologies on a single host synthesizer was a joy. It's good to know that there is indeed life beyond sample-based synthesis. If you own a synth that accepts these cards, fill those empty slots!