Analog History Lesson: Yamaha
Mark Jenkins

   By Guest Contributor   Categories: Audio EquipmentRecording

So far we have not considered what was happening in the field of synthesizer design in Japan, where one of the biggest players was a company that predated all the American and British synth designers by more than half a century. Yamaha was founded in 1887, and built up a strong tradition of building pianos and reed organs, as well as diversifying into fields such as audio equipment, motor cycles, sports equipment and leisure facilities. This long-established corporate financial stability and product diversification, plus advance planning which can look as far as 15 or 20 years into the future, led to our very rarely hearing from the direction of Japan about anything like the business problems and financial failures that plagued the companies we’ve already examined.

Given this corporate strength, Yamaha was in a good position to capitalize on the success of Moog, starting with instruments to accompany its line of domestic electronic organs that had launched with the D1 in 1959. Yamaha’s earliest synthesizers dating from around 1971 were the SY1 and SY2, which offered preset sounds selected with organ-like tabs, some control over filtering and vibrato, a pressure-sensitive keyboard, and on the SY2 a high-pass filter and resonance control. Now rare, these were picked up by a few institutions like the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, though Yamaha had more widespread success with a striking line of portable organs, including the YC45D used by Pink Floyd, The Osmonds, Eric Clapton’s band (an example now owned by the author), Tangerine Dream, and most notably on albums like Persian Surgery Dervishes and Shri Camel by Terry Riley, who had his YC45D retuned to Just Intonation. The YC45D featured a long pitch bend strip, which worked only on some monophonic special effects sounds, but which was to emerge again to great effect on later Yamaha synthesizer designs.

The relative lack of interest in the SY1 and SY2 seemed to discourage Yamaha from going too deeply into the field of synthesizer design, so it was something of a surprise when in 1975 the company launched the massive GX1. This headed the company’s Electone organ series, but was in fact a massive polyphonic synthesizer. Weighing 387 kg and finished in striking white fibreglass, the GX1 had two 61-note polyphonic keyboards plus a 37-note mini-key monophonic top keyboard, a 25-note pedalboard and two large speaker columns, and despite a launch price of perhaps US $60 000, quickly sold to top artists such as Stevie Wonder, Abba, John Paul Jones with Led Zeppelin, Richard Wright with Pink Floyd, and less well-known figures like Juergen Fritz with Triumvirat and the late Rick Van Der Linden with Ekseption.

But the GX1’s greatest champion by far, in a move away from Moog instruments, was Keith Emerson, who introduced the instrument with a literal fanfare on Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s massively anticipated Works album. Despite some criticism of the album as a whole, Emerson’s GX1 playing on Fanfare for the Common Man and Pirates was groundbreaking; the instrument had keyboard touch sensitivity that could control filter response and vibrato speed as well as depth, while the mono keyboard turned out cutting, expressive lead lines. Emerson was filmed on tour with ELP in Canada playing complex lines that ran from one GX1 keyboard to another, with the modular Moog system now very much sidelined behind him, and a new keyboard legend was born.

Yamaha’s mighty GX1 with powered speakers.

Yamaha’s mighty GX1 with powered speakers.The GX1 could be reprogrammed only using a small programming box, and included a simple drum machine; only about 50 instruments were ever made, and some proved to be unreliable due to the huge amount of internal wiring. Keith Emerson eventually bought a second instrument from John Paul Jones when his first one became unreliable; since eight men were needed to lift it, the GX1 did not tour well. The benefits of the GX1’s huge development costs did, however, filter down very quickly to (slightly) more average users. Yamaha introduced the CS50, CS60 and CS80 in 1976 and 1977, and these offered many of the advantages of the GX1; all were polyphonic and pressure sensitive, each had highly controllable LFOs and ring modulators capable of helping create a wide range of unusual metallic sounds, as well as smoothly modulating strings and brass, and each had useful performance options including, on the CS60 and CS80, the pitch ribbon that had first appeared on the YC organ range.

Very much the star of this range, though, was the CS80, the instrument that gave so much effective opposition to the Polymoog from 1977. It offered 22 preset sounds, including strings, brass and ‘funk’ (a sort of synthesized clavinet), plus four programmable memories varied using sets of tiny sliders under a hinged panel. The CS80 played with eight-voice, two-layer polyphony, had highly expressive individual note

The CS60 and larger CS80 were developed from GX1 technology.

aftertouch, a luxurious weighted keyboard, and rather thin filters and oscillators but rich chorus, tremolo and ring modulator effects.Weighing 100 kg, and so rather susceptible to damage during transport despite being built into a flight case, the CS80 quickly found favor with bands such as 10CC and Genesis, with jazz players Herbie Hancock, David Sancious and Robin Lumley, and with progressive rockers Patrick Moraz, Eddie Jobson (very notably on albums from the progressive rock/jazz fusion band UK, such as Night After Night) and Peter Vetesse. But perhaps the greatest exponents of the CS80 have been Klaus Schulze, who frequently opened concerts with great clanging ring-modulated sounds bent by the pitch ribbon on the CS80 (something similar is on the CD, Track 58), and Vangelis, who has often declared it his favorite instrument of all time, and who has purchased at least six machines in case of reliability problems. His typical CS80 sounds, heard for instance on the Blade Runner movie soundtrack, are smooth synthetic brass textures, long bending swoops and, again, metallic ring-modulated effects.

Staff at London’s Argent’s store show off an Oberheim 8-Voice in front of Oberheim SEM, ARP 2500 and Yamaha CS80.

Patrick Moraz was an early champion of Oberheim synths, including the rare twin manual 12-voice in the centre here, with Yes and The Moody Blues. Also seen are grand piano, Yamaha CS80, Fender Rhodes piano, Micromoog, Minimoog, EMS Synthi As, clavinet, organ, ARP 2600, ARP Pro Soloist, Polymoog, twin manual Mellotron.

Vangelis favored Yamaha’s CS80 – but also played many other instruments, such as the Prophet 10, Emulator, Roland Pro Mars, Jupiter 4 and Vocoder Plus, and Minimoog.

Yamaha followed up the success of the CS80 with a range of much more affordable synthesizers: the CS10 and CS30/30L (1977/8) offered monophonic playing, one or two oscillators respectively, and an analog sequencer on the CS30; the CS5 of 1979 simplified these designs, offering a single oscillator; and the CS15/15D of the same year offered two oscillators again, the D model emphasizing preset sounds. While these instruments found plenty of users, such as Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, China Crisis, Human League and 808 State, Yamaha had decided not to follow the Moog design of making their keyboard range correspond to one volt per octave, preferring a logarithmic Hz/volt range, which made their instruments much more difficult to interface to other products; in addition, they usually had pitch bend sliders, but rarely overall modulation controls, so they were not as performance oriented as competing instruments from Moog or even ARP

Yamaha’s compact CS5 offered analog synthesis on a budget.

Yamaha were, however, more interested in offering faster programmability and more memories, as on the CS20M and CS40M (1979), the latter a rather large synthesizer that did at last introduce pitch and modulation wheels, but which was still monophonic. Apparently unable to easily surpass the polyphonic synth design of the CS80, Yamaha then decided to go in for a range of ensemble keyboards offering string, brass and organ sounds plus some polyphonic synthesizer abilities, which were very limited. The SK10, 15, 20 and 30, released between 1979 and 1981, have never become collectable; the SK50D ensemble of 1980 is of some interest only because it has a huge and impressive-looking doublekeyboard design. Yamaha seemed rather to have lost their way when, in 1981, they released the CS70M, an attempt to recapture the success of the CS80 with dual six-voice polyphonic ability, added memories, polyphonic sequencer and an envelope to control LFO speed, but the styling came straight from the rather domestic-looking SK range and the programming method involved using fiddly magnetic strips; the CS70M was not a great success.

Surprisingly, that’s the end of Yamaha’s early analog history, apart from the release in 1982 and revision in 1984 of the tiny CS01, a minikey portable monophonic synth for entry-level users featuring a digital oscillator and breath controller input, though a surprisingly pleasing resonant filter and white noise. That’s because the company’s next launches in 1982 were the GS1 and GS2, huge and expensive baby grand piano-like instruments with a completely concealed sound generation system that turned out to be the first appearance of digital FM synthesis. The release of FM, as many keyboardists will already appreciate, marked the end of the first phase of interest in analog synthesis. Yamaha’s small CE20 and

The huge Yamaha SK50D combined synthesizer and organ technology.

CE25 ‘Combo Ensemble’keyboards released the same year also concealed the details of this patented system fairly well, but in 1983 Yamaha showed the groundbreaking DX7 programmable digital FM synthesizer and the smaller DX9, and the full implications of the system became clear. FM sounds were more clinical, more precise and in some ways more realistic than analog, and after perhaps 15 years of increasing familiarity with analog sounds, a change seemed like a very good idea at the time.

Yamaha showed the huge DX1 FM synthesizer in 1984, then a rackmount set of modules, the TX816; a desktop module, the TX7; a powerful professional synthesizer in the DX5, effectively two DX7s layered together; and then further small entry-level instruments such as the DX21, DX27 and miniature key DX100. Attempts were made to program some of these instruments to imitate analog effects, but these were never very successful, and it was to be several years more before Yamaha had any further involvement with analog synthesis of any kind.

Excerpt from Analog Synthesizers by Mark Jenkins.

About the Author

Mark Jenkins is a writer for Melody Maker, Keyboard, and Music Week; a musician performing in the UK, USA, France, Holland, Germany, Brazil, and China at venues including the Royal Festival Hall, London Planetarium, and National Theatre of Brazil; and author of  iPad Music and Analog Synthesizers (Focal Press).


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