Earlier this year, Yamaha Music released a powerful new synthesizer line aimed at being a hybrid stage and studio instrument. Consider it a more accessible version of their flagship MONTAGE line. Yamaha has always nailed their workstation/hybrid full-size synths but does this one hold up? In this review, we'll be taking a look specifically at the MODX6, the smallest of the line. Everything written here carries over directly to the 7 and 8 versions.
What is it?
The MODX is many things all at once; An FM synthesizer and sample-based synthesizer with deep real-time control, a powerful keyboard controller and even a USB audio and MIDI interface. It contains many features perfect for use on the stage, such as saving sets of presets and single function buttons, but it also contains a powerful synthesis engine for you to explore and create incredible sounds. The X is extremely deep, but it's also quite accessible for those who aren't sound design-inclined. Being both an FM synth and a sampler, you can combine the two seamlessly, thus allowing you to create massive and complex sounds. Like other larger synths, you can also play multiple presets at once using different octaves. And of course, you can use it as a MIDI controller.
How does it work?
Like I said earlier, it's both an FM synth and sample-based synth, so the sonic possibilities are tremendous. The surface of the synth is covered in knobs, faders, buttons, and a massive touchscreen. It looks a bit intimidating, to be honest, but once you start working your way through the synth, it becomes friendlier and friendlier. Because it's a stage/studio hybrid, there are many different ways to use it, but for the sake of keeping this review from becoming a novel, we'll focus specifically on it being a studio instrument. If you're unfamiliar with FM synthesis, in short, it's a form of synthesis that uses Frequency Modulation to create complex sounds you can't get from traditional analog and subtractive synthesis. But that's for another day.
In terms of workflow, you work from what is called a "Performance", which is essentially the stage for all the various synth sounds you work with. Each Performance has up to 16 Parts, and Parts 1-8 can be played simultaneously as layers, splits, arpeggiated drum grooves and more. The additional Parts can function as separate synth Parts for use with a DAW. A single Part can be a complete synth voice like a synth pad, acoustic piano, synth lead, string section, drum kit and so on. Parts use the sample-based AWM2 engine or the pure synthesis FM-X engine. AWM2 Parts contain up to 8 Elements. If that doesn't make sense to you, consider an Element to be an oscillator on a traditional synth.
The difference is that, in this case, that Element can be a sample or synthesis. Each voice contains a filter, for which there are 18 different types, 9 LFOs; pitch, amp, and filter envelopes; A 3-band EQ and 2 insert FX. If that right there doesn't give you a hint at how complex you can get things, there's more. For the FM engine, there are 8 operators, 88 algorithms, and 7 waveforms. What's more, is that each voice is made up of 8 elements, which can be operators, samples, and oscillators etc.
One of the key features of the MODX, is what Yamaha calls Motion Control, which is essentially a very powerful real-time control system. For direct control, Yamaha added what they call the Super Knob a macro control source that controls the 8 assignable knobs. Also included in the Motion Control system is a Motion Sequencer for automated control. Think of it as a parameter sequencer controlling whatever is assigned to it. This all adds “Motion” to the sound. Up to 128 different parameters can be controlled simultaneously with Motion Control. Browsing for sounds and samples is fairly simple with the “Category Search” feature, and things are organized in an easy to follow method. When browsing for Performances, there are different categories, some a mix of everything, others labeled specifically, such as FM, Keyboards, Orchestra etc. You can also quickly select any of your own sounds with the Live Set feature which organizes Performances in groups of 16. There are Preset and User Live Sets
What do I think of it?
So, still with me? That's a lot to take in, I know. That's why they give you a decent sized user manual. But, while all of that could be way over your head like I said earlier, it's actually very accessible, and you can be up and running within minutes of your first time using it. I've gotten really into FM synthesis lately, so I was eager to get under the hood. It was definitely a case of the paradox of choice. Where to even start? Before I did anything too advanced, I had a few jam sessions on the X, and it was really enjoyable for having no knowledge. I always start new tracks with whatever new thing that comes into my studio, so once I found a sound I liked, I began to sculpt a track around it. From here, I did some exploring with the voices and was amazed by just how many things you could do to dial your sounds in. It took a bit to really get a good grasp on everything, but step by step I was able to find my way around and create something really cool. Admittedly, there are still so many areas of the synth I still have yet to fully understand, but that's not a negative thing.
Once I got my head around the basics, I found the synth to be enjoyable to use. Some of the sounds are a bit much, like some of the EDM arps they have put in the preset library. The synth has a very broad range of uses thanks to the FM synthesis and samples working together. Some of the textures in the sounds they pre-programmed are really impressive and show just how complex your sounds can be, which I thought was great. One thing that really surprised me was how light the unit was. It's not a small synth, even the smallest size, so I was expecting it to weigh quite a bit, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Should you buy one?
If you are looking for a "do it all" synth, and have a bit of money to spend, then I would say this is worth investigating. If you're a beginner, this may not be the best option for you right off the bat.
Overall I was rather impressed with the Yamaha MODX. I haven't had a chance to play a montage, so I can't compare the two, unfortunately, but from what I know about synths in general, this thing is a beast. The touchscreen is bright and clear, and easy to read, which is good when you're trying to learn your way around. It was definitely a challenge to try and take all the information in, but like I said earlier, going slow definitely helps.
Price: $1299 (MODX6) / $1499 (MODX7) / $1899 (MODX8)
Pros: huge sonic capabilities, well built, extremely in-depth
Cons: so many possibilities can be overwhelming for some people, especially beginners.
Final score: 8.5/10