History Of The Yamaha Synth

Yamaha has been making keyboard instruments since 1887 where they started with a reed organ. At the turn of the century, Yamaha began manufacturing acoustic pianos. As technology evolved, Yamaha began researching electronic musical instruments and in 1959, introduced the D-1 Electone home organ, the first electronic keyboard instrument. Fifteen years later, in 1974, Yamaha released the SY-1 synthesizer.

What sets Yamaha apart from other products in the music industry is their quality and sound. They’ve become known for creating well-made instruments and for this reason, the company has risen to be the #1 manufacturer of musical instruments in the world. This tradition of excellence continues with electronic musical instruments which are renowned for great sound and build quality. In order for them to get their sounds and sound quality to be cutting edge and innovative, they invest a great deal of research and development in sound design and have an international team of industry-leading professionals focused on crafting instruments that create remarkably expressive music. From amazingly realistic acoustic emulations to cutting-edge, synthesized sounds, Yamaha Synthesizers are chosen time and time again by musicians and producers in all genres across the globe.

First Synth On The Market: SY-1

Yamaha SY-1

The first synth they put on the market was the Yamaha SY-1 in 1974. It introduced a concept that’s still alive in Yamaha synthesizers to this today: expression. The SY-1 featured aftertouch which made it very expressive to play. It also featured a number of controls that let the player directly influence the sound from the keyboard. What made it work was that it was a preset analog synthesizer designed as a complementary piece to an electric piano or organ. Yamaha even created an organ with an SY-1 built in called the CSY-1.

With the enormous success of the SY-1, it was quickly followed by SY-2 in 1975. It was essentially the same synthesizer but with added filter and envelope controls for more expressiveness. The SY-2 was most famously used in the 1977 film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to communicate with the aliens in the film.

CS Series

Yamaha CS-80

With the success of the SY-1, Yamaha developed the CS series of keyboards which represented the first solid commitment by Yamaha to create groundbreaking analog synthesizers. The first generation (CS-80, CS-60 and CS-50) was well-represented by the flagship CS-80, regarded as one of the most revolutionary and sought-after synthesizers ever developed; has been considered one of the greatest analog synthesizers ever and is still sought after (a mint one today costs over $20,000!) Unlike most other synthesizers on the market, it featured polyphonic aftertouch, a weighted action, 2 oscillators per voice with super saw and a legendary ring modulator for exceptionally fat and rich sound. The CS-80 was famously used by Vangelis on “Blade Runner” and “Chariots of Fire”, by Toto on “Rosanna” and “Africa”, ELO, Daft Punk, Giorgio Moroder, Stevie Wonder, and countless other electronic artists from past and present.

The second generation of CS series (CS-5, CS-10, CS-15, CS-30 and CS-30L) was more affordable and featured updates in control, manufacturing and overall design. The third generation (CS-15M, CS-20M, CS-40M and CS-70M) featured wooden side panels and more preset memory along with an updated user interface.

There were three generations of the CS in the 70s:

  • First generation: CS-80, CS-60 and CS-50
  • Second generation: CS-5, CS-10, CS-15, CS-30 and CS-30L
  • Third generation: CS-15D, CS-20M, CS-40M and CS-70M

Polyphony was a big improvement for this series of keyboards. Below are some of the unique features each of these keyboards had at the time:

  • Single-oscillator mono (CS-5, CS-10 and CS-15D)
  • Dual-oscillator mono (CS-30/30L and CS-20M)
  • Dual-oscillator duophonic (CS-15, CS-40M)
  • 4 Voice single oscillator (CS-50)
  • 6 Voice dual oscillator (CS-70M)
  • 8 Voice single oscillator (CS-60)
  • 8 Voice dual oscillator (CS-80)

DX/TX series

Yamaha DX-7

The DX/TX series were exceptionally popular and were featured in many hit songs from the 80s. By far, the most popular model in the line was the DX7, one of the top three best-selling synthesizers in history. The DX/TX series featured a new type of synthesis called Frequency Modulation or “FM”. FM synthesis uses digital oscillators or Operators to create sound. Operators generate sine waves or waveforms with no harmonics, but the interaction between Operators produces harmonics. There are two types of Operators:

  • Carriers: Operators that are audible
  • Modulators: Operators that modulate the sound to create complex harmonic spectra.

The effects of FM synthesis are akin to a violinist bowing a note. The note that is sounded when the violinist plays can be thought of as the Carrier. The vibrato the violinist applies when the note is bowed is like the Modulator. If the violinist doesn’t bow and only applies vibrato, no notes are heard. With regard to FM synthesis, the Carrier is audible and the Modulator changes the timbre of the Carrier. The arrangement of the Operators is called an Algorithm, and different Algorithms or Operator arrangements produce different types of sounds.

Compared to their previous synthesizers, these focused on three key features: new sounds, memory, and expressiveness. The new FM Synthesizers produced sounds that had never been heard, had on-board preset and user memory for an instant recall of sounds, and were remarkably expressive in a way that had never been experienced.

The DX-7, arguably the most popular in the series, was revolutionary for three primary reasons:

  • Unique Sound and Expressiveness: The DX-7 was really the first synthesizer that responded dramatically to velocity. The sound would get louder and brighter, similar to a piano. The sound produced was also very different from any other previous synthesizers. Unique sound and expressiveness were the most captivating aspects of the DX-7.
  • Polyphony: The DX-7 was released in a time when monophonic synthesizers could cost up to $1000; 4-note polyphonic synthesizers could cost as much as $4000. The DX7 sold for $2000 and had 16-voice polyphony. This was a groundbreaking specification.
  • MIDI: The DX-7 released in 1983, the same year that MIDI was formally introduced at the 1983 NAMM show. MIDI revolutionized the entire music industry, and the DX-7 was at the forefront of this revolution.

At the time, The DX-7 sold more than any other synthesizer ever. Chances are if you listened to 80s pop music, you heard this line of synthesizers, whether it was Chicago with “Hard Habit to Break”; Whitney Houston with “The Greatest Love of All”; Kenny Loggins with “Danger Zone”; Berlin with “Take My Breath Away,”; or Mister Mister with “Broken Wings.”

The DX7 sounded unlike anything else on the market at that time. Unlike virtually every other synthesizer preceding it, the DX-7 responded to the player’s touch in a highly expressive manner that was absolutely mind-blowing when first experienced. The DX-7 featured the new MIDI protocol, had a new UI with touch membrane switches, and it was very affordable.

SY series

Yamaha SY-77

The SY series was (“re-“) introduced in late 1989 with the SY77. The flagship SY99 was released in 1991. FM synthesizers were very popular and became ubiquitous in 1980s pop music. As the decade came to an end, synthesizers were introduced that incorporated new technologies like PCM sampling, DSP processing and more advanced MIDI connectivity. The SY series was a unique synthesizer that addressed each of these advancements.

The SY77 featured a new type of synthesis called RCM (Realtime Convolution and Modulation) which combined a new type of FM synthesis called AFM (Advanced Frequency Modulation) with AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) sample-based synthesis. The result was an instrument capable of producing all the classic FM synthesizer sounds via AFM, much more realistic emulations of acoustic instruments via AWM and combinations of AFM and AWM that resulted in unique sounds unattainable in previous synthesizers. Furthermore, the SY77 had two effect processors that produced reverb and modulation effects, a floppy disk drive for saving and loading sounds, 32-voice polyphony and an onboard sequencer, making the SY77 one of the first workstations to be introduced. The success of the DX-7 resulted in increased competition, but the SY77 held its own against the other product entries and is regarded as a classic music production workhorse of the 90s. It’s impact has made it a synthesizer that was not only popular in its day but is continued to be used by the likes of Chick Corea, Toto, Skinny Puppy, David Bryan, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vangelis, and more.

VL series

Yamaha VL-1

At the 1994 NAMM show, the VL-1 synthesizer was introduced to the world! Unlike its predecessors, it featured a synthesis technology called “Virtual Acoustic” (“Self-Oscillating Virtual Acoustic Synthesis” to be precise). This unique method of synthesis used no samples or other types of previous synthesis technology. Virtual Acoustic Synthesis was developed from research conducted at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Musical Acoustics (CCRMA). The relationship between Yamaha and CCRMA goes back to the 1970s, when Dr. John Chowning conducted the first research on the FM synthesis technology found in the DX/TX series. In the 1980s, Chowning’s colleague, Dr. Julius Orion Smith, began research on computer-based physical modeling of musical instruments. This research became the genesis for development of the VL-1 by Toshifumi Kunimoto of Yamaha R&D. The duophonic VL-1, along with the rack mount VL-1m and lower-cost monophonic VL-7, excelled in emulations of woodwinds, brass instruments, strings and otherworldly synth lead sounds, thanks to the 32-bit high-resolution dual effects processor which insured exceptional fidelity.

The VL-1 was one of the first commercially available synthesizers based on physical modeling technology, but it was completely unique because of its modeling of wind, brass and string instruments. The best way to play the VL-1 was with the BC2 (and the later BC3A) Breath Controller.

MOTIF Series

Yamaha MOTIF 6

The MOTIF line began in 2001 with what was sometimes referred to as the MOTIF Classic. The MOTIF series was marketed as a “Music Production Synthesizer” which means each model had a powerful onboard sequencer. MOTIF introduced the Integrated Sampling Sequencer (ISS), which allowed the creation of audio loops and phrases to be integrated with MIDI tracks within the onboard sequencer and each subsequent model improved on this concept. Also introduced with MOTIF was an optional mLAN16e board, an IEEE1394 Firewire-based system that transmitted MIDI and audio with a single cable.

Yamaha MOTIF ES-6

The MOTIF ES was released in 2003. The design is similar to the MOTIF, but the wave ROM was doubled, new effects were added and Mega Voices were introduced. Mega Voices are special sounds that work in conjunction with the Arpeggiator and used to generate realistic strumming guitar sounds, bass lines and so on. The MOTIF ES also improved upon DAW remote connectivity for connection and integration with computer-based software like Cubase, Logic, Performer, Cakewalk and ProTools.

Yamaha MOTIF XS-6

MOTIF XS was released in 2007 and was a dramatic redesign with a larger color screen, double the wave ROM of the MOTIF ES, more hardware controls, improved DSP and DACs (digital to analog converters) and improvements in DAW remote capability. VST editors were also introduced with the MOTIF XS allowing the hardware to work within Cubase in a similar manner to virtual instruments. MOTIF XS Voices and Performances could now be edited, saved and recalled all within the Cubase project. MOTIF XS was the first Yamaha synthesizer programmed in Linux.

Yamaha MOTIF XF-6

In 2010, the MOTIF XF debuted. The design was essentially the same as the MOTIF XS, but the wave ROM was doubled again, new effects were added and fidelity improved with new DACs. Before the MOTIF XF, sample memory was added with volatile SIMM or DIMM memory and sample content needed to be reloaded with every power up. MOTIF XF added support for optional Flash Memory boards (FL512M and FL1024M), which allowed user sample content to be loaded, saved and retained between power cycles.

With great sound, inspirational content and robust connectivity, the MOTIF series became the go-to synthesizer workstation on the market and from 2001 to 2016, the MOTIF series was the top-selling synthesizer in the U.S. Many artists, including Stevie Wonder, Michael MacDonald, Chick Corea, Babyface, David Bryan, Alicia Keys, and Matt Johnson (Jamiroquai), have played and continue to play MOTIF series instruments.


Yamaha MONTAGE 8

After four series and 15 years of MOTIF, the Yamaha Synthesizer R&D team knew it was time for a new, completely revolutionary synthesizer. After years of research, the Yamaha team developed the MONTAGE, a synthesizer designed to:

  • Embrace unique Yamaha Synthesizer technologies
  • Expand those technologies in new and exciting ways with a modern user interface
  • Connect to modern tools like computers, mobile devices and the Internet
  • Honor the Yamaha tradition of build quality and design
  • Excel in expressiveness and sound quality

MONTAGE fulfills each of these ideals with great sound, expressive control and integrated workflow. It features two synthesis engines united by a sophisticated control interface called Motion Control. The two synthesis engines are based on technologies found in Yamaha synthesizers of the past with significant improvements:

  • AWM2: The AWM2 engine in MONTAGE features eight times the amount of wave ROM of its predecessor, the MOTIF XF
  • FM-X: The second engine in MONTAGE is a modernized FM Synthesis engine called FM-X with eight Operators, 88 Algorithms and real-time control options that go beyond any previous FM synthesizer. This control makes FM-X capable of classic FM sounds and modern textures suitable for today’s music.
  • DSP: The MONTAGE Music Synthesizer features state-of-the-art effects processing with HD reverbs, VCM (Virtual Circuitry Modeling) vintage effects, delays and modern effects including Beat Repeat, Spiralizer, Dynamic Ring Mod, Slicer and more. The DSP power in MONTAGE can produce a total of 32 simultaneous Insertion effects, plus two System effects, a Master effect and Master EQ.

The AWM2 and FM-X synth engines are united by Motion Control, a sophisticated, dynamic control interface. With Motion Control, a single physical controller can change multiple parameters simultaneously. The most visible control that achieves this is the Super Knob, an illuminated macro control. With Motion Control, a myriad of control assignments can happen simultaneously:

  • Fade in one sound while another fades out
  • Open simultaneous resonant filters in different ways
  • Directly control multiple FM-X parameters for dynamic real-time changes.
  • Control multiple effect parameters
  • Almost anything else you can think of!

Up to 128 simultaneous control assignments are possible. This level of real-time control is unprecedented!

A sampling of quotes from reviews:

“Just wow. In terms of sound quality and authenticity, across the board but especially with acoustic instruments, there are two other times in my life I’ve experienced this kind of saucer-eyed awe playing a hardware synth: when I bought my first Kurzweil K2000 in 1995, and when I got to spend an hour with a full-spec Synclavier around 1986. Overall, the Montage does so many things so well, and combines them in a way that’s not merely novel but musically inspiring, that it really amounts to a new category of synthesizer. While the industry ponders what to call that, we’ll call the Montage an obvious Key Buy winner.“—Stephen Fortner, Keyboard Magazine

“The sounds are fantastic. The Montage has two discreet synthesis engines, AWM2 and FM-X. The AWM2 engine is the latest version of Yamaha’s sample-driven synthesis and includes a 5.67GB library. That’s eight times the size of the Motif library, and it also allows 1.75GB for user samples. When you think in terms of computer libraries, that seems like a very small footprint, but in the world of hardware synths, that is huge, and allows for some of the best sounds available. The new CFX pianos are a prime example: truly beautiful and playable.”—Chris Neville, Downbeat

“I really like the way you guys have implemented this, and I think it simplifies the process of sound design to an enjoyable degree! I’m floored by how easy it is to add voices to a performance and I just love this new paradigm and I love the sound. You guys killed it with this. Killed it.”—Matt Vanacoro, AskAudio.com