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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Yamaha AN1X

Analogue Physical Control Synth (Preview)


Reviews : Keyboard

This year's Frankfurt Musikmesse was virtually stuffed with digital synths in analogue clothing. MARTIN RUSS takes an exclusive first look at Yamaha's eagerly-awaited entry in the 'analogue for the '90s' stakes, the AN1x.

Unless you've been visiting a different universe recently, you may have noticed that, after a quiet period, things have hotted up in the synthesizer world. The Clavia Nord Lead woke people up to the idea that digital technology could sound remarkably analogue if it was cleverly programmed. Korg's Prophecy showed what a melding of digital physical modelling and a monophonic synthesizer could do for a performance instrument. More recently, Roland appear to have crafted an instant 'classic' with their digitally implemented, analogue modelling JP8000 polyphonic synth. But nothing stays fixed for long in the world these days, and Yamaha's newest release provides a bigger keyboard, more polyphony, more digital effects -- and a price tag which does not reflect it.

The AN1x is a polyphonic analogue synthesizer, but one that uses today's digital processing rather than 1970s operational amplifiers to produce its sounds. It also features a reworking of the user interface of the CS1x S+S Control Synthesizer (which we reviewed in SOS in August 1996), but with a few quirks fixed.



Yamaha call the AN1x an Analogue Physical Modelling Control Synthesizer, and it uses the same casing as the previous CS1x. I'm sure that there will be long discussions about the use of the phrase 'Physical Modelling', but in essence the AN1x employs a mathematical model of how analogue synthesis works to produce sounds. The details of the depth of implementation used in Yamaha's Virtual Analogue synthesis technology were not available when I was testing the AN1x, but for the forthcoming full review it should be possible to find out more about whether the mathematical model extends to analogue quirks, such as going out of tune at the top of the keyboard, losing one voice from the polyphony occasionally, and staying on pitch only whilst the external temperature is constant. I must say that the preview model didn't noticeably suffer from any of these.

"It sounds just like a polyphonic analogue synthesizer of old, except that there weren't many polys with quite the synthesizer architecture that the AN1x offers."

Although the AN1x re-uses the CS1x's case -- which, in turn, is often compared to that of the Nord Lead -- the user interface has been considerably refined. There are now eight front-panel control knobs, and these are assigned to seven pages of synthesizer parameter editing functions, plus one page that you can set up yourself. That's the equivalent of 64 knobs and switches. A couple of extra pages are used for the 16-step sequencer. The matrix of command functions has a rotary switch to select the row, with individual up and down increments to values controlled by the rocking switches. With the synth editing done by eight knobs, there's room for lots of control over what's happening -- user-recordable envelopes and MIDI Controllers for 'Vector'-style control, for example.



But how does it sound? It sounds just like a polyphonic analogue synthesizer of old, except that there weren't many polys with quite the synthesizer architecture that the AN1x offers. It is a twin oscillator, multi-mode filter design with separate pitch, filter and amplitude envelopes, as well as two LFOs. There's very little to criticise. It has that authentic warmth, a bass-rattling low end, smooth-rolling Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) and detunes, plus filters that do more than just filter bits out of the sound -- they whistle if the resonance is set too high, and go into oscillation smoothly and predictably. The knobs work as you would expect, and I quickly forgot that I was playing with a digital synth and tried all my old tricks: hitting a sub-self-oscillating filter with fast attacks and decays to a low sustain level, or using PWM, detune, vibrato and chorus to get a slightly thicker sound. Everything worked as expected.

And, also as expected, you get analogue sounds -- 128 memories-worth of them, in fact. In the past I have been guilty of describing the range of sounds you can get from analogue synths as something like lots of variations on 'Synth Brass', and there is some of that in the AN1x. But the way in which the instrument works allows some sounds which are well out of character too -- some very S+S-like in places. Happily, there is no sign whatsoever of any General MIDI compliance: no grand pianos, telephone rings, drum sounds or wave-sequencing. Instead there are cheesy organs, electric pianos, slushy synth string sections, power leads, smooth synth brass, killer resonant filter basses, moody bass drones, and bright and bouncy synth arpeggio sounds. There are clichés and close emulations aplenty, with a modern edge and without the hassle of analogue's warts.

"The AN1x has the sounds, the features, and the performance interface of the imaginary ideal polyphonic instrument that I dreamed about back in the '70s."

What you might not expect are the sync and frequency modulation controls, which, on analogue synths, allowed you to make all those tortured harmonic squeals and clangorous sounds -- except that, outside of modular synths, few analogue machines and even fewer polysynths allowed you to do FM, and even if you could, the VCOs were often not up to the demands of the job. And it was only on modular synths that you could apply feedback from the output of the VCA back to the VCF input, which can provide a very nice low-end thickness or less immediately useful 'motor-boating' effects. The AN1x allows you to do this.

Speaking of effects, Yamaha's four-block digital effects processor, with editable Modulation, EQ, Delay and Reverb blocks, is featured on the AN1x. In all, there are quite a few other details that mark this out as rather a powerful analogue synthesizer -- but this is only a preview. Suffice it to say that the AN1x is not the cut-down, single-oscillator polysynth of old.



Performance-wise, the AN1x has the classic Pitch and Mod wheels, with Yamaha's currently favoured wide, deeply ribbed design, plus a ribbon controller. Those eight knobs can act as additional controllers too. The ribbon controller is a dream, with horizontal and pressure outputs, so you can use it as another mod wheel by tapping it, or use it for joystick-style two-parameter control by pressing harder. It's great for controlling the multi-mode filter, sync and detune settings.

The icing on the cake is the keyboard, which does not suffer from the restricted range of 37-note monosynths, or the JP8000's 47 notes. Instead the AN1x's keyboard has a full 61 notes (five octaves) with aftertouch (attack pressure) sensitivity. The light and springy (collapsible rubber domes?) feel is very reminiscent of those big, heavy monsters of the '70s. You can run the AN1x in Unison mode (where it stacks all the available voices for a 'big' sound), Single mode (10-note polyphony) or Dual mode (5 + 5 notes playing two sounds at once). And don't forget that 10-note polyphony is actually markedly better than 8-note polyphony for playing four-note chords because it allows you to accidentally overlap chords without note stealing.



One of the neatest performance controllers has to be the two 'Scene' buttons, which are used to select either of two settings of the synthesizer parameters, as set by the control knobs and the modulation routing matrix. It's rather like having either of two separate sounds available for the price of one. But unexpectedly, when you choose both scenes and use the mod wheel, whereas the CS1x cross-faded between the two sounds, the AN1x attempts to morph from one sound to the other. This means that if you have two differently pitched VCOs in the two scenes, the synth glissandos between them. Some extreme settings don't work perfectly, but simple changes to filter settings can give some very nice evolving sounds which are great for adding an organic feel to arpeggios or sequences.

The step sequencer provides those fixed or transposed 16-step sequences that I bopped to back in the '70s, and the arpeggiator provides bang up-to-date animation of block chords, with contorted timings, swing and gate lengths to play with, to make the result less predictable than boring clocked quarter notes. Using an arpeggiator live is expected, whereas step sequencers usually need setting up beforehand and merely play back live. But with the AN1x's eight front-panel knobs it's possible to control the notes, velocity, gate time and a MIDI Controller for all 16 (or less!) steps as the sequence plays. The arpeggiated notes and the Controller information all appear at the MIDI Out socket.

Nothing's perfect. The preview AN1x that I saw in between the NAMM and Frankfurt music trade shows was nearly complete, but it lacked a full set of factory sounds and a demo sequence. Getting used to the matrix method of accessing functions takes a while, but at least you can see most of the available options -- I'm going off systems where page after page of parameters scroll across the display and I get completely lost because none of them are printed on the front panel anywhere. There were one or two bugs as well, but this was a late prototype, and every similar pre-release Yamaha I've seen has had everything I was concerned about fixed by the time time the real models hit the shops -- and of course I gave my bug-list and 'this-would-be-nice' additional feature list to Yamaha too!



As it turns out, I'm rather glad that I didn't buy a monophonic digital 'analogue' synthesizer for lead lines -- my Yamaha VL70m was a much better investment. The AN1x is much the same: it has the sounds, the features, and the performance interface of the imaginary ideal polyphonic instrument that I dreamed about back in the '70s -- and it costs less than a third of what it would have then, despite inflation. Much as I love my Sequential Pro One, the lure of polyphony, the sounds, user memories and a 5-octave pressure-sensitive keyboard is very strong indeed. The ultimate accolade for the AN1x has to be my 8-year-old daughter, who also had to be prised off it. If you thought the CS1x was good...

Published in SOS April 1997

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