12 December 2009

Yamaha DX-7

Introducing The DX7

Originally introduced in 1983, the Yamaha DX7 is a classic amongst digital synthesizers. The DX7 is capable of 16 voice polyphony, with 32 spaces for different voices, and features a membrane type control panel - the kind you may remember from Speak & Spell; in other words, its age shows. Yet the DX7 was wildly popular, with estimates in the region of 160,000 sold between 1983 and 1987, and while it's possible you may not have heard of the DX7 by name, it's virtually impossible for you not to have heard one.

Enya, for one, is fond of the DX7's sound. It's particularly good at synthesizing a bell-like sound, which Enya has seized upon for more than one song: The actual track The Celts features it heavily, as does Book Of Days. Other artists with a penchant for the DX7 tubular bells include Tim Cappello, whose DX-laden rock hit I Still Believe graced The Lost Boys soundtrack. Not that the DX7 is only good for tubular bell sounds. a-Ha, Heaven 17 and Jean-Michel Jarre have all dabbled with the DX7 at one time or another, wrenching powerfulbrass sounds, deep orchestral strings or that brighter, less-analogue synth bass sound. And how can one forget Brian Eno? Surely not.

"So many processings and reprocessings - it's a bit like making soup from the leftovers of the day before, which in turn was made from leftovers..."

- all about creating Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks with a DX7.

Digital Synthesis and Frequency Modulation

In a world of analogue synths, the DX7 was something new. Used to twiddling knobs, if not patching things from here to there with lengths of cable, the world of digital synthesis was new, exciting and surprisingly popular. In fact, the DX7 was a paradigm shift: the first truly digital synthesiser.

More specifically, the DX7 used a type of synthesis known as frequency modulation (FM), developed a decade earlier at Stanford University by a Professor John Chowning. In FM synthesis sounds are created by interacting units, little building blocks of sound, which can act as 'carriers' or 'modulators'. Each unit, known as an operator, is a sine wave, which is shaped and pitched according to the programmer's wishes. When linked together and made to interact, one operator modulates another to produce a new, varying pitch and tone.

It is the arrangement of these operators and how they are allowed to interact that determines the final sound. Each voice produced by the DX7 was based on the interactions of six operators which could be interacted in 32 different ways - Yamaha called these algorithms. To further increase the complex synthesis abilities of the DX7, a range of other effects could be added, and an envelope could be manipulated for each operator, allowing it to fade in, fade out, be sustained and so on.

This complexity was daunting to many musicians, and a niche industry quickly arose: DX7 programmers were in high demand, and the ability of the DX7 to accept memory cartridges with pre-programmed sounds was rapidly exploited both by Yamaha and by third-party synth-programmers.

Getting Physical

The original DX7 is a behemoth of an instrument. With a metal case and sturdy keys, the DX7 is a hefty piece of kit. As previously mentioned, data input was undertaken using a membrane keypad, which stretched across the top-right portion of the instrument. To the left was a volume control and data input slider, just above a couple of standard wheels - one for pitch bend, one for modulation. Feedback to the user was provided through a miniscule LCD display: two lines, barely adequate to inform the performer what voice they were using, let alone provide display space for programming the machine. Yet programmers and musicians managed, and managed well, even though Yamaha declined to include lighting for the LCD.

Other Features

Although relatively new at the time of the DX7, Yamaha chose to include MIDI on the DX7, allowing it to communicate easily with other musical instruments through a standard interface. Sequential Circuits had already released their own MIDI synth, the Prophet 600, and Yamaha smartly jumped on board over a year before Roland. Yamaha's implementation was basic - crude, even - but at least it was there.

As well as the now-standard MIDI interface, Yamaha added their own breath controller, a little-used method of controlling the overall sound of the DX7 by breathing into a tube. The results were surprisingly good, allowing the performer to successfully emulate a woodwind or brass instrument. Breath control has not, however, caught on, despite it being a novel and well-implemented idea.

The Yamaha FS1R, intended as a successor to the DX7, is easily able to accept original DX7 parameters. This is backward compatibility rather than forward-thinking, but the effect is the same - the DX7, beloved of many, will continue to make its presence heard...

The Rest Of The DX Family

Yamaha's DX range did not consist solely of the DX7. Other notable models included:


Basically a double DX7 crammed into a wooden case with piano keys and a slightly easier programming interface.

Simply a rack-mounted version of the DX7.


Similar to the DX1 but at a more affordable price point.


The DX9 featured the same technology as the DX7 but used four operators and 8 algorithms. It maintained 16 note polyphony and came with the ability to load and save voices to an external cassette tape.

DX21, DX27 and DX100

These were the low-end versions of the DX range. Lacking key velocity and with only 8 note polyphony, all three machines were very similar, the differences mainly centering on portability.

DX11, TX81Z

Along with further waveforms, Yamaha also added multitimbrality to these instruments, providing the basis for their SY77 and SY99 range.


Desperate for multitimbrality but can't quite afford a bank of DX7s? Then the TX816 was for you: eight rack-mounted DX7 modules in one case.

Notable DX7 Users

An incomplete but informative list includes: Kraftwerk, Underworld, Orbital, BT, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Jan Hammer, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Scritti Politti, Depeche Mode, Front 242, U2, a-Ha, Enya, The Cure, Vangelis, Elton John, Queen, Yes, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Herbie Hancock


Vintage Synth
Yamaha Synthesizers History
Recording Studio Tips
Future Music
Yamaha DX7 Manual

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