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Gear Corner: A Brief Moment of Appreciation for the Yamaha DX7

Posted on May 10 2018

What do artists like Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, Depeche Mode, Herbie Hancock, Michael Jackson, and Toto have in common? Well, besides all of them being legends, each of these esteemed acts have incorporated the Yamaha DX7 into their recordings.   When one thinks back on the 80’s (nearly 40 years ago!), it may seem like a primitive time. But the 80’s represented a time of great innovation, as digital processing and instrumentation saw its way into the hands of music creators. Perhaps there is no better contender to be the “posterboy of digital synthesis” than the Yamaha DX7. Its black finish, and turquoise-green-blue buttons and switches make this synth easy to point out in any studio. Considering its history and esteem, you are indeed likely to see it any studio!

Introduced in 1983, the DX7 ran on digital frequency modulation synthesis, or, FM synthesis.  FM synthesis is a process that creates very complex sounding tones by modulating the frequency of a soundwave.  This allows the synthesizer to have very detailed transient information, making way for the percussive bell tones, and marimba sounds the DX7 is known for.  These digital tones have more clarity and sheen on them in comparison to analog synthesizers. By the early 80’s, Yamaha owned the patent for FM synthesis. While the company was not the first to implement this kind of synthesis, the DX7 pushed FM synthesis out into the mainstream as a sound to be desired.  Just think about the brass lead from “The Final Countdown” by Europe. We can thank the DX7 for such an unforgettable sound and melody.



What is most impressive to me about the DX7 is the popularity and usefulness of the stock patches that come with the board.  Programming this synth is not a light task to say the least. Due to the complexities and endless algorithms of FM synthesis, many users could not, and did not go under the hood to create their own patches.  This led to most users opting to play the sounds that already came with the keyboard. As someone who has used the DX7, my response to this is, why not? Just cycling through the stock patches can inspire any player to write a new tune, as this synth comes loaded with an insertable ROM cartridge with 32 sounds in it.  Each of these 32 sounds pack so much vibe, it is ridiculous. If you have listened to any bit of the glorious classic of a record that we know as Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, you have heard the stock patches of the DX7 all over these hits (the title track in particular). My personal favorite of the original stock patches is the brass patch. Brass sounds from 80’s synths never really sounded like brass instruments to me; just really warm pads that can take over the landscape of any track!

It goes without saying that the Yamaha DX7 has withstood the test of time.  As I am writing this, there are 7 for sale on Reverb, and 1 for sale on Guitar Center.  These instruments are still desired by musicians all across the world for their unmistakable 80’s flavor and vibe.  Spectrasonics’ Keyscape VST even has a few patches dedicated to the legendary Rhodes emulation that the DX7 is also known for. That’s right, an emulation of an emulation!  Arturia and Dexed have also created their own respective VST’s emulating and drawing inspiration from the DX7, all the way down to the black and turquoise-blue-green color scheme.  Stage pianos and keyboards like the Yamaha Motif include their own sounds that draw from the chorus-y DX7 Rhodes sound. Thankfully, the team here at Soul Surplus has access to the real deal DX7 hardware, and we recreated those true 80’s feels for producers with the 7XD sample pack.  Using the DX7 is a real joy, and there is innovation to be found in every key.

Check out our other Gear Corner posts as there is always new (and old gear) to get nerdy about. And don't forget to check out our latest sample pack, "The 7XD Pack", which features the Yamaha DX7.

- John Smythe


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