Zoë Blade's notebook

Yamaha DX7

DX7 tech specs

The DX7 was an FM synthesiser made by Yamaha in 1983.

There were several variations of this synth. Prototypes, organs, and preset-only piano-styled stage keyboards aside, these included the DX7, DX1, and DX5. Out of these, the DX7 was the simplest, the comparatively cheapest, and by far the most popular.

All three models have six operators (oscillators and envelope generators) per voice. The DX7 has sixteen voices, while the DX1 and DX5 have thirty-two, by combining two sets of oscillator and envelope generator chips.

Yamaha DX7 envelope graph
Yamaha DX7 envelope graph

Further taking advantage of their digital nature, Yamaha gave these synths envelope generators that are much more versatile (and therefore harder to learn) than the conventional ADSR kind. They're more "attack, first decay, second decay, sustain, release"... although less prescriptive, as you can make subsequent levels higher than the first.

Yamaha DX7 keyboard level scaling graph
Yamaha DX7 keyboard level scaling graph

To make these synths even more versatile and complex, when it comes to using the pitch value to affect various parameters, this value can form a nonlinear curve, so instead of just forming a straight line on a graph, it can curve up or down either side of an arbitrary point.

FM synthesis is quite different to subtractive synthesis, more like an advanced version of additive synthesis. This means it can take a while to first wrap your head around it. But I think it has a somewhat unfair reputation for being very difficult to learn because, taking advantage of these synths being digital, Yamaha made the envelope generators and pitch tracking more versatile than anything else people were used to, so they had to learn three new things at once: FM synthesis, complex envelope generators, and nonlinear pitch tracking.

On top of that, in order to keep these mass produced synths anywhere near affordable, the user interfaces had to be cut down to menu diving nightmares, where you can only edit one parameter at a time. And on the DX7 and DX5, you can only see one parameter at a time, too.

It's not only useful that you can play all three over MIDI, it's essential that you can program them over MIDI too, preferably via an editor/librarian program on a home computer with a big, friendly screen that can show you everything at once. Making the DX7 respond to MIDI control change values, and all three models send and receive programs over MIDI, was impressively forward thinking considering that home computers with GUIs only became available the following year, let alone software for them that could edit synthesiser patches.

It's hardly surprising that most people stuck with the presets. As it's quite likely they would have done that anyway, even if given a more intuitive interface, the added versatility may well have been the wiser choice. The presets really do show off the abilities of FM synthesis. Compared to most of the analogue synthesisers that came before them, these three digital ones were much more playable: polyphonic, velocity-sensitive, and filled with really expressive preset sounds. They were real performance instruments for musicians who could play.

There's a reason the DX7 was a large part of the sound of the 1980s.

After tentatively trying out a cheaper version with four operators, the DX9, Yamaha then offered a whole series of 4-Op FM synths, starting with the DX21.

DX1

DX1 tech specs

The DX1 was essentially two DX7s with a more useful — and expensive — interface.

DX5

DX5 tech specs

The DX5 was essentially two DX7s without a more useful interface.

Quotes

DX7

The DX7 is my oldest and favourite synth. I have a set of sounds that I've programmed and that seem to work consistently.

— Rick Smith, Underworld, 2000[5]

Notable users

DX7

DX1

DX5

References

  1. "The Yamaha DX1 & Its Successors" Gordon Reid, Sound On Sound, Sep 2001
  2. "DX7 manual" Yamaha
  3. "Music Village" Music Village (Vendor), Music Technology, Nov 1986
  4. "DX5 manual" Yamaha
  5. "Underworld: The Making of Everything, Everything" Paul Tingen, Sound On Sound, Dec 2000
  6. "The Aphex Effect" Dave Robinson, Future Music, Apr 1993
  7. "Synths and Stuff" Danny Wolfers
  8. "Aphex Twin SYROBONKERS! Interview Part 2" Dave Noyze, 2014

Reviews

DX7

DX1

DX5

Retrospectives

Tips

Deep dives

Downloads

Documentation

FM synthesisers: Yamaha DX7 | Yamaha DX21 | Yamaha TX81Z