Yamaha SY99

I used to run a couple of music studios over a decade ago with lots of music hardware packed in. This was back in the day when music software was just making its way out. For a long time I had mixed feelings about software synths and mixing gear; Pro Tools was, of course, great, but much of the offering in the turn of the millennium just wasn’t that good. To that end, you had to rely on hardware. At my last studio, I had more than twenty hardware synthesizers, with racks full of mixing gear.

Now I work on a laptop, and I gradually phased out all of my hardware except for one synthesizer. The fact is that you can now load a basic laptop with software that sounds exactly as good as a high end studio, perhaps barring some of the more vintage analog gear. But for basic sound design, recording and mixing, a laptop will go a long way.

That being said, hardware still makes sense for some occasions. For me, the biggest reason is character.

The only hardware synth I have left is not a street-credible Moog or a cool Arp rig. It’s a digital synthesizer from the early 1990’s: the Yamaha SY99. For me, this one piece of gear is easily the most significant piece of musical hardware I have ever owned.

To begin with, its the first synth I ever did own. I was fourteen when I got it. This means that when I was a kid, the first songs I wrote at home I did on this workstation. (I used to work at a local studio before that.)

But it’s not just nostalgia. The SY99 is in many ways quite a unique piece of work. First of all, it combines two distinct types of synthesis: Yamaha’s sample-based AWM and – what made Yamaha famous in the synth-world – an FM synthesizer upgraded from the good old DX7. But what is more, the instrument actually combines the two. That is to say, you can also use a sample-driven oscillator as an FM operator in sound design.

In addition to the choice of FM waveforms, and with the possibility to import your own samples (this in a synth from 1990!), the possibilities for sound design are endless. After all, even the most sophisticated sampling workstations of that time would let you work at best with envelopes and filters. With FM routing, the sky is the limit.

But most importantly, this instrument is a labor of love; a unique piece of work that collaborates with you to generate the sounds that you hear – and the sounds that you want to hear even when you didn’t know you did. (Check out the cool way the gradually shifting FM modulation works in the song below.) To this end it is no wonder that for the first three years of working with the synth, I practically never touched the presets.

I used to love music hardware. But in addition to the validity of modern music software, I believe in simplicity now. To that end, I don’t have that many soft synths either; rather I focus on the few that I really love and really can work with.

That being said, there is this one piece of hardware that I am doubtful I will ever part ways with.

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