Hands On Review: Yamaha MOTIF XS Series
Workstations for the next generation
By Oscar Sommers
Yamaha MOTIF XS Series
I hate reviewing synths, keyboards, and workstations. Especially the good ones. "Why," you ask, "do you hate writing these reviews? And why do you single out the good ones as being especially awful?" Because when a keyboard is good—really, really good—like the new MOTIF XS workstations from Yamaha, describing each layer of synth sound-engine sexiness, outrageously easy sequencer goodness, and feels-like-home playability is nearly impossible. So consider this fair warning, readers: whatever I say about the MOTIF XS during this review, it’s actually much, much better. No fooling.
If you’re Yamaha and responsible for one of the all-time classic workstations of our generation—a keyboard just as capable onstage as it is in the studio—how do you top it? You dive into the core features musicians consistently rave about and aim for an even more advanced level of performance. You take the celebrated MOTIF sound engine and make it even better with more spectacular voices and studio-quality Vintage Circuit Modeling effects processing. You use your long history of audio sequencing excellence to make song creation and recording more flexible, more powerful and—at the same time—easier. Then you use the expertise of the software engineers at sister company Steinberg to make the MOTIF so tightly integrated with Cubase it’s scary (like a roller coaster, not an IRS audit). On top of that, the XS series workstations have a bigger, full-color LCD screen, an improved layout, and a powerhouse file system that makes it easy to network your MOTIF and access external file storage.
Sounds like a winner
When Yamaha upgraded the MOTIF sound engine for the ES series, they doubled the wave ROM. For the XS they’ve done it again, cranking it up to a whopping 355MB! This huge amount of ROM adds extra dimensions of response to voices for more expressive control and levels of nuance. Taking advantage of the bigger ROM is a new tone generation system called Xpanded Articulation (XA). A voice in the MOTIF XS is made of eight sonic elements, enabling layers of realistic, natural-sounding expression for XA-enabled voices.
With piano voices you get spine-tingling realism like real grand-piano-style note bloom, soundboard resonance, half-damper pedal positions, and key-off samples. For electric bass you can switch playing position from neck to middle to bridge for more punch or subtlety in your bass sound. Saxophone voices get legato and more breath control. In short, XA gives voices and performances a big scoop of extra mojo. There are lots more new voices to play with too. The electric piano patch called Crunchy Comp may be the perfect EP sound. It’s the successor to the Crunchy EP voice found on the ES series with some VCM compression magic mixed in.
The extremely hip VCM effects processing embedded in the MOTIF XS gives you even more sonic power. Vintage Circuit Modeling is the result of a group of Yamaha engineers led by the legendary Toshi Kunimoto who took the time to model every circuit in a bunch of treasured and revered signal processors. You get wah, flanger, compression, phaser, EQ, reverb, and a classic band-pass-style vocoder for use anywhere, anytime on your MOTIF, and you can use multiple instances of each.
Exhilarating and inspiring
Not only is the XS loaded with oodles of great voices and effects, it’s also chock full of inspiring Performances. For the uninitiated, Performances are groupings of four separate arpeggios with each arpeggio representing a separate musical sequence such as a drum track, bass line, synth pad, etc. When you select a Performance and trigger the arpeggios, you’ve got an instant foundation for inspiration. If you’re looking for a spark, the XS is THE place to start, mainly because Yamaha’s Performances rule. There are loads of Performances for each genre and sub-genre of modern music, especially electronic and hip-hop-based music.
What makes Performances even better is that each one is customizable. You have realtime control over each arpeggio and can substitute your own parts based on the existing arpeggio or add something completely new. Intelligent chord recognition lets you change a progression without reprogramming. And once your inspiration is flowing and the music is rolling, sliding into recording mode is seamless and simple. Hit record on the sequencer transport section and then hit play. A tempo-synced click leads you in and you’re recording. The sequencer captures every aspect of your playing and the voices—even the effects. The Integrated Sampling Sequencer (with optional gig of RAM) will let you load sample libraries and add vocals and guitars right into your XS sequences.
Transferring ideas over to your computer for more production or editing is easy too. Yamaha and Steinberg worked to bring accurate, responsive, and automatic integration of the XS and Cubase. They did it with Cubase AI: a special version of Cubase 4 that ships with the MOTIF XS. You can edit the voices and mix of the Performances and other songs you record on the MOTIF, as well as lay down more audio and MIDI tracks directly to your computer. It also lets you use the voices and effects from the MOTIF as plug-ins with Cubase AI. The XS ’boards also have a comprehensive array of connections aimed at the studio: remote footswitch jack, Ethernet, FireWire/mLAN (included on XS8, optional for XS6, XS7), USB 2.0, and S/PDIF. And now I’ve run out of room. So just remember—read everything I wrote, double it, and then go get a MOTIF XS. You can thank me later.
Features & Specs:
* 355MB wave ROM (16-bit linear format)
* AWM2 Xpanded Articulation (XA) tone generator
* Instant Performance recording
* 4 intelligent arpeggiators with chord recognition
* Updated interface
* Large color LCD screen
* 8 assignable knobs and sliders
* Dedicated sequencer controls
* 128-note polyphony
* 16-part multitimbral capacity
* 1,024 preset voices (64 drum kits)
* 128 GM presets (1 drum kit)
* 128 x 3 user presets
* Studio-style mixing environment
* Virtual Circuitry Modeling effects
* Integrated Sampling Sequencer (with optional memory)
* Computer recording integration with Cubase AI (included)
* XS6: 61 synth-action keys with initial/after touch, (FireWire option)
* XS7: 76 synth-action keys with initial/after touch (FireWire option)
* XS8: 88 graded-hammer action keys, integrated FireWire