Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Original Yamaha DX7

There can be very few musicians who don’t instantly think of a particular sound, or even a particular track, when someone mentions the Yamaha DX7. With its record breaking sales stats, the DX7 synthesizer was inescapably ubiquitous in the recording industry during the mid to late 1980s. It was only monotimbral, and only had a 12-bit digital output, but in its day it was desirable beyond belief, and still stands as one of the greatest commercial triumphs in synthesizer history. It started the digital revolution, and its unprecedented success even took its own manufacturer by surprise. The Yamaha DX7 was an all-time keyboard classic, but its story didn’t start too well…

It took what seemed an eternity for the DX7s to get onto the market in force – at least, to the extent where you could actually see them on display in the UK shops. They’d actually gone into production around the end of 1982, but production was halted when a certain key oversight became all too apparent. Namely, the new digital marvel had no MIDI! 


MIDI was no big deal at ‘street level’ in 1982, but a NAMM trade show demo performed in January 1983 brought the impact of MIDI home to Yamaha with what must have been a considerable crash. Two synth models, communicating with each other via a digital interface, flipped the industry into OMG! mode. Worse still, both MIDI-fitted synths involved in the demo (a Prophet 600 and a Jupiter 6) were existing analogues whispering sweet ones and zeros to each other, while Yamaha’s fully digital DX7 couldn’t even join the conversation in its own language! Industry reactions to this new digital communication potential left Yamaha no real choice but to halt production of the DX7. Before it could be shipped, a MIDI facility would have to be integrated into the design.

Even after the resolution of this situation, very high demand meant that the DX7 was not immediately out on the music shop displays. In some places there were lead times of many months on DX orders. It was autumn ’83 before the instrument got any sort of concerted launch, and if my memory serves me rightly, it wasn’t until 1984 that I actually saw the first one in a shop – alongside a DX9. The DX9 was priced; the DX7 had a ‘sold’ ticket on it. Not even the major recording artists could get their hands on DX7s much before October 1983, and this meant that the arrival of the new synth was not reflected in the music charts to any great extent until the following year. The DX7 was released in 1983, but it couldn't really be considered readily available, or as having any significant role in commercial music, until 1984.

So why was everyone so desperate to get their hands on this new, fully digital synthesizer? Well firstly, this was a time in which no keyboardist really had a synth that could accurately synthesize a wide array of real instruments. Analogue synths could produce the basic tonalities, but not the finer nuances. The DX7’s frequency modulation system, however, was far more flexible than the traditional voltage controlled oscillators of an analogue synth. It could much better simulate the dissonance in brass sounds, the metallic impact of the hammer hits in electric piano sounds, the unusual harmonics present in a wood percussion strike or bell ring, etc. In most cases, the DX7 was not producing indistinguishable impersonations of real instruments, but it was much, much more convincing than previous synth generations could manage, and without the hindsight we have today, the DX7’s impersonations seemed as realistic as it was ever possible to get. 

Secondly, previous generations of synths had cost vast amounts of money. Multiple £thousands for a premium brand analogue polysynth. At less than £1,500, the DX7 was in remarkably low price territory for such a desirable, truly different product using a technology new to the synth world. True, FM synthesis in itself was not new, and had been around since the introduction of Yamaha’s GS1 in summer 1981. But earlier FM implementations had really been glorified pianos rather than synths, and in the case of the GS1, had cost a breathtaking amount of money. The DX7 was among the first extensively editable synths to use the FM tone generation system (all of them Yamaha DX models), and whilst it cost a lot of money, serious keyboardists were used to paying a heck of a lot more.

I didn’t get my own DX7 (one of the late Mk.1s) until 1986. I wasn’t really interested in synths as a teenager, and would not in any case have been in a position to buy an instrument costing in excess of a grand. By ’86, I’d seen plenty of DXs, and had heard them in use with live bands, but I’d never used one. In the April of that year, however, I’d gone into a local studio to record a demo. I was playing all the instruments except for drums, and for the keyboard parts I’d taken with me a modified Yamaha A55 organ (in combo form, with speaker section detached). A bit behind schedule, we were debating the easiest way to record the organ, when the engineer suggested I use the in-house DX7 instead. Their DX was permanently record-ready, and only needed switching on. To say I was sceptical was an understatement, but the guy assured me it had some nice electric organ sounds, so I gave it a go… I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed with a preset bank in my life. Needless to say I used the DX for the recording, and instantly wanted one. Without getting into a long, rambling story, to raise the cash I sold virtually all my other gear (including the Yamaha A55), and a few months later, I bought a brand new DX7.

Through the mid and latter 1980s, the DX7 drove popular music, shaping many albums, which stand as a testament to the importance of this piece of commercial dynamite. Some artists even regarded the DX7 not as a synth, but as an instrument in its own right. For example, a list of credits on an album sleeve might say: Dave Bloggs – drums, Pete Bloggs – Bass, Sharon Bloggs – DX7. That’s how different, and important, it was in its day. You weren’t the keyboard player, or the synth player – you were the DX7 player.

Sales were phenomenally high, and so far above Yamaha’s initial expectations that meeting demand must have been a nighmare. But Yamaha were serious players and didn’t let the opportunity for further success slip. Making hay while the sun shone, forward from ’85 they released a raft of DX synths to hit different price points, dropping the DX9 to make way for some of the new models. Just to clarify, the DX7 was a six-operator synth (operators could be regarded as interactive digital oscillators), whereas the cheaper DXs (including the DX9) had just four operators. The scope for sound creation was much more limited on a four-op DX, but the DX brand had become so powerful that young musicians just wanted to be involved, and didn’t really care that much about the technicalities. I myself would have gone for a lower end DX synth had it not been for that preset bank on the DX7 – which of course no four-op DXs could duplicate.

In summer 1986 – probably the height of the DX range’s reign – a Making Music best-sellers guide (based on dealer opinion) placed Yamaha DX synths in four of the top five slots. Their best seller was the DX21 (four ops with built in chorus - £649), second was the DX100 (basic four ops in mini keyboard size - £349), third was the DX27 (basic four ops with full-sized keys - £475), Roland’s Alpha Juno 2 (£799) was fourth, and the DX7 was fifth, by this time carrying an RRP of £1,349. All of the quoted prices were RRPs, and in general, shops did not advertise discounts on these figures for the DX range. They simply didn’t have to.

In late 1986 the DX7II arrived as an update to the original DX7, which was discontinued at that point. This created a period of crisis for owners of the Mk.1 DX7. Secondhand prices, which had held up very well until the updated model arrived, steadily started to drop, and it was quite agonising looking in the For Sale columns each week to see a DX7 seller setting a new low. Before the DX7II was released, I don’t think I ever saw a secondhand Mk.1 advertised at less than £950. If you could haggle with a vendor, you wouldn’t pay that much more for a new one than for used. But through 1987 secondhand prices dropped at the alarming rate of around £10 per fortnight. So in late ’87, just as the going rate was getting ready to slip into the six-hundreds, I knew it was time to decide whether or not I really did want to keep this keyboard. If I didn’t, the deadline for selling it was nigh.

I did think the original DX7 was a fantastic instrument. I sold it (at the start of ’88) for three reasons. 1) I’d concluded my duties performing as a keyboard player and gone back, for the foreseeable future, to being a singer/guitarist; 2) It’s very scary to think that a sum of more than £1,100, which you’ve sold almost everything to raise, will be worth next to nothing if you don’t pull out of your ‘investment’; and 3) It was hard to take the DX7 away from the characteristic tones which virtually everyone at that time was using. If you used a DX7, it was difficult to disassociate yourself from that mid to late ‘eighties sound you couldn’t switch on a radio without hearing.

I missed the DX7 after selling it, and in more recent times have consoled myself with Native Instruments' FM7 software, which very closely (some say exactly) replicates the original DX7 presets. But I'd like at some stage to replace the original DX7 I sold nearly fourteen years ago. It's not a priority, but if I suddenly found myself in possession of unlimited funds, there'd probably be one in my lounge within seven days.

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Posted by: Bob Leggitt