What was the first Yamaha sound chip

Vintage Synth: Yamaha DX7

Digital FM synthesizer

The synthesizer that came, won and went again

Hardly any synthesizer has turned the world of electronic sound generation upside down like the Yamaha DX7 in 1983. Suddenly there was a machine that could actually do everything and more - and at a moderate price too. A machine that Yamaha touted as the third great invention of mankind in a famous advertising campaign after the wheel and electric light. A digital miracle machine that let many established manufacturers of analog synthesizers go bankrupt within a very short time. At the same time, the DX7 laid the foundation for the new era of digital synthesizers and workstations and thus the era in which many new synthesis methods were brought onto the market and tried out.

In the meantime, almost all of these synthesis methods have either been abandoned for reasons of age (LA synthesis) or they have migrated to the software sector. The DX7's FM synthesis lives on, though, never really recovering from its overwhelming success. While some of the manufacturers who were swept out of the market by Yamaha's digital revolution are now alive and well and can again boast with their comparatively simple subtractive analog synthesis, hardly anyone thinks of a DX7 when it comes to vintage synths. Recently, however, with the reface DX, Yamaha launched a new hardware synthesizer that is dedicated to the legacy of the DX7. Enough material to ask: So what is going on, or rather: What was actually going on back then and what has become of the numerically most successful synthesizer of all time?


It's the beginning of 1983 and the keyboard player has the choice: an analog synth, maybe 6 voices and with a few memory locations like the Memorymoog for 10,000 DM? Or a Yamaha CP70 with 140 kg for 15,000 DM, because you prefer to play the piano? Or a Mellotron, 12,000 DM with 24 sounds? But it also breaks quickly, the thing. Now a Fender Rhodes, an electric organ and a Solina String Ensemble, then at least the bread-and-butter sounds are already there. Of course, the instruments cannot communicate with each other, what is played is what comes on the table or whose keyboard you are currently standing in front of. A few other bells are ringing from afar, namely the digital sampler, but they are still at 100,000 DM, who should pay for that? And the computer: Well, it can beep, that's all. The first major Soundblaster card didn't come out until 1989.

Appearance Yamaha DX7. 16 voices, organ sounds, sugar-sweet e-piano and string sounds, bells, trumpets, cutting leads, fat basses, ethereal surfaces, envelopes over 10 minutes, sounds that are constantly changing and that can even play mini-sequences. In addition, the brand new MIDI, 32 memory spaces, additional 32 sounds to buy or to program yourself, simply plugged in in the form of a cartridge. Four (!) Pedal connections, an LC display, a good keyboard with velocity, aftertouch and even a wind transducer. Wow, a dream come true. The thing can do everything! What is that supposed to cost?

- "4000, - DM."
- "I beg your pardon?"
- "You can get all of this for four thousand marks."
- "Yes, uh, good. Then I'll take one. Or two."

A few years later, roughly half of all other electrical instrument makers were bankrupt, including the three legends Moog, ARP and Oberheim. That was of course not only due to Yamaha and also not only due to the DX7, in 1985 the first affordable samplers came out. It was simply because of the digital technology as a whole, which also opened up completely new possibilities in music and made the old technologies look rather old - as it always is when someone comes around the corner with something completely new. And Yamaha had put together the first affordable and practical overall package from this new technology, which explains the overwhelming market success of the DX7.

The Yamaha DX7 took the synthesizer world by storm.

FM synthesis

But before we go any further, we must first deal with the sound synthesis of the DX7. Shrouded in mystery, allegedly so difficult to program and at the same time not even what it says: the FM synthesis! Let's start from the back: First of all, it is actually not frequency modulation at all that takes place in the DX7, but phase modulation. The difference is negligible, so let's leave it with FM synthesis for the sake of simplicity. Hard to program? Well, the 8-line display and the membrane keys of the DX7 certainly did not help to make operation and programming easier. There is also a manual that is sometimes quite cryptic. And then of course there was something very strange: six sine oscillators, but no filter? And then so many different sounds? How should it work? The many articles and books that wanted to bring FM synthesis closer to those interested were mostly full of fractions and relationships and roots, so that one had the feeling that this was more about math, I'm too stupid for that. Even today, the Wikipedia pages on FM synthesis in German and English are fairly mathematically oriented. Therefore, here is an attempt to briefly show that it is not that difficult in practice.

Every synthesizer friend will have attached an LFO to an oscillator to create vibrato. In a broader sense, this is frequency modulation, because after all, the frequency of the oscillator is modulated with the LFO. If we now turn the LFO so high that it already emits a tone - this is the case from around 16-20 Hz, the so-called blurring limit - then we not only hear a vibrato, but it also slowly changes Sound. And if we turn up the LFO even further, the sound changes quite sharply. Voilà, FM synthesis in the narrower sense. In the case of the DX7, this is done classically using only sine oscillators. Why? Because it's the other way around here than with subtractive synthesis. While in subtractive synthesis a sound rich in overtones is quasi attenuated with a filter, in FM synthesis one goes from the sound with the lowest overtones - the sinus tone - to sounds rich in overtones. If you want less, you just attenuate the modulation a bit, which is why there is simply no need for a filter. The entire sound shaping takes place on the oscillator level.

Incidentally, if you are pondering about FM and AM on the radio: Yes, that's exactly the same, only with different frequencies. FM is extremely fast vibrato, AM is extremely fast tremolo.

But now butter with the fish! The next sound samples are intended to show how the FM synthesis of the Yamaha DX7 works and how it can be used to create a wide variety of timbres. Here you can hear the sound of a single unmodulated oscillator. It's very moving because it's just a sine tone.

Now we are modulating the first oscillator with a second, the so-called modulator. The modulator has a frequency of approx. 160 Hz and is faded in and out via an envelope curve.

You can hear very well how many more tones are created, not just above, but also below the original pitch.

The same thing again, now the modulator has a frequency of 5000 Hz:

Here you can first hear the low frequency of the first oscillator and then how the modulator slowly comes in with its high frequency and how the two frequencies combine. What you can also hear well is what you then call "crystalline" or something like that: an extraordinary clarity in the sound that sounds completely clean and "not as if made by human hands" - just like computer music in the 1980s Years ago.

All of this was only made possible by digital technology, which on the one hand made completely pure sine waves possible in the first place, but on the other hand is also absolutely stable in pitch. With analog oscillators there was and is always a bit of drift, which means that the oscillator's pitch always fluctuates slightly. In principle, this is not so bad with subtractive synthesis because it makes the sound livelier. With FM synthesis, a minimal fluctuation in the frequency can mean a radical change in the sound, which is why the principle could only be implemented with digital oscillators.

But back to our sound samples, because of course that was just the beginning: We only use two oscillators, one of which modulates the other. But the modulator can also be modulated, which of course leads to sounds that are even richer in overtones. And as it is: Once it is really rich in overtones, you are pretty close to the noise.

We hear a sine tone twice, which is immediately changed in the sound by a modulator with a longer attack. As soon as the first modulator is at 100% and the sound stands for a second, it is changed even by a second modulator with a direct attack and the result is an intoxicating "industrial sound". When the key is released, the original sine tone can be heard again in the release. You can tell something like a story with just three oscillators and their envelopes.

But that's not all, because so far we've only been using three oscillators. But we have three more! Now we insert two more for another sound and turn the envelope of the second modulator again.

We hear a sine tone that is slowly changing, the sudden onset of the newly inserted oscillators, then the fade-in of the second modulator and, in the release phase, the sine tone alone again. A single tone and six different phases: 1) Slow oscillation, 2) Stable tone, 3) Sudden onset of another tone, 4) Slow change in the first tone, 5) Stable tone, 6) Release with sinus tone.

Now you can already imagine what it sounds like when you set other envelopes. These can be set separately for both the original oscillator, called “Carrier” by Yamaha, and for all modulators, called “Modulators” by Yamaha. And because you have a total of six oscillators available, you can put them together differently: two carriers with two modulators each, one carrier with three modulators and two unmodulated oscillators, four carriers, two of which are modulated by one modulator each - and so on. With the DX7 you can choose from a total of 32 combinations of the six oscillators. Incidentally, these compilations are called “algorithms”. But carrier, modulator and algorithm aside: In principle, it is always a matter of converting the carrier's sine tone into a different sound with the help of a modulator.

But of course the DX7 can do a few more things: There is a versatile LFO, an additional (seventh) envelope that can be used to change the pitches of all oscillators, and the modulation wheel can also be programmed in a very versatile manner.

The DX7 has the reputation that it can only be programmed by experts.

The thing about programming

Ever since the DX7 was released, it has had a reputation for being difficult to program with FM synthesis. But why is that actually the case? For one thing, it was all completely new back then. The mysterious algorithms were printed on the synthesizer, along with a cryptic drawing called “Keyboard Octave Scaling”. In general, almost all terms that were known from previous synthesizers had been replaced by others. The first manual certainly contributed a part, because some things are difficult to understand in it and some connections can really only be found out by trying out - if you want to try it, you can take a look at the explanation of the portamento modes. The first six of the algorithms are of all things the most complicated, and despite the color coding of the control elements, you press the wrong button relatively often. And the fact that everything then has to be programmed on a two-line display doesn't make it any easier, of course. Although I personally think that the operation is actually really well solved in view of the wealth of parameters and the small display, but only actually. Incidentally, the DX7 has a total of 168 adjustable parameters - with knobs, sliders and buttons it wouldn't necessarily have been better.

The small display doesn't make it any easier.

Furthermore, the DX7 was simply breaking new ground: It was actually the first digital synthesizer for the masses, and at a time when most people were still puzzled by the zeros and ones. Both MIDI and the blow transducer were completely new inventions, the membrane buttons were also quite new, the LC display was new, the cartridges were new ... The DX7 broke new ground not only in terms of synthesis, but also with a completely different one Way of working and thinking. Of course there were articles and books that wanted to explain how to “program” the DX7, because for many it was the first “computer” at all, but they either came from the academic field and maybe delved into it a little too much but rather complex mathematical basics, or they had to start from scratch and explain terms such as hardware and software.

Another reason may weigh more heavily: Initially, the DX7 was primarily used to simulate other instruments, and its presets were the main selling point. Before sampling began its triumphant advance, the halfway authentic emulation of other instruments was a very important topic in the development of synthesizers. Instruments such as the Solina String Machine or, for example, the Korg Trident, which came up with special sections for strings and brass, appeared. And the success of the Sequential Prophet-5 is - according to Dave Smith personally - mainly due to the fact that it was able to simulate string and brass sounds very well. If you consider the equipment a keyboard player only needed for a few different sounds at the time, it becomes clear: The world was waiting for a machine that packed all of this into one device. And the DX7 seemed to be just that machine. The 32 factory presets therefore consist almost exclusively of simulations of other instruments: organs, strings, electric pianos, timpani, marimba, orchestra. Of the other three are two effects: a train and a referee's whistle. So many keyboard players mainly valued the DX7 as a preset keyboard that delivered all of these sounds at the push of a button, and didn't spend too much time programming new sounds.


But it was already clear with the factory sounds that the DX7 was actually a pretty good all-rounder for the conditions at the time. The keyboard is still a really good synthesizer keyboard today, with the (then sensational) 16-part polyphony you didn't always have to think about whether a voice would break away, and the electric pianos of the DX7 sound completely different by today's standards , but could be played almost as expressively as a Fender Rhodes. No wonder that the DX7's electric piano sound became a classic and can be heard on countless ballads from the 1980s.

And two more factory sounds were really sensations because they also brought two technical innovations. On the one hand there was the marimba sound with the really fast digital envelopes, where you no longer had to wait for a capacitor to actually discharge, and on the other hand the great strength of FM synthesis: bells. Small bells, big bells - such sounds had simply never been heard before.

The potential of the synth was increased by the second market that emerged afterwards: the sound designer industry that sprout like mushrooms. Countless electric pianos, orchestral sounds and flutes, basses and harpsichords have been programmed for the DX7. But also more experimental things, because especially in the Krautrock you could use the new long envelope curves.

Together with the large numbers of the DX7, this has meant that no other synthesizer has so many patches to “reload”. Today there are not hundreds, not thousands, but actually tens of thousands of sounds on the internet. Clearly, there are a lot of duplicates and many sounds are also similar. But the number is there, and all of this can be loaded into the DX7 via SysEx (and some other instruments, but more on that later).

If you hear the DX7 for the first time today, you might be surprised how much power there is in the machine. You might expect something thin, like in the early digital, virtual-analog synthesizers. But this is not the case at all, the DX7 can really "sear" and sounds very direct and "in your face". This is partly due to the early digital chips and the 12-bit converter - it scratches every corner. Unfortunately, there is also noise, and not too scarcely.Nevertheless: The DX7 is not a thin-sounding synthesizer, as the following sound examples should show, which, in contrast to the others, have been given a little bit of reverb:

The consequences of the boom

The huge success of the DX7 laid the foundation for a large family of synthesizers: the original DX7 soon became the DX7S with more storage space, the duotimbral DX7 IID with stereo output and finally the DX7 IIFD with floppy disk drive. Little by little, many brothers and sisters joined them: DX9, DX11, DX21, DX27, DX100, DX200, TX7, TF1, TX216, TX816, TX81Z, TX802, TQ5, FB-01, YS200, V50, FS1R ... Habe do I forget one? Oh yes, the DX1 and DX5, which came out before the DX7, were much more expensive, but also had more features. And the drilled out anniversary edition of the DX7 with a different design. The FM synthesis was then continued in the TG77, SY77 and SY99, when the workstation age had long since been heralded.

But it was the DX7 that struck as brutally as only the Minimoog before and actually nothing since then. Incidentally, there is talk of over 200,000 copies sold in 10 years, which is an absolute record. And as it is: at some point the horse rode dead. The Yamaha DX7 was such an incredible success that at some point you just couldn't hear its sounds. In addition, new, interesting other synthesis forms came onto the market, the Roland D50, the Korg M1 Workstation and the Waldorf Microwave are loosely mentioned here. During the production period of the DX7, sampling also became cheaper and allowed more authentic simulations of natural instruments.

Implementations as a plug-in

You should think that digital devices are much easier to imitate than analog ones. However, this is not necessarily the case: Since the code is not on the street, only "reverse engineering" helps and some secrets are hidden in the DX7. The best-known emulation, the FM8 plug-in from Native Instruments, can read SysEx files from the DX7, but due to the missing detune function, it cannot really imitate the DX7 sounds structurally (detuning is implemented a little differently in the DX7 than can be represented by ratio and offset in the FM8, which is why the detuning parameter is simply ignored when reading the SysEx files). Without a doubt the FM8 is a great FM synthesizer. But if you really want to have the old sounds, you have to rework a lot and in the end it can't really work out exactly.

More promising at the moment is a small project called Dexed, which has made a "lifelike" replica of the DX7 and has already integrated many parameters really well. But in the end, it's the same with digital synthesizers as with analog ones: it's the dirt that is really fun. Therefore, at the end, one last sound sample, the little man's filter sweep, so to speak. The structure is very simple: a modulator and a carrier with a ratio of 6: 5, the pitches of which are transposed two octaves upwards by the pitch envelope over just under a minute. A sound like squashing a power cable - no Moog can do that!


Today we have to say: The Yamaha DX7 is a classic in synthesizer history like the Minimoog, but without the flair and, by the way, much uglier. And its sound is not so warm and nice either, you have to get involved with that. Due to the extremely high sales figures, the synthesizer is still used today for an apple and an egg. And in contrast to the old analog treasures, most DX7 work perfectly even after decades in the basement. If you compare what the DX7 can do and how much money is now being spent on monophonic analog synthesizers from the seventies, you can start pondering: There was a time when the best analog synthesizers were sold on the flea markets and today they are tearing up collectors are concerned about it. Will that happen to the early digital devices at some point? Because it's the same here: Only a real DX7 sounds like a DX7.

  • PER
  • a classic that made music history
  • unique, early digital sound
  • Sounds that shaped the pop music of the 1980s
  • currently dirt cheap on the used market
  • more possibilities than an analog synthesizer that is twice as expensive today
  • many connection options (MIDI, 4 pedals, wind transducer)
  • pretty heavy background noise
  • Programming via the 2-line display is not that easy (but feasible!)
  • mono

The Yamaha DX7 is a classic and still available at a bargain price.

  • Year of publication: 1983
  • Sound generation: 16 bit digital 6-operator FM
  • Polyphony: 16 voices
  • Monotimbral
  • LFO: 1 (sine, square, triangle, sawtooth rising and falling, random)
  • 6 envelope generators
  • Keyboard: 61 keys
  • Storage locations: 32
  • Controller: pitch bend, modulation
  • Connections: mono output, headphones, wind transducer, 2x foot switch (sustain, portamento), 2x expression pedal (modulation, volume), MIDI In / Out / Thru
  • Cartridge slot for RAM / ROM cartridges