How can I make a DX7 sound good?
April 25, 2020 10:37 AM   Subscribe

I was given a Yamaha DX7 early 80s synth. How can I make it make exciting sounds?

One of the perks of working in a building with a theater, is that sometimes, the theater manager finds old stuff that has been left in a corner or left up in the attic. Last time, it was a 1999 Kurweil keyboard! In this case, he recently brought me a Yamaha DX7, and asked if I wanted it. I took it home, ROM cartridges and all, and I've fiddled around with it, but the presets seem so, er, small, and it's hard to get them to sound exciting, even plugged into a good keyboard amp.

I know this is a matter of taste--I'm mostly a guitarist, and I love fiddling around on an old Wurlitzer electric piano. When it comes to synths/keyboards, moogs, mellotrons, vox organs and prophet-5s are undeniably great. But there has to be some way to fully take advantage of this classic synth, right?

And a related question: who was best at getting the best out it back in the day?
posted by umbú to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Brian Eno has claimed he was told by Yamaha engineers he was the first musician they'd encountered that had fully mastered the DX7's programming capabilities. Or something like that.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 10:49 AM on April 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Check out the Synth Secrets series from Sound on Sound magazine. Here’s the first part on FM; there’s at least one more.

FM is famously harder to grok than subtractive, and the DX7 is notoriously not fun or easy to program and experiment with. But the keybed is considered very good and it can indeed make beautiful sounds. It is a classic for a reason. Lots of musicians just browse the extensive collection of factory and user patches out there.

Also unlike subtractive, if you find an FM patch you like, tweaking it a little is likely to screw it up.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:09 AM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've played with a DX7 a fair amount when I was younger (had access to one via my high school), and since spent a fair amount of time with a bunch of much more modern FM synthesizers (my preferred ones are Ableton Operator and U-He Bazille, but I also have used FM8). I can unequivocally say that the DX7 is challenging to patch, and will be even more challenging to figure out if you haven't worked with (FM) synthesis before.

I would start with existing patch collections. For example, here is info on some of Brian Eno's patches. If your goal is to learn to create your own patches:
  • Watch/read some general FM synthesis tutorials. There's many of these out there. Here's a basic overview.
  • Consider spending some time playing around with FM synthesis on a software synthesizer, which will make many aspects of it more accessible (though not necessarily conceptually easier). One standard free one that people recommend (I have not tried it myself) is dexed, you will need a VST host for this one (or maybe not anymore!). If you have an ipad there are a few that could be worth checking out that are pretty cheap, e.g. DXi. If you have access to ableton live, I personally think Operator is great. Basically, I think it's useful to separate the "how to FM" question from the "how to DX7" question.
  • Keep in mind that one way in which DX7 is non-modern is that it has no effects. If you are the sort of guitarist who has pedals you may want to play around with running it through a reverb, chorus, etc. (For comparison a modern hardware fm synth like the digitone has chorus, saturator, reverb, delay built in.)

posted by advil at 11:33 AM on April 25, 2020 [7 favorites]

Congrats! if you like tinkering, the DX7 is made for someone that enjoys a nice challenge!

One cheap tip for starters: begin with a preset voice & randomly change various parameters, then after a while you'll end up somewhere else (probably the sound of a burning toaster with some bells trapped inside of it trying to get out;) if you stick with it, you'll eventually get to some distinct unique voices that no one else has.

advil advice above is good, add some effect pedal to sweeten if it's dry.

I knew a few people who made some pretty cool custom DX7 voices, it took patience. I'm more used to the CX5, which is a bit easier to program.

Rumour I'd heard is that Brian Eno also experimented with the weird Jellinghaus DX knob box interface, but I can't honestly confirm that.
posted by ovvl at 2:56 PM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

But there has to be some way to fully take advantage of this classic synth, right?

And a related question: who was best at getting the best out it back in the day?

I mean, there's a reason a relatively small number of DX7 patches were everywhere back in the day (and quickly became so recognizable that it became a bit of a joke - "yup that's the DX7 electric piano again") - as people have said, FM synthesis in general and the DX7 in particular were a bit tough for folks to get their heads around, so they just used the factory patches that they liked, maybe added some effects during recording/mixing.

And by everywhere, I mean . . . well, here's a webpage where someone has attempted to catalog "famous examples" of DX7 patches in recordings: Bobby Blues DX7 examples. And you will notice 1) it's huge 2) that's not nearly all of the possible examples and 3) there's, like, half-a-dozen sounds that comprise most of this list - couple of electric piano sounds, couple of bass sounds, couple of "bell" sounds.

I love everybody's suggestions about how to work on learning FM synthesis and the DX7, but, y'know, the reality is that part of the reason it's a "classic" synth is that it did a few sounds really well right out of the box and a bunch of people used those sounds on a bunch of hit records. If they wanted a sound the DX7 didn't do well, they just used a different keyboard rather than try to re-program the 7.

Which is to say, if you just decide, "Well, these few sounds are pretty good and I will tweak them with pedals or EQ & effects while recording and maybe layer them with another keyboard" . . . you will certainly not be doing anything the "masters" of the DX7 didn't do themselves back in its heyday.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:49 PM on April 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

The Taco Bell bell chime is a straight factory DX7 patch btw, I think it’s a fun example to study. Bell tones are widely considered a thing FM is good at that other synthesis types are not.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:29 PM on April 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

The mark 2 version of the DX7 supported micro-tuning which might be useful if you want to get adventurous.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:51 PM on April 25, 2020

Back in the 80s I used to have a CX5M, which was a Yamaha home computer with a DX9 chip in it as well as two ROM cartridges, one to edit sounds and the other was a step-time sequencer (there was also a ROM with software for editing the DX7, which would have made your process easier).

As I remember it, an operator (the CX5M/DX9 had four, the DX7 has six) can be both a sound generator and a sound modifier - if you send one into another and the volume of the first is high, then it will induce distortion (or at least harmonic complexity) in the other. As each operator has its own ADSR, you can have a note which becomes harmonically complex over time. I've no idea how you'd go about doing that on the DX7, but that's the model you need to keep in mind - you're patching boxes into each other that can either generate a sound or modulate a sound that's passing through it. Or, maybe, both. Unsurprisingly, it makes excellent ring-modulatey sorts of sounds. And fantastic, if very 80s, bass sounds. A pattern of operators is called an algorithm, and will be shown as some kind of map of connections on the controls.

Another thing I remember finding very useful was keyboard scaling - relating the volume of a note to the pitch being played, so certain operators would stand out more at higher pitches.

But begin with a simple algorithm - a two-operator one, if there is one - and see how altering one affects the sound the other is making.

Eno is definitely the go-to. No one else ever bothered to try to program it, as far as I know, which is why it's what 1983 sounds like. I remember, when I was playing with the CX5M, it was Eno-esque things that were most interesting: on the one hand bell-like tones, on the other evolving sounds (if two operators are looping slightly different ADSR curves they'll be phasing against each other.

That said, it's literally thirty years ago, and I might be remembering it wrongly. I still have the computer, but I don't have a CRT monitor to plug it into and, to be honest, I don't have the spare time these days.

Good luck!
posted by Grangousier at 12:39 PM on April 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

Aw man, a scrapped DX7? Eat hot envy.

Yeah, soundguy99 has my take on it, the DX7 was all about the factory presets back in the day. E PIANO 1 is everywhere, when you realize what it sounds like you can't go ten minutes on an eighties station without it.

Also +1 to effects. I have synths here without onboard effects and they are tinny. My MicroBrute sounds like a MICRObrute. Add a little delay and distortion and it turns into a microBRUTE.

There are various software and hardware programmers that can make the DX7's horrible programming interface much easier to grok. I believe that dexed can be used this way, but I don't have a DX7 so I can't say for sure.

If the stock carts and patches don't satisfy, there are literally thousands of DX7 patches archived in various places on the internet, easily searchable. Grab some of those, start blasting new patches into your DX7 (Dexed can do this, I think) and see if anything catches your ear.

have fun!
posted by Sauce Trough at 5:08 PM on April 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

(to add to soundguy99's final comment, the history of music as we know it consists of a series of tweaking things that have already been done before. Sure, there are some leaps in innovation with new technologies, but re-inventing some funny old wheels is also a time-honoured tradition in music)
posted by ovvl at 5:52 PM on May 4, 2020

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