Released in 1983 and still a part of music studios worldwide: the Yamaha DX7 is the very definition of a classic.
In the modern era of computer-generated and synthesized sound, it is unlikely there will ever again be an instrument as ubiquitous as the Yamaha DX7. What the guitar was to rock, the DX7 was to a whole decade of music from a dozen different genres, taking root in ’80s pop and New Wave, seeding the new genres of house and techno and undermining even the guitar in its infiltration of popular music.
Yamaha’s DX7 was the first mass marketed synthesizer which was also used by professional musicians. Its popularity by this point is almost a cliché: it sold more than 200,000 units, and its domination of the charts in the ’80s makes it more difficult to find Top 40 hits that didn’t include a DX7 after sorting through the hundreds that did. When people mention a generalized “1980s sound,” they’re almost invariably talking about sounds made by this one keyboard: the Yamaha DX7.
Thanks to some clever engineering and even smarter licensing deals, Yamaha practically cornered the market on “owning” this sound for nearly 20 years. This is unheard of in the industry, where any new sound that catches the public’s ear is almost immediately cloned. In the case of the DX7, its rich, crystalline sounds were generated using a groundbreaking method of digital synthesis covered under patent. The keyboard that gave a romantic sheen to A-Ha and was mastered by Brian Eno was also powered by one of the most valuable (non-pharma) research patents in history.
INTO THE LAB
Frequency modulation synthesis, or FM Synthesis, was discovered not by an engineer but a composer. John Chowning was born in 1934 in Salem, New Jersey and studied violin and percussion (both of which he would make considerable use of) after a stint in the US Navy. After studying composition and theory in Paris, he attained a Master of Arts degree and the title of Doctor of Musical Arts from Stanford in 1966.
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Chowning’s interest in computer music made him a recognized pioneer of electronic music, which at the time was a preoccupation of both the crazy-haired weirdos who made music and the other crazy-haired weirdos who made computers. In 1964, he began research on the movement of sounds in space using Max Mathews’ MUSIC IV software (developed at Bell Labs, MUSIC was the first widely used program for generating sound). Stanford at the time had no analog synthesis equipment, but it did have a large mainframe computer, and its famous Artificial Intelligence Lab was established in 1965. This lead to Chowning’s interest in digital synthesis:
In FM Synthesis, one waveform is altered by modulating its frequency with a second waveform, resulting in a more complex sound. Through FM Synthesis, Chowning was able to develop a wide range of complex, rich sounds, including emulating acoustic instruments and even the human voice (an area of particular interest to Chowning).
Max Mathews was impressed by Chowning’s discovery and encouraged his research, but Stanford were the ones who sniffed out the commercial possibilities. Organ manufacturers showed some interest in FM Synthesis, but their engineers decided it wasn’t practical. “They were into analog technology, and had no idea what I was talking about,” Chowning later remarked.
Yamaha at the time was the largest manufacturer of musical instruments in the world, but was small player in the US market. A graduate student from Stanford Business School researched the company and, as luck would have it, one of their chief engineers was visiting their American branch in Buena Park, California at the time. Arriving at Stanford, “in ten minutes” he understood what Chowning’s research meant.
OUT OF THE LAB
Yamaha put “a few good people” working on FM Synthesis right away. Chowning had filed a patent for FM, and Yamaha licensed it in either 1974 or 1975 (recollections vary). The patent for FM synthesis became a cash cow for Stanford, yielding $20 million before it expired. In 1994 it was said to be “the second most lucrative licensing agreement” in Stanford’s rather extraordinary research history.
Interestingly, the DX7 was not the first implementation of FM Synthesis. In fact, the first instrument to use it wasn’t made by Yamaha at all. The Synclavier I, made by New England Digital Corporation in 1978, included a digital synthesizer powered by an FM synthesis algorithm licensed from Yamaha.
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The first Yamaha synthesizer using FM Synthesis was the Yamaha GS1, which shipped in 1981. It was bulky, expensive to manufacture and likewise priced way beyond what most musicians could afford – some $13,000. This was because of the large number of chips required for digital synthesis. “The GS1 was probably one generation of chip technology older,” Chowning said, “so they had to use many more chips than they ended up using in the DX7 – something like 50 to 2. Of course, that’s not a one-to-one correspondence in power, but it’s not too far off.”
While Yamaha was figuring out how to implement FM Synthesis, they were also developing their own chips. “It was the convergence of these two independent projects that resulted in the first practical instrument, which was the DX7,” Chowning said.
Yamaha’s development of FM Synthesis also impressed Chowning. Their implementation of the algorithms were things that were “not quite straightforward in the way one would usually work on a computer,” but lead to greater efficiency and speed. This gave the bandwith of the DX7 what Chowning called “a really brilliant kind of sound. I guess there’s something like a 57kHz sampling rate in the DAC [digital-to-analog converter]. The result is far better than we can get with equivalent density on our digital synthesizer here at Stanford. When we are running 96 oscillators, which is what the DX7 has, we have a maximum sampling rate of around 25kHz to 30kHz. That’s only about 12kHz or 13kHz effective bandwidth. The DX7 is better than that, and I think it’s quite noticeable.”
INTO THE WORLD
Among the many ways in which the Yamaha DX7 changed the landscape of music, less acknowledged is the way it changed the language. Prior to 1983, “keyboard” was frequently (and properly) used to refer to the physical keys themselves and the area they occupied as a component of a larger instrument, such as a synthesizer or electric piano. After 1983, “keyboard” became synonymous with the instrument as a whole. In fact, Yamaha wanted the keys to be the main feature of the DX7, which would draw musicians to reach out and begin to play without reading a manual first. They designed a “simple, square form that would be a vivid contrast to analog synthesizers and their panels crowded with buttons and knobs.” Yamaha’s designers deliberately removed other physical controllers, leaving membrane switches for all other aspects of operation.
The decision to remove the knobs simplified the interface but made the DX7 a chore to program, with the membrane switches used to scroll through a dizzying labyrinth of menus seen through the window of its tiny LED display. Brian Eno studied it with a scientific concentration and managed to make the DX7 do things that nobody could believe, but many were pleased to use the presets. For a synthesizer with sound alternately described as “cold” or “metallic,” the DX7 still did a better job at emulating real instruments than many of its rivals.
E. PIANO 1 is probably the most famous (or infamous, depending on who is telling the story) patch on the Yamaha DX7. Through variations using the sustain pedal and stereo delay, E. PIANO 1 could do a fairly convincing emulation of the sound of the Fender Rhodes. Hundreds if not thousands of house music tracks from the ’80s and ’90s substitute the DX7 for the Rhodes – it may even be conceivable that the ones with a DX7 emulation vastly outnumber the ones which used an actual Rhodes. It was also used significantly in pop as a Rhodes stand-in, such as in Phil Collins’ “One More Night.” Obviously, Phil could have afforded a real one. For awhile, people just liked the sound of the DX7 emulating an electric piano more than the real thing.
Another preset is as much a part of the ’80s palette as the electric piano – that punchy DX7 bass which almost instantly evokes a desire to vote for Ronald Reagan and do coke in a nightclub bathroom with some guy named Jeff. Paired with the sizzling beats of the 808, it made for a killer combination. And despite the difficulty in programming the beats, patches proliferated – it was remarkable the limits to which inventive musicians and producers could push the machine. The same DX7 beast that fueled the high concept pop of Kenny Loggins and Hall & Oates also powered deep, contemplative works like Brian Eno’s Apollo and the “Theme From ‘Creation'” on Music For Films III – widely regarded as some of the most beautiful music of the late 20th century.
OUT OF THIS WORLD
It’s not difficult to believe that a synthesizer that became so ubiquitous would be subject to a backlash, and the DX7 was. It sold several hundred thousand units in the first few years – a record, as synthesizers in the past had sold in the hundreds, thousands and rarely tens of thousands per model.
Around the time that Yamaha licensed FM Synthesis from Stanford, Chowning founded the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford, which is in the very short list of highly regarded music technology research centers. The patent on FM Synthesis expired in 1995, and the technology is now featured in many synthesizers alongside other means of synthesizing sound. Sounds from the DX7 can be emulated with software, including “dexed,” which is available for free.
Nevertheless the durable old machines are still churning and typically require less maintenance to stay alive than many analog synthesizers. Since the DX7 was released the same year as the MIDI standard was released, it can still take its place as a part of a modern studio.
And a generation removed, the “sound of the ’80s” is far less omnipresent and oppressive than it once was. The DX7 has gone from world domination to toppled god to a charming sort of ornament and instant audio reference point in a producer’s palette.