In this week’s classic gear profile, Dubspot blogger and synth guru Ross Kelly investigates the discovery of FM synthesis and development of Yamaha’s legendary DX7 synthesizer…
In 1983, Yamaha released the DX7 digital synthesizer. The DX7 was not the first digital synthesizer, but it was the first affordable one to hit the market and spark a revolution. The unique sound and affordability of the DX7 made it both famous and infamous as the synthesizer sound of the 1980s.
The story of the DX7 began at Stanford university in the late 1960s, when a music composition graduate student named John Chowning took an interest in electronic music. He began his research with a piece of early music software called MUSIC that had been developed at Bell Laboratories in the 1950s by a scientist named Max Matthews. Mathews had continued development of this software, keeping it current as technology went from vacuum tube-based computers to transistors. Chowning worked to expand the MUSIC software, and through his experiments discovered the sound creation method that would become known as FM synthesis (frequency modulation synthesis).
John Chowning and the DX7
After some demonstrations of his discoveries, Stanford saw potential in Chowning’s work and pushed to license the technology to music equipment manufactures. After many failed attempts find an interested manufacturer, Yamaha sent an engineer to assess the new technology. The engineer was excited by what he saw—Yamaha licensed the technology from Stanford and began developing the concepts alongside Chowning. The licensing of Chowning’s discovery’s turned out to be one of the second most profitable deals that Stanford had ever inked, bringing in a reported $20 million before its expiration in 1995.
Once Yamaha had the license for FM synthesis, it began development of a functional musical instrument. In 1981, Yamaha released the first synthesizer based on Chowning’s research: the behemoth GS1, a synthesizer built to look like a miniature grand piano that cost close to $20,000 and weighed about 175lbs. The GS1 was nothing like other synthesizers of the time. It’s large size and complex design made it extremely expensive, only available to the richest players and biggest studios. However, it did leave a mark in pop history as the synth used to make Toto’s hit “Africa,” and served as Yamaha’s test platform for the FM technology that would eventually bring the DX7 to life.
Yamaha Releases the DX7
By 1983, Yamaha had developed the technology into the affordable, feature-packed DX7. The mono-output, six-operator synthesizer set the synthesizer world afire. Priced at $2000 US, it sold over 200,000 units over the first three years. It’s design was a departure from previous synthesizers in that it had no knobs, only membrane buttons, a two-line screen, and a data slider for changing its many parameters. Most of the DX7′s parameters seemed alien to users accustomed to the standard subtractive synthesizer design that had been around since the release of the Minimoog in the early 70s. This didn’t hamper most users, though—the sound of the DX7 was so new that most users never bothered to stray from the presets.
The original DX7 had 32 internal presets and included two memory cartridges with 64 voices each, which made for a robust factory sound set. Yamaha’s inclusion of MIDI was wise, as they beat Roland to market with a MIDI-equipped Synthesizer by a year. The MIDI implementation was very basic, but its inclusion was certainly a boon at the time.
Yamaha took advantage of the DX7′s momentum and followed it with many units based on FM technology. The DX7 itself would see several revisions during its production lifespan from 1983 to 1989. The DX7 IID, released in 1987, updated the original 12 bit digital-to-analog converters to 16 bit, expanded the internal memory from 32 to 64, was bi-timbral for keyboard splits and layering, and sported a redesigned case with real buttons instead of membrane buttons. Next came the DX7 IIFD, which added a floppy drive for storage. This was followed by the DX7S, essentially the original DX7 in the new case with upgraded digital conversion.
Yamaha also began developing an entire line of synthesizers based on the DX7, in price ranges that were more affordable for the average musician, and in rack and desktop modules more appropriate for studio use. They made a line of DX-based keyboards such as the DX21, DX9, and DX11. They also made the TX-7 (a desktop version of the original DX7), the TX81Z (the first FM synth to use waveforms other than sine), and the TX802 (an eight-part multi-timbral rack version of the DX7mkII).
FM – The Sound of the 80′s
The DX7 was the sound of the 80s, immediately recognizable for its bell and percussion sounds, and its famous electric piano simulations. Inexpensive sampling instruments and sample-based synthesizers (“ROMplers”) would catch fire in the late 90s and cause the DX7 to be forgotten, but the DX7′s popularity surged again in the 2000s. Electronic and pop producers found that DX7 sounds could give a modern production a retro touch, and new generation of sound designers discovered the power of FM synthesis.
In 2001, Yamaha released the DX200, a groovebox-style FM synthesizer and drum machine, with knobs for easier programming. In 2002, Native Instruments released the FM7 plug-in, introducing the classic sounds of the DX7 to a new generation of computer-based producers. FM7′s graphic interface made it much easier to program the complex FM architecture. Native Instruments followed up with FM8 in 2006.
DX7 In Music History
During the latter half of the 1980s, the DX7 was heard on many hit records. Artists like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel had a DX7-heavy sound, and Michael Jackson used it heavily on Bad. The Beastie Boys ”Girls” from License To Ill features drums and the DX7 Marimba as the entire backing track. It was heard across all genres of music, featured on albums by artists like Chick Corea, George Michael, Luther Vandross, Billy Ocean, Depeche Mode, Madonna, Tina Turner, SOS Band, Level 42, Jan Hammer, Walter Faltermeyer, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, The Talking Heads, U2, Queen, Yes, Toto, Elton John, Herbie Hancock, and Jean Michel Jarre.
Dubspot blogger Ross Kelly is a Chicago based DJ, producer and synth guru. He is a one half of Night Moves, a cosmic disco party at Danny’s in Chicago. He is also a partner at Kokorokoko Vintage, an 80s and 90s themed vintage clothing shop in Chicago.