SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.16 No.8. June 2001
Review by Chris Carter
Yamaha AN200 Desktop Analog Physical Modeling Synth.
THIS YEARS MODEL
The trend for virtual analogue synthesis marches on unabated and the new Yamaha AN200 desktop synth is an interesting addition to current crop as even in these relatively early days of physical modeling it has some serious heritage. The AN200 synth engine is based in part on the popular Yamaha AN1X Keyboard synth released in 1997 (SOS Aug/97). However, while the AN200 is only about the tenth the size of the AN1X it still manages to pack in a hell of a lot of features, including a few not present in the mother ship.
It is also forms part of the new Yamaha Loop Factory group of instruments which includes the DX200 (a desktop virtual DX7) and the SU200 desktop sampler.
EYE TO EYE
The AN200’s footprint is a few inches longer than this issue of SOS, a couple of inches high and used in a desktop environment is neat enough to sit next to a computer keyboard or atop a master MIDI keyboard.
A basic description could summarize it as a combined MIDI synth and drum machine with a four track sequencer, dedicated real-time control knobs, a small built-in keyboard, 256 Preset patterns / voices, 128 User patterns/voices and space for 10 Songs.
As you can see from the photo the control surface is awash with knobs and buttons and all the main functions are clearly labeled and generally well laid out, no mean feat considering the amount of features available. However, the front panel doesn’t reveal the whole story as (and Yamaha are only too quick to point out) this desktop marvel has plenty of hidden features not immediately obvious to the naked eye. The first few minutes with the AN200 will probably have you scratching your head and swearing and I'm sorry to say the operation manual is going to be compulsory reading if you wish to get the most out it.
The AN200's synth has a respectable 5 note polyphonic capability featuring the now familiar configuration of: 2 VCOs, multi-mode VCF, VCA, 2 ADSRs, 2 LFOs, Noise, Ring Modulator, Effects block and its own dedicated analogue style 16-step sequencer track.
In addition to the synth there are 3 separate Rhythm sections, each with their own 16-step sequencer tracks. Each Rhythm track has access to the 120 onboard instrument samples and these range from acoustic and electronic drum, percussion and bass samples to complex synth tones, SFX loops and a range of basic sample shaping tools.
I should point out that the AN200’s sequencer Pattern and synth Voice arrangement is slightly unusual in that the two are inextricably linked. In practical terms you can’t have one without the other and the two parts are always treated as one. However, it is possible to copy Voice information from one pattern to another.
The main Song/Sequencer control panel includes some unusual (and habit forming) performance controls. A few useful features have also been borrowed from the AN1X Keyboard including a 4-track motion control function for recording knob movements, quaintly referred to as the Free EG and a patch morphing facility, here referred to as Scene. But more on these later.
YOU SAY ANALOG, I SAY ANALOGUE
I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed when I first put the AN200 on my desk. Could all the hype about such a diminutive box of buttons be true? Well yes, I think it is. This virtual analogue synth is powerhouse of options, functions and features that real life hardware analogue synth of old would die for. For the full specification check out the SPECIFICATION box elsewhere.
VERY COOL OSCILLATORS
The AN200 includes so many features I could easily spend six pages covering them all but I don’t have the space so I’ll cover what I can. Let’s begin with the two VCOs, which are very well specified and can generate a lot of waveforms including: SAW, MULTISAW, PULSE, SQUARE, INNER1/2/3, MIX, VARI, TRIANGLE, SINE and NOISE, VCO 1 also has its own sub-oscillator. The instruction manual is a mite vague in describing what the non-standard waveforms such as INNER and VARI are, other than saying they change in tone depending on the VCO Sync settings, which they do.
Pitch modulation is well catered for and the VCOs can be modulated by either LFO 1 or 2, Pitch Synced to each other (with either as Master or Slave), Frequency and Cross Modulated by each other and/or the LFOs, by the Pitch Envelope Generator (PEG) or the ADSR generators (FEG and AEG) and various combinations of all the above.
Interestingly the shape of most of the waveforms is adjustable (not just the Pulse width) and can be modulated by the LFOs or Envelope generators for extra movement and depth. Some presets obviously use waveform modulation but as with many of the other esoteric synth features I found it impossible to edit them using the front panel controls and had to resort to using the Editor software. (See box for other software only editable features). A nice feature nevertheless.
There are various MIDI Keyboard Assign modes available: Poly (5 note polyphonic), Mono Legato (one note monophonic, no envelope re-triggering) and Mono (one note monophonic, with envelope re-triggering). There is also a Unison setting, in this monophonic mode the synth voice is duplicated four times and the tuning interval of the voices can be offset to give a fatter sound, this is another software only tweak.
The LFOs have everything you would expect from analogue versions and more. Modulation waveforms available are: SINE (5 types), TRIANGLE (5 types), SQUARE (3 types), SAW (4 types) and SAMPLE-HOLD (4 types). Using only the front panel controls it is only possible to route LFO 1 to the VCOs, VCF and VCA. However, using the software Editor you also get the option to add a Delay to the onset of the LFO 1 and use numerous routing and modulation options for both LFO 1 and 2.
Although the VCF, with only 3 controls (CUTOFF/RESONANCE/DEPTH), looks like any other run of the mill filter, it’s not. Using just the front panel controls six filter types can be called up: 24dB Low Pass, 12dB Low Pass, 18dB Low Pass, Band Pass, Band Eliminate and High Pass. The VCF also has its own ADSR generator (the FEG) and using the Editor software it’s possible to adjust filter Keyboard Tracking, Velocity depth and to activate a second variable 6dB High Pass filter.
As pseudo analogue filters go this VCF sounds fine, with plenty of range and bite at the more extreme settings yet nicely mellow at the lower ends of the spectrum. Although if you are used to real analogue filters you may not be quite so impressed, as there is occasionally something like certain digitalness about the sound. It’s hard to pin down but is probably a lack of noise or harmonic distortion and is a little like trying to compare a remastered CD album with the original vinyl recording. I’m not going to lose any sleepness nights over it anyway.
The Effects block includes various types of Delay, Reverb, Flangers, Chorus, Phasers and Overdrive effects. The only controls available are Parameter and a Dry/Wet knob. The Parameter controller varies depending on the effect but usually controls either the speed of the effect modulation or the length of the Reverb or Delays. It isn’t a bad selection of effects but not terribly inspired either, serviceable at best. And considering the wealth of features available elsewhere it is a shame there aren’t any software editable options available for the main Effects block.
However, there is a separate panel activated Distortion effect available which includes further software options that transform it into a fully fledged Distortion/3-Band EQ block. Under software control you have the choice of: Distortion Drive, Guitar Amp Type (x3), Distortion Balance, variable Low, Mid and High EQ, EQ Gain and a variable Low Pass filter. Although this section is no substitute for the lackluster Effects it is capable of transforming an otherwise dull sounding patch into something interesting.
The VCA is a simple but effective one with basic ADSR control, though software editable features also include Velocity and Volume and even though both the VCF and the VCA have independent envelope generators because of the lack of space both share the same knobs.
The AN200 has basic on board mixing using multi-function knobs to get the required balance and levels for most of the various VCO, Noise and effects combinations but the Editor software includes a fully featured mixer which also makes available a decent Ring Modulator, an interesting Feedback function and proper individual Level controls.
16 STEPS TO HEAVEN
Pattern and Rhythm construction is carried out using a 4-track sequencer, one track for the Synth and three for the Rhythms. This is modeled on the classic analogue 16-step design favourite by Moog , Roland, Arp etc. but with a few 21st Century additions. While in Pattern mode the sequencer tracks are always active and can be edited, programmed, muted and generally mucked about with using the two rows of 16 illuminated rubberized buttons and each corresponding controller above to adjust individual step pitch, velocity, gate time etc. When using the Rhythm tracks these knobs can also be used to dial-up samples for each pattern step, from the 120 sounds available. In addition the three Rhythm tracks each have their own basic Low Pass VCF, and although they don’t possess any modulation options the filters can be automated using the Free EG motion recorder.
The Sequencer control section includes such performance goodies as Forward or Reverse play, Halving or Doubling the BPM, track Mute and Solo, real-time Tap Tempo adjustment, pattern Re-Trigger, Stutter, Roll and Swing. And a couple of my favourites: a system wide Gate Time control for (getting really short, sharp tikka tikka tikka rhythms) and a real-time Pattern Select via the sequencer pads, great for jamming and spinning in loops and patterns. Programming and playing the Sequencer is pretty painless and straight forward to use once you know your way around it.
The Free EG feature was first introduced in the Yamaha AN1X and unchanged here it essentially records and plays back any real-time controller movements you make. Most virtual analogue synths have a feature such as this, usually called a Motion Controller or Motion Sequencer however, this version is slightly more versatile than most as it can record four separate controllers. Free EG tracks is stored with the particular Pattern they were recorded in and playback options include various trigger modes, loop options (forward, alternating, one shot etc.) and variable bar lengths (0.5-8 bars).
Free EG is like have an extra pair of hands at your disposal, don’t underestimate how useful this feature can be at imparting movement and expression into your Patterns and Voices.
Another truly useful performance feature is Scene, which allows you to program two different synth Voices for each Pattern and perform a morph between the two in real-time. Sounds simple I know but on the one hand it can produce some incredibly complex sounds in the transition from one voice to another, while on the other hand you can use it to jump to a completely new sound while still keeping the rhythm pumping along. It’s a shame the Scene function can’t be recorded by the Free EG for really wild times but neither can any of the switch functions, knobs only I’m afraid.
MIDI is well catered for, although the lack of a Thru socket is frustrating. The AN200 works well a controller source and can have almost every function (hidden or otherwise) controlled by external MIDI gear or sequencers. MIDI sources and destinations are set up using the Controller Matrix screen, part of the Editor software, and plenty of MIDI related information is supplied in the manual.
PLUS AND MINUS
What have I missed out then? Well, there are dozens of other minor features I haven’t covered and the AN200 software package could easily take up a few more pages so you’ll have to make do with a few screen shots. On a G3 desktop Mac and a G3 PowerBook the Editor was stable and didn’t crash once in the week I was using it. Though it did exhibit some strange on screen anomalies where parts of the main editor were almost impossible to read. The librarian utility is pretty essential for backing-up and sorting out and naming Patterns. It also doubles as a conversion bridge for loading AN1X Patterns/Voices.
When I began using the AN200 I had no idea how much I would come to rely on the Editor software. In day to day use I found myself almost exclusively building synth sounds from scratch using the Editor, then performing minor tweaks from the front panel, where possible. But funnily enough I tended toward building rhythms and patterns using the onboard controls and pads. I suppose its just a case of horses for courses and each user will find their preferred way of working with it and its various modes of operation.
As I mentioned elsewhere the main drawback the AN200 has is that even with such a plethora of dedicated and multi-function controls there is still this powerful synth engine with features only accessible via editing software. If you have a Mac or PC this isn't going to be a problem, without one however, you could be missing out on some invaluable hidden extras and the benefit of fast and relatively intuitive editing. Plus of course the added bonus of a useful librarian facility.
THIS IS NOT A TOY
I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last to point out that the AN200 is similar in size and layout to the hugely popular Korg Electribes. However, where Korg have two distinct Electribes, one dedicated to synth sounds and another for percussion Yamaha have produced a kind of hybridised version of their own covering both camps.
But as I’ve said above this pack in as much as you can’ approach has both benefits and drawbacks. This is a hugely powerful synth for such a neat and affordable desktop package and if the AN200 was sold on a price per feature basis it would cost considerably more.
After reviewing the Korg Electribes last year I put my hand in my pocket and bought one (no we don't get to keep them afterwards, we have to buy gear just like everyone else). I'm happy with my little Electribe but if I were still in the market for a desktop virtual analogue synth-cum-drum machine I would seriously think about paying that bit extra and going for the AN200 instead. But hey, that's progress and there will always be something newer and better around the corner.
Yamaha are using the catch phase this is not a toy’ in their current advertising for the AN200 and DX200. Well, it may not be a toy but the AN200 Desktop Control Synthesizer is a whole lot of fun to play with.
Nice sounding expressive virtual analog synth.
5 note polyphonic synth, plus 3 percussion voices.
Separate 4-track motion control (Free EG)
Hundreds of useable preset patterns and voices
Well thought out live performance features.
Supplied with dual format editing/librarian CD ROM.
Display, user interface and functionality may at first be confusing.
Hidden features only accessible via software.
Basic Effects options.
Maximum 16 steps per sequence, authentic(ish) but limiting.
No MIDI Thru socket.
Expressive, if a little unpredictable, powerful but occasionally frustrating the AN200 is a great sounding virtual analogue synth and drum machine in a compact package that is equally at home on the desktop or gigging. Fun to play with but definitely not a toy.
YAMAHA AN200 Desktop Control Analogue Physical Modeling Synth
£449 incl. VAT
Synth Voice (AN)
2 VCOs (+ sub-oscillator)
2 ADSR Envelope Generators (FEG + AEG)
1 Pitch Envelope Generator (PEG)
3 Rhythm Voices (AWM2)
3-Band EQ (Synth only)
4-tracks, 16 steps
MIDI Clock Transmit
Free EG: 4-tracks
256 Preset Patterns/Voices
128 User Patterns/Voices
Synth / Rhythm Step Sequencer Parameters:
Step Buttons: On/Mute
Note No.: C-2 to G8
Velocity: Rest, 1 to 127
Gate Time: 1%-1600%
Pitch Range: -64 to +24
Pan: -64 to +63
Effect Depth: 0-127
Effect Wet/Dry: 0-127
Instrument Select (Rhythm tracks only)
Filter Cut Off (Rhythm tracks only)
Filter Res (Rhythm tracks only)
Dual Format CD ROM (Mac/PC) includes a PDF manual, 2 Preset banks and a MIDI Demo song.
The Mac version includes OMS 2.3.8.
The PC version includes WG Works Lite.
Save/Load: Preset and User Data
MIDI Bulk Load/Dump
MIDI Individual Pattern Load/Dump
Store current edit (send to AN200)
Drag and Drop Pattern Librarian
The above features also work between the Yamaha AN200 and AN1X
FUNCTIONS ONLY AVAILABLE USING THE AN200 EDITOR
Voice Name - 10 digits
Category - 22 types
Unison Detune - 1 to 32
Portamento Type- Full Time/Fingered/Sustain Key
PEG (Pitch Envelope Generator)
Depth: -64 to +63
Destination - VCO 1/VC0 2
Pitch: -64 to +63
Fine: -64 to +63
PWM Depth: 1-127
PWM Width: 1-127
PWM Source: Fixed/PEG/FEG/LFO 1/LFO 2/LFO2phase/LFO2fast/VCO 2
Multi Saw Detune: 1-127
Multi Saw Mix: 1-127
Pitch: -64 to +63
Fine: -64 to +63
PWM Depth: 1-127
PWM Width: 1-127
PWM Source: Fixed/PEG/FEG/LFO 1/LFO 2/LFO2phase/LFO2fast/VCO 1
X-MOD (Cross Modulation)
VCO 2: Triangle/Sine
Source: Fixed/PEG/FEG/LFO 1/LFO 2
Depth: -64 to +63
LFO 1 & 2
Key On Reset: 1-127
Sync Pitch Modulation: Master/Slave/Both
Assign Group: Various
FM (Frequency Modulation)
Depth: +63 to -64
FM Depth Control: Fixed/PEG/FEG/LFO 1/LFO 2
Modulator: VCO2Freq/VCO 2/VCO 1/VCO1SubOsc/PEG/FEG/LFO 1/LFO 2
Mode: Off/VCO 1 into VC0 2/VCO 2 into VC0 1
Source: Fixed/PEG/FEG/LFO 1/LFO 2
Depth: -64 to +63
Velocity: -64 to +63
Key Track: -32 to +63
2nd High Pass Filter(6dB): 0 to 127
Velocity: -64 to +63
VCA Volume: 0 to 127
Ring Modulator: 0 to 127
VCO 1 Level: 0-127
VCO 2 Level: 0-127
Noise Level: 0-127
Feedback Level: 0-127
Low Pass Filter: 1 kHz to 18 kHz/Thru
Low: 32 Hz to 2 kHz -12dB/+12dB
Mid: 100 Hz to 10 kHz -12dB/+12dB
High: 500 Hz to 16 kHz -12dB/+12dB
Resonance: 1.0 to 12.0
Output gain: +0dB/+6dB/+12dB
Free EG Tempo: 20-300 BPM
Trigger: MIDI In/Note On/Seq Start
Loop: Off/Forward/Half/Alt/Alt Half
Pitch Bend Up: -24 to +24
Pitch Bend Down: -24 to +24
Source (x15): Most MIDI controller numbers
Parameter (x15): Most AN200 control destinations
Depth (x15): -64 to +63
Copyright © 2001 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.