Review: Yamaha Montage
The Montage comes with seven times more sounds than its predecessor, but are they any easier to program?
Yamaha Corporation — makers of motorcycles, jet-skis, sporting goods, grand pianos, speakers, and mixing consoles. Oh, and those horrid plastic woodwind things school kids are given as their first musical instrument. Yamaha also makes electronic instruments; home keyboards and synthesizers. The company actually started as a piano and reed keyboard manufacturer in 1897, so instruments are in its blood. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to think of an instrument Yamaha hasn’t manufactured. In more recent decades Yamaha moved into the electronic instrument game — with the behemoth CS-80 in 1976 becoming a venerable classic, along with the wildly popular DX7 in 1983.
Fast forward to the current century and Yamaha is still creating keyboards for all levels of musicianship. At the more professional niche are Yamaha’s synthesizers, with a vast and successful history of development behind it. I’ve owned plenty of Yamaha synthesizers over the years, and while the company’s synths are capable of turning their sonic abilities to almost anything, they’ve always tended to be the bread-and-butter sound generators for me. Like many, I’ve never enjoyed editing Yamaha’s digital synths. Yamaha’s FM synthesis is a tough nut to crack; it’s complicated to say the least. From my long since gone DX9, forever set to an organ bass, through to various drum machines and TX sound modules, they’ve all pretty much used presets and third party patches. The only exception was an RM50 drum module that housed my TR909 and 808 samples for years — admittedly not an FM synthesis device.
MONTAGE OF ALL BEFORE IT
The successor to Yamaha’s Motif range is the Montage. Looking somewhat similar to 2010’s Motif XF, the Montage crams far more waveform data into its gizzards. Compared with the Motif machine’s 741MB of 16-bit waveform data, the Montage houses a staggering 5.67GB.
You’ll need to upgrade the Montage’s firmware to 1.2 to get the downloadable ‘Montage Connect’ software working. This involves formatting a USB memory stick on the Montage itself, then copying the firmware update to the memory stick via your computer. Connecting the Montage directly to your DAW machine via USB allows all MIDI and audio information to be available in the DAW — no need for MIDI or audio cabling. Again, this didn’t work until I’d upgraded the unit’s firmware. Once up and running you can send 16 channels from the Montage to your DAW, and return three channels back to the Montage, all at 24-bit and up to 192k.
Yamaha has gone to great lengths to make the Montage compatible with older instruments. It’s completely compatible with the Motif XF instruments. It actually includes all the Motif XF’s 1353 voices, 3977 waveforms, and 7881 arpeggio patterns. Worthy of note if you’re trading up. But compatibility doesn’t end there. Yamaha S90 XS and S70 XS patches can be transferred to the Montage, and DX7 lineage patches can be transformed via a web app on Yamaha’s site. This includes all permutations of the DX7 including the TX802 and TX816. That’s a damn fine feature.
So already there’s a whole lot going on in the Montage. The enormous 5.67GB of AWM2 waveforms provide everything you could need in a complete workstation-style instrument, and if that’s not enough you have access to 1.75GB of user memory which will accept .WAV and .AIFF files. Maximum polyphony is 128 notes, along with the stereo audio input and USB streams, so you’re hardly going to run out of I/O. For more traditional setups there’s the full set of MIDI in, out, and thru, and inputs for sustain, two foot controllers and an assignable footswitch.
For those looking for patches of the synthetic persuasion there’s the eight-operator FM-X architecture with 88 algorithms. Eight operators is a lot to comprehend when you consider the DX7 had six, and most lesser FM synths used four. Fortunately there’s the ability to edit common parameters over all eight operators, and these synthetically derived sounds can be mixed with AWM2 sounds into the one patch (a ‘performance’ in Yamaha parlance).
NEED TO KNOW
THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE KNOB
Up on the main deck there’s a plethora of control options. The Montage machines offer eight 60mm faders with LED ‘ladders’, and eight rotary pots with LED position markers. These controls can be assigned to virtually any parameter. There’s also the usual pitch and modulation wheels, accompanied by a 75mm long ribbon controller. What’s more interesting, and something that pulls the aforementioned controllers together is the Super Knob. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but this knob is actually quite super. Any parameter group can be assigned to the Super Knob. Alter pan alongside tempo and filters, volume and filter resonance, pretty much anything you can find can be relegated to Super Knob control. It also shunts out MIDI controller info so your super-duper tweaking can be recorded into the Montage’s sequencer or your DAW. It also glows and pulsates in various colours, which I found to be incredibly distracting until I found the settings to tone the Super Knob’s lighting theatrics down a little — ok, a lot. It looks cool and flashes in time, but it’s alarmingly distracting. Mileages will vary; adjust to taste.
Similar in function is the Montage’s Motion Sequence feature. These are tempo-synchronised, customisable control sequences that can be assigned to any parameter. Motion Sequences are primarily dedicated to the controls on the front panel. All parameters are accessible via the unit’s seven-inch touch sensitive screen.
Effects include various modern staples such as ‘Beat Repeat’, ‘Vinyl Break’, ‘Bit Crusher’, and ‘Analog Delay’. There’s also an array of signal processing options, including reverb, and an overall master effect which includes multi-band compression, five-band master EQ, along with insert effects. There’s even a vocoder if you must.
While the Montage’s light-show and pulsating Super Knob seemed like the synth’s draw-cards following boot-up, it’s not until you play the keyboard that you realise one of the Montage’s greatest features. The keybed is awesome. I was fortunate to have the 88-note model Montage 8, and the 88-key ‘Balanced Hammer’ keys are just wonderful. While not a true piano key, the Montage’s keys retain that slippery synth action while maintaining a balanced piano feel — the best of both worlds without a doubt. Yamaha obviously has many, many years of experience when it comes to keys, and you’ll be blatantly aware of this at first touch of the Montage 8. Lesser models — the Montage 6 and Montage 7 — both offer the ‘FSX’ keyboard, which is no doubt more synth-ish. I didn’t get to try one. Let it be known that all three key-beds provide aftertouch controller info.
GET WITH THE PROGRAM
One cannot deny Yamaha has a behemoth of a flagship here. Just the number of sounds and the vast waveform memory is enough to get many players a little hot under the collar. However, there’s one bridge left to cross when it comes to Yamaha synthesizers. They are inherently difficult to program. In the case of the Montage I don’t believe Yamaha has made the immediacy of programming a flagship workstation synth any easier. Yes, I concur with the manual that the absence of the usual Yamaha ‘Mode’ layer of performance editing has been eradicated, but there’s still the good old ‘Job’ button. It’s a shame to mention this, but it’s best you know the truth going in before an audition. For the Yamaha uninitiated, there will be need for a good deal of orientation. For those used to flipping around in various jobs, states, and function centres the Montage will feel better than second nature, especially if moving on from a Motif model. If you’re prepared to look past this then the Montage’s sounds, insane modulation and performance features will be enough to get you in.