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The Ultimate Guide To The Yamaha DX7 – How It Works, Who Uses One + Where To Buy It!

The Yamaha DX7 – The Digital FM King!

The Yamaha DX7 has gained a reputation for being so complex and intricate that very few people have been able to master its full inventory of sounds, features, and capabilities. The pioneer in digital FM synthesis, the DX7 came from humble beginnings in a university laboratory before being turned into a bestselling and iconic instrument. 

After Stanford University professor John Chowning developed digital FM synthesis after experimenting in order to create brighter sounds, he patented the technology and eventually found a collaborator in Yamaha. The Yamaha company fine-tuned the FM algorithm to improve the brightness of the sound and released a basic digital synth, the GS1, followed by DX series prototype, the CSDX, after which came the DX1 and DX5 before the DX7 burst onto the market. The DX7 in it’s final form had a noticeable advantage over any pre-existing analogue synths as it was able to mimic sophisticated sounds and timbres such as brass and strings much more effectively. The ability to create different sounds- including plucked sounds and glassy or metallic noises- meant the DX7 sold over 150,000 units in one year, beating the Minimoog’s legendary release by a huge amount. In a market which was already accustomed to synthesis, the DX7 was perfectly poised- fresh and innovative enough to take the world by storm, but still recognizable as an instrument which was part of many musicians’ arsenals. 

Where Can I Buy A Yamaha DX7?

The DX7 did things differently in terms of control and display, and whilst this brought musicians welcome innovations- such as the ability to name patches- it also meant that much of the DX7’s mastery lay beyond the reach of the average synth enthusiast. Knowledge of analogue synths proved less transferrable than was originally hoped and many musicians found themselves restricted to the DX7’s presets, unable to navigate the complex menus and submenus on the DX7’s LED screen. This had an inadvertent affect on shaping the sound of pop music at the time, with songs like Take on Me by Aha, Shout by Tears for Fears, and People are People by Depeche Mode all using DX7 presets.

At the time, it was so groundbreaking that most musicians were more than satisfied simply with the wealth of new options and sounds to investigate, even if only using the presets. A monotimbral, polyphonic synth with sixteen voices, the DX7 differed from analogue synths which went before it by using additive FM synthesis. It was also unusual in having no filters whatsoever, although it did have an attenuator, with one pitch envelope and six amplitude generators per voice. Each voice also had six digital sine wave generators, though no other waveforms, and the DX7’s playability was helped by aftertouch and velocity expression.

With a 61 note keyboard, the Yamaha DX7 was on the larger side compared to something like the Minimoog. Users could also take advantage of the pitch bend and modulation wheels, plus two inputs each for an external foot controller and foot pedal, as well as an option for a breath controller.

Part of the DX7’s complexity was due to the complexity of the sounds themselves it was able to imitate. Many of the plucked or glassy sounds especially had what are known in acoustics as transients- complex bursts of sound at the beginning of a waveform which were made up of lots of non harmonic elements. Having creative control over this level of sonic detail required users to manually input mathematical ratios as opposed to merely turning knobs or sliding faders.

Although the DX7 itself could only provide sine waves, it’s LFOs did allow users to use other waveforms to modulate the basic sine wave, including, square, sawtooth, and triangle. Absent also from the DX7 was the typical filter envelope which had attack, decay, sustain, and release- all familiar terms to the analogue educated synth player. Instead, the DX7 used the two parameters rate and level, although these can be roughly translated if necessary and are not too difficult to pick up after exposure to analogue synthesis.

How Much Does A Yamaha DX7 Cost?

The Yamaha DX7 is unfortunately no longer in production, so buying one will be a matter of tracking down a second hand instrument as and when it comes up. The big online retailers like Amazon and eBay are worth checking but prices are generally on the higher side. Online secondhand instrument retailer has DX7s in stock at the time of writing for the relatively low price of £410.74, although shipping can be very expensive. Instruments may be in varying levels of condition and prices vary wildly, with one DX7 on eBay going for only £199, a sharp contrast to it’s original retail price of £1495. As digital synthesis has fallen out of favour, despite the DX7’s pioneering technology at the time of it’s release, it tends to go for lower prices than comparable analogue synths. Musicians forums are also worth checking as with other secondhand vintage synths, but this is one synth which much fewer people are willing to part with. 

*Yamaha DX7 prices generally seen on auction sites. If you see them cheaper, you may be on to a bargain.

Who Uses Or Used The Yamaha DX7?

Famous and not so famous users of the Yamaha DX7 are Brian Eno, who become one of the only people to fully master it as an instrument and used it on countless albums from his own work such as Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and released instructions for musicians at home to recreate some of his synth patches in Keyboard Magazine in 1987, which can still be found online today. Eno used the DX7 extensively over many decades on albums such as Coldplay’s 2007 album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends as well. In it’s heyday, the DX7 was used by greats such as Talking Heads, Kraftwerk, George Martin, Phil Collins, and Stevie Wonder, as well as by artists as diverse as Supertramp, The Cure, The Beastie Boys, and Herbie Hancock. Whilst digital synthesis as a whole is not as popular nowadays as it after the DX7’s release, this synth is certainly more than a flash in the pan and has continued to exert an influence over music technology and composition today. 

Alternatives To The Yamaha DX7?

There are many different alternatives to the 909 whether as hardware, software, analog or digital. These are as follows: Yamaha DX100, Korg Volca FM, Korg DS-8, Dexed, Yamaha DX200, Roland D-50, Elektron Monomachine, emulators and VST’s.

However, when we compare it to the real thing it’s noticeable that the alternatives don’t quite stack up. They are a great option though for people with a lower budget.

Classic Yamaha DX7 Videos, Tutorials & Demos

A playlist of videos showing you how to create famous sounds, FM synthesis tutorials, basic functions and creating basic sounds and some gear chat going through this classic synth. Some great tips in here so be sure to check them out!

Other Classic Synth or Drum Machine Products?

The famous Roland synths, drum machines and effects include: SH 101, MC 202, TB 303, TR 606, TR 707, TR 808, TR 909, Juno 60RE-201 Space Echo. Behringer Deepmind 12, Behringer K2, Behringer Model D, Elektron Machinedrum, Korg MS-20, Moog Model D, Moog Grandmother, Nord Modular G1, Oberheim OB-6, Sequential Prophet 6, Yamaha DX7.

Where Can I Find A Yamaha DX7 For Sale?