A champion among FM synthesizers
Preface: Below is my review. I feel obligated to provide you with these wonderfully chosen words prior to my actual review. A few readers were concerned about my “review” and the lack of, what they felt, were exclusions. My reviews on my site are NOT exhaustive reviews, nor do I wish to write anything of that caliber. Most of these synthesizers have been around for more than 30 years, most of that information is either common knowledge or so obscure that no one found it interesting in all that time. I offer you my experiences and my history with the gear I have or have interacted with. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly. And so with that, I present my poor doings.
The Yamaha SY77 has a presence. Visually and sonically. It is a late-stage Yamaha FM synthesizer, somewhat marking the end of the 80’s. I don’t know if it was Yamaha’s answer to the Roland D-50, but it certainly seems like it because it can basically do LA Synthesis. Anyway, I’m not here to give you a history lesson and I equally can’t be bothered to figure out Yamaha’s rationale. There are probably 50 webzone videos online that will articulate the history of this synthesizer. I must interject regarding others’ views on what Yamaha was making the SY77 in response to. Apparently, the reader believed it was exclusively the answer to the Korg M1 because they are both ‘workstations,’ devices with sequencers. My answer is: 1) I made it pretty clear I don’t actually know, and 2) does it really matter at all?
Back to the important stuff – the Yamaha SY77. I don’t think I can tell you what it is that I like about the aesthetics of the SY77. It’s just a big block. And yet, I like it. It feels expensive, even though I got mine for $260. I bought it from the same guy whose home I drove to to buy his Roland D-50 (and ended up walking away from due to its poor condition). I was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the SY77 he sold me. It was basically in perfect condition.
So, here we come to the unfortunate technical information. The SY77 is a 6 operator (6-op) FM synthesizer with Real-time Convolution and Modulation (RCM). Let’s unpack that a little bit. First, what are 6 operators? They’re basically 6 individual oscillators (on the Yamaha DX7, these were only sine waves) that you can stack (or route) in various ways (called algorithms). You have the carriers (or lowest oscillators in the diagram, and the ones that you hear making a sound) and the modulators (which modulate the carriers based on their frequencies). The modulators can act to change the waveform of the carrier, thus creating complex waveforms like saw, square, and triangle waves. Modulators can also act as low frequency oscillators (LFOs). RCM is basically marketing for what I like to call “a bad idea.” Simply put, it allows you to use internal samples as FM modulators. Can it be interesting? Yeah, I guess maybe. I didn’t find a use for it, I think it was just meant to sound cool like “LA Synthesis.” Again, a reader was upset about me calling RCM a ‘bad idea’. Well – sure, it’s cool, but it’s name is marketing speak and basically meaningless. As if FM synthesis wasn’t complicated enough, RCM is an extra layer of complication. You are welcome to learn more about it here. Note that even back in 1990 it seemed the reviewers agreed with me – that it’s complicated and its nomenclature is not ideal.
When I first purchased the SY77, I had previously owned a TX7 and TX81z, but never really delved into FM synthesis that much so I didn’t understand any of it. Then I read the SY Programming guide by a guy named Herbert Janssen. It is absolutely worth your time to read (even if you don’t have an SY77, but want to learn about FM synthesis in an easy-to-understand and digestible way) and I am extremely thankful to them for putting in the effort to explain things.
Step 1: Delete all of the user presets. If there was a digital trashbin – those presets would all need to end up in it. Why Yamaha chose to send one of the most powerful FM synthesizers ever made into the wild using mostly sampled pianos and cellos is beyond me. I guess at the time maybe it just blew people’s minds that you could get those clean, sterile sounds. They must have been awfully proud of those presets at the time. I like to imagine a room full of engineers at Yamaha listening to the cheesy piano sounds they created on this wonderful synth, smiling at their accomplishments as the sun was setting in the horizon. Thankfully, there was one maverick amongst them, who made initializing a patch fairly simple. I would like to commend that person, if I knew who they were.
I personally think the SY77 sounds incredible (obviously once you’ve thrown the preset in the trash and started from scratch). It has this meat or girth or frankly any other euphemism that could invoke the wrong mental image. I don’t know if it is just heavy on the mid-range sounds or the low-frequency range, but it just has a thick and powerful sound.
Ok – yeah, I think it can sound totally analog and wonderful, but also silky and smooth, reminding me of a crystal. Wait, what? Why does sound evoke weird imagery like that? How can a sound be ‘meaty’ or ‘silky’ or ‘crystal-like’? Why do we ascribe sounds with physical size or objects? Have you ever heard a sound and thought “oh yeah, that totally sounds like a mood one would have if they sat next to a window on a rainy day?” So, sounds can actually evoke anything and everything. Sometimes it makes sense. For instance, the song “Singing in the Rain” is probably the most innocent song in the world, and yet, I have completely disturbing imagery attached to it (see here). Other times, it’s very clear that where we got that imagery is just due to experiences we can no longer attach to something. I’m sure I played a video game in the 80’s or 90’s that had ‘crystal’ levels and the music sounded like the those that I pull out of the SY77. Then I wonder, why the heck did those artists choose those sounds to evoke exactly what I expected them to evoke (or maybe they were the first and it was somewhat random).
Where was I going with all of this… I don’t know and I’m certain you don’t either. The reality is, the SY77 has a really breathtaking sound inside it. No doubt the SY99 would be more wonderful, but also bigger. I purchased the Roland System 8 thinking “Oh, it has FM sounds in it, maybe I can replace my SY77!” I have to chuckle at myself. What an utterly stupid thing to have thought. The FM side of the System 8 is anemic at best. Not only that, it makes weird clicking sounds when voice stealing begins (and there are only 8 voices to go through). It drives me nuts. The SY77 has not yet been dethroned, but don’t worry, I’m always looking for synths to accomplish it. The Prophet 12 is next on the list (and it too will likely fail the test). Trust me, I am aware that I justify my purchases in very odd ways. One thing I will say – the Elektron Monomachine is possibly the closest in terms of quality of sound. It does something very similar in that it is incredibly good, but only 6 voices and has a strange implementation (i.e., simplified) of FM, but still – it’s great.
Yes. I give this its own sub-header. The keybed is among the best I’ve ever played. I don’t know if it’s the same one as in the Korg 01wfd, but it feels very similar. I describe it as having a ‘buttery’ feeling. There’s something that’s just so smooth and rewarding. I think it feels better than my Prophet 10 REV4, personally. When I got it, it didn’t feel that way though. I had to open it up and take out every single key and grease them with white lithium grease. The only keybed I like more is the Access Virus Kb keybed. That one, and that one alone, ranks above the SY77’s.
Compared to the Yamaha SY99
The Yamaha SY99 is a larger, and somewhat ‘better’ version of the SY77, and some improvements were definitely made, namely in the filter section. The SY77 does not have a way to modulate the two internal filters simultaneously. There is not cutoff link. You can, of course, connect them and use an envelope (or both envelopes) to modulate the filters, but the SY99 improves upon that. In what way, I’m not entirely sure because I don’t have an SY99. Secondly, the SY77 filters do not open all the way, the sound begins to dull the second you activate the filters. I don’t recall who mentioned this, but someone in an SY77 Facebook group who said they worked on the team confirmed that this was indeed a bug with the Yamaha SY77. Others thought I was making it up, but hey, listen for yourself and let me know. Maybe it is just in my head. Again I must interject – as a reader was very unhappy about my lack of comparison here. Clearly the SY99 is the better synthesizer. They stated that “Mention all of the [the comparisons] or don’t mention it at all.” No doubt – other readers will seek out differences if they are motivated. There are many threads online to compare the two.
The user interface and aesthetics
It’s hard to talk about the SY77 without bringing up the user interface. This is probably where you and I will part ways. You see, I actually like the UI of the SY77. I think it’s pretty straightforward, especially after you read that document I discussed earlier and just get some basic familiarity with the SY77. There are a lot of buttons to press, but I find I get around fairly easily. It’s also easy to copy and paste information about one operator into another. I had a Yamaha DX7s for a while and actually despised its workflow in comparison to the SY77. I believe the DX7s and DX7 have different UI’s, even slightly, that made me feel the DX7s is worse.
One thing I do not like about the UI or aesthetics is the lack of a silkscreen print of the algorithms that can be used. There was a ton of space above all of the buttons. Like, a lot of totally unused space. The DX7 showcases those algorithms with pride. The SY77 leaves it to the screen to perform that function. You can indeed view all of the algorithms, although a silkscreen would have looked great up there. You can add up to 3 feedback points in the algorithm section whereby an operator has feedback from its sound going back into itself. Although these don’t show up with updates on the LCD screen in the algorithm section, it’s pretty easy to understand where they’re being hooked up.
This brings up a somewhat major point. The LCD screen. You will likely need to replace it because the original LCD was not built to last. I replaced mine. Twice. It takes at least 2.5 hours to dig into the pits of hell and replace that screen. You basically have to remove every single board. I recorded this process, but I don’t think I did a very good job with filming it, so review at your own risk (here). Yamaha had decided to go from one of the easiest synths to get into (the DX7) to one of the hardest (the SY77). I don’t think I’ve hated a disassembly more.
The replacement LCD screen story
The reason I had to replace the LCD twice? The seller I purchased the screen from was in the UK. He sent me the first one and I installed it. Once it was all in and back together, I turned on the screen. To my horror, it had a flaw. I wrote to the seller who said they would ship me another one if I paid for it and suggested I do so outside of eBay. Only after I paid for the second and it was shipped did his tone start to change. First, he argued that this has never happened before (doubtful, because I had seen others complain about him on the internet). Then, he said he would have to see about whether or not to refund me for my original once I sent it back. I questioned this logic because there would be no way to know whether the flaw (or damage) was due to me or due to the shipping. Oh, and the box it was shipped in was barely big enough for it to fit in.
What you can see on the screen, above the ‘=’ sign, is this dot, like it was punctured. Above is the box it came in. A small ‘fragile’ box that was bent. There was not enough space for the screen to be safely secured from harm. I don’t know if his practices have updated, and sadly, there are other LCDs I’d want, but I don’t trust the seller enough to deal with him again.
I replaced the first LCD with the second when it arrived. This time, I tested the screen when the SY77 was upside down and before I installed it. This saved me a ton of time. When I had confirmation that LCD number 2 was good, I went and did the repair. Then I reached the crescendo with this eBay seller. I wanted to confirm that I would receive a refund once I returned the LCD. His response was, “I’ll see,” because he “needed to assess whose fault it was”. I don’t recall too much from there how things progressed (or regressed), but it ended with him sending me expletives, accusing me of being a “trickster”, and then stopping communication with me. Eventually I wrote to eBay who initially sided with the seller… until I spoke to someone about the seller going behind eBay and selling a unit outside of eBay. After that, I got a refund, and got to keep the second LCD. I gave it to the guy who I bought the SY77 from since he had an SY99. Of course, right after that, he dropped all social media and I lost contact with him. I have no idea whether he installed the screen or not.
So many FM synths…
You may be wondering why I chose the SY77 over the other FM synthesizers? Well, I have had the Yamaha TX7 (basically a desktop DX7 that you couldn’t really edit), a TX81z (prized for ‘Lately Bass’ patch), and a DX7s. I have played the original DX7 and I think that is an amazing synthesizer as well, I just can’t compare it other than to say that it’s keybed was amazing too and I believe it had a better UI than the DX7s. Then there’s all the synths in between (DX21, DX27, DX100) and new synths (MODX, OPsix, etc). The MODX seems interesting, but it’s hard to put in the money to want to buy something new like that when you already have something that also does similar synthesis methods and it didn’t cost you that much. As for the older synthesizers (DX7s, DX21, TX81z, TX7), there are a number of reasons I own the SY77 over them. First, the SY77 has different waveforms to chose from, instead of just sine waves (like on the DX7). This makes it easy to start with some basic waves and do things that may more closely resemble that of 4-op synths (although even this can be a major challenge like when I was recreating Lately Bass on my SY77 because the waveforms are not identical). Second, if you’re going to pick between the 6-op synths, it should really be between the original DX7 and the SY77. When I owned the DX7s (which is basically a DX7 mark II), the patches I made in both of them sounded identical. I have heard (although can’t confirm) that the original DX7 has more aliasing and actually sounds more pleasing or interesting. I’ve never compared the DX7 and SY77 directly, so I don’t know if this is true. Finally, all of the DX-looking synthesizers, while clearly abundant, are making their way into being worth more than the SY77, despite being way less capable synthesizers. I do appreciate that some people prefer simple synthesizers over more complex ones, but if you’re getting into FM, you already know it’s complicated. If you see a DX7 or an SY77, I think they’re equally good synthesizers. I would get the DX7 for the history, somewhat easier UI, way easier maintenance, and possibly better keyboard. Otherwise, I would (and did) get the SY77. Did you know that I did not include every single FM synthesizer? It’s true. A reader told me! He said, “There were also DX5, DX11 (V2), V50, DX7 II D/FD, TX802 (and some others), if you want to make comparison, do it with all, or don’t do it at all.” Well, perfect, he added them for me, although he forgot to include the DX1, Reface DX, and likely others, which is a huge shame. There’s absolutely no way to seek out the history of Yamaha’s FM synths (like here, here, and especially here).
Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine what the SY77 would have been if it had knobs like the Prophet 5. I think it would have gone down in history as an equal to those top tier synthesizers (like the P5, OB-Xa, Jupiter-8, etc). As it stands, there is no real good knobby interface to deal with this magical FM creature and that’s ok. I find no issues with navigation on the SY77 and the sound is so good, it sometimes just sounds analog. In fact, when I’m using my Prophet 10 REV4, I get similar vibes in the sound. I don’t know what it is about it, they just have similar presence, although the Prophet is far easier to use, I will admit. To summarize, the SY77 sounds very good, has a decent interface (for me personally), has an excellent keybed, and just looks pretty good in a 90’s sort of utilitarian way.