02/03/12

Yamaha’s Motif Xf8 Production Synth

Umpteen sounds and almost as many add-ons

Take Yamaha’s Motif XF8 out of its box and you might chuckle at its chunkiness. In an age where new technology is touch-screen, wireless and ever slimmer, here is a 63-pound piece of machinery which stands nearly as tall as I do, and is thicker than a phone book.

But there’s a lot going on inside that heft. Plug in the 88-key XF8 and you’ll surely be impressed by the instrument’s stockpile of authentic sounds and its recording and sampling capabilities. Will it revolutionize the keyboard industry? Not a chance. But the XF8 reliably builds upon its predecessors, which have been hailed as one of the market’s premier workstation lines. This latest addition, which comes almost 10 years after the first Motif, is sure to uphold that reputation.

One of the XF8’s most noticeable improvements is its 741 MB of internal WAV ROM—the largest library of pre-installed sounds and instruments ever, according to Yamaha. Record or not, this is the XF8’s greatest strength: 128 voices and eight drum kits more than the previous version, bringing the grand total to 1,353.

Some of these sounds are just phenomenal. The XF8 has a striking replication of a grand piano, as well as a nuanced electric piano section—you can hear individual tines being struck—and one of the best Wurlitzer emulations I’ve tried yet. Hit a few notes on the “arched top” guitar voice and you can hear a hand sliding along the frets. And the collection of beats, especially those in the “chill” category, is top of the line.

The keyboard’s action is solid, and the interface has a few nifty features. For a quick, easy way to set the beats per minute, you simply hit the “tap” key at your desired tempo. While the XF8 comes with a few different ways to connect to your computer (USB, Ethernet, MIDI), a pre-installed Wi-Fi card certainly wouldn’t hurt. As it stands, perhaps the best option is a WiFi USB stick. Another gripe: The XF8’s user interface lags from time to time. Turn the selector wheel or push a button and it may take a second or two for the screen to catch up. When you’re in an editing and recording groove, it’s just enough of a difference to throw off your rhythm.

If you like to accessorize, you’re going to love the XF8. Yamaha offers expansion flash memory boards, which come in 512 MB and 1 GB sizes and cost $199 and $350, respectively. Go with a pair of the 1 GB boards for a maximum 2 GB of re-writable space.

Another tempting add-on is Chick’s Mark V Sample Library, developed by keys legend Chick Corea and the California-based company Keyfax NewMedia. The expansion pack has samples of every note from Corea’s renowned Rhodes Mark V Stage 73 electric piano. Corea teamed up with Harold Rhodes to create the instrument in the early ’80s, and in the ensuing decade, the keyboardist’s engineer tweaked and re-tweaked the Mark V, adding electronics, isolating tones and cutting down on the hum. When the original keyboard became too brittle to travel, Corea loaded the sample pack ($129) on his XF8, and it became part of his touring rig with Return to Forever IV. While the XF8’s Rhodes emulations are already top-notch, electric piano buffs and fusion heads will want these additional tones.

Techies will want to spring for the optional FireWire FW16E interface (24-bit/96kHz), which lets you transfer 16 channels and also receive three pairs of stereo. It costs about $270, and manual installation doesn’t look like much of a hassle. Given that the XF8 has an MSRP of $4,039 (its actual retail price, of course, is considerably less), the 2 GB of extra head-room as well as the FireWire will push the total dangerously near—if not over—$5,000. Yamaha also sells the 76-key Motif XF7 for $3,539 and the 61-key Motif XF6 for $2,999.

Less expensive but certainly notable: After updating the keyboard’s operating system, you can use a USB WiFi adapter to connect the XF8 with Yahama’s iPad app. MIDI messages can be transferred this way, and with the right app, the iPad doubles as a drum kit, keyboard arp and voice editor. Touché, Yamaha.

While it’s fairly simple to record a song, add overdubs and save it, figuring out more complicated commands on the XF8, such as editing sound parameters and mixing levels, can be like learning to drive—only your first car isn’t your grandmother’s Buick, it’s a Lamborghini. The average keyboard player can probably learn to navigate the XF8 in a week or two, but a master’s degree in audio engineering certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Hit a roadblock, and the owner’s manual might be able to help. Many keyboard manufacturers love to punish players with encyclopedic guides which, if you bother to open them, are filled with technical jib-jab. The XF8’s book (a slim 82 pages) is better than most but still not idiot proof. Thankfully, it also comes with a more in-depth digital version on a CD.

Run of the mill keyboardists are probably going to have a tough time navigating the XF8. But for the committed workstation user, the XF8 offers high-end performance and an eyebrow-raising arsenal of sounds. It’s a fine new generation in the Motif family tree.

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