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Yamaha S90 Synthesizer

Some might say the measure of a great keyboard is its ability to deliver all that is needed-and perhaps much more than is needed. With the Yamaha S90 ($2,499), be prepared to deal with a lot of information that you may or may not use; this board is not for the novice. Its manual, though designed to appear simple and clear, is involved and, at times, confusing. It contains so much information that it would be helpful if Yamaha supplied an additional text just for basic usage.

The time it takes to learn the instrument pays off, however, when you discover the possibilities of the S90’s wide array of sounds. I’ve never been impressed by the superfluous patches that manufacturers throw into boards like train whistles, jet planes, etc-patches you would hardly ever find any use for. With the S90 there are no wasted patches. It holds combinations that will spark anyone’s creativity. The piano and electric piano (Rhodes to Wurlitzer) patches are authentic, some with great tine and bell tones. The grand pianos are workable, depending on your amplification system and the gig’s demands. Ain’t nothing like the real thing, but I felt comfortable on the gig with the 3Layer S700 voice as well as with the Power Grand. The touch for rhythm Clav and organ glisses is not impeded by the slightly sluggish action of the board. The S90 does not have the spring response of some weighted boards, but the action is sufficient for whatever style or function you are in. The strings and brass sounds are phat, and the orchestra patches are realistic enough. The effects are quite thorough, with 12 types of reverb and twice as many chorus settings.

The rear panel has a variety of connections. There are four foot-pedal jacks: the foot controller (two jacks) controls various parameters so that you can use your hands for playing; the footswitch can be assigned to various on-off functions; and, of course, there is the sustain pedal (which does not come with the board). There is also a breath controller, for the wannabe horn player. The A/D input allows you to import external audio, using a mike or other audio sources. The USB connector allows you to hook up your personal computer and get busy. There are extra audio jacks for separately controlling the mix while in performance mode. The S90 has all the MIDI options you will need (though a cable does not come with the board).

In order to handle the wide range of voices-more than 512 total with 48 drum kits-the S90 is organized into various “modes” and you are always a button or two away from any mode. The voice mode plays, edits and saves selected voices. The performance mode consists of up to four parts that can be played simultaneously from the board, in layers or special key splits. Using a USB interface you can transfer data between the S90 and your computer and work in the sequence mode. You can also manage files with a file utility program using the S90 memory card. And if these options don’t fulfill your needs, optional plug-in boards can be installed for an even larger library.

I had fun with the arpeggio function, which automatically triggers preset arpeggio phrases. It’s easy to assign an arpeggio to a voice and adjust the tempo, range and effects. The S90 has some interesting presets that will definitely inspire you to new creative heights-especially if you’re fortunate enough to have landed a solo gig. As you create your own patterns, it’s revealed that the number of possible grooves is limitless. The preprogrammed drum loops cover a wide range of styles and include instrument licks that add a humanizing effect.

The S90 is not a simple instrument. Locating a particular feature or function may be challenging at first. For performers, the most important feature is the “favorite” category, where you can store often-used voices in a single location. On the gig this is a must. Just press the favorite button and you are there. In addition, the S90 has four sliders that let you adjust filters, levels, effects, etc while you are playing. This is cool until it becomes addictive.

You will not sling this board over your shoulder and walk to the gig. Its weight (51 lbs.) requires a dolly, or a roadie. But whether programming demos or jammin’ onstage, the S90 is worth its weight in gold.

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