It may look somewhat toy-like, but Yamaha's latest desktop synth workstation is actually anything but it features serious synthesis from the AN1x and a host of performance-friendly controls. Chris Carter gets modelling...
The trendiness of virtual analogue synths continues undiminished, and Yamaha's latest addition to the current crop, the AN200 desktop synth, has a serious virtual analogue heritage, even in these relatively early days of physical modeling; it's based on the popular AN1x keyboard synth. Despite being about a tenth of the size of the AN1x (which was reviewed back in SOS August 1997 see www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/aug97/yamahaan1x.html), the AN200 still manages to pack in a lot of features, including a few not present in the AN keyboard. The new arrival also forms part of the new Yamaha Loop Factory group of instruments, which includes the SU200 desktop sampler and the still-forthcoming DX200 (a desktop synth workstation with a similar format to the AN200, but with a DX7 FM synth engine).
I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed when I first put the AN200 on my desk. Could everything I'd heard about the extensive capabilities of such a diminutive box of buttons be true? After some time with it, however, I think the answer is yes. This virtual analogue synth is a powerhouse of options, functions and features that put those of a true old analogue synth to shame. For the full rundown, check out the specification box on the next page.
YAMAHA AN200 £449
Expressive virtual analogue synth.
Separate four-track motion control.
Hundreds of useable preset patterns and voices.
Well-thought-out features for live use.
Dual-format editing/librarian CD-ROM supplied.
Many features only accessible via software.
The built-in effects are a bit basic.
Maximum 16 steps per sequence (authentic, but limiting!).
No MIDI Thru socket.
Expressive, if a little unpredictable, and powerful, but occasionally frustrating, the AN200 is a great-sounding virtual analogue synth and drum machine in a compact package that is equally at home on the desktop or gigging. Fun to play with, and definitely not a toy!
As you can see from the picture accompanying this review, the AN200's control surface is covered with knobs and buttons, and all the main functions are clearly labeled and well-laid-out; no mean feat considering the amount of features available. However, the front panel doesn't reveal the whole story, as there are plenty of features not immediately obvious from the front panel, or only accessible via the supplied editing software (there's a box elsewhere in this article with a list of the many features which can only be edited in this way). The first few minutes with the AN200 will probably have you scratching your head and swearing, and I'm sorry to say that the operating manual is compulsory reading if you wish to get the most out of it!
The AN200 has two types of voices. First there are AN-derived synth voices featuring the now familiar configuration of two VCOs, a multi-mode VCF, a VCA, two ADSRs, two LFOs, a Noise source, a ring modulator, effects block and a dedicated analogue-style 16-step sequencer track. These synth voices stretch to a respectable maximum polyphony of five notes. The AN200 also offers three sample-based Rhythm voices, each with their own 16-step sequencer tracks. Each Rhythm track has access to 120 onboard instrument samples and these range from acoustic and electronic drum, percussion and bass samples to complex synth tones and special effects loops. There is also a range of basic sample-shaping tools.
I should point out that the AN200's sequencer Pattern and synth Voice arrangement is slightly unconventional in that the two are inextricably linked. You can't have one without the other, and the two parts are always treated as one, although it is possible to copy Voice information from one pattern to another.
The two VCOs are well specified and can generate a wide variety of waveforms including: Sawtooth, Pulse, Square, Triangle, and Sine types. There's also a noise source, a sub-oscillator for VCO 1, and a few non-standard waveforms with curious titles like Inner and Vari. Yamaha do not provide any information about these, other than pointing out that they change in tone depending on the VCO Sync settings, which is true as far as it goes. To my ears, they sounded as though they were merely combinations or filtered versions of the other more conventional waveforms.
Interestingly, the shape of most of the waveforms is adjustable (not just the Pulse width) and can be modulated by the LFOs or Envelope generators for extra movement and depth. Some presets obviously use waveform modulation, but as with many of the other esoteric synth features, I found it impossible to edit them using the front-panel controls and had to resort to using the supplied editor software.
The LFOs have everything you would expect from analogue versions and more. Modulation waveforms available include: Sine (five types), Triangle (five types), Square (three types), Saw (four types) and Sample & Hold (four types). Using only the front-panel controls it is only possible to route LFO 1 to the VCOs, VCF and VCA. However, using the software Editor you also get the option to add a Delay to the onset of the LFO 1 and use numerous routing and modulation options for both LFO 1 and 2.
Five-note polyphonic AN synth voices: two VCOs (plus sub-oscillator), VCF, VCA, noise, ring modulator, mixer, one pitch envelope generator (PEG), two LFOs, and two ADSR envelope generators (filter envelope generator, or FEG, and amplitude envelope generator, or AEG).
Three 32-note polyphonic sample-based rhythm voices (120 sounds/samples).
Effects: Tempo Delay/Reverb, Flanger/Chorus, Phaser, Amp Simulator, Distortion, three-band EQ (AN synth voices only).
Sequencer: Four tracks, 16 steps, MIDI Sync, MIDI Clock Transmit.
Free EG: four tracks.
Scene: two scenes/voices.
256 Preset Patterns/Voices.
128 User Patterns/Voices.
Although the VCF looks like any other run-of-the-mill filter with just three controls, it's not that simple. Using just the front-panel controls six filters can be called up (24dB low-pass, 12dB low-pass, and 18dB low-pass, band-pass, band-eliminate and high-pass types). The VCF also has its own ADSR generator (the FEG) and using the Editor software, it's possible to adjust filter Keyboard Tracking, Velocity depth and indeed access a second variable 6dB high-pass filter.
As pseudo-analogue filters go, this one sounds fine, with plenty of range and bite at the more extreme settings and a pleasing mellowness at the lower ends of the spectrum. If you are used to real analogue filters you may not be quite so impressed, as there is occasionally a certain digital quality to the sound. It's hard to pin down but is probably a lack of noise or harmonic distortion. This may concern you if you are fussy about this sort of thing, but I didn't lose any sleep over it!
The Effects block includes various types of delay, reverb, flangers, chorus, phasers and overdrive effects. The only physical editing controls available are one marked 'Parameter' and a Wet/Dry knob. The function of the Parameter control varies depending on the selected effect, but it usually controls either the speed of the effect modulation or the length of the reverb or delays. The AN200's selection of effects isn't bad, but I'm not going to pretend that it's terribly inspired either. And given that the software editor gives access to additional parameters in so many other areas of the AN200, it's a shame there aren't any software-editable options available for the main Effects block.
However, there is a separate front-panel-activated Distortion effect which includes further software-editable options. These transform it into a fully fledged Distortion/three-band EQ block. Under software control you then have the choice of various distortion and EQ-based amp simulator processes, as well as variable low, mid and high EQ and a variable low-pass filter. Although this section is no substitute for the lacklustre effects, it is capable of transforming an otherwise dull-sounding patch into something interesting.
The VCA is a simple but effective one with basic ADSR control, though software-editable features also include Velocity and Volume. The VCF and VCA have independent envelope generators, but because of the relative lack of real front-panel controls, both share the same knobs.
The AN200 offers basic onboard mixing which requires the use of multi-function knobs to set the required balance and levels for most of the various VCO, Noise and effects combinations, but a fully featured mixer is available via the editing software. This makes available a decent ring modulator, an interesting Feedback function and individual level controls.
Finally, various MIDI keyboard assign modes are available: Poly (five-note polyphonic), Mono Legato (one note monophonic, no envelope retriggering) and Mono (one note monophonic, with envelope retriggering). There is also a Unison setting; in this monophonic mode, the synth voice is duplicated four times and the tuning interval of the voices can be offset to give a fatter sound but this is another software-only tweak.
AN Voice/Rhythm Step Sequencer Parameters
Step Buttons: On/Mute.
Note Number: C-2 to G8.
Velocity: Rest, 1 to 127.
Gate Time: 1 percent to 1600 percent.
Pitch Range: -64 to +24.
Pan: -64 to +63.
Effect Depth: 0-127.
Effect Wet/Dry: 0-127.
Instrument Select (rhythm tracks only).
Filter Cutoff (rhythm tracks only).
Filter Resonance (rhythm tracks only).
Pattern and Rhythm construction is carried out using a four-track sequencer, one track for the synth and three for the rhythms. This is modelled on the classic analogue 16-step design favoured by Moog, Roland, ARP, and so on, but with a few 21st-century additions. While in Pattern mode the sequencer tracks are always active and can be edited, programmed, and muted using the two rows of 16 illuminated rubberised buttons and the corresponding controller above to adjust individual step pitch, velocity, gate time, and so on. When using the Rhythm tracks, these knobs can also be used to dial up samples for each pattern step from the 120 sounds available. In addition, the three Rhythm tracks each have their own basic low-pass VCF, and although they don't possess any modulation options, the filters can be automated using the Free EG motion recorder (of which more in a moment).
The Sequencer control section includes such performance goodies as forward or reverse play, an option which halves or doubles the playback tempo, track mute and solo, real-time tap tempo adjustment, and pattern retrigger, stutter, roll and swing options. There's also a system-wide gate time control, which I really liked it allows you to shorten your rhythms to sharp 'tikka tikka' patterns if you wish. My other favourite was the option for real-time Pattern Select via the sequencer pads, which is great for jamming with loops and patterns. The Sequencer is pretty straightforward to program and use, once you know your way around it.
Performance Controls & MIDI
The main Song/Sequencer control panel includes some unusual (and habit-forming) performance controls. A few useful features have also been borrowed from the AN1x, including a four-track motion control function for recording knob movements (quaintly referred to as the Free EG), and a patch-morphing facility, here referred to as a Scene.
The Free EG feature was first introduced in the Yamaha AN1x, and is included here unchanged. Essentially, it records and plays back any real-time controller movements you make. Most virtual analogue synths have a feature such as this, usually called a Motion Controller or Motion Sequencer. However, this version is slightly more versatile than most, as it can record four separate controllers. Free EG tracks are stored with the Pattern they were recorded in, and playback options include various trigger modes and loop options (forward, alternating, one-shot, and so on) and variable bar lengths (ranging from half a bar to eight). Free EG is like having an extra pair of hands at your disposal; don't underestimate how useful this feature can be at imparting movement and expression into your Patterns and Voices.
Another truly useful performance feature is Scene, which allows you to program two different synth Voices for each Pattern and perform a morph between the two in real time. Despite sounding simple, this can produce some incredibly complex sounds in the transition from one voice to another. You can also use Scene to jump to a completely new sound while still keeping the rhythm pumping along. It's just a shame the Scene function can't be recorded by the Free EG for really wild times. The switch functions can't be recorded either; the Free EG records only knob movements.
MIDI is well catered for, although the lack of a Thru socket is frustrating. The AN200 works well as a controller source and almost every function (whether accesible from the front panel or not) can be controlled by external MIDI gear or sequencers. MIDI sources and destinations are set up using the Controller Matrix screen, part of the Editor software, and plenty of MIDI-related information is supplied in the manual.
The Mac version includes OMS 2.3.8, and the PC version includes WG Works Lite. The following features also work between the AN200 and AN1x. EDITOR FEATURES FUNCTIONS ONLY AVAILABLE USING THE EDITOR
AN200 Editing Software
The AN200's software editor is supplied on a dual-format Mac/PC CD-ROM and includes a PDF manual, two Preset banks and a MIDI demo song.
Save/Load Preset and User Data.
MIDI Bulk Load/Dump.
MIDI Individual Pattern Load/Dump.
Store Current Edit (send to AN200).
Drag-and-drop Pattern Librarian.
Voice Name Edit: 10 digits.
Category: 22 types.
Unison Detune: -1 to -32.
Portamento Type: full time, fingered, Sustain key.
PEG (Pitch Envelope Generator): Attack (0-127), Decay (0-127), Depth (-64 to +63), Destination (VCO 1 or VC0 2).
VCO 1 & 2 options: Pitch (-64 to +63), Fine-tune (-64 to +63), Edge (1-127), PWM Depth (1-127), PWM Width (1-127), PWM Source (Fixed, PEG, FEG, LFO 1, LFO 2, LFO 2 phase, LFO 2 fast, or VCO 2), Multi Saw Detune (VCO 1 only; 1-127), Multi Saw Mix (VCO 1 only; 1-127).
X-MOD (Cross Modulation): VCO 2 (Triangle/Sine), Source (Fixed, PEG, FEG, LFO 1, or LFO 2), Depth (-64 to +63).
LFO 1 & 2: Key On Reset (1-127), Sync Pitch Modulation (Master, Slave, or both), Assign Group (various).
FM (Frequency Modulation): Depth (+63 to -64), Algorithm (Master, Slave, or both), FM Depth Control (Fixed, PEG, FEG, LFO 1, or LFO 2), Modulator (VCO 2 frequency, VCO 2, VCO 1, VCO 1 sub-oscillator, PEG, FEG, LFO 1, or LFO 2).
VCO Sync: Mode (Off, VCO 1 into VCO 2, VCO 2 into VCO 1), Source (Fixed, PEG, FEG, LFO 1, LFO 2), Depth (-64 to +63).
VCF: Velocity (-64 to +63), Key Track (-32 to +63), Second High-pass Filter (0-127).
VCA: Velocity (-64 to +63), VCA Volume (0-127).
Mixer: Ring Modulator (0-127), VCO 1 Level (0-127), VCO 2 Level (0-127), Noise Level (0-127), Feedback Level (0-127).
Distortion: Type (Stack, Combo, or Tube), Low-pass Filter (1kHz-18 kHz, Bypass).
EQ: Low (32Hz to 2kHz, -12dB/+12dB), Mid (100Hz to 10 kHz, -12dB/+12dB), High (500Hz to 16kHz, -12dB/+12dB), Resonance (1.0-12.0), Output gain (+0dB, +6dB, +12dB).
Free EG: Free EG Tempo (20-300bpm), Trigger (MIDI In, Note On, or Seq Start), Loop (Off, Forward, Half, Alt, or Alt Half), Transform (Smooth, Randomise, Scale, or Move).
Control Matrix: Pitch Bend Up (-24 to +24), Pitch Bend Down (-24 to +24), Source (x15; most MIDI controller numbers), Parameter (x15; most AN200 control destinations), Depth (x15; -64 to +63).
The Mac version includes OMS 2.3.8, and the PC version includes WG Works Lite. The following features also work between the AN200 and AN1x.
FUNCTIONS ONLY AVAILABLE USING THE EDITOR
The Software Editor
When I began using the AN200 I had no idea how much I would come to rely on the Editor software. In day-to-day use I found myself almost exclusively building synth sounds from scratch using the Editor, then performing minor tweaks from the front panel where possible. But funnily enough, I tended to build rhythms and patterns using the front-panel controls and pads. I suppose each user will find their preferred way of working.
On a G3 desktop Mac and a G3 Powerbook, the software Editor was stable and didn't crash once in the time I was using it, although it did exhibit some strange on-screen anomalies where parts of the main editor screen were almost impossible to read. The librarian utility is pretty essential for backing up and naming Patterns. It also doubles as a conversion bridge for loading AN1x Patterns/Voices.
I'm not the first and I certainly won't be the last to point out that the AN200 is similar in size and layout to the hugely popular Korg Electribes. However, where Korg have two distinct Electribes, one dedicated to synth sounds and another for percussion, Yamaha have produced a hybrid version which covers both camps. This approach has both benefits and drawbacks. The AN200 is a hugely powerful synth for such a neat and affordable desktop package; if it were sold on a price-per-feature basis it would cost considerably more. However, I do consider it a drawback that even with the AN200's range of dedicated and multi-function controls, there are so many features of the AN200's synth engine which are only accessible via editing software. If you have a Mac or PC, this isn't going to be a problem, but without one you could be missing out on some invaluable hidden extras and the benefit of fast and relatively intuitive editing, as well as the librarian.
Yamaha are using the catch phase 'this is not a toy' in their current advertising for the new Loop Factory synths. Well, that may be true but the AN200 is still a lot of fun to play with. After reviewing the Korg Electribes last year I put my hand in my pocket and bought one (contrary to what some people seem to think, we SOS reviewers don't get to keep review gear; we have to buy it like everyone else). I'm happy with my little Electribe, but if I were still in the market for a desktop virtual analogue synth-cum-drum machine I would seriously think about paying that bit extra and going for the AN200 instead.