Launched in 1983, this early MIDI polysynth did much to establish the sound of the next decade
It's always difficult to pinpoint when an era starts culturally. These questions of course are subjective: some may view see the 80s starting as early as 1979, for others they began when John Lennon was shot or when Dallas first hit TV screens. Perhaps it was seeing the video for Visage's Fade to Grey.
For me though, the 80s began in 1983 when Yamaha released the DX7…
A sign of the times
Until MIDI arrived, producers working in the digital realm struggled to achieve a sound that could be considered super-tight. Sure, synths could be painstakingly sequenced, but the crisp, millisecond-sharp precision we take for granted today wasn't really achievable until MIDI came along.
By 1983, though, the warm, colourful, wonky soundscapes of analogue were to be challenged and in time overwhelmed by our new digital masters. For many, a pre-digital age is unthinkable. The analogue version of what you are reading this on now, for itnstance, is paper: rather than having the world at your fingertips, you had to go to the library. The gulf between these two technologies is immense – they're worlds apart.
And this is the point. The DX7 arrived on the cusp of a new and emerging technology and its new and unique tones played a huge part in soundtracking the period of time into which it was born.
Designing the future
The design itself was a new world order minimal masterpiece, a glittering neon prayer of silicon chips powered by the noughts and ones of digital alchemy. The DX7 could produce fairly realistic sounds of most instruments, it was one of the first to have MIDI, it was comparatively affordable – and, crucially, it was portable.
Out went the knobs and sliders so beloved of 70s synth aficionados, and in cae smooth, sleek membrane switches and vivid colours. These were the very early days of FM synthesis, and only a few synth wizards had managed to unlock the mystery of the DX code. Although FM synthesis had been pioneered by John Chowning in the 60s, it took Yamaha's involvement to make practical use of this breakthrough.
The DX7 offered a wildly different proposition from analogue synthesis, which was beautifully intuitive. FM synthesis at the most basic level works by modulating one waveform against another. It doesn’t sound particularly easy to get your head around – and for many it wasn’t. The sheer tedium of trying to fathom out its complicated architecture, compounded by attempting to edit all of this on a tiny LCD screen, could only be eclipsed by watching a six-hour documentary about the Gallagher brothers.
Too much too soon?
The outcome of this was that keyboardists and producers of the age didn’t tend to stray far from the preset sounds programmed into the machine. As a result, these sounds became the bedrock of the 80s and have subsequently become woven into the musical DNA of that time.
Thankfully, by the standards of the time, the range of sounds that could be created using digital FM synthesis was shockingly new. It's hard to imagine how exciting and overwhelming it would have been, for anyone previously limited to analogue synthesis, to suddenly have such a massive palette of sounds available.
Crunchy, glitchy, Aphex-like digital soundscapes were now a possibility, but this territory wouldn’t be properly explored until the following decade. First, the DX7 had to get busy writing itself into 80s popular culture. The DX7 is so synonymous with that decade because its sound was ubiquitous, from synth pop to power ballads, R&B, world music and electronica. Its timbres had an uncanny ability to shape-shift across the genres, but still sit perfectly within them without sounding incongruous.
I’m not suggesting that the DX7 always sounded wonderful – far from it. As with any tool, you still have to choose how to wield it and this particular tool works best when it's bent to the will of the artist rather than lazily scrolling through the presets. At its best, it could sound stark and graceful, crystalline and brutal. Conversely, if poorly applied it could sound thin, plastic and corny.
A victim of its own success
Some of DX7's presets, such as its electric piano and bass, became staples of popular music culture to the extent that they have now passed over into cliché, and you may wish to avoid them. However, the DX7 is capable of so much more than the presets would suggest.
The bass that it's capable of producing is quite incredible, and for soundscapes, look no further than some of the textures Brain Eno managed to conjure from its seemingly impenetrable operating system. Interestingly, in 1990 Eno described the DX7 as his main instrument, despite having been using it for nearly a decade.
Love from Detroit
With the success of the DX7, Yamaha launched a few spin-off products namely the DX100 and DX21. These were smaller, cut-down versions of FM synthesis made to be sold more affordably. It's not an exaggeration to say that the DX100 was vital to the sound of early Detroit techno. Kevin Saunderson used it on many Inner City classics and Jeff Mills and Robert Hood went through a period of using little else other than the DX100 and the TR-909.
I suspect that the staunch minimalism of those early records is somewhat informed by the machine's inherent resistance to quick programming. The Solid Bass patch has graced thousands of house and techno productions since, and is now well and truly woven into the fabric of electronic music.
Breaking the code
Recent attempts to demystify FM as a form of synthesis have brought new interest, Arturia's DX7 V and Elektron's Digitone have brought a good degree of user-friendliness to the interface, and once the veil has been lifted, it's amazing how dynamic, expressive and intuitive FM can be. For electronic music, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Bass, leads, textures, shattering percussion, glitchy FX are all to be had here, and as a sound source it is still extremely relevant.
The DX7 defined the sound of the 80s and laid the foundations for the decades of musical history that followed. Undoubtedly flawed and much misunderstood, it is nonetheless absolutely an icon.
Words: Chris Lyth