There’s no other way of staying it. Yamaha has changed the way you experience music – and for the better.
The company has made countless innovations in musical instruments, like silent pianos, and guitars – but two products in particular changed the way music producers work, and can still be heard today.
We’re talking about the NS-10 and the DX7. And even if you don’t know what these things are, you’re guaranteed to have been affected by them if you’ve listened to and loved just about any music made after 1978…
The Yamaha NS-10 Loudspeaker
By 1978, Akira Nakamura had been working at Yamaha for 13 years. Little did he know, his design for the NS-10 loudspeaker (which launched that year) was to become one of the most important in the history of music.
The NS10 changed how music is heard and created, and its effects are still felt today. Any major studio has at least one pair of its later incarnations, the NS-10M Studio, sat in a mixing room. And almost every mixing engineer and producer has heard of the NS-10.
The really funny thing is – these speakers sound famously terrible.
The Yamaha NS-10 was launched as a domestic bookshelf speaker for HiFi amplifiers. But HiFi enthusiasts hated the NS-10s, because they made music sound worse.
So how did these ugly sounding, weird looking speakers become the industry standard tool for the hottest producers in the 1980s and beyond? Because the awfulness of the sound they reproduced wasn’t their fault – it was the music’s fault.
The NS-10 didn’t flatter or augment the sound coming out of them; instead, it revealed poor quality, and made it stick out like a beacon.
This attribute made music producers take notice.
It was once said that if you could make a song sound good on a pair of Yamaha NS-10s, it would sound good on absolutely any other system. And that’s still almost true today.
The NS-10s frequency response curve – its sensitivity to different frequencies of sound – is somewhat unique, thanks to the manufacturing processes. The iconic white low/mid frequency speaker cone is flat sided, as opposed to curved, with a glued seam in it.
It is incredibly low-tech, unassuming stuff, that results in a rising frequency response curve in the midrange. This is where the vast bulk of the sounds we can hear live. And its’ where clarity matters most in audio recordings.
A messy midrange equals messy sounding music. The Yamaha NS-10 put this mess front and centre. Naturally, that irritated HiFi owners. But it thrilled music producers, who now had the equivalent of spectacles for their ears: a window into the frequencies of sound most important to music production.
And this sonic insight couldn’t have come at a better time.
In the 1980s, music production was big business. Motown and disco gave way to rock and pop, and money was practically being printed by the biggest artists, producers, labels and studios of the day.
But music production was getting more complex. Multitrack recordings were growing, and mixing desks had enormous channel counts.
Compared to the way music was produced on four track tape reels in the old days, veteran engineers entering the control room of a 1980s music studio would have felt like they’d stepped out of a go-kart and into the cockpit of a space shuttle.
Artists were getting more experimental. Producers were becoming more important, as the sounds became numerous and complex. This meant busier recordings, and a heightened need for clarity – especially for radio play.
The NS-10 was the speaker for the job.
But Yamaha didn’t just revolutionise the sound of music with its speakers. The company was first and foremost a piano maker, but the evolution of music into the electronic world led to the development of the single most important hardware synthesiser and keyboard ever made: the Yamaha DX7.
The Yamaha DX7 FM Synthesiser
Synthesisers were nothing new in 1983. They’d been normal music-making hardware since the 1950s, and Robert Moog had pretty much cornered the analog synth market with his big, expensive, intimidating, patch cable-powered designs, since 1964.
But the DX7 from Yamaha, released in 1983, was different. It used FM (frequency modulation) synthesis – which can only maintain pitch stability when done digitally. It was truly affordable, and almost every keyboardist bought one at the time. But its biggest advantage was the adoption of MIDI – the communication protocol that would become the world standard for electronic musical instruments. MIDI allowed the DX7 to be programmed, and play along with drum machines, or any other MIDI-enabled device.
To say that the DX7 changed music forever is an understatement.
It opened a whole universe of possibility, with just a handful of controls and a tiny LCD screen.
The sounds it created were more complex and unique than anything before it; futuristic and metallic, but as warm as analog. Brand new music was inspired by sound alone.
It’s basically impossible to overstate its importance, or list out all the records the DX7 appears on – but massive hits from A-ha, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Kenny Loggins, and countless more 1980s artists owe their success to the fresh sound of the DX7.
Beyond the 1980s, French artist Kavinsky reintroduced the DX7 to the 21st century, and spawned a fleet of synthwave artists like The Midnight – haunting 1980s-inspired power synth music, all brought to life by the DX7, or copycat sounds generated by emulators. Bruno Mars records since Uptown Funk and up to 24k Magic all used the DX7.
And so enduring is the sound of the DX7, that it’s still used now – but as software instruments and VSTs. That’s the legacy we have now; the DX7 vibe. It’s unmistakable, once you know.
So, thanks Yamaha. You’ve shaped the course of music history, in both how we experience music as listeners, and how we make it as producers. And we hope we’ve opened more producers and artists up to the history of this musical giant.
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