Word processing for musicians

I even got the original Yamaha carrying pouch included for the 100 euros.

I recently acquired a Yamaha QY-70 sequencer for myself. It’s the third time I have owned this little beast and now I’m not letting it go so easy. The first time I had this wonderful machine was around 2003-2004 when I lived in a small mostly swedish speaking city of Karjaa for a year. At that point my synth-collection comprised mostly of Yamaha’s Groove Factory -family of products. I had the wonderful AN-200 analog modelling synth/drummachine and it’s FM-synth sibling DX-200. I also had Yamaha’s top of the line groovebox the RM1X and a shitload of small Casio-keyboards and different toys that made noise. Still my absolute favourite piece of equipment at the time was this VHS-cassette sized portable sequencer with 16 tracks, easy programming and a huge collection of different voices.

I took the QY-70 everywhere with me. If I went to a bar or took a trip on a train, I had it in my bag and whenever there was a dead moment, I whipped it out and started fiddling with it’s minuscule controls. It runs on six AA batteries and has a reasonable amount of memory in it to write complete arrangements on the go. I still have a couple of minidiscs from that Karjaa year filled to the brim with short musical ideas and songs done on the QY-70. Usually I came up with melodical ideas when taking walks in nature or just when I was buying toilet paper from a shop. The sequencer was small enough to carry everywhere and write down those ideas as soon as they were born. I didn’t have to keep humming my melodies until I got home in front of my bigger sequencer.

At that point in my life I was very much into doing electronic music in the more traditional sense. I wanted to be Finland’s own DJ Shadow and was looking into buying a couple of turntables a sampler and a dj-mixer. Then came the unfortunate day that somebody was getting rid of their Numark TT-200 direct drive turntable and I had no money. I made a list of my equipment and the guy selling the turntable settled for a trade for my beloved QY-70. I thought about it long and hard and came to the conclusion that I needed the turntable so bad that I was ready to give my pocket size sequencer away. After all I was still left with my RM1X which was not exactly portable, but offered a bit more sophisticated controls and better sounds. I sent my QY to Tampere and in return got a spanking new turntable. I never looked back.

Until a few years later when I saw an old friend selling one. I bought it immediately for the sake of old times, but having used the RM1X extensively for sequencing for a couple of years, the QY seemed somehow cumbersome. Unlike in RM1X the small LCD on the machine displayed every bar in two rows and the controls were largely menu-driven. It didn’t feel as intuitive as the larger equipment with bigger displays. I just didn’t feel the need for owning one anymore. Songwriting seemed so much simpler on my current setup at the time. So I got rid of the QY for the second time.  I never looked back.

Until a few months back. Somebody sold 2 separate units of QY-70 for a 100 euros each. I dashed to my email and reserved the second one for myself. I no longer own the RM1X or any of the other synths I had in my Karjaa year. I’ve sold all of the analog-modelling instruments and grooveboxes and replaced them with genuine analog gear. I had also acquired an Akai MPC 2000XL for all my sequencing needs, which I still haven’t quite figured out. I have grown up with the Yamaha-style of step sequencing where I can see every note as a symbol on a timeline. If I want quarter notes on my Yamaha sequencer, I just have to place notes on every 8th place and that’s it. Simple and effective. After that the MPC-style of sequencing seemed a little bit too arbitrary and “in the air” for my personal tastes.

In the last couple of months that I’ve had my QY-70 back, I’ve written more riffs, melodies, drum parts and basslines than ever since my Karjaa times. I just love the way the QY-70 works and since this is the third time I own the machine I’m finally starting to get to grips with all the different aspects of the little machine. Now I am able to use the pattern-sequencing side of it with ease and I’ve also come to terms with the auto-accompaniment-machine, which on first contact I thought was dreadful. The QY-70 originally came out in the late nineties and it has taken me three machines and almost ten years to fully exploit all of it’s possibilities. It’s just one more example of sticking to your guns. When something isn’t broken do not try to fix it. Teach yourself a good method of doing things and stick to it. You’ll get a lot more results than with trying every new software/hardware a little.

Our drummer bought a QY-70 too from eBay Japan and now I’m trying to persuade for our second synth player to get one too. (You can buy them for as little as 80 euros if you’re lucky.) I’m dreaming of everybody in the band writing their own synth/bass/drum-parts at home in a certain key and then meeting in a park and syncing the three machines together with a couple of midi cables and blasting the newborn songs through a ghettoblaster. That would be a revolutionary way of writing new songs and trying new things. With the built-in playfx, transpose-abilities and midi in we could do semi improvised park sessions in the sunshine.

I’ve come to realize that the QY-70 for me is like a typewriter for writing music. The melodies and beats just flow from my cortex (or whatever) to the screen of my Yamaha. It is without a doubt the absolutely best way to record musical ideas for me. If I get a melody in my head I just turn the QY on and within five minutes I have it written down for later use. (And say what you want, but the built-in sounds aren’t that shabby either. They’re actually quite nice and there’s something for every style of music you can imagine.) That ease of use combined with it’s portability just can’t be beat. Not for me at least. Maybe someday there’ll be an app for iPad that does the same thing, but for now, I’m sticking with my trusty portable Yamaha. The only complaint that I can come up with is that the screen isn’t backlit, but that would consume the six batteries in a flash, so maybe that’s not a too bad thing after all.

Tomi / Turku Synth Club

6 Comments

Filed under Akai, Synthesizer, Yamaha

6 responses to “Word processing for musicians

  1. skatronix

    anyone know where to get a NEW LCD to QY-70? tryed everywhere (yamaha, mouser, all!), but no ones has those😦
    it really hard to edit without the LCD…

    • Oh shit. I guess your best bet in any case is getting a completely new second hand QY-70 for cheap and transferring your existing work to that. Then again even the transferring part might prove to be impossible without the screen. Still I’m pretty positive that the 80-140 euros you have to pay for a new QY-70 is much less than the price you would have to pay for just a new LCD screen. Not even mentioning the trouble of soldering one in place.

  2. Yeah! Seemed to be really nice little machine when I tried yours on a park. Then again, Hacked Sony PSP with LGPT (+Midi cable) is pretty good alternative. Of course then you need to learn tracker-based sequencing but there’s some awesome features in that work flow too.

    My portable solution at the moment is MPC500 and I love that machine, just the right amount of limitations and really good user interface. But I still want one of these too, haha.

    • Hahahaha!
      I feel the same craving for the MPC 500 you mentioned. I have all kinds of musical appliances, but I still need that one. I tried tracker-software in the heyday of Amiga, but felt that it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Maybe nowadays things would be different.

      It’s already halfway into june and my battery-operated musical instrument briefcase isn’t half as full as I would want it to be. Need more money…

      • I didn’t really get comfortable with trackers back in the 90’s but because GUI is limited to small screen, arrows and couple of buttons (a lot like that Yamaha), LGPT works quite well and you don’t get drowned in the more complex stuff right away.

        It’s available on PC,Mac, PSP and some more exotic formats:
        http://littlegptracker.com/

        Give it a shot some time, awesome for all sorts of sample mangling too.

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