Yamaha QX1 Retro Review

The Yamaha QX1 was not the first MIDI sequencer to be commercially available, that credit goes to Roland’s MSQ-700. But its no-nonsense approach, with a computer-like keyboard, big (for the time) screen, and eight MIDI outputs gave it a serious look that made the competition look like toys in comparison.

David Gamson of Scritti Politti fame recorded much of the album Provision with the help of the QX1, a feat which is to be commended, not least for the patience it must have required. While the QX1 is big and brash, it certainly is not the most user-friendly piece of equipment, and when in use, it is often painfully apparent that it predates a number of usability inventions that we have come to take for granted in later years.

I bought my first QX1 used back in the 90’s, thinking that “bigger must be better”. Yamaha tended to award lower model numbers to more advanced instruments, thus the DX5 was the equivalent to two DX7’s in a box, and the DX1 was the flagship instrument. Why go for the QX3 or the lowly QX5 when you could have a huge QX1 for change money? As it turned out, I was in for a bit of a surprise, ultimately leading me to selling it a few months later. I only acquired one recently again, also in immaculate condition, save for a small dent in the front metal panel, but now out of curiosity rather than necessity, and armed with 20+ years further knowledge of sequencing and MIDI, I hoped I could make more sense of it now. These are my findings.

MIDI processing – or lack thereof

First of all, it’s important to understand that the eight MIDI ports (ten if you count MIDI IN and THRU), while impressive looking at the time, are of limited use. The presence of a THRU port had me confused at first, until I realized: The QX1 can’t pass incoming MIDI data to the output ports! To understand this design decision, you have to appreciate the fact that the QX1 was designed to be used with Yamaha’s mighty TX816 system which basically hosted up to eight DX7’s in rack format that could be connected via individual MIDI connectors, and a global MIDI input that would send data to all modules, making it an early multitimbral synthesizer before that even was a thing. Knowing the DX7, that Yamaha intended you to use as the master keyboard, could only transmit on channel 1 (the DX7 has no local off either, to compound matters further), the thinking likely was that you would record each track using a DX7 sound and then dial up the corresponding sound on one of the TF-1 modules in the rack for playback!

In the more probable event that you don’t have a TX816, this means that you need a MIDI merger to make use of the QX1 with other synths, as you need to be able to send both the THRU and OUT data to the same MIDI IN on each instrument. Some 20 years ago, such a gadget was out of financial reach for me, making the QX1 more or less useless at the time. You can send up to four tracks to the same MIDI output on the QX1, but you will then lose the channel information as the QX1 does not record it – it is set per output –  making it even more difficult to use with a multitimbral module!

Floppy storage is floppy. Not flexible though.

If you encountered floppy disks from the world of computers, or MPC’s and similar things, you may wonder why they were called “floppy” as they are small, hard, square plastic things hiding a magnetic disk inside. Well, that magnetic disk is actually quite flexible, and going back a few years prior to the small, hard disks we know as 3.5″ “diskettes”, the popular format was 5.25 inches large – and flexible. These are the disks used by the QX1, so the first order of business is trying to get hold of such antique matter these days. Whether you score them from a curiosity shop, eBay, or your own cupboard of things-that-can-come-in-useful-one-day (you do have one of those, don’t you?) the next realization is that the QX1 relies so heavily on the disk drive, that if it is not working, the sequencer becomes useless. And to make things even more complicated, the drive is of course a special model that is hard to find and replace, so your best bet might be to replace it with a HxC floppy emulator, if it doesn’t work properly.

Before shelling out for an emulator, it is well worth trying several disks. I initially thought the drive of my QX1 was on its last legs, but it turned out a couple of the disks I tried to format were either a) faulty or b) of the wrong kind. The QX1 favors the old DS/DD floppy format of 360k which has slightly different magnetic properties than the more common 1.2MB version. Error handling when formatting is less than informative, as it would just get stuck in “disk initialization” forever forcing a power-off. Once I found a working floppy of the proper kind, it has worked flawlessly.

Jobs and Modes


The QX1 was the first sequencer to implement the “job” concept of calling up functions, starting a tradition that would carry through all QX sequencers and into a few of the later models as wells. Instead of sub menus, the sequencer can be set to one of four modes, each mode having a list of jobs, or functions, that are called by entering the job number followed by ENTER. So, to quantize a track, you go to EDIT mode, punch in “09” as the job number, and off you go. Another tradition that started with the QX1 was that of printing the list of jobs and their corresponding numbers on top of the sequencer case, for handy reference.

The concept is fairly unique to Yamaha, and you’ll likely end up embracing it, or hating it. Personally, I encountered the Yamaha system early enough to appreciate the speed with which you can call up different functions when you learn their job numbers by heart. Smaller/later sequencers did away with the numeric keypad making job entry slower as it had to be performed via other means.

One particular caveat of the QX1 is that the job menus are not always available, depending on the mode it’s currently in. There are four modes available: REC, PLAY, EDIT and UTILITY. First order of notice: Yes, record and play are indeed different modes, and you need to switch from record to play mode in order to listen to what you just recorded. Secondly, the difference between edit and utility mode is not always clear, and I have to constantly check the cheat sheet to find out if deleting a track is an “edit” or a “utility”, for instance.

While the four modes have individual buttons, they are not clearly distinguished on the front panel and take some getting used to before you find them without looking. But the worst part about it is a thing that is not even clearly explained in the manual: Modes can be armed, or set!

In a bad mode?

When I owned the QX1 back in the 90’s, I could never figure ut the relationship between modes and jobs. It seemed slightly random, and some things would inevitably trip me up, causing much irritation and profanities to be uttered. The manual states that it is important to press ENTER after entering a mode, but not in a concise manner – I ended up hitting ENTER now and then, sometimes a few times extra to be sure. But what is not clearly explained is that when you enter a mode – either REC, PLAY, EDIT or UTILITY, it is armed. This means, that the mode is not really ready. You just entered the front door, standing in the hallway, but you’re not really in the main room where you can go about your business, instead you have access to the amenities and cupboards of the hallway. This is when you can access jobs. 

Once you hit ENTER, you enter the selected mode (steps into the main room), and now you no longer have access to the job menu. This is something I never figured out in the brief period of my former encounter with the QX1, and it is baffling and annoying in equal amounts. Why the Yamaha engineers designed the system this way is anyone’s guess, but it often leads to you either a) pressing the JOB button (after pressing ENTER) and not understanding why the job menu does not appear, or b) pressing RUN after entering record mode (but before pressing ENTER) and not understanding why you can’t start recording!

So, you have to make a rule of remembering: When you enter a mode, you’re only in the hallway at first, and this is where you can access jobs. To perform what you are here to do (play the tracks, record a track, and so on) you need to ENTER the house!

When it comes to entering data, the QX1 has both feet planted firmly in the 80’s and provides a quaint and not entirely charming throwback to the days where “user experience” meant “filling out a form”. Most screens actually consist of a form with blank fields, where you are supposed to cursor around using the arrow keys, and enter data using the keyboard. Quantization (JOB 09 in EDIT mode) presents a form where the fields “CLK”, “TOP MEAS” and “LAST MEAS” need to be painstakingly filled in. “CLK” actually expects you to enter the note length you want to quantize to, expressed in relation to the 384 ppq resolution of the sequencer, meaning that a quarter beat step would be entered as “384”. Incidentally, this also means you can’t quantize to whole notes, as that would mean trying to enter “1536” into a three-digit field, and you need to keep a conversion table between note lengths and these numbers handy at all times, until you realize that’s what the keys with note symbols are for – they are shortcuts to numbers.

Still, the JOB paradigm isn’t half bad, and fast once you learn how to use it fully, which is probably why Yamaha kept reusing it throughout the years.

Patience is key


The possibly worst, and best, aspect of the QX1 is its storage of data. As explained above, it uses an ancient medium that is only slightly better than cassette tape, both complicating matters as well as slowing them down. Every time, and yes, I do mean every time you perform some kind of operation that involves changing stuff, whether it is recording or modifying musical data, as soon as you change mode, the QX1 insists on writing to disk. And with the ancient speed of 5.25″ floppies, this gets old pretty quick. Let me give you an example on the typical workflow of a QX1 session:

First, you select a track for recording (via a JOB, as there are no select buttons for the tracks, and yes, you have to type in the track number using the keypad) and hit REC mode. The first thing that will confuse you, as it did me years ago, is that you can’t actually hit RUN to start recording – nothing happens. This is because you’re not really in REC mode, you’re in the “hallway” (remember from previous paragraphs?). You then have to hit ENTER in order to properly be in recording mode. Once you hit ENTER, disk is accessed, which takes 3-5 seconds (possibly more) depending on the amount of data stored.

Now, you can record. Once you recorded something, hit STOP, but don’t fall for the temptation to rewind using the transport keys to listen to what you just recorded – rewinding at this stage actually deletes the recorded data. This makes no sense whatsoever and caused me infinite grief and confusion when I started using the QX1. You have to change mode in order for your recording to be saved! To listen to your take, you have to switch to PLAY mode (disk read/write) and hit ENTER (new disk read/write). Let’s say you didn’t like the recording. You now have the option to modify your recording, by quantizing it (for instance), through the EDIT mode, or deleting the track to try again (through the UTIL mode) both of which requires waiting for the disk to do its thing. Once you’re through with this palaver, you have to go to REC mode to try another take and, yes, you guessed it, wait for the disk drive.

In all honesty, once you learn never to touch the rewind button after recording, it actually becomes a weird but useful shortcut to erasing the end or all of a flubbed take, but I am not sure it is worth the trouble.

Those few seconds of the disk clicking and whirring may not sound much, but do they ever add up. The constant changing of modes and pausing for the system to catch up forces you into a slow and jerky way of working that will try your patience. Worse still, the pain of jumping through hoops after every recording attempt adds pressure to get the recording “right”, something that is not unlike the “tape rolling” anxiety once present in studios of old.

The good thing about the way Yamaha engineers designed the storage system of the QX1, is the data is (almost) always saved, and to that extent, it actually mimics working with tape recorders quite a bit. There is no need to “save” as data is constantly written to disk, and when you power it down, your song(s) are already present when you power it up later. Apart from the disk drive, it is actually pretty fast, performing data operations and starting up reasonably fast given its age.

Even more keys


The keyboard of the QX1 is usually what draws attention these days (apart from its oversized appearance) and it presents a mix of function keys, shortcuts to note pitches and lengths, numbers, cursor keys, mode keys, all in shades of gray, underlined by the RUN and STOP keys in light blue with white text, making them indistinguishable at a glance. You always have to look at what you’re doing, and some things are downright infuriating, such as when entering text, which requires you to hold down one of the two (!) shift keys while hunting around for the small letters hidden on some keys. And yes, the pitch entries also double as letters, so the key for note “C” also gives you the letter “C”. Logical, yet confusing. At least, space got its own key over to the left. That oversized data wheel to the right that looks inviting? Sorry, it is not really a data wheel, it’s strictly for tempo. Because you will be changing your tempo ever so often during recording, right? Another weird design choice is to have a separate panel of four indicators illuminating the current mode you have selected, instead of just adding a LED above the actual mode select buttons! But, there’s the charm of old and non-standardized design for you.

New update: Users jotarohujo and Daniel Beardsmore kindly provided the following information regarding the switches:

Update: I started to investigate the key switches for replacing a few that are a bit unresponsive, and they are a bit odd. They look a bit like Cherry MX Green switches, but not quite. This differs from the QX3 which uses Cherry MX Orange. If you are certain which type this is, please let me know in the comments. Pictures below:


Worth the effort?

So, is there any point in hunting down a working QX1 these days, to use in a DAW-less studio? To be fair, old gear can be inspiring in various ways, and their quirks and restrictions often forces you to work outside your familiar groove, creating new ideas and happy musical accidents. But to be honest, there is none of the TB-303 “musically random” sequencer quirks or MSQ-700 funky quantization to be had here. The QX1 is old, clunky and tired. It’s huge, slow and cumbersome. You need a MIDI merge just to use it properly with more than one synth, and you risk losing your creative flow before you can catch it.

Still, it does look different, and particularly fetching alongside other Yamaha gear of the era. And the challenge of recording a full song, or possibly even an album, with the “aid” of the QX1 does feel like a proper challenge. Perhaps…




  1. Thanks for the trip back in time! I want to say I used one of these for an instrumental backing track back in the late 80’s. Somehow I managed to get 4 tracks sent from one output to a Roland MT-32 sound module, using four instruments. (CH10 for drums was one of them.) There must be a way to set the MIDI channel of a given track, as well as the output. I remember being limited to 4 tracks though!

  2. Karl, your memory serves you perfectly! You can assign a MIDI channel to each track, and you can indeed send up to four tracks to one MIDI output. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Been trying to decide what to do with mine…did not want to just throw it out, but even repair shops who specialize in old equipment like this were not interested, even as a gift. Guess I´m gonna have to toss it.

  4. Hi, did you manage to clean the Alps keys on your QX1? I have two of them, and several keys are unresponsive on both machines. Before I got harvesting the keys from one machine to keep the other going I’d be keen to know if they’re repairable so I can have both machines fully functional.

    • Hi! No, unfortunately I haven’t reached the QX1 in my repair queue yet 😦 The only totally unresponsive key is not crucial to operating it, so I’ve just kept it as is for now. I’d look into whether it is possible to clean or recondition these old switches anyhow, I guess it comes down to whether they can be opened without damaging them to access the inside.

      • A follow up to my previous message – thanks to Daniel Beardsmore I was able to source some alternative key switches and fix one of my QX1s (the other I had already sold with the caveat that it needed some switches replaced). With a desoldering gun it’s actually very easy to replace the switches and now my one passes all the diagnostics!

        If anyone needs to know how to get into the diagnostics mode, then hold down keys 1-3-5-7 and power on. Of course that assumes you don’t have an issue with any of those four keys…

    • Alps KCC10903/SKCCBK is not known to be sold NOS anywhere now, although I know someone with lots of them in new condition (in NOS keyboard modules); I have a few used ones left. SKCCBJ is still available NOS, and you can make these into KCC10903 by using the spring from the dead switch (the only difference is the weighting). You can also use the contact assembly from any other Alps (S)KCC/(S)KCL/M momentary action keyboard switch of the same area: it just has to be the corresponding long type (full height) or short type (sits on little posts). The contact modules do come apart, but you have to destroy the heat staking that holds them together; the movable contact is just a piece of metal foil, though, so they are somewhat delicate.

  5. I used one back in the day to run a emax, matrix 12,prophet vs (rack) ,etc. I never had a problem with track limits. I do remember if you wanted to use a drum machine with it , you had to use a certain port only for clock info? I always just used samples from my emax anyway. Once you get the hang of it , it is awesome. But you better have pencil and paper ready to write down your measures of parts/sections to arrange your songs.

    • Sounds like an awesome setup back then (and would be still today) ! Yeah, there’s a lot of note taking, but that’s par for the course with all hw sequencers, new or old. I remember it was always easier to just finish a song instead of working with multiple songs because of the hassle of remembering which parts and sections went where and so on. MIDI clock is always transmitted on port 8 which could not be changed. (This is alerted in a small side note in the manual btw) I guess processing speed or MIDI congestion was the cause as my (much more powerful) Akai ASQ sequencer can only send MIDI clock on one of its ports as well. Anyhow, thanks for sharing!

  6. I used a QX-1 live for several years… very painful times waiting to load the next track. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, as I consider mastering that pig to be a feat reserved only for the exceptionally brilliant among us.

    I wish so badly that I still had mine… just to feel the satisfying clack of the keys….

    • I expect most users of the QX1 and QX3 have done the same as me – replace the floppy drive with a HxC or Gotek emulator. Then it’s a matter of deciding if the workflow of either QX suits you. I actually like the workflow of both, preferring the QX1 to control lots of different bits of non-multitimbral hardware and the QX3 to control multitimbral hardware. I can’t see either machine being useful in a DAW based setup though!

  7. I just picked up New Order’s QX-1 (along with their DX5) at Peter Hook’s auction of bits and pieces, and was puzzling over why someone (Barney? Stephen?) had felt compelled to scrawl “Slow Bastard” over it in large letters, having never used one before personally. But having read your article I think I may have a better understanding of what was going through their minds…

    • What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing! Yes, I bet they became pretty fed up with it eventually…
      Let me know if you ever decide to pass it on!

      • It’s pretty unlikely that I’d ever sell it 🙂 Although I’m a bit discouraged right now because I couldn’t get it to work and having taken it apart it seems the floppy drive heads are absolutely jammed solid. You should be able to move the carriage they’re on manually but it absolutely won’t budge. Can’t think of any method to shift them that doesn’t risk destroying the drive in the process grrr. Someone in Italy is selling a working floppy drive for a QX1, but because of the history of this unit I can’t bring myself to just replace a large chunk of it like that. So I may have to settle for keeping it as display only unless someone has some ideas on how to fix it. I have a good tech I use for synths normally but I fear that with this he’d just tell me that wholesale replacement of the drive is the only option.

    • I’ve just resurrected a Yamaha QX1 (I now have two), and as well as replacing four of the key switches I also replaced the floppy drive with a Gotek emulator running the FlashFloppy firmware. The original floppy drive works, but I only have the one 5 1/4″ floppy disk and find an emulator more convenient. If you’d like the floppy drive to replace the one in your New Order QX1 I’d be happy to send it to you. I can be contacted on chris@chriswareham.net.

      • Thanks for the offer! There are a few quirks with how my QX1 operates but I think it’s broadly working currently. Having said that it would be good to have a source of spare parts if needed. If the floppy drive failed on mine then because of its historical importance I wouldn’t want to just replace it as a straight swap, but a spare drive could be a useful source of components if I needed to transplant anything (e.g. the head or motor) to get the original drive working again. So I might contact you about this 🙂

        PS for anyone who is curious I made a video of the New Order QX1 / DX5 working together, it’s not very good for several reasons but still I’m pleased I got them both operating again:

  8. OK better news, I took the floppy drive to someone who really knows what they’re doing with these devices; it turned out that there were several issues with it and not just the jammed head carriage but are mostly resolved now. It can format a disk properly at last 🙂 Am still not sure it’s working 100% though because – from watching it operate with the top up – I can see that the head load mechanism keeps the head in contact with the disk permanently, even when the QX1 is just sitting at the main menu waiting for further instructions. It only lifts the heads when you enter the “change disk” command to release it. This seems like a recipe for worn heads in double quick time so it’s hard to believe this is the correct mode of operation. Does anyone have the service manual as this may shed further light? I only found one source online, and that’s a pay-site. Which wouldn’t be so bad if they hadn’t taken my money and then not sent the manual. Grrr!

    • Weird, I only just got notified of all these posts! Looks like the mail queue has been backlogged for over a year.

      I do have the service manual for the QX1, and it’s only 27 pages long. All it seems to say about the floppy drive is just how to use the test program to test it.

      It seems to have a 5.25 inch drive, and the ones I’m familiar with load the head when you operate the latch, like I thought 3.5 inch drives also did. Must be a special drive!

      • This is bugging me now … I managed to find one video (by Rinoa) which suggests that the drive head might indeed be lowered a tiny extra bit when a read/write request is issued (some kind of bar moves as if to lower the head, but the head seems not to). I have some recollection that some drives did click when engaged and disengaged … Wonder if it’s drive-specific. I don’t have my 8-bit machines any more to test with.

      • I’m no expert on floppy drives, but the usual method of operation for a 5 1/4″ drive as I understand it is to only load the head once data needs to be written and then lift it afterwards in order to reduce the wear to the head that would occur from the head being in contact with a floppy disk that’s spinning constantly. The only other way around it would be to have the head constantly touch the disk but only have the disk spin up once it’s needed, but that would produce slow read / write performance I guess. My theory – which may be complete rubbish – is that this method of operation doesn’t wouldn’t well in a QX1 because it needs to keep saving changes so often, so Yamaha decided to just leave the head loaded permanently. I found a brochure for a Tandon 5 1/4″ drive that says the head is good for “20,000 media contact hours.” If the Canon is similar then it would take decades to reach that figure even with heavy daily usage. So it may have been a sensible compromise.
        Also I did get the QX1 service manual in the end and on p21 it tells you the correct jumper positions to set on the floppy and one of these is the setting that tells the floppy only to load the head when requested. So the only conclusion I can come to is that the floppy is correctly configured to load / unload the head as required but the QX1 only ever tells it to do so at disk insert / disk eject because that’s how Yamaha want it to work. In which case fine 🙂
        PS just saw your other reply.

  9. Hm … seem to have reached the reply nesting limit … I’ve not had any experience with any system leaving floppy discs spinning permanently. Some seem to stop the spindle motor immediately (how I understand the Amiga to work), but others leave the disc spinning for a few seconds just in case (BBC Micro for example). If I still had my 8-bit machines I could have taken the cover off the drive and watched for myself. Nothing I could find on YouTube was conclusive. All I know is that the latch that secures the disc brings the head down towards the disc, but as to whether or not there is an extra step that closes the final gap, I cannot be positive. One of life’s mysteries …

    • Yeah it was doing something weird with replies and nesting… but anyway, I know the head lifts and raises via a signal sent to the drive because I watched it with my own eyes. The guy who I took the drive to to to get it fixed had a tester like this:
      Can’t say for sure it was the exact same model, but it looked extremely similar. Anyway we took the floppy out of the QX1 and hooked it up directly to that and you could actually watch the head lower itself slightly (a couple of millimetres maybe?) and then lift again under control of the “head load” switch on the disk exerciser. Which is what I was told should happen each time a read or write takes place. But then when we put the drive back into the QX1 the head lowered itself straight away on inserting a disk and stayed down until ejected. Which at the time we thought was a bit odd. But as I say I’m convinced now this is just down to how the QX1 firmware is programmed.

    • On 8″ floppy drives, the disk was constantly spinning – something that seemed to be very wasteful in terms of power and motor longevity in my humble opinion. I’ve never encountered a 5 1/4″ or 3 1/2″ drive that did that though. I’ve regrettably sold my two QX1 machines now, although they both went to good homes with synth enthusiasts and not to be broken up for the rare key switches.

      • But isn’t a lot of this behaviour controlled by the device driving the floppy rather than necessarily something intrinsic to the floppy drive itself? Maybe it’s perfectly possible for a 5 1/4″ drive to spin continuously if the commands sent to it tell it to do that. That does seem to happen to my QX1 anyway, and I’m not sure anyone so far has said that it definitely *didn’t* happen with theirs (and most people seem to have replaced theirs with emulated ones now so there’s probably only a limited number of people around these days who could verify it one way or the other anyway.)
        PS I only just realised that your previous message offering me your old floppy drive was from January and therefore possibly no longer applicable anyway.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s