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

QX1-1-2

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

QX1-1-3

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

QX1-1

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.

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…

 

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