MATRIXSYNTH: NYZ - NTE GDN => Behind the scenes with the Yamaha FB-01

Thursday, July 05, 2018

NYZ - NTE GDN => Behind the scenes with the Yamaha FB-01

Photo Credit: Calum Gunn * all other pix by NYZ *

"The new NYZ - NTE GDN tape on Conditional is just out [limited edition of 50 copies]! Matrix heard on the synth grapevine that it heavily featured the Yamaha FB-01 operating in a secret sysex mode, so he asked me if I'd write a little about how it was used. You can check the album out on the Conditional Bandcamp page here, release date July 6th =>

and have a listen while reading. Its also available from Boomkat [with track previews] =>

Boomkat review => "Blinding new batch of synth and computer music chaos from Dave Burraston’s cultishly regarded NYZ. With such a wild variation to his purist approach it’s perhaps silly to draw comparisons or contrasts, but these are patently some of NYZ’s sweeter treats, such as the curdled harmonics of ‘ARTOFNYZbitcompander’ and the funky lil’ vamps of ‘RLD syncs’ for more insatiable and curious listeners. In other words it’s fucking ace!"

and Norman Records =>

Norman Records review => "9/10 Conditional unleash this beautifully wild and playful tape from David Burraston aka NYZ. Here he harnesses the spectrum splitting potential of John Chowning’s FM synthesis to birth and animate ludicrously cute and cuddly synthetic creatures that come to life before our very ears. What even are these little mutant alien lifeforms? Where is this strange place in which they dwell?

The overall experience of imbibing these sounds is a lot like an experience I once had watching Teletubbies on acid, where I thought the little blighters were actually communicating directly to me. This world NYZ has created and its inhabitants are clearly fantasy, but it’s so brilliantly, vividly realised and skillfully executed that if you just let go of the shackles of reality and submit yourself, it can be an authentic place where these things live and breathe, eat and sleep and go through their life cycle. We get to hang out with them as they speak, sing, laugh and cry. I’d much rather hang out with these chirpy little fellows because humans are the absolute worst. For music to get a miserable, misanthropic, curmudgeon bastard like me to grin like a child holding a cookie the size of its head is quite an achievement.

This tape is just so much fun - it's like a little utopia for the most part, but there are occasional darker moments - at times it feels like the big bad wolf or some kind of predator is lurking with intent to gobble up our little friends. Burraston’s custom-built MANIAC Cellular Automata Sequencer is instrumental in giving life to these sounds - a tool that gives this work a unique voice and an unpredictable energy that seems to organically flow through his machines. This music is most certainly unconventional even by avant-garde standards, and although on the surface is definitely weird and kinda eccentric, it taps into something deeper. Like Victor Frankenstein’s unorthodox scientific experiment in Mary Shelley's novel where scientist becomes an architect of life. This place, it's lifeforms and their language seems bewilderingly genuine - a sonic virtual reality -- a hybrid analogue/digital world where what is “real” and synthetic is blurred."

So why am I interested in the strange and esoteric Yamaha FB-01, and what are these secret sysex codes? Well, first up its a nice little 8 voice FM synth, and I'm well known for being a bit obsessed with FM [see the NYZ - DRN4 Declassified article]. Secondly, its a kind of in-between synth, arriving after the first 4 operator synths, such the DX21, but before the TX81Z which featured a full microtonal tuning table. Its this inbetweeness that really interested me, and its really the only first gen sine wave only 4op that can be micro-tuned, albeit in a very roundabout way via some secret sysex codes.

As power consumption goes it requires a measly 9 Watts, landing in at just over 1 Watt per voice, pretty good really. For the original RRP of 300 quid you got a chunky halfish 1u rack sized mini tank synth, with the worlds worst ever buttons. Fortunately its totally controllable over MIDI, so using a computer editor really opens it up nice. I use the Steem Atari ST emulator and the Caged Artist FB-01 Editor. But even the computer editors don't mention or allow control of what Yamaha called "System Exclusive Event Lists". In order to use these underground sysex codes, you really need to write your own software to send them easily, although its possible to painstakingly enter them manually in a sequencer capable having sysex strings entered.

Another good thing about the FB-01 is that you can get them really cheap, I've got 3 for a 24 voice setup. One of them I got for free, and just had to do a 3 hour round trip across the Snowy Mountains, nice drive.. and the other two were less than $100 each. I don't how many are out there, but Yamaha must have made tens of thousands of them, and they were also super popular with home organists and computer gamers. There are a couple of great reviews on the mu:zines website worth checking out =>

You can read a lot of info and hardware hacks about this synth on the Yamaha FB-01 DIY Homepage =>

The crucial document on micro-tuning and some other aspects is titled "Secrets Of The Yamaha FB‑01" and originally appeared in the January 1989 Electronic Musician Magazine with the abstract "Discover how the power of System Exclusive codes can reveal the hidden potential of this low-cost FM sound module" =>

(Additional pics of the setup further below)

The nitty gritty details of all the sysex event lists are tucked away in the MIDI spec at the back of the FB-01 manual p50 - 51 and are discussed in depth in the article.

Yamaha called this microtonal implementation "Fractional Tuning" and it works on a per note basis. There are 3 types of command =>

i] Note OFF with Fraction
ii] Note ON/OFF with Fraction
iii] Note ON/OFF with Fraction and Duration

Lets have a look at the type ii Note ON/OFF with Fraction to give an idea of whats required. Its pretty simple stuff, and kicks off with a 4 byte header [numbers are in hexadecimal] =>

F0 - standard begin sysex command
43 - Yamaha ID
75 - Event list substatus ID
70 - Event list substatus ID

Then the event list parameters =>

1x - 1 = Note ON/OFF with Fraction command ID, x = MIDI channel 0 to 15 [e.g. 0 = channel 1]
nn = note value, standard MIDI note num
ff = Key Fraction, 100 cent range
vv = Key Velocity, standard MIDI velocity range

Followed by the End of Exclusive command =>

F7 = EOX

So all up thats 9 MIDI bytes for Note ON/OFF with Fraction, only 6 more bytes than a conventional note on/off. The way I used these messages on the NTE GDN album, was via the MIDI out on my MANIAC Cellular Automata Sequencer. The process was fairly simple, I just had to write a slightly different note handling routine and run the new code on MANIAC and it does it all for you :) So instead of sending standard MIDI note on/off messages, it sent out the system exclusive messages. The mapping was fairly straightforward, taking the cell values in groups across the array of binary cells and converting the values into the appropriate ranges. So if I was using the full range for note value, key fraction and velocity, the event would require three groups of 7 cells. Here is a capture in MIDI Monitor of these events on MIDI channels 1 & 2 from the MANIAC sequencer output [routed via the Cirklon MIDI In port] =>

Of course that's just one example, but it should get folks started if they are interested in using Fractional Tuning. The FB-01 is not capable of full keyboard micro-tuning like on the TX81Z for example, but it will allow you to get the FB-01 to play microtonally between the cracks, rather than in standard 12 tone equal temperament.

Finally, some other aspects I like with these old FM synths is that its very easy to use sysex to adjust individual parameters on the fly, and they respond pretty well, [although there will be a limit to how much sysex they can cope with at one go]. Again these can be mapped with a little bit of extra code in the MANIAC sequencer engine, and sent out using cell values to control individual synth parameters. I first began investigating using cellular automata to alter synth voice data in 90's, using both BBC BASIC and Max. By mapping parameters such as envelope attack or decay, and operator ratio and detune for example, its possible to map automaton cells directly to synth parameters and evolve/change the sound program in different ways while sequencing.

In conclusion, these secret system exclusive "Event Lists" are a really interesting aspect of the FB-01, and have been largely unexplored since it came out in 1986. As well micro-tuning notes, there a number of other commands as well, and its not limited to one event per sysex message. Event lists are just that, you can have multiple events within a single sysex message, and send whole sequences which include durational parts, control change, parameter changes, pitch bend etc. The FB-01 is truly a bizarre and unique member of the Yamaha FM family..

Dave Burraston
July 2018"

Additional pics of the setup.

1 comment:

  1. Huge respect to NYZ for pushing these things to their limits. It takes some patience for sure.


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