The Yamaha DX7 Synthesizer

The sound of the 80s was dominated by 6 sine wave generators and 32 algorithms. In 1983, the Yamaha Corporation released what was to be their best-selling synthesizer, the Yamaha DX7. Unbeknown to the Japanese synth company at the time, this synth would revolutionize the sound of pop music around the world.

The DX7 MK1 employed a new sound design technology called Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis, invented by John Chowning in the late 60s, and patented by Yamaha in the 70s. Yamaha initially released the GS-1 FM piano in 1981. At a price point of $16,000, the FM piano was geared toward the professional studio market. It wasn’t until two years later when they repackaged the FM technology into a compact 61-note keyboard at a much friendlier price point of $1,995 that FM synthesis took off like wildfire. Every pop star wanted a DX7 upon release, and unsurprisingly, so did every home music hobbyist. The synth was a turning point in the home studio revolution and the rise of the semi-pro musician. The synth went on to sell over 200,000 units.

Description

It’s the 80s. Digital is in, analog is out. (Don’t ask your parents/older family members if they sold their analog synths to fund their digital synths – there could be tears and I don’t mean Tears for Fears.) Cold icy pads, synth brasses, and huge glass bell-like tones are all over your favorite pop records…scratch that, DX7 preset sounds are all over your favorite pop records. No one had an idea how to program the DX7 when it first came out and as a result a new multi-million dollar industry was launched on the back of the release of the DX7 synthesizer: 3rd party sound design.

FM Synthesis was invented by John Chowning and patented by Yamaha prior the release of the DX range of synthesizers. FM Synthesis works by taking one frequency and modulating it by another frequency. The DX7 consists of 6 operators which form a combination of an oscillator, envelope, and amplifier. Even with only 6 operators, the combinations of sound possibilities are endless – from real-world-like sounds to esoteric digital tones. 

Manufacturer: Yamaha

Release Date: 1983

Release Price: $1,995

Second-Hand Market Price: $200-$1,200

Pros
  • Incredible pro-feel keybed
  • Deep sound design possibilities
  • Rock solid form factor
  • New wave of software editing tools
  • DX7IID has microtuning capabilities
Cons
  • DX7 MK1 velocity set at 0-99 not 0-127
  • DX7S has MIDI aftertouch issues
  • ROM cartridges are expensive on the second hand market
Review Overview
5.00
Overall Score
Sounds
Form Factor
User Interface
Studio Integration
Value for Money

The DX7 is built like a tank and the keybed is a joy to use. Even in modern-day music studios, I’d recommend this synth not only as a sound design tool but also as a piano-like controller for your DAW. (Make sure you’re looking at the DX7IID model and beyond, though, as the DX7 MK1 velocity is only 0-99 – not the industry standard 0-127.) Price-wise you can still pick these synths up at a decent rate. If you’re buying one on eBay, try and set the distance of the seller to your state to help reduce shipping costs as they are heavy. Truly a sound designer’s dream, especially when paired with an editor and controller. 

Technical Comparison of DX7 Models

SynthesizerYamaha DX7Yamaha TX7Yamaha DX7SYamaha DX7IIDYamaha DX7 II FDYamaha DX7II Centennial
Release Year198319851987198719871988
Yamaha DX7 OriginalYamaha DX7 OriginalYamaha DX7 OriginalYamaha DX7 OriginalYamaha DX7 OriginalYamaha DX7 Centennial
Release Price$1,995$1,299$1,400$2,195$2,495$3,995
Form Factor61-note keyboardModule Synthesizer61-note keyboard61-note keyboard61-note keyboard76-note keyboard
Dimensions: W/D/H45.8 x 21.7 x 6.2 inches13.8 x 9.5 x 2 inches39.3 x 13.1 x 3.37 inches39.3 x 13.1 x 3.37 inches39.3 x 13.1 x 3.37 inches
Weight32 pounds5 pounds23 pounds23 pounds25 pounds25 pounds
MIDIYes (Limited)YesYes (Limited)YesYesYes
Synthesis ArchitectureFM (6 operator, 32 algorithm)FM (6 operator, 32 algorithm)FM (6 operator, 32 algorithm)FM (6 operator, 32 algorithm)FM (6 operator, 32 algorithm)FM (6 operator, 32 algorithm)
Audio OutputMonoMonoMonoStereoStereoStereo
Polyphony161616323232
TimbralityMonotimbralMonotimbralMonotimbralBi-timbralBi-timbralBi-timbral
Oscillators666666
Program Memory323232646464
MicrotonalityNoYesYesYesYesYes
NotesExpandable with the Grey Matter E CardProgram editing exclusively via MIDIStripped down alternative to the DX7IILarger LCD displayTakes floppy disksLimited edition Yamaha DX7II
Get PriceGet PriceGet PriceGet PriceGet PriceGet Price

DX7 Sound Examples 

Demo of the Yamaha DX-7 IID Synth

Famous Musicians Who Use or Have Used the Yamaha DX7

Herbie Hancock, Aha, Dead or Alive, Bronski Beat, Underworld, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Pet Shop Boys, Legowelt, Vangelis, Michael Jackson, Europe, Berlin, Tina Turner, Juan Atkins, The Eurythmics, Gary Numan, Enya, Tears for Fears, Air, Ryuichi Sakamoto

Famous Songs Using the Yamaha DX7

 

Yamaha DX7 Soundbank and ROM Cartridges

The ROM cards have become ridiculously expensive on the second-hand market. As an alternative, you can simply use a SYSEX communication tool on your computer to transmit to and from the synth. Another alternative to the overpriced ROM cards is a new unique multibank cartridge by Hypersynth called the ‘Hcard-702.’ The Hcard will increase the memory size of your DX7 up to 100 banks, 6,400 voices, 3,200 performances, 200 tunings, and 100 setups.

DX7 Downloads & Resources

DX7 Manuals:

Yamaha DX7 Manual 

Yamaha DX7S Manual

Yamaha DX7 IID / IIFD Manual

MIDI Sysex Files & Patches:

Original ROMs A / B / C / D  (Download)

Brian Eno Patches – Kalimba 2, Tamboura, Glide, and Violin 3

FYI: For the classic ‘Lately Bass’ patch you need the 4-OP TX81Z rack. Try loading this ‘Solid Bass‘ patch instead. You’ll be moving dance floors around the world before you know it. 

DX7 Battery & Upgrade Mods:

How to replace the battery on your Yamaha DX7 – you’ll need a CR2032 replacement battery, and I recommend using a CR2032 battery holder instead of soldering in directly. This will result in you not having to desolder/solder each time the battery dies. You can simply replace it moving forward.

Yamaha DX7 & FM Synthesis Books

How to Make a Noise: Frequency Modulation Synthesis Book by Simon Cann – Great place to start for those who want to dig deep into FM synthesis.

Fm Theory and Applications: By Musicians for Musicians by Dr John Chowning – Published by Yamaha and co-authored by the inventor of frequency modulation synthesis. 

The Complete DX7 by Howard Massey 

The Yamaha DX7IIFD: A new beginning by Lorenz Rychner

The Secrets of Analog and Digital Synthesis by Steve DiFuria

DX7 Software Editors and VST Instruments

Patch Editors

SYSEX Librarian – Mac OS SYSEX tool to transfer patches to and from your computer. I recommend reducing the ‘Transmit Speed’ in the preferences pane when transferring SYSEX files to the DX7.  

Coffeeshopped DX Patch Editor – iOS patch editor for your DX series synth. Visualize, edit, and organize sounds for your Yamaha DX7, DX7II, TX7, TX802, or TX816 synthesizer. 

Dystopian Disco Max for Live Volca FM Controller – Randomize your Volca FM & DX7 with the M4L Editor. Requires Max for Live & Ableton.

Synthmata – Free online patch editor for the Volca FM and DX7 synth. 

Patches.fm – Another free online patch editor. The website bills itself as a one-stop shop for  frequency modulation (FM) patches for synthesizers and sound chips.

FM Synthesizer VST Plugins

Dexed – Open-source DX7 VST closely modeled on the Yamaha DX7. Dexed also works as a handy MIDI cartridge librarian/manager for the DX7.

Native Instruments FM8 – Virtual FM synth engine with a powerful FM matrix, arpeggiator, and flexible envelopes. You can also load patches from your classic DX hardware synths.

Arturi DX7 VST – Arturi have updated the classic 80s synth with customizable envelopes, extra waveforms, and effects. Available as part of the V-Collection.

Modern-Day Hardware Synthesizer Alternatives to the DX7

Yamaha REFACE DX Portable FM Synthesizer
Korg Digital FM Synthesizer (VOLCAFM)
Yamaha MODX8 88-Key Weighted Action Synthesizer
Yamaha REFACE DX Portable FM Synthesizer
Korg Digital FM Synthesizer (VOLCAFM)
Yamaha MODX8 88-Key Weighted Action Synthesizer
$286.65
Price not available
$1,903.48
Yamaha REFACE DX Portable FM Synthesizer
Yamaha REFACE DX Portable FM Synthesizer
$286.65
Korg Digital FM Synthesizer (VOLCAFM)
Korg Digital FM Synthesizer (VOLCAFM)
Price not available
Yamaha MODX8 88-Key Weighted Action Synthesizer
Yamaha MODX8 88-Key Weighted Action Synthesizer
$1,903.48

Yamaha REFACE DX Portable FM Synthesizer

Yamaha’s response to the resurgence in popularity of FM synthesis. The Reface DX is a 4-operator FM synth (the original DX7 is 6-operator) that comes with USB audio out, a tactile keybed, and on-board effects. A nice refresh by Yamaha. 

Korg Digital FM Synthesizer The VOLCA FM

Korg released the Volca FM in 2016 in homage to the iconic Yamaha DX7. Sporting a similar design to the original synth, the Volca FM is 1/30th the size. The device has 3-note polyphony (you can chain two Volcas to create a 6-note poly synth), 32 algorithms, and a very cool motion sequencer on-board. Tatsuya Takahashi was the mastermind behind this fun little DX7-inspired device and the man responsible for spear-heading the current affordable synth revolution.

Yamaha MODX8 88-Key Weighted Action Synthesizer

The MODX uses the same technology powering Yamaha’s flagship synthesizer, the MONTAGE. Cool twist: You get two sound engines (FM-X and the awm2) in the MODX, giving  you the ability to create unique sounds independently or blend together to create deep new interesting sounds.

The Future of the DX7 & FM Synthesis

The DX7 and FM synthesis have seen a huge uptick in interest recently – thanks in part to the release of the Korg Volca FM, which introduced frequency modulation synthesis to a whole new generation. If you’re keen to incorporate FM synthesis into your sonic arsenal, the future looks bright, with Yamaha’s FM-X synth range, and the soon to be released KODAMO EssenceFM.

For me, the classic DX7IID is hard to beat with its professional weighted keys, classic form factor, and the ability to control and automate with modern-day software editors in your DAW. Just add a hardware controller for parameter-mapping and enter 21st century FM synthesis heaven. 

 

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