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Review of the Yamaha Motif XS

New Control for your Musical Ideas

by Tweak
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Yamaha Motif XS6 61-Key Workstation
Yamaha Motif XS8 88-Key Workstation

Yamaha Motif XS7 76-Key Workstation



Motif XS

It took a long time for me to decide on getting the Motif XS.  I was stalemated by the Korg M3 and its new Karma II engine.  The Motif XS countered with its 6,000 arpeggios and superb performance patches.  I went to the mat.  Crossreading manuals, staring at jackfields of ins and outs, considering sound, memory, sampling ease, storage, plugins, computer integration, quality of the keyboard, "fun", overall build, integrity of pots and switches, ability to act as  a control surface.  Man.  I was there.  What made up my mind was the concept of the Motif XS as a "fun" song idea generator.  Why that?  Well...

I have a lot of sounds here.  More than I will ever be able to categorize and use.  Part of the motif's charm is that while there is a complete set of patches, there are not too many.  (There are 1536 Voices (preset (1024), user (384) and GM (128)), 97 drum kits (65 preset, 32 user, 1 GM) 384 User Performance patches).  Note that the user patches are copies of those in the preset banks, so you can overwrite them with your own stuff, or just modify them to taste.  But there are enough to cover most forms of music.  I can use my Motif alone and make a 16 track MIDI composition (and add an audio track too if I want).  Unlike other workstations, that may dazzle you with patches, the motif restricts you to a smaller soundset but with higher quality.   It has the largest sample ROM right now at 355MB.


A fantastic video by Bert Smorenburg

The second major reason was the sampler in the Motif XS.  It holds a lot of samples, up to a gigabyte.  As some of you know I do a lot of sampling and I tend to use them in many of my songs.  I am going to build a monolith of my favorite sounds from my sample cd roms.  Post Indie, Mystik Garage, Ice Kold Tekno, Celestial Windowpane and the ill fated World Cafe, all under one roof. 

The Fun Factor

The best thing the Motif has going for it is the fun factor.  You turn it on, press a note and it starts interacting with you.  Go through a few performances till you find something you like at the moment, get a groove going and then press record.  When you press stop you see 3 tracks recorded in the pattern sequencer.  Its a huge jump start into a new song.  A lot of times, the Motif will introduce you to new musical ideas. Here's an example.  Lets say you like Reggae but have no idea how to build a reggae song.  Just go the the Reggae preset and play something.  In the sequencer you see they have selected a reggae bassline, drum kit and a wah chinka wah guitar.  And perhaps more important, a tempo, and a groove template.  (You can't do reggae at any tempo, and that laid back smilin' sunshine groove can be hard to catch.) A few minutes of study and you know a lot more about reggae than you did ten minutes ago!  That's what I think is cool. The Motif gets you going in lots of different styles you might not have tried on your own.  Even if you don't like it's auto accompaniments, sometimes just because it defines a workable set of  instruments and puts them on the tracks you can go to town on your own vibe.  

Motif Pattern Sequencer

Sample Memory

You can add a whopping gigabyte of sample memory to the XS.  It takes 68pin PC100 or PC133 memory.  The unit does not come with any sample ram installed.  I saw some at Fry's for $60 a stick of 512MB, and you need 2.  I dug through my garage till I found two old 64MB sticks.  Worked like a charm and I have 128MB now.  (I remind myself that was what I have in my Emu Ultra E5000.)  Another good thing is that storage is easy and cheap--though again, none comes with the Motif.  I got a $30 Memorex USB Flash drive.  4GB.  Installed in 1 second and did not need formatting.  Lol.  I have to think back to the days of 4 GB SCSI drives and what a royal pain it was installing and formatting it. 

Control Surface for Your Sequencer

Cubase 4 AI and Studio Manager 2.2

So you thought Yamaha was in bed with Steinberg?  Well they are. And it looks like a good marriage.  The Motif comes with Cubase 4 AI which is surprisingly full featured. This is not a throwaway sequencer.  It looks and works absolutely stunning in Mac OSX Leopard.  My G5 had problems with Cubase SX, but with 4AI, its fine! You can also download the Yamaha Studio Manager 2.2 software and the Motif XS Editor 1.0 from the links at and  In fact if you want to really get to know the Motif before you get one, download the editor and go through the pages.  You'll see how deep the beast is.

 Cubase AI and the editor

Click the pic to enlarge.  Arpeggiator controls displayed. A click of the mouse open a massive list of thousands of arps, neatly categorized by genre, type, intended instrument. 


The Motif XS and Logic

Then finally the real test--would the Motif play nice with Logic?  The answer is a resounding yes.  In the Motif's Utility section you tell it which sequencer you are using.  You can choose from Cubase, Logic, Sonar or Digital performer.  This setting apparently adjusts the controllers and transport.  There is a button called "Remote" which turn the knobs, faders, and switches on the Motif into a control surface.  The integration was very tight.  When you press remote, the big control wheel becomes a jog/shuttle wheel, the faders do any 8 adjacent tracks in Logic; the function and cursor buttons work too.  I was surprised to see a second Logic Control in the Control Surface preferences in Logic.  That second Logic Control was the Motif XS.  Naturally the faders on the Motif are NOT motorized.  Oh the manual only claims the Motif's control surface to work with Logic 7.2.  As we know 8.0 rules the day.  No worries, the Motif XS control surface works fine in version 8.

However, there are no hooks for the studio manager software or for the Motif XS Editor inside Logic.  You'll have to run that outside of Logic.  I was not able to make this work.  The only time the studio manager software worked well for me was when I was in Cubase 4 AI.


.Motif XS

The control surface section of the Motif

Real Pitch and Mod wheels, keyboard and build.

I've had it with joysticks.  Its an emotional thing.  OK, that's weird I know.  But if you had mastered the art of turning two wheels with one hand and then they took it away from you....weep, weep.  Yamaha saves the day with some big fat positive feeling WHEELS. Smart move.  Ok lets talk about the keyboard.  I got the Motif XS6.  Its synth action keyboard is top notch.  Better than my Novation SL37.  It is so fast and smooth--and quiet.  Velocity and aftertouch are perfect.  There is also a small ribbon controller under the wheels.  They should have made that bigger to be more useful, but its nice to have. 

The New Display

Motif Mixer

The display is a far cry better than the Motif ES.  Still, its not a touch screen like the Korg M3, but that allows things to be packed together more efficiently.  After all, the cursor is smaller than the finger.  Yamaha choose a tasteful color scheme that is easy on the eyes.  You can see a graphical arrangement for all 16 midi channels.  There is also a 16 channel graphical mixer.  Seems to work well.  Envelope editors are beautifully done; the sample editor looks great too!  However, I do have an issue.  There is no piano roll editor.  There is an event list, and that is where you have to do your MIDI editing.  Those of you who are accustomed to building drum tracks in a drum pattern editor may be left a little lost.  The Motif XS accommodates with a huge library of drum patterns (arpeggios) you can insert on any kit.  Also real time drum pattern recording is excellent here, thanks to being able to set a looping pattern for a few bars and overdub in the hits.  You can quantize on the fly as you record if you want.

The Internal Sequencer

You don't have to use a DAW to get a everything out of the Motif.  The Motif's onboard sequencer is excellent, easy to use once you have learned it and has a positive workflow.  Here's how I think it fits in my grand scheme.  When I am hunting for ideas, I don't even have to boot the DAW.  I can just play around with the Motif till I get something going in pattern mode that I like.  Pattern mode (Pic at the top of the article) is great.  You have 16 sections in each pattern and each section is a complete 16 channel sequence.  So once you get 16 instruments defined you can play around with 16 song ideas and jump back and forth easily, split, merge, copy, paste the different phrases in each box.  You could build a whole song in pattern mode if you wanted to, or you can send your best idea to Song Mode, which is a single linear 16 channel arrangement. 

What I am doing is going from Pattern mode to Logic.  Once I have my basic song idea working, it's ready for more elaborate treatment with the huge arsenal of tools in my DAW.  I can substitute high quality soft synths for some instruments if I want and continue with the song shaping process there.

The sequencer is a 480 PPQ (parts per quarter note).  The total note capacity is about 130,000 notes.  There is room for 64 patterns and each has 16 sections (sequences) and each section has 16 Phrases (tracks!). That for me, means 1024 song ideas.  There are 64 songs.  Each song has a tempo track and a scene track.  A scene is like a snapshot mixer.  It can recall different settings for different parts of your mix.  In song mode you can record an audio track.  If you song needs a lot of instruments, like an orchestral piece, I think you could resample your 16 track song down to stereo, place it in the song, then free up 16 more tracks for more instruments.  (I didn't try that yet, but i did try resampling--works well.)

You don't have to use a DAW to add multiple audio tracks.  You can use a multi track recorder, such as Yamaha's own AW1600 or the bigger AW2400.  You could record all your motif tracks to audio, add vocals, guitars, real basses, whatever you want.       

The 6,000 Arpeggios

The good thing about the arps on the Motif XS is that they are not frozen and unchangeable.  The 8 knobs on the front panel can modify your chosen arpeggio in many ways--swing, quantize value, strength, gate time, velocity., octave range, unmultiply (i.e., 50% speed, 200% speed, etc) and tempo are all controllable by knobs.  While this is not deep science like the Karma II, it is a way to modify your string of notes in real time, and in a way where you'll probably be able to predict the results.  You can use up to 4 arpeggios in a pattern at the same time.  You can select 5 arpeggios to store with every voice.



We've already talked about storage and ram.  But there is more.  The Motif XS can connect to your home computer network via a simple Cat 5 cable.  If you have a router or hub, just plug it in.  Once you have your storage drive on the Motif, your computers can connect to it on the network.  This is most useful for dumping samples into the Motif's storage. There is a built in USB MIDI connection.  After you download and install the driver from Yamaha's site, 4 ports show up in your sequencer.  Port 1 is for your 16 channels of MIDI going in and out.  The other ports carry control surface data to the sequencer and back.  The Motif XS8 has a firewire lan interface.  The XS6 and 7 do not have that.  Eventually there will be an mLAN16e2 card available. The ES version, the mLAN16e, will not work.

Programming the Motif XS

motif envelop

Yamaha FC4 Piano-Style Sustain Pedal
The Yamaha FC4 is a piano-style sustain pedal. Designed to work and feel just like an acoustic piano's sustain pedal, its specially designed rubber bottom grips the floor and stays put while you play.

Yamaha FC5 Footswitch-Style Sustain Pedal
Can be utilized as a sustain foot pedal or FS controller in synthesizers, tone modules and drum machines equipped with 1/4 in. phone plug. The FC5 has a 5 ft. cable which connects to a 1/4 in. phone plug. This pedal works with any keyboard utilizing a sustain pedal with 1/4 in. connector.

Tweak: According to the manual, the FC4 and 5 will work in the sustain jack and in the assignable switch jack.  The FC7 and FC9 will work in the assignable controller jacks.
Yamaha FC7 Volume Foot Control Pedal
Heavy-duty foot controller with "fortissimo function," which enables you to accent certain parts of your performance. Adjustable pedal angle, spring point adjustment and metal connection plate for multiple pedal "ganging." The FC7 features a 5 ft. cable to 1/4 in. phone jack.

Yamaha YKA7500 Pro X-Style Keyboard Stand
This heavy-duty professional stand is ideally suited for supporting Yamaha Synthesizers and Keyboards. A unique adjustable top provides extra support for unusually deep designs, making it perfect for keeping a large variety of keyboards securely in place. Large rubber feet keep this keyboard stand extremely stable.

If you don't plan to program your synth you can skip this section.  Indeed the Motif comes so full of sounds you don't have to program anything ever.  But for those who want to use the Motif as their hardware sampler and as their own custom synthesizer, Here's my notes so far.

You don't need a computer editor for the Motif XS.  In fact, I found the supplied computer editor to out of sync and slow when run as a standalone application. (It worked fine however, when instantiated from Cubase 4 AI)  So its a good thing that you don't need it!  The screens on the Motif are good looking and are fun to navigate once you find your way around.  Most functions are 1 or 2 button presses away.   Keep the manual nearby, or better, download the PDF from Yamaha's site and keep it open as you learn the beast.  Like with all synths, you have to catch the "flow" of navigating the ship.  Once you "get it" you can set sail for the wilder worlds of sound. 

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the Motif voice architecture is the new 8 element design.  Most workstations up to now only let you have 2 or 4 "tones" or key groups in a single voice patch.  The Motif lets you define eight of these in every Voice (the preset level).  This gives you the ability to shine up your sounds with much greater nuance and feeling. 

On most screens, you can select a view for just 1 element or 4 elements.  The first view is graphically rich and shows envelope graphs, EQ and LFO displays.  The 4 element page is a text list of parameters.  Very helpful, and easy to navigate among the elements used in a patch.  High Marks. 

Overall the synth engine is complete.  It's slightly more basic than the Fantom, which gives you more pages of editing screens.  But as a result, programming the Motif XS is simpler and more efficient.  Like many romplers, there are pages for Oscillators, Pitch, Filter, Amplitude, LFO and EQ.  Its pretty straightforward.  The effects section on the Motif is easy to figure out, unlike the Fantom's.  However, there are only 2 insert effects, a master set of effects and the 2 global effects.  Its enough though. 

One thing that the Motif XS does have that others do not, is a built in Vocoder.  I set it up, which required digging through the manual.  Once the input is set properly, one can access the vocoder.  You attach a Mic (or in my case, the line output of an audio interface that has mics connected to it).  As you speak, you hold down the keys, and your voice is modulated by the waveform in the patch at the pitch you held down.  It works great!  And sounds a bit better than the software vocoder I use a lot.  You can go way beyond robot voices here.  There is also a formant control in the parameter list. 

Another novel feature is the Common LFO.  You can design your own LFO if you want and apply it to any or all of the elements.  The common LFO has a few more parameters than the other LFOs dedicated to the elements and it can really give a satisfying sense of warped audio.

Assignment of controllers is simple and excellent.  Assigning arpeggios is straightforward, powerful and  complete.  Writing your own arpeggios is simple enough.  You just record a little segment in song mode then hit one of the job functions to assign it to the user arpeggio bank. 


The Sample Editor

As a samplist I am picky about sample editors.  While the Motif XS editor certainly looks attractive it is not going to replace your a good computer sample editor like Sound Forge or Peak.  I found it a mild disappointment.  I felt the same way about the Fantom's sample editor.  This is not the editor you want to use to refine loop points or apply fine tuning.  It does do the basics.  Normalize, Time Stretch, convert pitch, Fade in and out, Halve sampling frequency, Stereo->Mono, Loop Remix and Slice.  All of these functions work well, and there is an undo buffer in case you screw things up.  Loop Remix and Slice are features you don't see on synths all the time.  A feature that is lacking is crossfade looping.  This make finding loop points for sustained notes (like piano, brass, etc.) more difficult.  With 1 GB of memory one does not necessarily have to loop samples, perhaps this is just a bit old school. 

Strange Nomenclature

Someone at Yamaha must have strange tastes in terminology. Either that or they just like to mess with people's minds. Or maybe they just made a mistake back when the Motif was a merely a gleam in the corporate eye. For a while I was hitting the wall trying to program the Motif wondering why it did not make sense. Then I discovered that Yamaha has 2 "unique" definitions for the terms "waveform" and "keybank".  I think they reversed what these terms normally mean.  You would think that a waveform would be a single sample, the lowest unit of sound.  Nope.  In Mo'Speak its a collection of all the sounds spread across the keyboard in a sample layer.  Normally, I call a that a Keymap (or multisample) and so does nearly every other samplist alive.  Following this bit of comic insanity further, Yamaha defines the "keybank" as a single sample, exactly what most others would call...uh.. a waveform!   Once you understand this bewildering bit of Yamaha Speak, the doors to programming the machine open.  I think Yamaha should change the terminology.  There has to be a number of people that never got beyond that point.Motif sample editor

There are a few other things that I feel were implemented without regard for workflow.  You would think that they would let you define the note range for each sample on the keybank list, where the range is displayed for every sample.  But no, you can't edit that screen.   Instead, they put the key range editor on the sample parameter page.  This means to adjust the key range you have to visit the parameter page of every sample in the waveform.  When you are building a waveform with a lot of samples, that means you have to set the range without looking at the ranges of the other samples.

Also, there is no display for the root note where the sample is placed, and no way to change it, other than to transpose. You define the root note when you load or record the sample.  If you assigned it to the wrong note, you'll have to transpose.  Most sample mappers simply let you edit the root note.  Ok I am picky, having used Emu hardware samplers much of my life.  Though minor, these two omissions make sample management more tedious.  I really hope they add these abilities.

Slots for your creations.

There are 384 user voice slots and 32 user drum pattern slots.  256 User arpeggios.  1024 slots for "waveforms"  (remember these can hold many samples if you want them to--up to 128 keybanks--plenty for a whole drum kit.)  Total keybanks (samples): 4,096.  As you see the Motif has plenty of room inside.  In fact, it exceeds that of all the popular hardware samplers. 

Which workstation? 

The Fantastic Motif XS I love the workstation concept.  The Motif XS is an important development in that the emphasis has shifted from being a sound generator to an inspiration generator.  Which workstation to get depends on what you need the synth for. 

I think the Motif is close to the Fantom in terms of sound, but it seems to have a different philosophy. On the Motif XS, the sounds are better organized, higher quality (slightly) but there are fewer of them.  Roland, as of the Fantom X, gave you a whole bunch of toys (sounds) but they don't always blend well.

But if you are going encyclopedic with sound, the Fantom X, with all the SRX cards, is gonna win.  (But note that these SRX cards cannot be used with the newest Fantom G.) The Fantom's sounds overall, according to my subjectivity, have more gusto, but they are more crude and a little rough around the edges at times. They give you more variations, but many are such that you'll never use them. The Motif's sounds, again, overall, strike me as more refined and poised.  The Motif builds its variations right in the patch a lot of the time, so you don't need as many.  The Motif's sounds seem to work together really well--a nice blend, so to speak.  The drawback to the Motif approach with higher quality samples and fewer sounds is that you might need sounds the Motif does not cover.  I thought the "ethnic" section was a bit on the light side.  While the strings and brass were pretty good overall, I felt the samples needed just a little more bite to carry a virtual orchestra.  Yet overall, after having used the Motif XS 6 months, I am still enthralled by the sounds. 

Comparing sequencers, Fantom's sequencer is at least a half mile ahead of the Motif.  Make no mistake of the value of the Fantom's integrated pads.  The Fantom, as far back as their Fantom S had a piano roll editor.  The M3 is perhaps the most challenging from a musical point of view with the Karma II generators.  Yet there are fewer instruments on the M3 and it has the smallest max sample ram--256MB.  (Note: since then Korg has released several banks of samples and presets that can be added to the M3 via onboard and USB memory sticks.)

It also should be kept in mind that The Fantom series and the M3 are expandable to some extent.  The Fantom has new expansion cards coming for it's new Fantom G.  Korg has its Radias board for the M3.  But Yamaha pulled all the ES expansion options out of the XS. You can still get the Motif ES Rack.  It will take 2 PLG cards.  But don't wait too long, Yamaha just announced a Motif XS Rack, so those ES racks will be blown out soon.

Too bad.  The XS would rock with the FM and AN PLG cards inside, but you know, you can't have everything.  They indeed took out some of the sound engines that helped keep the Motif competitive all these years.  But what they replaced it with is a fun and inspiring way to work, and true integration with your DAW.  By getting less, we get more.  Uh oh, the Zen masters just woke up and are about to take me away.  But before they do, just remember, it only takes ONE good song idea to make a career.  I am thrilled to see a machine that inspires musical ideas. 

Happy Tweaks!


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