Yamaha HS-8

I demand to know more!

In the mid-80's Yamaha stunned the organ world with the launch of the HX-series "modular multikeyboard". It was a beast of an instrument, and featured Yamaha's then-trademark FM synthesis and now-trademark AWM sampling. At over 11,000 it wasn't cheap, but there wasn't (and in my opinion, never will be) anying that could come near it from any other manufacturer.

Or from Yamaha themselves. The HX was obviously aimed at the professional musician, but what about the home user? They had to be content with the MR-700 (and it's non-ROM music book-supporting brother the MC-600). These had FM sounds (just about), but no programmable features. There was also a big price gap between the 2,199 MR-700 and the 6,299 HX-5.

To fill this gap, Yamaha did something that they have continued doing to this day. Rather than starting at the base model and adding facilities, they took the HX-1 and stripped facilities from it, aiming to get the price down to about 5,000. So, the two 61-note keyboards became two 49-note keyboards, the 25-note full-span pedalboard became a 20-note spinet pedalboard, 6-operator FM systhesis was reduced to a still adequate 4-operator version, MIDI control was trimmed to the most basic possible and a number of other less obviously useful features were lost.

[HS-8 picture] The result in 1987 was the Yamaha HS-series, featuring 5 models, from the 1,999 HS-4 up to the 5,499 HS-8. And it's the latter that we're concerned with here.

As I said above, the instrument had two 49-note keyboards and a 20-note pedalboard. This was a novel feature in a home organ, as to this day Yamaha's main rival - Technics - insists on providing only 13-note pedalboards on it's home models. Also novel was the fact that both keyboards AND the pedals were touch-sensitive, and also responded to aftertouch. Additional controls were provided by two footswitches, one on each side of the expression pedal, pitch bend and modulation wheels and a knee lever. An optional 2nd expression pedal which doubled the function of the pitch wheel was available for 20.

Sonically, three sounds could always be combined on the upper and lower keyboards, with a fourth shared between the two. The upper and lower both had their own dedicated Combination Voice (organ preset) and Orchestral Voice sections, and could both simultaneously share the AWM Preset (sampled voice) section. This latter section had 15-note polyphony shared across both keyboards, whereas the other two sections each offered 7-note polyphony on EACH keyboard. The fourth section, Lead Voices, was monophonic and thus could only be used on one keyboard OR the other, but not both at the same time. Still with me...?!?

The pedals had two monophonic sections, one containing FM sounds and one containing two AWM samples. Except for this last voice section, all contained 4 different sounds. This may not seem like many, but every non-AWM section had a "dotted button" (quite simply, a button with a dot on it!). Onto this button you could transfer any one of the 63 additional voices (59 preset and 4 user) from the all-encompassing Multi-Menu (more on this later).

The AWM section also had a trick up its sleeve. With only 4 preset sounds for the keyboards and two for the pedals, your choice seemed a tad limited. But no! Three of these voices (String Bass, Brass and Pipe Organ, to be exact) were stored on ROM packs, which small panel and the front of the instrument hinged open to reveal. Slip one out, and you could insert the new sound of your choice from a range of 12 that Yamaha produced, including Choir, Honky Tonk Piano and more. Each new sound set you back about 30, I think.

Sixteen registrations (complete voicings for all three manuals, and the effects and rhythm section set-up) could be saved on the sixteen buttons between the upper and lower keyboards.

[HS-8 picture] Rhytmically, sounds were provided by the AWM system, but most samples now seem woefully short, meaning cymbals in particular get cut off mid-ring! In its day, however, the rhythm section of the HS-8 was a revelation. You got the 14 most popular rhythms on the panel, in two rows of seven. That lower row was also a set of seven "dotted-buttons", and as with the sounds, any of the 36 additional rhythms from the Multi-Menu could be transferred here. Each rhythm had an introduction, two fill-ins and an ending, and offered four different auto-accompaniment patterns. These accompaniments were played back by the Arpeggio Chord section, which had its own 7-note polyphony and could be assigned voices from the Multi-Menu.

If that was the cake, then here came the icing... the Multi-Menu also featured a fully-functioning drum machine. You could create and store up to 48 two-bar patterns by playing the drums on the lower keyboard. Step- and real-time recording was included, with variable time signature and quantize. You could even adjust the stereo panning of the drum sounds! Once you had created your patterns you could chain them together in any order using the Rhythm Sequence Programmer (RSP), which itself had 4 memory locations, or simply select them yourself from the User locations on the panel as you went along.

It was this level of programmibility that had never been seen before in a home organ. And there was more. I mentioned user sounds above. Well, the HS-8's 4-operator FM synthesizer was fully programmable, again via the Multi-Menu. Seeing as this was an FM machine a degree in maths and physics wouldn't have gone amiss if trying to create a sound from scratch, but if you just wanted to tinker with the built-in voices there wasn't too much of a problem.

Linked to the Rhythm Pattern Programmer (RPP) - that was what they called the drum machine - was the Rhythmic Chord Programmer (RCP). This allowed you to create and store 32 of your own accompaniment patterns. And linked to the RSP (remember that) was the Chord Sequence Programmer (CSP), which let you chain together chords, registration changes and intros, fills and endings and store the resultant sequence in one of 4 memory locations. Both the RSP and CSP recorded in step-time only.

The final abbreviation on the instrument was the Full Music Programmer (FMP). This was a simple recorder that let you record in realtime. Five tracks were available, but these were permanently assigned to upper, lower, pedal, lead and control, so multi-tracking was almost (but not quite) out of the question.

[HS-8 picture] Once you'd used the RPP and RCP to create patterns for the RSP, then used the CSP and recorded the whole lot into the FMP (ouch), you could save the whole lot onto a RAM pack. An 8Kb pack could save everything except the FMP, for which you needed the ludicrously expensive 32Kb version. Fortunately Yamaha launched a succession of MDR-series disk recorders which could be connected to the HS-8 via MIDI. If you consider that the MDR-4 could store the equivalent of 40 RAM packs onto one 2DD disk, and RAM packs cost about 35 each, there was certainly a saving to be made there somewhere!

You may have noticed that I've been talking an awful lot about the Multi-Menu. This was Yamaha's "big thing" in the 80's, and first appeared on the MC-series (if my memory serves me correctly) before popping up on every major model Yamaha produced. If you've never seen one, then let me start by telling you that my music teacher nicknamed it "the rolling pin". On the HS-8, the Multi-Menu is a cylinder hidden behind a clear plastic strip. Printed on this cylinder are 12 rows of functions, of which only one can be seen at any one time. Twenty buttons appear below this, and a dial at the right-hand end allows you to spin the menu around to access the 11 pages you can't see at the moment! I know this sounds strange, but in the age before keyboards came with a built-in 32" rear projection widescreen television it was a cunning way of assigning 240 functions to 20 buttons!

Page 1 of the Multi-Menu was the Registration Menu, featuring 38 pre-programmed registrations that set up the sounds on all three manuals.

Pages 2, 3 and 4 offered the Voice Menu - 59 sounds that could be assigned to any "dotted button".

Page 5 contained the Voice Edit menu. Here you could create and store 4 FM sounds of your own. These could then be assigned to any "dotted button".

Page 6 was the Rhythm Menu - 36 rhythm patterns that could be placed on any "dotted button" within the rhythm section.

Page 7 was the home of the RPP and RCP features.

Page 8 housed the RSP and CSP.

Page 9 was solely dedicated to the FMP.

Page 10 allowed you to adjust vibrato, sustain and tremolo effects, contained MIDI functions and also allowed you to control the touch sensitivity.

Page 11 featured footswitch, pitch bend and modulation wheel settings, lead voice portamento, and overall transposer and pitch settings.

Page 12 controlled the automatic accompaniment features, flanger and delay effects and voice volume fine tuning.

I've briefly mentioned the effects available in the Multi-Menu section above, but let's take a more in-depth look. Upper and Lower Orchestra sections had dedicated Symphonic, Celeste and vibrato effects. Upper and Lower Combination sections had dedicated Chorus and Tremolo effects. Lead voices had a dedicated vibrato effect. Upper and Lower Combination, Orchestra and AWM sections had sustain effects. The pedals also had sustain. Flanger or Delay (but not both at the same time) could be assigned to Upper/Lower Orchestra, AWM, Lead, AWM Bass and Arpeggio Chord sections. Upper Orchestra and Lead brilliance could be controlled by the modulation wheel. Finally, there was an overall digital reverb level.

This may seem like a lot of writing, but I've really only scratched the surface of what the HS-8 has to offer. Okay, it's not an instrument for the feint-hearted - if you're not prepared to fiddle with effects setting and sound combinations you'll never hear it at its best. But if you can find an old recording by Glyn Madden (particularly his classical album "Arioso", played entirely on the HS-8) you'll find out just what the machine can do in the right hands.

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Maintained by Stephen Gill

Copyright © 1999 Gilly on the Net
Most recent revision 6 January 1999