Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Old School Slider Synth ... the Yamaha SK30

This Blog is called the Synth and I and was started in part to explore both the topic of synthesis and the various keyboards, modulars, and other tools that exist. This month I was perusing the local classifieds and ran across an add for a most unusual classic keyboard that caught my eye. I've always kept at least one keyboard in the living room of my house plugged directly into an amp. this is so I have at least one simple instrument ready for just playing without any setup, concern for recording, or other complications. I suppose you could say it's my equivalent of the old piano-in-the-foyer that folks would gather around in the old days.

The keyboard that has occupied this spot in my home has rotated over the years. Originally it was a Wurlitzer 200A piano. Then I put a Roland RS09 organ/strings unit on top of that. Most recently it was my trusty Ensoniq KS32 which served as both piano, organ, and synthesiszer. But this month I decided to go back to basics. I wanted an old school, classic synthesizer with sliders for each parameter, multiple sounds, and most of all, something simple and fun to play. Enter the Yamaha SK30.

The Yamaha SK30 is made up of four distinct parts which can be output in any combination thanks to an onboard audio mixer. There are other instruments from the 70s and 80s that offered a similar type of setup. the Moog Opus3 offered a String, Brass, and Organ combo platter. The Arp Quadra had a Bass synth, Poly synth, Lead synth, and String synth and special phaser effect in an all-in-one-package. And, as mentioned above Roland offered a few variations of an Organ/Strings dual synth in the Roland RS09.

Yamaha seems to concentrate on the combo-synth for a few years making a few different varieties, each with their own features and sounds.  The SK30 lies towards the top of this evolutionary scale with four distinct sections featured in similar forms in the SK20 and SK50.  It also adds some other bells and whistles I have never seen on a combo synth and even though it was made in the late 1970s when I researched it i found it had a surprisingly robust design which explains why the one I found this month was in such good shape and fully working after all these decades.

On initial glance the SK30 looks to be a complicated beast. Sliders and buttons fill out the massive front panel and the effects and various split points often fight with each other for dominance on the full 61 note keyboard. But if you've ever seen a combi-synth or classic analog with sliders once you get to know it the design turns out to be remarkably user friendly.

Each section is broken down with it's own controls featuring a few presets and a manual section which allows you to create that part from scratch using the various sliders and buttons assigned to it.

There is the Organ section with multiple flute drawbars  and three adjustable percussion sliders similar to a Hammond organ:

There is the Polyphonic Synth section with a full analog Filter, Envelope, octave switch, and modulation settings.

The string section has three preset buttons with no editing. Each offers a similar sound but in a different octave range: 

And finally there is the Solo Synth section which offers a unqiue monosynth with Filter, Envelopes, flexible Portamento Modulation, and Waveform settings, two key ranges (including a manual bass setting) and even three assignable keyboard aftertouch effects .

On the back of the unit is more. Multiple and mix outputs for the individual voices, connections for CV/gate, various pedals (including volume, brilliance, portamento and sustain), a Leslie cabinet multi-pin jack and connector for an external full size floor pedal unit. All-in-All it's kind of a touch control synthesist's dream.

All this would be for naught if the sound of the unit didn't measure up but I am happy to say it does. In spades. The organ offers  a very  satisfying classic hammondesque sound, the strings add presence and the Poly synth is very flexible offering plenty of Prog, 80s/90s industrial, and classic synthesque sweeps, pads, and with some creative programming,  effects. And the solo monosynth is quite unique.  I read a review where the author claimed it was "almost exactly like a Roland SH101" and another that said it had a classic "Moog" quality. I'd have to say it is absolutely nothing like a SH101 and sounds, to my ears, much more raspy and raw than a Moog. It's similar to the other lesser known analog synth manufacturers of the time like Multivox, Siel, or - Surprise! - Yamaha.  Perhaps in a future post I'll delve into the SK30 monosynth on it's own  -  it certainly deserves the attention.  For now, I'll simply end with a virtual tip of my hat to a company that put everything but the kitchen sink in a heavy wooden framed analog and slider filled synth over three decades ago. One that is STILL playing 100% and both simple to use, inspiring, and a lot of fun. 

Tweak on!

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