Yamaha DX7

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Yamaha DX7
Yamaha DX7
Digital programmable algorithm synthesizer[1]
Price$1,995 US
£1,495 GBP
¥248,000 JPY
Technical specifications
Bi-timbral (DX7 II)
Oscillator6 sine wave operators per voice, 32 algorithms[1]
Synthesis typeDigital linear frequency modulation /
Additive synthesis (alg. #32)
Attenuator1 pitch envelope & 6 amplitude generators per voice
Aftertouch expressionYes (channel)
Velocity expressionYes
Storage memory32 patches in RAM (battery backup); front panel ROM/RAM cartridge port
HardwareYM21280 (OPS) operator chip
YM21290 (EGS) envelope generator
Keyboard61-note with velocity
and aftertouch sensitivity
Left-hand controlpitch-bend and modulation wheels
External controlMIDI in/out/thru, input for foot controller x2, input for foot switch x2, input for optional breath controller

The Yamaha DX7 is a synthesizer manufactured by the Yamaha Corporation from 1983 to 1989. It was the first successful digital synthesizer and is one of the bestselling synthesizers in history, selling over 200,000 units.

In the early 1980s, the synthesizer market was dominated by analog synthesizers. Frequency modulation (FM) synthesis, a means of generating sounds digitally, was developed by John Chowning at Stanford University, California. FM synthesis created brighter, "glassier" sounds, and could better imitate acoustic sounds such as brass. Yamaha licensed the technology to create the DX7, combining it with very-large-scale integration chips to lower manufacturing costs.

With its digital display, complex menus, and lack of conventional controls, few learned to program the DX7 in depth. However, its preset sounds became staples of 1980s pop music, used by artists including A-ha, Kenny Loggins, Kool & the Gang, Whitney Houston, Chicago, Phil Collins, Luther Vandross, and Billy Ocean, its piano sound was particularly widely used, especially in power ballads. Producer Brian Eno mastered the programming and it was instrumental to his work in ambient music.

The DX7 was succeeded by FM synthesizers including the DX1, DX5, DX9, DX11, DX21, DX27 and DX100. In later years their preset sounds came to be seen as dated or cliched, and interest in FM synthesis declined.


Frequency modulation (FM) synthesis was developed in the late 1960s by John Chowning at Stanford University, California. FM synthesis uses digital technology to generate sounds, creating different results from analog synthesis. In 1971, to demonstrate its commercial potential, Chowning used FM to emulate acoustic sounds such as organs and brass. Stanford patented the technology and hoped to license it, but was turned down by American companies including Hammond and Wurlitzer.[2] According to Chowning, "Frankly, I don't think their engineers understood it — they were into analog technology, and had no idea what I was talking about."[3]

At the time, the Japanese company Yamaha was the world's largest manufacturer of musical instruments but had little market share in the United States.[3] One of their chief engineers visited the university and, according to Chowning, "in ten minutes he understood ... I guess Yamaha had already been working in the digital domain, so he knew exactly what I was saying."[3] Yamaha licensed the technology for one year to determine its commercial viability, and in 1973 its organ division began developing a prototype FM monophonic synthesizer. In 1975, Yamaha negotiated exclusive rights for the technology.[2] Chowning received royalties for all of Yamaha's FM synthesizers.[2]

John Chowning, who developed the frequency modulation technology used in the DX7

Yamaha created the first hardware implementation of FM synthesis;[3] the first commercial FM synthesizer was the Yamaha GS1, released in 1980,[4] which was expensive to manufacture due to its integrated circuit chips.[3] At the same time, Yamaha was developing the means to manufacture very-large-scale integration chips; these allowed the DX7 to use only two chips, compared to the GS1's 50. Chowning credited the success of the DX7 with the combination of his FM patent with Yamaha's chip technology.[3] Yamaha displayed a prototype of the DX7 in 1982, branded the CSDX, in reference to range of analogue Yamaha CS synthesizers.[5]

Yamaha also altered the implementation of the FM algorithms in the DX7 to gain efficiency and speed, producing a sampling rate higher than the digital synthesizers at Stanford. According to Chowning, "The consequence is that the bandwidth of the DX7 gives a really brilliant kind of sound ... I think it's quite noticeable."[3]


Compared to the "warm" and "fuzzy" sounds of analog synthesizers, the DX7 sounds "harsh", "glassy" and "chilly",[6] with a richer, brighter sound,[7] its preset sounds constitute "struck" and "plucked" sounds with complex transients.[7] It has sixteen-note polyphony, meaning sixteen notes can sound simultaneously, its 32 algorithms, each a different arrangement of its six sine wave operators, allow for extensive programming flexibility.[7] The DX7 is MIDI-compatible, which means it can be connected to compatible synth modules, drum machines, audio sequencers, and computers.[citation needed]


The DX7 was the first commercially successful digital synthesizer[8][9][10] and remains one of the bestselling synthesizers in history.[9][11] Yamaha manufactured units on a scale American competitors could not match, and sold 200,000 in three years; by comparison, Moog sold 12,000 Minimoog synthesizers in 11 years, and could not meet demand.[12] According to Dave Smith, founder of the synthesizer company Sequential, "The synthesizer market was tiny in the late seventies. No one was selling 50,000 of these things, it wasn't until the Yamaha DX7 came out that a company shipped 100,000-plus synths."[13] Smith said the DX7 sold well as it was reasonably priced, had keyboard expression and 16 voices, and importantly was better at emulating acoustic sounds than its rivals.[13]

Impact and legacy[edit]

At the time of release, the DX7 was the first digital synthesizer most musicians had used.[6] According to MusicRadar, it was very different from the analog synthesizers that had dominated the market; its "spiky" and "crystalline" sounds made it "the perfect antidote to a decade of analogue waveforms".[14]

"Danger Zone", a 1986 single by Kenny Loggins, uses the DX7 "BASS 1" preset.

With complex submenus displayed on an LCD and no knobs and sliders to adjust the sound, the DX7 was difficult to program.[15] MusicRadar described its interface as "nearly impenetrable architecture consisting of operators, algorithms and unusual envelopes, all accessed through tedious menus and a diminutive display".[14] Rather than create their own sounds, most users used the presets,[6] which became widely used in 1980s pop music;[7] the "BASS 1" preset was used on songs such as "Take On Me" by A-ha, "Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins, and "Fresh" by Kool & the Gang.[6] The "E PIANO 1" preset became particularly famous,[6][16] especially for power ballads,[17] and was used by artists including Whitney Houston, Chicago,[17] Prince,[7] Phil Collins, Luther Vandross, Billy Ocean,[6] and Celine Dion.[18]

A few musicians skilled at programming the DX7 found employment creating sounds for other acts, creating the "synthesizer programmer" occupation.[19] Brian Eno learnt to program the DX7 in depth and used it to create ambient music on his 1983 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks,[6] he shared instructions for recreating his patches in a 1987 issue of Keyboard magazine.[15] As a producer, Eno used the DX7 on records by U2 and Coldplay.[6]


According to Sound on Sound, throughout the mid-80s, "Yamaha flooded the market with a plethora of low-cost FM synths."[5] Its successors included the TX81Z, DX1, DX11, and DX21.[6] In later years their sounds came to be seen as dated or cliched, and interest in FM synthesis declined, with used digital synthesizers selling for less than analog.[6] In 2015, Yamaha released an updated FM synthesizer, the Reface DX.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Chapter 2: FM Tone Generators and the Dawn of Home Music Production". History, Yamaha Synth 40th Anniversary. Yamaha Corporation. 2014. At that time, a number of Yamaha departments were developing different instruments in parallel, ... the direct forerunner of the DX Series synths was a test model known as the Programmable Algorithm Music Synthesizer (PAMS). In recognition of this fact, the DX7 is identified as a Digital Programmable Algorithm Synthesizer on its top panel. / As its name suggests, the PAMS created sound based on various calculation algorithms—namely, phase modulation, amplitude modulation, additive synthesis, and frequency modulation (FM)—and from the very start, the prototype supported the storing of programs in memory. However, this high level of freedom in sound design came at the price of a huge increase in the number of parameters required, meaning that the PAMS was not yet suitable for commercialization as an instrument that the average user could program. / In order to resolve this issue, the Yamaha developers decided to simplify the synth's tone generator design by having the modulator and carrier envelope generators share common parameters. They also reduced the number of algorithms—or operator combination patterns—to 32.
  2. ^ a b c "John Chowning". www.soundonsound.com. Retrieved 2018-10-19.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Darter, Tom. "John Chowning" (PDF). Stanford University.
  4. ^ Curtis Roads (1996). The computer music tutorial. MIT Press. p. 226. ISBN 0-262-68082-3. Retrieved 2011-06-05.
  5. ^ a b c Gordon Reid (September 2001). "Sounds of the '80s Part 2: The Yamaha DX1 & Its Successors (Retro)". Sound on Sound. Archived from the original on 17 September 2011. Retrieved 2011-06-29.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The 14 most important synths in electronic music history – and the musicians who use them". FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. 2016-09-15. Retrieved 2018-10-19.
  7. ^ a b c d e Brøvig-Hanssen, Ragnhild; Danielsen, Anne (2016-02-19). Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262034142.
  8. ^ Edmondson, Jacqueline, ed. (2013). Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories that Shaped our Culture [4 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. p. 398. ISBN 9780313393488. In 1967, John Chowning, at Stanford University, accidentally discovered frequency modulation (FM) synthesis when experimenting with extreme vibrato effects in MUSIC-V. ... By 1971 he was able to use FM synthesis to synthesizer musical instrument sounds, and this technique was later used to create the Yamaha DX synthesizer, the first commercially successful digital synthesizer, in the early 1980s.
  9. ^ a b Shepard, Brian K. (2013). Refining Sound: A Practical Guide to Synthesis and Synthesizers. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199376681. The first digital synthesizer to make it into the studios of everyone else, the Yamaha DX7, became one of the most commercially successful synthesizers of all time.
  10. ^ Pinch, T. J.; Bijsterveld, Karin (July 2003). ""Should One Applaud?" Breaches and Boundaries in the Reception of New Technology in Music". Technology and Culture. 44 (3): 536–559. doi:10.1353/tech.2003.0126. By the time the first commercially successful digital instrument, the Yamaha DX7 (lifetime sales of two hundred thousand), appeared in 1983 ... (Note: the above sales number seems about whole DX series)
  11. ^ Holmes, Thom (2008). "Early Computer Music". Electronic and experimental music: technology, music, and culture (3rd ed.). Taylor & Francis. p. 257. ISBN 0415957818. Retrieved 2011-06-04.
  12. ^ "Red Bull Music Academy Daily". daily.redbullmusicacademy.com. Retrieved 2018-10-19.
  13. ^ a b "Dave Smith". KeyboardMag. Retrieved 2018-10-20.
  14. ^ a b "The top 10 classic synth presets (and where you can hear them)". MusicRadar. Retrieved 2018-10-19.
  15. ^ a b "Sound like Brian Eno with his Yamaha DX7 synth patches from 1987". FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. 2017-05-12. Retrieved 2018-10-19.
  16. ^ "The top 10 classic synth presets (and where you can hear them)". MusicRadar. Retrieved 2018-10-19.
  17. ^ a b Simpson, Dave (2018-08-14). "More synthetic bamboo! The greatest preset sounds in pop music". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-10-19.
  18. ^ Saxelby, Ruth. "Borne into the 90s [pt.1]". Dummy Mag. Retrieved September 15, 2011.
  19. ^ Roger T. Dean, ed. (September 16, 2009). The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music. Oxford University Press. p. 81. ISBN 9780199887132.

Further reading[edit]